May 25, 2006


Benedict Contra Nietzsche: A Reflection on Deus Caritas Est (Benjamin D. Wiker, May 2006, Crisis)

Deus Caritas Est is a declaration of war, and it is loaded with ammunition—much of it stealth in design, and of such power that the Church under Benedict XVI will certainly be the Church Militant. For while on the surface Benedict only seems to be offering a theological platitude, that “God is love,” hidden to the hasty eyes of the press, buried in the intricacies of his philosophical and theological analysis, obscured from all but those initiated into Benedict’s inner circle, he really is declaring that God is love. [...]

It was quite surprising to have Benedict open with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s charge against Christianity. “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink,” Nietzsche quipped; “he did not die of it but degenerated—into vice.” [...]

Benedict’s counterattack is disarmingly simple and charmingly direct. It is not Christianity but modern culture that has poisoned eros by exalting personal, sensual pleasure. The unhappy result is that eros is “Deiectus merum ad ‘sexum.’”

The English translation of the encyclical renders Deiectus merum ad “sexum” as “reduced to pure ‘sex,’” a most unfortunate mistake, since in its current debased condition sex is anything but pure. Benedict is far more subtle and exact in the Church’s native tongue. The Latin adjective merus comes from the noun merum, wine that is unmixed with water, and hence (in antiquity) only drunk by the intemperate—drinking for the sake of drunkenness. Deiectus comes from the verb meaning “to hurl down,” “to throw down,” even “to kill.” Our contemporary focus on sexual pleasure as pleasure hurls eros down, nearly kills it, and makes us into sexual drunkards.

In regard to sexuality, we might say that our culture is merely erotic because it sees nothing more to eros than eros. Such a brutish flattening of sexuality brings not gain but a “slipping down and diminishing of human dignity.” In exalting eros it makes eros “ebrius et immoderatus,” “drunk and immoderate.”

If eros by itself is unmixed wine, Benedict reminds us that it is still wine, and wine is good. He therefore affirms eros in the strongest terms. Love between man and woman, “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness,” presents “the very epitome of love,” such that “all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison.”

Ahh, sighed the chorus, now the pope’s got it! And what could be more baneful than throwing water upon such unmixed erotic bliss?

The problem, the pope replies, is that “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.” The entire argument of Deus Caritas Est is packed into this single reply.

Against the notion that eros unbound is eros free and natural, Benedict makes the countercharge that eros unbound binds us to self-destruction. Eros needs to be disciplined and purified because it represents only a half-truth.

The half-truth, embraced by our culture as the whole truth, is that we are bodily creatures. For a host of reasons (and it is not an angelic host), the West over the last 400 years has ever more passionately thrown itself into the arms of materialism, the belief that bodily reality is the only reality. Following upon the belief that there is nothing more to the human being than the body—that, indeed, “souls” are a fiction of unenlightened, unscientific primitives—comes the belief that there is nothing more to eros than the unmixed wine of bodily pleasure.

Contra Nietzsche, the West is dying in a drunken bacchanalia of this materialist reading of eros. It represents, for Benedict, a woeful loss of our true humanity precisely because it denies that we are bodily creatures with souls: Animals, yes, but animals made in the image of God.

And nothing could more aptly describe the West’s bleary, weary, and frantic divinization of sex than this: It is soulless. Empty-eyed, because the eyes are the windows of the soul; aimless, because it aims at everything, having nothing more to hit than bodily pleasure; lifeless and mechanical, because it denies that the soul gives life to the body, and hence to eros; all-consuming, because consuming is all it knows.

To cure this spiritless malaise, Benedict offers the truth: Bodily pleasure is an essential aspect of the body-soul union that truly and properly defines our sexuality and our entire being, but if it is made the essence of eros, it becomes the nemesis of eros. Eros, to be eros, must be ensouled, otherwise it contains only a half-truth that destroys even what truth it has. The whole truth is contained in the union of body and soul, and there is no escape from the whole truth by taking either half.

Should he [man] aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness.

