Nietzsche meets Therese

G.K.Chesterton observes that every age is saved by a saint most contrary to the spirit of the age. This clash–this ability by Divine Providence to provide a saint that stands everything on it’s head is exemplified by a comparison between Frederick Nietzsche and Therese of Lisieux. They were contemporaries. Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900. Therese was born in 1873 and died just three years before Nietzche in 1897.

Nietzsche stands as the terminal point of godless- humanistic “enlightenment” philosophy. His thought is the end of the line, and his own sad decline into madness and a sad lonely death somehow summarizes and symbolizes his life and thought. Nietzsche is famous for saying “God is dead.” but his thought is more profound and disturbing than that little quote. His rejection of Christianity was linked with his idea of  the “superman”. He regarded Christianity as a religion that exalted weakness and thought pity for the weak only encouraged more weakness. Dull Christian morality was, in his view, the enemy of the true vitality of man. The “superman” would realize that there is no objective truth and no objective morality–that God and goodness was all man made. As such he would rise above the mediocre and discover his own values, and these discovered values would emerge from his own essential will to power.

Everybody comes from somewhere, and Nietzsche was the son of a small town Lutheran pastor and teacher. He went to conventional middle class Christian boarding schools. He was the product of German, small town Protestantism, and it was this background that he rejected. What kind of a God, therefore, did Nietzsche consider to have died? It was the god he learned about within small town bourgeois Protestantism–a God who expected dull conformity of belief and behavior–a God who didn’t like smart boys asking too many questions. If this was the God that the boy Nietzsche was introduced to in his childhood, then not only was that God dead. He was never alive.

Therese, on the other hand, is not the child of small town Protestantism, but the child of small town, bourgeois French Catholicism. Her life and her philosophy are almost the exact opposite of Nietzsche. She never rejected the religion she was given as a child, and yet she questioned the same expectations of dull conformity and challenged them not by rejecting her religion, but by living it out in a radical way that turned the dull piety of the French bourgeois Catholics (and then the world) upside down.

If Frederich Nietzsche met Therese Martin how would the conversation go? He might explain the death of God and the inexorable rise of nihilism. Therese would say ‘the good God’ was not dead, but only man’s false ideas of God had died. When he explained how morality was discovered by each person Therese would reply that each person did indeed have to discover morality–but discover the reality of the received morality in a radically personal way. When Nietzsche explained how the great ones had to give up fitting into dull society, had to give up attachment to all material things, Therese would agree and point out that this is precisely what she aimed to do by becoming a Carmelite. When Nietzsche explained that this process of negation and discovery of true values was the process by which  the “superman” came to be, Therese would agree, but she would call that “superman” a “saint”. When she cries, “Sanctity! It must be won at the point of a sword!” or “You cannot be half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all.” She gives the world her own version of the “superman”–one who has overcome the dull conventional beliefs and behaviors and risen to another dimension of humanity altogether. Nietzsche’s use of poetry and paradox would not have been lost on Therese either–and this is where she trumps Nietzsche–she would say that the way to become that saintly “superman” is precisely by being what Nietzsche despised: a little girl. The way to become the “Overman” was to become the “Underdog”. The way to become a great human was to become a trusting child of the loving Father–a slave to others and a slave to Love–and one who follows the  “little Way” that is a great way, and a simple way that is the hardest of all.

This is one of God’s great jokes: that the world throws out a Nietzsche–a proud, self dramatizing Byronic philosopher– the atheist of the grand flourish and the tragic gesture, and God answers with a little girl who likes to sit on Papa’s lap and see her initials in the stars. See how it all ends: Nietzsche descends into madness and dies penniless in his domineering sister’s house. His legacy was one of  nihilism and despair, and his greatest ignominy is that his thought inspires the Nazis who plunge Europe into war and murder millions. Therese, on the other hand, also dies an obscure and tragic death–suffering from tuberculosis and dying after long, drawn out agony. But within months of her death her little book is re-printed by the tens of thousands,  She is hailed as the ‘greatest modern saint’ by Pope Pius XI and as a final hilarious, standing on my head act–a hundred years after her death this little girl who died at the age of just 24 is named as a Doctor of the Church by Blessed John Paul II. Her star continues to rise and wherever her relics are taken on pilgrimage incredible crowds to venerate the memory of this little girl who answers the monstrous spirit of our age.

The two stand together back to back as a genius and a madman. Both speaking of the same mysteries, but one from a perspective of madness and one from the perspective of a rock solid realistic sanity. At the heart of it all, Nietzsche knows that without God there is nothing. Therese, on the other hands, sees that with God there is everything. Nietzsche says, “I will have nothing.” Therese says, “I will have everything.” The clash between Nietzsche and Therese is the great clash of our age, and the clash of every age. Will you live without God, facing the darkness of nihilism with bravado and nothing but the will to power? Will you follow that way which leads into darkness, despair and ultimate loneliness and death or will you follow the little way that leads through the ordinary into humility,  the way down that leads up, the way of negation that leads to life, and the way through the darkness into the light?

