Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: V.356–V.358

Photo by Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Just as knowledge and language develop naturally, in Nietzsche’s view, so our perceptions of ourselves relative to art and occupation develop and take on a life of their own. Most people then (and even to some extent now) are born with the understanding that their job is determined for them. As a result, they begin to identify with their lot in life, and so what was really “accident” becomes “predestination”:

Considered more deeply, the role has actually become character; and art, nature. (V.356)

But as our culture moves away from this mentality, this “faith,” we begin to develop a new view, what Nietzsche calls “role faith,” or an “artist’s faith.” This is the belief that we can be anything, rather than what was set out for us at birth. Rather than being plumbers or merchants or farmers, we all become actors, capable of fitting into whatever role we so desire whenever we so desire it. Do you want to be president? an astronaut? a professional baseball player? Then you just have to believe it hard enough and live as if you are one and reality may conform. The problem is, a society of actors is not a society that can exist in the long term:

What will not be built any more henceforth, and cannot be built any more, is—a society in the old sense of that word; to build that, everything is lacking, above all the material. (V.356)

If we are to have a society that is functional, we need people who are plumbers. Not people who believe they are or who want to be now but may change their mind, but people who actually live the life—who may even have been born to it.

I have no comment to make on what is truly “German” versus what is merely “European,” not being an expert (or even much of an amateur) in either of those areas. We should notice, however, what Nietzsche has to say about the role of Christianity and its relationship with the movement of the culture. Nietzsche notes that relative to what is going on in the intellectual life of the Germans, Christianity may have sown the seeds of its own destruction:

You see what it was that really triumphed over the Christian god: Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness that was understood ever more rigorously, the father confessor’s refinement of the Christian conscience, translated and sublimated into a scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price. (V.357)

This drive for honesty strikes at the root of Christianity because we are told (by Christian doctrine) that when we look at the world, we should see the hand of Providence at work. We should see a telos in history and a divine beauty and morality that undergirds human actions and moves us toward salvation. But what we really see and will admit when we are being honest—as Christianity tells us we should be all the time—is that existence merely exists. There is no transcendent meaning clearly and obviously available to us. Things simply are, and so our responsibility is to live boldly in the face of this reality rather than closing our eyes to it and believing in fairy tales.

The collapse of Christianity has left behind it mass discontent, particularly in those parts of Europe (especially Germany) that were heavily influenced by Luther’s Reformation. Nietzsche argues that Luther’s revolt against Rome was actually a revolt against the potential for greatness that was found in the sacerdotal system in favor of all of its “southern” weaknesses. Nietzsche claims that Luther adopted the worst of Christianity—its pessimism and commonness—and held it up over its best—its potential for superhuman effort.

Now, Nietzsche is not exactly speaking theologically here, so I’ll not bother with a defense of Luther in that sense. (Nor will I bother to argue that the deeper into the Reformation a country went, the stronger its political culture of republican freedom tended to be.) Instead, I’ll simply note that Nietzsche is correct in his analysis if we want to simultaneously maintain a robust antisupernaturalism alongside a cheerful optimism about the potential of the few to be great and the many to be average. If there is no revelation of transcendent realities in scripture and if people are usually only mundane, then there is cause neither for the destruction of institutions designed to elevate the few above the many (as the holy orders of medieval Roman Catholicism tended to become—often despite the intentions of their founders) nor for the justification of such destruction in the name of reforming the true church according to God’s revealed will. The church can be as corrupt and doctrinally astray as it likes, so long as it continues to give opportunities to the few to rise above the crowd to true greatness. Needless to say I think Nietzsche is wrong on a number of counts here…


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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