This is the transcript by V. S. of Richard Spencer’s Vanguard Podcast interview of Jonathan Bowden about Nietzche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. You can listen to the podcast here .
Richard Spencer: Hello, everyone! Welcome again to Vanguard and welcome as well, Jonathan Bowden! Thanks for being back on the program.
Jonathan Bowden: Yes, hello! Nice to be back.
RS: Well, today we’re going to try something a little bit different. In previous podcasts, we’ve taken on big philosophical issues such as democracy, feminism, Nietzsche, and so on and so forth. Today, we’re going to try to get a little closer to the text and focus in a little bit more.
So, today, we’re going to record a broadcast on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, which was published in 1887.
I’m sure there are a couple of different ways our listeners could use this podcast. If you’ve never encountered Nietzsche before I think you could still profit from it as a taste of his thought, and also if you are interested in studying Nietzsche I’m sure you could either read the text before or perhaps after the podcast and use the podcast as a reader’s guide or an interpretation.
So, Jonathan, let’s dive right into the text. This is one of my favorite of Nietzsche’s works. It’s actually the first Nietzsche work that I read and it’s probably the best of his works that serves as an introduction in the sense that so much of the rest of his oeuvre is aphoristic, it’s poetic, and in the case of Zarathustra it’s quite bombastic and maybe ironically so. But On the Genealogy of Morals seems more like philosophy. It deals with moral questions and historical questions and it’s written in a more straightforward style. At least straightforward for Nietzsche.
But, Jonathan, why don’t you give us a background of this text and some of your more general thoughts on it. I mentioned that it is a moral inquiry, but it doesn’t really look at morals in themselves. Indeed, it might treat morality an sich, in itself, as somewhat of an illusion. It doesn’t try to find the origin of good and evil behind the world in a nether region, in a heaven, in a godly realm. It actually tried to find the origins of good and evil in the world and also it’s a question of values. Not only morality, but it’s also a question of the value of values.
That is, what does it mean that we treat un-egoistic, in Nietzsche’s words, or selfless actions as good and we treat actions that might express a superior, domineering manner as evil? What is the value of that value and where does that value come from? When did this arise in the history of not just the West but the history of the world?
So, Jonathan, maybe pick up on a few of those ideas and give us your general thoughts on what the Genealogy of Morals is and its background and what Nietzsche is trying to achieve.
JB: Yes, I think he’s trying to achieve an ethical superstructure for a radically aristocratic way of thinking on which he is to return that to modernity insofar as it existed in the past. I also think he wants to get away from what is recorded as dualism. The idea that you have good and you have its counterpart, evil, and that these are metaphysical certainties or metaphysical statements of intent and belief that are very ancient and that are Manichaean in the Persian sense, which Paul took in early Christianity and grafted into the heart of the Christian religion. All three of the Hebraic faiths are very dualist in relation to morality and have a large pre-codified codex about what is moral and what is immoral.
His belief is that morality is in part socially derived, and it’s culturally expressed, and in an aristocratic society that which is good, beautiful, true, and so on will be regarded as exulted and moral as a self-evident prerequisite and that which is low or mean or ugly or debased will be regarded as evil or, at the very least, bad, as the opposite of good. He thinks that is an axiomatic and understandable way of looking at it.
What he thinks has happened is that morality has become inverted by virtue of the morality of those who suffered or were enslaved in the ancient world. This is what he called slave morality, and he associates slave morality and the desire to eradicate it by in turn professing its nature to be part and parcel of the ethical substructure of Christianity and of the Judeo-Christian religion in particular and he regards Christianity, ethically speaking, as a revenge of the low upon the high and of a revenge of the lowborn on the highborn and as a revenge almost against the ancient world itself ushering in the Middle Ages where everything is valorized or everything is moralized. Everything is divided into a good act or a good thought or an evil act or an evil thought and that if mankind is to progress on from this stupor then it has to return to more ancient verities and more ancient feelings and areas of psychic force whereby actions are described as good and bad depending upon whether they impinge upon something that is high or low.
