In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. —John 1:1
In his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that he “would only believe in a god who could dance.” Nietzsche belonged to a historical tradition of philosophers, including men like Aristophanes and Heidegger, who believed that the passionate forces of Eros, as opposed to a rational principle of Logos, governed the cosmos. Just as a Christian might argue that only men who live according to the Logos are capable of truly great action, Nietzsche would claim that the most erotic souls, who alone can attain the heights of the soul, ought to rule this world. For Nietzsche, however, the Christian God, Whom he saw as a mere formulation of Platonism, is not a god of will and caprice but of dry rationalism. As a truly romantic soul, Nietzsche was not satisfied with the notion that the cosmos is governed by unbending transcendental laws and loathed the notion that one would stoop to worship a god who did not commune directly and primarily with what he considered to be man’s highest faculty, Eros. Gods beholden to the rationalist understanding of Logos inspire reductionist philosophies that glorify alleged intellect above will and set a priestly caste above beautiful warriors. This reductionism, Nietzsche argued, leads to the spiritual collapse of civilization as it seeks to dismantle all complexity and arbitrariness. Modern Christians must respond argumentatively and actively to this critique and this false exclusivity that separates Eros and Logos. Nietzsche’s claim that veneration of rationalism leads to weakness in all human action is a valid and useful insight for modern Christians. However, the Logos of Plato, Socrates, and the Stoics is not the Logos of Christian philosophy. Plato’s forms and daemons crumble before the Incarnation, which presents a comprehensible picture of a willful, unpredictable, and unchanging God who can dance. The great theologians and the history of the Church prove that the Christian Godhead contains both Logos and Eros, immutability and unpredictable willfulness.
For the modern Christian, perhaps the most counterintuitive component of Nietzsche’s philosophy is his claim that any civilization based upon a rationalist philosophy or religion (Platonism, Christianity, Science, etc.) necessarily devolves into spiritual weakness, democracy, socialism, and eventually the worship of the herd. To understand Nietzsche’s claim, one might analyze the history of the West following the democratic and scientific Enlightenment through a Nietzschean lens. The foundational principles of the United States were derived from Enlightenment philosophy, but the Appalachian frontiersman, patriot rebels, and raving preachers of the First Great Awakening certainly displayed a capacity for Eros that Nietzsche would admire. However, as Enlightenment philosophers continued to pursue truth, deism began to replace the tenants of Christianity. Jefferson’s practice of cutting stories of miracles out of his personal Bible illustrate this change. The Bible declares God’s anger and wrath, but logical positivism requires that an all-sufficient being cannot feel such passion. Thus, commitment to rationalism quickly reduces the feeling, thinking, breathing Christ to the intellectual concept of a primary cause; the God-man becomes a mere god. Seeking to apply this same scientific reductionism to man, Enlightenment philosophers rationalized politics upon the basis of individualism and democracy. In the centuries that followed, the individual and his rights insidiously became the new idols of Western Civilization, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon sphere. By the early 20th century, the individual’s negative rights were no longer sufficient. Materialistic science now cast doubt on the existence of a transcendental soul. Without an enduring faith in a life beyond this one, demand for the realization of equality in this life arose. Thus, the pursuit of truth that Nietzsche criticized is really reductionism, or the misleading desire to define all things by separating substance from accident. When man is defined as solely a reasoning animal divorced from religion, race, and culture, moral relativism runs free. Nietzsche held that the ranks of the weak-souled leverage this relativism to appease their baseness. Thus, the humanist desire to realize equality drags civilization down to its lowest common denominator economically, aesthetically, and spiritually. As philosophy progresses on the rationalistic route from Christianity, through deism, to science, all that is reducible, arbitrary, and even beautiful is cast away.
