Seeing Things: Nietzsche’s Conversion

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has been the darling of modern intellectuals who claim that all religious and philosophical truths have been exploded by growing scientific and rationalistic knowledge. It was Nietzsche who first put forward the claim that there are no facts, only interpretations. And probably no thinker has been so influential in proclaiming the “death of God” and of all the moral principles associated with religion, particularly Christianity.

But this view of Nietzsche has been disputed recently by a distinguished international scholar, J.O. de Meira Penna, a retired Brazilian diplomat. Penna was Brazilian consul general in Zurich in the 1950s and, not having much work to occupy him at the consulate, decided to keep himself busy by studying at the Carl Jung Institute. Using Jungian analysis, he contends that Nietzche’s admirers usually overlook the crucial event in his life: his “nervous breakdown” in Turin in January 1889. The usual explanation for the breakdown is that Nietzsche was suffering from syphilis. That may be, says Penna, but the form the breakdown took shows that other things were also at work.

Nietzsche went out walking in the city one day and came upon a man beating a donkey. Stung by the suffering of the poor beast, he embraced it and went “mad.” In many of his earlier books, Nietzsche advocated the Superman who would, unlike Christians, pursue greatness and suppress what Nietzsche thought were the primary Christian virtues—actually vices in his system compassion and humility. The Superman (or Overman) was profoundly self-contradictory in several ways, Penna notes. He was supposed to be an easy, naturalistic “blond beast” as well as a moral ascetic always overcoming himself; he would lose himself into Dionysian joy but also practice a clear-eyed realism; he denied all truth to the traditional forms of heroism but gave himself ideals that were somehow noble. The list of self-contradictions could go on at length.

For a Jungian, says Penna, these contradictions suggest a suppressed side of his personality that broke through occasionally and disrupted the neat schemes of Nietzsche’s more philosophical side. And the moment in the Turin street may have a decisive importance that reveals a little-suspected, far-reaching change. Despite his claims to the contrary, Nietzsche had been influenced by Darwinian notions of the survival of the fittest and elaborated a quite sophisticated, but frank, position that assumed the old moral and religious values had been exploded and would need to be “trans-valued” in the new circumstances.

But that cold January day in Turin put Nietzsche on the spot. Whatever else may have been happening to him physically, something emerged forcefully from Nietzche’s mind: This was his moment of truth! Lo and behold: he was choked by an overbearing surge of emotions. Pity and compassion held him in their grip. The apostle of the dionysiac frenzy, the fanatical proponent of the death of God; the Antichrist who, one year before, had called Christ an Idiot and depicted Christianity as the subterfuge of slaves…. Here is this man, Friedrich Nietzsche, holding the stricken mule frenetically with his arms around its neck…. At the decisive moment of truth, the apostle of violence, of heroic egoism and pride of the Superior Man in the merciless competition and struggle for life, out of which the übermensch will come out a winner, had turned himself into an example of Christian pity toward the least being of the whole Creation, a mule, an ass. Compassion and humility came out as victorious values in the famous transvaluation that had been announced.

Penna made this argument in three lectures delivered to the Jung Institute in Zurich recently. In that context, he only claimed that Nietzsche “may have been caught by the Christian archetype” and, using other Jungian terminology, underwent psychological enantiodromia, the Jungian equivalent for metanoia, or conversion. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the ass was also one of the symbols for Dionysius. But there is no doubt that, however his last sane act is to be explained, Nietzsche literally embraced compassion and humility in the streets of Turin.

The lectures have not yet been published; it will be interesting to see the reaction if they are. A whole Nietzsche industry now exists—Penna rightly says that in American bookstores the philosophy section is dominated by new volumes on Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s legacy was for a time obscured by the way the Nazis used one side of his thought to justify their own version of the “blond beast.” Nietzsche was no anti-Semite, and it is only fair to point out that turning him into a Nazi precursor and proponent of brutality was a distortion.

Yet have modern intellectuals introduced a similar distortion by failing to pay proper attention to the event in Turin? No doubt there will be vigorous attempts to explain away what seems to be the significance of his breakdown, if it is even noticed. Nietzsche, the great prophet of nihilism and the patron saint of the will to power, may have given witness at the end that there is no real, consistent alternative to the old Christian values of compassion and humility. Ambassador Penna may have given us an entirely different Nietzsche:

In a short, decisive moment of his life, immediately preceding his spiritual demise, Nietzsche overcame himself, transvaluing all values into an act of pity for the beast of burden. He made the supreme sacrificium intellectus to become an “elect” at the exact moment that he was sinking for good into darkness.