Thursday, March 24, 2011

Religion as Revenge: Nietzsche (4)

It is not hard to see, therefore, that Nietzsche’s critique of biblical religion (both Judaism and Christianity) is that it operates within slave morality. When he writes that the Jews ‘mark the beginning of the slave rebellion in morals’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S195) and that ‘[o]ne knows who inherited this Jewish revaluation’ of morality (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1 S7), Nietzsche is emphasising both the “Jewishness” of Christianity and the “Jewishness” of Christian anti-Semites – thereby scorning rather than securing later Nazi attempts to appropriate his philosophical legacy for the purpose of fascism. For him, biblical religion is a religion of priestly power, by which he means an impotent power. Whilst priests are a caste that can acquire great political power, even supremacy, and enjoy a strong social function, the origin of their power is weak, or, as Nietzsche increasingly refers to it, “sick,” since it is grounded not in master morality but in the slave morality that first labels its enemies as evil and then labels itself as good. Priests emerge from a slave ‘ressentiment without equal, that of an insatiable instinct and power-will that want to become master’ (Essay 3 S11), but ‘[i]t is because of their impotence that in them hatred grows to monstrous and uncanny proportions, to the most spiritual and poisonous kind of hatred’ (Essay 1 SS6-7). But priests must also be powerful:
Dominion over the suffering is his kingdom, that is where his instinct directs him, here he possesses his distinctive art, his mastery, his kind of happiness… He must be sick himself… but he must also be strong, master of himself even more than of others, with his will to power intact, so as to be both trusted and feared by the sick, so as to be their support, resistance, prop, compulsion, taskmaster, tyrant, and god (Essay 3 S15).
As Paul Ricoeur notes, ‘[t]his passion is all the more treacherous for it believes itself to be serving the truth’ (History and Truth, p.179). This truth is what Nietzsche calls an “ascetic ideal,” shaped by religious and ethical beliefs and practices, which forms the ‘moral basis of pastoral power’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.241) and acts as the ‘best instrument of power’ and the ‘supreme license for power’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 3 S1). That ascetic ideals might function to legitimise the power of its priestly keepers is clear. As an instrument of power, however, ascetic ideals also enable priests to apply their power since these ideals and values are, for Nietzsche, the origin of guilt and bad conscience. Nietzsche describes Greek gods as ‘those reflections of noble and autocratic men, in whom the animal in man felt deified and did not lacerate itself, did not rage against itself!’ – a projection which enabled the Greeks to avoid guilt about desires and actions, ‘the very opposite,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘of the use to which Christianity puts its God,’ which functions to instead encourage bad conscience (Essay 2 S23). Evil as an expression of resentment and an instrument of revenge is thereby applied by Christians to themselves, and this “guilt before God” is then exploited by priestly power.
“I suffer: someone must be to blame for it” – thus thinks every sickly sheep. But his shepherd, the ascetic priest, tells him: “Quite so, my sheep! someone must be to blame for it: but you yourself are this someone… you alone are to blame for yourself!” – This is brazen and false enough: but one thing at least is achieved by it, the direction of ressentiment is altered (Essay 3 S15).
In needing to be shepherd of the ‘sickly sheep,’ priestly power manipulates both weakness and guilt into fear and trust. In this way, Christian virtue is, according to Nietzsche, ‘the cunning of impotence.’ An impotent slave morality says, ‘[w]e weak ones are, after all, weak; it would be good if we did nothing for which we are not strong enough,’ making a virtue of weakness and turning ‘anxious lowliness into “humility”; subjection to those one hates into “obedience”… [and] inability for revenge is called unwillingness to revenge, perhaps even forgiveness,’ such that impotence becomes ‘a voluntary achievement, willed, chosen, a deed, a meritorious act’ (Essay 1 SS13-14).

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