The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche : Philosophy and Preaching
Now we approach the philosophy of Tolstoy's antipode, Nietzsche. With him, as with Count Tolstoy, the initial cause of the shaking of his soul was the discovery of the great event that "God is dead," as he himself later expressed it, or that "God is the good," as Tolstoy now says, assuring us that in just this lies the essence of Christianity and the religious consciousness of our time. As proof that the statements "God is the good" and "God is dead" are equivalent, and that Tolstoy and Nietzsche set out from the same point of view, we quote the following words of Nietzsche: "The best means of beginning each day well is to think on awakening whether one cannot give joy to at least one person this day. If this could be regarded as a substitute for the religious habit of prayer, our neighbors would only gain by the change." Or again: "There is too little love and goodness in the world to give any of it away to imaginary beings."
To the Russian reader, who has always heard about the cruelty of the antichrist and immoralist Nietzsche, these words must seem remarkable. Nevertheless, in them we find the explanation of all his future tendencies of mind. These two aphorisms are taken from Human, All Too Human - the book in which Nietzsche for the first time freed himself from the metaphysics of Schopenhauer. Henceforth metaphysics, which had determined the content of his first work, The Birth of Tragedy - this typical model of learned causerie, full of talent, in the pessimistic style - is for him only a science "which deals with the basic errors of men, but as if they were basic truths." He no longer seeks enlightenment in this "science." He flees from his theory of the esthetic interpretation of tragedy at the moment precisely when he appears most to need it, for tragedy, which up until then had occurred only in the souls of Prometheus, Oedipus, and the other heroes of the dramas of Sophocles and Aeschylus, now occurs in his own soul. He understands now that a great misfortune cannot be justified by the fact that one can recount it beautifully and sublimely. The art which embellishes human sorrow is no longer of any use to him. He seeks another refuge where he hopes to find salvation and to escape from the horrors which pursue him. He hastens toward the "good" which he has become accustomed to consider as all-powerful, as able to replace everything, as God, as even above God; it seems to him that man will only gain if, instead of turning toward God, he reserves all his love for his neighbor. As the reader can see, the idea is purely Tolstoyan. There is only this difference: at that time Nietzsche had still not experienced any testings of fate, and believed with all his soul in salvation through love and that his entire fate depended on the results which this belief could bring him.
The reader will recall that his terrible sickness had forced him to renounce not only all work but also all society. Always alone, harassed by terrible seizures, he could only think and note down his thoughts in the form of short aphorisms. Under such extraordinary circumstances "the power of the good" underwent a serious test. Can it, as the philosophers say, take the place of all of a man's life for him? The whole philosophy of Nietzsche must be considered an answer to this question. The professional philosophers, among them A. Riehl, while recognizing that "Nietzsche's books are not ordinary books" but "inward experiences," "lived books," nevertheless take away from Nietzsche's works all their meaning and interest when they say that they are only "the experiences of a thinker," "of thoughts as experiences." Nietzsche himself knew the sources of his creativity better. He said of the fundamental problem which concerned him above everything else, the moral problem, that it was his personal question, to which his fate was bound. It is clear that it was not a question with him of "thoughts as experiences," although he was a philosopher, i.e., a man who takes account of his thoughts and feelings. His experiences are not tied up with abstract questions, outside the interests of other men, but with the questions of which our whole life is made. He suffered a painful illness, was condemned to involuntary inactivity and enforced solitude: are these, and all the things connected with them, the experiences of the thinker? What, then, does life mean? What happened to Nietzsche happens to thousands of people, often under our very eyes. Perhaps they all react to their misfortune precisely in the same way as Nietzsche, only they remain silent. They do not know how, or do not dare, to raise their voices against principles established by other men who know nothing of their sufferings. Nietzsche himself was so perplexed at the beginning by the hopelessness and humiliation of his situation that he could not say anything but "the sick man has no right to be a pessimist." Let him who has ears to hear listen! What does this "he has no right" mean? Who has taken from the sick man this right? To what further degree can one still resign himself, humble himself? Everything has been taken away from a man, he has been condemned to perpetual torture, and has he not even the right to complain, to curse, to protest against the blind force which - God knows why - has laid such a punishment upon him?
This consciousness of being deprived of all rights did not leave Nietzsche until the end of his life. Professor Lichtenberg ends his exposition of Nietzsche's literary activity with this naïve remark: "...and when madness came and put an end to his conscious life, he sang a song of victory. Is this not a magnificent fate?" As a counterpart to Lichtenberg’s comment we can set the words of Professor Riehl, already quoted above, which declare, in order to console the reader, that Nietzsche, like Rousseau, presents both in his personality and in his fate the example of a tragic genius.
