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Vile bodies

Nietzsche is notorious for his vilification of Christianity. But why? This is a vast topic. Here we will merely touch on the most basic of his objections. Nietzsche considered himself the philosopher of the ‘Great Health’. As far as he was concerned, this put him squarely in opposition to Christianity, as it has been practised for two-thousand years; Christianity which taught, as an intrinsic value, the abnegation of the self and mortification of the flesh.

‘Man has bred for himself that upset stomach and coated tongue through which not only have the joy and innocence of the animal become repulsive but life itself has become unsavoury:- so that he at times stands before himself holding his nose and, along with Pope Innocent the Third, disapprovingly catalogues his repulsive traits “impure begetting, disgusting nourishment in the womb, vileness of the matter out of which man develops, revolting stench, excretion of saliva, urine, and faeces”.’ (GM.2,7)


In the Christian tradition, the soul has exceptional status. It is a thing of exalted, eternal, spiritual substance. It is unique but also ‘equal before god’ with every other soul. On the other hand, historically speaking, when Christianity was at the height of its power, the body was reviled as filthy, bestial and profane, being an object of changeable, base matter and therefore furthest from the purely spiritual realm of god and his angels. This attitude to the body is well illustrated by the sixteenth century Spanish, Catholic Saint, Ignatius of Loyola:


‘Let me look at the foulness and ugliness of my body. Let me see myself as an ulcerous sore running with every horrible and disgusting poison.’


For Nietzsche, this intense disdain for the body was an appalling side-effect stemming from an excessive veneration of the non-material soul. He went so far as to claim that ‘Christianity, which despised the body, has been the greatest disaster for humanity so far’ (TI.47).


Christian bodily denigration has inspired some spectacular self-neglect and self-abuse over its two-millennia history. In the dark ages, simple care of the body, such as washing and bathing, was condemned as sinful vanity. In his fiery polemic, The Antichrist, Nietzsche writes that, in Christianity, ‘hygiene is rejected as sensuousness; the church defends itself even against cleanliness (– the first Christian edict following the expulsion of the Moors was the closure of the public baths – there were some 270 in Córdoba alone)' (A.21) Here he refers to the Catholic recapture of Spain from the Muslim Moors in the 15th and 15th centuries.


Suspicious of any kind of basic self-care, the church of old frowned on any concern to meet the necessities of general wellbeing. Voluntary poverty was praised as a virtue. Arduous fasting, long vigils of prayer and other such penitential ordeals were encouraged. Pilgrims would make long journeys to sites of spiritual importance, often perilous itself in an age of widespread banditry. The ardent might even walk the whole distance on their knees to intensify their suffering.


Because Jesus had claimed that his kingdom was ‘not of this world’, people abandoned their families and communities in order to remove themselves from the wickedness of temporal, real-world existence. They became monks, nuns, hermits, ascetic anchorites. A handful of remarkable individuals had themselves walled-up for life in tiny stone cells adjoining churches where they could live out their days in prayer. A small aperture allowed food and water to be passed to them and waste products to be passed out. Others retired to the solitude of the wilderness. In a notable case, the fourth-century hermit, Saint Simeon Stylites, lived on top of a single column exposed to all the elements for 37 years and, in one account, ate only boiled vegetables until his skin began to crack, after which he agreed to dress his meagre dinner with a little olive oil. Nietzsche conjectured whether such zealots, fleeing to the cloister, the cave and the desert, were driven not so much by love of god as by fear of life.


Another favoured mania for religious ascetics was systematically starving themselves and, with contempt for any kind of comfort, wearing only sackcloth or coarse ‘hair-shirts’. They would sleep on freezing floors and scourge themselves with whips. Devices were manufactured, such as belts with inward facing spikes, that could be worn under clothing to keep the wearer in constant pain. These masochistic practices, purportedly in emulation of Christ’s suffering, were intended to mortify the flesh and edify the soul. The church taught that all human beings were party to the inborn guilt of original sin and so such deprivations were well-deserved punishments as well as spiritually elevating disciplines. An especially distasteful case of the pursuit of absolute self-abnegation is furnished by the sixteenth century Carmelite nun, Maria Maddelena de' Pazzi who is said to have licked the purifying wounds of lepers. As might be expected, the Catholic church sainted her for these extraordinary degradations. Here was precisely the sort or perverse example they could commend to their flocks.


‘imagine how much we can despise a religion that teaches a misunderstanding of the body! that does not want to escape from the superstition of the soul! that makes a ‘merit’ out of poor nutrition! that fights health as a type of enemy, devil, temptation!’ (A.51)


As might be expected, natural human appetites were reviled as sinful temptations sent from the devil. Sex especially, being inescapably physical, was denounced as a disgusting ritual. Its only tolerable function was to permit procreation. Nietzsche believed the church actively set out to make people feel as sinful as possible and it did this by 'labelling the unavoidably natural as sinful' (GM.141). Only by making the individual feel morally wretched could he or she be brought under the power of the church, for only the church had the power to absolve sin. Sex was a key lever here for obvious reasons. People were made to feel disgusting and shameful because of their natural, bodily urges. One tradition has it that the third century church father, Origen, castrated himself so he would not be tempted by the ‘sins of the flesh’. We will have much more to say about Nietzsche’s healthy, ‘pagan’ view of sex in another place, but the general tenor of his position can be gleaned from his repudiation of the Christian account of the virgin birth, that through its dogma of the ‘immaculate conception’, Christianity has robbed conception of its immaculateness (A.34).


For theologians, matter was evil and so the body, being matter, was evil too. The logical endpoint for such a culture of profound self-loathing was a fervent yearning for martyrdom. Many a religious devotee went joyfully to their execution when just a few words of renunciation could have saved their lives. Reportedly, the condemned sometimes sang hymns as the torturer practised his arts or the flames began licking their skin. For the faithful in the early Roman Empire, as well as in later centuries when proselytising to the heathens, martyrdom was an occupational hazard. The church routinely canonised these casualties for their troubles, thereby seeding a general eagerness to make the ultimate sacrifice. Nietzsche argued that, in fact, Christianity virtually promoted suicide in two forms and ‘invested them with the highest dignity and the highest hopes […] martyrdom and the slow self-annihilation of the ascetic’ (GS.131)


But it was not just Christians - half a world away, eastern mystics would neglect, torture and extinguish themselves as a religious observance. Even the Buddha renounced all his possessions, embraced privation and starved himself almost to death. For Nietzsche, ‘Wherever the doctrine of pure spirituality has prevailed […] it taught that the body should be despised, neglected, or tormented, and that, on account of his impulses, man himself should be tortured and regarded with contempt.’ (D.39) Nietzsche asks ‘Could any aberration be more dangerous than the contempt of the body?’ (WP.1016) He rails against the ‘delirium’ of the Christians who ‘think that a man could carry a "beautiful soul" about in a body that was a cadaverous abortion’ (WTP.226)


But surely, although these historical objections are not without grounds, such a warped ascetic ethos is a peculiarity of the past. We, the inheritors of a much-diluted Christian ethos, we secular humanists, we have much more positive attitudes to the body today. We are proud of our nakedness and feel no embarrassment with regard to any of the body’s natural functions. We do not feel wretched, worthless, furtive, penitent or inherently sinful like our forebears. We have nothing to apologise for. We feel not a shred of guilt for our existence. And as for the idea of an immortal soul, it is an abandoned dogma. We reject such unproven metaphysical assumptions. We are just what we appear to be. We have nothing to hide. Like all the other animals, we do not know shame. We are so, so happy.

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