This is part book report and part ‘what I learned’ while reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Twilight of the Idols. You’ll see references represented by chapter acronyms throughout (see list in the references section near the bottom). The subtitle is illustrative of the subject of the book: How to Philosophize With a Hammer. It is a work that contests the ideologies (principally Christianity) of Nietzsche’s day, and in its eternal reach, our own. In this work Nietzsche challenges us to a “revaluation of all values.” He describes the fundamental nature of this herculean task as “compel[ling] one every instant to run out into the sunshine so as to shake off a seriousness grown all too oppressive.” Sounds daunting, right? How does one seriously undertake the task of questioning all values?
Problems with Reason?
Nietzsche begins his revaluation journey with Socrates. As is the case throughout his other works, such as On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche is interested in the emergence of values. Socrates is well known for establishing a style of discourse known as the dialectic. The dialectic is a discourse between two or more people with different views but wishing to establish truth through reason. From the dialectic comes an equation: reason = virtue = happiness. What could be wrong with this formula? One chooses dialectics, says Nietzsche, “when one has no other way.” (PS6) Dialectics inherently “inspires mistrust.” (PS6) Great orators and debaters can use dialectics to champion any idea. When you think of politicians do you think of virtue and happiness? They certainly would tell you they are using reason to come to their conclusions. Why is it that just the right words cannot convince someone to change their mind of a deeply held belief? Reason has its downside. Rationality can be, as Nietzsche put it, “divined as a Savior.” (PS10) But in reality it does not alway lead to a consensus Truth.
I personally have gone through the revaluation of reason in a cyclical pattern over the years. I was raised Mormon and found myself as a missionary defending the idea that, “the Spirit of God will testify of the truth of Mormonism, but if that test fails, there are solid reasons to believe it’s true.” The mental dialectic of reason was a foundational value for most of my life. Don’t get me wrong, reason is awesome, and essential to life, but when it comes to ethics, morality, and values, reason can be on shaky ground. Nietzsche recognized that reason alone could be overwhelming to maintain. That according to the aforementioned formula for happiness, “one must … counter the dark desires by producing permanent daylight – the daylight of reason.” (PS10) Since leaving the Mormon Church, mostly from the posture of reason, I find myself rethinking through reason as a master value.
Nietzsche then turns his gaze to the passions. He makes the case that we should take a closer look at passion as a means of value. It is no secret that Nietzsche abhors Christianity (not Jesus specifically, but the church that followed). He laments the position Christianity takes in pathologizing passion. This position removed the potential concept of “spiritualization of passion.” Nietzsche writes that “the Church combats the passions with excision in every sense of the word: it’s practice, its cure, is castration.” (MN1) Mormonism does not deviate from this teaching either. It is taught, by leaders and in scripture, that “the natural man is an enemy to God, …and will be forever and ever, …unless he … putteth off the natural man.” (Mosiah 3.19) Another prophet in the Book of Mormon said, “all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity, they are without God in the world, … they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.” (Alma 41.11)
Nietzsche thinks the teaching of putting at odds our natural state with the teaching of the Church is a huge missed opportunity. He says the Church never asks, “how can one spiritualize, beautify, deify a desire” (MN1) or passion? To demonize our very nature is to make sick our roots, our very being. According to Nietzsche the deepest and highest desires of life come through the spiritualization of passions. Think about the emotions surrounding the birth of a child, the death of a parent, falling in love, or even “the first of the shadows which evening, every sort of evening, casts?” (MN4) These moments invoke within us an instinct to life, an inward search and expression of the soul that supersedes religion. Christianity co-opts these moments and attempts to dehumanize them, and place them in a Christian context outside of human nature. This challenge to Christian morality as anti-life and anti-nature has “become sacrosanct.” (MN5) It cannot be touched. To challenge it is absurd. I cannot help but acknowledge Nietzsche’s point and the irony in the Church vilifying the natural experience of humanity as a missed opportunity.
The Four Great Errors
- The error of confusing cause and consequence
- The error of false causality
- The error of imaginary causes
- The error of free will
Nietzsche continues his march toward the revaluation of values and highlights the problems with attributing an outcome to a cause. He calls this “reason’s intrinsic form of corruption.” (FG1) This is nothing new to daily life, but Nietzsche points out that this error goes deeper and “is even sanctified among us, it bears the names “religion” and “morality.” (FG1) When something we deem as good happens, what was its cause? Nietzsche points out that “the basis of every religion and morality is: ‘Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be happy!” (FG2) According to this teaching, religion is the cause of good consequences. Nietzsche calls this “the great original sin of reason.” (FG4)
One of the great original sins of causal teaching within Mormonism is the concept known as “the Light of Christ.” According to LDS doctrine (link) :
The Light of Christ is the divine energy, power, or influence that proceeds from God through Christ and gives life and light to all things. The Light of Christ influences people for good and prepares them to receive the Holy Ghost. One manifestation of the Light of Christ is what we call a conscience.
