Monday, February 26, 2024

Diary of a Madman


Real liberation required a total break from the legacy of Western values.  In fact, it could come to demand the repudiation of values altogether – what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of all values.”

An entirely new culture was needed – one that was vigorous, fearless, and free from the values of the past.

The road from Bayreuth, it might be said, ultimately led to Woodstock.

The Age of Nihilism: Christendom from the Great War to the Culture Wars, by John Strickland

This book by Strickland is the fourth in a four-part series in which he examines the trajectory of Western Christianity and Christendom, this from the view of an Eastern Orthodox priest and professor.  I have noted before, while I do not agree with all of his comments and conclusion, I do appreciate his perspective and also his dedication to this project.

In this volume he begins with Nietzsche.  Actually, he introduces Nietzsche by beginning with Wagner.  Nietzsche’s introduction to a social life, such as it was, came when he entered the orbit of Wagner.  He became a regular in Wagner’s drawing room; the center of discussion was music – Wagner’s music.   It sounds very Randian; it will get more so.

Eventually Nietzsche would see in Wagner a narcissist, an egoist blinded by contempt for anyone who failed to take up the Wagnerian cultural cause.  Still, his music would inspire Nietzsche.  One of Wagner’s characters, Siegfried, would declare war on morality, overthrowing everything traditional.  He would surpass God in that he would act without moral constraint.  These lyrical themes were combined with Wagner’s brilliant and exciting music, truly captivating and intoxicating an audience.

For Nietzsche, this overthrowing of tradition meant not just Christianity, but also secular humanism.  The moving away from traditional Christianity was nothing new in the West; its elites had long ago done this.  but they would hold to traditional Christian values and culture – for as long as the latter could survive without the former.  Nietzsche was there to drive this point home.

Wagner would live the life that Nietzsche would come to write about.  Regarding the traditional culture of the West, Wagner turned out to be a believer in nothing.  A serial adulterer, he would leave his first wife.  He carried on affairs with married woman, with at least one bearing his child.  Nietzsche found all of this carrying on unseemly, yet through Wagner’s music he could see the hypocrisy of bourgeois society.

Orgies, adultery, free love: these themes were present throughout Wagner’s work.  Nietzsche would find inspiration here for Zarathustra – his prophet of a new morality, which was no morality at all, but the destruction of Christian morality.  Nihilism: nothing; human life was meaningless, nothing is absolute.

Transcendence was long ago lost to the West, replaced by the ideologies of liberalism, socialism, and nationalism – all counterfeits of traditional Christianity.  A fertile ground for advancing to the state of nothing.

Nietzsche would eventually break with Wagner.  Wagner’s final opera seemed to reverse or at least qualify the nihilistic qualities he had always claimed to hold and that were present in his work.  The hero in this work renounces power; he also realizes the suffering caused by unchastity.  Even the Eucharistic communion played a prominent role.

Nietzsche would write of this break:

“The moment I make a discovery of this sort, a man’s achievements count for absolutely nothing with me.”

From this moment, Nietzsche would be his own man.  He would note that modern philosophy is anti-Christian, although it would try to function as if there was a transcendent reality.  Yet, the rise of atheism resulted, necessarily, in the loss of moral absolutes.  “God is dead.”  There was no longer a point of reference for good and evil.

By the late nineteenth century, the list of noteworthy atheist cultural leaders was far longer than the list of noteworthy Christian cultural leaders.  Therefore, one could say that Nietzsche’s rejection of a belief in God was nothing special or new.  What was different for Nietzsche?  Many of these atheists found what they felt were superior truth claims outside of Christianity.  For Nietzsche, the issue was more its psychological effects.

So, Nietzsche chose the way of the nihilist:

Not since Julian the Apostate’s campaign to rid the Roman Empire of Christianity had anyone within Christendom so detested the faith and its influence.  Nietzsche came more and more to set himself against Christ, coming finally by the end of his career to declare himself the Antichrist.

