Nietzsche considers the demands that Christianity makes: for renunciation of freedom, pride, self-confidence of spirit, and much else besides. This Christian saintliness is best exemplified by the priestly type, who denies everything good in life and submits himself to isolation, humility, and chastity. This ascetic ideal has held a great fascination in all places and times, as the saint then effects a reversal whereby he is able to make his self- debasement appear as the highest form of good. The power of the saint, Nietzsche says, lies precisely in the mystery of the value of all this self-denial. Someone willingly submitting himself to such torture must know something the rest of us don't know. The saint exemplifies a new form of power, a new will to power.
Nietzsche characterizes us today as being atheistic, but still religious. The ideas of God as father, judge, or rewarder are no longer valid. God does not seem to hear us, nor to respond. Modern philosophy has been a great help to the growth of atheism. In questioning the subject-predicate form of grammar, it has questioned whether there really is an "I" distinct from its predicates. In doubting the sovereignty of this "I" we doubt the existence of the soul. Also, religion demands a leisure class that can look down on work, seeing it as a distraction from spiritual matters. It should come as no surprise that this industrious age is turning away from religion.
While Nietzsche suggests that the modern age is atheistic, he thinks it is marked by an ever stronger religious spirit, albeit one that has evolved beyond theism. Religion demands sacrifice, and in primitive religions, this sacrifice was of a loved one or a first born: one was asked to sacrifice one's nearest and dearest. This spirit of sacrifice was refined so that we no longer sacrificed others, but sacrificed ourselves instead. We surrendered our will, our freedom, and our strength to our God. Having completely sacrificed ourselves, the next logical step was that taken by Christianity: we sacrificed our God, the one thing in which we had placed all our hopes and faith. Having sacrificed our God, we are now left with nothing, and worship rocks, gravity, "the nothing": we have traded God in for science, and worship that instead.
If we delve deep enough into this pessimism and nihilism, however, Nietzsche suggests we might find the most life- affirming spirit of all, the person that is not only reconciled with all that is, but would wish it repeated into all eternity.
Religion can mean different things for different people. To the ruling classes, it is a means to relate to their subjects and to keep them in line. To a rising class, it teaches self-discipline and prepares it for future rule. To the masses, it teaches them to rest content in their lowly position. But religion does not only serve others' purposes; Christianity has purposes of its own. Primarily, it seeks to preserve and care for the human species. This means preserving the majority who are sick and weak of spirit. As a result, it comes to value the suffering and the weakness in those it cares for. It effects a total reversal in our moral valuations, so that weakness and suffering are considered "good" and health and strength are considered "evil." While we can admire the "spiritual men" of Europe, Nietzsche concludes that this devaluation of all our noble instincts has bred a Europe of mediocrity and banality.
Underlying much of what Nietzsche says here is the important contrast between master morality and slave morality. According to Nietzsche, morality was originally a matter of saying that health, strength, freedom, and the like were good, and that their undesirable opposites were bad. This morality was reversed by the Judeo- Christian "slave revolt of morality," where those who were neither healthy, strong, nor free came to resent the people in positions of power and identified them as "evil." They then came to identify themselves—weak, sick, and poor—as "good." This is the remarkable reversal of the ascetic priest or saint, who finds power in a turning-inward of all aggressive instincts.
Nietzsche characterizes the majority of humanity as "weak" and "sick" because they lack the power to direct their aggressive instincts outward. A poor slave cannot find any outlet for his animal instincts, and so turns his aggression inward, developing resentment toward those who oppress him. Because the majority of us are similarly incapable of outward aggression, Christianity panders to this majority, and creates a heaven that rewards poverty, chastity, and humility. Those who have no power in this life are convinced that they will have power in another life.
Thus, Christianity encourages and rewards the sicknesses and weaknesses that Nietzsche thinks we should try to overcome. It persuades us to rest content in our weakness rather than to try to grow strong. Because the Christian instinct has grown so powerful in Europe, it has developed a Europe that sees this mediocrity as a goal worth pursuing.
It is fashionable to see science as the antithesis of religion, as an exemplar of reason fighting against faith and superstition. However, Nietzsche does not see science as a force opposed to religion so much as he sees it as religion's latest development. Nietzsche lives in an age that has become increasingly atheistic, but in which he believes the Christian instinct toward weakness and mediocrity is stronger than ever. Science has become supremely powerful in this age because it preaches that there is no meaning at all: there are just the laws of physics and the interactions of matter. In science, asceticism has grown so strong that it has renounced not only strength, health, and happiness, but even God, who was previously the only justification for asceticism. Nietzsche characterizes this lack of positive faith as "nihilism," and sees it as a great danger. We need something to aim for, some higher goal, or we will give up on life entirely. (In another work, Nietzsche prophetically hints that the nihilism of his age, if left unchecked, will lead to wars unlike any this earth has ever seen.)
Nietzsche only alludes briefly, in section 56, to the force that he hopes will oppose nihilism. If we can see a universe of meaningless events, following one after the other, and delight in this, wishing nothing more than its constant repetition, we will have found affirmation precisely in the emptiness of the nihilism that threatens us. Nietzsche introduces this idea, called the "eternal recurrence," at the climax of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and considers this the culmination of all his philosophy. Unfortunately, nobody seems to agree on what the eternal recurrence is or what it means.
One of the better formulations comes from Gilles Deleuze, who discusses the eternal recurrence as the "being of becoming." If we recall, Nietzsche's metaphysics rests on the assertion that the fundamental nature of the universe is change, and not constancy. If we focus on what is changing rather than what is remaining the same, we will see the universe as being in a perpetual process of becoming. All philosophy and religion looks for some kind of permanence in which to ground things, be it God, morality, Plato's Forms, or the laws of science. However, if we can acknowledge that nothing is fixed, nothing is true, and yet celebrate this inconstancy, we will celebrate the "being of becoming," and will have freed ourselves from all dogmatism and faith.
Deleuze's is just one interpretation of the eternal recurrence. Walter Kaufmann provides a less adventurous account when he suggests that the eternal recurrence simply means the recurrence of the same events over and over without change. In spite of many differences in interpretations, there seems to be a consensus that this culmination of Nietzsche's philosophy rests in the ability to say "yes" to all of life, the good and the bad, and to accept it for what it is without any belief in or hope for anything beyond this life.