Chesterton: Christian Response to Nietzsche

This article first appeared in two parts in The Wanderer, August 13 and 20, 1981. An editorial note reads: “This and some succeeding articles are based on a lecture given at the Chesterton Conference on ‘Chesterton and Human Dignity’ held at Fordham University [New York City] on April 25th.” The author was the editor of Christopher Dawson’s The Dynamics of World History. (See Harry Elmer Barnes’s review of it.) For a sketch of Mulloy’s life, see William Doino, Jr.’s essay.

Chesterton: Christian Response to Nietzsche

John J. Mulloy

It seems appropriate, in a conference on “Chesterton and Human Dignity,” that one should speak of Chesterton’s Christian response to Nietzsche. For it was by the dialectic of challenge and response to anti-Christian ideas that Chesterton developed some of his most striking testimony to the dignity of the ordinary human being. If Nietzsche is the philosopher of elitist aristocracy, Chesterton is the philosopher of Christian democracy. As Chesterton wrote in Heretics in comment upon the democratic idea of man:

It is a certain instinctive attitude which feels the things on which all men agree to be unspeakably important, and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains) to be almost unspeakably unimportant. The nearest approach to it in our ordinary life would be the promptitude with which we should consider mere humanity in any circumstances of shock or death. We should say, after a somewhat disturbing discovery, “There is a dead man under the sofa.” We should not be likely to say, “There is a dead man of considerable personal refinement under the sofa” . . . . Nobody would say, “There are the remains of a clear thinker in your back garden.”  Nobody would say, “Unless you hurry up and stop him, a man with a very fine ear for music will have jumped off that cliff” (pp. 272-3).

 

All That Is Sound in Nietzsche

Now Friedrich Nietzsche had his own idea of human dignity, and there is no doubt that his emphasis on aristocracy was in considerable part a response to the leveling results of the growth of capitalism, which submerged the individual in the crowd and demanded a kind of herdlike response. Nietzsche was also reacting against the stifling materialism of the 19th century, which reduced everything to rational calculation, to a simple arithmetic of buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest, and in public policy to an automatic weighing of the amount of pains and pleasures which would result from this or that course of action. Quantity, not quality, was the criterion, and against this Nietzsche wished to reassert the qualitative elements in life and human society. Chesterton remarks on this element in Nietzsche in this passage from his book on George Bernard Shaw:

All that was true in his teaching was simply this: that . . . the mere achievement of dignity, beauty, or triumph is strictly to be called a good thing . . . it seems to me that all that is creditable or sound in Nietzsche could be stated in the derivation of one word, the word ‘valor.’  Valor means valeur; it means a value; courage is itself a solid good; it is an ultimate virtue; valor is itself valid. . . . Nietzsche imagined he was rebelling against ancient morality; as a matter of fact he was only rebelling against recent morality, against the half-baked impudence of the utilitarians and the materialists. He though he was rebelling against Christian­ity; curiously enough he was rebelling against the special enemies of Christianity . . . .Historic Christianity has always believed in the valor of St. Michael riding in front of the Church Militant; and in an ultimate and absolute pleasure, not indirect or utilitarian, the intoxication of the spirit, the wine of the Blood of God (pp. 197-8).

Now let us consider certain basic facts about Nietzsche and his attack on the Christian worldview. Nietzsche was born in 1844 and became insane in January, 1889, so he was less than 45 years old when his writing career was over. He published a number of important works on history, aesthetics, and philosophy, with special emphasis on Greek culture, in the 1870s, but it was not until the 1880s that his anti-Christian ideas reached their full development. His first reference to the death of God is found in The Joyful Wisdom of 1882, and in Thus Spake Zarathustra, written a year or so later, he presents his idea of the development of the Superman as a replacement for God, and his idea of eternal recurrence of the universe as a replacement for immortality. As the decade progressed, Nietzsche’s work became more and more stridently anti-Christian, culminating in The Antichrist of 1888, which is one long diatribe against Christianity.

 

His Most Effective Writing

Gilbert K. Chesterton was born in 1874, a generation or so after Nietzsche, and his first work was published in 1900. The books in which he especially deals with Nietzsche’s ideas are Heretics, published in 1905, consisting of a number of essays on leading writers of his day or of the preceding generation, and Orthodoxy, appearing in 1908.  This is a book of Christian apologetics which shows how Christianity fulfills the psychological needs of human nature. Orthodoxy is probably Chesterton’s most brilliant book, and Heretics is not far behind. In addition, Chesterton deals briefly with Nietzsche in his book on Shaw in 1909, and again, a quarter of a century after Orthodoxy, in St. Thomas Aquinas, published in 1932.