This teaching is made explicit in the book of Mormon when it reads, “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.” (Moroni 7:16) Accordingly, this light not only flows through Jesus from God, but it is the source of a preparatory energy/power that leads to the reception of the Holy Ghost. This is an example of Mormon doctrine inserting the sin of reason. Per LDS doctrine, the Holy Ghost cannot be received unless one becomes a member of the Mormon Church and dutifully obeys the proscribed commandments.
To further demonstrate the reach of this dogma, this “divine energy”, is also known as your conscience. I hear my inner critic saying, “So what if the cause of good outcomes is labeled as the light of Christ? What if we label our inner critic a conscience that is influenced by Jesus? What is the big deal? If not that, then what?” The issue is that the cause is pronounced as truth without recourse. It allows for endless errors of false causality and deep cognitive dissonance. It allows interpretations of your life and the life of the human race be dictated with the belief that the claimed deity of Mormonism is influencing people to do good, even if these interpretations don’t actually correspond with reality. What is so bad with this? Because this method also gives good reasons to the mothers of suicide bombers to be deeply grateful and proud of their child’s choices in the name of this “divine energy”.
This teaching on the light of Christ constituting a conscience necessitates an opposing influence. The belief in a literal divine energy coming from a literal Jesus also includes a literal Satan using his power and energy to manipulate, deceive, and oppose. This framework allows for a seemingly coherent explanation of nearly anything that is caused. For example, Christianity has long connected rock/metal music, Ouija boards, playing cards, and Dungeons & Dragons, with the influence of Satan. Today there is a connection of Satan influencing politics. In a recent poll 17% of American’s believe that Donald Trump’s election “is a reflection of God’s will,” while 27% believe he is “working for the devil.” In another poll, close to 50% of Trump voters believed “God wanted Trump to be president” while about 20% said “Don’t know”. This attribution of a cause to God or to the devil becomes an easy way of assigning divine blame without very much substantive reflection or analysis. In short, good = from Jesus, bad = from Satan. I can appreciate the comfort this formula brings to those that strive to find a reason for life’s complexities. However, this method introduces what George Orwell in his book 1984 calls crimestop, or “faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought.” (link)
A common human instinct is the desire to find a reason for the way we feel. “It never suffices us,” as Nietzsche put it, “simply to establish the mere fact that we feel as we do.” We want to know the motivation or reason behind the feelings or outcomes we experience. Here is where Nietzsche flexes his psychology chops. He explains that when we become conscious of our feelings, our memory “calls up earlier states of a similar kind and the causal interpretations which have grown out of them – not their causality.” (FG4) We habituate our interpretations, even if our interpretations are mistaken. In its application to religion, followers can recall memories in which they experienced similar feelings and interpreted the cause that has been described by authority figures within the hierarchical structure over time as “the light of Christ” or “the Holy Ghost.” In this way there “arises a habituation to a certain causal interpretation which in truth obstructs and even prohibits an investigation of a cause.” (FG4)
This is the center of the bullseye for my unbelief. The conditioning over time, through parents, family, trusted neighbors in the Church, and personal friends, constituted a kind of “proof by pleasure as a criterion for truth.” (FG5) When we interpret a reason for a consequence, especially in a spiritual dimension, we often set ourselves up to follow that interpretation ad infinitum, even in the face of compelling counter evidence. This habit of compounding our interpretations of the ‘known’ cause creates feelings of “alleviating, soothing, and gratifying, and gives … a feeling of power.” (FG5) When we are faced with the unknown we encounter feelings of “danger, disquiet, and anxiety. The first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states.” (FG5) Once you attribute a cause to something spiritual, emotional, or otherwise, you are prone to commit yourself to that same cause when something similar occurs in the future. When your entire life is established on a religious foundation of divine causes, thinking otherwise will tend to induce deep distress and anxiety, causing a kind of flight or fight response.
