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Julian Young’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion, Part 2

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Part 2 of 2

Julian Young
Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006

By the time he came to write Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche had liberated himself from naturalism by means of his doctrine of perspectivism – no viewpoint, including science, is epistemologically privileged, though some, like the Dionysian, are healthier than others. (In his critique of Alain de Benoist’s supposedly Nietzschean relativism, Collin Cleary [“Paganism without Gods,” TYR 3] references Aristotle, “a real pagan,” for the idea that “human flourishing” can be invoked as a criterion to judge between moral systems, but Nietzsche, as close to a real pagan as the West had seen in a while, has already taken up the idea.)

Thus, while at first Nietzsche, under the influence of the world-hating Schopenhauer, considered the Dionysian transcendence as an illusion—a healthy illusion, but illusory none the less—by the time of Zarathustra he can formulate “an account of transcendence that is genuinely compatible with affirmation of human [as opposed to “other-worldly”] life” (p. 57).

In Zarathustra Nietzsche returns to his fully Dionysian viewpoint and achieves full liberation from the life-crippling fears of pain and death (p. 107). Indeed, he tells us in his final work, Ecce Homo, that Zarathustra was written in exactly that state of Dionysian intoxication in which one becomes identified with the child-god of The Birth of Tragedy, building and smashing sandcastles with delight. To become so intoxicated is to become God (pp. 109–10). The writing of Zarathustra recapitulates in microcosmic activity God’s creation of the world (pp. 198–200). (One wonders why Young argues that because this awareness that all pain and suffering is to be compensated later on, it must be described as “faith,” since it is clearly intended to be a real and timeless experience.)

Though perspectivism gave Nietzsche the chance to return to “intoxication” while keeping his intellectual conscience clean, recent scholarship, such as that of Michael Hoffman (available at might suggest a simpler answer: Dionysian intoxication is not merely as equally grounded as “ordinary consciousness” but is in fact a superior, “more real,” state of consciousness, a perfectly natural evolutionary advance.

The Greeks, like most “archaic” civilizations, certainly thought so, holding the non-initiate’s state to be pre-pubescent (“beardless,” one might say) and expecting mature citizens to be “in the know.” Nietzsche thought religion also needed to be a social glue, and Greek culture, like the Germanic (see “The Sacred Plants of Our Ancestors” by Christian Ratsch in TYR 2, and for the classical world in general, see Hillman’s The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization), was permeated throughout with the insights of Dionysian consciousness.

This super-charged consciousness is exactly what modernity lacks. Modernity “calls” itself a Volk, but, given the replacement of mythological “shining” with celebrity and irony, it has only the spurious unity imposed by the State. But for Nietzsche and the Volkists, a true Volk can only be prior to the State (pp. 111-14)

The final book, the career surveying Ecce Homo (like Bruckner’s Ninth, an unintended valedictory), gives Young the chance “at the end of Nietzsche’s journey” to sum up the continuity of Nietzsche’s concerns, and show how these make for a Nietzsche quite other than the popular and academic caricatures:

That Nietzsche’s ultimate concern is for community, for the flourishing of a “people” in general rather than the flourishing, merely, of a few individuals, that what he wants is a revival of the great age of Greek culture, a culture whose greatness has at its heart the religious festival, and that consequently Nietzsche remains, all his life, committed to the Wagnerian ideal of the revival of society through the rebirth of Greek tragedy and so remained, in that sense, all his life a Wagnerian. (p. 196).

Indeed, Young easily shows how even the craziest sounding pronouncements, both in the book (“I would rather be a professor at Basel than God”) and during Nietzsche’s final confinement (such as apologizing to his fellow inmates for the bad weather) are perfectly lucid statements based on experiences and conclusions from as far back as The Birth of Tragedy. Reflecting on his first book, Nietzsche tells us that it was he who was the first tragic philosopher (he modestly makes a possible exception for Heraclitus). He means that he was the first to understand, and perhaps the first to undergo, the tragic experience: not the draining away of pity and terror, as Aristotle misunderstood it, but instead making the horror of existence endurable through a this-worldly transcendence of the individual through identification with the world-process itself and subsequent return to community.

