Four versions of Luther (I)

Last week was the 590th anniversary of Exsurge Domine. (It was only a close application to the Walt Whitman comments and a seeming never ending effort to finalize the much-needed second part to the Darwin-Smith series that prevented me from noting the anniversary at the proper time.)

Exsurge Domine (“Arise O Lord”) was the Bull of Pope Leo X issued June 15, 1520, which enjoined Martin Luther from preaching and threatened him with excommunication if he did not publicly recant 41 stated errors contained in his 95 Theses and elsewhere.

Exsurge Domine is a document of startling antiquity today. It shows how starkly foreign to us the medeival mind is. It begins with an exhortation to Jesus (the “Dominus”) to remember how he acted before and to act accordingly now:

“Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors. The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.”

Even the Greeks, who mostly held their gods in contempt, approached divinity with more humility. And they rarely tried to enforce contracts with their gods (principally because they knew the gods were experts at cheating expectations). Peter and Paul as well as the whole Church are also commanded to arise to protect the benefit of the bargain Jesus made with Peter in turning over matters of faith on Earth to him and his heirs and assigns for ever. The presumption of the document is perhaps a small matter given the presumptions the Church intended by the death and eternal damnation of Luther. Among Luther’s heresies (which the Pope points out were spawned by the “father of lies” and which “must be destroyed at their very birth by your intercession and help, so they do not grow or wax strong like your wolves”) were the following:

1. It is a heretical opinion, but a common one, that the sacraments of the New Law give pardoning grace to those who do not set up an obstacle.

13. In the sacrament of penance and the remission of sin the pope or the bishop does no more than the lowest priest; indeed, where there is no priest, any Christian, even if a woman or child, may equally do as much.

17. The treasures of the Church, from which the pope grants indulgences, are not the merits of Christ and of the saints.

19. Indulgences are of no avail to those who truly gain them, for the remission of the penalty due to actual sin in the sight of divine justice.

20. They are seduced who believe that indulgences are salutary and useful for the fruit of the spirit.

23. Excommunications are only external penalties and they do not deprive man of the common spiritual prayers of the Church.

25. The Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, is not the vicar of Christ over all the churches of the entire world, instituted by Christ Himself in blessed Peter.

33. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

37. Purgatory cannot be proved from Sacred Scripture which is in the canon.

And so forth. Some of these “heresies” strike at the very core of the Roman Church itself. Others, such as the question which set Luther down this path, namely his opinions about Indulgences, merely struck at the ability of the Church to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica (in the particular case) or raise money for other ventures. But when power claims to be absolute (and divine) then all questioning presents a grave danger. That’s why the response from absolute divine authority much always remind one of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

The bull itself gave Luther three times twenty days from publication in specified places in Saxony. The time expired on December 10, 1520. On that day Luther was in Wittenberg where he stationed himself at the Elster Gate and burned the Encyclical. In one of the acts of Luther that resounded perniciously through German history, he also tossed into the flames books — volumes of Canon Law. (In defense of Luther’s book burning, or at least to show he did not invent the tradition, the act was in response to the burning of Luther’s own writings by Inquisitor Johann Maier von Eck.) And thus completed the first act — started with Luther’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magedburg (and possibly nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church) on October 31, 1517. The Act was an important one (and a courageous one, especially for a man who sought to avoid controversy and for that reason entered a monestary rather than pursue the law degree that his father saved for out of his painfully acquired small treasure). It and numerous others before and after it merged into a deluge that would result in rending Europe, excite and then disappoint the most oppressed of men (the peasants), result almost 100 years later in the greatest slaughter of men, women and children ever known (until the Twentieth Century), permitted the questioning of accepted wisdom on such a vast scale and by such a variety of people not conceived of since the Greeks and ended one of the forms of absolute ignorance imposed on mankind from time to time. It also thrust into the symbolic role of national founder a man, tormented as he was by personal demons and intellectually deficient in critical respects, not suited for that role.

Whatever ultimate failings as a man and whatever crimes he imparted to the German people, Luther remains one of the most important Western figures for more than anyone else having caused history to pivot around him at a signifcant joint, and he remains one of the few who did this without direct control over armies.  Erikson compares him to Freud in the sense that both had

“one characteristic in common: a grim willingness to do the dirty work of their respective ages: for each kept human conscience in focus in an era of material and scientific expansion. Luther referred to his early work as ‘im Schlamm arbeiten,’ ‘to work in the mud, and complained that he worked all alone for ten years …” (Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (NY: Norton ed.: 1962) p9).