UPDATE: from the combox: ”

Actually, Therese and Neitzsche stayed at the same hotel in Paris at the same time so maybe they did meet! The hotel where her family was staying on a visit is likely the place where Therese encountered an elevator, which she later used as an image of confidence in God.


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  • Dr. Eric

    I have to admit that I don’t “get” St. Therese or her spirituality, but I’m starting to come around. Sts. Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Hildegard of Bingen; them, I get.

    But, yesterday, I had to defend the life of a mystic and monk against a person who didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to The Gospel. He thought there was no use for monks. And during my defense, I came to realize I was learning about St. Therese. I also read through your articles about her and I am learning more about her “little way.” And, I am insisting that while looking at her pictures, she was looking back at me.

  • Richard

    His philosophy (and the way of being that it permitted and promoted) brought about his madness and death, as it is widely understood that he died of tertiary cerebral syphilis. But even before then, it seems to me that he had the look of a madman about him, or perhaps a possessed man. The two juxtaposed photographs seem very telling. Look at their eyes, their faces. In one, the eyes and countenance of a saint. In the other, hardness and darkness. Will we “follow that way which leads into darkness, despair and ultimate loneliness and death” or will we “follow the little way …?” Indeed. St. Therese, ora pro nobis!

  • AJAX

    This is brilliant. Thank you.

  • My Gal Sal

    This is so beautiful. To have everything in the world and to not have the love of God in ones heart is to be empty! With Gods Love I have reason to live and everyday is to look for the love in my beautiful dull life. Thank You Father I needed this. Sometime life gets complicated and simple beauty of love inside of ones heart is over looked. At the Heart of it All is God and He is everywhere. Everything points back to God and when I get lost in my selfish ways, my life bumps onto God and see what a fool I have been to not realize how simple and beautiful His Love is.

  • Dave Palmer

    Father, I just loved the article about Nietzsche and Therese of Lisieux. Wonderful article.
    I was very surprised, however, that on your site was a commercial about mormonism. I know it’s unlikely you put this spot on the site yourself but still…


  • Brad

    This reminds me of a passage I read in (I think) Aardweg’s book, “Hungry Souls – Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings from Purgatory”. If I remember this correctly, someone had a vision of purgatory (or was it hell?) wherein the soul of Voltaire was in a very deep “part” of Purgatory, so far removed from even the more shallow parts. His suffering was inexplicable. His soul was orbiting a pinpoint of light in a fixed (which makes me think I am remembering hell, not purgatory) orbit but from a truly Plutonian distance. The visionary saw Voltaire’s soul as if he saw Voltaire’s face, and it was fixed in a stare of rage and gaping-mouth despair and shock and surprise. No doubt from seeing, at his particular judgment, the One whom he had warred against be all that His sheep had claimed He was: not only the Lamb, but the historical Jesus, and, most of all, the Man-God of Divine Mercy, coming toward the soul from what is otherwise utter darkness.

    Oh, to be a St. Therese and meet our Savior with joy and love, and not merely to see the One whom we spent our lives despising and denying.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The ads are generated by Patheos computers. We don’t have a choice about it.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    You need to buy my book St Benedict and St Therese!

  • Brad

    Dr. Eric, hi. I have a family of domestic bunnies that live among my hens, freely. Sometimes the bunnies all gather around their chow bowl and eat so unbelievably picturesquely, all crowding around the rim, cheek to cheek. They are all different shades of black to gray. They remind me of saints, all similar yet slightly different. Mama is so sweet and yet really something. St. Catherine of Siena type. Daddy is gray and big with masculine features. Insert awesome male saint here. But oh, the little tykes. Meltingly, meltingly cute. I call them the petite sweets. I know that the instant overwhelming gush of love I have for those ones at the moment I see them is the same our Lord feels about St. Therese and those petite sweets on her little way. The petite sweets, in whom there is no greatness, no duplicity, no nothing. Just by virtue of the fact that they are so small, so charming, so demure, and are letting Him look at them (as St. Teresa of Avila would say, they are ravishing His Eye), while they also shyly look up at Him, acknowledging Him. I think the ultimate ravishing happens to Him when he sees them look up at Him. What’s better than when the apple of one’s eye seems to acknowledge and requite? And by apple I mean the petite sweets, not just any bunny, not the grand ones. So in contrast to the St. Aquinas type, I am coming to understand the lure of St. Therese (and St. Bernadette) for the God who made her. All she had to do was let Him look at her and she ravished Him. That must be why He began creation let alone suffer and die for it? To see those petite sweets!

  • Trent

    What a beautiful contrast!

  • Mr. Patton

    Therese lived as cloistered Carmelite for less than ten years. She never went on missions, never founded a religious order, never performed great works. Why would an intellectual like Frederick ever make such an acquaintance?

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  • nashdomsrock

    This was epic…thank you.

  • Sarah Scherrer

    Have to “share” this on Facebook. If I could find a way to incorporate this into my blog on Montessori, I would!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Click on the specific post in my blog. Highlight and Copy the url address at the top of the page–use the url address to create a link in your blog post about what I’ve written and it will take people to my post.

