Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 – 1885 – Translated by R. J. Hollingdale): Poor Nietzsche! – Unread in his lifetime, thundering out his contrarian theses to an auditorium minus an audience, and tangling himself up in contradictions of Gordian knottiness such that untangling them would require, not so much a sleek sword, but a great battle-axe and much chopping. And yet, as wrong as Nietzsche so often was, he often got things right despite himself, even supposing that he never knew it. Like so much of the past, Nietzsche speaks to the present, speaks presciently and with clarity to the swamp of human folly in which the contemporary world finds itself so deeply mired. He addresses the phony moralism of the herd, the delusion of a self-denominating progress that continuously congratulates itself on having consummated history, and the mandatory nescience in regard to the human and cosmic realities. A man of colossal resentment, Nietzsche yet understands, even as he models, the perniciousness of resentment; and he sees how envy sends its poisonous tentacles everywhere – just not into himself. That he pretends not to see. Nietzsche’s most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, places the ancient prophet of the Persians and Medes into the role of mouthpiece for the author. Nietzsche assumes the office of an inspired seer. The oratory begins. Paul Kriwaczek summarizes Thus Spoke Zarathustra more succinctly than anyone else. In his own In Search of Zarathustra (2002), Kriwaczek writes how Nietzsche’s program sought “to undo the damage caused to humanity by Zarathustra’s original teachings,” namely through “the invention of morality.” Kriwaczek imputes to Nietzsche the conviction that “therefore it was up to Zarathustra himself to reverse the mistake.”
The first two books of Zarathustra compel the reader into turning the pages much more than the two remaining books, which soon make of themselves a rather tedious obstacle. (“When will he make an end?”) The section in Book I entitled “Of the New Idol” furnishes an example of Nietzsche at his most pertinent. Nietzsche addresses a particular idol, that kernel of an ideology, the state. He presents the state as a leveling Moloch of democracy in the most pejorative sense. Zarathustra addresses the market-square (a recurring symbol of quantification in Nietzsche’s extended parable): “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters,” its coldness betokening its deadness, its demonic, anti-life character. The state being empty, all its proclamations ring hollow; they are lies. “Confusion of the language of good and evil,” Zarathustra says; “I offer you this sign as the sign of the state.” The étatiste sub-mentality conceives itself, in Nietzsche’s metaphor, as “the regulating finger of God.” Nietzsche’s denigration of tradition notwithstanding, he recognizes that the present inherits its basis from the past, but that the present could not itself have created that past. In Zarathustra’s formula, “These superfluous people… steal for themselves the works of inventors and the treasures of the wise,” and “they call their theft culture.” Nietzsche reserves an especial contempt for the press. Those same superfluous people “vomit their bile and call it a newspaper.” Only at the boundary of the state does human aspiration begin. In order to breathe clean air the subject must put behind him “the smoke of these human sacrifices.” The holocaustic allusion links up with the earlier reference to Moloch, the false lord whose devotees extinguished life in homage to their idol as soon as life appeared.
Nietzsche shares some traits, surprisingly, with Piedmontese reactionary Joseph de Maistre although Maistre stood on the side of religious conviction opposite to Nietzsche. Maistre, like Nietzsche, regarded modernity with extreme skepticism and no little disdain; and he, too, heard in “democracy” a fancy name for mob-rule and the Guillotine. Maistre, long before Nietzsche, perfected the rhetoric of cachinnative hyperbole. Consider in Nietzsche’s case the section of Zarathustra Book II entitled “Of the Tarantulas.” The hairy, venomous spider serves Nietzsche for a figure of malicious invidia, the life-blood, or rather the death-in-life blood, of democracy. Zarathustra discovers a nest of tarantulas in a cave. One spider creeps towards him. “Revenge sits in your soul,” Zarathustra pronounces; “with revenge your poison makes the soul giddy.” Nietzsche’s word-choice of giddiness speaks to the mimetic attraction of the vengeance-motif and of the intoxicating blood-lust of la foule. Zarathustra identifies the tarantulas with the “preachers of equality.” They call their vengefulness “justice.” Zarathustra holds out as a high hope “that man may be freed from the bonds of revenge.” The possessors of that insight number only a few, but the egalitarians will permit no dissenting minority, no matter how small. Nietzsche gives to them the pronouncement that, “We shall practice revenge and outrage against all who are not as we.” One thinks of the liberal commonplace, “That is not who we are.” One thinks again of the regnant “cancel culture.” “Revenge rings in all their complaints, a malevolence is in all their praise; and to be judge seems bliss to them.” Thus spoke Zarathustra.