Essay / Theology

A Fight to the Death with His Own Conscience: Nietzsche

“I can write in letters which make even the blind see,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the influential German philosopher who interpreted modern life as the murder of God. Nietzsche worried that the very people who had spent the nineteenth century driving God out of their worldviews were failing to draw the necessary conclusions. “If God is dead, anything is possible,” mused Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in 1880, and it was Friedrich Nietzsche who set himself to the task of showing what that meant for morals. In 1887 he wrote his Genealogy of Morals, which is the best and clearest introduction to Nietzsche’s project. His project was to kill his conscience or die trying.

“He wanted to be the moralist of the new post-God society, so he was setting himself a task that he couldn’t possibly fulfill,” said playwright Ronald Hayman in the 1999 BBC documentary on Nietzsche’s life and thought. “No one could fulfill that task. And without suggesting crudely or simplistically that he copped out by retreating into madness, I do think that some such escape was inevitable.”

As Hayman suggests, it’s always tempting to explain Nietzsche’s philosophy in light of his biography: Raised as a Christian, he embraced the faith at first, but then rejected it about as thoroughly as anybody ever did. He began by writing love poems to Jesus and ended by calling for the coming of the Antichrist. He lived abstemiously but identified himself with the ancient god of drunken revelry, Dionysus. His life ended with a descent into madness and over a decade of vegetative stupor, and everybody from Hitler to Leopold and Loeb claimed they got their big ideas from his bombastic writings. This is strong stuff! And the shelves are filled with half-baked, impressionistic accounts of Nietzsche’s thought that use his biography or psychology to explain him away or squeeze a clear moral caution from him.

But you don’t have to know anything about his life, or guess into his personal sins, to know that Nietzsche had a plan for how to deal with conscience. Follow the logic of a string of his published statements on the subject. First, he knows that conscience bites, and that it shouldn’t:

“The bite of conscience, like the bite of a dog into a stone, is a stupidity.” (1880’s The Wanderer and His Shadow, epigram 38.)

“Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts! Not to leave them in the lurch afterward! The bite of conscience is indecent.” (Twilight of the Idols, epigram 10.)

Second, he knows that when you’re ashamed of something, part of you wants to deny it, and that’s the part of you most likely to win the battle: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually –memory yields.” (Beyond Good and Evil, epigram 68.)

Notice that you don’t have to do any guessing about what deeds Nietzsche regrets, or what his conscience wants to chew on him about. Whatever those details from his own life might be, they are irrelevant to the plan he sketches out for dealing with the conscience. He’s doing philosophy about the whole experience of having a conscience, and it’s in his book Beyond Good and Evil that he really begins to show what he has learned, and what he wants to teach:

“To be ashamed of one’s immorality– that is a step on the staircase at whose end one is also ashamed of one’s morality.” (epigram 95) Feeling the bite of conscience is only the starting point, to alert you to the presence of the moral sense itself. Once you’re aware of it, you can handle it objectively. You can bully it, dominate it, and transform it into something you are proud of. Listen to him:

“Once the decision has been made, close your ear even to the best counterargument: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.” (107)

“A criminal is frequently not equal to his deed: he makes it smaller and slanders it.” (109)

“The lawyers defending a criminal are rarely artists enough to turn the beautiful terribleness of his deed to his advantage.” (110)

“The great epochs in our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.” (116)

“To our strongest drive, the tyrant in us, not only our reason bows but also our conscience.” (158)

By the time he is re-christening his evil as what is best in him, Nietzsche has pretty much reached that raving-German-philosopher point where few will follow his lead. But did you notice how smooth the transition was from the first motions of taking arms against conscience, to that final position of irrevocable obstinacy?

We all feel the bite of conscience. Never mind the biographical details or the particular psychological histories, however importantly those may loom in your life. The big question is how you handle the bite, especially if you happen to feel it sharply. One of you has to give in, either you or your conscience. You might work out a sophisticated way of living with the bite, and you probably won’t end up dressed in black, shouting “God is Dead!” and shaping the future of philosophy. Most people don’t. Most people who set their wills against their consciences are content to just compartmentalize their lives, or become hard-hearted. Nietzsche may be the philosopher who thought the whole project through with relentless consistency, the theoretician of what we all do whenever we suppress the truth about ourselves.

In one of his last books, mockingly entitled Ecce Homo, Nietzsche boasted, “Really religious difficulties, for example, I don’t know from experience. It has escaped me altogether in what way I was supposed to be ‘sinful.’ Likewise, I lack any reliable criterion for recognizing the bite of conscience: according to what one hears about it, the bite of conscience does not seem respectable to me. I do not want to leave an action in the lurch afterward.”

We don’t have to pry into the question of what particular sins Nietzsche had on his conscience in order to follow his train of thought on the subject. But we also don’t have to believe him when he tries to persuade us that he only knew about this whole conscience thing at second hand: “From what I hear, this conscience thing sounds bad.”

Nietzsche knew that conscience was a mighty force, and that he couldn’t live with it gnawing at him. One of them had to go. Nietzsche took his heart in his own hands and hardened it. He didn’t out-live his conscience by very long, but he did succeed in killing it.

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