This also leads to a hierarchical view in terms of morality where actions are viewed as cascading from on high, like a sort of devouring fountain or something, rather than being alternative or alternate. He’s also very much opposed to the idea of instantaneous valorization. This idea that you have a binumerality. You put forward a statement and there’s a click click response: moral/immoral, good/bad, good/evil. Although he’s more keen on the good/bad disjunction than the good/evil disjunction, he always wants to get away from the idea that you can just valorize everything with an appropriate click of the dial. He’s very opposed to televisual morality in a strange sort of way, whereby everything is determined in accordance with a prior indicator as to whether it’s good or evil and that all of one’s judgments are then colored by that particular alternation.
He sees Christianity over 2,000 years as the main vehicle for this valorization and this sort of ethical charging and super-sweeping of everything so that all higher standards are traduced and brought down to the instincts and unfettered pleasures and life chances of those who are ill-born and ill-conceived.
RS: Jonathan, let’s put some pressure on this because the distinction between good and bad and good and evil is simple in a way, but as revealed by your last talk it branches out into all of these interesting directions.
One way that Nietzsche talks about this is purely in terms of linguistics. A good example that works well with English is the history of the word virtue. It’s obviously connected with words like virile and things like this. It originates in the original Latin virtus, which of course connotes manliness, being a man, and connotes all of those things around it like courage in battle, steadfastness, and so on and so forth.
In some ways, a word doesn’t hold its meaning throughout time. It can shift subtly. What you have over the course of centuries with the word virtue is that it becomes Christianized and it kind of ironically feminized to the point that virtue now means female chastity. Not quite the opposite of its original meaning, but certainly one that is quite alien.
This linguistic aspect of this is something that is very important to Nietzsche. He thinks the origin of the word good is something connected with the word God. I think he connects bonus with bellum, but he does a lot of things connecting the word good with the warrior.
So, Jonathan, let’s put a little pressure on this before we talk about the revaluation of values and so forth. Just that original formation of the notion of good and bad. In particular, how Nietzsche’s view is different from say a utilitarian view the likes of Herbert Spencer’s, who thought that good and evil were simply connoting something that’s useful or not. It’s something very different in Nietzsche’s aristocratic morality.
JB: Yes. Well, language is extraordinarily important to Nietzsche not just because he was a master of the German of his day but also because he was a trained philologist. So, he would look at the ancient origins of words and trace through over centuries their change over time and their differentiated usage.
So, much of The Genealogy is actually concerned with the origin of words where many words meant masculine beauty or warlike ardor or chivalry or courage under stress and bravery under pressure and these words will have themselves changed over time as in the case of virtue to mean something that was approximately its opposite or near its opposite over time. This is part of the way in which words are wrenched out of their context and reused for all sorts of purposes, partly just a sort of natural selection and wordplay but also much more subtle ideological repositionings in order to deflate one sense of meaning and enhance another at a later date. So, he basically considers the good and the good life to be that which tends towards aristocratic virtue in its prior definitional structure. One carries oneself well, one has an integration of body and spirit, one looks well and looks good, that which manifests greater manliness and greater courage and greater dexterity in the use of these things on the battlefield and the senatorial structure or political structures of a particular time.
These are naturally good in and of themselves, but they’re not universally good. They’re good for a particular class of persons. They’re good for a particular sensibility that goes with that aristocratic class of persons. They’re not necessarily good for others and therefore, in fact, they’re reverse utilitarian. They’re sort of negative utilitarian and “futilitarian,” in utilitarian terms, to develop a neologism. They don’t really go with the flow of majority desires at all. Indeed, they’re militant minority desires.
I’ve just seen the British film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with the actor Ralph Fiennes in it, and Coriolanus always strikes me as a particular text that’s very emblematic of the sort of genealogy of the morals of which Nietzsche approved where you have this extraordinary arrogance towards the Roman plebs, you have this refusal to obey the diktats of the tribunite structure in ancient Rome, you have the consul which is in a sense set above the people if not even the senate itself, and you have an aristocratic morality to court which is not just conceptual but rooted in the words that it chooses to use, rooted in a detestation of the majority even, and rooted in a maximization of particularism and of the pathos of difference and of minority and of individualized sentiment as long as that individualism is highborn.
RS: Well, also, in many ways, Nietzsche personifies good and evil and good and bad in the text in quite dramatic fashion.
I want to talk about the Jewish issue, which is a very complex one, a little bit later.
