Sense and Nonsense: Too Much Pity

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche tells us that both “Jesuitism” and “democratic enlightenment” reduce the pressure for living according to the “truth”—the truth that Nietzsche himself wanted to reject. Jesuits, by their casuistry, and democratic enlightenment, mainly by inventing newspapers, made people comfortable and distracted in their moral slavery.

Instead of teaching people to live according to virtue and faith, Jesuits taught them probabilism, a lax sort of morality that left most people off the hook by finding subtle, if improbable, excuses for what they did.

Nietzsche hastened to affirm that he was neither “a Jesuit nor a democrat.” Friedrich Nietzsche, S.J., does have a certain ring to it. “Jesuitism” took its lumps from Nietzsche, who held that telling the common man that it was all right to be common or mediocre was the worst of sins.

The most dangerous thing of which a scholar is capable comes from the instinct of mediocrity that characterizes his species; Jesuitism or mediocrity works for the destruction of the uncommon man and tries to break—or better still—relax every bent bow. For relaxing—with consideration, with indulgent hand, naturally, relaxing with importunate pity: That is the true art of Jesuitism, according to Nietzsche.

The scholarly species to which Jesuits belong supports mediocrity by its pity, by its excuses for the moral errors and sins of the common man. Instead of teaching man the blunt truth, Jesuits relax the burden of truth because they pity the weakness of Christians, all of whom Nietzsche already thought to be radically enervated by Christian doctrine.

Jesuits are afraid to teach the truth. They refuse to accept that men can observe the truth, so they pity them by lessening moral expectations. None of this, be it noted, is intended to be a compliment either to the Jesuits or to the truth. It is prophetic that Nietzsche saw a relation between moral laxness and pity.

Nietzsche produced some five thousand short aphorisms. Scattered throughout his works are brief, pithy statements or sayings that, on examination, contain the drift of what he was proposing. They are memorable, not unlike Chesterton’s paradoxes, but leading in precisely the opposite direction to that of Chesterton. It does not take too long to see what Nietzsche had against Jesuitism and democratic enlightenment.

Let it be said that Nietzsche is nothing if not amusing, charming, and devastatingly ironic. One can hardly believe that he means what he says. Man needs a noble cause, he thinks, to save himself. But this cause does not have to be true, it just has to be “noble”—something to bring us together under some grandiose scheme of things.

Take the following aphorism: “It is not their love for men but the impotence of their love for men that hinders the Christians of today from burning us.” That sentence is provocative. If Christians really loved men, they would have burned Nietzsche, as they did Bruno, long ago. True Christians burn heretics. Why? Because they know the immense damage heretics can do. Who can do the most damage? Nietzsche himself, of course.

But Christians had become gutless wonders, as they say. They will burn nobody, and Nietzsche will win. Conclusion: Christians do not love men. Conclusion: Christians are not Christian. God is dead.

Nietzsche was not sure that God was dead. He was sure that Christians acted as if he were. We can wonder what Nietzsche would have been like had he confronted Christians who believed. On the other hand, Nietzsche bears all the impatience of intellectuals, of those who cannot understand that the Incarnation took place precisely to save sinners, including above all intellectual sinners who want to establish their own laws of right and wrong.

“That which takes place out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” We should note that this aphorism states exactly the opposite of what Christianity teaches, which is, “That which takes place out of love always takes place within the good, always rejects what is evil.”

Nietzsche scorned believers who did not practice what they professed. But we forget how engaging the devil can be. “The devil is the oldest friend of knowledge.” The devil told Eve that what God told them was a lie. Those who believe the devil stand beyond good and evil, making their own rules and laws. Nietzsche is one of the major intellectual architects of our time, a time that takes him seriously, a time that chooses its own good and evil over against that good and evil established in nature and in grace.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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