28 April, 2007

Sought in vain

When I saw that the fearful Jesuit Copleston had written a book on Nietzsche, the clown prince of atheism, I knew I had to read it. Which meeting of minds could be less appropriate? Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture, first published in 1942, has two aims: to defend its subject against popular association with the Nazi party, and to introduce the main themes of Nietzsche's thought to Christian readers. It is thus simultaneously an apologia and an outright attack.

Despite Copleston's claim to wrestle with the difficulties of Nietzschean thought, we find our hero's atheist stances, in all their subtlety, met with calm, blunt rejection. After outlining Nietzsche's arguments against God, and for the subjection of the common man to the Übermensch, the 'flower of humanity', Copleston remarks: 'Indeed, when looked at in relation to God Himself, human differences tend to pale into insignificance'. Later, he suggests that real Supermen have existed—St. Paul, St. Francis, and of course, Ignatius of Loyola. Nietzsche speaks, and Copleston nods along, but he is not really listening. How could he? His axioms are starkly incompatible. Best of all, he is inclined to regard Nietzsche as a Christian despite himself. The pious Lutheran upbringing is duly noted; his mental problems and 1889 breakdown are attributed to guilt and self-doubt regarding his own rejection of the faith. Deep down, the poor boy knew that there was a God after all. In a moment of sublime pathos, sage and fatherly, Copleston concludes the biographical chapter of his book:
The tragic and lonely spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche had gone forth to its Maker, whom it had denied: who will be prepared to affirm that He who searches the hearts of all, may not have given him at the last the grace to seek for mercy where it is never sought in vain?
I am still chuckling at that.


Anonymous said...

In trying, desperately, to discover some significance to willful, backwards readings like these, one finally comes to the conclusion that the most interesting thing is not that Copleston read Nietzsche blindly, but rather that he tackled the subject at all. Something in the name of atheist clown princes made him do it. I wonder what.

Conrad H. Roth said...

To be fair, I think it's not so much that Copleston read Nietzsche 'blindly' (though this would not be entirely inaccurate), but more that he was almost completely uninterested in Nietzche's message. N is compared unfavourably to Bergson: Copleston notes that the latter also propounded a 'philosophy of life', albeit one more suitable to Christian ethics. Copleston seems to have been interested in Nietzsche's defence of Culture, although he thinks that any atheism must surely undermine the foundations of Culture, which is historically dependent on religious feeling and the glorification of God.

In 1942 Copleston felt a passionate duty to decry the Nazi desecration of cultural values, and to separate Nietzsche's work from it. But the two aspects of Copleston's position stand in a very uncomfortable alliance, which is what makes the book so interesting, and worth reading.

chris miller said...

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Casey said...

Of course, if Copleston was right, it could be that Nietzsche wasn't listening...

Anonymous said...

Taking into account Bertrand Russell's account of Nietzsche in 1945, I'm pretty impressed by Copleston's in 1942.

Conrad H. Roth said...

... and especially taking into account the sort of nonsense propounded by FN's crazy sister, which it took until Kaufmann (1950) to demolish fully.

As I said, Copleston's book is an interesting mix of elements, sort of a halfway house to Kaufmann.