“Christianity is called the religion of pity.—Pity stands in opposition to all the tonic passions that augment the energy of the feeling of aliveness: it is a depressant. A man loses power when he pities. Through pity that drain upon strength which suffering works is multiplied a thousandfold. Suffering is made contagious by pity; under certain circumstances it may lead to a total sacrifice of life and living energy—a loss out of all proportion to the magnitude of the cause (—the case of the death of the Nazarene)… Mankind has ventured to call pity a virtue (—in every superior moral system it appears as a weakness—); going still further, it has been called the virtue, the source and foundation of all other virtues—but let us always bear in mind that this was from the standpoint of a philosophy that was nihilistic, and upon whose shield the denial of life was inscribed.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
ONE would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing critic of Christianity than Friedrich Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed Anti-Christ. Nietzsche saw Christianity as a fundamentally nihilistic credo that exalted a slavish and life-dampening morality, eventually turning its values into a world-historical force.
As Christianity spread across the world, the most vital and creative of cultures were compelled to rot from the inside as they surrendered the aristocratic virtues of aggression, discernment, and suspicion to the herd morality of the masses. As the atheism of his time became more popular, Nietzsche hoped that the aristocratic ideal of lordly superiority would be reborn, and even prophesied the coming of the “superman” (Übermensch) who would embody transformative values that terrified the masses.
But perhaps most disturbing to him was the continuation of Christianity by other means, in the form of political liberalism, democracy, and socialism. Nietzsche recognized that “the democratic movement is the inheritance of Christian movement,” but railed against the degeneracy of Christianity’s political inheritance, fearing that the democratic spirit would usher in an era of “last men,” passive, devoid of risk, and blinded by banal gratifications and low aesthetics.
Given Nietzsche’s indignation toward Christianity, especially because of its role in birthing political democracy, it’s surprising to see direct appeals to Nietzsche from prominent conservative Christians and conservative intellectuals who cling to “Judeo-Christian” morality. In his book United States of Socialism: Who’s Behind it. Why It’s Evil. How to Stop It, Dinesh D’Souza disparages the “Nordic socialists” as the proverbial last man
“…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.”
In his latest book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson invokes Nietzsche approvingly for his prescient observation that “dreadfully attractive” alternatives to Christianity (like communism) would arise in the wake of God’s death. Peterson also frequently relies on the Nietzschean trope of freeing oneself from resentment and envy when offering defences of social hierarchy and economic stratification.
Similarly, Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Nationalism, Populism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy defends a moderate traditionalism undergirded by Christian values, but approvingly references Nietzsche’s criticisms of the “priests” who hypocritically moralize about the evils of capitalist inequality. National Review regularly publishes essays criticizing “victimhood,” PC culture, and the Occupy movement along overtly Nietzschean lines.
And Dave Rubin, a recent convert from atheism, calls on Nietzsche in Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in the Age of Unreason, when he castigates “people who buy into hating white men” as “prime examples of what Friedrich Nietzsche (another white man) referred to when he said ‘whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’”
Why does Nietzsche appeal to these apparently Christian thinkers? And if Nietzche is right that egalitarian politics ‒ the kind conservatives bemoan as the downfall of Western civilization ‒ are in fact the continuation of the Christian ethos?
Revisiting Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity
In his excellent book, Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull writes that “equality has no fiercer critic than Nietzsche, whose fundamental insight with respect to the genealogy of morals is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself.” In an attempt to correct mid-twentieth century interpretations of Nietzsche as a proto-fascist thinker, his anti-egalitarianism has often been excused or overlooked. As a strong individualist Nietzsche would have had nothing but contempt for the nationalist bombast of Mussolini and Hitler. But generations of leftist interpretations of Nietzsche (notably those of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze) have led many to see him as little more than a radical bohemian critic of power and conformity.
