Athens and Jerusalem \  Part II  \ In the Bull of Phalaris


     It is usually held that German idealist philosophy sprang entirely from Luther. How this opinion arose is difficult to say. Perhaps the historians of philosophy have allowed themselves to be led astray by a very simple train of reasoning: all the representatives of German idealism - Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel - were Lutherans, ergo German idealism sprang from Luther. But it suffices to recall what Hegel said about original sin, or Kant's "I ought, therefore I can," or Schelling's famous essay "On the Essence of Human Freedom" (even if it be only the quotation from it cited above), or Fichte's ethical idealism to realize that Luther remained entirely outside German philosophical thought. "I ought, therefore I can," says Kant, while Luther's entire doctrine rests on the opposite assertion: "I ought, I wish even, yet I can not." The law is not given man to guide him but only to make him aware of his weakness and impotence; "the law accuses, terrifies and condemns." After the fall, man lost both his freedom of will and his freedom of thought; he cannot go where he wishes to go and he takes appearances and illusions for truths. In Luther's lifetime his doctrine seemed unacceptable and absurd both to the learned Erasmus and to the Catholic theologians nurtured on the Bible. According to Luther, God is beyond good and evil, beyond truth and falsehood. How could philosophy or even theology accept this - especially philosophy? At bottom Kant, Fichte and Schelling thought as did Hegel: the serpent did not deceive Adam, Socrates repeated Adam's act, and the fruits of the tree of knowledge have become the principle of philosophy for all time.

     The only exception to this was Nietzsche. He alone saw in Socrates a fallen man. Socrates "appeared to be a healer, a deliverer. Is it still necessary to show the error in his belief in 'reason' at all costs? It is self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists to think that they are leaving décadence by making war against it. To escape it is beyond their power; what they choose as a remedy, as a means of deliverance, is only another expression of décadence. They merely change its expression; they do not destroy it... To be forced to fight against the instincts - this is the formula of décadence; as long as life is on the ascendant, happiness and instinct are identical." And again: "The morality of the Greek philosophers since Plato is pathologically conditioned, just as is their lofty estimate of dialectic. Reason = virtue = happiness only means: We must imitate Socrates and establish forever against the dark instincts a daylight - the daylight of reason. We must be intelligent, clear, lucid at all costs; every surrender to the instincts or to the unconscious leads downward."

     In general Nietzsche treats Luther very cavalierly; many a time he calls him a coarse and brutal peasant. But in the papers found after his death we read: "Luther's language and the Bible's poetic form as the foundation of the new German poesy - this is my discovery." And, indeed, Nietzsche is the first of the German philosophers who turned to Luther and the Bible. The subtitle of the work from which I have quoted his remarks on Socrates is already sufficiently revelatory in this respect: "How one philosophizes with the hammer." We recall the role that the "hammer of God" plays in Luther and in the prophets. Furthermore, in his reflections on Socrates, Nietzsche basically only repeats what Luther had said about the fallen man. The fallen man is entirely in the power of an alien force and can do nothing more to save himself.

     Such precisely is Nietzsche's Socrates; the more he struggles, the more desperately he strains his forces, the more surely he marches to his ruin. He has lost his freedom and does not choose, though he is persuaded to the contrary; he is pushed and dragged and does not even feel that he is in chains. Socrates went to reason, to the good, as the first man stretched out his hand to the fruit of the tree of knowledge; but where they expected to attain resurrection and life they found only corruption and death. This is the meaning of Luther's terrible words: "Man must distrust his own works and, like a cripple with slack arms and legs, implore grace as the effector of works." This is also the meaning of his doctrine of "the law" and of his de servo arbitrio.