  • Sr. Marie Bernardina

    Check out the book by ICS Publications – under the St. Therese section:
    Nietzsche is My Brother: A Play by Bridget Edman, O.C.D.

  • FW Ken

    The relics of The Little Flower came to north Texas a few years back, and it was a great, joyous bit of Catholic life in an area not known for a well-developed Church life. That night, though, the bishops of Fort Worth, Dallas, and Tyler and their priests were little boys before a great saint. The local Carmelites came out of their cloister, and grown men stood on chairs to see the sight. It was a rowdy, happy family, not solemn, but reverent none the less. My dominant memory of the evening is just happiness.

    A few of us standing in line to venerate her relics were musing on spending that amount of time waiting to pray for a minute or so, but then I looked over at the roller coasters at Six Flags Over Texas and thought about the time I’ve spent in line for a short ride, it sort of put it into perspective.

  • marya

    The next time someone quotes “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger,” I’ll remember this article. People are drawn to Nietzsche’s saying (I guess) because it makes them feel like tough survivors. But what a grim, impoverished vision of the world, especially in contrast to Therese’s joyful, loving vision.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Therese would probably have said, “That which kills me makes me stronger.”

  • Korou

    St. Therese, Star Wars fan!

  • Fr. John Sims Baker

    Actually, Therese and Neitzsche stayed at the same hotel in Paris at the same time so maybe they did meet! The hotel where her family was staying on a visit is likely the place where Therese encountered an elevator, which she later used as an image of confidence in God.

  • Laura Page

    Hey, Fr. Baker! That’s amazing to think that their paths really may have crossed. Knowing what we do about St. Therese, she may well have prayed for Nietzsche. It’s too bad that, as far as we know, he never cooperated with grace.

  • Tim LeRoyer

    Thanks for the article, Fr. Longenecker! I just wanted to mention that while Nietzsche’s philosophy was certainly flawed, it seems to me that it came more from fear and despair, than from hate and anger. And I think that is certainly at the heart of many who cling so fiercely to the idea that God is dead and religion is useless; they consistently seem to be sad, empty, and pained. As always we should make sure that we look as God looks, into a man’s heart, that we might see that person as a whole, finding Christ within them, and pouring out His love and humility to them. It’s always very easy to judge bad people by their badness and forget to look for Christ in them and remember that without God’s grace, that bad person would have been me. So I just wanted to encourage anyone who reads this to keep being what every Catholic is called to be: simply humble, simply loving, simply gentle and honest. When the intellectual, or secularist, or atheist, or even the religious cause us pain or embarrassment or rejection, we should thank God for the gift; the gift of suffering so that we might die in order to live, and be less so that He might be more. It is when the heart is broken that God can take the pieces and mix them with the pieces of His Own Heart. He not only heals the heart, but remakes it more truly in His Image, able now to give and recieve more of His Love than it ever could before. As the great St. Therese of Liseux teaches us, it is through brokeness that we are healed, through death that we live, through littleness that we become great. May Mary pray for us that we might be that kind of Catholic and truly believe that, and also that Fr. Longenecker will always be given the strength and encouragement to lead, teach, and heal God’s loved ones, that is everyone.

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  • Vladyk

    So if someone who is Catholic suffers from a mental illness, is it OK to say that his Catholicism is responsible?
    I’m curious though, Father, how much Nietzsche have you actually read?
    You identify him with enlightenment philosophy, yet he was a huge critic of the enlightenment.
    When he says that ‘God is dead’ he is making a claim about the lack of authentic beliefs about people of his day who profess to be believers. (Actually, Hegel was the first to say ‘God is dead’ and again he was referring to the lack of belief in his age.)
    Oh and btw, he did not inspire the Nazis, no serious Nietzsche scholar believes that today. (there is as little truth in that as there is in the claim that Belloc and Chesterton were racist anti-semites). Nietzsche would never have approved of the Nazis, with their herd mentality, their desire to reduce everything to one overarching identity. He hated German nationalism, and praised the Jews.
    It’s funny how for someone who professes to care about Truth, you don’t seem to be too interested in facts.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I agree that he would have been horrified by the Nazis. It is still true that he inspired them.

  • Vladyk

    Well in that case Pope Pius IX, who kept the last Jewish Ghetto in Europe before the rise of Hitler, and who made Jews wear yellow patches on their clothes, also inspired the Nazis.

  • Fr. Thomas Hart, OSB

    Dear Fr. Longenecker,
    Lovely! You must know of the play by Carmelite Sr. Bridget Edman, written in 2010, timely in light of the Synod on the New Evangelization. Check out the description: or some years the mission of evangelization has extended itself to reach those who have usually been beyond the grasp of the Church. It has done so not to proselytize but in a new spirit of listening, of understanding, and of openness. Nietzsche is My Brother, which won first prize in the International Competition for Religious Drama, is filled with this spirit. Link to publisher: .

  • Susan Windley-Daoust

    Brilliant article. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Charles Mac Kay