But first I just want to talk about his idea of the originators of good. As you were saying, it certainly had little to do with what it means to be good now like you might hear in church or something like that. It was an aristocratic leader’s expression of their own joy in themselves and things like this.
Let me just read a little bit from Nietzsche’s text to give you a taste of this, because he had a very distinct idea of the originators of the word good. To the point that he thought of them really as a people.
There they savor the freedom from all social constraints. They compensate themselves in the wilderness for the tension engendered by protracted confinement and enclosure within the peace of society. They go back to the innocent conscience of the beasts of prey, as triumphant monsters who perhaps emerged from the disgusting process of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul as if it were no more than a student’s prank convinced that they have provided the poets with a lot more material for song and praise.
One cannot fail to see the bottom of all these noble races, the beast of prey, besplended blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory. This hidden core needs to erupt from time to time. The animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness. The Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings, they all shared this need. It is the noble races that have left behind them the concept of barbarian wherever they have gone. Even their highest culture betrays a consciousness of it and even a pride in it.
For example, when Pericles says to his Athenians in his famous funeral oration, “Our boldness has gained access to every land and sea. Everywhere raising imperishable monuments to its goodness and wickedness.”
You can pick up on this. Just to make everything clear, passages like that certainly disturb Nietzsche’s liberal defenders like Walter Kaufmann, who, to give him credit, certainly did a lot of good in bringing Nietzsche to the wider public. But it’s not a metaphor. Nietzsche did have a concept of . . . Let’s call it Aryanism as the origin of master morality and the older concept of goodness.
JB: Yes. Kaufmann is a liberal revisionist, really, in terms of Nietzsche studies. I suppose he had to emerge at a particular time in order to safeguard Nietzsche’s reputation after the Second World War. It’s plausible that without people like Kaufmann . . . I doubt he would have gone down the memory hole, but he might not have the presence of talented notoriety which he presently enjoys.
But yes, one sees in examples like that there’s a definite attempt to make these things non-literal as well. For example, the blond beast is meant to be a lion rather than anything else and, of course, that’s just one of many meanings that you can have of it.
Yes, this creation is the codex of master morality, the morality of Greek tragedy in a way as being the inner morality of the Grecian aristocracy and of other aristocracies as well such as the Persians, Scandinavians, Japanese, and so forth. Maybe the British imperial aristocracy in its heyday, which could be analogous to the Elizabethan period rather than later periods. Nietzsche probably would have found the 19th century too stultifying and too moralistic. But the Elizabethan swagger was something that was very close to his heart and was very close to the Renaissance sensibility which he prized in amoral rulers like the Borgia house and so on who he regarded as untainted by Christian morality and existing in a pagan sort of residue and wherewithal whereby they cast aside traditional notions of good and evil in order to embrace what was customarily known as the aristocratic good or the master as against the slave morality.
RS: Right. And then also he personifies the creation of evil, the earlier transvaluation of all values, and he does it in a way that is equally disturbing and offensive for someone like Walter Kaufmann. And I don’t mean to beat up on Walter Kaufmann. He is a good translator, but he did certainly try to turn Nietzsche into some kind of enlightened liberal or something like this.
He personifies the creation of the notion of evil and the turning on its head of the earlier good and bad with the Jews. He says in section 7 of the first book: “With the Jews there begins the slave revolt in morality, that revolt which has a history of 2,000 years behind it and which we no longer see it because it has been victorious.”
So, Jonathan, talk a little bit about the Jews. Nietzsche is, of course, talking about the Jews in the Roman Empire and pre-Jesus Jews, but he sees in many ways the domination of Christianity as a kind of culmination of their mission to destroy the Roman Empire even if they rejected the actual religion. So, talk a little about how the Jews function in Nietzsche’s work.
JB: Yes, this is the idea that they carry to the strongest degree the sort of anti- or transverse moralism which is opposed to what he considers to be these verities of the ancient world. They invert the master morality and make it of a slave or beholden morality, a master morality of a different sort. The masterful morality, one might say. This is the idea that those who suffer and those who undergo the agonies of privation and those who are in a weaker position are automatically in a morally enhanced state and are indeed superior by virtue of their suffering, and the more suffering that they have, the more ennobled they are by it.
