On Nietzsche, Christianity, and Depth Psychology

I have begun reading Nietzsche and Depth Psychology, a collection of essays that establish the strong links between Nietzsche’s work and that of Freud, Adler, and Jung. The introductory essay by Jacob Golomb discusses Nietzsche’s ‘unmasking’ and ‘freezing’ psychologizing—a strategy whereby Nietzsche sought ‘to evoke a mood of deep suspicion and distrust towards metaphysics’ (p. 4). He goes on:

The evocation of a psychic (rather than strictly philosophical) doubt in the viability of metaphysics (or religion and any rational-objective ethics), would freeze our motivation for believing in them…An authentic and healthy culture would then emerge, a culture no longer relying on metaphysical comforts, able to function creatively without the traditional philosophical crutches.

How naïve this sounds to my ears!

Here we see, in slightly different terminology, clear evidence of Nietzsche’s crafty campaign to disparage and discredit the ‘transcendent’ as such. The target of Nietzsche’s smear campaign is the ‘metaphysical need’ that Schopenhauer recognized and explored at length in his writings. Nietzsche’s comments to Ida Overbeck make clear his own deliberate refusal to honor or gratify that metaphysical need within himself, although—from Overbeck’s description of Nietzsche’s tormented state as he confessed his renunciation (of all ‘metaphysical’ comfort)—it seems to be indisputable that this need was formidable in him. (One doesn’t get the impression that this metaphysical need is nearly as strong in Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett—which is why they strike me as superficial when set beside the ‘tortured’ Nietzsche, more ‘tinsel’ than ‘tensile.’ Eric Heller recognized this conflict in Nietzsche, as well.)

The point I actually want to make here is that Nietzsche—unlike Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta, Frithjof Schuon or René Guénon—almost certainly never knowingly transcended psyche (or the imaginal realm). What are the implications of this—if my suspicion turns out to be true? If Nietzsche’s experience was—from first to last—confined within the broad and deep (but perhaps not boundless, as Heraclitus would have us assume) expanse of psyche, then he never could have acknowledged the crucial distinction that Nisargadatta never tires of repeating: pure, formless awareness is deeper and subtler than consciousness (psyche). In positing the primacy of pure awareness, the Advaitist (non-dualist) and the founders of the founders of the Sophia Perennis school point beyond psyche (imagination), which necessarily relies upon forms (images, concepts, perceptions) as vehicles for its consciousness. This is a step Nietzsche, as ego, was unable or unwilling to take. Moreover, as Golomb makes clear, Nietzsche perceived a serious threat—ostensibly to culture—lurking within all such ‘metaphysical’ or ‘transcendent’ illusions. But perhaps we get closer to the actual truth of the matter when we say that the real threat posed by this impersonal, transcendent ‘poppycock’ was to the isolated, ambitious, frighteningly clever ego that went by the name of ‘Friedrich Nietzsche.’ Let’s face it: the kinds of persons that Nietzsche dreamed of when he imagined ‘commanders and legislators’ of a ‘healthy’ culture were persons like him: thoroughly ‘this-worldly,’ authentically self-created individuals who had, like him, successfully uprooted and dispensed with all such vitiating metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Out with the perennial wisdom and in with the will to power of ultra-sophisticated Supermen! As he seems to have seen things, it is only with the courageous relinquishment of all such ‘false comfort’—as metaphysics and religion offer to the credulous and the weak—that one becomes fully human. And for Nietzsche, this achievement of full human development appears to be the absolute most that can be aspired to by humans. This is the non plus ultra. There is no beyond. Apparently, he finds it inconceivable that a Paul, an Origen, a Tertullian, or an Augustine might evince almost superhuman courage in remaining true to their ‘metaphysical’ vocations.

The careful reader will have noticed a subtle but discernible problem at the very root of Nietzsche’s teaching: If the metaphysical (or, if you prefer, ‘religious/spiritual’) need—unlike our ‘needs’ for food, water, shelter, sex, love and attention—has no real object to gratify it, how and why did it grow into such a potent and universally evident psychic factor in the lives of both ordinary and extraordinary human beings? Surely, we are entitled to speak here of something like a religious or spiritual ‘instinct,’ are we not—given the nearly ubiquitous occurrence of this yearning for something beyond the mundane realm of personal and merely human experience. Certainly the other instincts (survival, sexual, aggressive, acquisitive, etc.) can be tamed or repressed—but they do not, so long as we have bodies, simply disappear. And even when they are fiercely repressed, ignored, despised, and vilified by us, does this thereby make us more fully human? Hardly. Nietzsche, interestingly enough, will be the first to agree with us here. But, if our metaphysical need also turns out to be a fundamental human drive (as Jung, incidentally, acknowledges) then how does its disparagement and repression in any way make us—or a culture founded upon such denial—more fully human, and presumably better than a culture which moderately allows for the exercise and expression of that innate drive or instinct?