Aristophanes, the proto-Nietzsche of classical Greece, understood the effects of rationalism on civilization. His works might help the modern reader understand Nietzsche’s view of history. In his earlier play, The Clouds, Aristophanes sets “Socratesie” as a pedantic foil, floating on a cloud, contemplating all that is irrelevant to life and leading a cult of emaciated, pale scholars. Here, Aristophanes parodies Plato’s illustration of the ship in Book VI of The Republic, which depicts the philosopher as a disconnected thinker gazing at the stars, oblivious to politics and action. As each character in The Clouds turns from the gods and their families to worship reason alongside Socrates, Athenian culture and politics decline exponentially. Under Socrates’ scientific examination, the poetry that once honored the gods is meaningless, family is reduced to amoral biology, and random chance seems to govern all that occurs.
One might object that the worship of science and rationalism have, especially at the beginning of the 20th century, inspired seemingly Nietzschean political movements. The early American progressives, for example, sought to imperially dominate the uncivilized world on the basis of Western biological and technological superiority. Superficially, these imperial aspirations, derived from Darwinism, seem Nietzschean. However, as Aristophanes makes clear in his play The Birds, empire is often a last dying breath of a civilization, a counterfeit shadow of the civilization that was once great and an unstable reaction to its decay. In The Birds, Aristophanes’ protagonists set out to found a new city only after their home, Athens, has been destroyed by Socratic philosophy. The two foils seek to found a worldwide empire by overthrowing the gods and guaranteeing universal rights and perpetual wealth to their diverse subjects. In other words, by rashly leaving their physical and spiritual homeland in pursuit of something greater, Aristophanes’ imperialist duo sever all connections to the place of their birth and the gods in order to form a new political community based upon political equality with foreigners. Thus, within one generation, the seemingly macho intentions of empire give way to universalist cosmopolitanism. Given Aristophanes’ insight, it is no wonder that the early Progressives coincided with the decadence and degeneracy of the roaring 20’s and begat the flower-children of the 1960’s.
The interlocutors of The Republic, though sympathetic to the rationalism of Socrates, perceive the weakness of this understanding of the Logos as well. In book two, Glaucon speculates that the idea of a social contract is merely a defense mechanism for the weak, suppressing the spirit of those who might otherwise impose their will and make the world in their image. To translate this into Nietzschean terms, the weak and base souls found a civic culture and politic based upon rationalisms of equality and right and, by their strength in numbers alone, suppress any man whose beauty, spirit, or power ascends the ugliness of the hoi polloi. Plato’s Socrates never denies Glaucon’s claim, and, in book V, argues for fundamental human equality, erasure of the distinctions between man and woman, the disintegration of the nuclear family, and the rule of rationalist philosophers. Though The Republic offers an anti-democratic political structure, its mandate that the reasoning few ought to rule would seem to a Nietzschean to be the fantasy of pedants to dominate, via a coup, the beautiful, a foreshadowing of modern democracy, an overthrow, via trickery, of the beautiful and excellent by the weak and ugly.
Nietzsche directed his critique at the Christianity of his time and the deism that drove the Enlightenment. For Nietzsche, however, there were golden ages of Christian history that showed humanity to be sinners in the hands of an angry God: the original Christian martyrs, whose lust for a death that would glorify God made them capable of acts of courage that turned the world upon its head, the Conquistadors and the Puritans also, who braved the Atlantic in wooden ships to a coast fraught with merciless Indian savages, and perhaps the marching armies of the Thirty Years War. One wonders at Francisco Franco, the Caudillo of Spain sent from a time before his own, who refused to allow Spain to be handed over to the mind-virus of communism, even if such a feat required overthrowing democracy in an exuberant, youthful, and machismo military coup. Perhaps these men have preserved a willful dance of Christianity. However, when one observes the democratic, victim-worshipping change in attitude that has accompanied the post-Enlightenment world, he cannot help but contemplate Nietzsche’s critique from Beyond Good and Evil: “It is not their love of humanity but the impotence of their love of humanity that prevents today’s Christians — from burning us.” Is not the difference between John Knox’s prayer, “Give me Scotland or I die,” and today’s two-week, GoFundMe missionary voluntourism a sign of a great change? It is nearly impossible for moderns to conceive of the paradigm of our forefathers. Either the circumstances of the modern world no longer call for this same kind of action or much of the modern Church has, for the time being, lost this zeal. The modern Christian must refute Nietzsche’s criticisms on theological and historical grounds. He must make the case that the Christian Logos commands and deserves the worship of those who argue that the Church has become impotent and demonstrate that the Church possesses a spiritual power that surpasses all the deities Nietzsche could imagine.