This anxiety, stress, and fear that can arise from experiencing the unknown can be demonstrated with a recent speech given by Elder Lawrence Corbridge, a high ranking official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, entitled “Stand Forever.” (link) His talk was directed at the concern that members of the Church have with anti-Mormon material and what to do when one encounters it. Elder Corbridge described an assignment from the Church he received to read through “a great deal of antagonistic material.” He explained that “there may not be anything out there of that nature I haven’t read.” He explained that reading that information “always left him with a sense of gloom.” He continued:
So what was the gloom I felt several years ago while reading antagonistic material? Some would say that gloom is the product of belief bias, which is the propensity to pick and choose only those things that accord with our assumptions and beliefs. The thought that everything one has believed and been taught may be wrong, particularly with nothing better to take its place, is a gloomy and disturbing thought indeed. But the gloom I experienced as I listened to the dark choir of voices raised against the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ—the gloom that came as I waded, chest deep, through the swamp of the secondary questions—is different. That gloom is not belief bias and it is not the fear of being in error. It is the absence of the Spirit of God. That is what it is. It is the condition of man when “left unto himself.” It is the gloom of darkness and the “stupor of thought.”
Can you see how anxiety, stress, and fear caused from an unverified opinion can crowd out a potential alternative cause? Interestingly, there is another layer of deception here. There is an inoculation layer that gives believers an actual reason for the fear and stress of the unknown. This layer, taught by Church leaders, provides a pre-reason for and establishes in advance a way for members to interpret their feelings if they ever get uneasy regarding potentially controversial aspects of LDS doctrine. These feelings, as taught by Elder Corbridge, are essentially from the “gloom and darkness” of Satan himself. This perpetual feedback loop of “good feelings come from Jesus and bad feelings come from Satan” keeps people from exploring the uncomfortability that might actually be THE cause. Or at the very least, this exploration may provide satisfactory reasons to distrust previously arrived at conclusions. The Mormon (and countless other ideologies) paradigm, as described by Elder Corbridge, of assigning divine reasons to causes eventually “becomes concentrated into a system and finally comes to dominate over the rest, that is to say simply to exclude other causes and explanations.” (FG5)
The error of free will
It has long been said that religion creates a sickness and then attempts to sell you the cure. I think it is safe to say that Nietzsche would agree with the sentiment, however, he would likely tackle it in a slightly different manner–by challenging free will or free agency. We live in a world where accountability is a virtue. The opposite side of accountability is punishment, shame, and judgement. Nietzsche pointed out that “the doctrine of will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty.” (FG7) Belief in a god and his divine commandments gives people the right to “ordain punishments.” Nietzsche continues to expound, “Men were thought of as ‘free’ so that they could become guilty.” (FG7) This divine accountability required a foundation on the idea that we are free to make choices, free to will every action, free to select our motivations and intentions.
Divine accountability is even more enhanced in Mormonism, where premortal existence is taught as a place where “we are taught lessons that prepared us to assist Heavenly Father in bringing about the salvation of His children.” (link) This teaching of pre-earth-life accountability is taken further: “When we learn the gospel … here on earth, we are essentially relearning what we once knew and felt in our premortal life.” Nietzsche takes a hard stance against this. He proclaims that “no one gives human beings their qualities, not even God.” (FG7) He continues, “no one is accountable for existing at all, or for being constituted as he is.” This invokes some of the teachings from the philosopher Martin Heidegger in his concept of throwness. Essentially we are thrown into existence without predetermined purpose. Without free will and the yoke of accountability religion loses its grasp on the divinely instituted purpose of humanity. The idea of throwness and Nietzsche’s take on free will fit nicely into the philosophies of existentialism and absurdism. The idea here is that there is no special purpose or object to life. There is no ‘ideal happiness’ or ‘ideal man’ that one aspires to. Nietzsche proclaims his contempt for religion’s hubristic claims of universal purpose and accountability:
The concept of God has hitherto been the greatest objection to existence, we deny God; in denying God, we deny accountability: only by doing that do we redeem the world.
In denying accountability Nietzsche is saying we should deny accountability to a God, to a religion, to a system, and to an ideology that cannot have you, the individual, in mind. We were not made for a special purpose. Anyone telling you otherwise is extracting from you your finite life that you could use to live according to your nature and according to becoming all that you can be. In denying this ideology, we are free, we are redeemed to be accountable to ourselves. Depending on your perspective this outlook could be either redemptive or condemning. Like Sartre said, “man is condemned to be free.” (source)
Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche asks one to “place [yourself] beyond good and evil – have the illusion of moral judgement beneath [you].” (IM1) This going beyond is like a revaluation of all values. Nietzsche is famous for saying, “there are no moral facts whatever.” (IM1) He holds the claim that morality is merely interpretations of our reality, and not necessarily objective. Morality has been interpreted as a method of improving humankind. You could ask yourself, “In what ways have moral values been used to improve mankind?”
