Towards a Christian Vitalism

A Response to John Ehrett

Why are so many young men in the modern age attracted to the Bronze Age Pervert’s vitalistic message? Why do they respond in droves to his clarion call to return to nature, to the Ancient Greeks, to lives of human excellence? John Ehrett’s recent critique at American Reformer, although valuable in highlighting the inescapability and centrality of the cross in human history, does not address these questions. And by not addressing these questions, Ehrett does not confront the vitalists on their own terms, as he promises to do.

The fundamental concern of the pagan vitalists – their standard – is life itself. For them, whatever promotes lives of natural human flourishing is what should direct political, religious, and cultural movements. And, as Ehrett rightly notes, BAP and his vitalist followers look to Nietzsche as the foremost defender of life: “Nietzsche is the guiding light . . . [and] it is on Nietzsche’s ground that any engagement must occur.” Nietzsche’s standard is natural life. A Christian critique that challenges Nietzsche, BAP, and the Bronze Age mindset must proceed by showing that the kind of life the pagan vitalists idolize is in fact inferior to the Christian life, properly lived. Such a critique would show that the Nietzschean or BAP-ian way of life is too low. The arrows of the Bronze Age mindset miss the mark not by overshooting but by failing to reach the target.

An Impossible Task?

Ehrett’s argument against BAP and his hoped-for-recovery of a Dionysian, Ancient Greek way of life is that the incarnation, cross, and resurrection of Jesus make such a return impossible. He argues that there is a “flaming sword that bars the way back to premodern ‘innocence.’ One can never unthink the modernity, and the Jewish-Christian tradition that undergirds it, from which one’s quest begins.” But telling a group of ambitious young men that a goal they want to achieve is impossible is like waving red in front of a bull. “Impossible? We’ll see.”

What might seem impossible is for ambitious young men a challenge to conquer. These vitalists might argue that if “modernity, and the Jewish-Christian tradition that ungirds it” is the causal reason for what BAP calls our “trash world” – is it not worth striving to achieve the impossible?

A Christian critique must not simply say “No, impossible” to the vitalists’ hopes for a better life. Some impossible things are worth living for. The vitalist might hear Ehrett’s critique and respond as Puddleglum does to the Witch, the Queen of Underland, in The Silver Chair. In the story, the Queen has almost persuaded Scrubb, Jill, and Puddleglum that Narnia was simply made up and that the only real world is her Underworld. In a moment of clarity, Puddleglum declares his willingness to live for Narnia, even if it is an impossibility:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.[1]

The vitalist might look around at the problems of the modern world around him and say to Ehrett: “I’m on Dionysus’s side even if there isn’t any Dionysus to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Greek as I can even if it is impossible.”

The Christian critique, then, if it is to confront the vitalists on their own terms, must not dismiss the concerns of the vitalists about our degenerate culture but offer a better, more life-affirming solution to our modern problems than the Nietzschean one.

A Moral Protest

The long-term project of the vitalists is predicated on a rejection of the modern world. Bronze Age Pervert communicates this repeatedly in his podcast with lines such as “I declare war on all mankind!” or “Annihilate everything that exists!” (Episode 100). He concludes the prologue to his book with a stated desire to “purify this world of refuse.”[2] BAP’s philosophic and literary lodestar, Nietzsche, sought an overturning of the modern world, a “revaluation of all values” – a project that for him would begin with Christianity’s end.

But why is this “revaluation” appealing? Why would a young man be drawn to destroy the modern world (and Christianity)? Why would someone willingly live as a nihilist? These anti-modern vitalists are akin to those that Leo Strauss calls “German nihilists.” Their “nihilism is not absolute nihilism, [not a] desire for the destruction of everything including oneself, but a desire for the destruction of something specific: of modern civilisation.”[3] Strauss describes the protest of the German nihilists as

a moral protest. That protest proceeds from the conviction that the internationalism inherent in modern civilisation, or, more precisely, that the establishment of a perfectly open society which is as it were the goal of modern civilisation, and therefore all aspirations directed toward that goal, are irreconcilable with the basic demands of moral life. That protest proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral: the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness.[4]

Although they would deny the accusation, BAP, Nietzsche, and the vitalists’ complaint against the modern world is a moral complaint. That is, in their view, the conditions of living a good life are not found in “the internationalism inherent in modern civilization” nor in the “irresponsibility and lack of seriousness” that characterizes the open society and the modern world. And in their more candid moments, they admit that although they do not like the term “morality,” what they are advancing is a type of morality, a call to a particular way of life that is in accord with nature. They want human beings to live as they were born to live. Nietzsche and BAP are not the postmodern relativists they are sometimes made out to be. Consider BAP’s rejection of a post-modernist turn away from objective standards:

Some of you spergs and almost all of the half-educated class think when Nietzsche talks about ‘beyond good and evil’ that he’s making some grand proposition about there being no possibility to evaluate men and events. Morality is absolute necessity for the people. There is the other morality, that reveals a biological hierarchy. Just the same, a different standard applies to huemans, and a different one to the true men who are willing to live in danger, and who don’t care for their animal lives.[5]

For BAP, there is a type of morality “that reveals a biological hierarchy.” This morality calls man to live in light of natural differences, to acknowledge the hierarchies that are built into nature. Moreover, this natural morality acknowledges that man is (or some men are) the sort of creature that is “willing to live in danger,” that seeks to exercise his strength, to conquer unknown lands, to cultivate his own potential for excellence. Nietzsche argues that this natural standard is a means to “admonish[] moralities to become moral.”[6] Like the German nihilists that look to him, Nietzsche does not seek a total abandonment of morality per se, but what he deems unnatural or bad moralities. He admits that even for free spirits like himself “there is no doubt that to us also there still speaks a “thou shalt”: we also still obey a strict law set over us—and this is the last morality to which we also still attend and by which we also still know how to live.”[7] That last morality – that “strict law” that Nietzsche and his free-spirit followers obey is nature and the order of rank found therein.