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (1849 – Translated by Alastair Hannay) [Revisited]: Nietzsche’s translator Hollingdale writes in his notes that in the section of Zarathustra Book I entitled “Of the Afterworldsmen,” Nietzsche responds to Søren Kierkegaard’s notion of the “leap of faith.” According to Hollingdale, “much in this chapter reads like a refutation of Kierkegaard.” Hollingdale takes too partisan a stance. Reaction or offense, rather than “refutation,” would constitute a truer diction. Nietzsche would probably have been responding to Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), where the phrase “leap of faith” first appears, but given his dudgeon (he writes of faith as a “death-leap”) he might well have been responding to The Sickness unto Death, whose final chapter undertakes a theological investigation into the psychic malaise of being offended. In the preceding chapters of The Sickness, Kierkegaard defines the initial sequence of progressive sinfulness tri-modally as “being unconscious in despair of having a self,” “not wanting in despair to be oneself,” and “wanting in despair to be oneself.” In the self or person God endows humanity with the priceless gift of resembling Him. The various forms of despair appear to Kierkegaard as ways of wriggling out of gift-giving reciprocity, therefore as violations of basic morality, and therefore as states of sin. In the final chapter, Kierkegaard avails himself of Matthew 11, verse 6, wherein Jesus avers that “blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me.” The translations vary. In some of them, the Latinate “offense” becomes the Anglo-Saxon “stumbling block”: “And blessed is the one who does not stumble because of me.” The Greek basis of both offense and stumbling block is σκανδαλίζω or scandalized. Christ posed a skandalon for Nietzsche just as he did for the righteous Pharisees who blithely condemned Him and for the bellowing crowd that spared a sicarius on a whim and sent a Holy Innocent to the bloody Rood.
Kierkegaard defines the ultimate sequence of progressive sinfulness – sin’s intensification – again tri-modally as “the sin of despairing over one’s sin,” “the sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins (offense),” and “the sin of abandoning Christianity modo ponendo, declaring it to be untruth.” Kierkegaard writes, with applicability both to Nietzsche and to Nietzsche’s degraded followers of the murderously anti-Christian Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, that: “Despair of the forgiveness of sins is a definite position directly opposed to an offer of God’s compassion.” Moreover, “the sin of abandoning Christianity as a falsehood and a lie is offensive warfare.” Because, as Kierkegaard writes, “God and man are two qualities separated by an infinite difference in kind,” and because the “offer of compassion” comes from on high to this fallen realm, a type of resentful character will see in charity, not the splendor of redemption, but the haughty affirmation of the immeasurable disparity. That is all he will see; he will, in fact, have seen only his own haughtiness in a fantastic projection. Kierkegaard adds a further nuance: Christ would do nothing to prevent the taking of offense. The freedom to lapse into scandal, to throw a tantrum in the face of the gift, guarantees the freedom to leap into faith, which signifies the courteous reception of the gift and the embrace of reciprocity. Those two freedoms are fundamentally the same. For the Creator to violate the one for the sake of the other would result in an ungodly contradiction of His founding terms. An entire vocabulary has come into existence that functions, so it seems, to denounce offenders. Its real function is to celebrate the subject’s indignation. Anything can serve as cause. Or nothing at all…
Kierkegaard’s phrase, “offensive warfare,” solicits attention. Insofar as Kierkegaard’s usage means warfare waged by the offended, it describes well the current chapter of democracy. The specimen contemporary offended party invariably claims victimary status. In other words, he would switch places rhetorically with the Ultimate Victim, who lurks behind everything that today manifests itself, from a “woke” perspective, as the triggering cause of an insufferable offense – which, insufferable as it is, nevertheless makes the sufferer positively giddy and gathers around him the perpetually hovering parasites of giddiness. “The final form of offense,” Kierkegaard writes, “declares Christianity to be untruth and a lie.” As Christianity springs from the person of Christ, who entered into history, a God becoming a man and submitting to man’s judgment, the campaigners against Christianity must campaign against Christ. Such hostility “denies Christ… either Docetically or rationalistically, so that either Christ does not become a particular human being, but only appears to do so, or he becomes only a particular human being.” Kierkegaard’s emphasis of the two forms of negative particularity comports itself with the Christian observation that, for the non-individuated or de-individuated crowd (“Give us Barabbas,” that is – one of us), individuation, the person, stands as a rebuke. As Kierkegaard would have it, the “way of being offended is the highest intensification of sin, which one usually overlooks because one does not make the opposition, Christianly, between sin and faith.” There is a “death-leap,” after all. It is the sin of petulant denial merely for the sake of denial and for some kind of perverse self-affirmation where a genuine self is remarkably lacking. Western civilization, descending into giddy undifferentiation, readies itself on the lip of the abyss in order to underline by a final act its suicidal denialism.
