In Memory of Christopher Hitchens, A Nietzschean Lion

In Memory of Christopher Hitchens, A Nietzschean Lion December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens was not fond of Nietzsche.

When I picked up his Portable Atheist I flipped to the table of contents to see what Nietzsche selections he’d included. And saw none. None?? Possibly the most famous, unabashed, and irreverent atheist of all time was not worthy of inclusion in Hitchens’s compendium? A brief remark found using the index revealed that Hitchens saw Nietzsche’s influence as a deleterious one for H.L. Mencken. On political grounds, I imagine, Hitchens didn’t see fit to consort with Nietzsche. So, I guess it is fitting that in his final column last week he took a prominent, dismissive swipe at Nietzsche.

But I’m pretty sure Nietzsche would be proud of him anyway.

I call this blog “Camels With Hammers” as an allusion to “The Three Transformations” Nietzsche writes about in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The camel is the epitome of dutifulness, reverence and self-sacrifice. He bears the heaviest weights in order to feel his strength. He climbs high mountains in order to “tempt the tempter” to challenge him so that his moral exercises in the face of temptation will be all the more acts of strength. He abandons the cause he fights with at the moment of victory in order to find another struggle, rather than look backwards with self-congratulation. He wades through “the filthy waters of truth” and loves those who despise him. He is the epitome of the most moral, most truthful, and most religious spirit. Nietzsche concludes the description of the camel by writing

All these heaviest things the weight-bearing spirit takes upon itself: like the camel that presses on well laden into the desert, thus does the spirit press on into its desert.

And this is how I felt as a Christian. And that was how I left Christianity. Burdened by an overwhelming moralistic desire to be good and holy and pure. It was this religious moralism that led me to pursue the truth and it was my sense of duty to the truth which finally led me to face the falsehood of the faith that motivated me. The central irony that Nietzsche’s philosophy is concerned to expose is that the very moral absolutism of Christianity creates the moralistic truthfulness in camels who become willing to really sacrifice, really wade into filthy waters for the truth, and really be willing to feel their strength in the burdens they bear for the truth, and that this most dutiful kind of truthfulness ironically comes to see through the lies and immoralities of Christianity the most honestly.

But the camel is not the creature that can say “no” to the lies of absolutist morality. The camel is, by nature, too reverent, too deferential, too committed to self-sacrifice. It’s not the spirit of the camel to be proud and defiant. Even as an apostate, for years I felt the burden to justify myself to Christianity. I felt the need to scrupulously defend the rightness of my decision to leave. Deep down this obsession motivated my academic studies and the first years of researching my dissertation. I left the faith because I was as devout and honest a Christian as I could be—not because I wanted to be disobedient. My apostasy was the culmination of my religious dutifulness, it was adherence to the virtues deeply ingrained in me by so much preaching of the supreme value of truth and morality. I felt a burning urge to not let the Christians who saw me as a betrayer misunderstand me as a sinner. I was trying to be good.

And I was bound and determined to explicate the Nietzschean ideas that had so wrenchingly deconverted me so that the logic of my thought process would be shown as clearly and persuasively as possible, and no one could misunderstand its truth or righteousness.

And that’s why I needed Christopher Hitchens. Being a camel is ultimately a dead end. It’s seeing the lies but not being able to muster the defiance to roar refusal at them. The spirit must become a lion. Or, as a generation of atheists will understand it, one’s spirit must become like Christopher Hitchens’s spirit.

Nietzsche writes of the lion, the Hitchens spirit, thusly:

But in the loneliest desert the second transformation occurs: the spirit becomes a lion; it will seize freedom for itself and become lord in its own desert.

Its ultimate lord it seeks out there: his enemy it will become and enemy of his ultimate god; it will wrestle for victory with the great dragon.

What is the great dragon that the spirit no longer likes to call Lord and God? “Thou shalt” is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says “I will.”

“Thou shalt” lies in its way, sparkling with gold, a scaly beast, and on every scale there glistens, golden, “Thou shalt!”

Values of thousands of years glisten on these scales, and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: “All value in things–that glistens on me.”

