On loving one's Neighbour

It comes as a surprise to those who consider the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche an enemy of Christianity to discover that he envisaged the “Overman’ to be akin to a Caesar with the soul of Christ. [Will to Power, 983]

This is a rather startling remark when set against Nietzsche’s famous attack on Christianity, which he considered harmful because, in his view, it cut us off from the vitality of natural life.

How then might we make sense of his appeal to the ‘higher man’ possessing the soul of Christ?

The answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer, can be found in Nietzsche’s discussion of the Christian concept of ‘loving one’s neighbour’.

In a telling passage from Beyond Good and Evil [201] he writes: ‘So long as the utility which dominates moral value-judgements is solely that which is useful to the herd, so long as the object is solely the preservation of community…there can be no ‘morality of love of one’s neighbour’.

He further reveals his hand when he goes on to say: ‘love of one’s neighbour is always something secondary when compared with fear of one’s neighbour…’

Nietzsche contends that fear, not goodness, lies at the source of conventional or social morality. He seeks to expose the hypocrisy of the morally righteous by arguing that beneath the veneer of what we deem ‘good’ in ourselves (attitudes and actions such as ‘fairness’, ‘selflessness’, and ‘humility’) we discover a cauldron of repressed emotions and drives such as fear, hatred, envy, resentment and a thirst for revenge. Our ‘love of neighbour’ is conditional on the acceptable behaviour of the neighbour, which is to say, we love only those we do not fear. But when threatened or harmed, we will turn on our neighbour in an instant, condemn them as evil and perhaps even get a psychological thrill from seeing them punished.   

But Jesus was not like that. And Nietzsche seems to have recognised this. We tend to think of Jesus as a good man who cared for the sick and the poor. Nietzsche challenges us to consider not his actions, but the soul of the man behind the actions. And we find no better expression of his soul than in the words he utters when his ‘neighbours’ condemn him to death and nail him to a cross: ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do’. Here we witness a quality of soul that surely transcends morality. Jesus’ words invite us to go beyond the good and evil of conventional ethical categories where we keep score and call it justice.

The challenge to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ perhaps takes on new meaning here. To become capable of such love, we are called to free ourselves from what Nietzsche calls the ‘worms’ that eat away at us on the inside – fear, envy and resentment for example. In Jesus we catch a glimpse of what true nobility of soul might look like. If we are honest, we also recognise that despite our best efforts, we will always fall short of achieving it. That is perhaps why we find Nietzsche also telling us that ‘In truth there was only one Christian – and he died on the Cross’. [The Anti-Christ, Aphorism 39]

Dr Felicity McCutcheon
Teacher of Philosophy and Religious Studies in the Senior School at Melbourne Grammar School