Nietzschean Conversion

In the second post of this blog I pointed out St. Paul’s extended treatment of the relationship of the two testaments, and the preeminence of Christ as the prism for understanding Moses and the Old Testament. The post also noted St. Paul’s use of the Greek word metamorphosis, and the tacit but clear comparison of the Glory of the Incarnate Christ on Tabor with the reflected glory of the divine residue in the face of Moses. We are being, St. Paul says metamorphosized into the glory of Christ. As this is an ongoing process, we most often think of this in terms of conversion, the continual reorienting of our lives toward God. We see this in St. Augustine’s Confessions: our wayward rhetor spends the whole book trying to turn from God, while God and St. Monica are trying to get him to turn from himself and to God. Convertio involves a conscious determination on our part, a realization of the power of God working in us. This post is not about the Christian doctrine of conversion per se, but about its persistence even in that most ardent and influential of atheists, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Both of Nietzsche’s grandfathers were ministers, and in his later teenage years he still considered himself a Christian, even though plagued with doubts. The young Nietzsche wrote his sister

I have already experienced many things, joy as well as sadness, lightness of heart as well as depression, but in all these things God has certainly led me as a father might lead his helpless little child . . . . I recognize with reverence His majestic power which has everything turn out for the best. I have firmly resolved to devote myself to His service forever. May the dear Lord give me the power and the strength I need for this resolution. And may he protect me on my way through life. As a child I trust in His grace. He will protect us all so that no evil will befall us. But may His holy will be done! I will accept with joy whatever He sends me, whether happiness or unhappiness, whether poverty or riches. . . . Yes, dear Lord, let the light of your countenance shine upon us forever! Amen!

But Nietzsche could never weather what liberal theology had wrought in the German universities, seeing that the undermining of Scripture brought with it the undermining of God. Ultimately he believed that European intellectuals had brought about the death of God. That is, they had killed any intellectual need for God. It was not the atheism of someone like Diderot which brought this on Nietzsche, but putative Christian scholarship. Nietzsche turned from the study of theology to the study of philology, i.e., ancient Greek language and literature. There he found in some ways his new savior, namely the Greek god of wine and revelry, Dionysus (the Latin Bacchus). For Nietzsche, Dionysus was the spirit of life, and it was through Dionysus that the Greeks developed the glories of their tragedies. Then they were cursed, Nietzsche said, when Plato pulled Socrates out of the gutter, and with him drug up the unreal world of the Forms. They laid the groundwork, Socrates and Plato, for that greatest of all life denying moments, Paul’s conversion of Jesus into the dying God.

These insights were followed in 1881 by the first of two telling experiences. In Sils Maria, north of Venice, where at a Silvaplana lake Nietzsche said he was overcome,

Suddenly, with sureness, with indescribable delicacy, a thing makes itself seen, makes itself heard . . . . A thought blazes forth like a flash of lightening. It imposes itself as a necessity, under a definitive form. I never had to choose it. It is an ecstasy whose formidable tension is resolved at intervals in a torrent of tears . . . . You are enraptured, taken outside of yourself, and you maintain a clear consciousness of infinity . . . . a profundity of blessedness such that sorrow and sadness no longer have the effect of a contrast but seem rather a required condition, a shade of meaning called forth in all necessity by the profusion of light . . . . accompanied by a tumultuous feeling of liberty, of independence, of divinity.

He informs others of this ecstatic incident, but not what it entailed, not even his friend Peter Gast, for a year, when he unloads himself in August of 1882 to Lou Salomé. Then in autumn of that year near Portofino, Italy, the second half of his vision occurred:

I was sitting and waiting without waiting of anything
Beyond good and evil tasting
Light sometimes and sometimes shade,
Absorbed by this brew,
Become the sea, noonday, and pure duration, without design,
When suddenly, my friend, what was one became two,
And Zarathustra passed before me . . .

Now, most modern, American Orthodox can tell you that Portofino is no place to be making life altering decisions, and no place to be having ecstasies. But Nietzsche’s was momentous. It is clear from his notebooks that he had already been working on the concept of the Eternal Return for about a year, that is since the time of his first vision. He had hinted at this in a letter to Peter Gast shortly after the Silvaplana incident: “And these were not tender tears of pitiful emotion, but tears of jubilation. At those times I sang and spoke stupid, foolish things, possessed as I was by a new vision that I am the first of men to know.” His uniqueness was his own unique dogma of the Eternal Return. This revelation of the universe to Nietzsche was that all things shall happen again (and again). This seems the content of the first vision. The content of the second is in the above poem, and is also the Muse that drove him to write Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, or ASZ). He completed the first part of it in about two months. Zarathustra is Zoroaster, but a new Zoroaster, one who comes to undo the world of thought that Nietzsche imputes to his ancient namesake, that is, the creator of values. But this Zarathustra must do more than create values, he must transform all the Christian and Greek values into the values of the strong; and he must overcome the life denying reality of the Eternal Return, that truth that robs our moments of unique significance: for if they happened before and will happen again, what’s so damn special about them?.

The eternal return is the relentless grinding of reality, the fixity of life happening again and again, This is predicated on Nietzsche’s acceptance both of the finitude of the universe, and the conservation of energy: given these two items, than all things that have happened must happen again, as they have happened an infinite number of times before. But if this is true, then is Nietzsche’s revelation unique? It seems that to him this must have been the universe interposing itself, and now also eliciting Zarathustra, that is, Übermensch, or superman. And for superman to exist, he must also face a conversion, otherwise how will he overcome Eternal Return, and overcome the herd of decadent humans. But unlike Paul’s conversion, wherein Paul converted Jesus into something he was not, and sickened the world with his twisted Judaism, Zarathustra goes through an inverse conversion, all related in the well-known “Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit.”