Obliviousness to the suffering of another is itself a sign of moral inadequacy, so that those who sympathize with the suffering of others and those who undergo suffering themselves are on their way to a superior lexicon in relation to what it is to be moral.
The concept of pity — pity for one’s self and pity for another — becomes the elixir of moral goodness or becomes part and parcel of such an elixir when Nietzsche himself, of course, loathes and reviles pity for one’s self and for others and regards it as the epitome of what he calls slave morality.
The reason all of this was done was to upend the fact that Jews were victims of Romanism and of Roman imperialism as it existed in the Middle East, and they wished to slip the yoke of Rome and assert their own tribal and cultural independence as they had done before. They took away from the masters the weapons of the masters, subtly and religiously and linguistically and in a code-like way in order to give themselves the weapons to store their own armory.
Nietzsche sees ideas very much as the pursuit of warfare by other means, particularly when groups and peoples become involved in their adoption or their non-adoption. So, he considers this taking of the idea of the beauty of pitilessness when perceived in an aristocratic vein and inverting it so that beauty is sympathy for the weak and those who suffer to be one of the great blasphemies of human history and to be one of the great utilitarian/non-utilitarian devices via means of which the weak can humiliate and humble the strong.
He considers that the Jews were cardinal in developing this semiotext, if you like, this textuality of what it was to be moral in the future.
RS: Yes, and he sees this on world historical terms.
In Chaper 16 of the first book he says:
The symbol of this struggle, inscribed in letters legible across all human history is Rome against Judea and Judea against Rome. There has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction. Rome felt the Jews to be something like anti-nature itself. It’s antipodal monstrosity as it were. In Rome, the Jews stood convicted of hatred for the whole human race. And rightly, provided one has a right to link the salvation and future of the human race with the unconditional dominance of the aristocratic values, Roman values.
So, he obviously sees this original transvaluation of values in the figure of the Jews. But obviously it goes beyond them to Christianity itself. So, what was first a kind of subterfuge warfare where the Jews were able to, through means of values, turn Rome against itself, but then you have a new situation where Jesus is worshipped in Rome, in what used to be the center of the Roman Empire and aristocratic values of the Old World.
I guess maybe one way to think about this is that what first was subversion on the part of the Jewish system of values almost became a general decadence of Western culture as a whole and it spread, obviously, far beyond the Jews.
But talk a little bit, Jonathan, about this original subversive activity of ancient Jews and that spilling out into all sorts of things, which I am sure Nietzsche would associate with egalitarianism, with democracy, with the destruction of the old ways of life and so on.
JB: Yes, Christianity becomes a generalized ethical Judaism for gentiles and is perceived as such by Nietzsche. I think his version of the Passion, which is a unique reading in modern Western civics and in modern Western literature . . .
If one thinks of the very notorious and controversial film, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, there’s the famous moment where the Jewish Pharisees are screaming on behalf of their mob for the crucifixion of this religious apostate to take place, somebody who claims to be in some respects the “King of the Jews” and yet has nothing but a discrete and rather minor religious following and a minor Jewish fringe political millenarian leader, on the one hand.
On the other hand, you have Pilate’s natural distaste for these intra-Jewish disputes, and you have this moment where he washes his hands in front of all of them to tell them, “A plague on both your houses! I refuse to take part in any of this.” And in the end he just allows the majority of the Jewish subjects of Rome’s imperial subjects in Palestine to have their way in relation to what he perceives to be a relatively innocent and harmless man. But by virtue of washing his hands, Nietzsche describes him as the most moral character in the whole story, which of course is a blasphemous usage because to all Christians the most moral person in the whole story is Christ himself of course, and Pilate is condemned because although he carries out his necessary function he doesn’t side with the cause that is morally better. But his attitude to the thing is one of a divine shrug and a divine indifference which has about it the welter of an aristocratic fervor, the welter of an aristocratic disdain for these popular excitations and amusements.
The morality that was put forward by ancient Hebraic faith as an inversion of classical and aristocratic values to be used by a people that wish to claim its own destiny is then wrenched from their hands and sublimated into the big ethical structures of the enormous religions of the Middle East which are for gentile consumption, principally Christianity and Islam.
Nietzsche has very little to say about Islam and probably, taking from certain axioms from Schopenhauer, would be more favorable towards Islam than towards Christianity. Partly because of Islam’s patriarchy, partly because of its attitude towards women, partly because Islam is a third pagan in terms of the Arab structures and religious faith that pre-existed it in the Middle East unlike Christianity, which seeks to be a complete repudiation of the pagan past ethically and in other ways.
That’s one of the important elements here, that Nietzsche doesn’t just preach a return to aristocratic radicalism. He preaches a return to the paganism that preceded Christianity for the whole of society. Whether it’s a literal worship of ancient gods or not doesn’t concern him, but morally he wishes to see a return to paganism, a return to its offices and its hierarchy of deities, household and social. He also wishes to see that each layer of the society has a role in such a pagan context, but its role is defined from the top downwards, not from the bottom upwards.
RS: Well, let’s focus just a little more on the Jewish Question. When I was reading this . . . Again, I hadn’t read it in a number of years. It was a great pleasure to read it again. Nietzsche talks about, “The Jews on the contrary were the priestly nation of ressentiment par excellence in whom there dwelt an unequaled popular moral genius.”
Do you think there’s something to be said that a book like Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique is in some ways this Jewish revolution in a nutshell, spoken of in terms of intellectual history in the 20th century, in the sense that MacDonald talks about Jews entering American society under the guise of universalism or something that promotes freedom and tolerance, and they actually bring in a poisonous doctrine, whether it be Cultural Marxism, pro-immigration views, Freudianism, etcetera, that is later taken up by, it’s sort of swallowed whole by the gentile host community and it leads to their decadence and maybe even their death?
Obviously, many would consider that anti-Semitic, but do you think that Nietzsche sees that there is something peculiar about the Jews — maybe it’s related to their ethnicity or maybe it’s related to their monotheistic faith — that leads them to seek to revalue the values of their neighbors and their host communities. Do you think Nietzsche saw it like that or am I maybe reading a little too much into it with MacDonald, or is there a basis for this in monotheism or their general religion?
JB: Yes, I think that’s largely true what you said. Whether Nietzsche would have, had he lived, subscribed to the sort of MacDonald axioms one can never say, but he certainly believes in this monotheistic identitarianism, this sort of belief that a unique people is set on one side to reevaluate the world morally but also sees the valuation and transvaluation of morals from its own perspective to be part of a group analogy of hostility and defense towards others so that ideas tend to be dual track.
On the one hand, you have them because they are your ideas, but on the other hand they serve a destiny greater than themselves and can be particularly for a community that isn’t militarily defended and can only defend itself in exile through the notion of what it says and how it can get others to behave in relation to what it is or is felt to be . . .
So, I think that the uniqueness of this monotheistic cult and the uniqueness of monotheism as a doctrine totally contrary to the plurality of gods and goddesses that is part and parcel of the pagan pantheon and worldview in all pre-existing societies is cardinal for understanding the way in which modern morality works, particularly in universal faiths unlike Judaism which are monotheistic. The difference between Christianity and Islam and Judaism, of course, is that Jews don’t really seek — apart from the odd individual – converts, and even that’s plausibly deniable and is on the liberal end of their faith, whereas Judeo-Christianity and Islam rely on conversion as the very bone marrow of their dispensation.
So, this conversion of the rest of the world or large stretches of it, certainly of the Western and Near Eastern world, to enormous stand-alone monotheistic structures, the morality of which favors the morality of suffering, the efficacy of pity, the sanctimony of, in some respects, the feminine over the masculine, the adoption of pacifism as a moral standard even though pacifism itself may be eschewed as an overall morality, and the belief that the last shall be first and the first shall be last in almost all areas whether before or after death and however otherwise put is part and parcel of these faiths and he considers this to be uniquely Jewish in origin.
The notion of anti-Semitism in relation to Nietzsche, which is nearly always non-existent or extremely dormant in comparison to much more traditional Germanic discourses of the time in which he wrote, all resurfaces in relation to The Genealogy of Morals, but it’s basically because he holds this particular group responsible for an original transvaluation of values. But the ultimate recrudescence of spiritual Judaism is in Christianity.
RS: Right. Also, it’s worth pointing out that Nietzsche was no mere “might makes right” philosopher. He wasn’t just going to unequivocally endorse the Vikings as the ultimate expression of values. He says in other places that, yes, it’s true that the Judeo-Christian revolution knocked the legs out from under aristocratic values, but at the same time it offered Western man depth and it changed him in a way that in some ways are productive. It at least gave him a sense that he should begin examining himself. It gave him a conscience, which of course led to a whole host of different philosophies and so forth.