But now the reader might voice a small, nervous, question. All this is very well, but if Kaufmann was wrong to present a “a-political,” “individualistic” Nietzsche, does it not follow that this new, Volkish Nietzsche is exactly what Kaufmann abhorred, and exactly what Alfred Baeumler and others have put forward: Nietzsche the militarist, the German chauvinist, the anti-Semite; in short, a proto-Nazi? How then can Young have made him safe for liberal democracies? Young devotes his final chapter to “Nietzsche and History,” where he first outlines the main ideas of Volkists, then shows how Nietzsche accepted and developed those ideas, and finally argues that these ideas do not commit one to a path that inexorably ends with Nazism (and thus offers a “partial rehabilitation of the Volkist tradition” as containing “noble impulses” [p. 202], which some readers will certainly appreciate, but not really need.)

Drawing heavily on the work of Thomas Rohkramer, Young finds the roots of Volkism in the counter-attack to the Enlightenment that was launched by the German Romantics. The Enlightenment had set up Reason as a power that could explain and fix all problems (what Nietzsche called Socratism). Being common to all men, this proved that there was a universal human nature. And finally, Reason could be deployed to challenge, and ultimately destroy, religion, especially the historically shaky structure of Christianity.

All this produced what Nietzsche called a rational “machine society” that reduced humans to mere cogs, living isolated, meaningless lives. The romantics rejected the resulting “social contract” theory that society was produced by individuals calculating their rational advantages as being logically impossible (since it is society that first creates individuals) and as a mere “post facto justification” of the machine society. Their alternative was the “organic society,” in which economic and state power are “embedded” in “communal culture,” the “primacy of the Volk over the state” (pp. 202–203).

But Volkism, while rejecting cosmopolitan Reason, could only be a dialectical partner with the Enlightenment, accepting something of the other. One thing the Romantics accepted was the critique of “religion” but only as applied to Christianity. Thus, rather than going back to a naïve world of Christian belief, there was a need for, paradoxically a “new mythology” to replace it. This new religion would avoid the fate of Christianity at the hands of Reason by not claiming divine revelation; instead, it would take the form of a non-dogmatic mythology. In effect, the Romantic response to the Enlightenment would be, as de Benoist has recognized, a new paganism, mythological and pan-(or poly-) theistic.

Historical contingencies, such as the defeat at Jena and subsequent French occupation, led to Volkism acquiring an intense nationalist tinge, as well as a tendency to glorify the army and service to the state. On the other hand, the repulsion from modern machine life led to the “life reform” movement (loose clothing, vegetarianism, teetotalism, nudism, healthy country living, etc.) which brought it very close to today’s New Age or “hippie” movements. (See Gordon Kennedy’s Children of the Sun.)

The reader of what has gone before will have an easy time recognizing Nietzsche’s concerns in this constellation. The rebirth of paganism, modernity as sickness, the organic state, hierarchical and non-democratic, even the concern with diet and fresh air (such as his condemnation of reading in the morning, and counsel to distrust thoughts that don’t arise in the open air), are all here. Most importantly, though, we have seen Young make the case that “Nietzsche’s remedy for the destitution of modernity lies in the return of a communal religion,” and it is this idea, “to reintegrate the Volk through the establishment of “one communal faith” that is the “single most decisive and unifying feature of the Volkish tradition” (p. 210).

So if Nietzsche does belong to the Volkist tradition, how then can he escape the charge of being a proto-Nazi? What’s missing is the elements of nationalism, militarism, and anti-Semitism from which sprang the specifically Nazi form of Volkism, and from which Nietzsche was quarantined by his life-long rejection of “petty politics,” as opposed to his own project of “grand politics” (Beyond Good and Evil 208).