Christianity subverts human nature.  That which Christianity holds highest – self-sacrificial love – he considered anathema.  True greatness requires the total indifference to the suffering of others.  He would write:

“What is good?  Whatever augments the feeling of power. … What is happiness?  The feeling that power increases. … The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity.  What is more harmful than any vice?  Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak – Christianity.”

“Life terminates where the kingdom of God begins.”

Nietzsche would see in Christianity the desire to excise all passions.  Strickland sees the roots of this in Western Christendom’s loss of the idea that desire can be spiritualized, beautified, and deified.  Man’s passionate faculties could participate in the experience of salvation; hence Eastern Christianity did not excise the desire of passion. 

Ecce Homo (Behold the Man).  This was Nietzsche’s final definitive statement about himself.  The words were those of Pontius Pilate, when presenting Jesus to the crowds.  Per Nietzsche, Christ’s rule was at an end; it was time for the Antichrist to rule.

Why I am so Wise; Why I am so Clever; Why I write Such Excellent Books.  These were some of the chapter titles of this work.  The final chapter: Why I am Destiny. 

“I am not a man, I am dynamite. … Hope is reborn with me.  Thus, I am necessarily a man of destiny.”

“I am by far the most terrible man that has ever existed; but, this does not negate the fact that I shall be the most beneficent. … I am the first immoralist, and thus I am the essential destroyer.”


What came shortly thereafter was Nietzsche’s insanity.  The story goes: in January, 1889, while walking home to his apartment in Turin, he saw a man cruelly beating his horse.

Nietzsche rushed to the horse, throwing his arms around its neck and sobbing uncontrollably like a little boy.

Within days, he was an inmate in a mental hospital.  The man who railed against the Christian virtues of mercy and pity would spend the rest of his life in the constant care of his mother, then his sister.  He lived, staring out the window, totally mute. 

An anonymous benefactor brought him a music box, which was the only thing that consoled him.  The tune?  Wagner’s “Wedding March.”

Was it the sight of the horse that caused this insanity?  Many point to syphilis, but Nietzsche was not at all a promiscuous man.  It seems at least as plausible that in this man and this horse Nietzsche stared openly into the deep abyss of his philosophy of meaninglessness. 

Externally, beyond the storms of his mind, life was never anything but dull.  In fact, the only really dramatic thing Nietzsche ever did was go insane.


  1. I read somewhere that Western elites officially became atheist after the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. They started de-converting from Christianity before that of course, and of course not all elites were atheist after that year. But, elite circles were categorically and publicly atheist from then on. So this part of the book is a little more than 100 years after that.

    I didn't realize that intellectuals like Wagner and Nietzsche were that directly against Christianity. I thought it was more about indifference towards God and putting their hope in science. But this really clears the picture. These men were against Christ consciously. The catastrophe of the 20th Century is no longer a surprise.

    1. Voltaire immediately popped into my mind when you referenced the Lisbon quake...."Candide" came out shortly after- I read it in college, unsure of what to think about it(and still am to some extent). Voltaire was a some of the Founders obviously. Jefferson being the most well known of them I suppose, but yet his unpublished works were focused on Jesus. Therein lies the you deal with the incongruity of "reason" versus the notion that a Biblical idea of "God" exists(or any other "god" based philosophy) as being "truth". Religion is about "control" to some extent....the question is the "good" and "bad" associated with it setting aside the question of divinity itself. I'm a qausi deist myself, but I fully understand that religion(or lack thereof) establishes some cultural underpinnings that determine societal outcomes in many areas.

      What a dilemma.....I can easily understand "insanity" as a response in thinking about it too much.

    2. Meditating on the existence of real objective truth and a real personal God will produce peace and sanity in your mind. This only happens because there is a God who did create you and who does love you. Without that there is no objective truth and there is no reason or sanity. If the Christian religion and its God are real, then all of the practical benefits that proceed from them are real and experienceable. If they aren't then there are no practical benefits.

    3. RMB, I do recall NT Wright making this point about the Lisbon earthquake, in the first of his eight-part Gifford Lectures a few years ago.