Nietzsche’s Self-Conqueror and Procreative Self-Sacrifice

Friedrich Nietzsche is a notoriously anti-Christian author, and, while in rhetoric he is second to none, he is pathetically weak when it comes to metaphysics and religion. Still, his writings feature fiery insights that admit of a Christian re-reading, as tranposing a score from minor to major and changing the tempo and dynamics could give you a very different piece of music.

I remember reading Thus Spake Zarathustra over a quarter-century ago and feeling electrified by some passages, which I copied down in my journal. Here is one of them:

Bitterness lies in the cup of even the best love: thus it arouses longing for the overman; thus it arouses your thirst, creator. Thirst for the creator, an arrow and longing for the overman: tell me, my brother, is this your will to marriage? Holy I call such a will and such a marriage.[1]

Last JudgmentThe Übermensch (“overman” or “superman”) is a much-abused fancy in need of only a pin-prick to bring it crashing to the earth, but there is a hint of truth in this statement. The fundamental reason for marriage is the procreation and education of offspring, in the absence of which one cannot explain why male and female sexes exist to begin with; and Christian parents strive to generate, raise up, and leave behind worthy Christian sons and daughters who will surpass their parents. To be serious about this—to “create a higher body, a first movement, a self-propelled wheel”—is to welcome suffering, to seize the cup of bitterness and drain it to the dregs, for a mother and a father must make themselves, in a concrete sense, a stage on the way, a means for destiny, a conduit of energy, giving life to their children and being superceded by them. Nietzsche again:

You are young and wish for a child and marriage. But I ask you: Are you a man entitled to wish for a child? Are you the victorious one, the self-conqueror, the commander of your senses, the master of your virtues? This I ask you. Or is it the [mere] animal and need that speak out of your wish? Or loneliness? Or lack of peace with yourself?

Let your victory and your freedom long for a child. You shall build living monuments to your victory and your liberation. You shall build over and beyond yourself, but first you must build yourself, perpendicular in body and soul. You shall not only reproduce yourself, but produce something higher. May the garden of marriage help you in that![2]

This will-to-marriage for the sake of descendants who will climb higher and conquer more could well describe the Catholic ideal of matrimony for the sake of rearing saints and heroes. St. Thomas says (and I believe the statement is laced with vast implications) that husband and wife should “pay the debt” to each other both from the virtue of justice, because they belong to each other (and justice is to give what is due), and from the virtue of religion, to broaden the fields of the kingdom of God. There is no bourgeois fluff in this honest picture of marriage: it is a common endeavor, a labor of joy and pain, the blood of ecstasy and sacrifice, the nexus of creation and death—done for the reign of justice and religion. Man and woman are given to each other for the sake of producing something higher than just themselves, namely, a family, God’s family, the domestic church, citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Nietzsche spoke of “building yourself, perpendicular in body and soul,” so that from a superior man would arise “living monuments to your victory [over mediocrity] and your liberation [from the self-imposed limits of the rest of men].” Are we not witnessing here a desperate attempt to transpose into a secular key the supreme victory of Christ on Calvary, which unleashed into the world a power of love that can never be equaled, surpassed, exhausted, or suppressed, and with it, the liberation of mankind from our guilty pact with sin, death, and the devil? Those words of Jesus as He was about to plunge into His hour of obedience, surrender, and conquest ring out down through the ages, swallowing Nietzsche in their grandeur: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:31–32).

Now, in the “hour” when He is glorified, the hour when the Son of Man is lifted up on the Cross, drawing to Himself everyone who believes in Him, is the judgment of this world—not the world as God created it, but the world of fallen man who falsely exalts himself, the world of darkness, hatred, ultimately the loneliness of egoism,[3] which the Son of Man confronts with self-surrendering love, to expose it as a darkness unworthy of man; now shall the ruler of this world, the ringleader of the hatred, the lies, the self-aggrandizement (the main lie being that freedom consists in absolute self-determination, when in reality, freedom is found in giving oneself away in love) be cast out, driven out—by what? By the cross of Jesus. Wherever His cross is, there is love, love that gives all of itself to the final drop of blood; and this is absolutely incompatible with selfishness. Hence the devil cannot function, cannot act, wherever this love is present and active. The devil is driven out, or exorcised, from the hearts of believers who are “possessed” by the Spirit of Truth, “dispossessed” of the lying spirit.[4] Whoever clings to the cross of Christ is freed from the devil and his hatred, and is ushered into the light of life—that is, eternal life, which is to know the Father and the Son, that is, to know the glory of an infinite, inexhaustible love. This love is the truth of reality. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16b).

It is the unexpected arrival in our world of Jesus’ testimony to THE truth of reality—the one non-negotiable truth that should govern our lives—that leads to krisis, that is, to the separation between light and darkness and to judgment as well as condemnation.[5] The Son of God is sent for this purpose, to testify to the truth, and so to win over souls who are searching for the truth: “Socratic souls,” we might call them, souls hungry for meaning and hope. In Jesus Christ, we have the origin, the model, and the full realization of man: not the ridiculous “overman” of Nietzsche, but the God-man, King of kings and Lord of lords. He drank the cup of bitterness and transformed it into the blood of love. He gave Himself to His immaculate Bride forever, and she in turn gives herself for ever, one flesh, one spirit. From His victory in freedom, from her ardent surrender, proceed innumerable children in this fertile garden of marriage. How blessed, how privileged we are to be taken up into His fertility, into “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16), into that cloud of witnesses who conquered the accuser by the blood of the Lamb (Rev 12:10–11).

[1] In The Portable Nietzsche, 183.

[2] Ibid., see pp. 181–83.

[3] Recall the depiction of hell in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

[4] Hence, the rite of baptism contains exorcisms.

[5] These are all possible meanings of the Greek noun krisis and and verb krino.

Peter Kwasniewski, Ph.D. is a founding professor of Wyoming Catholic College and a widely-published author on liturgy, sacred music, Thomistic theology, and Catholic social teaching. His most recent books are Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014) and Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico Press, 2014). He lives with his wife and children in Lander, Wyoming.
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