While “petty politics” typifies the squalid quarrels of aggressive nationalism, “grand politics” shows that Nietzsche agrees with Plato that “the quest for spiritual domination is the essence of politics” (pp. 193–94). Young brings up the neo-con academic Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order as a modern analogy to this “war of spirits” (Ecce Homo xiv 1), though one might find a better analogue in the “meta-politics” of the European New Right, or perhaps Evola’s apoliteia, both of which might be similar attempts to re-legitimize Rightist ideas by eschewing the dangerous streams of nationalism and militarism. Even more, Nietzsche’s “grand politics” resembles the “viral” strategies of modern advertising (and thus modern politics); rather than seek to impose his ideas, either through political force or even philosophical proof, he sees his works as providing “signposts” or even “fishhooks” for “those related to me,” potential “free spirits“ who will, like random but beneficial mutations, not despise the herd but rise to the challenge of providing it with the valuable new ideas and ways of being necessary to meet the challenges of social evolution.

Ultimately, Nietzsche, ever the “good European” (Ecce Homo I 3), aims at a peaceful Europe, though dominated by European values, and perhaps ultimately a similarly European “globalism.” Even his vehement war with Christianity is less a “religious” or “philosophical” matter than an expression of his “grand politics.” In general, his kind of “cultural purification just means the replacement of a ‘motley cow’ chaos of dissonant values by a community-creating common European (and ultimately global) community” (p. 87). Thus, Nietzsche provides a model to show how Volkish values could take (and, if Young’s view of Nietzsche had prevailed earlier, could have already taken) a non-totalitarian form.

First, he was a long-long opponent of violence and militarism, based on his experiences in the Franco-Prussian war (“The images of horror that haunt my eyes defy all description“ he wrote from the front), as well as his admiration for the Greek taming of Dionysian intoxication.

Second, Nietzsche loathed nationalism, especially the “petty politics” of German chauvinism. While his “Enlightenment cosmopolitanism” might seem to contradict his “romantic communitarianism,” since “community [is] a local phenomenon that depends essentially on difference,” Young points out (pp. 214–215) that “What Nietzsche wants, both in the microcosm of the soul and in the macrocosm of human society at large [is] neither undifferentiated unity nor atomic chaos, but rather ‘unity in multiplicity,’” which is his definition of ‘greatness’ [Beyond Good and Evil 212].” Thus Nietzsche’s slightly surprising admiration, in The Gay Science, for the medieval Catholic Church, which was able to provide a sort of unity by absorbing and adapting local, pagan traditions. Freed of the limits of the Church’s dogmatism, Nietzsche’s new Church, pagan and mythological rather than Christian and dogmatic, would be able to provide post-Enlightenment Europe with the kind of unity Homer did when his art “went Pan-Hellenic” [Human All-Too Human 1 262].

Above all, he was anti-anti-Semitic, not merely as a response to the crude anti-Semitism of his time, but as another consequence of his communitarian thought. “Unity in multiplicity: is the rule within each society as well as the European whole. “For a society that excludes, a society that creates an underclass of Untermenschen, creates thereby the seeds of its own collapse” (p. 170). This was Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the “Chandala Revenge”: the “Empire-destroying reaction of the outcasts” in Christianity (Twilight of the Idols VII 4) as well as his prediction of “collapse of capitalism through the revolt of the industrial slaves” in BT 23.

Has Young succeeding in making a case for the Volkist but friendly Nietzsche? While enormously appealing to anyone thinking today along pagan or Volkist lines, there are two areas where the modernist might find Young’s defensive arguments, though sound enough themselves, to be a little de minimis.

First, what of the communitarian society and democracy? While discussing The Antichrist, Young sums up Nietzsche’s “overall conception of the healthy society” as “a hierarchy of classes where one’s position in the hierarchy is determined by natural need and ability. [The ancient caste system] does not satisfy the requirement . . . because it ossifies the natural with a rigid legalism that become[s] unnatural and oppressive by making class boundaries impermeable. But democratic modernity, the leveling induced by “modern ideas” [The Antichrist 57] such as socialism and feminism, is equally unnatural. If society were only allowed free experiment it would soon return to a naturally pyramidal society—and Nietzsche would wish to add, to a natural division between the roles of men and those of women” (p. 188).