It is high time to leave such commonplaces in which is manifested so grossly the egoism of men, who are always ready to warm themselves at the fire of Prometheus and platonically envy his glorious fate while the vulture feeds on his liver. We must ask Nietzsche himself if we wish to know whether his fate was glorious. Here is what he tells us about the "tragedy of genius":
It is thus that the "psychologist" understands the life of great men which appear so enviable to a Professor Lichtenberg. Nietzsche continues:
- He (the psychologist) listens with an unmoved face how people honor, admire, love, and glorify where he has seen - or be even hides his silence by expressly assenting to some plausible opinion. It may be that the paradox of his position becomes so horrible that precisely where be has learned great sympathy, together with great contempt, the multitude, the educated, and the visionaries have learned, for their part, great reverence - reverence for "great men" and marvelous animals, for the sake of whom one blesses and honors the fatherland, the earth, the dignity of mankind, and one's own self, to whom one directs the young, and in view of whom one educates them. ...And who knows but that up until now, in all great instances, just the same happened: that the multitude worshipped a God - and that the "God" was only a poor sacrificial animal! [Beyond Good and Evil, 269]
In this extract only Byron, Musset, Poe, Leopardi, Kleist, and Gogol are named; Nietzsche does not dare, as he says, to mention the more illustrious writers. But in another passage, he expresses almost as terrible, if not more terrible, a surmise about Shakespeare. The reader will perhaps recall the scene in Julius Caesar where the poet bursts into the tent of the quarreling chieftains, Cassius and Brutus, in order to reconcile them. Nietzsche says of this scene:
- Those great poets, for example, Byron, Musset, Poe, Leopardi, Kleist, Gogol (I do not dare mention greater names, but I have them in mind), as they now are and perhaps had to be: men of the moment, enthusiastic, sensual, childish, frivolous and impulsive in their trust and distrust, with souls in which usually some flaw has to be concealed; often taking revenge with their works for an inward defilement (innere Besudelung); often seeking forgetfulness in their soaring from a too-true memory, often lost in the mud and almost in love with it, until they become like the will-of-the-wisps around the swamps, and pretend to be stars (the people then call them idealists), often struggling against protracted disgust, against an endlessly returning phantom of unbelief, which makes them cold and forces them to pine for gloria and devour "faith as it is" out of the hands of drunken flatterers - what a torment these great artists and, in general, higher men are to him who has once found them out. [Ibid.]
Such are the motives for creation that Nietzsche discovers in the great poets. The correctness of his surmises does not now interest us. It is much more important for us to determine the causes which led him to them. There is nothing in his work which answers this question directly. When one of the disciples of Zarathustra once asked of him the explanation of his words, he received this answer: "I do not belong to those whom one may question about their ‘why.’ Is my experience but of yesterday?" ["Poets," Thus Spake Zarathustra]. This is one of the merits of Nietzsche's philosophy. Most of the "becauses" which usually follow the statements writers make are arguments ex post facto. The conviction has been there for a long time and it remains only to compel men to accept it; all arguments are regarded as good, provided that they lead to the goal - i.e., that they present judgments legitimate and correct from the point of view of logic. Nietzsche himself sometimes attempts to "ground" his opinions by referring to history, philosophy, etc.; but then his thoughts lose as much in interest and meaning as they gain in outward organization. His "knowledge" came from an inward experience, from that terrible experience which leads him to the conviction that a sick man has no right to be a pessimist, that the great writers take revenge for their "inward defilement," that where a God is venerated there is nevertheless really only a "poor sacrificial animal."
- Before the aspect and virtue of Brutus Shakespeare prostrated himself on the ground and felt unworthy and alien; he inscribed testimony of this in the tragedy itself. Twice he introduced into it a poet and twice poured upon him such impatient and extreme scorn that it sounds like a cry, like the cry of self-contempt. Brutus, even Brutus, loses patience when the poet appears, conceited, pathetic, obtrusive, like poets usually are, as a being who appears to be bursting with the possibilities of greatness, even of moral greatness, and who nevertheless, in the philosophy of practice and of life, rarely rises to ordinary honesty. "I'll know his humour when he knows his time...away with the jiggling fool!" cries Brutus. We may translate this back into the soul of the poet who wrote it. [The Gay Science, 98]
Such or similar "becauses," as answer to a curious "why," are never given in direct form and can never be so given. They manifest themselves only in singular perspicacity with regard to the psychology of other people. And if Nietzsche says that we must carry into Shakespeare’s soul Brutus’ words to the poet, we must surely consider his own intrusions into the secrets of great men as involuntary confessions and discover in them those experiences that he did not wish to entrust to his disciples, ostensibly because of their ancient date and his own bad memory: "If I have any advantage over other psychologists, it is that my vision is more sharpened for that most difficult and insidious kind of deduction in which the majority of errors are made - deduction from the work to the creator, from the deed to the doer, from the ideal to him who has need of it, from every thought and valuation to the hidden necessity which commands them."