In book seven of his Confessions, Augustine explains how his studies of Platonism lead him to Christianity, but only by realizing what this rationalistic philosophy could not provide:
“Thou didst procure for me, through one inflated with the most monstrous pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I found, not indeed in the same words, but to the selfsame effect, enforced by many and various reasons that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.”
Though natural philosophy did present the case for a rational universe that Christian philosophers embrace, he found that such rationalist philosophies could not maintain the absurdity of God descending to the realm of man, which John immediately describes after his discussion of the infinity of the Logos: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. And as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believed on his name.” For this reason, Augustine believed that the Platonists fit Paul’s description of the intellectual non-believers in his epistle to the Romans: “Seeking to be wise, they became fools in God’s sight.” The Christ, the willing God-man, the embodiment of God’s unpredictability, and the Logos that he was and is before and during the Incarnation give the rationalist his immutable Logos and the Nietzschean his capricious Eros. In the words of another romantic German: “Look at the Child, knowing nothing… Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.” Perhaps Nietzsche, like Augustine before his conversion, only saw Plato (albeit, Aristophanes’ caricature of Plato) where he ought to have seen the Christ, the incarnation of this Logos. At the foot of Mount Sinai, the unfaithful Israelites circled their golden calf and danced. The giver of the Law, descending a dark precipice, backlit by explosions of lighting, face aglow with the power of God, pulverized this false deity and force-fed its remains to the idolaters. Truth, and the grace needed to perceive this truth, would come later in the form of the Messiah: “The Law came through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” The nature of God’s Logos, as Augustine and Luther demonstrate, is not a Platonic certainty, but an incomprehensibility. The Platonists may have identified reason, Logos, as the ontological being of God, but they did not possess the epistemological shortcut, the Christ, the rational image of this Logos, and therefore could perceive but not conceive of His being.
Perhaps those that reject the Christian philosophical tradition conflate the immutable Platonic concept of Logos with our unpredictable God. This conflation leads romantic characters who might have been possessed with the zeal of the Puritans or the Conquistadores to become lost in the idolatry of those Israelites at the foot of Sinai. As a parallel consequence, specious Logos (the Platonic concept) worship invites young pedants, progressives, and social justice warriors to become model Christians. It’s no wonder that many Christian youth efforts and entire mainline denominations have been unable to attract zealous young men to their cause. “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’” Perhaps we have inundated their view of Christianity with skinny jeans, beanies, tears, and appeasement of the violent imposition of political correctness. I reserve mentioning specific examples of this weakness, but they are not difficult to find. So often on the religious right, we have copied the slogans and methods of non-believing progressives and sought to explain ourselves, to cower, to join the coalition of victimhood. The Church has too often responded, both to Nietzsche and to the modern political left, with a “Socratesie” rather than with a Luther or a Knox. One can understand that without Christ’s picture of the Logos, without a Messiah and King who drives the moneychangers violently from the temple, who rewards a modest woman for pouring perfume worth a year’s wages on his head, who heals a paralytic and tells him that his three decades of paralysis was intended solely to display God’s glory, a romantic soul would be tempted by unchristian philosophies and alternative forms of conservative metaphysics. A presentation of our Logos as a sovereign and willful King may help guide the minds of these chaotic souls back to a pre-modern and post-pagan understanding of truth and ignite in them an aggressive passion for the Church and her Savior.
Brian Freimuth is a junior studying politics, English, and Spanish.