It is my belief that some of Chesterton’s most effective writing was devoted to refutation of one or another key idea of Nietzsche. Even in passages where Nietzsche is not mentioned, it is often his ideas that are Chesterton’s target. The fact that George Bernard Shaw, with whom Chesterton was so often in friendly controversy, had taken up ideas of Nietzsche, like that of the Superman and the worship of the life force, made Chesterton especially aware of Neitzsche’s worldview.

 

Joy and Gratitude

What was the nature of Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity? Nietzsche’s charge against the Christian Faith is that it is anti-human and anti-life. He reiterates this charge through a large number of denunciations of particular Christian positions. Thus, Christianity, by teaching mankind of Almighty God and His power and wisdom and control of the universe, diminishes the  importance of man, and makes him unable to control his own destiny. Christianity, by its absolute moral principles, cripples man and prohibits him from realizing the proper development of his powers. Christianity, by its negative attitude toward sexuality and creative violence, makes man psychologically sick and distrustful of life. Christianity, by teaching of a life beyond the present one where alone true happiness is to be found, leads man to despise the present life and turn away from it. Christianity, by teaching of the equality of all men before God, wars against all noble instincts and all that is heroic in life, and leads to social leveling and spiritual mediocrity. Christianity, by exalting the poor and the lowly, inculcates envy and resentment against the upper classes and all natural nobility. (Notice that this is the opposite of the charge leveled against Christianity by Karl Marx — that Christianity is the opiate of the people and leads them to accept willingly and submissively the exploitation of an upper class.)

Now over and above the specific replies which Chesterton makes to Nietzsche concerning Christianity, it is the whole of Chesterton’s life and work which is a standing refutation of Nietzsche’s charge that Christianity is anti-human and anti-life. This great Christian apologist, the “defender of the Faith,” as Pope Pius XI called him in a telegram to the people of England upon Chesterton’s death, shows that it is an exultant joy and gratitude for life which are fundamental to the Christian worldview. Chesterton also demonstrates that Christianity fulfills the deepest needs of human nature, in contrast to the disappointment and frustration which result from a merely naturalistic view of life. In Orthodoxy he pointed out the basic difference between Christianity and all those philosophies which confine man to this life alone.  He might well have had in mind Nietzsche’s declaration when speaking of the Superman

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes. Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go (Thus Spake Zarathustra, part one, section 3).

Here is the Chesterton passage:

But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I was really happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in felling all things as odd, for I myself  was at once worse and better than all things. . . . The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed, even in acquiescence.  But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring (Orthodoxy, pp. 146-7).

 

A Chorus of Giants

The vision of reality which inspires all of Chesterton’s work and thought, which he tells us he arrived at before he became a Christian, but which he found pre-eminently expressed in Christianity, is given in the following passage from Chesterton’s book on Chaucer:

There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly real.  it is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; . . . (Chaucer) was the immediate heir of something like what Catholics call the Primitive Revelation; that glimpse that was given of the world when God saw that it was good; and so long as the artist gives us glimpses of that, it matters nothing that they are fragmentary or even trivial. . . . Creation was the greatest of all revolutions.  It was for that, as the ancient poet said, that the morning stars sang together; and the most modern poets, like the medieval poets, may descend very far from that height of realization and stray and stumble and seem distraught; but we shall know them for the sons of God, when they are still shouting for joy.  This is something much more mystical and absolute than any modern thing that is called optimism; for it is only rarely that we realize, like a vision of the heavens filled with a chorus of giants, the primeval duty of praise” (pp. 26-27).

And it is upon this primeval duty of praise for the wonder of existence that Chesterton’s critique of Nietzsche is largely based. This, of course, reverses the charge that Christianity is anti-life and implies that it is really Nietzsche who is stricken by that disease. Let us consider, for example, Nietzsche’s conception of the Superman, or the Ubermensch, more properly translated as the Overman. Here is Nietzsche’s expression of this idea as given in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves, and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. and man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment (Portable Nietzsche, p. 124).

