Beyond Good and Evil | Study Guide

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Beyond Good and Evil | Part 3 : What Is Religious | Summary



Nietzsche slyly turns to an interrogation of the soul in Part 3—but in fact, what he means to do is interrogate religion and the religious sensibility. The soul is "the predestined hunting ground for a born psychologist and lover of the 'great hunt,'" he says.

Section 46 tackles the Christian faith, and Nietzsche notes that what he has in mind is the original Western faith of Catholicism, which he says is a "continual suicide of reason." The Christian faith is "a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation." According to Nietzsche the Modern European has become immune to the "gruesome superlative that struck a classical taste in the paradoxical formula 'god on the cross.'" Nietzsche means that the central Christian image of Jesus on the cross would have been repulsive to the classical Greek or Roman sensibility. In Nietzsche's view, there has never been anything that has struck such a bold inversion, which "promised a revaluation of all the values of antiquity."

The "religious neurosis" often manifests as "extravagant voluptuousness," followed by remorse and "denial of the world and will." But Nietzsche asks how it is possible to deny the will, and this seemed to be the question that made Schopenhauer a philosopher. Nietzsche again reminds the reader that he is talking primarily about Catholicism, not Protestantism. The religiosity of ancient Greece is touched on, and the he notes that the Greek religion included an "abundance of gratitude," which is a noble attitude toward life. Unfortunately, at some point "the rabble gained the upper hand in Greece, fear became rampant in religion, too—and the ground was prepared for Christianity." Nietzsche moves on to fault Saint Augustine for exhibiting an "Oriental ecstasy worthy of a slave who, without deserving it, has been pardoned and elevated," and he ridicules the desire for mystical union with God. He juxtaposes these comments with praise for the "Jewish 'Old Testament,'" for its grand speeches rivaling Greek and Indian literature, and faults Christians for creating the Bible from Christian and Jewish texts because their values are diametrically opposed. This leads him to think about the "ladder of religious cruelty" (referencing the "voluptuousness" he spoke about earlier) in which first human beings were sacrificed to God. This cruelty was followed by people's sacrifice of their "animal" nature to God. Last, they sacrificed God himself, which Nietzsche sees as an ultimate act of nihilism—or the rejection of all human meaning.

In Section 56 Nietzsche criticizes Schopenhauer for introducing the 19th century to his "half-Christian, half-German" pessimism—a "world-denying" philosophy. Nietzsche claims to have thoroughly thought through this pessimism, which has broken the spell of morality. He has "opened his eyes to the opposite ideal." His ideal is "world-affirming" and accepts whatever is, so much so that a person holding this position wants to have "what was and is repeated into all eternity" because "he needs himself—and makes himself necessary."

Nietzsche notes that religious life requires leisure, and the industriousness of modern people actually encourages "unbelief." Modern people have other commitments—to business, pleasure, family, and the "fatherland," with no time left for religion. Mostly they are no longer sure of religion's purpose. That being said, pious people do not realize how hard it is for German scholars "to take the problem of religion seriously." Generally, the scholars exhibit tolerance and condescension when studying religion, but their tolerance is a form of naïveté, and Nietzsche implies that, in fact, such people are inferior to their religious counterparts.

On the other hand, there is much wisdom in superficiality, which is an instinct of self-preservation. Fear and pessimism are at the root of the religious worldview—"fear of that instinct which senses that one might get hold of the truth too soon, before man has become strong enough, hard enough." Piety results from the fear of truth and the desire to invert the truth, no matter what it takes. Piety is the surest means for human beings to adorn themselves. Nietzsche says piety "can turn man into so much art, surface, play of colors, graciousness that his sight no longer makes one suffer."

Religion serves multiple purposes. For example, small religious communities can give their rulers and disciples peace "from the noise ... of cruder forms of government." Asceticism and puritanism, says Nietzsche, are "indispensable means for educating and ennobling a race that wishes to become master over its origins among the rabble." But religion teaches the majority of people to be contented with their lot in life. Religion and "religious significance" make human beings "tolerable" in their own sight. "Perhaps nothing in Christianity or Buddhism is as venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest how to place themselves through piety in an illusory higher order of things and thus to maintain their contentment with the real order," Nietzsche concludes.

Nietzsche ends his discourse on religion in Section 62 by pointing out how humanity pays terribly when religion is not kept in check by philosophers and becomes a ruling force—acting to become the "ultimate ends and not means among other means." Among human beings, as with other animals, failure is the rule rather than the exception. In response to that fact Christianity and Buddhism side with suffering mankind and promote the idea that life is a sickness while attempting to suppress any other orientation toward life. The "sovereign religions ... have preserved too much of what ought to perish." In comforting the suffering, encouraging the despairing, and supporting the dependent, they have preserved "all that was sick and that suffered" and therefore worsened the European race. Thus, religion stood "all valuations on their head," destroying what was strong and calling into question the joy that arises from experiencing beauty. Religion transformed traits like manliness and the will to conquer into insecurity and "agony of conscience." According to Nietzsche Christianity has turned man "into a sublime miscarriage" and has been "the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet." As a result, Nietzsche says that Christian leaders of men have turned the European man into a "herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre."