Morality has been the domain of religion for centuries, supposedly given to us by a god. Though I could be tempted to outline the bad outcomes from so-called religious morality, there have been many good outcomes as well. I won’t get into the octagon on this one. Nietzsche attempts to get to the heart of religious morality by interpreting it as a method of taming humankind. “To call the taming of an animal an ‘improvement’ is in our ears almost a joke.” (IM2) Nietzsche really leans into Christianity by expanding this taming analogy:
Whoever knows what goes on in menageries is doubtful whether the beasts in them are ‘improved’. They are weak and they are made less harmful, they become sickly beasts through the depressive emotion of fear, through pain, through injuries, through hunger. It is no different with the tamed human being whom the priest has ‘improved’. What did such a Teuton after wards look like when he had been ‘improved’ and led into a monastery? Like a caricature of a human being, like an abortion: he had become a ‘sinner’, he was in a cage, one had imprisoned him behind nothing but sheer terrifying concepts. … There he lay now, sick, miserable, filled with ill-will towards himself; full of hatred for the impulses towards life, full of suspicion of all that was still strong and happy. In short, a ‘Christian’… [The Church] corrupted the human being, it weakened him – but it claimed to have ‘improved’ him…
One of the greatest dilemmas I had when I left the LDS Church was the thought “where would I get my morality from?” I assumed that it came from church teachings, and thus from God. I had been taught that humankind was corrupt. I came to find out that I had been tamed by Mormonism to believe that Mormonism was the only thing of true value in life. I came to believe that any misery I experienced was through some fault of my own, and that any good was derived from following behavioral expectations dictated by the leadership of the Church. I had become dependent on the Church for my self-worth and vitality. Looking back almost 3 years later I can see that I had become similar to that caged animal. Caged, but in many ways content, and without the slightest idea that there was a world outside of Mormonism that could fill me with greater depths of joy, spirituality, and meaning. My journey outside of Mormonism has redeemed me.
Religion and most ideologies have a natural universality to them. When it comes to the development of universal values and morals, religion has a lot to say. When it comes to the ideas of fairness and justice, the political ideology of socialism can have a lot to say. From a Nietzschean perspective, the liberal institutions inherently become illiberal as soon as they become an institution, because they take away some preconceived liberty. Similarly, religions become constrictive and reduce freedom precisely when they become institutionalized or universalized to every human. Nietzsche said these institutions “undermine the will to power, they are levelling of mountain and valley exalted to a moral principle. Liberalism in plain words: reduction to the herd animal.” (UM38)
These descriptions of systems of ideology resonated with me. I loved the symbolism of leveling mountains and raising valleys. I truly love nature, I would hate the idea of leveling it all. This levelling, however, is similar to what is compelled by religion and any universal ideology in the name of fairness, or in a supposed divine morality. I understand the idea of attempting to pull up the deepest darkest places of the human psyche, or leveling out some of the most outspoken voices in our own head, but this is exactly what Nietzsche could not stand. He said we “should preserve the distance that divides us.” (UM38) I think what he means in this passage is both the need to value the differences that make us individuals and also value the highest peaks of our human nature the same as we do our deepest depths.
Think of the feeling you get during a hike upon finally reaching the summit of a mountain. That feeling is enhanced proportionally by the arduous climb and energy it takes to get there. This type of feeling does not come easily, it must be fought for. Nietzsche describes the work it takes to find ourselves, to live authentically. He said, “the man who has become free – and how much more the mind that has become free – spurns the contemptible sort of well-being dreamed of by [religious and liberal ideologies].” (UM38) The contempt Nietzsche describes is the attempt to level out all of human experience which necessarily removes the individual. This freedom from the world’s ideologies does not come easily. “How is freedom measured?” Nietzsche answers, “by the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft.” (UM38)
More than anything Nietzsche will make you think. His ideas smash apart concepts and values that I thought were solid. I’m going to get facetious here, but when I say solid, I mean values not only as solid as diamonds but values that are blessed by God himself. Values upon which genius level questions and doubts dissolve upon posturing to merely look upon said value. Nietzsche directs the individual to throw off the mask of ideology given to you by life. Question those masks. Be wary of them. Comfortingly, this message does not leave you alone with your beloved world-view shattered to pieces around you. Nietzsche’s message is affirmative. It is a message of eternal rebirth. It is “to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming – that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction.” (OA5)
The main chapter headings used
- The Problem of Socrates – PS
- Morality as Anti-Nature – MN
- The Four Great Errors – FG
- What I Owe to the Ancients – OA
Memorable quotes from the book
- If we possess our why in life we can put up with almost any how
- Without music, life would be a mistake
- Only ideas won by walking have any value
- Dostoyevsky, the only psychologist, by the way, from whom I had anything to learn: he is one of the happiest accidents of my life