What he tells us here about himself is the truth. He learned to make distinctions where others saw nothing. But whence did this man, who lived behind "seven solitudes," come to such singular perspicacity? Its ground seems to be the following: he found in others what he saw in himself. "Every profound thinker is more afraid," says Nietzsche, "of being understood than of being misunderstood. In the latter case his vanity perhaps suffers, but in the former case his heart, his sympathy, which always says, ‘Ah, but why would you also have as hard a time of it as I?’ " [Beyond Good and Evil, 290]
These words can, to a certain degree, clarify for the reader the meaning of the following passage from Nietzsche:
These voluntary and involuntary confessions show us under what pressure Nietzsche had come to his "good," and what he expected from morality when he declared that its problem was his personal problem, that his fate was bound up with it. Morality certainly had often to do with men placed in conditions such as those in which Nietzsche found himself, and perhaps many can say with Nietzsche, "I doubt that such pain 'improves' us but I know that it deepens us." [Ibid.] Nevertheless, with such experiences, such personal experiences, no one before Nietzsche had dared openly to test the sovereign and universally recognized rights of the good. If Nietzsche says "the sick man has no right to be a pessimist," others before him were of the opinion that the sick (unfortunate) man has no right to make morality responsible when it does not fulfill his hopes, for they believed that the fault lay not with morality but with him. This will become clearer later when we take into account in greater detail the causes that led Nietzsche to forswear the ideals of his youth. For the moment, we would only emphasize once more a most important circumstance. To the end of his life Nietzsche remained a virtuous man, in the full and entirely ordinary sense of this term. He never offended a child, he was as chaste as a young girl, and he fulfilled everything that is considered by men as duty or obligation, perhaps even with somewhat exaggerated zeal. We have already quoted these two of his aphorisms: "Who has not, at one time or another, sacrificed himself for the sake of his good name?" and "It is for his virtues that one is punished best." [Beyond Good and Evil, 92, 132]. These words are for us testimony of inestimable value, more important than the weighty biographical works in which honest and conscientious men weary themselves in representing Nietzsche as the stereotyped great man, i.e., such as a great man should be according to the traditional image of the nature of genius.
- And as far as my long illness is concerned, am I not infinitely more indebted to it than to my health? I owe to it a higher health, one such that it grows stronger than everything that it does not destroy. I also owe to it my philosophy... Only great pain is the final liberator of the spirit, as the teacher of great suspicion, which makes an X out of every U, a true, correct X, i.e., the ante-penultimate letter... It is only great pain, that long slow pain by which we are burned as if with green wood, which takes its time, that forces us philosophers to descend into our final depth, to rid ourselves of all trust, all good-nature, veiling, gentleness, and averageness, in which we have previously perhaps placed our humanity. [The Gay Science, Preface to the Second Edition, 3]
And here it may be interesting for us, who seek the one common point between the German antichrist and the Russian Christian, to recall a similar confession of Tolstoy's. Tolstoy never had to pay for his virtues. But he did pay for his vices, and very dearly. Here are his own words: "In my life, which has been happy only from the point of view of the world, the world's teachings have caused so many sufferings that they could have made a martyr of Christ. All the most painful moments of my life, beginning with my drunkenness and debaucheries as a student up to the duels and the war, up to the sickness and the unnatural conditions in which I now live - all this belongs to a martyrdom that is borne in the name of the world."
Apart from the way in which Tolstoy today regards his past, it is clear that he formerly sinned very willingly and frequently, and that he cannot name any period of his life that was completely devoted to the service of virtue (the last years, naturally, not counted). From his sinful life, however, he draws a conclusion diametrically opposite Nietzsche's: "Let every honest man recall his whole earlier life and he will see that he has never suffered for having followed the teachings of Christ." The question, nevertheless, raises itself: can Tolstoy be the judge of the meaning of virtue for men when he has himself sinned so much? It is clear that in this respect the "immoral" Nietzsche, as Tolstoy calls him, is much more competent; Nietzsche knew neither drunkenness, nor debauchery, nor dueling, nor all the rest that filled Tolstoy's life. He served the "good." And the good played him a bad trick. So long as he was robust, young, in good health, so long as he could do without the consolations of the good - i.e., so long as he had at his disposal everything in which men rejoice and from which they live - the good also loaded him with its gifts. But when everything was taken away from him, when he was alone, then the good, like a faithless friend, also abandoned him. He was not yet thirty years old when he underwent that terrible metamorphosis called sickness. Almost in a moment - like Pushkin's Musselman who murmured against God - Nietzsche, falling asleep as a young man, awoke an old and broken man, with the terrifying consciousness that his life was gone and could never return. But death did not come; he had to live with the sad sounds of Faust's song: Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren! With what supplications he addressed himself to the good, the only God to whom he could still pray! He had no other God, he did not even dare think of another God, for the same reason that he did not dare be a pessimist: for this God would have been, psychologically speaking, a God imagined by himself for solace and consolation, as the pessimism of a sick man cannot be the result of objective contemplation but only of an unfortunate personal fate.