Erikson reminds us that Luther has something to do with Schweitzer, mainly through his creation of a German language through which simple prayers could be shared by the commoners of the nation. But perhaps Luther is given too much credit for all this, and maybe he has suffered too much blame, for history is a river that is channeled by geological forces larger than any one man. But it is not a coincidence that Luther was there, right in the water, when history meandered abruptly.

Of course being in the water when the river turns is not enough. Nikolai Bukharin was in such water, did nothing and drowned.  Leon Trotsky attempted something in the same spot, but it wasn’t enough and he too perished. What allows someone to survive the historical eddies of a historical crisis is something amenable to particular historical analysis. In Luther’s case, he was able to survive the whirlpool because cross-currents of imperial ambition of the Holy Roman Emperor, the interests of the Church in placating the Elector of Saxony (the sovereign of the land Wittenberg was located in) for unrelated reasons, and the Elector’s own interest in ruling as a Christian prince all acted against each other to prevent Luther from being disposed of simply for having a principled view on the theological effect of indulgences. Otherwise, the Church was perfectly capable of eliminating the Luther problem (which at bottom was only a threat to a revenue stream), as it had other irritants, Jan Hus being a not-too-distant example.

But once someone in those circumstances survives the currents, he becomes not so much a particular historical phenomenon as a cultural artifact. Luther has long since been, if not like Paul of Tarsus “all things to all men,” at least  a great many things, depending on what you are looking for and from where you are looking. Here we’ll see four different Luthers, all more or less contradictory, all from different vantages, there being no authorized version of Luther remaining.

I. The Philosopher’s Luther (Nietzsche’s Luther)

The virtue of starting with Nietzsche is that one or perhaps all of his opinions about Luther is likely to be true. This is not because he engaged in significant critical analysis of Luther or even because he read much of or much about Luther. It’s mainly because Nietzsche held so many different and contradictory views of Luther that there must be some truth to some of them.

Nietzsche, born in the heart of Lutheranism, in what was Saxony in Luther’s day, 60 km from Luther’s birthplace in Eisleben and 100 km from Wittenberg University and All Saints Church. His father was a Lutheran pastor. At 10 he attended a private school which served the respectable bourgeoisie. Through this all he undoubtedly grew up with the traditional German view of Luther: the savior of Christendom, the man who rescued Germany from the dark ages that Rome presided over, the opponent of the Inquisitors, who threatened all freedom of thought. His background was as solidly German provincial Protestant as was Schweitzer’s. As he became something of an intellectual dilettante in school, he probably added the invention of modernity and creation of the German language to Luther’s credits. If during his youth he thought much of Luther, it was undoubtedly in the stolid German way a budding conventional German intellectual did. He and his friends were typical German romantics. They founded a youthful literary society that they called “Germania,” and he and his friends were devoted to the German heritage of art music. Nietzsche attempted to add to that tradition with his teenage Miserere and his attempts at a Christmas Oratorio.  It was just after he and his friends pooled their funds to buy a piano score of Tristan that he visited Luther’s house in Eisleben with his schoolmate Wilhelm Pinder. This early association between Luther and Wagner was probably a coincidence but the two would become associated in Nietzsche’s mind — he would celebrate them together as part of an unbroken German tradition; and when the break came with Wagner, it also came with Luther.

Upon becoming securely part of the German intellectual establishment with his appointment as classics professor at the University of Basel (at the remarkably young age of 24 — like Luther he had a great facility for the classics, although both of them would be known for their invigoration of the German language), he had no reason to question Luther’s position at the heart of German culture and history.  A Lutheran world view (not exactly faith) was so much taken for granted that in 1875 he was able to write to fellow classicist Professor Erwin Rohde that the conversion to Catholicism (with a view to the priesthood) of a mutual friend shook him to his Lutheran soul:

“But now something you do not know and have a right to know, as my most intimate and sympathetic friend. We also — Overbeck and I – have a domestic problem, a household ghost; do not fall off your chair when you hear that Romundt has plans to enter the Roman Catholic Church and wants to become a priest in Germany. This transpired recently, but is a thought, as we later heard to our great alarm, which he has had for some time, but which is nearer to fruition now than ever before. This wounds me inwardly somewhat, and sometimes I feel it is the most wicked thing that anyone could do to me. Of course Romundt does not mean it wickedly; until now he has thought of nothing but himself, and the accursed accent he places on the ‘Save your own soul’ idea makes him quite indifferent to everything else, including friendship. It has gradually become a mystery to Overbeck and me that R. should have nothing more in common with us and was annoyed or bored by everything that inspired or stirred us; especially, he has bouts of peevish silence, which have worried us for some time past. Eventually there came confessions and now, almost every three days, some clerical explosions. The poor fellow is in a desperate state and beyond help – that is, he is so drawn by obscure intentions that to us he seems like a walking velleity. Our good, pure, Protestant atmosphere! Never till now have I felt so strongly my inmost dependence on the spirit of Luther and does the unhappy fellow mean to turn his back now on all these liberating influences? I wonder if he is in his right mind and if he should not undergo medical treatment with cold baths. I find it so incomprehensible that, right beside me, after eight years of intimacy, this ghost should have risen up. And ultimately it will be me to whom the stain of this conversion will attach. God knows, I say this not out of egoistic anxiety but I too believe that I represent something holy and am deeply ashamed when it is suspected of me that I have had anything to do with this utterly odious Catholic business.” (Christopher Middleton (ed. & trans.), Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (Hackett Publishing ed.: 1996) “Middleton collection,” 131-32.)

The Overbeck mentioned by Nietzsche was his house-mate, Franz Overbeck, since 1870 professor of New Testament Exegesis and Old Church History at the University of Bassel. Two years before Overbeck and Nietzsche had published books attacking “higher criticism” pioneer David Strauss. Nietzsche’s book was David Strauss: der Bekenner und der Schriftsteller (translated as David Strauss: the Confessor and the Writer), the first part of a planned but unfinished 13-part series entitled Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (translated as Thoughts Out of Season (Ludovici) or later Untimely Meditations (Kaufman)). The abuse it unleashed on the mild-manner historian was so unexpected, and from such a source, that it shocked and offended Strauss. Even Nietzsche must have realized that it was far more personal than warranted because, according to Ludovic, when Strauss died in 1874 Nietzsche agonized over whether his essay had hastened the historian’s death. Nietzsche’s object was to puncture the idealized version of progress imposed on history, largely as a result of the German cultural euphoria over the stunning victory in the Franco-Prussian war. Nietzsche believed that German society was ill-served by the military victory and had become decadent owing to the complacency of “Philistines.” He made Strauss into one for the point of his attack. Overbeck’s book How Christian is Our Present Day Theology? also disputed Strauss’s view of a modern theology. (In fact, Overbeck’s views would influence Nietzsche for some time.) But Overbeck expressed his opinion with a hope “for all of us theologians to be tolerant towards one another.” (See his preface to the first edition). Even though Overbeck would remains friends with Nietzsche until the end (it was he who came to minister to Nietzsche during the last crisis of mental illness), Overbeck was stunned by the viciousness of Nietzsche’s attack. He referred to Nietzsche’s essay as the “execution” of Strauss and wrote a friend at the time: “The only thing I find interesting about the fellow [Nietzche] is the psychological point—how one can get into such a rage with a person whose path one has never crossed, in brief, the real motive of this passionate hatred.” (See How Christian Is Our Present-Day Theology? trans. Martin Henry (T&T Clark: 2005), p5 n3.)

Of course all three of these productions (including Strauss’s which caused the overheated controversy) were well outside Lutheran theology, and the two theologians (Strauss and Overbeck) would never be offered another professorship.

But Nietzsche had not yet rejected Luther’s contributions to German culture.  Nietzsche had demolished Strauss as a “philistine” for embodying decadent German culture. Neither Richard Wagner nor Luther were not yet part of the decadence. In fact, at this point in his career, Wagner would be the way out of (the value added to) the valueless German culture.

Nietzsche met Wagner in 1868. (Nietzsche had been familiar with Wagner’s music since his student days when he and his friends scraped together the money to buy the piano score to Tristan, and Nietzsche worshipped Wagner from afar.) Both were in Leipzig at the time; Wagner incognito with his relatives. Nietzsche was invited by Wagner himself, when he learned that Nietzsche was the one who introduced Wagner’s sister to the Meisterlied. The day after the meeting, Nietzsche wrote to Rohde (November 9, 1868, Middleton Collection, 35-40), breathlessly, telling the story of “‘passing wondrous tales'” which he said “verged on the realm of fairy tale.” As he tells it, he played the part of Cinderella, complete with an adventure about dressing for the ball (his tailor was not a fairy godmother, however). It was a private party, not a ball, but Nietzsche felt the magic of meeting a prince. Wagner was charming and most charming of all to Nietzsche. He played all the parts of Meistersinger imitating all the voices. “He is, indeed, a fabulously lively and fiery man who speaks very rapidly, is very witty, and makes a very private party like this one an extremely gay affair.” Nietzsche chatted with him for a long time about Schopenhauer. “I enjoyed hearing him speak of Schopenhauer with indescribable warmth, what he owed to him, how he is the only philosopher who has understood the essence of music; then he asked how the academics nowadays regarded him, laughed heartily about the Philosophic Congress in Prague, and spoke of the ‘vassals of philosophy.’ But best of all, “when we were both getting ready to leave, he warmly shook my hand and invited me with great friendliness to visit him, in order to make music and talk philosophy also, he entrusted to me the task of familiarizing his sister and his kinsmen with his music, which I have now solemnly undertaken to do.”

Nietzsche, who had admired Wagner before, was now smitten; he was an acolyte. Four years later would appear Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik,  The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) [the links to the German titles are to critical editions, which are based on the latest edition Nietzsche supervised; the parenthetical dates here are the dates of first publication]. The book exalted Aeschylus and Sophocles to the pinnacle of art; in fact, beyond art because only they were able to solve the existential problem of finding meaning and joy in a random senseless world. Their solution, affirming rather than rejecting human suffering, was soon lost when the Athenian rationalists, Socrates and the rest arrived. Even Euripides had lived in a time when too many of the virtues had decayed to understand the meaning of his two predecessors. Humans had never again found that meaning, until now: perhaps the art of Wagner could solve the existential crisis of our time!

Needless to say, Nietzsche’s fellow classicists derided such a sweeping reinterpretation of classical theater. Rohde and Wagner came to his rescue, but Nietzsche was no longer considered a classical scholar. Not that it mattered. Neitzche was no longer looking to German culture for the solution to his existential problem, much less the narrow field of German classical philology. He did not even bother to complete his notes for the intended publication of Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen (Philosophy in the Tragic Time of the Greeks).

By 1875 Nietzsche was having doubts as well that Wagner was the answer to his existential dilemma. In fact, Nietzsche was no longer an acoyte. The draft of his Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (trans. Ludovici) was so unfavorable to Wagner that his friend and amanuensis “Peter Gast” (composer Heinrich Köselitz) persuaded him to soften it. And so it appeared, revised, in 1876, and Wagner and his disciples were pleased with the results.

It appeared as the fourth and last of his Untimely Meditations essays. Nietzsche was no longer interested in this long-term project (it had been two years since the third essay), and it appears from the essay that he was not writing about a real person.  The “biography” he gives of Wagner (Chapter VIII) is so “idealized,” Wagner is so much a type, that one could replace Wagner’s name with Luther’s (together with the point of their respective ambitions) and it would be as accurate (perhaps more so):

“Wagner’s actual life—that is to say, the gradual evolution of the dithyrambic dramatist in him—was at the same time an uninterrupted struggle with himself, a struggle which never ceased until his evolution was complete. His fight with the opposing world was grim and ghastly, only because it was this same world—this alluring enemy—which he heard speaking out of his own heart, and because he nourished a violent demon in his breast—the demon of resistance. When the ruling idea of his life gained ascendancy over his mind—the idea that drama is, of all arts, the one that can exercise the greatest amount of influence over the world—it aroused the most active emotions in his whole being. It gave him no very clear or luminous decision, at first, as to what was to be done and desired in the future; for the idea then appeared merely as a form of temptation—that is to say, as the expression of his gloomy, selfish, and insatiable will, eager for power and glory. Influence—the greatest amount of influence—how? over whom?—these were henceforward the questions and problems which did not cease to engage his head and his heart. He wished to conquer and triumph as no other artist had ever done before, and, if possible, to reach that height of tyrannical omnipotence at one stroke for which all his instincts secretly craved. With a jealous and cautious eye, he took stock of everything successful, and examined with special care all that upon which this influence might be brought to bear.”

When it came to identifying the genius of Wagner’s art, the reason he was placed in the German pantheon, Nietzsche picked a strange trait, a trait that Wagner supposedly shared with the other creators of German culture, Luther and Beethoven: “that essentially German gaiety, which characterised Luther, Beethoven, and Wagner …”

Gaiety — Heiterkeit (cheerfulness, serenity, mirth) — is probably not among the first adjective that comes to mind to describe this group. Although Beethoven toward the end of his life saluted Schiller’s version of joy in his last and most existential of symphonies, neither gaiety nor joy would describe his career.  Wagner of course made that first ball gay for Nietzsche, and he had his Meistersinger rather late in life (right before Nietzche met him), and also earlier produced piano versions of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy symphony as well as Haydn’s Drum Roll Symphony (Hob I:103), Strauss’s Wine Women and Song and other playful pieces.  But of Nietzsche’s trio, Luther is the only one who throughout life made cheerfulness something of a duty. When he was at Eisenbach for the few years of his late teens (the one place during his whole life that he was not constantly confronted with either beatings or demons), he was called by a class-mate a “lively, cheerful fellow,” and as Richard Friedenthal continues:

“The word cheerful (fröhlich) is inseparable from Luther’s character. It occurs constantly in his writings, and not by accident. He used it even in his important polemic works, and in the preface to his translation of the Bible. In immediate juxtaposition to this cheerfulness, however, was his heritage of severe melancholy, his tendency to brook, to torment himself, which he referred to as the ‘knots’ in his soul ….” (Luther: His Life and Times (trans. John Nowell) (New York: c1970).)

Did Nietzsche know any of this?  It probaby doesn’t matter because Nietzsche was no longer deaing with real historical people either with the dead Luther or with the live Wagner. He no longer needed Schopenhauer, or, as it seems, Rohde.

Nietzsche was now beginning a phase when his respect for historical German culture had been reduced as much as his interest in extended logical argument. Nietzsch had now become an aphorist, because that was the form that best expressed how he saw things. (Coincidently, aphorisms were the only kind of classical literature that Luther had any affinity for and the only kind he quoted — he had no particular interest in lyrics or epics; only brief phrases to prove a moral point. Niezsche the classicist had become the aphorist to deride the morality of the moralist who had no use for classicism except for its aphorisms.) From Meschliches, Allzumenschliches I (Human, All Too Human Part I) (1878):

Reaction as Progress.—Occasionally harsh, powerful, impetuous, yet nevertheless backward spirits, appear, who try to conjure back some past era in the history of mankind: they serve as evidence that the new tendencies which they oppose, are not yet potent enough, that there is something lacking in them: otherwise they [the tendencies] would better withstand the effects of this conjuring back process. Thus Luther’s reformation shows that in his century all the impulses to freedom of the spirit were still uncertain, lacking in vigor, and immature. Science could not yet rear her head. Indeed the whole Renaissance appears but as an early spring smothered in snow. But even in the present century Schopenhauer’s metaphysic shows that the scientific spirit is not yet powerful enough: for the whole mediaeval Christian world-standpoint and conception of man once again, notwithstanding the slowly wrought destruction of all Christian dogma, celebrated a resurrection in Schopenhauer’s doctrine. There is much science in his teaching although the science does not dominate, but, instead of it, the old, trite ‘metaphysical necessity.’ It is one of the greatest and most priceless advantages of Schopenhauer’s teaching that by it our feelings are temporarily forced back to those old human and cosmical standpoints to which no other path could conduct us so easily. The gain for history and justice is very great. I believe that without Schopenhauer’s aid it would be no easy matter for anyone now to do justice to Christianity and its Asiatic relatives—a thing impossible as regards the christianity that still survives. After according this great triumph to justice, after we have corrected in so essential a respect the historical point of view which the age of learning brought with it, we may begin to bear still farther onward the banner of enlightenment—a banner bearing the three names: Petrarch, Erasmus. Voltaire. We have taken a forward step out of reaction.” (From “Von den ersten und letzten Dingen” (“Of the First and Last Things”) no. 36, translation by Alexander Harvey.)

It was the Church that powered progress — now seen as humanism; Luther was a reactionary check at best. Luther was nihilism; Erasumus was enlightenment.

From Menschliches, Allzumenschliches II (Human, All Too Human Part II) (1879):

What is truth?Schwarzert (Melanchton): ‘One often preaches one’s faith precisely when one has lost it and is looking for it everywhere – and at such a time one does not preach it worst!’ – Luther: Thou speak’st true today like an angel, brother! – Schwarzert: ‘But it is thy enemies who think this thought and they apply it to thee.’ Luther: Then it’s a lie from the Devil’s behind.” (From “Der Wanderer und sein Schatten” (“The Wanderer and His Shadow”) no. 66, translation by R.J. Hollingdale.)

And so now, seemingly out of nowhere, Luther is a reactionary (and so is Wagner’s favorite philosopher Schopenhauer) as well as a craven hypocrite.

But it wasn’t really out of nowhere. Nietzsche was now deep into the process of unraveling German history and this called for rethinking Luther and later reading about Luther in depth. Soon he would be drawn to the one-sided anti-Reformation history by Johannes Janssen. On October 5, 1879, Nietzsche wrote “Peter Gast”:

“Dear friend, as for Luther, I have for a long time been incapable of saying honestly anything respectful about him: the after-effect of a huge collection of material about him, to which Jakob Burckhardt drew my attention. I am referring to Janssen, Geschichte des deutschen Vokes, vol. 2, which appeared only this year (I have a copy). Here, for once it is not a question of the falsified Protestant construction of history that we have been taught to believe in. At the moment it seems to me merely a matter of national taste in the north and the south which makes us prefer Luther, as a human being, to Ignatius Loyola. Luther’s hideous, arrogant, peevishly envious abusiveness – he felt out of sorts unless he was wrathfully spitting on someone – has quite disgusted me. Certainly you are right about the ‘promotion of European democratization’ coming through Luther but certainly too this raging enemy of the peasants (who had them beaten to death like mad dongs and expressly told the princes that they could now acquire the kingdom of heaven by slaughtering the brute peasant rabble) was one of the most unintentional promoters of it. I grant that you have the more charitable attitude toward him. Give me time!” (See Middleton collection, pp169-70).

Time, however, would not improve the opinion. Nietzsche would now condemn Luther as well as his own former position in the society Luther made (note the gibe at philologists) and essentially the historical basis for the German nation altogether. And this because he saw Luther as attacking the “superior men” of the Church. Luther was a fraud, evidently because Loyola was Nietzche’s Superman! Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science) (1882), no 358:

“The Lutheran Reformation, in all its length and breadth, was the indignation of the simple against something ‘complicated’; to speak cautiously, it was a coarse, honest misunderstanding. Today we can see plainly that, with regard to all the cardinal power issues, Luther was fatally limited, superficial and imprudent. He fumbled, he tore things up, he handed over the holy books to everyone; which meant that they got into the hands of the philologists, that is, the destroyers of any belief based on books. He demolished the concept of ‘church’ by repudiating faith in the inspiration of the councils; for the concept of ‘church’ can only remain vigorous as long as it is presupposed that the inspiring Spirit which had founded the Church still lives in her, still builds her, still continues to build its own dwelling-house.

“He gave back sexual intercourse to the priest: but three-quarters of the reverence of which the people are capable (and particularly the women of the people) rests on the belief that a man who is exceptional in this regard will also be exceptional in other matters. It is precisely here that the popular belief in something superhuman in man, in the miraculous, in the saving God in man, has its most subtle and suggestive advocate. Having given the priest a wife, he had to take from him auricular confession. Psychologically this was appropriate, but thereby he practically did away with the Christian priest himself, whose profoundest utility was ever consisted in his being a sacred ear, a silent well, a grave for secrets.

“‘Every man his own priest?’ such expressions and their peasant cunning concealed, in Luther, the profound hatred of the ‘superior man’ and the rule of the ‘superior man’ as conceived by the Church. Luther destroyed an ideal, which he did not know how to attain, while seeming to combat the degeneration thereof. It was he, who could not be a monk, who repudiated the rule of homines religiosi; he consequently brought about within the ecclesiastical social order precisely what he so impatiently fought against in the civil order, namely, a ‘peasant revolt.’ He knew not what he did.”

And so it was Luther who killed God, because he could not be a monk. But it would take Zarathustra to tell us flat out, and to do so Nietzsche wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (1883) in the very style that Luther employed in translating the Bible. By so doing did Nietzsche hand his own book over to the philologists?

Zarathustra, was too contrary, too cynical, too disrespectful for its time and place. It ended Nietzsche’s academic career, and Nietzsche knew it when Leipzig refused him a lecturer’s post he sought. He had lost his serious German reading public as well. 1886 found him trying to buy back the rights to his published works from his publisher Ernst Schmeitzner so that he could publish them at his own expense. He finally made an agreement and broke with Schmeitzner. The relationship had been fraying for years. Schmeitzner lost money when Human, All to Human was “practically banned” in Bayreuth and a “grand excommunication … pronounced against its author” (Middleton collection, p167). Nietzsche later believed he was withholding money from him and for nefarious reaons refusing to publish his works. Nietzsche claimed to be glad his work was free from that “antisemetic dump.” Now Nietzsche could publish on his own. So he made a virtue of necessity, and he spent the year preparing reissues of earlier works. He also published  Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil) (1886). The book was the logical conclusion of Zarathustra. This last book now proved his quest to relieve Germany of it cultural nihilism would end in what appeared to be utter intellectual nihilism. Nietzsche who first objected to the moral relativism of the dialectic had now become neither a thesis or a synthesis, but only the grand antithesis. The last book Nietzsche supervised the publication of was Der Fall Wagner (The Case against Wagner) (1888), and it officially closed the book on Wagner. The Birth of Tragedy (at least the part with Nietzsche hopeful solution) was negated — Wagner was part of the nihilistic culture, not the solution.

Nietzsche would attempt an autobiography, but he would not live to see it published. His remaining works would be “edited” by his sister with Overbeck objecting. Nietzsche himself now shared in the fate of his literary doppelgänger, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, although, as it turns out, his mental illness was not the result of syphilis (but then again maybe Adrian Leverkühn did not either). He summoned his friends like Leverkühn with a promise of a great work, but it was not to be. He lived out his remaining life in silence.

His autobiography, however, will provide for us his last word on Luther. It comes from the “Der Fall Wagner” section (at 2) of the Ecce Homo manuscript. As dismissive as he was about Wagner, he was now even more so about Luther. Luther was not just a false hope, a contributor to nihilism, he was in fact the first of a criminal conspiracy:

“There is an imperial German historiography, indeed, I fear, an anti-Semitic one, — there is a court historiography, and Mr von Treitschke knows no shame … recently an idiotic judgment in historical matters, a sentence by the Swabian esthete Vischer, now fortunately faded from the scene, made its rounds in the German newspapers as a ‘truth’ which every German should recognize: ‘The Renaissance and the Reformation must be joined together to make a whole—the esthetic rebirth and the moral rebirth.’—I lose patience when I hear such sentences, and I feel a desire, indeed, a duty, to tell the Germans all the things they have on their conscience! All the great cultural crimes of four centuries are on their conscience! … And always for the same reason, because of their internalized cowardice in the face of reality, which is also a cowardice in the face of the truth, which they have made into their instinctive untruth, from ‘idealism.'”

Treitschke, of course, was a militaristic blowhard and sychopantic disciple of Bismark; it’s hard to layhim at Luther’s feet. Friedrich Vischer was a Hegalian and a democrat in 1848-49, and each of those is enough for Nietzsche to scorn. But Nietzsche had long ago opined that Luther was not intentionally a democrat. Nevertheless, the heroic synthesis of Church and Reformation is something that Nietzsche had always treated  with contempt. Nietzsche was surrounded by anti-Semitism at the time, personally not only with Wagner and Schmeitzner but also with his sister and brother-in-law (who had gone off to Paraguy to found “New Germany”). Germany as a whole was becoming seized with a xenophobic fear of the Jew from the East. It would not be long before it would be turned on the Jew within. Luther of course himself had many thought crimes on that score to his name. Did he also commit crimes of incitement too? And was there four centuries of cultural crimes that stemmed from the Reformation? Is that all that remains of Luther’s legacy, which is simply preserved by “cowardice in the face of reality”?

Perhaps, but the cultural critic’s tools are no freer from Idealism than the politician’s. And while aphorisms are perhaps not the medium to make make the charge, they are not the tools for proving them. So questions concerning the historical forces released by Luther’s rebellion will have to be examined, next, by the dissecting probes of historical materialism, in the next part.

  1. August 19th, 2010

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