In fact, Nietzsche’s views on political power, especially in his mature writings, were resolutely aristocratic ‒ it should be concentrated totally in the hands of those most worthy of wielding it. Consequently, he had nothing but contempt for the efforts of liberals, socialists, and democrats who felt that political power must in some way flow from and be responsive to the people as a whole ‒ that “swinish multitude,” as Edmund Burke, an early critic of democratic politics, put it in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
At the core of Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism is the most profound and intriguing critique of Christianity ever proposed. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche famously described Christianity as “Platonism for the masses,” which he did not intend as a compliment. For Plato, the world that appeared to our senses was at best a poor imitation of higher, transcendent forms. In the same fashion, argued Nietzsche, Christian metaphysics demoted the created world as radically fallen, torn apart by the sinful actions of the prideful and violent.
In the City of God, St. Augustine gives classic expression to this idea in his notion of the libido dominandi, or the lust for domination and power. It was a world where the strong preyed upon the weak, and the weak suffered what they must. The only way such a sick world could conceivably be redeemed was through postulating the existence of an eternal and loving God existing in a perfect world beyond this one; a God who so pitied his creation, he deigned to walk among them and even die before rising again.
The losers to whom Christianity originally appealed ‒ slaves, outcasts, women and the poor ‒ were allured not just by the Christ figure who spoke for them, but by his promise to liberate them from the prideful and powerful who routinely dominated them. When his kingdom came, all those who had been great in this world would be torn down and those who had suffered would find joy ‒ not least, as Tertullian wrote, through the relishment of seeing their oppressors thrown into eternal hellfire.
To Nietzsche, Christianity’s topsy-turvy focus on victims and oppressors gave expression to its actual psychological roots, what he called ressentiment. More than just envy, ressentiment was a pathological sickness of the weak, a psychological mechanism for transferring feelings of inferiority to an external cause, thereby justifying one’s refusal to become strong-willed in the face of adversity.
Nietzsche denounced Christianity as a vulgar religion that elevated the crass values of ressentiment ‒ pity, renunciation, altruism, sacrifice ‒ to world-historical status. It flew in the face of the robust aristocratic values that contributed to the cultural dynamism of the pre-Socratics and pagan Romans. Christianity in particular contributed to the overturning of aristocratic order through its use of “bad conscience,” turning the natural expression of human aggression and domination inward, miring the masses in guilt and self-punishment before a just God.
Whereas before, the old aristocratic values directed humanity outwards ‒ to conquest, violent overcoming, and the yearning for dominance ‒ Christianity now eschewed earthly existence, insisting that the real battle lay within. As Nietzsche complained in On the Genealogy of Morals, with Christianity’s ascendance, the “race of conquerors and lords” and their “instinct for freedom” had been “driven back, suppressed, imprisoned within.”
Nietzsche’s ruthless criticism of slave morality was a direct response to the increasingly secular forms of Christianity emerging in the modern world, which, much to his dismay, insisted on making everything easier and more humane. Here it is important to recall Nietzsche’s remarkable thesis that secularization came about as a result of the immanent logic of Christianity. For him, Christianity’s Platonic impulse to question everything in the name of absolute truth eventually led to modernity’s questioning of the very truth of traditional Christianity. This paved the way for the emergence of scientific rationalism and the infamous “death of God.”
But despite growing disbelief in the metaphysical foundations of Christianity, Nietzsche observed that many felt free to carry on and even radicalize the Christian moral project. Liberals, socialists (the “residue of Christianity and Rousseau,” as he put it), and democrats were all committed to extending the Christian project of levelling aristocratic value systems ‒ though now they did so in the name of new Gods like “reason,” “scientific materialism,” and “the people.”
