Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: V.351–V.355

The pastor takes the filth of the people away, according to Nietzsche.


The last reading ended with a discussion of the intellectuals, while today’s begins with a reflection on the sorts of people the “common man” is likely to see as an intellectual in the first place. This passage I think suggests that some things have changed since Nietzsche’s day. He argues that in the view of the average person, the true “philosopher” is the country pastor who quietly enjoys life in placid domesticity. This stymies true intellectuals, who

[live] and must live continually in the thundercloud of the highest problems and the heaviest responsibilities. (V.351)

The life of philosophy, according to Nietzsche, is a life of turmoil and rumbling in the storm clouds. The common people, on the other hand, pick the person who is one of their own, who obviously works for them and for their welfare in the name of God. These country parsons fill

a deep need… for the filth of the soul also requires sewers with pure and purifying waters in them, it requires rapid streams of love and strong, humble, pure hearts who are willing to perform such a service of non-public hygiene, sacrificing themselves—for this does involve a sacrifice, and a priest is and remains a human sacrifice. (V.351)

The idea is that the common people take their troubles to these self-sacrificing holy men and are cleansed. These pastors then bear away the filth of life, leaving the people feeling clean and pure. For their part, the true philosophers know that this isn’t true knowledge and that modesty is not an attribute of philosophy in any case. Nietzsche may or may not be right in his analysis of nineteenth-century pastors (I don’t know either way), but it seems that today we have adopted as the proper representatives of the common people those who agree with our filth and revel in it, rather than bearing it away from us and leaving us clean.

Nietzsche gives us an interesting view of morality, namely that it is necessary not to cover up our wicked or evil aspects but as a shield for our good aspects.

The European disguises himself with morality because he has become a sick, sickly, crippled animal that has good reasons for being “tame”; for he is almost an abortion, scarce half made up, weak, awkward. (V.352)

Morality is our way of trying to seize power without actually being powerful; it is a facade of strength by which we try to live larger lives than our constitutional makeup would permit if it were left naked and exposed.

Religion, like morality, is an invention designed to facilitate our lives by relying on untruths. Nietzsche understands there to be a two-step process in the establishment of a religion. First, it is necessary

to posit a particular kind of life and everyday customs that have the effect of a disciplina voluntatis and at the same time abolish boredom—and then: to bestow on this life style an interpretation that makes it appear to be illuminated by the highest value so that this life style becomes something for which one fights and under certain circumstances sacrifices one’s life. (V.353)

We should notice that for Nietzsche, culture precedes religion, while religion gives its imprimatur to culture—more than that, religion imbues culture with transcendent value. The great founder of a religion is the person who can see what is already existent and common in people and then convince them that they are bound together by that common aspect.

But Nietzsche’s materialism doesn’t end with morality and religion; it extends to the human mind itself. If our temptation is to respond to Nietzsche’s claims about the absence of transcendence “but what about the human soul, the categorical imperative (or any other inborn instincts about the higher life), and that most divine of all activities—language? Aren’t those evidences of a transcendent realm in which we keep one foot?”

Nietzsche’s reply is a resounding “no.” Language, consciousness, and those apparently preexisting instinctive ideas about right and wrong are all attributable to our herd instinct working itself out over time against the challenges we face as animals:

Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; it is only as such that it had to develop; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of prey would not have needed it. (V.354)

And when we see bits of language or consciousness or instincts that seem to have no direct bearing on our animal survival, they may be explained by the fact that our ancestors were so good at surviving that they built up a sort of repository of merits that we are still drawing on today which get expressed in these things which we do not need to survive but which we still have access to as human beings. In a sense, when we speak or think about things which have nothing to do with survival, we are heirs who are squandering our inheritance.

Knowledge itself may be developed in the same way, given that we tend to assume that “knowledge” is nothing more than “familiarity.” We can’t really claim a pedigree of transcendence for knowledge if our standard for recognizing it is that it is already something we recognize. At the very least this is lazy and involves no real investment or sacrifice from us when we wish to acquire knowledge. If knowledge were truly something outside of us, should it not be something strange and unfamiliar? Instead, we once again have the same pattern being followed:

Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover under everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security? (V.355)

Knowledge, like language, comes from our need to survive and is constructed as that need is externalized in the real world. According to Nietzsche, there’s nothing divine about it whatsoever.


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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