“Given this, we can recognize that Nietzsche would have seen layers of irony in these contemporary conservative figures appealing to his ideas to critique contemporary socialists…while simultaneously expressing concern about declining Christian values.”
“Nietzsche had a name for Sven [read: Nordic Socialists]: the ‘last man.’ Nietzsche had nothing but contempt for this insufferable type, who never disturbs himself with a noble thought, who never risks his life for something greater than himself; whose life is defined by a high self-regard and comfortable self-preservations. Even so, Sven fancies himself a pretty nice guy—‘I’ve never killed anybody you know, and I really hate neo-Nazis’—and Bernie Sanders, himself a member of the breed, agrees.”
—Dinesh D’Souza, United States of Socialism
critic of Christianity. But there are considerably more interesting examples. Probably the most famous is Jordan Peterson, who often appeals to Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment to criticize social justice activists past and present. In Maps of Meaning (and elsewhere), Peterson characterizes Nietzsche as a brilliant critic of “dogmatic” Christianity, who, nevertheless, served a kind of purifying function by stripping Christian doctrine and practice of its more decadent elements. Another noteworthy figure is Jonah Goldberg, author of Suicide of the West and a well-known defender of the functional role religion plays in stabilizing society, who also appealed to the anti-Christ to criticize social justice activists on American university campuses. As he put it at National Review in 2015:ne of the more curious developments in recent times has been the propensity of Christian or religiously-minded conservatives to cite Nietzsche as a major influence. I do not mean, of course, as a foil or a worthy opponent but, rather, as someone who offered constructive diagnoses of the present. The most idiosyncratic and superficial is, of course, the alt-right’s propensity to both defend an amorphous “Christendom,” while appealing to the German
“In 2015, our society is shot through with Nietzschean ressentiment. Today it is a great sin on college campuses—and elsewhere!—to make anyone other than the ‘privileged’ feel uncomfortable, challenged, or otherwise psychologically threatened by the use of the wrong words or concepts. The University of California recently issued a set of guidelines about the terrible danger of ‘microaggressions’—small, usually unintended slights that allegedly hurt the feelings of the newly anointed classes of victims. One must no longer say that America is a ‘melting pot,’ for to do so is to suggest that minorities should ‘assimilate to the dominant culture,’ according to the new moralists at the University of California.”
Nietzsche on the Christian Roots of Liberalism and Socialism
These appeals to Nietzsche are unusual in several respects. Contra the cliché, Nietzsche was, by no means, a monological critic of Christianity. In particular, he admired Christ’s passionate dedication to his system of values, even castigating contemporary Christians for failing to live up to his remarkable integrity. As Nietzsche put it in The Anti-Christ, “there was only one true Christian, and he died on the cross.” Even The Genealogy of Morals, which is perhaps Nietzsche’s most systematic and rigorous takedown of the “slave morality,” is far more nuanced than triumphantly proclaiming “God is Dead,” and the Übermensch is here to take his place. Nietzsche recognized the importance of Christianity in deepening the souls of its adherents, by directing their attention inwards to questions of ultimate value, good, and evil. This could be seen in the work of figures like Fyodor Dostoevsky, a conservative Christian novelist of genius whom Nietzsche paid the (rare) compliment of describing as the “only psychologist” from whom he had something to learn. And Jordan Peterson is absolutely correct that Nietzsche often wrote about preferring the harder-edged, more disciplined Christianity of antiquity to the fluffy and bloodless iterations that we see today.
But here is where the rub comes in: Nietzsche claimed that the bloodless and spineless Sunday Christians were not the only “sick” remnants of the religious era. So too were liberalism and socialism, the unwanted and secularized children of the slave morality stripped of any residual metaphysical grandeur. As he put it in his notes, later compiled as The Will to Power:
“In the place of Rousseau’s ‘man of Nature,’ the nineteenth century has discovered a much more genuine image of ‘Man,’—it had the courage to do this…On the whole, the Christian concept of man has in a way been reinstalled. What we have not had the courage to do, was to call precisely this ‘man par excellence,’ good, and to see the future of mankind guaranteed in him. In the same way, we did not dare to regard the growth in the terrible side of man’s character as an accompanying feature of every advance in culture; in this sense, we are still under the influence of the Christian ideal, and side with it against paganism, and likewise against the Renaissance concept of virtù. But the key of culture is not to be found in this way: and in praxi we still have the forgeries of history in favor of the ‘good man’ (as if he alone constituted the progress of humanity) and the socialistic ideal (i.e. the residue of Christianity and of Rousseau in the de-Christianised world).”
This might seem like a baffling comment, given liberalism’s overt secularism and the propensity of many left-wing authors to dismiss religion wholesale as the “opiate” of the masses. Nietzsche was well aware of this. But it is important to recall that his understanding of liberalism and socialism was not just as contemporary political and social doctrines; it was genealogical at its very core. Here, we need to briefly interrogate Nietzsche’s own understanding of Christianity’s roots.
