How to Read Nietzsche

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And what of Nietzsche’s illusions? A day after his mental breakdown in Turin, Nietzsche wrote his friend Georg, “it was no trick to find me: the difficulty now is to lose me…The Crucified.” This cryptic note has ever been my clue to understanding Nietzsche. Whether or not his madness is attributable to syphilis (which is doubtful), a profound schism had burst open in his mind. It is as if Christ and Antichrist could no longer continue inhabiting the same body.

The Antichrist, which Nietzsche wrote the year before his breakdown, is one of the most sustained anti-Christian diatribes ever written. It is full of such scorn for Christianity that it turns even Christ against his own religion, defending him against his unchristian followers. According to Nietzsche, Christ died to “show how one must live.” Nietzsche praises Christ’s “behavior before the judges…before the accusers and all kinds of slander and scorn — his behavior on the cross…He loves…those who do him evil.” But he praises Christ only to turn against Christians. Christ’s followers did not learn the lesson:

Evidently the small community did not understand the main point, the exemplary character of this kind of death, the freedom, the superiority over any feeling of ressentiment…[H]is followers were far from forgiving this death…Precisely the most unevangelical feeling, revenge, came to the fore again…retribution.

According to Nietzsche, then, Christianity is unchristian. “In fact, there have been no Christians at all. The ‘Christian,’ that which for the last two thousand years has been called a Christian, is merely a psychological misunderstanding.” If Christ was the evangelist, Paul, the founder of Christianity, is the dysvangelist, the bringer of ill tidings:

On the heels of the ‘glad tidings’ came the very worst: those of Paul. In Paul was embodied the opposite type to that of the ‘bringer of glad tidings’: the genius in hatred…The life, the example, the doctrine, the death, the meaning and the right of the entire evangel  — nothing remained once this hate-inspired counterfeiter realized what alone he could use.

Nietzsche accuses Paul of inventing “the lie of the ‘resurrected’ Jesus…What he himself did not believe, the idiots among whom he threw his doctrine believed…Paul the priest wanted power.” Motivated by resentment, revenge, and a lust for power, Christians revert to persecution and hatred, seemingly oblivious to Christ’s noble example on the cross. Of course, the great example of this hatred that Nietzsche observed in his own day was the growing anti-semitism in Germany. In this, he was downright prophetic. Yet in his all-encompassing desire to expose Christianity Nietzsche also resorts to attacking the Jews:

Here I merely touch on the problem of the genesis of Christianity. The first principle for its solution is: Christianity can be understood only in terms of the soil out of which it grew — it is not a counter-movement to the Jewish instinct, it is its very consequence…The Jews are the strangest people in world history because, confronted with the question whether to be or not to be, they chose, with a perfectly uncanny deliberateness, to be at any price: this price was the radical falsification of all nature, all naturalness, all reality…[T]he Christian church cannot make the slightest claim to originality when compared with the ‘holy people.’ That precisely is why the Jews are the most catastrophic people of world history…[T]hey have made mankind so thoroughly false that even today the Christian can feel anti-Jewish without realizing that he himself is the ultimate Jewish consequence.

But now comes the ultimate turn in his thinking on Christianity, the turn that might even have led this self-professed Antichrist to abandon his own philosophy. Once he manages to separate Christ from Christians and Jews, Nietzsche begins to defend what he calls genuine Christianity, which he sets up against the false Christianity of Paul.

In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross…[O]nly Christian practice, a life such as he lived who died on the cross, is Christian. Such a life is still possible today, for certain people even necessary: genuine, original Christianity will be possible at all times.

Original Christianity, a Christianity that truly emulates Christ, is not only always possible, it is genuine. A few months after writing those words, Nietzsche, like his hero Hölderlin, went mad. His last letters betray his state of mind, marked by a persistent identification with Christ. We have already noted that he signed his note to Georg Brandes “The Crucified.” To Gast, he writes, “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are full of joy.” To Burckhardt, “In the end I would much rather be a Basel professor than God; but I have not dared push my private egoism so far as to desist for its sake from the creation of the world…I was born as Vittorio Emanuele.” In a marginal comment in the same letter, he notes, “I have had Cai[a]phas put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the German doctors in a very drawn-out manner.” After this, Nietzsche fell into more than a decade of silence. (What but the eloquence of silence befits God? “Siamo contenti? Son dio ho fatto questa caricatura.”) 

If in the end Nietzsche embraces “genuine Christianity” and calls himself “The Crucified,” what are we to make of the man who pronounced himself the Antichrist? Beware: treat Nietzsche as a cautionary tale — a negative example. It was no trick to find me: the difficulty now is to lose me.” I say it is only safe to read Nietzsche through the lens of this final comment. Anybody can be an Antichrist; the hard part is to emulate Christ, to love your bitterest enemy, to forgive your accusers and murderers, to overcome resentment and reject all vengeance. To know how to die as well as how to live.

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