“All value has already been created, and all created value—that is me. Verily, there shall be no more ‘I will’!” Thus speaks the dragon.

My brothers, why is the lion needed in the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent, not suffice?

To create new values—that even the lion cannot yet do: but to create for itself freedom for new creation—that is within the power of the lion.

Atheists should have two goals. First we must pull ourselves and the broader cultures within which we live out from underneath the oppressive shadows of authoritarian “Thou shalt!”-based religions and political institutions which illegitimately monopolize the moral high ground and real world authority. Then we need to go further and to create new values, new institutions, and new ways of thinking which are not mere reactions to what we denounce but which are powerfully constructive, inventive, and unconstrained by backward looking resentment.

Christopher Hitchens was this generation of English speaking atheists’ proudest and least abashed lion. Hitchens said No to authoritarian Thou Shalts with more irreverence and more moral conviction than any public intellectual I’ve ever heard. He was a master polemicist who never tired of railing against every tyranny over minds, hearts, and bodies he came across. He was an utterly fearless dragonslayer. No usurper of moral credibility was treated with deference. There was not the slightest need to prove or justify himself or his atheism morally to religious vampires. They were to be held in the clearest and most uncompromising moral contempt.

I was an adamantly convinced atheist long before I came across Hitchens and his fellow New Atheists. And I was not remotely shy about arguing against theism intellectually, on moral grounds. I was already the village atheist in my little corners of the world. But still in my heart, I wanted to convince the believers I was not a bad person.

What was so liberating and set my heart blazing when I read Hitchens and his fellow New Atheists was their defiant insistence that it was they who had the moral high ground and that it was not the Church who we needed to justify ourselves to, but it was the churches that needed to repent–nay, dismantle themselves.

Psychologically, for the first time, I stopped feeling the need to justify myself to the religious people I told I was an atheist. I stopped being so embarrassed about having to reveal I was not going to agree with them and stopped feeling the onus to accommodate them or to reflexively continue feeling that there was some kind of moral superiority on their side of the aisle. I had known full well, intellectually I was on the right side. But emotionally, I had not yet really found the way to say no to the moral institutions that had brainwashed me into habitual deference deep in my heart.

Whenever I would watch Hitchens treat dishonorable but widely revered people and ideas with the utmost rudeness and impiety, I would get a vicarious thrill. The audacity with which he dispelled auras of sanctity was inspiring. It was the rare feeling of watching someone be your champion and stand up and say what you didn’t think anyone could say.

I certainly did not think his every idea was right. And many of his emulators in rudeness lack his marvelous panache and precision and so unfortunately he can be counted as a bad influence too sometimes. But I have always found him immensely lovable. He shared so much of himself with me, and so many of his ideas and witty remarks reverberate in my head so often, that I feel like I have lost an intimate friend, even though he never knew me in the slightest.

But it’s not my loss, or our collective loss, that makes me grieve today. He left us more than enough to read and to watch should we ever miss him. He is ours as long as we live. He will be powerful through us and through future generations for as long as his words are read and for as long as his exemplary bravado serves as a role model to young anti-authoritarians—mostly for good and occasionally for ill. In these ways he will exist for a long time and remain as effective after his death as he was when he was alive.

What I am sad for is his loss. I am sad that this goodhearted lion’s mind is gone. He no longer experiences anything himself. There is no use addressing our toasts or our memorials or our gratitude to him. When we do that now, it’s no longer to a person but to ourselves and each other. He is only ours now, and no longer belongs to himself, and our words to him are only to ourselves. Nothing, any longer, belongs to him. Nothing, any longer speaks to him, acts upon him, moves within him. And that is the irremediable, inconsolable, and undeniable thought that those of us who wade through the filthy waters of truth dutifully must learn to bear.

As we focus on his legacy it is easy to avoid facing this straight on. Focusing on what he did is focusing on what he gave us and what we still have in our possession. It can obscure for us what he lost and what is no longer in his possession—which is everything. So, since he exists nowhere to grieve this loss himself, we must feel it for him.

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