The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche : Philosophy and Preaching


     Did Nietzsche really seek God? His passionate polemics against Christianity sufficiently testify to this. In our day, to the "educated" man, this polemic seems anachronistic. (Tolstoy knows this better than anyone else.) Moreover, in Nietzsche, this polemic is not called forth, as in other writers - Voltaire, the young Heine, for example - by reasons foreign to religion, for example, political reasons. Quite the opposite: all the democratic tendencies by which the enemies of state religions were generally influenced were alien to Nietzsche. Indeed, what is more, Nietzsche reproaches Christianity most strongly for the spread of the idea of the equality of all men; he speaks of this matter often and at length and apparently with passion, even though he remains otherwise basically indifferent, to the point of naïveté, to social questions. Christianity interests him as a religion, as a doctrine which should resolve all his doubts, which should free him from disgust with life, a disgust by which he was ever more strongly seized, even though he affirmed with such conviction that "the sick man has no right to be a pessimist." In the history of modern times, Nietzsche was the first and perhaps the only philosopher who was hostile to Christianity as a religion and, what is still more important, one of those who rejected the consolation of the gospel at a time when nothing in the world was more necessary to him. Up until now it has commonly been said that man is "obliged" to believe and to be religious. In the case of Nietzsche this expression must be turned around. It must be said: "Man has the right to believe, to be religious." The history of Nietzsche's atheism is the history of his search for this right. If he did not find it, this is obviously not his own "fault." There can obviously be no question here of the "bad will" that is so freely attributed to unbelievers, and that Tolstoy so often imputes to the intellectuals of our time. On the contrary, Nietzsche employed all the power of his soul to find a faith. If he did not find it, it is because conditions were such that precisely he could not find it. Tolstoy's psychology admits only a single cause for unbelief: bad will, the refusal to take upon oneself the obligations imposed by Christianity. Obviously this explanation cannot be applied to Nietzsche. Upon him and all those who are in a similar situation, Christianity cannot lay any obligations; for unfortunate sick men and for those injured by fate there are only rights. Nietzsche understood this only too well. Throughout all times, even in the era of paganism, he says, men sacrificed to God all that was most precious to them: what still remains to us that we might bring it as a sacrifice to God? And here is the answer that he found: "Was it not necessary in the end for men to sacrifice everything consoling, healing, holy, all hope, all belief in hidden harmony, in future blessedness and justice? Was it not necessary to sacrifice God himself, and out of cruelty to themselves to worship stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness? To sacrifice God for nothingness - this paradoxical mystery of the supreme cruelty has been reserved for the generation that is now rising; we all know something of it already." [Beyond Good and Evil, 55]. Such was Nietzsche's atheism: it was not a duty neglected but a right lost. "The free thinking of our scientific gentlemen and physiologists is only a joke in my eyes; they lack the passion that I bring to these things, the suffering that I feel," he says in one of his latest works, The Antichrist.

     Nietzsche knew very well and could correctly evaluate the customary indifference of educated people to religion; he remembered his own youth when Schopenhauer and Wagner were everything for him and when, under the roaring of the cannon which accompanied the terrible tragedy of 1870, in a hidden corner of the Alps, he wrote with so much erudition and grace about the birth of tragedy. Here are the memories he preserved from that time. As is his custom, he does not speak of himself but of others, of Germans in general, of educated men. However, we already know from what sources he drew.
Among those, for instance, who presently live in Germany apart from religion, I find "free-thinkers" of many different kinds and origin, but above all a majority of those whose laboriousness from generation to generation has dissolved the religious instincts, so that they hardly know any more what purpose religions serve and only note their existence in the world with a kind of dull astonishment. They feel themselves already fully occupied, these good people, either with their business affairs or their pleasures, not to speak of the "Fatherland," and the newspapers, and their ‘family obligations;’ it seems that they do not have any time left for religion: and above all, it remains unclear to them whether it is a question of a new business or a new pleasure - for it is impossible, they say, that one should go to church only to spoil one's good mood.
And further:
"It is rare that pious people, or merely churchgoing people, can realize how much is required by a German scholar in the way of good will, one might say arbitrary will, to take the problem of religion seriously; by his whole profession he inclines to a lofty, almost charitable serenity as regards religion, with which there is sometimes mixed a slight disdain for the ‘uncleanness’ of spirit that he takes for granted wherever anyone still professes to belong to the church."
This relates to Nietzsche's own past, for he speaks here of others, of Germans in general, of learned men. But here is the conclusion, drawn now from his new experiences:
"Every era has its own divine type of naïveté, for the discovery of which it may be envied by other ages: and how much naïveté - adorable, childlike, and boundlessly foolish naïveté - is involved in the scholar's belief in his superiority, in the good conscience of his tolerance, in the unsuspecting, simple certainty with which his instinct treats the religious man as a less valuable and inferior type, beyond, before, and above which he himself has developed - he, the arrogant little dwarf and mob-man, the industriously alert head-and-hand-worker of ‘ideas’, of ‘modern ideas.’" [Beyond Good and Evil, 58]
     Nietzsche's writings are filled with similar reflections. His thought, which formerly was so completely taken up with theoretical pessimism, with philological investigations, with art, that he had no time at all to concern himself with the question of religion and therefore adopted the benevolently scornful attitude toward the question of God common among scholars, is now concentrated completely and exclusively on what he once deemed hardly worthy of attention. There is no God. God is dead: this message that he had once accepted so calmly at second hand now awakens in him a mystical horror. Here are the words he now uses to speak of it:
Have you not heard of the madman who lit a lantern on a bright morning and ran to the market-place, crying ceaselessly: "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of the people who were assembled there were of those who do not believe in God, he provoked a great deal of amusement. "Why, did he get lost?" said one. "Has he strayed away like a child?" said another. "Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?" - So they cried and laughed among themselves. The madman leaped into the midst of them and pierced them with his glances: "Where has God gone?" he cried, "I will tell you! We have killed him - you and I! We, all of us, are his murderers! But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to erase the entire horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on ceaselessly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Is night not coming on ceaselessly, and more and more night? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves - we, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and mightiest that the world possessed until now has bled to death under our knife. - Who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What expiatory rites, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this act too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been any greater event, and those who will be born after us belong, because of it, to a history higher than any history that has been until now!" Here the madman fell silent and looked again at those who listened to him: they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. As last he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into bits and was extinguished. "I come too early," he then said; "I am not yet at the right time." This tremendous event is still on its way, and is travelling - it has not yet come to the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is still further from them than the most distant star - and yet they have done it ! [The Gay Science, 125]
     So Nietzsche speaks about the nature of his atheism. All the comparisons that came to his mind appeared to him insufficient to impart to others the horrible inner feeling of devastation that he experienced when he saw and heard that God had been murdered - he who had once declared that men have too little love to give any away to fantastic beings.

