Myth and Religion: Nietzsche (Part 2)

This is the second post for my two part series on myth. This post focuses on Nietzsche’s understanding of myth and its necessary role in religion.

Like Merleau-Ponty and Tolkien, Nietzsche situates myth in the human condition. He sees myth as a kind of narrative, which has themes, characters, and events that relate to the human. A culture can take a hold of these elements, make them part of its identity, and become unified as a community. But unlike Tolkien, myth, for Nietzsche, is only human. It is not something ‘bigger than ourselves’ but something part of ourselves and yet renews our spirits.

Our modern age, however, has given up its belief in myth and instead looks to establish religion on systematic and historical grounds. Nietzsche explains in The Birth of Tragedy:

For this is usually how religions die. It happens when the mythical presuppositions of a religion become systematized as a finished sum of historical events under the severe, intellectual gaze of orthodox dogmatism, and people begin to defend anxiously the credibility of the myths while resisting every natural tendency within them to go on living and to throw out new shoots – in other words, when the feeling for myth dies and is replaced by the claim of religion to have historical foundations.[1]

When the feeling for myth dies, people turn to systems and facts in an attempt to carry on their religion. But a religion without myth, according to Nietzsche, is doomed, for it is the spirit of myth that breathes life into religion. In fact, myth is necessary for religion; it is “the necessary precondition of every religion.”[2]

Nietzsche laments this loss of myth and believes that it causes the destruction of true human community. He writes, “Without myth . . . all cultures lose their healthy, creative, natural energy; only a horizon surrounded by myths encloses and unifies a cultural movement.”[3] Cultures lack creativity and vitality when myth has vanished, and it is only through myth that a culture can be united through the common themes and miracles of that myth. This loss leads to homelessness where people can no longer identify with a place of belonging. Nietzsche asks, “The enormous historical need of dissatisfied modern culture, the accumulation of countless other cultures, the consuming desire for knowledge – what does all this point to, if not to the loss of myth, loss of a mythical home, a mythical maternal womb?”[4]

Not only does Nietzsche affirm the need for myth through his philosophical writings, but also he creates a new myth, Thus Spake Zarathustra. In this philosophical novel, the character Zarathustra wanders about giving speeches to those that he meets. By spreading his message, Zarathustra hopes to encourage these creatures to accept both the pleasurable as well as the painful parts to life – to affirm life no matter what.

A crucial part of myth, both old and new, is the notion of miracle (German:Wunder). Surprisingly, Nietzsche discusses “miracle” often in his writings and the majority of those discussions are positive. He argues that miracle is indispensable to myth. In speaking of the miracle in myth as seen in art, he writes, “This will enable [the art participant] to estimate the extent to which he is at all equipped to understand myth, the contracted image of the world, which, as abbreviation of appearances, cannot dispense with miracle.”[5]

What kind of miracles is Nietzsche talking about? Rejecting the so-called miracles of morality, where someone “miraculously” goes from a bad person to a good person, Nietzsche is talking about the miracle of self-affirmation. Through the experience of myth, one is able to both see and perform the miracle of accepting one’s self and the events of one’s life. “Love fate!” Nietzsche says, “Love the events of your life and be willing to live them over and over again!” The ability to love one’s life in this way is the true miracle. Myth provides the medium through which we can miraculously love our lives – no matter what has happened or will happen.

  1. [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writing, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), Section 10, pp. 53-54.
  2. [2] Ibid., Section 18, p. 87.
  3. [3] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108.
  4. [4] Ibid., Section 23, p. 109.
  5. [5] Ibid., Section 23, p. 108, italics mine and his.

Taking Off My Subjective Weight

There is power in knowing one’s self, being one’s self, perfecting one’s self, and loving one’s self. It can be argued that without a strong self-identity, life loses much of its meaning, joy and fulfillment. For example, how can you relate with the other without first relating to yourself? Some knowledge of self is necessary in building relationships because a relationship must include a connection between one self and another.

With that said, however, the burden of my own individual subjectivity can become very heavy.[1] Who am I? I am a person limited by my body, my thoughts, and my abilities. I have my own personal history and my own personal thought patterns which are forever upon me and can never be changed. I carry around this inevitable me-ness in this particular time and space and it enters into every circumstance and encounter that I have in my life.

As humans, we look for ways to relieve our subjective weight. Sometimes we try things that appear to give us relief, and actually do temporarily, only to have the weight come back, heavier than before. Escaping to the world of fantasy, where we allow our minds to participate in actions and thoughts which we usually regard as vile and undignified, temporarily relieves our subjective weight. But, upon coming back to the world of reality, we are faced with the shame and guilt for entertaining such images and thoughts. On another level, we may take part in a mob where we move beyond our insignificant selves to become one with others around us. Acting as one, heinous crimes have been committed by those elated with feelings of freedom and unity.

Nietzsche argues that art is a way, or I should say, the way, to take off our subjective weight. In The Birth of Tragedy, he makes a distinction between two types of art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian art represents the ordered, beautiful and calculated art. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is art which comes from frenzy, laughter, and natural life. He argues that Dionysian art is shown through the presence of the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy. In the environment of the chorus, the Dionysian aesthetic is exemplified: the members of the chorus as well as anyone who joins them are able to rise to a new level of artistic experience. Nietzsche writes:

This process of the tragic chorus is the dramatic proto-phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s own eyes and to begin to act as if one had actually entered into another body, another character. [2]

Through participation in the dramatic proto-phenomenon, one is able to move beyond one’s self into another. Nietzsche contrasts this with the Apollonian:

[In the Apollonian] the virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus [Dionysian chorus] is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god who live outside the spheres of society.[3]

Unlike the ordered, calm procession of the worshippers of Apollo, the worshippers of Dionysius have reached such a state of transformation that they have left behind their past and their social status. They have given themselves completely to the worship of this god. In this act, the individuals become united as one, and their identity becomes the identity of the group. Dropping their subjective weight, they can taste the freedom that comes from rising above the self.[4]

I think that many will resonate with this above description, because we too desire to have freedom from ourselves. We could argue that there is something in the human condition which pushes us toward aesthetic experiences: we long to rise above ourselves and feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether it is engaging in a piece of music, encountering an epic story in a movie or book, losing one’s self in a painting or acting as a character in a play, art allows us to take part in this beautiful act of freedom.

Notice, however, that while Nietzsche is writing about art, he uses the example of worship. Worship is then an aesthetic experience where we creatively adore someone above ourselves. A theist would argue that worshipping an immanent god, such as Dionysius, only provides a temporary release from our subjectivity, and that the worship of a transcendent God is needed for true subjective relief.[5] Such worship, however, cannot be on one’s own. As Nietzsche reminds us, taking off the weight of subjectivity must be done with others, acting as a united whole, where I lose my identity in a timeless communal act of worship.[6]

  1. [1] I would like to thank Phillip Rosemann for suggesting this terminology.
  2. [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), Section 8, p. 64.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] In Greek mythology, sometimes Dionysian worship did result in heinous crimes similar to the behavior of a mob, mentioned above. In one myth, Pentheus’s mother, due to her frenzied state of Dionysian worship, unknowingly participated in dismembering her own son.
  5. [5] However, it should be noted that Dionysius has characteristics of a Christ-like figure who suffers, dies and resurrects.
  6. [6] See also my post on the human need to worship: Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?