Folk-Tradition, The Greek Alexander Romance (as early as the Second Century BC, but possibly later – Translated by Richard Stoneman): As much as anyone who has ever lived Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) bids fair to qualify for the rank of a Nietzschean Superman. As a result of his prodigious willfulness, the West to this day finds itself mired militarily in Central Asia, its armed forces shoring up a house-of-cards pseudo-polity that pretends to rule from the city of Kandahar, in ancient times Alexandria, one of many cities founded by Alexander and named by him after himself. Although no one doubts the actuality of Alexander’s exploits, his direct historiographical basis remains tenuous. No contemporary accounts either of his character or his endeavors have survived to the present, but only a few letters and pronouncements highly likely to be literary forgeries. Modern scholarship must content itself with the commentary of historians who lived centuries after Alexander and who based their studies on literature that itself stood at second or third remove from any primary material. Arrian of Nicomedia, for example, wrote in the Second Century AD, nearly five hundred years later than his subject. The same goes for Plutarch. Diodorus Siculus wrote in the First Century BC, but his account is a mere epitome of intermediate sources. If the Alexander Romance indeed originated as early as the Second Century BC, as its translator argues, it would suggest that its hero disappeared swiftly, on his death, into his own mythification. The Alexander Romance occupies the realm of fantasy and fairy-tale. Its geography is nonsensical. The deeds it ascribes to its hero often coincide with no historically plausible event whatsoever.
The Romance makes Nectanebo, a purely fictitious pharaoh-magician who flees Egypt when an oracle reveals that a foreign invasion will overthrow him, rather than Philip, the father of Alexander. In Macedonia, Nectanebo seduces Queen Olympias in disguise as the horned god Ammon. He then convinces Philip that Ammon himself, and not some mortal, has impregnated Olympias and that the child will be a demigod. Philip hesitates to act on his suspicions lest he offend a god. Alexander grows up. When Nectanebo’s mountebank ways begin to annoy him, he secretly murders the impostor at night outside the city. At age fifteen he acquires the marvelous horse, Bucephalus, who craves human flesh but will not harm his young master. Alexander attends the Olympic Games in Pisa and Rome (yes, Pisa and Rome) and carries off many victories. On Philip’s death, Alexander’s campaigns commence. He marches around the Balkans, subduing rebels. He invades Asia, but takes a time-out to conquer Sicily (yes, Sicily). While marching against the Persians, he again takes a time-out to settle an insurrection in Thebes. (He levels the city.) Defeating Darius, Alexander sallies through Bactria to India and beyond. Fantastic episodes take him to a kingdom of giants, a sea shore with crab-monsters, a country of spherical troglodytes, and a land far to the East where perpetual night reigns. He interviews a tribe of naked philosophers, but learns nothing from them that he did not already know. Alexander builds a diving bell and descends into the oceanic depths. He builds a flying machine and ascends into the aerial heights. He searches for the Water of Life, which endows immortality on its partakers.
Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Beowulf, epic heroes familiar to educated people, all have admirable traits although none is without flaw; the Alexander of the Romance – not so much. He acts impulsively on his indignation. Returning to Macedonia from his athletic triumphs, he finds that Philip has rejected Olympias and will take Cleopatra, sister of Lysias, as a new wife. Lysias says to Philip as the nuptials begin, “We now solemnize the marriage to you of our virtuous sister Cleopatra, from whom you shall breed legitimate children, no sons of adulterers, and resembling you in appearance.” In umbrage, Alexander “hurled his goblet at Lysias, struck him on the temple and killed him.” Philip rushes at Alexander with sword drawn, but trips. Alexander “seized the sword from his father, and laid about him till all the guests were battered and bleeding.” The Romance dubs Alexander “this new Odysseus destroying the suitors of Penelope.” Homer establishes the moral context of the famous slaughter, however, from the very first book of his epos. Odysseus enjoys his renown precisely because he returned justice to his kingdom. The Romance provides no similar context, only the incendiary touchiness of its protagonist. As the story continues, the begetting of Alexander in Nectanebo’s seduction of Olympias retreats into the background. More and more, Alexander regards himself as the true son of Ammon and by virtue of his paternity a demigod. Stoneman, in his Introduction, compares the Romance, whose text consolidated itself in the Second Century, with the contemporaneous Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus. The Life often reverts to an anti-Christian polemic. Its protagonist, while wrapping himself in the aura of piety, nevertheless behaves like a manipulative guru and would-be Superman. The origins of the Nietzschean Superman might well lie in Late-Antique upper-class hostility to the Gospel. The Alexander Romance might well belong in that same genre, which affiliation, however, would not diminish its peculiar fascination.
