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Often one can learn something from authors with whom one disagrees. An author with whom I disagree, but from whom I have learned a good deal, is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).
Article originally appeared in
Nietzsche was rabidly anti-Christian and anti-Platonic, and thus opposed two of the foundational pillars of Western civilization. Nonetheless, I find that his analysis of the modern West, including its religion, is sometimes perceptive and warrants consideration.
In one of the most contemptuous of old books, Twilight of the Idols (1889), Nietzsche wrote:
[The English] are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. . . . In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing . . . what a moral fanatic one is. . . .
We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. . . . Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole. . . . Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.
When the English actually believe that they know "intuitively" what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.
Here Nietzsche mocks the morality of the Victorian thinkers, but we must take care to understand the reason for the mockery. He is not saying that seriousness about morality is a bad thing, and he is not saying that one cannot have a morality without Christian faith. He is saying that one cannot have a Christian morality without Christian faith, and that the English have failed to grasp this. This critique of English morality seems to have application beyond England, and more recently than 1889.
First, Nietzsche perceives that the ingrained moral habits of a culture can outlast the original religious impulse that produced them. The English intelligentsia, he says, have stopped thinking like Christians, but still feel and act like Christians, by a kind of moral inertia. This characterization remained true long after Nietzsche's death. The agnosticism of many Britons and North Americans from the 1880s through to about 1945 usually went with a morality that was more or less Christian. Secular humanism in that era was secular in theory but often unwittingly Christian in spirit.
Second, and more important, Nietzsche perceives that such a situation cannot last. He says "morality is not yet a problem," implying that when the English finally reach the level of self-consciousness that the Germans have achieved (or at least that Nietzsche has achieved), morality will be a problem; they will realize the groundlessness of their habits. Nietzsche was prophetic here; for eventually, certainly after 1945, the English-speaking world did begin to abandon, bit by bit, its secularized Christian morality. It had been living on old moral capital, but now that capital was spent and the religious tradition was no longer there to replenish it. Thus, the secular humanism of today, compared with earlier secular humanism, is virtually rudderless, because most people not only no longer think like Christians, but also no longer feel like Christians.
We can reject Nietzsche's own beliefs as abominable, but his analysis helps us understand our civilization. •
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