“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich

Nietzsche’s Urge for the Truth

Stephen, curator of the New York Encounter exhibit on Friedrich Nietzsche, shares why knowing Nietzsche is helpful for understanding our American culture.

The New York Encounter has become synonymous with forging bridges across cultural divides, highlighting the positive ways in which faith intersects with culture, and serving as a place of hope and friendship for thousands of people every year. What possibly could a man who prized individualism and power, who claimed that God was dead and went as far as calling himself the Antichrist, have to do with the mission of the NYE?

For Fr. Giussani, being devoted to Christ didn’t mean confining oneself to only “Catholic culture” and shutting out the world. Instead, devotion to Christ meant looking for even a small glint of truth in everything and everyone, including someone as far from the Church as Nietzsche. The work of this exhibit has helped me to really verify Giussani’s method, following St. Paul, to test everything, and retain what is good.

Nietzsche once wrote to his sister, “If you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire”. As a child, religion was not presented to Nietzsche as a means to deepen his questions but instead offered him prepackaged answers and rules to be adhered to blindly. He determined that to be truly free, he needed to stop adhering to truth claims and values that were handed to him by others, and instead was determined to only follow himself. Unfortunately Nietzsche’s extreme self-reliance resulted in him having to repress his urge for freedom, which could not be fulfilled in total isolation.

While working on this exhibit, I found Nietzsche’s life to be both an inspiration and a warning to me. In my own life, I find myself tempted to settle for a comfortable life of just following the rules and going with the flow…without engaging my freedom and taking the risk of asking how what is given to or asked of me really corresponds with the needs of my heart. Nietzsche never settled for comfort, and always risked challenging and questioning everything. And yet, that same drive to use one’s freedom fully can quickly turn into a type of self-referential individualism. I see this when I begin to equate being free with doing “my own thing”, and choosing to follow myself alone rather than following and allowing myself to be corrected by others. Nietzsche’s life ended tragically because he refused to follow his thirst for freedom to its ultimate conclusion. And yet, his restlessness remained to the very end, as he refused to conceal his “urge for the truth” no matter how much he may have “hated it”.

While researching Niezsche’s influence on American culture, we relied heavily on the book American Nietzsche by Dr. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, who highlights his esteem for the American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the founders of the transcendentalist movement, Emerson advocated for self-reliance as opposed to blindly adhering to the authority of others. Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power and the ubermensch, the strong man who relies on his own strength, finds direct inspiration in Emerson’s works. When Nietzsche’s ideas first made their way over to the US toward the end of the 1800s, they became popular mostly among bohemians and political radicals of both the far left and right. The “soil” in America – with its newness, lack of ties to tradition, and esteem for independence – allowed the “seed” of Nietzsche’s thought to take root and blossom in a way it could not in Europe.

The common mentality would have us believe that America is currently caught in a so-called culture war. One side asserts that one’s true identity is fluid, and ultimately is determined by the individual themself rather than by arbitrary, socially constructed categories that precede the individual. We see this in proponents of gender theory and other identitarian political causes. The other favors a kind of “strongman” rhetoric – which in a way is a reaction to the identitarian language of the other side. Figures like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate – who are critical of the “imperative” to celebrate one’s true, authentic self–assert that one must pull himself up by his bootstraps by his own effort, take responsibility for his life, and eschew any form of weakness.

As much as these may be presented as opposing ideologies, Ratner’s book shows us how these are more like two sides of the same coin. Both take Nietzsche's claim that there are no facts, only interpretations, that nothing is essential, that there is no foundation other than the self, as points of departure. Further, recognizing the anti-foundationalist and individualistic premises of both the American left and right helps one to understand where they might begin to forge a path forward in our divided times. And that perhaps it’s not a question of which side is correct, but rather it’s a question of who we are as human beings and what it truly means to be free. The answer is not likely to be found in isolation or radical self-reliance, but rather in forging meaningful ties with another that has the capacity to reveal my true self to me.

“‘God is dead’ is the most misquoted and abused of Nietzsche’s one-liners,” commented Anna Khachiyan in a recent episode on the Red Scare podcast. “And I think,” replied Dasha Nekrasova, her co-host, “as Christians we should actually be grateful to Nietzsche.” As much as Nietzsche has a reputation for being radically anti-God and anti-religion, the reality is actually much more complicated than this.

In Why The Church?, Fr. Giussani pointed out that Nietzsche “commented on the insensibility of his contemporaries to the Christian paradox of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion when he spoke of ‘men of modern times whose intelligence is so obtuse that it no longer grasps the meaning of Christian language.’” Others like the theologian Henri De Lubac went as far as calling Nietszche a mystic, comparing some of his insights to those of Saint Therese of Lisieux (those interested in this comparison may want to check out the play entitled Nietzsche: My Brother, which consists of a fictional dialogue between the two).

As the literary theorist Wayne C. Booth once said, “Postmodernist theories of the social self have not explicitly acknowledged the religious implications of what they are about. But if you read them closely, you will see that more and more of them are talking about the human mystery in terms that resemble those of the subtlest traditional theologies.” The confounding thing about postmodern thought, which takes root in Nietzschean ideas, is that while it can lead one to a deeply secular and ungodly position, it can also reopen doors to God and traditional religion that were shut by Enlightenment rationalism.

The capacity of Nietzsche’s thought to shed light on and cut through cultural divides was confirmed for me while presenting the exhibit to the Encounter’s attendees. I had the privilege of getting to discuss the exhibit’s contents with several people who visited the exhibit, including the speakers from the panel on Diversity and Dignity. Chloe Valdary and Justin Giboney – who spoke on the importance of looking at the person in the totality of their history, experience, and identity as a point of departure in discussions on diversity – commented on how Nietzsche’s ideas fuel the divisions that cause us to struggle to understand the true value of diversity, but also can help us to envision a better way to move forward from our ideological deadlocks. I look forward to seeing what fruits the work of this exhibit will bring in my own life as well as for the others who experienced it.

Stephen, New Jersey