Geoffrey Ashe (born 1923), The Discovery of King Arthur (1985; reprinted in 2010, 2013, and 2017): If Alexander were an historical figure prone to disappear into myth and legend then by contrast the British hero King Arthur would be a figure, long considered as purely mythical or legendary, who in the last seventy-five years has increasingly claimed historical status – as attested by renewed, rigorous literary analysis and a robust archaeology investigating post-Roman Britain. Geoffrey Ashe built his authorship on the encyclopedic documentation, in a series of books, of Arthur’s re-emergence into history. Ashe’s Arthurian bibliography begins with King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (1957), embraces such titles among others as From Caesar to Arthur (1961), The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (1968), and Camelot and the Vision of Albion (1971); and summarizes itself richly, adding new knowledge, in The Discovery of King Arthur, first published in the mid-1980s. In making his case for the historicity of Arthur, Ashe needed to dispel a number of hardened prejudices, not least the textbook insistence that the Fourth through the Eighth Centuries constituted an impenetrable Dark Age during which no coherent civilizational patterns could be discerned, but only a barbarous milling-about of confused and illiterate tribes – and not least in the ex-province of Britannia, the westernmost extremity of the moribund Empire. The legacy of a Christianized Romanitas persisted in Britain after the withdrawal of the legions under the Rescript of Honorius in 411. A hybrid Roman-Christian-Britannic civilization organized itself for defense against the depredations of the Saxons and the Jutes and held out for nearly a century. It reached its peak and abruptly fell late in the Fifth Century, during the career of a military leader and Restitutor Orbis (“Restorer of the World”) known as Riothamus, whom Ashe identifies with Arthur.
The Celtic rigotamus, from which Riothamus derives, means “kingliest” (rig- is cognate with the Latin rex and the Norse riks). The source of the Arthur legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136), suggests a recurring motif in post-Roman British society: The investment of the petty kingdoms in a chief military leader whose standing cavalry and its auxiliaries might swiftly relocate on request in order to resist scattered incursions. Ashe sees Riothamus as fulfilling this office, but also, riding on his successes, as absorbing the powers of an actual over-king and thereby becoming a functional potentate. Similar developments took place elsewhere in the remnants of the Western Empire in the Fifth Century, as in the Kingdom of Soissons, whose princeps extended his favor and his power to adjacent regions in Gaul. Ashe writes, “The fiction [of Arthur’s story] has factual moorings.” Thus, “Identifying the man at the point of origin was not a matter of finding anyone”; it was rather “a matter of recognition” because “the man was already there, and documented.” Extant diplomatic correspondence of the late 460s and early 470s refers significantly to Riothamus. Emperor Leo called on him to support his resistance to acquisitive Gothic misbehavior in Gaul. Riothamus brought a British army across the Channel, a deed that Geoffrey ascribes to Arthur. Ashe locates Arthur’s final battle, the Battle of Camlann, not in Britain, but in Gaul at the climax of his expedition. A deputy of Leo in Gaul named Arvandus promised Riothamus Roman assistance against the Goths, but withheld it. The Chronicle of Anjou refers to Arvandus as Morvandus. Ashe remarks on the first syllable, which in Geoffrey’s History, belongs also to Arthur’s betrayer, his nephew Mordred.
Assuming the persuasiveness of Ashe’s case – the impressive details of which this brief report must elide – Arthur existed. His deeds sufficiently imprinted themselves in his day that they remained lodged in the popular memory. Of course, fictions and fantasies accreted around the historical kernel, both elaborating and obscuring it. Numerous ironies inform the Legend of King Arthur. The Restitutor took arms against the Germanic Saxons and Jutes, whom the Britons of his day regarded as uninvited savages; he himself came of aristocratic British stock, and he fought to maintain the independence of a Christianized Celto-Romanic Britain. In time, by twists and turns, Arthur would become a hero to the English, celebrated in literature by the descendants of the tribes against whose trespassing advent Arthur loosed his lance and sword in gallop, both in the Isle and on the continent. As in the cases of Frederick Barbarossa and Holger Dansk, ancient folkloric tropes would attach themselves to the record of Arthur’s actual deeds, elevating him to a quasi-religious figure who falls wounded on the Field of Mars, but dies not, and retreats into convalescence in a place outside the world and time. The whispered oracle tells of his return in an age of renewed crisis. Arthur shares his nuclear historicity with other heroes whom archaeology locates in the Fifth Century – with Sigurd the Volsung, King Hrolf Kraki, and Hrothgar of the Spear Danes, host to Beowulf. The past speaks to the present, but the present tends to ignore the past; it even wishes that the past did not exist. The motive is resentment. The past makes the present seem paltry.