So, my question is ‘why—if he was such an extraordinary philosopher and arch-psychologist—was Nietzsche unable to see these fairly obvious things that far more modest intellects readily acknowledge?’ What made him either so stubborn or so willfully ignorant—in the face of so much universal, ancient and modern counter-evidence—that he relegated metaphysics, religion, and the need associated with them to the realm of pernicious nonsense? What brazen audacity! Or was it a kind of blindness that is unforgivable in a philosopher—a comprehensive man?

As an amateur psychologist (who makes far less sweeping claims about my importance than Herr Nietzsche regularly indulged in), I locate the source of his blindness concerning these matters to ‘religious trauma.’ Nowadays we have little difficulty getting our minds around cases of sexual dysfunction, PTSD, eating disorders, and other stubborn neuroses that stem from early trauma or deep disturbances in these arenas of experience. When Nietzsche’s early and extraordinarily pious life is carefully analyzed, my suggestion of a traumatic disappointment (by the no longer credible teachings and promised rewards of Christianity) should not be difficult to entertain. Roughly speaking, the vehemence and scope of Nietzsche’s protracted attack upon Christianity (and, by a kind of wholesale extension, upon all ‘transcendent’ claims or dogmas) are directly proportionate to the depth of his traumatic disappointment by a creed to which he had unreservedly assented as a youth! No siree! He would never again allow himself to be ‘fooled,’ by God!

Now, admittedly, Christianity has much to answer for—and Nietzsche was unsparing in his efforts to unearth and expose every ‘un-Christian’ impulse or motive hiding in its founders, its followers, and its scriptures—but it was precipitate of him, to say the least, to place all religions and metaphysical teachings on a par with dogmatic, ecclesiastical Christianity! Many of his criticisms are both trenchant and perfectly valid. His analyses of ressentiment and the will to power masked behind the ascetic ideal are profound and justly excoriating. But all these pluses don’t quite exculpate him from the colossal minus of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The baby, here, of course, is the ‘transcendent’ (and the human instinct/need associated with it).

It should always be remembered that, in fact, there is no metaphysical consolation for the personal ego—qua ego—since what is being ‘transcended’ is precisely the ego-perspective with all its various attachments, hopes, plans, desires, etc. It would not be exaggerating to say that the transcendent lives through the death of the ego—and the comforting fiction of ‘personal identity’ might very well be purchased at the cost of impersonal, transcendent (‘selfless’) awareness. On which side did Nietzsche stake his life savings? Those who talk about personal immortality and of pleasures or pains in the afterlife are erroneously reducing the impersonal transcendent to familiar, personal-earthly terms—and should perhaps be indulgently regarded as spiritual infants who have no actual experience of the transcendent.

Interestingly, I detect much the same species of fanatical immoderation in Nietzsche’s anti-Christianism as I detect in Paul’s one-sided insistence upon anti-worldly, Christian principles of action and belief. Do either display true wisdom, which would appear to be informed with noble moderation and a subtle flexibility that takes the bi-polarity of all manifestation always into account? Two wrongs do not make a right—but they do cancel each other out! The war between Paul and Nietzsche is, in effect, a brothers’ war. Extraordinary brothers, to be sure, but not so indispensable as to leave the world irremediably crippled with their mutual nullification! The rest of us who opt for the middle path—the path of balance and harmony—will fare all the better beyond the histrionics of such wounded noisemakers! Henceforth, all vehement Christians and anti-Christians must be taken cum grano salis.

2 thoughts on “On Nietzsche, Christianity, and Depth Psychology

  1. Very good narrative. I was a disappointed catholic at 14. There is great credibility in your discussion.
    For the last 32 years i have found it more honest to search for a deepening mode of relating with the “power”. In a sip example I recall having to leap across an 8’ cravase while rock climbing, It was far enough that I was not sure I could make it, I said a sort of prayer something like “well if I die, I die” and leapt. I cleared it easily. Was it faith that allowed me to transcend fear? Did the “faith” cause me to perform better than I would have full of fear and reluctance?……….the search for the conscious relationship with the beyond, is not only pragmatic but visionary….


    1. Marty, thanks for your thoughtful response. It does seem that in times of need–such as you describe–if we are able to tap into these usually hidden reserves of strength, it can make the difference between life and death, however we choose to interpret these two conditions: physically, morally, psychologically, spiritually.


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