     It is clear that he had more than enough love and that he understood only too well what God could have been for him if only it had been given him to believe; it is obvious that no alien influence was necessary to lead Nietzsche to belief. And, nevertheless, he did not attain to this belief and gave up all his hopes of hidden harmony, of future happiness and justice. The "religious consciousness of our time," which Tolstoy wished to make obligatory for all, refused its service where it would have been welcomed as gospel. It seems that it does not depend on the will of man to believe or not to believe, and thereby Tolstoy's fundamental idea that man has only to wish it in order to find a moral support in life is changed from an axiom into a theory, or - to be frank - into a statement that cannot in any way be proved. At the same time, however, it becomes clear that the entire task Tolstoy undertook was not fulfilled by him, that he shunned the obligation to lead men to religion and, instead, took upon himself the right to lash them for their unbelief. And I repeat what I have already said before: this happened not because Tolstoy did not understand what people expected of him but because he could not, either for himself or others, fulfill this great task. Where Nietzsche lacks faith, Tolstoy also lacks faith. But Nietzsche does not hide this (he hides other things), while Tolstoy believes that it is possible not to tell his disciples of the emptiness of his heart above which he erected the - from the literary point of view - brilliant edifice of his preaching.

     Who is right, Nietzsche or Tolstoy? Which is better to hide one's doubts and turn to men with a "doctrine" in the hope that this will suffice them and that they will never encounter the questions which oppressed the teacher, or to express everything openly? And what if these questions rise of themselves among the disciples? The disciples naturally must not speak of what the master suppressed: what a remarkable company of conscientious hypocrites with clear speech and unclear heads must result from it! Must not such a lie, though honest and well-intentioned, avenge itself to the seventh generation? Does anyone need martyrs of a sham faith? There was a time when men were led to religion, even to Christianity, by sword and fire. Now it is different. We know that even moral authority is, in this connection, an impermissible instrument. We wish that people should believe as the first Christians once believed, when men employed torture to make them deny Christ, when science, art, official authority, - in short, everything - set itself against the new doctrine. Only such a faith do we value. And if Nietzsche, who found himself precisely in this situation, could nevertheless not believe, we cannot find in this an occasion for scathing preachments. On the contrary, here we must be silent and listen, in order to learn to understand why the road to faith, once so easy and accessible and, in any case, possible, is now barred to those who have most need of it and seek it so passionately. Here only he who wishes to choke in himself the voice of doubt will thunder and lash out. But is this necessary? For Tolstoy, no. He himself knows what he needs, but it is necessary for his readers, for those hundreds and thousands of "Nietzsches" who, suffering the same fate as he, do not find in themselves the courage to utter their own speech, for those who, outwardly docile but with horror in their souls, repeat the strange and incomprehensible words that are preached to them. This is what is called resignation, and this is demanded of men as their duty in the name of various things that are called by beautiful names. But is this just? In the final analysis this demand has only one ground: to close the mouth of the unfortunate, so that others may live more peacefully for a longer or shorter time. But this is not only unjust, it is also impossible.

     Tolstoy's attempt to delimit the realm of the permitted in art through the introduction of the concept of a good and a bad art can obviously lead to nothing. Men speak and always will speak of what fills their souls and no poetic, whether it be that of Tolstoy or of Aristotle, will be able to suppress the sufferings accumulated in them. But it is not this purely practical question that concerns us here. To us the fact that Tolstoy turned his back on his personal task, the fact that he closed his eyes to the question he had raised, appears far more serious and important. He knows what it means to seek faith and not find it. His Levin - young, healthy, the fortunate father of a family - was close to suicide because he could find no God. Has Tolstoy the right to demand of us that we, without doubting the good faith and sincerity of his words, must accept his proclamation that "good" and "brotherly love" are God? Must he not tell himself that the indignation he pours out on unbelievers, and the prescription of physical work that he recommends as a universal panacea, can seem to us nothing other than a skillful - perhaps also unskillful - means of evading his own doubts?

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