Greatness comes not from total self-determination, but from union with God
On 6 November 1865, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned a letter to his sister Elisabeth in which he exhorted her to tread “new paths… with all the uncertainty of one who must find his own way.” He added: “this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek.”
The first encyclical letter of Pope Francis,Lumen Fidei (“Light of Faith”), completed from a draft by Pope Emeritus Benedict and released last week, pursues its discussion of faith by first entering into a dialectic with the Nietzschean ideal of the intellectual adventurer. After quoting the lines above from Nietzsche’s letter to his sister, Francis underscores that, on Nietzsche’s view, belief is incompatible with seeking. Christianity, avers Nietzsche, strips all the novelty and adventure from life, and endeavors to keep those who wish to tread “new paths” in the darkness of submissive ignorance.
The modern temper, Francis writes, “is proud of its rationality and anxious to explore the future in novel ways.” In this respect it is like Dante’s Ulysses, the great adventurer who, casting aside all prohibitions, sailed for the farthest reaches of the world only to die in a storm upon the sea. In its heyday, modern autonomous rationality claimed to deliver what Dante’s Ulysses, and purportedly Christianity, could not: an adventure of the spirit that would succeed in conquering the world for man.
Nietzsche himself, however, was deeply suspect of the aspirations of modern autonomous rationality. Instead, he claimed a more personal ideal of “courageous” authenticity that remains one of our culture’s most dominant self-images. Nietzsche wanted to be a light by which others, like his sister, could find their way to new forms of greatness.
Thus Francis identifies two different “lights” vying to illuminate the path for the modern adventurer. On the one hand, there is faith in scientific rationality, technology, and our ability to figure things out and get things done in order to make life “easier and more comfortable”; on the other hand, there is the subjective truth of the individual, the Nietzschean drive toward authenticity, which consists in a person’s “fidelity to his or her deepest convictions,” though these “truths” are “valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good” (see especially paragraph 25).
But though many recognize that “the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future,” that “ultimately the future remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown,” they do not know where else to find the certainty and security they seek. And though most of our contemporaries lack Nietzsche’s megalomaniac urge to define new values, they still embrace some version of his ideal of a brave, authentic life, not knowing where else to find the values to guide them on their way. In both instances, Francis laments, so many in the modern world “have renounced the search for a great light – Truth itself – in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way.”
So what is the way out of this predicament? How do we find our true way?Lumen Fidei urges us to reconsider that the adventure of our lives, the true love we are dying for, is only to be found by following the one Light of the World into the bosom of the Father.
The Gospel, that is, is still good news because the Light of the World transcends the limitations of material nature and the anxieties we have generated by trying to master it, even as it provides an enduring sense of selfhood and purpose beyond the cravings of our sentimental egos.
The central argument ofLumen Fidei (see especially section 26) is that when the heart – the very core of the human person – accepts in faith the love the Father offers through his Son, we “blaze a trail” out of our self-centeredness and into the reality of a union that can truly last forever.
This is the great adventure of the human spirit. This is the true love for which we long.
“True love,” Francis concludes, “unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.”
It is worth noting, by way of conclusion, that Elisabeth Nietzsche went on to marry Bernhard Förster, a fanatic anti-Semite with whom she attempted to found an Aryan colony in Paraguay. When the colony fell on hard times, Bernhard Förster took his own life. Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to Germany to take up the cause of her brother’s work. She eventually became a staunch supporter of the Nazi Party. Her funeral in 1935 was attended by Hitler himself.
Thus passes the glory of the modern adventurer.
Daniel McInerny is an author, journalist, and brand storytelling strategist at The Comic Muse. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.