Now Chesterton’s response to this has several different approaches. One of these is to point out that Nietzsche substitutes metaphor for moral reality:

So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say ‘the purer man,’ or ‘the happier man,’ or ‘the sadder man,’ for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says, ‘the upper man,’ or ‘over man,’ a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers.  Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker.  (Orthodoxy, pp. 192-3).

A second approach is to note that Nietzsche’s calling upon men to labor to produce the Superman and strive to “create something beyond themselves,” is really unnecessary if the Superman or Overman is to be the inevitable product of evolution anyway. And if men are to be the agents for his coming, rather the forces of nature, then what are the criteria by which they are to know toward what model they are to direct their efforts?

If the Superman will come by human selection, what sort of Superman are we to select? If he is simply to be more just, more brave, or more merciful, then Zarathustra sinks into a Sunday-school teacher; the only way we can work for it is to be more just, more brave, or more merciful; sensible advice, but hardly startling. If he is to be anything else than this, why should we desire him, or what else are we to desire? These questions have been many time asked of the Nietzscheites, and none of the Nietzscheites have even attempted to answer them (George Bernard Shaw, pp. 199-200).

But Chesterton’s more fundamental answer to Nietzsche and the Superman, and to Nietzsche’s scorning ordinary human beings as “a laughing stock and a painful embarrassment,” is to emphasize the wonder and the miracle of what man as such really is. In a passage in Heretic in which Chesterton is responding to Shaw’s promotion of this idea of the Superman, Chesterton writes:

“But the sensation connected with Mr. Shaw in recent years has been his sudden development of the religion of the Superman. He who had to all appearance mocked at the faiths in the forgotten past discovered a new god in the unimaginable future. He who had laid all the blame on ideals set up the most impossible of all ideals, the ideal of a new creature. . . .

“For the truth is that Mr. Shaw has never seen things as they really are. If he had he would have fallen on his knees before them. . . . It is not seeing things as they are to think first of a Criareus with a hundred hands, and then call every man a cripple for having only two. . . . And it is not seeing things as they are to imagine a demi-god of infinite mental clarity, who may or may not appear in the latter days of the earth, and then to see all men as idiots. And this is what Mr. Shaw has always in some degree done. When we really see men as they are, we do not criticize, but worship; and very rightly. For a monster with mysterious eyes and miraculous thumbs, with strange dreams in his skull, and a queer tenderness for this place or that baby, is truly a wonderful and unnerving matter. It is only the quite arbitrary and priggish habit of comparison with something else which makes it possible to be at our ease in front of him. A sentiment of superiority keeps us cool and practical; the mere facts would make our knees knock under with religious fear. It is the fact that every instant of conscious life is an unimaginable prodigy. It is the fact that every face in the street has the incredible unexpectedness of a fairy-tale” (pp. 63-64).

 

The Process of Secularization

A second striking challenge to the Christian worldview is Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, first set forth in The Joyful Wisdom of 1882. The death of God implies, of course, that God has never really existed, but is simply a creation of man’s imagination. So that when man stops believing in this subjective fantasy, God ceases to exist. But since the individual’s experience of God as a living reality may differ from that of Nietzsche or that of the secularized world which Nietzsche saw coming into being, why should a person accept the view that God is dead? Nietzsche, although he pretends to be appealing to the insight of the prophetic individual, is instead appealing to the sociological process of secularization. Man becomes enslaved to society rather than being able to transcend it in true individuality.

Here is Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God:

“Whither is God?,” the Madman cried.  “I shall tell you.  We have killed him — you and I.  All of us are his murderers. . . . Is not the greatest of this deed too great for us?  Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?”

And writing four years later, in 1886, in an addition to the same volume, Nietzsche wrote:

Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel as if a new dawn were shining on us when we receive the tidings that “the old god is dead”; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, anticipation, expectation. . . . All the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”

 

A Small World and a Little Heaven

Chesterton’s response to this, I believe, is to be found in the chapter in Orthodoxy called “The Maniac.” Although the subject deals with a number of different matters which involve the rejection of God, it seems that it is especially a response to Nietzsche’s idea that the death of God opened up the way for “philosophers and ‘free spirits’“ to become gods themselves. Notice that in Nietzsche’s account the tidings are brought to mankind by a madman, although Nietzsche sees the madman as possessed of a perception which ordinary humanity does not yet have. Chesterton’s chapter, “The Maniac,” appears to be a definite takeoff from this image. But where Nietzsche proclaims the superiority of the madman’s insight, Chesterton contrasts his narrow and concentrated reasoning with the healthy sanity of ordinary mankind. Nietzsche implies that the madman is the only one who sees things clearly; Chesterton says that that kind of clarity can only be achieved by forgetting a large part of what constitutes reality.