The moral objection of the Nietzschean vitalists to modern civilization is that they find it unnatural and therefore degrading to human life. BAP calls it an “iron prison” that men who are able must escape. Consider his description of what the modern state does to man:

The modern socialisms, the expansion of the power of the state that squashes all initiative and all life, the hypocrisy of all political life in our time . . . The state we live in is as repressive as any oriental tyranny. But its hypocrisy is that it hides its force under the delusion of egalitarian ideals and legalistic procedures inconsistently applied.[8]

He describes the carefully monitored, modern space that is the suburbs:

The space . . . is I think a form of absolute hell to raise children in, especially boys. There is no freedom of motion except to regimented activities, they are always watched by caretakers of some kind. The places are of incredible ugliness, which takes away also from the will to discover new things at all.[9]

Or, consider his contrast of how modern men live with how they might live under better conditions:

Modern adult Western male seeks permission to watch other men playing sports, quaff vegetable oil relish . . .. Precisely a character born for conquest, for expansion, a precocious type of boy who seeks real development and the real domination of the space around him, who understands in his blood that play and manliness are to this end, precisely such a boy will have his expectations about life crushed and thwarted as soon as his eyes open.[10]

One need not agree with BAP’s prescriptions to recognize a measure of truth in what he says about the state of modern society and its effect on young men. Men feel trapped and want adventure and beauty and what they see around them offers neither. They want to achieve greatness and yet our egalitarian age demands sameness and cuts down those who show healthy ambition or promise. These young men understandably rage against the bars of the iron prison and seek to destroy it, seeking a better way of life. A return to Dionysian vitalism – a return to the way of Homer and Hercules – offers a way out.

Towards a Christian Vitalism?

It is good and right that Christians make logical arguments demonstrating why the Nietzschean vitalists are wrong in their assessment of Christianity and in their attribution of our modern problems to Christianity. These arguments will be theological in nature and will explain why the grace of Jesus Christ which is at the root of Christianity does not destroy human nature but perfects it.

However, the Nietzschean vitalists, like most human beings, will not be persuaded through abstract argument. That is, most will not choose to abandon their (ultimately) destructive path of Dionysian naturalism because they have understood a syllogism about Christian anthropology. Rather, these young men will be won over by reading stories of Christian heroes or even more by seeing living examples of Christian strength. This requires Christian men who exemplify true virtú, men who, in earlier times, the average man would follow into battle.

These Christian men will have natural greatness which they will use for life-affirming ends, biblically understood. Such great men will not deny hierarchy. He will recognize both that his proper place is below the God of the universe and also that he has a duty to lead others according to the real talents and excellence that God has graciously given him. When young men see and look up to such men, and then discover that they are Christian – what then? At the very least, there will be a measure of cognitive dissonance introduced; whereas Nietzsche and BAP critique Christianity as a religion that leads to lives poorly lived, the evidence before the vitalists will suggest otherwise. This requires men who exemplify Christian greatness.

Is this focus on life rather than truth an option for the Christian? For Nietzsche, the standards of life and truth do not necessarily correlate; there are truths that are dangerous and even life-threatening. Can a Christian then truly confront the vitalists on their own terms? Yes. For the Christian, life and truth ultimately unite in a person. Thus, what might seem like mutually exclusive standards turn out to be, in the end, one. Following truth claims “all the way up” will lead one to Jesus. In the same way, the standard of life does not culminate in Caesar or Napoleon but in Christ. The Christian ought to seek and exemplify life, knowing that, rightly understood, that vocation is a call to live like Jesus.

The Nietzschean vitalists are not wrong to react against the degeneracy of our modern culture. But when they see, on the one hand, cosmopolitan, lonely men without God, nation, or children (Nietzsche and BAP) and on the other hand strong Christian men with all three – which men more obviously exemplify a future on the far side of our present problems? Whom will they follow?

[1] CS Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperCollins, 1953), 190-1.

[2] Bronze Age Pervert, Bronze Age Mindset, Prologue.

[3] Leo Strauss, “German Nihilism,” Interpretation 26, no. 3 (Spring 1999), 357. Originally delivered February 26, 1941.

[4] Strauss, “German Nihilism,” 358.

[5] Bronze Age Pervert, Bronze Age Mindset, §62.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1966), §221.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Preface” to The Dawn, trans. Brittain Smith (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), §4.

[8] Bronze Age Pervert, Bronze Age Mindset, §64.

[9] Bronze Age Pervert, Bronze Age Mindset, §67.

[10] Bronze Age Pervert, Bronze Age Mindset, §33.

Photo Credit: Friedreick Kaubach, Die Kaiserkrönung Karls des Großen, 1861. Munich, Maximilianeum.

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Christian Winter

Christian Winter is a doctoral student in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, but was raised in the Last Frontier—Alaska. His in-progress dissertation is on Nietzsche. Christian received a BA from Union University and an MA from Hillsdale. He and his wife Julia live in Jonesville, Michigan, and are members of College Baptist Church. He is a former Cotton Mather Fellow with American Reformer.