Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion. By Julian Young The Shadow of the Anti-Christ: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity. By Stephen N. Williams
Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 346–347, March 2009
How to Cite
Ray, M. (2009), Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion. By Julian Young The Shadow of the Anti-Christ: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity. By Stephen N. Williams. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 346–347. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00460_31.x
- Issue published online: 16 FEB 2009
- Article first published online: 16 FEB 2009
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Julian Young's Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion claims that, according to Nietzsche, a society without a religion cannot flourish. It further holds that, since Nietzsche's prime political goal is, precisely, the flourishing of society, of a Volk, Nietzsche never was in fact an atheist (p. 2; Nietzsche's own claims to the contrary are explained by the fact that he is only an atheist where the Monotheistic God is concerned. In this, but not in his reading of Nietzsche as being concerned with politics, Young is agreeing with Walter Kaufmann). Rather than being an atheist, Nietzsche is seen by Young to be awaiting new ‘gods’: ‘society thrives only in the light of a ‘will to tradition’ […] the preservation of ethos requires its embodiment in ‘monumental figures, role models or ‘gods'’ (p. 166). One is reminded here of a remark – that one finds Young, unsurprisingly, citing – from section XXIII of The Birth of Tragedy: ‘Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture.’ Indeed, The Birth of Tragedy is the Nietzschean text best suited to hold Young's interpretation, alongside the discussion of monumental history in the Untimely Meditations, in which collection of essays it is also argued by Nietzsche that what is wrong with modernity is that we have lost community in both the sense of shared commitment and interpersonal intimacy (a loss, as Young puts it, of Dionysian community, p. 52).
As further support for this radically conservative view of Nietzsche as favouring the tradition of a strongly hierarchical society (p. 189; this view is in fact partly shared by another fairly recent text on Nietzsche: S. Rosen's The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche's Zarathustra (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004)), Young claims that Nietzsche never uses the term Volk pejoratively (p. 5). This, strictly speaking, maybe so, but it at least appears to the present reviewer that the Volk who gather in the market place to see the tightrope walker in the early stages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra are hardly presented uncritically, and although this is scarcely a knock-down argument against Young's position, this might nevertheless have been mentioned by Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion. Moreover, as a possible place for opponents of Young to forage for support, there are also various and well known remarks that suggest that any mass of people are not intrinsically valued by Nietzsche but are rather seen as a ‘tremendous surplus of failures, a field of ruins’ [Section 713 of the collection entitled The Will to Power] in the quest for the Overman. (Does Beyond Good and Evil, section 126, suggest that a people and great men are in conflict?). And although Young does not discount the importance of the valuable individual for Nietzsche, he adds that ‘individuals only truly flourish when their own highest commitment is to the flourishing of the community as a whole.’ (p. 2, note 1). This, however, seemed to the present reviewer to be a deeply implausible picture of the Nietzscean noble man – surely presented as flourishing by Nietzsche – in On the Genealogy of Morals, who is said to be basically unsettled by any form of organisation. Also, it does not seem flush with Nietzsche's characterisation in Ecce Homo of the affirmation of destruction being ‘the decisive element in a Dionysian philosophy’ [chapter on The Birth of Tragedy].
Nevertheless, Young is clearly a subtle and systematic reader of Nietzsche and picks up on certain nuances of the Nietzschean philosophy often overlooked by cruder commentators. Young's method is the appealing one of reading through Nietzsche's books chronologically. He also prefaces his account with a discussion of the philosophy of religion of one of Nietzsche's chief early influences: that of Schopenhauer – a sound scholarly approach which, regrettably, not all books on Nietzsche share. (Those that do not share such an orientation often tend to veer off and weirdly assimilate Nietzsche to other, more unlikely, figures.) Young then, however, eschews examination of Nietzsche's criticism of Christian morality (p. 6) armed with the rationale that his book is on the positive rather than destructive aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy of religion – a fact of some interest to potential readers and one that might well have been signalled in the title. In all, Young's position is highly contentious but highlights an aspect of Nietzsche (his interest in the collective) that we probably require reminding about. Its ultimate message is that we must transform our ethical horizon ‘through the inclusion of role models inspired by Greek antiquity but in the process translate them into a form that speaks to modernity in a living way’ (p. 74 see also p. 101). Later, Young calls this a ‘humanistic religion’ (p. 87). But if it is so humanistic, can it be claimed that Nietzsche isn't an atheist? Young's considered opinion on the matter is that Nietzsche is a pantheist– an unlikely version of events in which Nietzsche appears to do to Schopenhauer what Marx did to Hegel: stand him on his head.
To read a book explicitly upon the subject of Nietzsche's negative relationship to religion (his criticism of Christian morality), as the present reviewer has lately done, is to be presented with quite a different Nietzsche from that of Young. The Shadow of the Anti-Christ: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity by Stephen N. Williams exhibits a breadth of references to the secondary literature that Young's book largely eschews (which makes it a less immediate reading of Nietzsche than Young's) and largely – as the title informs us – focuses on the disapproving aspect of Nietzsche's approach to religion, although hints of the view of a positive religion that Young elaborates can also be found: ‘We should appreciate that the forcefulness of his anti-Christianity derives from his alternative vision […] the Greeks have already provided much of it.’ (p.124). Unlike Young, however, Williams seems rather sceptical about ascribing pantheism to Nietzsche at any stage of his literary career (p. 26, n. 22).
The Shadow of the Anti-Christ does not present us with a systematic response to Nietzsche but rather offers an occasional theological reaction in the course of a lucid exposition of Nietzsche's critique of Christianity, using language that is for the most part quite breezy. For example, in contrast to Nietzsche's characterisation of Christians as naturally weak and unhealthy, Williams notes that ‘The early Church was full of rough diamonds …’ (p. 130). On the vexed question of whether Nietzsche is attacking the value of religious belief or its truth he plumps for the latter view: ‘If Nietzsche is not interested in the question of God's existence or non-existence, it is because the matter is settled for him, not because it is intrinsically unimportant’ (p. 98). However, although indeed a part of Nietzsche's attack is to deny the supposed metaphysical and empirical suppositions of religious and moral thought such as the ‘error of free-will’, laying too much stress on this part of Nietzsche's attack may assume a position on Nietzsche's attachment to truth that arguably goes beyond Nietzsche's words considered as a whole. Nietzsche saw the crowning of knowledge as the human goal as inimical to a tragic life (thus was Socrates ultimately responsible for the death of Greek tragedy) and a case could be made for saying that Nietzsche did not want to establish any watertight ontological (for example: theological) conclusions for precisely this reason.
It is also worth remarking here that Williams's claim, concerning the difference between the Schopenhauerian will-to-live and Nietzsche's will-to-power, that ‘Schopenhauer had in mind something like a unitary metaphysical entity whereas Nietzsche is reckoning in terms of an aggregate of physiological drives’ (p. 116) – is an interpretation of Nietzsche (but not of Schopenhauer) which seems to need a good deal more textual and expository support in light of the fact that the Nietzschean will-to-power has been variously described by other commentators as, almost at random, a metaphysical will similar in several respects to Schopenhauer's metaphysical entity (Poellner and Nabais), a thought experiment (Jaspers) and a self-conscious myth (Clark). But, in any case, nothing crucial to his argument hangs on Williams' particular construal of the will-to-power.
In summa, both of these very different texts on Nietzsche's approach to religion are solid and important works of scholarship that draw attention to themes in Nietzsche we might otherwise neglect; and whereas Williams's account of Nietzsche is, generally speaking, more suitable for a traditional theological audience with Christological concerns, Young's is probably more suited for a strictly philosophical audience.