So, in many ways, Nietzsche was never a philosopher who is a kind of reactionary or someone who thinks, “Well, Jews were bad. Let’s just go back.” I think Nietzsche thinks that we need to, in some ways, the whole West and all of Europe needed to have actually experienced the Judeo-Christian revolution in order to move on to something higher.
Do you agree with my dialectical reading of Nietzsche?
JB: Yes. Nietzsche is deeply dialectical and also always draws a positive from a negative, so that he doesn’t end up with a pessimistic position, because Nietzsche is, contrary to many people who are metapolitically of the Right insofar as Nietzsche can be described as on it, Nietzsche is non-pessimistic and is a fabulous optimist in his way even when there seems to be no real grounds for it. His bias is optimism and heroic optimism, so he will take from Christianity all sorts of positive things, particularly the depth of its psychologism.
This is part and parcel of his fascination with Pascal, who is the originator of Jansenism, the small P protestant discourse within French Catholicism. He was one of the most extraordinary psychologists there has been in the Western historical and philosophical tradition, and yet like a lot of Puritans of various sorts he tormented himself in relation to his faith, but he achieved a greatness as of that sort of ascetic struggle. Of course, Nietzschean morality is about the struggle that one has with one’s self in order less to be human than to possibly rise above that.
So, one is one’s own anvil and one hammers down upon it in order to raise a man from what he might have been to what he could be. So, Nietzsche will almost always see in almost everything that occurs a positive or positive splinter that might fire off to create a fire that can warm the hands of the children of tomorrow.
RS: To bring the conversation to a close, I want to ask you two questions that are speculative in nature. Again, I’ve focused on Book One. I think that’s really the keystone. There are a lot of, certainly, treasures to be found in the second and third books of Genealogy of Morals.
But in Book One he mentions that everything is visibly becoming Judaized, Christianized, mobized and then he goes on to say — and this is a very ironic passage and I think it’s worth speculating on this passage — “to this end, does the Church today still have any necessary role to play. Does it still have the right to exist or could one do without it? It seems to hinder rather than hasten this progress, but perhaps that is its usefulness.”
This is Nietzschean in the sense that it’s very playful and it looks at an idea from all these different angles, but if I were to sum up what he said in that passage I would say that we live in a world in which Judeo-Christian egalitarianism dominates even, or perhaps even especially, amongst those people who have gone beyond the faith.
Just to choose an example for the sake of usefulness, someone like Christopher Hitchens, who of course thinks God is the worst thing that ever happened, hates all religion, so on and so forth, but at the end of the day, fundamentally reaffirms universalism, egalitarianism, human rights, “the last shall be first, the first shall be last,” and so on and so forth. Christopher Hitchens is deeply Judeo-Christian from a Nietzschean point of view. I think Nietzsche is kind of asking in some ways, “What usefulness does the Church play?”
One could actually say, as Nietzsche does, that the Church is actually holding back Judeo-Christianity from dominating, and some of the truly devotional and ceremonial acts of, say, Catholicism or Episcopalianism or some of the quite serious and almost monkish aspects of the Lutheran faith, that these are almost reactionary throwbacks to an era when one lived in a world like the Borgias’ Rome or something like this or one went to a cathedral and set about hours upon hours of study. In some ways, those aspects are holding back the ultimate triumph of the Judeo-Christian message.
Jonathan, what I want to ask is maybe if you can take that idea and speculate about the future of Christianity. I’m thinking here that I recently saw a YouTube video, which I can link to on the website, and this YouTube video had millions of hits, it went viral, it became popular really quickly, and what this person was saying is essentially, “I hate religion, I hate the Church, but I love Jesus.” And his message was, essentially, that “the Church is corrupt, it’s hierarchical, it has all these funny things from the European past, it’s connected with old costumes and old paintings and so on, but I truly love the message of Jesus,” which of course is the Leftist message that everyone seems to agree with which is that we should tolerate everyone, everyone’s wonderful, we’re all the same and interchangeable and so on and so forth.
