Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pia fraus?

The reviewer is justifiably bemused by a book entitled Pious Nietzsche:
The argument in this volume is that Nietzsche retained his native Pietism. He was brought up in a Pietist home and broke away from the beliefs which it housed, but he did not thereby cease to be religious or pious. He aspired to become a disciple of Dionysus, a devotee of Life, of which Dionysus is the symbol. This determination to pursue a way of life is rightly called "piety" when we observe the continuities between Nietzsche's background Pietism and his later quest. His Pietism was a way of life rather than a set of doctrines. The form remains where the content changes. In pursuit of what changes, Nietzsche sought out a musical askesis. Benson explores this carefully. Ask sis is a form of spiritual exercise in self-transformation. It is not identical with asceticism, which carries connotations of bodily denial. It is affirmative of bodily life as well as negative toward spiritual sickness and the enemy of decadence, also carefully explored by the author, which Nietzsche self-consciously fought in himself. * * *

* * * a question goes unanswered: what difference does it make whether or not we regard Nietzsche as pious in Benson's sense or religious in any sense? It surely strains language beyond what is permissible to describe the mature Nietzsche as a kind of theist, but I shall not pause here to quarrel over language or, for that matter, to analyze types of Pietism and therefore the language of "piety." Nietzsche is called pious in this volume because of certain structural similarities between his Dionysian faith and Pietism, abstractly considered (the latter is shorn of its Christian content). Possibly Nietzsche was "pious" in a sense arrived at by (relative) abstraction; possibly Nietzsche should be called "religious" in some non-trivial sense of that word. But what does it matter? What exactly do we forfeit if we refuse to call him "religious" or "pious"?
But when we're presented with a book arguing for a religious Nietzsche, we should respond as did Dr. Johnson with regard to the woman preacher: it matters less whether it's done well, than that someone tried to do it at all?

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