We meet these early on in the first book of ASZ, the first of Zarathustra’s speeches. The three metamorphoses are the spirit becoming a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion a child. I will not give  a précis, but let Nietzsche speak for himself:

Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child. Many heavy things are there for the spirit, the strong load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth: for the heavy and the heaviest longeth its strength. What is heavy? so asketh the load-bearing spirit; then kneeleth it down like the camel, and wanteth to be well laden. What is the heaviest thing, ye heroes? asketh the load-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength. Is it not this: To humiliate oneself in order to mortify one’s pride? To exhibit one’s folly in order to mock at one’s wisdom? . . . . Or is it this: To ascend high mountains to tempt the tempter? . . . . All these heaviest things the load-bearing spirit taketh upon itself: and like the camel, which, when laden, hasteneth into the wilderness, so hasteneth the spirit into its wilderness.

 But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness. Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God; for victory will it struggle with the great dragon. What is the great dragon which the spirit is no longer inclined to call Lord and God? “Thou-shalt,” is the great dragon called. But the spirit of the lion saith, “I will.” “Thou-shalt,” lieth in its path, sparkling with gold–a scale-covered beast; and on every scale glittereth golden, “Thou shalt!” The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: “All the values of things–glitter on me.  All values have already been created, and all created values–do I represent. Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more. Thus speaketh the dragon. My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit? Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent? To create new values–that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating–that can the might of the lion do. To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion.

 To assume the right to new values–that is the most formidable assumption for a load-bearing and reverent spirit. Verily, unto such a spirit it is preying, and the work of a beast of prey. As its holiest, it once loved “Thou-shalt”: now is it forced to find illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things, that it may capture freedom from its love: the lion is needed for this capture. But tell me, my brethren, what the child can do, which even the lion could not do? Why hath the preying lion still to become a child? Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self- rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea. Aye, for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: ITS OWN will, willeth now the spirit; HIS OWN world winneth the world’s outcast.

 Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.

Note what conversion entails here for our modern prophet, or let us say, our prophet of the modern (yea, even post-modern) world! Unlike Christians who are being transfigured into the image of the Invisible God, even the Divine Logos, that is, a renunciation of what we are as decadent and corrupt sinners, Nietzsche’s conversion is a multiple step warfare. First to the camel which bears the burdens of the spirit, the prerequisites of becoming overman, into the desert (just as our Lord faced Satan in the desert – – the metaphors are not haphazard), such as ascending mountains to tempt the tempter. Who is the tempter? He is none other than dragon met later on. The spirit must be strong like a camel in the desert, face a lack of water, the elements, and there confront the old god. But the camel cannot defeat this old god, and for this the camel must become the lion who then slays the dragon of “Thou shalt not!” Again, what was the dragon to Christians, Satan the deceiver, has now become Morality the deceiver, Christianity the deceiver. But once values are destroyed, for Nietzsche thought all morality was nothing but a value judgement the way we would prefer steak over shrimp, or an ale over a porter, the lion is useless. For what is needed is now a new set of values: not the old values which elevated a morality of slavery and servility, which denied this life for the life to come. This must be a value that transcends values; ones that can break as well the Eternal Return and give significance to reality. For this the child is needed: an innocence that can recreate, or better yet, create a whole new reality.

We can see already much that stands behind our contemporary scene in this: the ability to “start over” when we have fouled things up by a mere shrug of the shoulders and the thought “that’s life. Next;” the notion that humans have the capability to create and dictate their own morality, that we can simply alter who we are to fit the occasion or necessity; and also the thought, hardly new with Nietzsche, that we can just somehow shift gears and alter what we are by mere dint of will. I see this last one so often in my students, that somehow they can just start performing well merely by wishing it so, that they can put off doing their papers for weeks on end, and then crank out a journal-ready piece of scholarship the night before. Now, Herr Nietzsche would loath these modern thoughts, and see them as a perversion of his own idea. For him, the Übermensch was someone of iron discipline. Yet it cannot be denied that the ability to recreate, or better stated, metamorphosize yourself is inherent in Nietzsche. It takes an act of will.

For Christians, however, while conversion involves the will, it involves so much else. And as this post is already too long, and some of you are ready to nod off into your keyboards, I shall indicate but one. Nietzsche’s whole notion of conversion cannot exist without Christianity (we could argue that it cannot be without Plato: another day), for the very concepts that he imports here are not taken from the Greeks, either Socrates or Aeschylus, Plato or Sophocles, but wholly from Christian theology: the new birth, the conquest of sin, the disciplined life in one direction, the necessity of askesis,  reverence. But more importantly, the notion that Nietzsche stood in need of an intervention from the Universe, that some Mind stood behind his illumination which gave him the insight both to the Eternal Return, and to its resolution, Übermensch. Essentially, whatever superman is, he is not anything apart from the intervention of a higher intelligence that Nietzsche the Antichrist, Nietzsche the prophet of the death of God, cannot do without.

However revolutionary Nietzsche was, he still had to borrow a lot of capital from Christianity. Hi-Ho! Even our most interesting and original of atheists are still derivative.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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4 Responses to Nietzschean Conversion

  1. Pingback: Nietzschean Conversion « Energetic Procession

  2. Seraphim says:

    “Now, most modern, American Orthodox can tell you that Portofino is no place to be making life altering decisions, and no place to be having ecstasies.”

    Just out of curiosity from someone who is ignorant – what is special about Portofino, Italy, that a Nietzsche would be having ecstasies there and an Orthodox would be describing as no place to be making life-altering decisions?

  3. Cyril says:

    Seraphim, you can begin unwinding that here

  4. Pingback: Nietzschean Conversion » Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

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