In many ways, when I look at this I thought it was rather tragic in a way in the sense that this person is deeply Christian yet he’s imagining a world, perhaps prophesying a world, where there’s really no need for any Christian church or structure in this way.
So, Jonathan, taking all of these things that I’ve just mentioned, what do you speculate on the future of Christianity or does it have a future?
JB: Yes, I think it does have a future. It’s probably along slightly different lines than those of Hitchens and this viral YouTube person profess. Indeed, its history over the last century has been the gradual deflation of the importance in Christian structures. The Catholic Church less so than some of the others and the Orthodox churches slightly less so than their Protestant equivalents, but certainly you’ve seen a collapse in the importance socially that Protestantism had, maybe outside of the United States, but you have seen a collapse in the importance of the Church of England in a society like Britain or England, and yet Christian values and post-Christian values are more entrenched than ever before.
Iris Murdoch, the English novelist, was a Quaker, which is a particular type of edgy sort of Christian adherence, and she once said that she would like to forego the religious trappings of Christianity and keep its ethics. Certainly its ethics are as strong now as they ever have been, and the conservatism that was part of those ethics has largely been eschewed or done away with. So, you now have a large liberal secular humanism feeding upon Christian ethics without the Christian faith, and yet you still have the trappings of the Christian faith coexisting with this widespread secularization.
I think that Christianity has a long way to go, particularly in the Third World and the Second World and the Fourth World, and however one chooses to divide those up. I think that Christianity still will be the dominant religion, not Islam, 100 to 200 years from now, because it has so much fodder, so much to feed on in the Third World. It is a religion for all who suffer. It is a religion for all who know outsider status no matter however defined. It is a religion for all those who feel they’re not in the inner circle. It’s a religion for all those who are not necessarily the top or would perceive themselves to be near the top of their own group or their own society or have a reason for looking at those things in a way which would lead them not to identify with the bottom even if they were not technically at the top.
It, in some ways, spreads that part of Islam which is itself Christian, that preaches love, peace, and tolerance which nestles up uneasily with the militarized, masculine, heroic, more pagan elements that coexist in Islam at this particular time. But Islam without Wahhabism, without Sadrism, and without that which springs forth into terrorist outrage as perceived from a Western point of view would be very close to Christianity. Sufi Islam would be very close, ethically, to Christianity. Indeed, would be an extension of the same thing by other means essentially, and is a religiosity of brotherhood and love and without strict adherence to form as well, because you make up the form as you go along.
Indeed, Christianity might have a future that’s rather like Islam, because there is no Islamic pope. Although there is Mecca and Medina as a center to turn to, there’s no clerisy for the whole of Islam. There’s just localized priesthoods and semi-priesthoods and holy men who go about preaching who know something about what they’re talking about. Sheikhs, those who are moved upon to speak. So, Islam has always had this devolved and rather libertarian structure. It’s a very authoritarian religion, but it’s very non-authoritarian in the way in which it operates. Any house can be turned into a mosque just by doing a few simple things and putting down a few carpets and segregating believers when they pray along gender lines and so on. It’s very homely in that sense.
Many of the values of Christianity can and are being spread by Islam, paradoxically, and vice versa if you see these things on a universal level rather than on a parochial one. So, I think Christianity’s got quite a lively future, but it’s not necessarily in the West where it’s been overtaken by the secular humanism that’s been eating it alive and yet, in terms of values, to which it has given rise.
I think that Nietzsche was not entirely right about the fact that if Christianity disappears in its observational form and in its churches and its structures and its civic adornments that it’s really achieving a triumph at another remove. Theoretically, you could say that, but I think once it goes, it goes and the number of people who live in the West now without any fixed adherence to Christianity at all is quite startling from a Christian point of view.
You also have the paradox of mass immigration into the Western world that consists of people from much more conservative and religious societies and you have the replenishing of Christianity in its observing manner by manner of these immigrants who wish to cling to the prior adherence of faith, partly in relation to the alienation they feel from societies that are not their own. Christianity is a great source of comfort to many immigrants in the West and that’s why many of them adopt a quite conservative type of Christianity, either Catholic or Evangelical.