Not slavery, but definitely hierarchy. One is reminded of the later work of Ken Wilber, such as Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, where, influenced by Schelling (and Young notes the influence of Schelling on the German romantics and Volkists, including Nietzsche), he refuses to deny the presence and value of hierarchies (like Koestler, he prefers to call them “holarchies”) in the name of some New Age “equality”; instead, he distinguishes between good or healthy ones, where the holon benefits from its role in the whole, and bad, or “pathological” ones, which are structures of exploitation and domination (which he considers to be the problem with Fascism). As Joscelyn Godwin says when discussing Plato in The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions, “hierarchy without love becomes tyranny.”

Nietzsche’s hierarchy is compatible with democracy (of a sort); in fact, democracy is precisely where, and how, a natural aristocracy would arise through competition. Although Young, an Australian, does not mention it, his thought here would seem to find echoes with similar views that have been held of the “laboratory of American democracy,” from Jefferson through Emerson (a known favorite of Nietzsche), and (as philosopher and film theorist Stanley Cavell has argued) on down to the “screwball comedies” of Preston Sturges and others. While an interesting theory, it may now be questionable how workable it really is, outside of Hollywood.

Then, what of anti-Semitism? Yes, Nietzsche strongly advised against arbitrarily scapegoating some minority group to artificially build up group solidarity, a strategy some have attributed to Leo Strauss and his epigones. Nietzsche thinks this is a self-defeating strategy in general, and that when implemented against Christianity it brought down the Roman Empire. And in general, apart from a couple of loose comments about “purification,” common to eugenic thinkers of the time, he doesn’t talk about rounding anyone up for disposal. So, he’s cleared of the charge of advocating or tolerating genocide.

Still, it’s clear that minorities are allowed to be part of the community only so long as they are not actively working against the interests of the majority; thus the issue becomes not one of “human rights” but of pragmatism. What if the minorities are not simply charmingly and usefully “different,” as Young seems to assume in his good liberal fashion, but really are acting to destroy the community, perhaps even unintentionally? We’re right back to T. S. Eliot’s “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” (After Strange Gods). There’s nothing here that would rule out, a priori, Hitler’s Madagascar Plan, or even his Final Solution, if needed.

However literally “moderate” such a comment may be “objectively,” nothing will appease the PC crowd other than complete tolerance—the reaction, in and out of academia, to Eliot’s remark, to say nothing of Kevin MacDonald’s work on the evolutionary strategies of minorities, would seem to offer any needed proof. And on the other hand, one wonders whether ethnic and religious minorities will gratefully and gracefully accept their status as protected but second-class citizens. And since this is essentially the Platonic application to society of Nietzsche’s critique of moralities, such as the Christian, that suppress rather than sublimate evil in individuals, there is also the implicit characterization of minorities as social diseases cheerfully tolerated by a healthy ethnic state. Surely the minorities in question, and their liberal friends, will settle for nothing but full equality of identical units. What may have worked in Muslim Spain may no longer be a live possibility in the modern West.

The shortness of this final chapter, however, leads one to think that Young may not have been given enough room, or time, to fully work out a subject as vast as Nietzsche’s role in history, to say nothing of the future. What we do have shows someone in full command of the material, and well aware of what needs to be addressed. Perhaps we can hope for a follow up, along the lines of his book on Heidegger and Nazism?

The book we have is achievement enough for now. Young writes as a scholar and philosopher, not as an ideologue or activist. It’s impossible to tell what he thinks of neo-paganism, the New Right or National Anarchism, or even if he knows they exist. Never the less, members of these communities of thought and action should welcome this book, which decisively re-aligns a great German—European!—philosopher with their own concerns, providing them with both another distinguished ancestor, as well as a wise guide for the battles to come.


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One Comment

  1. David Hillman
    Posted January 9, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Mr. O’Meara:

    One can not underestimate the effect of Dionysian ecstasy on the Greek mind, or the mind of Nietzsche. Bromios (Bacchus) was not merely one of many members of a large polytheistic pantheon, he was central to the practice of ancient cult and the development of philosophy itself. Knowing this, it is interesting to note that Classicists are unable to translate the myriad of words derived from his name (Bakch-). Most often these are rendered in a circular manner as “to act as a Bacchant.” Nietzsche, as a preeminent Classicist, mastered ancient Greek to such a level that he was able to understand how these words were used, and demonstrates this in his work.

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