Religion and Government

[Translated from Nietzsche’s Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, by George Schumm.]

As long as the State, or rather the government, regards itself as the guardian of the minor masses, and in their behalf considers the question whether religion shall be maintained or abolished, it will most probably always decide in favor of the maintenance of religion. For religion satisfies the individual nature in times of loss, privation, terror, distrust,—that is, when the government is incapable of doing anything directly for the relief of the mental sufferings of the private man; aye, even during times of general, inevitable, and at first insurmountable evils (starvation, financial crises, wars) religion is productive of a composed, expectant, trustful attitude of the masses. When the necessary or accidental shortcomings of government, or the dangerous results of dynastic interests, become apparent to the intelligent, and fill them with the sentiment of hostility, the unintelligent will fancy they see the fingers of God, and patiently submit to the commands from above (in which conception divine and human government usually blend), thus preserving internal peace and the continuity of development. The force which lies in the unity of popular feeling, in the same general opinions and aims of the people, is under the protection and sanction of religion, except in those rare cases when the priesthood cannot come to an agreement with the political power concerning the price, and bids it defiance. The State generally knows how to win to its side the priesthood, because it is in need of its most private, subtle control of souls, and can appreciate servants who apparently and externally represent an entirely different interest. Without the assistance of the priests no power can become legitimate even now, as Napoleon understood.

Thus absolute paternalism in government and the careful maintenance of religion necessarily go hand in hand. Now it is to be assumed that the governing persons and classes come to an understanding of hte benefit which religion offers them, and that, inasmuch as they employ it as a means, they will feel themselves superior to it: wherefore freethought takes its rise here.

But what if that entirely different conception of government begins to prevail which is taught in democratic States? What if we see nothing in it except the instrument of the popular will, no high in contrast to low, but exclusively a function of the sole sovereign, the people? The same position only which the people assume toward religion can here be assumed also by the government; the spread of enlightenment will necessarily extend to its representatives; the utilization and exploitation of the religious forces and consolationsi n behalf of political purposes will not be easily possible (except that powerful political leaders temporarily exert an influence which resembles that of enlightened despotism). But when the State may no longer derive any benefit from religion itself, or when the people are much too divided in their opinions concerning religious matters to admit of a homogeneous, unitary course on the part of the government respecting religious measures, the inevitable result will be to treat religion as a private affair and to relegate it to the conscience and custom of the individual. It will at first appear as if the religious feeling had become intensified, inasmuch as some of its hidden and suppressed tendencies which the State involuntarily or deliberately refused to countenance now break forth and swing to the opposite extreme; later it will be seen that religion is overgrown with sects, and that a plenitude of dragon’s teeth were sown the moment religion was made a matter of private concern. The sight of contention, the hostile exposure of all the weak spots of religious confessions, will finally admit of no other alternative than that all the better and more gifted minds espouse irreligion as their private opinion: which sentiment now also gains ascendancy among the governing persons and, almost against their will, gives to their measures the character of hostility to religion. When this happens, the feeling of all fundamentally religious persons who formerly adored the State as something semi or wholly sacred will change into a feeling of decided hostility to the State; they will be on the alert for the measures of the government, they will seek to hinder, to cross, to give the greatest possible annoyance, and thereby drive the opposite party, the irreligious, through the heat of their opposition, into an almost fanatical enthusiasm for the State; wherein the additional factor comes into play that in these circles people feel a void since their separation from religion and are provisionally looking for a compensation, for a sort of filling-up in their devotion to the State. After these perhaps protracted transition struggles, it will finally be decided whether the religious parties are still powerful enough to restore an ancient condition and turn back the wheel of progress,—in which case enlightened despotism (perhaps less enlightened and timid than formerly) will inevitably take possession of the State,—or whether the irreligious parties will assert themselves and for several generations, perhaps by means of the school and education, undermine and finally make impossible the perpetuation of their opponents. Then also their enthusiasm for the State will begin to wane; it will become more and more evident that with the religious adoration for which the State is a mystery, a supernatural institution, also the reverent and affectionate attitude towards it has been shaken. Henceforth the individuals will view it only in the light in which it may become helpful or harmful to them, and strive by all means to gain influence over it. But this competition will soon become too great, people and parties will change too rapidly, and mutually hurl themselves too wildly again from the eminence after they have scarcely reached it. All measures passed by government will lack the guarantee of permanence; people will be frightened from enterprises which require a quiet growth of decades and centuries to bear ripe fruit. Nobody will any longer feel any other obligation to a law than temporarily to submit to the force which it represents: but at once the effort will be made to undermine it by a new force, by a newly-to-be-formed majority. Finally—we may say it with confidence—the distrust of all government, the conviction of the uselessness and worry of these asthmatic struggles, must force people to an entirely new resolve,—to the abolition of the State, to the cancellation of the antithesis private and public. Step by step private associations will absorb governmental functions; even the most tenacious survival of the old work of government (the protection, for instance, of the private man against the private man) will one day be assumed by private enterprise. The neglect, the decay, and the death of the State, the untrammelling of the private person (I am careful not to say: the individual), is the outcome of the democratic conception of the State; here lies its mission. Has it accomplished its task,—which like all things human is fraught with much reason and unreason,—have all relapses into the old distemper been overcome, a new leaf will be turned in the fablebook of mankind, on which one may read all sorts of strange histories and perhaps also some good things.

