Nietzsche and Hope
Friedrich Nietzsche and St. Pius X—although they were contemporaries—rarely agreed on any matter of major importance. Nevertheless, they were of one mind about the state of modern man in his relation to God. In his first encyclical, E Supremi, the first pope to be declared a saint in several centuries wrote, “For who can fail to see that society is at the present time, more than in any past age, suffering from a terrible and deeprooted malady which, developing every day and eating into its inmost being, is dragging it to destruction? You understand, Venerable Brethren, what this disease is—apostasy from God.”
Nodding approvingly at this diagnosis of the modern spirit, Nietzsche describes it from another point of view in his “Parable of a Madman”: “Whither is God?” [the madman] cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. . . . It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo, [saying]: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
In describing churches as the “tombs and sepulchers of God,” Nietzsche intended to convey the reality that modern man has turned his back on a divinity greater than himself. In the mind of the eminent atheist, the great architectural monuments from ages past of a lively faith in God now do nothing more than manifest the indifference of modern man to any supernatural realities. As a necessary consequence, Nietzsche—like St. Pius X—believed that the world as a whole had rejected at a deep level a belief in—and therefore, desire for—the eternal goods promised by this God. Ever the poet, Nietzsche described this phenomena as follows:
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”
In other words, Nietzsche saw that the loss of a belief in God—or any objective highest good—as profoundly disorienting. There is no longer a fixed standard from which man can take his bearing as he strives to make sense of the world in which he finds himself. There is no longer any “up or down” good or evil, noble or base, by nature. To speak of a goal or end of human life, such as St. Thomas Aquinas does at the beginning of the Summa Theologica, no longer has any meaning. Man is adrift in an abyss of nothingness.
Is Despair Good?
Nevertheless, Nietzsche believed this was a necessary disorientation which would free man from an unreasonable turn away from the noblest goods available to man For him, Christianity “was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” One of the real evils of Christianity, in his eyes, was the virtue of hope, which caused man to long for an imaginary happiness beyond the grave and, therefore, to turn his back on true life in this world. He would have detested the words of The Imitation of Christ—so deeply admired and praised by Archbishop Lefebvre—which praise the man who is able “to despise earthly goods and love heavenly things and to disregard the world and desire heavenly things day and night” (Book III, Chapter 4). For Nietzsche, this is nothing more than to hate human life as such, rejecting what it means to be human for the sake of some imaginary alternative life. In the Anti Christ, he writes:
“Pity is one of the main tools used to increase decadence—pity wins people over to nothingness! …You do not say ‘nothingness’ : instead you say ‘the beyond’; or ‘God’; or ‘the true life’; or nirvana, salvation, blessedness….This innocent rhetoric from the realm of religious-moral idiosyncrasy suddenly appears much less innocent when you see precisely which tendencies are wrapped up inside these sublime words: tendencies hostile to life.”
As can be seen, Nietzsche effectively believed that Christian hope represented a form of nihilism. One looks at the struggle of life and turns one’s back on it by looking to an imaginary world.
Communism & the Opium of the Masses
To an extent, he agreed with Karl Marx. Both Marx and Nietzsche believed Christian hope—and the religious sentiment more generally—was a reaction to and rejection of the suffering involved in human life. They disagreed in their assessment of the proper reaction to suffering: to speak generally, Nietzsche believed suffering and struggle should be embraced so as to produce human excellence, while Marx believed it should be eradicated by means of revolutionary communism. For Nietzsche, Marx was afflicted by the worst of all maladies: pity of the human condition.
Marx is famous for making the assertion that “religion is the opium of the people.” However, most people do not deeply realize what he was saying. His point was not merely that religion is some bad habit which robbed men of their rationality, but rather that religion, like opium (we might even say alcohol or any other drug), is employed by miserable people as a means of escape from the harsh reality of their actual lives. In his mind, there is neither God nor life after death, and the promises of religion in general—and Christianity in particular—of a blessed eternity with a make-believe Creator is a great lie.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
Once again, religion is essentially nothing other than a reaction to the sufferings of life which nevertheless offers a solution to them wholly divorced from reality. The real world is this material universe in which we human beings dwell and true freedom comes not via a deliverance from sin and death, but rather from a conquest of nature. Christian hope is therefore a radically evil quality because it turns men away from this world, which is the only place of human action.
From the point of view of Marx and other Communists, Christian hope furthermore causes men to ignore what they must do in order to rid themselves of suffering in this life: namely, revolution. Archbishop Lefebvre lamented in the 1970s the growth of what came to be known as “Liberation Theology”—a doctrine particularly popular in Central America which was influenced by Marxist theory—precisely because it taught the poor not to endure their hardships for love of God and the hope of greater rewards in Heaven, but rather to agitate for justice—which inevitably meant a forcible redistribution of wealth and resources.
To understand this spirit, one need to turn only to the most faithful advocate of Communism. Vladimir Lenin, the determined acolyte of Marx who brought about the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, echoed the sentiments of Marx with his characteristically dismissive style:
“Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. . . . Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.”
The evident implication of Lenin’s words is that religion in general—and Christianity in particular—must be destroyed in order to lead men to begin making the demand of a life worthy of man. Above all, from Lenin’s point of view, it is the pernicious hope for a better life than serves to deaden men to the call of revolution.
Modern American Liberalism’s Despair
Nietzsche, Marx, and Lenin represented the more thoughtful and coherent and violent rejection of God. But—at a deep level—their principles were not limited to the violent and revolutionary regimes based on communism or National Socialism. The turn away from eternal life has deeply permeated our own western liberal culture. This can be most easily seen, perhaps, in a speech given by Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson about the “Great Society” which he desired to bring about in the United States. In this address, he states that “[The Great Society] is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” It is not without reason that he specifically mentions the “city of man” which Christians recognize as the term used by St. Augustine to designate the world. It is the city founded upon a “love of self even to the contempt of God” as opposed to the “city of God, . . . which is founded upon a love of God even to the contempt of self.” If the city of man is capable of fulfilling not only the needs of the body, but also the needs of the soul, then there is logically no longer any need for any higher spiritual reality, of God or His heaven.
It is partially in this spirit that a recent presidential candidate was quoted dismissing those people who “cling to their guns and religion.” This spirit is also behind the near universal denigration of religion and God in our elite and popular culture today. The malady—this apostasy from God—which St. Pius X diagnosed over a century ago has so deeply permeated the society in which we live that it is truly abnormal for the average citizen to think seriously about God or heaven, or to make decisions in life based on the desire for anything above his immediate self-comfort. We Christians must deeply reject this attitude and culture which surrounds us and turn our eyes to heaven. We must keep in mind the words of St. Paul, that “we are not as those who have no hope” (I Thess. 4:13) and who can no longer despise themselves nor long for anything beyond the world.