Nietzsche's Piety

Stephen Williams reviews the latest work by Bruce Ellis Benson:

The argument in this volume is that Nietzsche retained his native Pietism. He was brought up in a Pietist home and broke away from the beliefs which it housed, but he did not thereby cease to be religious or pious. He aspired to become a disciple of Dionysus, a devotee of Life, of which Dionysus is the symbol. This determination to pursue a way of life is rightly called "piety" when we observe the continuities between Nietzsche's background Pietism and his later quest. His Pietism was a way of life rather than a set of doctrines.

The form remains where the content changes. In pursuit of what changes, Nietzsche sought out a musical ask sis. Benson explores this carefully. Ask sis is a form of spiritual exercise in self-transformation. It is not identical with asceticism, which carries connotations of bodily denial. It is affirmative of bodily life as well as negative toward spiritual sickness and the enemy of decadence, also carefully explored by the author, which Nietzsche self-consciously fought in himself.

Music was a vital and central force in Nietzsche's life, but for those Greeks whom Nietzsche so loved and to whom he was so indebted, it was a far more basic force than we tend to imagine when we hear the word "music." For Nietzsche, music forms the soul; it effects a profound spiritual formation. As far as he was concerned, once he had shrugged off the baleful influence of Wagner, music assumed its proper office of fostering spiritual health and cheerfulness, which is to say, a form of life. Pietism was a heartfelt way of life.

In sum: Nietzsche sought to know, follow, pray to Dionysus, god of Life, through a musical ask sis, and, in doing so, he transplanted a form of Pietism onto the soil of Dionysus or, better, cultivated the apparently alien form of Dionysus on the soil of native Pietism. He may not have succeeded in overcoming his childhood Pietism. But it is what Nietzsche was about, even if he did not fully know it.