Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: III.126–III.143

The snake in the garden


Having jettisoned this “God” business, if we want to understand how the world works we now have to get a proper grasp on the will. This isn’t to say that Nietzsche is done with religion. In fact, I think some of his most controversial stuff comes not with his “God is dead” statement (though that is controversial enough) but with the statements in today’s readings that argue that people who believe all that religious stuff are stupid and dangerous. On the surface, it sounds like Nietzsche is little more than a proto-Dawkins spouting borderline-incoherent hatred, and yet I think he has a more subtle criticism of Christianity than that. And it begins with his view of the will.

For Nietzsche, as for all serious philosophers, the will is not an internal neutral on-off switch that runs on mechanical principles. According to Nietzsche that was the view of the will in the past when people had a simple view of themselves and the world, and it led to all kinds of speculation about things like Providence and Fate. For example, when I throw a ball to my son, it travels toward him. I see that and understand a cause-and-effect relationship, therefore the logic is that there must be similar things going on in the natural world. If a tree falls on my house, some deity must have pushed it over. Nietzsche proposes three things against this:

First, for will to come into being an idea of pleasure and displeasure is needed. Second, when a strong stimulus is experienced as pleasure or displeasure, this depends on the interpretation of the intellect which, to be sure, generally does this work without rising to our consciousness… Third, it is only in intellectual beings that pleasure, displeasure, and will are to be found; the vast majority of organisms has nothing of the sort. (III.127)

In other words, the will, the intellect, and the emotions are all inseparably and organically tied together, even if only in the subconscious. So much the great theologians of the will, Augustine and Edwards, would agree on.

Nietzsche then adds that formalized prayer has been used as a way to keep the common and the thoughtless (“those people who really never have thoughts of their own,” III.128) convinced that they have some kind of control over God and what he does in the world. To be sure, there is a kind of beauty in this, and Nietzsche thinks religion collapses if it is removed (Nietzsche is just wrong about that—many churches get along fine without meaningless rote). But again, that is for the common people. How do we understand the origins of Christianity and its influence on the intelligent and the great-souled? The answer is, according to Nietzsche, that Christianity specifically appeals to those who hate humanity, and behind that lies an even deeper hatred of existence itself. The Jews and the Christians stand in contrast to the Greeks, who love nature and humanity and themselves:

God and humanity are separated so completely that a sin against humanity is really unthinkable: every deed is to be considered solely with respect to its supernatural consequences, without regard for its natural consequences; that is what Jewish feeling demands, for whatever is natural is considered ignoble. (III.135)

Here Nietzsche specifically mentions the Jews, but Christianity is Judaism’s heir in this case, with Christ being the most deceived of all in believing that men were fallen and that he, as the one sinless individual, had to die for them (III.138). Following that, Paul completed the work by declaring the passions to be wicked:

People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking: hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. (III.139)

All of Christian doctrine and practice then depends on our admission of this as a truth, repentance, and pursuit of a life spent putting to death the natural and the passionate in the hopes of gaining the love of this otherwise judgmental Deity.

I suppose in this forum it goes without saying that what Nietzsche is describing here is not actually Christianity at all but rather a sort of Gnosticism that has admittedly plagued the church throughout history. Christianity does believe that the world is fallen, but it does not teach that all creation is bad. Instead, it teaches a dualism—made good/but ruined. Likewise Christianity does not teach that the passions are inherently wicked but rather that they are bent by sin in wicked directions. And, well, any basic primer on Christian doctrine will straighten this out far more than I can here in a few dozen words.

All of this religious stuff begins to tie back into the will when we understand how we interact with the world. Polytheism had allowed a great deal of diversity in our interactions with nature, since man could shape gods according to the inclinations of his whole being. This led to the condition of freedom. Polytheism and the creation of a whole spectrum of gods and creatures

was the inestimable preliminary exercise for the justification of the egoism and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to other gods—one eventually also granted to oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbors. (III.143)

The idea that there is only one God and that man is not his maker,

on the other hand… was perhaps the greatest danger that has yet confronted humanity. It threatened us with the premature stagnation that, as far as we can see, most other species have long reached. (III.143)

In other words, polytheism lets us be human by defining and shaping ourselves and our existence according to ourselves, to the standard of man as man sees himself. Monotheism makes us into animals by telling us that the ideal for man is defined for us and is absolute, thus leaving no room for growth or development. What we have here ultimately is a defense of the serpent in the garden.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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