For Nietzsche, Christianity was a nihilistic religion at its very core; so, not coincidentally, it ultimately spawned nihilistic offspring. This is because Christianity was akin to a kind of “Platonism for the masses.” It presented the real world as so radically fallen into sin that it could only possibly be redeemed by appealing to a better world beyond. But why was this world so radically fallen? Here, Christianity—as a “slave morality”—innovated on Platonism to make it palatable to the “herd,” universalizable as closet Christian dogmatists like Kant might put it. At the heart of Christian doctrine was a noxious and hypocritical egalitarianism, which presented itself as a kind of love for the meek, the poor, and the sick but was ultimately predicated on ressentiment for the powerful and successful. For Nietzsche, figures like Tertullian gave the game away when he described one of the pleasures of heaven as being able to witness the suffering of all those who wronged one in hell. Of course, there was a kind of grandeur and sick power to this doctrine, which proved so compelling that it managed to poison the strong by making them feel guilty over their very strength and status. This is why it became a world-historical force, gradually sweeping away the old aristocratic cultures to make way for a world of universal brotherhood and mediocrity.
As time went on, the moral values of Christianity became so integral to European culture that they were capable of somehow surviving their theological roots being cut. As the scientific outlook spread across the continent, it came to undermine or challenge scripture as the authority on the creation and nature of the physical world. By the 19th century, these challenges were sufficiently severe that one could legitimately claim that “God is Dead” and have intelligent people agree. But what Nietzsche noted was that—thus far—the moral values of Christianity persisted and indeed had managed partially to secularize themselves. Humanistic doctrines such as liberalism, utilitarianism, and socialism persisted, promising to uphold a now “scientific” variant of Christian values without the need to buy into the discredited or problematic metaphysics. Nietzsche thought this was ridiculous; when the Christian God died, we would be better off if His nihilistic value system perished too. Instead, it lingered on as vulgar egalitarian humanism in many flavors, like an undead vampire rising to suck the blood from the still vital.
Conclusion: Nietzsche’s Aristocracy and Social Justice
Nietzsche is such a sparklingly brilliant and dynamic thinker, who inspired thinkers across the political spectrum, that we often forget that he was resolutely opposed to both Christianity and its bastard progeny in liberalism and socialism. Ronald Beiner makes this point eloquently in his book Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right (reviewed here), as does Malcolm Bull in his excellent 2014 book Anti-Nietzsche. Bull correctly points out that “equality has no fiercer critic than Nietzsche, whose ‘fundamental insight with respect to the geneaology of morals’ is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself.” Nietzsche was thoughtfully nostalgic here, waxing poetic about a pre-Christian era where aristocratic and powerful figures pursued life-affirming projects with indifference to the “herd.” These aristocrats were neither despotic nor compassionate but looked upon the mass of humankind with a mixture of indifference and genteel affection. To the extent that they paid others any mind, those who engaged in life-affirming projects saw them as material to be used: to be put to good use in higher pursuits. By contrast, Christianity, followed by modernist doctrines like liberalism and socialism, was a regression from antiquity. As he put it in The Antichrist:
“The aristocratic outlook has been undermined most deeply by the lie of equality of souls, and if the belief in the ‘prerogative of the majority’ makes revolutions and will continue to make them—it is Christianity, let there be no doubt about it, Christian value judgment which translates every revolution into mere blood and crime! Christianity is a revolt of everything that crawls along the ground against that which is elevated: the Gospel of the ‘lowly’ makes low.”
Given this, we can recognize that Nietzsche would have seen layers of irony in these contemporary conservative figures appealing to his ideas to critique contemporary socialists (and social justice warriors), while simultaneously expressing concern about declining Christian values. Nietzsche would have likely said that the problem is that figures like D’Souza and Peterson have not fully understood the radical egalitarianism at the heart of Christian doctrine; their defenses of hierarchy, nobility, and, in the former’s case, “aristocracy” show that they are, in fact, still somewhat beholden to a pre-Christian ideal. He would then proceed to the provocative conclusion that it was actually the social justice warriors and socialists who are the true—if often unknowing—scions of the vulgar Christian message. Their calls for economic and social equality for all—down to strict neo-Puritanism sometimes seen in demands to soften language to make it safe—would have struck Nietzsche as tediously predictable and unreflective consequences of Christ’s ancient demand that his sheep must be “wise as snakes and gentle as doves.” Once we recognize this, we can see that critics of socialism and liberalism, who bemoan the so-called resentment behind the Left, are not attacking some deviation from Christianity. As far as Nietzsche is concerned, they would be assaulting its latest and most alluring form.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be found on Twitter @mattpolprof