So, I feel that Christianity has still got quite a lot of kick in it, but it will be Third World immigration into Western societies, it will be the extension of Christianity’s strength outside the West, and it will be the growing totalizing of liberal humanist values within the West as a surrogate for Christian norms, at least in the area of ethics. I think these three areas are the areas where the egalitarian impulses of Christianity will continue to grow even as the religion faces near collapse in countries like Norway and Sweden and Finland and England.
RS: In closing, let me ask you about the possibilities of something one might call anti-Christianity and that is the possibility for the revival of the aristocratic ideals which Nietzsche admired in the Europe that he envisioned.
Let me read just one more passage and that is, “With the French Revolution, Judea once again triumphed over the classical ideal. This time in an even more profound and decisive sense.” And he goes on and he again, dialectically, talks about how this triumph of the French Revolution kind of turned into its opposite and did it rather quickly:
Like a last signpost to the other path, Napoleon appeared. The most isolated and lateborn man there has ever been and in him the problem of the noble ideal as such made flesh. One might well ponder what kind of problem it is. Napoleon: this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman.
So, obviously, it’s a mesmerizing passage. It’s one that I find inspiring.
What do you think, Jonathan. Let’s say you’re now allowed to let your hair down a little bit. What do you think of the possibilities of this new world historical anti-Christ like Nietzsche viewed Napoleon as arising in the ruins of the old Christian world.
JB: Yes. There’s a similar spirit at the end of Spengler’s The Decline of the West when in 1918 he preaches the fact that there will be a new Caesarism abroad in Europe. Something that was well underway and discernible at the margins even when he was speaking at that time.
It’s difficult to see it now at the moment, but whatever chaos and radical revolutionary change comes abroad these ideas inevitably return. The Left-wing version of dictatorial tyranny, the Red Czars that were thrown up by certain social and political revolutions on the European continent, themselves increasingly came to resemble, often in a sort of macabrely comic way, the aristocratic noblesse of the past, and it was even more pronounced in authoritarian structures which were on the other side.
Yet, as of this moment in time, it’s difficult to see where the Napoleons of this world will come from. Yet Napoleon, of course, conquered most of Europe and on the flags of his armies was the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and yet conquest was what was happening and they were flying a revolutionary flag, the Tricolour, which consists of three colors. The blue and the red of Paris and the white of Versailles. The red and the blue having captured the old monarchical dispensation at Versailles when the monarch was forcibly dragged back from Versailles to the capital, Paris, where traditionally the Bourbons had never felt particularly comfortable.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Gance’s enormous 5 to 7 hour film Napoléon, a silent film from the 1920s where Napoleon is depicted as a sort of superman. The film’s been restored several times. Gance was an admirer of Mussolini, and there’s a strong element of restorationalist, imperial aristocracy about the nature of the film.
It’s quite funny in some ways, because Napoleon is depicted as very thin and ascetic. He’s not the sort of portly dictator that the later portraits by David and that sort of thing, and in Napoleon’s most remembered image.
But Napoleons will always emerge in a period of radical and absolute change, and that can only occur if there is an economic breakdown of a sort threatened by the implosion of the European Union over its economic difficulties.
However, I personally believe that the very fact that Nietzsche remains so important intellectually and theoretically is a harbinger of the fact that such ideas are not dead. The fact that you can go into the philosophy section of any bookshop in the Western world, and Nietzsche will be there, and all sorts of other philosophers will not be there. Indeed, even Marx will not be there. His children may be there, theoretically speaking, but he may not be. And the very fact that The Genealogy of Morals and similar texts are widely on sale — you don’t have to go very far to get them if you’re interested — indicates to me that there’s part of the spectrum, part of the human brain scan that is still out there and still open towards these sorts of opinions, opinions which are elitist and which are inegalitarian and which have a streak of hubris about them, in the ancient sense, and which are aristo-oriented and are morally aristocratic without necessarily being sociologically so. The very fact that these ideas are still there despite the fact that the valency is against them in every other respect, in every other respect they’re crowded from the spectrum or shouted down.
And yet Nietzsche is complicated enough, virile enough, epigrammatic enough not really to have escaped the censor’s mark and to still be there arguing for views which at one level of reckoning are 2,000 years old.
RS: Jonathan, I think we just scratched the surface of The Genealogy of Morals and Nietzsche’s thought in general, but thank you for being with us once again on Vanguard.
JB: Thanks for having me!