The restoration of eros demands that we reject both the gnostic denial of the reality and goodness of the flesh and the materialist, Epicurean denial of the reality and goodness of the spirit. Each age, it seems, is marked by its own characteristic lapse into one extreme, one error or the other. We live in a hidebound age, an age bound to the pleasures of its hide, an age of Epicurean hedonism if ever there was one—and it is against the drag of this Charybdis that Benedict must steer the Church.

The point of steering away from hedonism isn’t to escape the body but to return to the truth that humanity is essentially defined by this strange union of animality and something like divinity.

It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves; it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both grow together [coalescent] does man become fully his own self. By this one way alone, love—eros—has the strength to grow to the maturity [maturescere] of its own true greatness.

But then the pope adds something very odd and very ancient: “Man truly becomes his own particular self when his body and soul are united most intimately.” Only this union can love. Yet this attempted union is not achieved without struggle. Eros is not docile, but ornery. The “dispute [concertatio] of eros” must be overcome, and eros is “truly conquered” only when “this union [of body and soul] is achieved.”

The dispute of eros? The English translation of concertatio as “challenge” no doubt confused more than it clarified, because it loses the aspect of antagonism within eros that Benedict assumes must be conquered. The verb concertare means to strive eagerly, often in verbal disputes; hence the noun concertatio means a contest in words, a wrangling, a dispute. It is as if the body is arguing against the soul, dividing each “self” into factions, eagerly striving to make the case to the self that the self is, after all, only a body, and that bodily pleasure is the highest satisfaction and perfection.

As wonderful, natural, and good as eros is, then, it contains a spirit of rebellion, an aftershock of original sin that brings eros to assert itself against the true, human union of body and soul. Nietzsche attempted to rarify this spirit of rebelliousness of the flesh into a spirit of rebellion itself—a Promethean “against-ness” set against the spirit. He therefore represents the greatest corruption of eros, a divinization of intoxification.

But for all that, Benedict makes clear that eros must not be denied. Eros needs discipline and purification, so that unmixed wine doesn’t lead us into the Bowery gutter of history along with other lost, decrepit, and enervated civilizations.

What, then, must be mixed with eros? In a word (a very strange word for most of us) eros needs agape. “Theos agape estin,” declares the Greek of 1 John 4:16—“God is love.” In Latin, “Deus caritas est,” the name of the encyclical. The first words of Benedict’s first encyclical quote the First Letter of John: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

God is love, agape. Not eros? Eros needs agape? Eros needs God? No wonder Nietzsche was gnashing his teeth at Christianity. It was Nietzsche who famously declared that God was dead. If St. John and Benedict are right, then it was Nietzsche’s atheism that poisoned eros, not Christianity, and this atheism was rooted in the modern West’s denial of any reality beyond brute matter. No amount of Dionysian celebration of eros by itself in a godless cosmos could save Nietzsche from lapsing into madness and spending the last decade of his life in an asylum.

Nietzsche's achievement was to help turn the entire continent into an asylum.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2006 12:00 AM


Posted by: oj at May 25, 2006 9:51 AM

Did Nietzsche turn it into an asylum, or did he merely recognize what it was becoming, and articulate it?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 25, 2006 11:12 AM

Jim, Nietszche would say that he was the first to see reality and altruistically gave man the tools to deal with the harshness of it.

I wish people who drag Freddy into this argument on the side of the Libertines would at least point out that he lived a monkish personal life.

In that sense, Nietzsche serves as the example par excellence of modern Europe.

Though I suppose he would say that his mental life redeemed the sterility of his personal life.

Posted by: Pepys at May 25, 2006 6:45 PM

Eros was 'poisoned' a long time before Nietzsche, and the worst contaminations were not performed by Christians. To the contrary, eros is protected within monogamy because the dignity of men and women is protected within monogamy.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 25, 2006 8:45 PM

Kinda funny that Nietzsche wound up as a syphilitic invalid, completely helpless and dependent on his female relatives. His own philosophy would have eliminated him as an undesirable weakie.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 26, 2006 5:32 PM