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On Dead Things, Part II: Momento Mori

More thoughts on dead things.

In vain have I struggled to suppress it; I must write another essay on the topic of dead things.

In my last essay, I discussed how the dead teach the living and how man has always found life in the fecund soil of the past. But in my discursus on the higher meaning of mortui vivos docent, I was reminded of another half-forgotten medieval phrase: momento mori, an aphoristic fragment also consistent with Moses’ counsel to “number our days” (Psalm 90). Loosely, it means, “Remember you’re gonna die.” Literally, momento mori is translated, “Remember to die.”[1] But, again, why would such a macabre phrase ever be popular, especially in such a vibrant culture as the renaissance? And how would remembering one’s fate allow for progress? What about the now and the new, the present and the future? Surely there is a time to “seize the day.” Surely there is a time to move forward.

Friedrich Nietzsche certainly believed so. In the fading twilight of his sanity, he wrote his last work Ecce Homo, a final interpretation and justification of all his prior works of philosophy. Think of it as a “self-portrait” comparable to Van Gogh’s, says translator and scholar Walter Kaufman (658). Ecce Homo explains “who I am,” says Nietzsche himself, for “I am a disciple of the philosopher Dionysus” (793). This contrast of the Christ and Dionysus is central to understanding Nietzsche, and it is the hermeneutical “leitmotif” that forms the key to understanding not only his last work but also the meaning of his ultimate philosophical claim: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati” (714).[2] It means “love of one’s fate.” With this one statement, Nietzsche wishes to replace the wisdom of momento mori and overturn the Scriptural insight of numbering one’s days. The poets of the Bible often evoke the ephemeral nature of man, whose life flourishes as the flower of the field which is today and tomorrow is not (Psalm 103). But Nietzsche felt such thoughts were weak, unheroic, and not life-affirming. Instead of ruminating on the evanescence of life, which slows us down and makes us cautious, we ought to love life, even to the point of proudly accepting our own suffering and death.

For Nietzsche, the problem with Jesus is that he “stands opposed to this world and this life” (663). Jesus has resentment toward the superlative action of the will to affect its own happiness. Jesus has no joie de vivre. He submits. He weeps. He dies. Dionysus, on the other hand, has real power, power to free the will from every limitation. Dionysus imbues man with the spirit of tragedy, for “the tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering” (665). Thus the last line of his last book ends with this contrast: “Dionysus versus the Crucified” (791). But Nietzsche is not so foolish as to attack “religion” per se, as many of our New Atheists have done. Rather, it is the Christian vision of the Good that is “weak, sick, failure” and “ought to perish” (791). In the end, Nietzsche looks for the auguries of a new man who has the will to seize the day in spite of its consequences. Nietzsche calls for a “human being who says Yes, who is sure of the future, who guarantees the future” (791). And remembering our fate only keeps us imprisoned in the past. So he thought.

In his novella The Devil and Pierre Gernet, David Bentley Hart puts Nietzsche’s fate-affirming philosophy in the mouth of a suave and erudite devil, whose rhetorical personae invokes the enthusiasm of Emerson and the inverted diabolisms of Screwtape and Ivan Karamazov. In this story, the reader overhears the sad account of a platonic classicist named Pierre Gernet, who disgracefully dies young yet still finds salvation at the last moment of his life. The devil counsels his listener that the story of Pierre Gernet is a “cautionary epitome,” a warning “about where too much loving of the past can lead” (44). This devil is, ironically, a materialist; he criticizes any belief in tradition and accuses any whose “hope for the future…consent[s] to be a continuation of the past.” In contrast to the old ways, it is the “terrific fecundity of the now—the now,” the devil emphasizes, “which it’s a crime to allow slip away unexploited and unenjoyed” (44). True life, true power comes from the dynamism of the moment, the devil argues; we must capitalize on one’s own determining choice as the supreme good. Note how modern psychology speaks the same language, exhorting its patients toward “self-actualization” or by vapid suggestion to keep “being you.” The devil wishes to liberate Carpe diem from good and evil, from all transcendental limitations, and “from past and future alike” (45). It is in the present tense that the will becomes free, and “It’s only when you’re willing to rescue yourself from subservience to the perishable that you’re able to embrace the real energy of becoming” (45). Both the devil and Nietzsche claim that we achieve progress by exertion of the will, by a commitment to abandon the past and live only in the freedom of the will’s now. They promise us the future by overleaping the past.

But such a nihilistic approach always falls short. Nietzsche was turned around. For the past lies always before us, not behind. “The older generation, not the younger, is knocking at our door,” explains Chesterton, [3] and ignoring that house call is not merely rude but impossible. Pursuing progress only ends in madness. “To-morrow is a gorgon,” says Chesterton, and “a man must only see it mirrored in the shining shield of yesterday. If he sees [tomorrow] directly he is turned to stone.” Chesterton knew the paradox that we gain the future only by facing the past. When a man “tries to think about the future itself, his mind diminishes to a pin point with imbecility, which some call Nirvana. This has been the fate of all those who have really seen fate and futurity as clear and inevitable.” Amor fati? Please. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. Momento mori is far more daring. “Men invent new ideals,” writes Chesterton, “because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”

From this vantage, then, even the unhealthiest nostalgia of medieval Christians is wiser than all the bold auguries of Pagan priests. Nietzshcean strength is actually weak, and Nietzschean affirmation more sickly a constitution. Chesterton calls it phobia. Those who wish to circumvent the past are really afraid of it. And those who long for the will’s future suffer a “Fear of the Past.” The future is a refuge for those who cannot handle “the fierce completion of our forefathers.” If Nietzsche really wanted to “guarantee the future,” then he couldn’t have done better than to simply obey the fifth commandment, which promises the only real assurance—that “it will go well with you in the land.” Whether righteous or wicked, however, we know there is no surety for the immediate future, as Ecclesiastes makes plain. But there is a way to “make the future luxuriant and gigantic,” says Chesterton, “so long as [man] is thinking about the past.”

It really should not surprise us in the end that the way forward is back, or that a pilgrim finds true progress in his regress. For of such paradoxes is the kingdom of heaven. Christ tells us that the last shall be first and the first last. That he who seeks to save his life will lose it but that he who loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. That the way up is down. That whosoever wishes to be greatest shall be servant of all. In one sense, then, was Nietzsche right that Christianity is a slave morality. But he was dead wrong about the nature of that slavery and about the nature of that Master whom all Christians serve. The Man who was found among the dead became the most Alive Man in the universe; and the Man who emptied himself to became a bondservant became so Free that even hell itself could not contain Him. To “Behold the Man” is indeed the vital point, and Nietzsche might have been able to see the True Man if would have stopped staring at his own reflection in the mirror. If Nietzsche could have understood the law of paradox in the kingdom of heaven, he could have known that to behold the man of the “future” is to behold Christ himself. Christ was able to apprehend the future because he possessed the deepest knowledge of his past. For he came not to do away with the past but to fulfill it.

[1] If you’re confused about this grammar, the secret is that mori is a deponent verb.

[2] Ecce Homo, trans. and ed. by Walter Kaufmann. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York, Modern Library: 2000. Kaufman notes that he says this in the midst of great suffering and failure in life. And he touts this phrase elsewhere in his writings.

[3] What’s Wrong with the World, Chapter VI.

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