Nietzsche has already declared that the so-called soul is mortal in Part 1, and in Part 3 he examines "the human soul and its limits," ironically juxtaposing his own "history of the soul" with the tenets of two major religions West and East—Christianity and Buddhism. Thus, Nietzsche pits his atheism and mortal soul against the immortal soul of Christian belief and the timeless consciousness posited by Buddhist doctrine. More specifically, as he reminds the reader more than once, he interrogates Catholicism, not because he thinks it is worse than Protestantism but because it is more representative of the values that have shaped Europe.

Nietzsche specifically chooses Buddhism as the Eastern counterpart of Christianity because one of his major philosophical opponents is Arthur Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche identifies with the Buddha. He has good reason to do so since Schopenhauer was much enamored with Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism. Schopenhauer also respected Plato and Emmanuel Kant. He followed Kant's lead in saying there was a noumenal (immaterial) world behind the phenomenal world, breaking with Kant to say the noumenal world was not something peaceful or benign but rather quite ominous—a relentless force he named "will." This will always wants "more," in Schopenhauer's view, and requires either procreation or destruction. Moreover, the "objective" world (world perceived by the senses) is a manifestation of this will. It is easy to see how Schopenhauer became pessimistic in the face of his own philosophy, which is centered on the idea that life is continually shaped by a perverse, irrational force. Human beings are held in thrall by this meaningless will, and the only thing they can do in the face of their predicament is to minimize their desires and cultivate asceticism.

Schopenhauer's philosophy has some correspondence with Buddhist ideas—for example the idea that life is suffering and it is possible to end suffering through the practice of detachment—and the philosopher noted these correspondences himself. But he was initially influenced by the Upanishads of Hinduism in writing his most important work, The World as Will and Representation. The Upanishads are Indian texts on which Hindu Vedanta philosophy is partially based. Buddhism is based on earlier ideas found in Hinduism. Although Schopenhauer became more identified with Buddhism than Hindu Vedanta, he actually read the Vedanta first and the Buddhist texts later. Nonetheless, by Nietzsche's time Schopenhauer was more identified with Buddhism, so Nietzsche specifically attacks this religion.

Nietzsche began his philosophical life as a disciple of Schopenhauer and was particularly drawn to his concept of will, although he later repudiated this philosophy. Nietzsche came to dislike Schopenhauer's pessimistic attitude that life was a burden to be carried. Nor did he like the idea that the best approach to living was to minimize the influence of the inexorable will by withdrawing as much as possible from the phenomenal world. Thus, Nietzsche turns Schopenhauer's philosophy on its head. He exhorts the reader to embrace life in its totality. In Section 56 he introduces another of his key ideas, "eternal recurrence," which in other parts of his body of work appears to become a metaphysical belief (although many Nietzsche scholars doubt he believed in such a doctrine). In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche proposes that a true world-affirmer loves life so much that he wants everything that he ever experienced repeated into eternity—because "he needs himself—and makes himself necessary." In this statement, Nietzsche prefigures the existential idea that existence precedes essence—or to put it more simply, people determine who and what they are, and they create their life's meaning and their own necessity. To wish for eternal recurrence, as Nietzsche does in Beyond Good and Evil, is to unconditionally affirm life as it appears and life as it is lived—which is in direct opposition to Schopenhauerian philosophy.

Nietzsche repudiates Christianity for the same reasons he rejects Schopenhauer and all his works—including his affinity to Eastern philosophy. In Nietzsche's view the Christian faith begins with "god on a cross," an image of the torture and humiliation of a god-man, which becomes the basis for a religion that elevates martyrdom. In common with Schopenhauer and Eastern philosophy is the Christian view that life in the phenomenal world is unsatisfying and corrupting and that it ought to be rejected in some fashion. While the Greeks were grateful for life, the Christians look forward to a life in the hereafter. Nietzsche praises the Old Testament of the Jews over the New Testament of the Christians because it is more in keeping with what he considers to be classical values in its stories of noble heroes who exert their will to power.

Christianity embraces people at their worst or in their most dejected state, partially as an echo of the worship of Christ on the cross. Nietzsche references the increasing "cruelty" of religion, in which more and more must be sacrificed—ultimately even God, in a final act of nihilism. For Christians the cross may be an emblem of compassion, but for Nietzsche it is a symbol of inverted values in which noble human traits such as strength, pride, and the desire to conquer are replaced by humility, weakness, and insecurity. God himself is sacrificed so that human beings may enter a metaphysical heaven, conceived as much superior to earthly life. In that sense, the Crucifixion can be seen as the ultimate rejection of the phenomenal world.

On the whole, the atheistic Nietzsche finds value in religion. While he sarcastically berates shallow bourgeois scholars who can hardly take religion seriously but are happy to live on the surface of life, he gives religion credit for making life bearable for those who more clearly see their predicament. That is, they consciously admit they are fated to suffer and die and seek relief in a religious solution. This is the "truth" he is referring to when he says that piety is the offspring of fear. Religion provides the promise of immortality and a meaning and purpose for living. Religion can also be the inspiration for great art. When it is used as a tool to elevate individuals or the species, Nietzsche doesn't mind religion. But in his view religion in the West in the form of Christianity has become a sovereign philosophy used to recreate the masses as herd animals. In Europe the religious view keeps people fearful and in their place, but worst of all, it teaches them to hate life and to hold in high esteem the worst traits of human beings, even while they destroy all that is good and noble in themselves.

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