To briefly repeat what has just been said: the interests of paternal government and the interests of religion go hand in hand, so that, when the latter begins to decay, the foundation of the State will also fall to pieces. The belief in a divine order of political matters, in a mystery in the life of the State, is of a religious origin: if religion disappears, the State will inevitably lose its old Isis veil and no longer command reverence. The sovereignty of the people, seen closely, serves to frighten away the last spell and superstition in the domain of these sentiments; modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the State.

The prospect resulting from this certain decay is, however, not in every regard an unfortunate one: human prudence and selfishness are of all qualities the most highly developed; when the state shall no longer meet the requirements of these forces, it will be least of all a state of chaos that will arise, but a still more expedient invention than the State will supersede the State. How many an organizing power has mankind already seen decay,—for instance, that of tribal promiscuity, which for thousands of years was more powerful than the family, yes, which ruled and held sway long before the latter arose. We ourselves see how the important creation of law and power, the family, which once dominated wherever Roman influence prevailed, is becoming more and more pale and impotent. So a later generation will also see the State become meaningless in certain regions of the earth,—an idea which many people of the present time can hardly entertain without fear and abhorrence. To work for the spread and realization of this idea is of course a different matter: one must think very presumptuously of his own reason, and have studied history hardly to any purpose, if he would put hands to the plow at this early day,—while as yet no one can point to the seed which shall be scattered over the furrowed earth. Let us trust, therefore, to the prudence and selfishness of men that for awhile yet the State will continue to exist, and that the destructive attempts of overzealous and too hasty sciolists will be rejected!

Socialism in Regard to Its Means.—Socialism is the fantastical younger brother of the almost defunct despotism which it aims to succeed; its aspirations are therefore in the deepest sense reactionary. For it strives after a degree of political power such as no despotism has ever wielded; yea, it exceeds anything in the past by aiming at the complete extinction of the individual, who appears as an unwarranted luxury of nature, and who is to be transformed by it into a useful organ of the commonwealth. By virtue of its kinship it always appears in proximity to all display of power, like the old typical Socialist Plato at the court of the Sicilian tyrant; it wishes (and under circumstances fosters) the Cæsarian State of this century, because, as was remarked, it aims to become its successor. But even this inheritance would not suffice for its purposes; it needs the most abject submission of all citizens to the absolute State, the like of which has never existed; and as it can no longer rely on the old religious piety for the State, but most rather involuntarily work for the removal of the same,—because it works for the removal of all existing States,—it can indulge in the hope of dominion here and there for brief periods only, through the most extreme terrorism. Therefore it is secretly preparing itself for reigns of terror, and drives the word justice like a nail into the head of the half-educated masses, in order to rob them completely of their reason (after this reason has already greatly suffered from the half-education), and to create for them a good conscience for the evil game they are to play. Socialism may serve to teach, in a very brutal and impressive manner, the danger that is in all accumulations of political power, and in so far inspire a distrust of the State itself. If its hoarse voice sounds the battle-cry, As much State as possible, this will at first thereby become more noisy than ever; but soon also the opposite cry will break forth with so much the greater force: As little State as possible.

This article appeared in Liberty, Vol. IX. No. 19.