It is this ignoring of reality which leads on to that state of mind in which the individual thinks he has become God and has created everything else. Chesterton says there is no reasoning with such a position, that the only hope is to jar it out of the insane groove in which it has become fixed. The response which Chesterton gives to the madman applies also to Nietzsche and his idea that he and a few other free spirits — Nietzsche later confessed that the others never really measured up to his own standard — will “become gods” now that God is dead. Here is Chesterton’s reply to the madman:

If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little Heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvelous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

Notice the direct contrast between Nietzsche’s seeing the death of God as leading men to an open sea, a sea that has never been so open before, and Chesterton’s portraying the man who thinks himself God as imprisoned within a very narrow universe. In fact, later on Chesterton compares this narrowing of reality to a madman’s cell:

The starts will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother’s face will be only a sketch from his own insane  pencil on the walls of his cell.  But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, “He believes in himself” (pp. 45-46)

 

Isolated and Disembodied

Another challenge which Nietzsche flings at Christianity is made through comparative religion. As an element of this strategy, Nietzsche attacks Christianity from the vantage point of the Oriental world religions. Thus he has some good words to say for the Hindu Laws of Manu, which set forth the basis of the caste system. But his preferred adversary to Christianity among the religions of the world is Buddhism. Although Nietzsche is opposed to all religions that involve asceticism and that do not find their center of gravity in the worship of the forces of natural vitality, he manages to develop quite a defense of Buddhism when comparing it to Christianity. Most of all he likes the fact that Buddhism rejects the idea of a personal God and thus makes its efforts center on man’s own ability to escape from pain and sorrow in life.

One of the elements of Chesterton’s response to Nietzsche in this matter is to suggest that the founders of the Oriental world religions were theorists and speculators who had lost their roots in the life of the common people, and were isolated and disembodied in the kind of religious systems they produced. As a result, they could disregard the conditions of reality, both physical and religious, when they were devising their explanations of the meaning of life and the universe. This is a counterattack on Nietzsche by outflanking him. For Nietzsche is always claiming for himself and those ideas he favors — and this includes Buddhism — the fact of their facing up to reality, while Christianity he denounced as escapist and turning away from life. No, says Chesterton, when one looks at the history of the Oriental world religions, with their contradiction of the fundamental principles that govern all existence, one finds men who have lost touch with reality. The Oriental world religions have no sense of the restraints imposed upon thought by really existing things, and thus are free to indulge themselves in whatever ideas happen to appeal to them.

 

Humanity and Liberty and Love

In Orthodoxy Chesterton compares Christianity with Buddhism to show that Christianity is on the side of life and love, while Buddhism is on the side of withdrawal from life and concentration on the world within. Chesterton writes:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they are common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all.

After examining a number of both kinds of these alleged resemblances, he concludes:

I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other as flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

And he sees this illustrated by the religious art of the two religions, in the contrast, for example, between a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. He observes:

The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The medieval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive.

He finds the reason for this contrast in the Christian emphasis on the importance of personality and the personal relationship between God and man. Consequently:

It is just here that Buddhism is on the side of modern pantheism and immanence. And it is just here that Christianity is on the side of humanity and liberty and love.  Love desires personality; therefore love desires division.  It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces, because they are living pieces. It is her instinct to say ‘little children, love one another,’ rather than to tell one large person to love himself.  This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of men, for the Christianity it is the purpose of God, the whole point of His cosmic idea . . . . We come back to the same tireless note touching the nature of Christianity; all modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free.  No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls (Orthodoxy, pp. 240-3, 245-6).

Thus Chesterton throws back into the teeth of Nietzsche the latter’s oft-repeated charge that Christianity is opposed to life and reality. It is the egoism of Nietzsche which prevents him from seeing the psychological reality of love which is at the heart of Christianity, and which is also at the heart of humanity in its deepest and truest meaning.

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