     Luther's as well as Nietzsche's "experience" correspond so little to what men ordinarily find in experience that they appear to them fantastic; they have been brought, it seems, from another world, completely foreign to our own. Luther and Nietzsche were not the only ones, however, to have such experiences. In Kierkegaard's Thorn in the Flesh we find a similar testimony: "You wish to run faster than ever, but you feel that you cannot even lift your feet from the ground; you are prepared to sacrifice everything in the world to buy even only an instant and you learn that it is not for sale for 'it does not lie in any one's will or power but only in God's mercy.'" All this is so much outside the field of our vision that it seems to us to have passed beyond the limits of all possible and actual human interests. If, after the fall, our will is so weakened that we can do nothing for our own salvation - Nietzsche does not hide the fact that he, like Socrates, is a fallen man - and we are forced to go, arms dangling, to our ruin without even trying to fight, what interests can still be in question? All interests have vanished; it remains for us only to look straight before us, with heart frozen. It remains for us only to renounce forever ridere, lugere et detestari to learn to find "the highest good" in intelligere.

     Luther could still "implore grace as the effector of works." But for Nietzsche, judging by what he says in his books, prayers as well as He to whom Luther addressed his prayers had ceased to exist. How pray when there is no one to hear us? How beseech God when "knowledge" brings us the "universal and necessary truth" that God does not exist or, as Nietzsche said, that men have killed God?

     But, strangely enough, in Nietzsche as in Luther, the moment of the deepest fall was followed by an entirely new revelation. When Nietzsche felt that Socrates' "wisdom" was only the expression of his "fall" and that man, like a bird bewitched by a serpent, does not go where he wishes but is dragged against his will by an incomprehensible force into the abyss of physical and spiritual annihilation, there suddenly rose before him the idea of the Eternal Return, an idea completely alien to his thought as well as our own. It was as if he had suddenly been transported, like Moses, to that peak where "he speaks with God face to face." He discovered that there - face to face with the primordial mystery, "law and reason have nothing to do," and he began to speak of the will to power, of the morality of masters, and of all that he had found "beyond good and evil."

     I repeat that Nietzsche felt himself, quite like Socrates, a fallen man. The laws of reason and morality were deeply imbedded in him, they had somehow become part of his spiritual being; to tear them out without killing his soul seemed to him as impossible as to extract the skeleton of a man without first killing the man. In his view, just as in ours, these laws express our deepest nature; beyond good and evil, beyond the truth, there is only the void, nothingness, where everything disappears. Nevertheless, it is there that one can, one must, seek omnipotence, the power that will save man from death! Luther's sola fide led him to Him of whom he said, "for God is the Almighty who creates everything out of nothing." But does not then Nietzsche's "Will to Power" express under another form Luther's sola fide? Luther relied on the authority of the Bible, on the prophets and apostles, while Nietzsche's leap to the heights of Sinai began at the moment when the Bible had lost all authority in his eyes. On the contrary, everything that still retained any authority for him warned him imperiously that the "Will to Power" was the worst of follies and that there was no salvation, no refuge for a thinking man other than the beatitudines brought by Socrates and Spinoza.

     Nietzsche has told us of this sufficiently in the books that he wrote immediately after his crisis. And yet a mysterious force impelled him away from the tree of knowledge. What are we to call this force? Shall we find a name for it among the words that still retain a certain meaning for us? We would postpone the answer to this question. But let us hear what Nietzsche himself says about this force: "Send me madness, you inhabitants of the sky - madness, that I may finally believe in myself! Send me delirium and convulsions, sudden clarity and sudden darkness, throw me into icy cold and into heat more intense than any man has ever felt, terrify me with mysterious noises and phantoms, make me howl and groan and crawl like a beast - only that I may believe in myself! Doubt devours me. I have killed the law, the law terrifies me as a corpse terrifies a living person; if I am no more than the law, I am the most miserable of men. The new spirit that is born in me - whence does it come if not from you? Prove to me, however, that I am yours; madness alone can prove it to me."