These modernist doctrines were repulsive to Nietzsche, not just for the existential bankruptcy of their metaphysics, but because they sought to create the political conditions for a homely, egalitarian world where none would feel compelled to struggle to better himself. It was a world where exploitation of the masses could be overcome ‒ whereas for Nietzsche, the exploitation of the masses was the condition for development and progress. The only way to avoid this would be the emergence of a new aristocracy, the Overman or Superman, who would fight against the herd’s love of mediocrity, and consequently would appear as terrifying and even evil to them. As Nancy S. Love puts it in her outstanding book Marx, Nietzsche, and Modernity:
“Nietzsche’s … argument is that liberal democracy simultaneously transcends ‘peoples’ and fosters nihilism. As a stage in the self-overcoming of truth, nihilism represents progress … Whereas peoples still need truths, nihilism indicates that the will to power is sufficiently developed that a new radical aristocracy can arise. The herd even fosters its own transcendence by these radical aristocrats…These aristocratic individuals will transcend justice, the herd’s revenge against life, and its representative, the state.”
Of course, just who the overmen of this new aristocracy would be was unclear. Influenced by Nietzsche, a swath of right-wing figures, ranging from capitalist libertarians to nationalist fascists, have proposed an “ideal man” that reflects his. Today, many on the alt-right see him as a formative influence. Nietzsche’s hope for a new aristocracy, as well as his utter contempt for the slavish masses and his hatred of the levelling effects of emancipatory politics, continues to energize the contemporary right.
The Strange Phenomena of a Nietzschean ‘Christianity’
It is precisely Nietzsche’s unapologetic anti-egalitarianism that makes him so appealing to recent figures of the political right. For all his radical philosophical and theoretical innovations, Nietzsche held very conservative ideas about the natural and inevitable inequalities that exist among individuals and groups, heaping scorn on the efforts of levelers — “these wrongly named ‘free spirits’ — as glib-tongued and scribe-fingered slaves of the democratic taste and its ‘modern ideas.”
Further, he furnishes the right with an extraordinary vocabulary to pathologize the democratic impulses that inform leftist and socialist movements. For instance, the concept of ressentiment lives on in what Albert O. Hirschman called the “perversity thesis,” when conservatives argue that progressive efforts to remedy economic or social injustice will only worsen conditions.
For Nietzsche, while Christianity and its democratic offspring profess to be doctrines of universal love and human equality, they are actually predicated on hatefulness and envy toward humanity’s rightful superiors. Thus, even the most sincere efforts to realize genuinely egalitarian policies will just produce impotent violence and chaos rather than improvement.
This is exactly the position taken by Nietzschean “Christians” like Dinesh D’Souza and Jonah Goldberg. To them, highly stratified social hierarchies are both inevitable and beneficent, reflecting a deeper order where the best struggle to rise to the top. D’Souza and Goldberg emulate libertarian thinkers like Ayn Rand, conceiving of capitalists as a kind of Overman, romanticizing them as the primary engines of creativity and innovation and the preeminent source of economic and aesthetic value.
Occasionally, this economistic Nietzscheanism becomes genuinely hammy. At one point, D’Souza characterizes Donald Trump as a kind of transcendent Nietzschean hero, imagining a pseudo-Platonic dialogue between himself and a parking attendant at one of Trumps’s hotels. The parking attendant is a creature of ressentiment who feels he deserves more money for his time, to which D’Souza responds “Someone ‒ in this case Trump ‒ had the idea for that resort. He organized it. He marketed it and established the coveted brand. His brand attracted the clientele. He took all the risk. The parking guy did none of this.”
Peterson’s arguments are more sophisticated, but still transparently reactionary. For Peterson, existence is defined by suffering. As he puts it in Beyond Order, “the reason for Being” is to make things “difficult.” This valorization of suffering is very much in the vein of Nietzsche’s own teacher Arthur Schopenhauer. But like Nietzsche, Peterson is unwilling to adopt the renunciation of life indulged by Schopenhauer and other pessimistic traditions. For Peterson, life can still be meaningful, but great strength of will and character is needed to master one’s pain and become a person of substance and accomplishment. It follows that much of the suffering in the world is caused by persistent human weakness, especially the resentful envy of the masses, who tear down the few fragile sources of order and happiness built largely by the best among us.
Few embody the spirit of ressentiment better than Peterson’s so-called “post-modern neo-Marxists” and ungrateful “social justice warriors” who refuse to recognize the inevitability of hierarchies of competence and wealth. Much of his rhetoric about lobsters is intended to give empirical weight to this fundamentally Nietzschean outlook. At his most reactionary, Peterson can also indulge in venom directed at “weak” people (especially men) and the political ideal of a decently humane world where everyone has enough.
Rediscovering the Radicality of the Christian Message
“Socialism can be victorious only in reliance on its own principle, in which powers of origin and prophetic expectation are combined. But expectation must play the major role. Only through expectation is human existence raised to the level of true humanity. Only under its leadership can human being and human society find their fulfillment.” — Paul Tillich, The Socialist Decision
So why do right-wing figures like Peterson defend some iteration of Christianity, or at minimum the preservation of “Judeo-Christian” values? Christianity remains useful to them as an ideological crutch for hierarchical order ‒ more a hackneyed synthesis of Aristotle and Nietzsche than anything resembling the radical message of Jesus. In their hands, Christianity is transformed into the empty signifier of “Judeo-Christianity,” an ideological glue to forcibly bind us to homogenous identities and imbue the capitalist status quo with transcendent meaning. As Harrison Fluss writes, the vapid pseudo-Christianity of someone like Peterson internalizes capitalism’s requirement of sacrifice, transforming it “into a call for individuals to sacrifice themselves for something transcendent and holy.” Not coincidentally, the new Nietzscheans have little patience for the demands of racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ people.
That said, their Nietzscheanism allows for some dynamism within social hierarchies: there must be some who rise above the herd through strength, machismo, and even ruthlessness. This is precisely because, despite their grandiosity, such figures pose no significant threat to the established order. They function to rejuvenate it through innovations, outcompeting the weak and incompetent, and keeping the masses of Svens in line.
At its most benign, this narrative gets attached to the kind of cheesy capitalist romanticism favored by moderates like Jonah Goldberg. But at its most insidious, it takes the form of support for strongmen like Donald Trump, who threatened to smash a decadent globalist elite, while at the same time re-entrenching the privileges and status of the deserving against the resentful progressive groups who dare to defy the natural order of things.
This is where Nietzsche’s offspring are deeply wrongheaded. In his classic book The Political Unconscious, the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson points out that Nietzsche’s deployment of ressentiment, in addition to being a psychological explanation, also serves a political function: it allows the ruling classes to handily dismiss any attempt to rectify injustice as a destructive expression of envy. Wendy Brown deepens Jameson’s diagnosis in her book In The Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. She observes how the appeals to Nietzschean ressentiment are almost always directed from the top-down, with little self-reflection on the part of the of our betters.
Nietzsche never contemplated that the deepest kinds of resentment and vengeance may dwell in the hearts of the powerful, who see any challenge to their privilege as a threat to social order. Today, democratic movements from below provoke some of the most hysterically shrill narratives of decline from the ruling classes, as well as some of the most violent backlash. In the wake of Trump, pure resentment-driven aggression is once again a major force in American politics.
As it turns out, the Christian message is much harder and more radical than even the sternest Nietzschean injunctions. At its most universal, Christianity has also resisted the urge to conceive the world as an ordered hierarchy where the best must rise and the low submit to their place. It insisted that, since we are all children of God, each human person is morally equal to each other, possessing a fundamental dignity that puts each life beyond price. Many socialists have been aware of the integral connection between their own doctrines and the most humane interpretations of Christianity. They recognize that securing material freedom and well-being for all was the political upshot of the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. This imposes a tremendously meaningful task on both contemporary socialists and Christians that is far more challenging than any Nietzschean project of individual self-aggrandizement ‒ let alone the kind of half-baked “Christian” Nietzscheanism popular today.
Matt McManus is a visiting professor of politics at Whitman College. He is the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism and the coauthor of Myth and Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson.