Nietzsche and the Antichrist

Religion, Politics, and Culture in Late Modernity

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Daniel Conway
Bloomsbury Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2019.
     280 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350016880.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nietzsche studies, beset by lingering fascistic associations on one side and self-styled undergraduate Übermenschen on the other, has long struggled to achieve an air of legitimacy. Perhaps this anxiety is why The Antichrist (Cambridge University Press, 2005), with its fantastical title and placement in Friedrich Nietzsche’s corpus a scant couple of months prior to his catastrophic mental collapse, has received comparatively little scholarly attention.

Regardless of the cause, this paucity of scholarship makes the recent compilation Nietzsche and the Antichrist: Religion, Politics, and Culture in Late Modernity a long overdue delight.

As editor Daniel Conway points out in a succinct introduction, Nietzsche viewed the planned four-part work of which The Antichrist was the first and only installment as perhaps his most important philosophical endeavor, heaping upon it a degree of bombast and grandiosity which he usually reserved only for his Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (Cambridge University Press, 2006). It is good, then, to finally see this marvelous, if often bewildering, text getting its due.

Assembling an edited volume on The Antichrist must have been challenging. Nietzsche is, in many respects, at his “most Nietzsche” in this work, arguably abutting self-parody at points. Despite the slim and unimposing figure cut by the text, its thematic contents are confoundingly diverse, with Nietzsche surveying thousands of years of moral history across multiple continents in what often feels like a single febrile breath.

Nietzsche enthusiasts thus may or may not find their particular topic of interest addressed in this edited work, though this is through no fault of the volume—The Antichrist simply has too many currents tugging in too many different directions at once for any essay collection to be able to satisfactorily capture the “essence” of the work. The essays do not present a unified picture of Nietzsche’s work and indeed are often at odds with each other over key interpretive questions (e.g., did Nietzsche view Pauline Christianity as a repudiation of Judaism or as its logical continuation?). But this is part of the fun of such a collection—not to mention the hallmark of an evenhanded editor.

Provided they accept such inevitable dissonances, scholars of Nietzsche’s final period of lucid productivity are all but guaranteed to find something of value here. The book includes methodological work dissecting Nietzsche’s idiosyncratic approaches to philosophy, religion, history, psychology, and literature.

We have straightforward exegetical pieces unpacking how Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Niccolò Machiavelli and the like influenced Nietzsche and how Nietzsche’s thinking on these figures matured in his late period. Work of this sort is especially welcome when it comes to Nietzsche, as his famous allergy to citing sources makes following the thread of his influences a job for a specialist.

Several essays here highlight Nietzsche’s chronically understudied relationship to Machiavelli, which was particularly appreciated. We have essays on how Nietzsche influenced subsequent theoretical movements, most notably psychoanalysis and accelerationism. And, of course, we have numerous pieces exploring how the historical Jesus, the Pauline Christ, and the eschatological Antichrist each figure into Nietzsche’s thought. This last theme is perhaps the most illuminating, as it is this novel focus on Jesus and the various mythologized roles into which he was allegedly conscripted that most distinguishes The Antichrist from the more broadly anti-Christian polemics of Nietzsche’s late period.

Conway’s volume excels in its goal of opening up Nietzsche’s text to a diverse array of critical voices, and it would be unrealistic to expect such a compilation to be thematically exhaustive. However, this reviewer cannot help but note the existence of lively discussions currently unfolding in Nietzsche scholarship to which this volume has little to say.

Most pressingly, a great deal of ink has recently been spilled rethinking Nietzsche’s legacy for politics. Particularly among leftist thinkers, there has been a movement away from viewing Nietzsche as a sanitized, democracy-friendly champion of individuality (canonically depicted by early translator and rehabilitator Walter Kaufmann) and towards viewing him as a far-right reactionary frothing at the mouth for a return to aristocratic domination (exemplified recently in the work of Domenico Losurdo).

And while the “left Nietzsche vs. right Nietzsche” debates are as old as Nietzsche himself, these questions have taken on a renewed urgency of late with an ascendant alt-right rediscovering Nietzsche and claiming him for their intellectual pedigree. The Antichrist was conceived of by its author as a practical manifesto for igniting revolutionary change—it represents Nietzsche’s thought at its most mature and contains many uncommonly specific passages detailing what Nietzsche expected his intended revivification of the European noble spirit to look like. Given all of this, it is arguably a missed opportunity that nowhere in Nietzsche and the Antichrist does anyone make a sustained attempt to weigh in on the present use and abuse of Nietzsche’s ideas.

This is but a minor quibble. Stepping back to survey the collection as a whole, one cannot help but be impressed at the richness of source material necessary to inspire such a diverse assortment of takes. Far from being the final sputters of an ailing mind, The Antichrist represents Nietzsche at the zenith of his powers. A passing pang of sadness (or even, heaven forbid, that most quintessentially un-Nietzschean emotion, pity) may strike the reader as she works her way through these collected essays: Who knows what new critical vistas Nietzsche could have opened up had his health held out long enough for him to finish the projected four-volume magnum opus of which The Antichrist is all we have?

Since we will never get our hands on those impossible texts, the best we can do is to trace with care the intellectual currents that mobilized Nietzsche during his final lucid months and perhaps, with all requisite humility, speculate on where they may have been leading. And it is in this regard that Conway’s collection represents such a salutary addition to the field of Nietzsche studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brendan T. Conuel is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University.

Date of Review: 
April 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Conway is Professor and Head of Philosophy and Humanities at Texas A&M University.

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