     These lines are taken from Dawn of Day, a book which belongs - as is commonly held - to Nietzsche's "positivist" period. And yet we find here, expressed with perhaps even greater force, what Luther had already said about the law. Luther could, despite everything, still rely on the authority of the Bible. He admits openly: "I would not have dared so to call the law but would have considered it to be the greatest blasphemy against God, if Paul had not done it before." Nietzsche, however, could not appeal to anyone; he was abandoned to himself and his "madness." When the modern man, educated by Hegel, who has inoculated him with the wisdom of the Biblical serpent, hears or reads Luther's discourses, he calms himself with the thought that these are only the visions of a medieval monk who has rid himself of his cowl but not of his prejudices and his foolish fears. Nietzsche, however, was never a monk and was familiar with all the conquests of science. Furthermore, we must not forget that everything Luther said about "the law" was directed especially against the monks, who felt the hair rise on their heads when they read his writings. Their life was in fact founded on the conviction that "to him who does what is in his power God does not deny grace. (Luther even says, "God unfailingly gives grace.") Luther's thought, however, was born out of his profound conviction that the more the fallen man struggles to save himself, the more surely (like Socrates in Nietzsche) does he go to his ruin, and that only he who remissis manibus et pedibus (with slack arms and legs) surrenders himself to the will of God, who is beyond all the laws dictated by morality and reason, can participate in the supreme truth. There can be no doubt about it: from the human point of view, Luther's doctrine, in its harshness and cruelty, surpasses anything that the most pitiless human mind could ever imagine. The God of the Bible, if He is in fact such as Luther represents Him, deserves not our love but our eternal hatred (as, by the way, Luther himself several times says).

     There is another objection that, from our modern point of view, is still more decisive. The monks declared that "to him who does what is in his power God does not deny grace"; Luther proclaimed that "man must distrust his own works and implore grace as the effector of works." But both the monks and Luther spoke of what does not exist. There is in the universe neither God nor grace, and real being develops entirely on a level that Luther's ideas do not even touch. Man's task consists, then, in recognizing the conditions of his existence and in adapting himself to them in such a way that his wants and needs are satisfied to the highest possible degree. There are, of course, many terrible and frightening things in life, but wisdom teaches us not to demand the impossible. Socrates was right when he concealed the bull of Phalaris by affirming that no evil could befall a good man. Spinoza was also right when he erected over his asinus turpissimus the beautiful altar of ethics with the inscription, "Happiness is virtue itself." But, to tell all, Aristotle and Hegel were more truthful and more perceptive than all the others: "the highest good" presupposes a certain minimum of temporal goods, and he alone can attain the happiness of contemplation who possesses the skill and the resolution necessary to keep himself far away from those realms of being where bulls of Phalaris and asini turpissimi haunt man's imagination.

     Now both Luther and Nietzsche knew all this. Yet it is precisely against this presumptuousness, against this "stubborn and obdurate beast who imagines himself to be wise, righteous and holy" that their thunderbolts were directed. It is in his faith in his own "knowledge" and his own "morality" that they saw the "fall" of man. "The freedom of thought of our scientists," says Nietzsche, "is in my eyes only a jest - they lack in these things my suffering, my passion." Now this is a variation on Luther's theme - "the monster without whose killing man cannot live." It is an objection, Nietzsche's objection, against what we commonly call free and objective inquiry, against what Spinoza called true philosophy and what Socrates proclaimed as universal and necessary truth. But can suffering, even if it be measureless, or passion, even if it be the most ardent and powerful, be set in opposition to universal and necessary truth? And where shall we go to seek an answer to this question? In experience? But we have already seen that experience gives us neither true philosophy nor universal and necessary truths. Experience brings only "conviction" or "belief." But conviction inspires in Nietzsche no confidence. "In every philosophy," he writes, "there comes a moment when the conviction of the philosopher appears on the scene or, to use the language of an ancient mystery: adventavit asinus pulcher et fortissimus." Again the asinus, and apparently the same one that we have met in Spinoza and the one from which Socrates' "irony" once sprang. But its power is so great that the most daring minds submit to it. We remember Kant's sentence, "Reason aspires avidly to universal and necessary truths"; we remember also Aristotle's reflections on the same theme. Who, then, inspired men with this "conviction" thanks to which experience is transformed into "knowledge"? And how is it that this conviction has come to rule despotically over our world? Whatever the answer to these questions may be, one thing remains indubitable: it is impossible to fight against this conviction by means of arguments and objections. It is outside of, and precedes, all objections; it takes the place of arguments. To it can be opposed only "passion," hatred, the raging desire to be freed from it at all costs. Hence Luther's malleus Dei, hence Nietzsche's Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert (How one philosophizes with the hammer). It is impossible otherwise to break the enchantment which has - God knows when and how - taken possession of men...

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC