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Earth, World, Antichrist: Nietzsche after Political Theology

Earth, World, Antichrist: Nietzsche after Political Theology

(p.166) Chapter 6 Earth, World, Antichrist: Nietzsche after Political Theology
Nietzsche's Earth
Gary Shapiro
University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter rereads Nietzsche’s notorious text The Antichrist through the lenses of political theology, mediated in part by his affinities and exchanges with theologian Franz Overbeck. It reviews Nietzsche’s reductive natural history of religions, emphasizing their geographical and ethnic roots. Beyond this, he contests both a naively “secular” world-view and the Hegelian claim that modernity has attained a spiritual/secular synthesis. So-called contemporary political secularism, Nietzsche maintains, is still theological, so far as it relies on “world-history,” conceived as a metanarrative culminating in some combination of modern state, market, and Protestantism. “World” is a political notion. Essential to The Antichrist’s polemic against Christianity is its understanding of the political foundations of its predecessor, Judaism, and the politico-theological work of Paul and following Christian thinkers until Constantine’s Christianization of Rome. Earliest Christianity, Nietzsche and Overbeck agree, either lived in a blissful present or expected an imminent end of the world. When developing Christian theology put off the predicted end by hundreds of years, positing Rome as a force warding off the Antichrist, an opening was created for the concept of world-history. The great event and great politics of fully affirming the earth requires demolishing that story from within.

Keywords:   Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Franz Overbeck, Antichrist, political theology, secularism

If there is one point where one realizes that Christianity has twisted humanity, it is to be found in all the connections that Christianity has entered into with politics, just as I do not doubt at all that here is the point at which it will one day succumb to a general contempt.

FRANZ OVERBECK, letter to Heinrich Treitschke

Would you like a new name for me? The church language [Kirchensprache] has one—the Antichrist. Let’s not forget to laugh!

NIETZSCHE, letter to Malwida von Meysenbug, April 4, 1883

It is certain that the political philosophy of modernity will not be able to free itself of its contradictions if it does not become aware of its theological roots.


Kingdoms of Heaven and Earth

Perhaps our future involves a network of glorious gardens or a great green rhizomatic outgrowth of the earth, rather than the shrunken, measured world of the last humans. The human, that Zarathustra once describes as earth’s skin disease or autoimmune infection (Z II.18), may yet experience an Umwertung aller Werte that will enable such transformations. Yet as we have just seen, the garden earth remains a hope, possibility, and promise in Nietzsche’s thought. The “perhaps,” as Derrida reminds us, is an insistent dimension of this thinking.2 Still, the invocation of the figure, metaphor, or phantasm of the garden forms, we might say, the atmosphere within which this most atmospheric of thinkers engages with his time and with eternity.

Today it is difficult but not impossible to sustain Nietzsche’s promise that some future human will restore “to earth its purpose and to humans their hope” (p.167) (GM II.24). The technology, observation, and industry that reveal the earth as a single biosphere are deeply complicit in the worst eruptions of the anthropocene skin disease. The culture shows an insatiable desire for apocalyptic films, fictions, and prophecies of the world’s end or earth’s ultimate catastrophe. In addition to imagined cosmic dangers (sun eruptions, comets striking the planet, predatory or infectious extraterrestrials), transformations triggered by human industry or conspiracy express current fears (nuclear war, disastrous global climate change, unprecedented epidemics, biological engineering gone wrong, or our own machines waging war against us). A few movies or novels imagine a possible utopian solution or at least the survival of a remnant with the opportunity for a fresh start (the types can be combined). The first type yields extremes like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (total destruction of earth, and the world with it) or The Road (Cormac McCarthy’s novel, John Hillcoat’s film of abysmally grim postapocalyptic life and death). Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar and Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel 2312 present another option in which technology is reborn as redeemer. Here space travel has allowed the creation of new extraterrestrial enclosed, self-sustaining green environments, complete with adjustable gravity, and medically enabled life extension. While these apocalyptic narratives often draw on themes analogous to those in Revelation, the ultimate Biblical story of the last days, they typically do not thematize the theological parallels. In The Day After Tomorrow, the Gutenberg Bible is saved because it is a testimony to human inventiveness and the age of mechanical reproduction, not for its religious value.3 There are also, of course, a great number of stories and prophecies throughout the media with much more explicitly religious themes, often featuring a countdown to Armageddon or the rapture, as well as identifications of contemporary figures with the Beast, the Antichrist, and the Whore of Babylon.

We could read all these apocalyptic and postapocalyptic visions as commentaries on both Zarathustra’s scorn of the earthly human “skin disease” and on his maxim that “the heart of the earth is of gold.” We might expect that Nietzsche’s earth of the future, still and always to be brought into being, would be free of the otherworldliness that has squandered earth’s potential. As Zarathustra says, summarizing his political program to the Higher Humans, including a pair of kings, the last pope, and God’s murderer, “‘we do not want the Kingdom of Heaven at all: we have become men—and so we want the Kingdom of Earth (Erdenreich)’” (Z IV.18).4 Yet Nietzsche rejects secularization as an illusion, borrows or adapts Christian symbolism in projecting “a philosophy of the Antichrist,” and finally identifies the entire project of transvaluation with his ominously titled book The Antichrist. It is time now to interrogate (p.168) this continuing engagement with Christianity in terms of his rethinking of earth, its futurity, and its multiple times and temporalities. Nietzsche’s friend Franz Overbeck (whose work, I argue, contributed heavily to The Antichrist ’s polemic) had grave reservations about the text, which he nevertheless carefully transcribed for himself. In the circumstances (having retrieved Nietzsche from Turin after his breakdown), we can understand Overbeck focusing on the book’s seeming madness. Today it is time to read Nietzsche’s summoning up the paradigmatic Western story of how the world comes to an end, who shall rule the earth, and the accompanying disruptions of times and timing. This reading should prescind, if possible, from the biographical obsessions that usually dominate responses to Nietzsche’s late writings.

If we read Nietzsche as rethinking and naturalizing the Biblical thought of paradise, it may not be so surprising that he became increasingly concerned to confront the end of the religious story that begins in the garden. Does the recovery or reconstitution of the heterotopic garden as a site of unmortgaged becoming (Unschuld des Werdens) require a final settling of accounts with the Christian metanarrative of the world’s apocalyptic end? To lay the groundwork for restoring the earth must we rewrite the traditional story of the end-times and their fearsome symbol, the Antichrist?

Zarathustra’s apparently simple dichotomy of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth in his address to the Higher Humans might appear to be a candidate for the deconstruction indicated in Agamben’s observation, concluding his essay on Hobbes, that the political philosophy of modernity must come to terms with its theological roots. Is the earthly kingdom just a secularized version of the heavenly one? Agamben is impressed by Schmitt’s thesis that all modern political concepts are secularized versions of theological ones. In fact—although Agamben does not dwell on this—Hobbes himself was able to think of the “Kingdom of God” as an earthly kingdom, a civil kingdom on the earth, that (as he reconstructs Biblical narrative) lasted from earth’s creation to the kingship of Saul.5 It has been interrupted ever since, given over to other forms of rule—ideally the absolute state or Leviathan—and will be restored on earth when Jesus returns to reestablish it in perpetuity. (Agamben notes that despite Leviathan focusing explicitly in its second half on the theological and the hermeneutic, Hobbes evades a number of difficulties by not mentioning the medieval identification of his titular beast and Antichrist.)

Nietzsche, like Agamben, is skeptical about whether so-called secularization is a truly transformative process. We should not assume that Zarathustra’s earthly kingdom is a naïve reversal of the heavenly one. The concept “kingdom of God” and all it supposes or implies must be carefully analyzed in order to (p.169) avoid imposing its character on any new conception of human arrangements. We hear a similar caution and warning from the madman, who says that those who simply scoff at God’s existence have no sense of the consequences, magnitude, and agency of his death-event (or our complicity in his murder). For example, as Nietzsche’s text suggests, they may (like Schmitt) endow the state or (like globalizing neoliberalism) the market with the absolute power previously reserved for God (GS 125). Similarly, we could say that Hobbes works the analogy in a reverse direction, arguing from the rationality of absolute sovereignty in our fallen era to the structure of the coming civil kingdom of Christ. Perhaps we are still waiting for the full news of God’s death to reach us, a message that arrives slowly, like the light from distant stars. When this cosmic code is finally decoded on our planet of clever animals, we will cleanse our caves further of the lingering shadows of God (like state and world market).

Until this great event, Nietzsche offers us a twofold approach. On the one hand, he counters religion’s idealistic self-understanding as emanating from a world-beyond (Hinterwelt) with a natural history, showing that all religion is bound to the earth, even when cursing it or denying its reality. On the other, he challenges the specific theo-logic and sacred narrative of Christianity by which it rationalizes its contempt for the earth. The first strain in Nietzsche’s thought is important, but since it has received a great deal of attention by many scholars over the years, I will focus on the second, which Nietzsche sometimes called “a philosophy of the Antichrist.”

This is a project that Nietzsche never finished, although his last substantive book is titled The Antichrist. In various notes and letters of his last months, that book was at first said to be the first of four in the planned Hauptwerk, The Transvaluation of Values, then said to be the whole of it. Given his rapidly changing program during a chaotic time, we are entitled to doubt whether the Transvaluation was completed; it is even more certain that he never wrote a book with the title Will to Power, another project title that has led to myriad misunderstandings because of editors’ mischief. Yet we can ask what “a philosophy of the Antichrist” might look like. What is this philosophy that speaks with a name, that names itself ? I propose to explore that question in several stages. First, I want to clarify Nietzsche’s reasons for rejecting the idea of secularization as a political illusion; that rejection sets the stage for considering how and why he continued to engage—antagonistically, to be sure—with the Christian tradition. Second, I give an account of Nietzsche’s familiarity with and understanding of Christian political theology, specifically including the figure of Antichrist. This can be considerably clarified by drawing on the research of his friend and colleague Franz Overbeck, the Basel theology (p.170) professor and “comrade in arms,” with whom Nietzsche maintained a regular correspondence after leaving the university and house where they both had apartments. Finally, I make some suggestions about how Nietzsche’s admittedly fragmentary and sketchy “philosophy of the Antichrist” might contribute to the thematic complex of earth, great events, and great politics, or as he says in the Genealogy, how the coming Antichrist could restore a future to the earth and hope to humanity.

Beyond secularization

The question inevitably arises why Nietzsche, the advocate of radical immanence, would inscribe himself into Christian tradition—even in the form of outrageous polemic—by evoking its themes in “a philosophy of the Antichrist.” Why would a text with the name of this apocalyptic figure, the focus of religious paranoia since the early Church Fathers, be designated as either the first volume or the whole of the projected Transvaluation of All Values? Why honor the tradition by taking it seriously? Why not stay within a strictly secular orientation? How does this sophomoric diatribe contribute to Nietzsche’s project of “giving back its goal to earth and hope to humans” (GM II.24)?

Perhaps Nietzsche realizes that simply attempting to deny or evade the theological tradition risks unintentionally reinstating it in other terms? Here we need to see that Nietzsche is no friend of secularization, and regards it as a political delusion. What did he mean by secularization? The German term here is Verweltlichung, and it has a history that needs to be unearthed. First, this term could be translated more literally, if awkwardly, as “worldification,” a process of making all life worldly. Yet as we have already seen, Nietzsche regards “world” as a theological concept, whether taken (as in earliest Christianity) as a realm of sin to be escaped or, in modern thought (e.g., Hegel) as the correlative of that shadow of God, the state.

Carl Schmitt offers a useful provocation here. His Political Theology claims that secularization is parasitic upon theology:

All significant concepts of modern political thought are secularizations of theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby for example the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.6

(p.171) It is this “secret signature” of secularization, as Agamben says, that can be deciphered to show theology manifesting itself under a different name. Although he seems to side with Schmitt against Max Weber, who defended a more “innocent” thesis concerning modern political secularization, Agamben wants to recall not only the theological genealogy of sovereign authority (as Schmitt does) but to make explicit the economy (oikonomia), related to Foucault’s concept of governmentality, that was elaborated by the early Church Fathers.7

Hegel seems to confirm the general lines of Schmitt’s and Agamben’s understanding of political theory when, in his Philosophy of World History, he robustly defends modern secularization and at the same time says that we are living in the last days, in the true Christian understanding of that idea. In introducing his analysis of the Germanic world, Hegel announces that “the Christian world is the world of completion; the grand principle of being is realized, consequently the end of days is fully come.”8 Now, in the end of days, it turns out, “secular life (Weltlichkeit) is the positive and definite embodiment of the spiritual kingdom—the kingdom of the will manifesting itself in outward existence.”9 In this absolute Protestantism, with its construction of the nation-state and its complete Aufhebung of the earth (or human geography) in world-history, Hegel achieves a politico-theological synthesis whose only glimpses of futurity are incidental and tentative speculations about which states will rise and fall.

We can read Nietzsche’s ironic distancing of himself from the “political delusion” of secularization in a note from 1881, written just after his first notes on eternal recurrence. We should recall that these notes include many suggestions concerning the political relevance of the new teaching.

The political delusion at which I smile in just the same way my contemporaries smile at the religious delusion of earlier ages, is primarily secularization (Verweltlichung), belief in the world (Welt) and a deliberate ignoring of the “beyond” and the “afterworld.” Its goal is the well-being of the fleeting individual: which is why its fruit is socialism, i.e., fleeting individuals want to conquer their happiness through socialization—they have no reason to wait, as do human beings with eternal souls and eternal becoming and future improvement (KSA 9.504–05).

Nietzsche construes secularization in two political registers: as a concern for all “fleeting individuals,” which necessarily reduces them to their lowest common denominator, and a legitimation of a strong central authority to guarantee standards of welfare. Secularization, at least in its late nineteenth-century form, (p.172) is a theological delusion, insofar as it reduces all humans to the same level (comparable to Christianity’s teaching that we are all equal children of God) and that a single central power must be instituted to provide for them (as the Church claimed to oversee their possibility of salvation).10 In other words, the “illusion” of secularization in the nineteenth century involves both sovereignty and economy. In BGE’s “Peoples and Fatherlands,” as we have seen, Nietzsche suggests that a certain level of homogenization and mobility, that is, a situation in which individuals see themselves as “fleeting individuals,” is fertile ground for the production of “tyrants of all sorts” (BGE 242).

The tendency of Nietzsche’s analysis of secularization, then, is deconstructive. He demonstrates that the hasty attempt to negate a metaphysical position typically results in simply reproducing its outlines in altered form, as if a photograph were replaced by its negative. It is, of course, these “secret signatures” or “shadows of God” that must be exposed and undermined from within through a thought that dares to speak of “a philosophy of the Antichrist.”

An exemplary form of such deconstructive analysis appears in the much-discussed parable “How the True World Became a Fable,” whose final thesis is that, contrary to the assumptions of the tradition, the critique and implosion of the concept of the true world does not leave us with an apparent world: that apparent world is now revealed to have been simply the foil to the true world. The very category of “world” has disappeared. This brilliantly condensed deconstructive history of philosophy since Plato focuses on Welt or world. The later senses of this concept are absent in Plato, who knows of the kosmos and gaia, but not of the world in the sense that oikoumene begins to acquire with the Stoics, as the entire realm of (known) human habitation, or in the New Testament’s suspicion of the wisdom and customs of the kosmos.11

It’s Later than you Think

In his last days before the breakdown, Nietzsche imagined that The Antichrist would be published simultaneously in seven languages, in editions of at least one million each. He expected to make an impression. Was it to herald a great event or to be that great event itself ? One thing we can say with confidence is that Nietzsche is declaring that things are rapidly coming to a head, a threatening, game-changing head, much more quickly than anyone suspected. Great events are not predictable and arrive unexpectedly, sometimes “on dove’s feet.” So far, Nietzsche’s literary tactic coincides with the formal core of the apocalyptic film in which (as in The Day After Tomorrow) the earth is cracking, the continents moving, the new ice age arriving in suddenly cascading (p.173) sequences. Even as new computer modelings are produced, the events overtake them. Those who prognosticate from Revelation based on the signs of the times breathlessly report that we are already very far along as everything rushes to a conclusion. In 1888 the Antichrist may have seemed like a rather quaint figure to much of Nietzsche’s potential audience, but one thing the legend stood for was a sudden, massive shakeup of everything. Before unearthing other aspects of the Antichrist figure, let us note that Nietzsche’s text The Antichrist (and the “philosophy of the Antichrist”) clearly signals its concern with questions of time and temporality from beginning to end. This text not only observes and analyzes a plurality of temporal modes, but aims at actively intervening in its readers’ sense of time. It demolishes core Western narratives by portraying an atemporal Jesus, explaining Christianity as Paul’s political invention, and offering heterodox stories of Christianity’s relation to Rome, Islam, the Crusades, and Germany. From outside, from a distance suggesting a parallel universe with its own time, “we Hyperboreans” (we’ve somehow been incorporated in the “very few”) become temporal guerillas, disrupting and interrupting world-history, splitting it in two. Here we might further gloss Agamben’s remark that “it is certain that the political philosophy of modernity will not be able to free itself of its contradictions if it does not become aware of its theological roots.” It is the political philosophy of modernity that’s at stake. Modernity is a self-named, self-described time. To be modern is to be able to place classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, Renaissance. To be modern is to be up-to-date, and Nietzsche wants to disrupt all dates, emblematically by starting a new calendar with The Antichrist. Nietzsche was squaring off against such modern thinkers as Hegel, Comte, Spencer, and Darwin. What makes them modern is their fundamental commitment to the idea of “progress,” the notion that history, society, or biological life are developing, evolving, or unfolding in a movement toward greater complexity. These modern thinkers tell stories of fulfillment and realization that owe much to Christian metanarrative, despite their self-described “secularism.”

If “we Hyperboreans” are not modern, what is our time? When are we? The Antichrist suggests a dizzying variety of answers. In other words, it situates itself in a plurality of times. The Foreword repeatedly distances itself from the readers and culture of “today” and from today’s “ephemeral chatter (Zeitgschwätz).” “Only the day after tomorrow belongs to me,” Nietzsche intones. Tomorrow is on the horizon, we begin to see our way there, but the day after tomorrow is further away; it is less known and predictable. Time may fall out of joint. The “modern human,” we then hear, is unhappy and confused, sighing, “I know not which way to turn.” This modern human may be bewildered (p.174) by the many different versions of the cult of progress propagated by modern thinkers from Hegel to Darwin. These thinkers of progress tell us that humankind is improving, but “mankind does not represent a development of the better or the stronger or the higher in the way that is believed today. ‘Progress [Fortschritt]’ is merely a modern idea, that is to say a false idea.” Higher types of humans are possible, but not through modern progress. Rather, such “happy chances [Glücksfälle]” have always been possible, and emerge in the most various cultures (AC 4). There is no smooth path of modernity that we can trust to foster human improvement. If modern thinkers are right about anything, it is the fact of change, but they perversely construe change as intelligible development and sequence, covering over its radical, disruptive dimension. This recalls Nietzsche’s other discussions of the importance of seizing the right time, or kairos. Moderns expect time (“development” or “progress”) to present them with useful results. The disabused and vigilant know that opportunity must be grasped in the instant and that the “happy chances” must be treasured. Of course Nietzsche would also have us realize that opportunities will arise for us to take more concerted action; in the right circumstances, we can prepare grounds for the breeding and nurturing of “higher types,” but “progress” will not do this for us.

So Nietzsche begins The Antichrist by dismissing the illusions of modernity, more sharply and concisely than he had in his Unmodern Observations. These illusions are not merely the mistaken and pernicious ideas that contemporaries happen to entertain but modernity’s very philosophy of time. The book’s last pages reject the entire Christian calendar and time scheme, whose most recent variations (as we shall see) are modernity and world-history. After calling Christianity the one great curse of humankind, Nietzsche adds: “And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose—from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last?—From today? Transvaluation of all values!” (AC 62). Let us disrupt the conventional reckoning of time, splitting it in two symbolically, as well as practically. This declaration is followed immediately by the “Decree against Christianity,” which is dated as “Promulgated on the day of healing [Heils], the first day of the year One (—on September 30, 1888 in the false time reckoning).” In the Roman calendar, a dies nefastus was an unlucky or unfavorable day, on which citizens were not to engage in legal or political activities. So Nietzsche, adapting this expression from the highly political Roman calendar, marks once more The Antichrist’s insistence that Christianity and its progeny world-history are temporal-political missteps. The Romans, as Nietzsche knew well, did not regard their calendar as inviolable, and it changed several times before finally being replaced by the (p.175) Christian one. If the Romans could begin their calendar with the founding of the city, Nietzsche and his double Antichrist could begin a new one with their manifesto and decree.

“The True Name of the Antichrist.”

If secularization does not really take place, so Nietzsche seems to reason, the path to a renewed vision of the human-earth could lie in deploying the conceptual resources and historical traditions of Christianity against it. I take this strategy to be an essential component of “a philosophy of the Antichrist.” Now, let us expand Nietzsche’s Antichrist dossier, recalling first a significant passage where he alludes to the Biblical apocalypse, and then considering his more explicit uses of the term itself.

For Nietzsche, both world-history and Christianity are hostile to the earth, the site of embodied, plural, mobile human life. This is glaringly obvious in the case of Christianity and only a little less so in that of world-history, which models itself on the Christian teleology that reaches its most extreme expression in Revelation. Christianity began by despising the earth. The problem of Jesus, who died too young, was that he did not learn to live and dwell on the earth (Z I.21). Yet early Christianity, when its initial apocalyptic expectations were disappointed, slipped within a century or two into making peace not with the earth but with the world, through the institutions of church and state. Both are described as lying and bellowing beasts in Zarathustra’s speech “On Great Events,” which in contrast praises the earth’s heart of gold.

Given the constant Biblical resonances and parodies in Zarathustra, the chapter titled “The Seven Seals” needs to be read (as scholars have long noted) as alluding to the last book of the canonical New Testament. Zarathustra, who is several times associated with both Dionysus and Antichrist, is specifically linked with a central mystery of the Christian Revelation in “The Seven Seals,” its title echoing a theme of that text. The Biblical seven seals are seals of a book, both hiding and disclosing—to the enlightened interpreter—the mysteries of first and last things. So Nietzsche too gives us a book for all and none, but in order to set up a counterscenario in which earth persists. If Christianity is a religion of the book, then the philosophy of the Antichrist has its own book, in which only earth is sacred. Specifically, Revelation depicts the end of the world and its worldly kingdoms (Rome, allegorized as Babylon). In the usual readings of the book, the Antichrist reigns for some time over the earth. After trials and tribulations, marked by war, earthquake, pestilence, and death, Christ will reign on earth with the saints until all is absorbed into God’s eternal and (p.176) heavenly kingdom.12 Then earth disappears, once and for all. In Nietzsche’s “Seven Seals,” Zarathustra dies on and for the earth, knowing that he and earth will return.13 While the Biblical end-times involve a series of disasters, Zarathustra’s end is an ecstatic communion with the earth, in a flight touching sea and sky. In praising “free death,” a self-chosen, self-timed death at “the right time” (kairos), Zarathustra had said that his own death and that of his friends should “glow like a sunset around the earth.” “Thus would I myself die, that you friends might love the earth more for my sake; and into earth will I turn again, that I might rest in her who bore me” (Z I.21).

This voluntary death, then, is for the sake of the earth and for the friends, children, and disciples who have pledged their loyalty to the earth. It also recalls the Zoroastrian practice of dhakma or sky-burial, which Nietzsche surely knew of. Corpses were arranged in a circle at the top of a tower open to the air, left to scavenging birds or effects of the elements. Eventually, remaining bones were incinerated, and the lime was returned to the earth, to “nourish the life of significant soil.” The purpose of dhakma, a practice that might strike us now as ecologically exemplary, is to avoid polluting either earth (in the narrow sense of one element) or fire.14 This is Nietzsche’s answer to Revelation: death can be self-chosen and can constitute a glorification of the earth. Already in Zarathustra we can see some lineaments of a philosophy of the Antichrist.

The concluding aphorism of “Peoples and Fatherlands,” which emphatically declares that this is “the century of the multitude!” and describes the glories and miseries of the century’s higher Menschen who exhibit Europe’s growing cultural hybridity, asks rhetorically whether any of them could have been capable of “a philosophy of the Antichrist” (BGE 256). This fateful appellation also appears in the same year (1886) in Nietzsche’s late “Attempt at Self-Criticism,” added to the second edition of The Birth of Tragedy; there he says he was seeking an anti-Christian “doctrine and counter-evaluation of life … What was it to be called? As a philologist and man of words I baptized it, not without a certain liberty—for who can know the true name of the Antichrist?—by the name of a Greek god: I called it Dionysus” (BT, Attempt).

This is one of three statements Nietzsche makes concerning the linguistic sources or perspectives he speaks from in naming himself as the Antichrist. Naming itself is a significant activity or process for Nietzsche. At the extremes are “the lordly right of giving names” on the one hand, and that which is unnamed or unnameable, as in the “unnameable virtue” of which Zarathustra speaks.15 The other, and apparently the first self-identification or, strictly speaking, naming, of himself as the Antichrist, appears in his letter to Malwida (p.177) von Meysenbug, where he says that the name is taken from the language of the church (Kirchensprache). Nietzsche’s correspondence with von Meysenbug was confidential and sometimes intimately playful and humorous. Obviously there are degrees of irony in the letter that announces, just between friends, his new name. The third and last linguistic gloss on this name is that in Ecce Homo: “I am in Greek, and not only in Greek, the Antichrist” (EH Books 2). The Greek prefix anti has a range of related senses: over against, in opposition to, mutually opposed to, in return, equal to, corresponding. We could read Nietzsche’s linguistic reminder as indicating that he is more than simply the enemy of Christ; if he were just that, then he could be understood as taking a merely reactive stance, of voicing his ressentiment. This charge, of course, has been leveled frequently. Nietzsche also feels the need to record that this is his name “not only in Greek.” So, I suggest, he takes on himself the name’s association with catastrophe in the quite specific sense of a total turn or reversal, a cataclysmic upheaval.

These linguistic glosses on the name of the Antichrist, by the way, should be sufficient to cast doubt on those readings that would construe Nietzsche’s use of the term as generally meaning nothing but anti-Christian.16 In his 1954 introduction to his translation of The Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann said that “the title is ambiguous” and could either refer to the apocalyptic figure or simply mean “anti-Christian.”17 This is true of the German word Antichrist by itself, although context often clarifies by speaking of der Antichrist (the singular individual) or eine Antichrist (an anti-Christian).18 The title of Kaufmann’s influential 1950 book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist apparently uses the term as a name rather than an adjective, yet there is scant discussion of what this name might mean. While Kaufmann does have much to say about Nietzsche’s mixed evaluation of Jesus and his much more vituperative attack on Christianity, he apparently does not mention his remarks about “a philosophy of the Antichrist.” Perhaps in the 1950s, Kaufmann was unaware of the final page of The Antichrist, which is signed with that name. The page, suppressed by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and her editorial associates, was restored in the now-standard Colli-Montinari edition. While Kaufmann later responds to that edition’s version of Ecce Homo in the fourth edition of his own book (1974), he takes no notice of this addition to the text.19 (Not surprisingly, Kaufmann also minimizes the intellectual significance of Nietzsche’s friendship with Overbeck, Nietzsche’s theological interlocutor and “comrade in arms,” acknowledging at most that he “may have called Nietzsche’s attention to helpful passages in early writers.”)20 Kaufmann suggests that Nietzsche (p.178) was using the title Antichrist for sensational effect. This is undoubtedly correct, but there is more substance to Nietzsche’s use than mere sensationalism. Perhaps Kaufmann himself was seeking a certain sensational effect in adopting the word in his own title. In addition to the texts already cited, Nietzsche calls himself the Antichrist in Ecce Homo (EH Books 2) and in a letter to Malwida von Meysenbug (KSB 6.357; April 4, 1883), and speaks of the man of the future, “this Antichrist and anti-nihilist, this conqueror of God and nothingness” who must come one day (GM II.24). The texts from the published works are considered in the following.

Traditional discussions of the Biblical term “Antichrist,” as Kaufmann notes, typically observe that it may apply either to a singular figure or to anyone who takes up an anti-Christian stance, perhaps simply by denying Jesus’s divinity, even if he is respected as an exemplary moral and ethical teacher. We need not take these as exclusive alternatives in reading Nietzsche, but it is difficult to avoid reading der Antichrist other than as the Antichrist. Moreover, as a singular figure, this enemy of Christ can be thought of somewhat differently, given the dual meanings of the Greek anti. The Antichrist could be either Christ’s enemy or one who takes Christ’s place, being a false parallel or double to Christ (so there are discussions of whether the Antichrist must be a Jew and have other characteristics mirroring Jesus). In either of these nonexclusive conceptions, the Antichrist takes his place as a fearsome ruler of the earth. Let us mention a further complication. Might the Antichrist be the book with this title itself? Andreas Sommer, who favors this reading, observes that Christianity is a “religion of the book,” and Nietzsche, we know, expected his writings to have great power, an expectation that became especially focused on The Antichrist as he completed it.21 Perhaps “a philosophy of the Antichrist” is resonant with all of these possible meanings.

The Antichrist is initially associated with the earth by Biblical texts and legend, since this will (for a time) be the site of his rule. Nietzsche goes further by divulging his guess at the Antichrist’s true name: Dionysus, the figure of intensely earthly life, earth’s renewal, and eternal recurrence. Not to be forgotten when Nietzsche invokes Antichrist are the word’s legendary and vernacular associations, a well-known storehouse of widely distributed apocalyptic images produced by artists like Dürer and Holbein, and countless attempts to identify the figure with historical agents (including a Nietzschean hero, Frederick II).22 All of these contexts involve a search for the Antichrist’s name or identity.23 When Nietzsche inscribed this term, especially in Der Antichrist, he knew that he was sounding the depths of the most powerful religious and (p.179) philosophical tradition of the West. In a well-informed recent scholarly survey of the Antichrist theme in legend and theology, Bernard McGinn describes the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the low point of general interest in the figure of evil.24 We might suppose then that Nietzsche’s title would be more of a curiosity than an outrage. However, the late nineteenth century in Europe was a time in which many feared cataclysmic change. Socialist and Marxist revolutionary groups were organizing, leading to fear and uncertainty among those with property. Anarchist assassinations spread terror. Rumors of dangerous, conspiratorial secret societies had been widespread for a century (Marx and Engels called this “a specter haunting Europe”). By adopting the name Antichrist, Nietzsche may have been attempting to play upon the sense of impending catastrophe. In the twentieth century and since there has been a resurgence of explicitly religious apocalyptic fears and expectations, along with more reality-based apprehensions about nuclear war, climate change, resource shortages, and overpopulation. The appetite for stories of global disaster or apocalyptic themes appears insatiable. In the form of books like the best-selling Left Behind series of sixteen novels supposedly based on the Bible, or the many films with similar background, we can say that the Antichrist legend is alive and well. Ostensibly nonreligious versions of the apocalypse abound. Postapocalyptic films like The Road or Mad Max show us life after the next great wars. In the Terminator series we are terrified by what grows out of our own war-making and reaches back into our time to extinguish any chance of human survival. Films of climate-based disaster, like The Day After Tomorrow, purport to show us the consequences of our undisciplined burning of carbon fuels and other resource abuse. Then there are the terrors of biological engineering, from the zombie craze to Margaret Atwood’s trilogy (starting with Oryx and Crake) that shows our world devastated by genetic modifications. Still other end-of-the-world scenarios involve nonhuman causes: unprecedented earthquakes, solar supernovas, collisions with meteors, asteroids, or encounters with extra-terrestrials. Nietzsche’s adopting the name for the more “classical” imagination of disaster seems to presciently speak to both Christian and nonreligious fears of the world’s end.

Nietzsche was, of course, familiar with the theological concept of the Antichrist, so his announcement and parodic self-identification as Antichrist has a theologico-political meaning. The book titled The Antichrist could be called Nietzsche’s atheologico-political treatise, an anti-messianic response to world history and political theology that challenges not only the calendrical measure of chronos, which reinforces the presumptions of both of these. (p.180) Equally importantly, he points to the degradation of the Christian kairos as an opportunity for total transformation; it now becomes the founding event of a church and a Christian-European world order. For Nietzsche it is no longer anno domini, and there are many dawns, many kairoi, yet to come.

From the late 1870s on, Nietzsche was regularly reading current scholarship on Christian beginnings and history, from scholarly studies of Paul, recommended (and often supplied) by Overbeck, to the more popular, novelistic, sentimental, and orientalizing series of books by Ernest Renan, History of the Origins of Christianity.25 By the later 1880s, shortly after signaling the possibility of a “philosophy of the Antichrist,” he was supplementing these studies with explorations in what we might call comparative political theology. The texts include Julius Wellhausen’s philologically acute studies of Judaism and Islam, frequently cited and quoted in Nietzsche’s notebooks. Wellhausen unearthed the buried conflict between priest and warrior in the history of Israel; this played into the Judaism that began to be formulated in the exilic period when priests reedited sacred texts, justifying their own power after the nation lost its political sovereignty (GM I.7, AC 25–27). Another touchstone for Nietzsche’s late study of comparative political theology was the Indian Law of Manu, presented in the idiosyncratic French version of Louis Jacolliot. (Jacolliot’s Manu book is announced as one of three on the three “great lawgivers”: Manu, Moses, Muhammed, although the series was never completed.) To talk of Christ and Antichrist with a “trans-European eye” was to be critically engaged in comparative political theology.

Scholars still argue about whether The Antichrist was meant to be read as the first part of a four-volume Transvaluation of All Values or as the whole of that work (Nietzsche said both at various times, and we should be skeptical in reading definitive intentions into the scribbling and postcards of his final prebreakdown days.)26 Without trying to answer this question, I propose to read The Antichrist, along with some of Nietzsche’s other late texts on Christianity and religion, as constituting an attempt to reckon once more with the form of temporality specific to world-history. Nietzsche does this by exposing how Christianity, which originally offered an alternative to both the political time of imperial Rome and the theologico-political time of Jewish law, came not merely to compromise with the state and legality, but to furnish an impetus and paradigm for constructing experience, memory, and time within the philosopheme known as world-history. In the course of The Antichrist, Nietzsche describes and evokes other times, notably Jesus’s blissful state of pure presence and the rapidly accelerating pace of Christianity’s decline. “Breaking history into two” would be a temporal caesura, a shock of the highest order.

(p.181) Nietzsche’s Outrageous Text : Names and Times

I read The Antichrist as integral to Nietzsche’s struggle to overcome the idea of world-history and restore hope and future to earth and humans. But why take this outrageous book seriously? The Antichrist has probably done more than any other single text to convince readers and critics that Nietzsche’s final years of madness, decay, and dementia were the realization of the direction in which he had been heading all along (we withhold judgment on whether the definitive cause was syphilis, uninformed drug use by Nietzsche and subsequent administration by doctors, or a slowly growing brain tumor that had finally reached a tipping point).27 Yet it is difficult to base this appraisal on the book’s hyperbolical tone alone, since the writer leaves no doubt that he is determined to shock and outrage. As he says in the final section (preceding “the Antichrist’s” edict against Christianity), “Wherever there are walls I shall inscribe this eternal accusation against Christianity upon them … I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind” (AC 62). Now, this passage concludes by marking what I take to be a major and rather neglected dimension of this self-consciously excessive book, the question of time, a politically inflected time: “And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose—from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from the last? From today?—Transvaluation of all values!” (AC 62).

Christianity has established a claim to the measurement and naming of time. Within this tradition, whose crucial temporal axis is supposed to be marked by Jesus’s birth, another more indeterminate date looms: the appearance of Antichrist and the associated events ushering in the end of the world. The calculation of time, the measuring out of chronos, I have been suggesting, is one of Nietzsche’s persistent themes. It contributes to making the earth small, furthers the regime of the last humans, and produces a general blindness to the unpredictable future and the fleeting but genuine opportunities offered by chance. Yet we might ask whether merely substituting one calendar for another could be more than an ironic gesture if the primacy of calculation still goes unquestioned.28 Perhaps Nietzsche wants us to wonder about this.

The Birth of world - History from the Spirit of the Church

Christ and Antichrist, then, are names having to do with time, more specifically with calculated time. If Christians begin their calendar with Jesus’s birth (p.182) (even if postdated four years), they have also frequently attempted calculations of the world’s end, signaled by the Antichrist’s coming. These calculations began in earnest with the Church Father Hippolytus around 210 CE, calculations Nietzsche would surely have discussed with his housemate Overbeck, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Hippolytus’s treatise On Christ and Antichrist. Overbeck’s Latin dissertation concerns an important early patristic text in the tradition of eschatological speculation that grew up around the enigmatic references to the personification of evil. In the early third century, Hippolytus, living in Rome but coming from a Greek cultural background, published his short treatise defining several features of the Antichrist taken up by many later writers.

Hippolytus’s originality was in providing arguments that claimed to render intelligible the deferral and delay of the Second Coming and the end of time, an increasing worry in the second and third centuries. Very few nontheological philosophers have even heard of Hippolytus of Rome, but he has had an enormous if indirect influence on the course of philosophy, arguably enabling the movement of thought that eventually crystallizes as “world-history.”29 Hippolytus contributed to codifying Church and European political theology for hundreds of years, consolidated and further defined the Christian picture of Antichrist and apocalypse, and, since the 1851 publication of his long-lost Refutation of All Heresies shaped the understanding of early Greek philosophy (perhaps it is fitting that this great thinker of deferral should have such a deferred effect).30 His Biblical exegeses center around the names Christ and Antichrist.

The development of theology in the changing Christian community of the Roman Empire became Overbeck’s lifelong theme, already foreshadowed in his dissertation on Hippolytus. Early theology began to ask questions like these: How and when would this world cease? How, in the meantime, can we live in a world of misery and pain? Eschatological beliefs, textual exegesis, and political theology contribute to various answers. Hippolytus expands the ideas of Irenaeus, his more original teacher. He shows a stronger interest in exegesis of sacred texts as a method of argument and exposition. Drawing especially on the Hebrew prophets, including the visions of Daniel, and scattered Christian texts (there was not yet a codified New Testament), he claims that as Christ is the recapitulation (anakephalaiosis) of all good, so Antichrist is the recapitulation of evil. At the same time, Antichrist must mirror Christ by appearing in human form, being Jewish, sending out apostles, and building a temple in Jerusalem (corresponding with the temple of Christ’s body). Hippolytus engages in ingenious interpretation of 666, the number of the Beast.

(p.183) What are these names or titles—Christ and Antichrist—that occupied Hippolytus? In what sense are they names? As Agamben reminds us (and as many—even theologians—have forgotten!) “Christ” is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah,” as in the Septuagint. “Christ” is a Russellian definite description, not a name. That should direct us to look more carefully at Nietzsche’s use of the title and “name” Antichrist. Nietzsche, the philologist, former student of theology, and Overbeck’s friend, would have understood that christos is not a proper name, but a title or appellative. As Agamben points out, a general ignorance (or willful forgetting) of this fact has enabled a downplaying of messianic thought and an oblivion concerning messianic time in later Christianity.31

In addition to signaling an all-out assault on Christianity, the Antichrist title should be understood within a tradition we now, once more, call political theology. Despite the obvious attempt to scandalize here, there is a theological history behind Nietzsche’s declaration “I am in Greek, and not only in Greek, the Antichrist” (EH Books 2). The remark’s context may seem to frame it as one more throwaway witticism, but the “old philologist’s” emphasis on language usually repays attention. The section in Ecce Homo that works up to this claim begins with the less outrageous assertion that Nietzsche has many sensitive readers, especially outside Germany. He says that he is well received by those sensitive to style and nuance—those able to listen, such as his Doktorvater Ritschl and the French critic Hippolyte Taine. Perhaps women listen more attentively than men. He is not like an ass or donkey, whose long ears betray his crudity. And only after such strong provocations to attentive listening does Nietzsche come to his philologically mediated identification as Antichrist: “I am the anti-ass (Antiesel) par excellence and so am a world-historical monster,—I am, in Greek, and not only in Greek, the Antichrist.”

This linkage of monstrosity, world-history, and the Antichrist can be understood in terms of a Christian tradition of political theology whose effect (and, doubtless, its occasional intention) is to obscure the consciousness of messianic time basic to the earliest Christian community. From the standpoint of world-history, Nietzsche acknowledges, he is a monster—but the careful listener might say, so much for “so-called world-history.” Let us explore this conjunction of world-historical monstrosity and the linguistically inflected claim of the Antichrist name. Nietzsche’s mention of Greek and unspecified other languages should lead to the question of the meaning and significance of the title Christ even before we consider the Antichrist figure. Nietzsche indicates that questions of time are at stake by calling himself a “world-historical monster” in the same sentence. As we know, world-history is itself something (p.184) of a monstrosity for Nietzsche. What are the senses of time associated with the “idiot” Jesus, Christ as constructed by Christianity, the Antichrist and apocalypse, and the witches’ brew of world-history that comes from the attempt to combine them? And what are the political implications of these forms of temporality? Can we demythologize the idea that the Antichrist is lord of the earth?

Nietzsche advises us to think of the name Antichrist in several registers, including at least its philological, philosophical, and theological contexts. Nietzsche calls for the Antichrist toward the conclusion of the Genealogy’s essay on “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and Related Matters.” In the long penultimate aphorism leading up to the writer’s falling silent before the “younger” Zarathustra, he imagines “the redeeming human of the great love and contempt” who must come in a stronger time:

This human of the future who will redeem us from the previous ideal as much as from that which had to grow out of it, from the great disgust, from the will to nothingness; this bell-stroke of noon and of the great decision, that makes the will free again, that gives back to the earth its goal and to humans their hope; this Antichrist and anti-nihilist; this conqueror of God and of nothingness—he must one day come … (GM II.24).

The emphasis on the singularity of this anticipated figure certainly suggests a distinct individual, not simply one among others who are also opponents of Christianity. It is not merely the “previous ideal”—Christian ideals of compassion, selflessness, or self-abnegation—which is to be destroyed but, emphatically “that which had to grow out of it,” that is, I take it, Christian culture and institutions, in all their multiform transformations and disguises (the Genealogy’s third essay traces these types all the way down to the Wissenschaftler and the historian). The Antichrist “gives back to the earth its goal and to the human their hope.” The Antichrist is not merely destructive, then, and in an important sense he is not completely original, for he gives back to earth and humans what had been lost or taken from them. “Giving back” suggests return, revolving back to an earlier condition, one of the core dimensions of “revolution.” The implicit contrast, then, is between the Antichrist, who restores these, and Christ (or Christianity, which claimed his heritage), who is responsible for their loss or theft. Returning to Zarathustra’s crucial terms, Erde and Mensch, Nietzsche closes this essay in the Genealogy by reminding the reader (who has been advised to read the earlier book first) of the thematic relation binding earth and human. The idea of world-history, then, contrasts with that (p.185) of the human-earth (Menschen-Erde): one forecloses the future and subsumes the earth within a closed system of meaning, while the other reopens occluded horizons.

The Antichrist’s hyperbolic rhetoric alienates many readers, yet Nietzsche foregrounds his hyperbole in designating his alert readers as “the fewest,” as Hyperboreans who dwell far beyond the north, and are like him in “seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter [Zeitgschwätz] of politics and national egoism beneath themselves” (AC, Foreword and 1). To see such chatter beneath one is not to ignore it altogether, but to see it in its appropriate position, from a higher perspective. This perspective brings together two important critiques. These are directed, first, at the foundations of Zeitgschwätz, the all-too-timely or zeitmässig, namely the philosophy and ideology of world-history on which it is parasitic (cf. UO III). The second critique focuses on Christian political theology, a set of doctrines and concepts embedded in institutional practice, which have the effect of obscuring the life and temporal experience of the earliest Christian community while lending support to the worldly powers of state and church. World-history and political theology mask the possibility of a politics of the earth by enabling and giving a framework to the distracting Zeitgschwätz of the Zeitungen.

Time’s Delays: Katechon and World-History

Who is the Antichrist in the discourse of the church (Kirchensprache)? The answer will help us understand how Nietzsche’s project of a “philosophy of the Antichrist” could be a further twist in his thought concerning place and time: that is, the earth and the world, kairos and chronos. The specter of the Antichrist helps to open up Nietzsche’s perspective on political time (not mere Zeitgschwätz). Let’s approach this question by considering the meaning of the figure in Christian political theology. This tradition claims its origins in letters attributed to Paul, was formulated explicitly as early as Tertullian in the second century, and has been explored by a number of more recent thinkers and scholars, notably Schmitt, Kantorowicz, and Agamben.32

In Christian political theology, as contrasted with the potpourri of passionate anathematizations and passing hysterias about supposed great events or cataclysms, it is not so much a question of naming the Antichrist as of understanding his, her, or their—for there can be many Antichrists, and perhaps by the logic of the simulacrum there must be—relation to political power. Briefly, in that long tradition, the Antichrist can be understood as the evil one(s), both (p.186) enemies of Christ and figures capable of imitating his attributes, whose appearance is restrained or held off by the state. In the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul (or whoever writes in his name) warns his addressees against expecting an imminent arrival of the last days, the end of the world. He says without much explanation that there is a restraining force or katechon (Aufhalter) that delays the appearance of Antichrist(s):

Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth [katechon] that he might be revealed in his time [kairo]. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way (II Thessalonians 2: 3–7).

This is the rather enigmatic text that Tertullian applied to the Roman Empire around 200 CE, roughly a century before its official Christianization under Constantine. The theme of waiting, containing, warding off, and other apotropaic strategies has more general implications, and can be understood in such contexts as the Cold War doctrine of containment, slowing climate change, resistance to reform by entrenched institutional interests, or the struggles of those with aging bodies to mitigate the processes of decay and degeneration.33

In his Apology Tertullian writes:

There is also another and a greater necessity for our offering prayer in behalf of the emperors, nay, for the complete stability of the empire, and for Roman interests in general. For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth—in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes—-is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire. We have no desire, then, to be overtaken by these dire events; and in praying that their coming may be delayed, we are lending our aid to Rome’s duration.34

When the Roman Empire becomes Christian and, later, Europe is ruled by Christian kings, such katechontic teachings become increasingly significant, providing ideological support for royal and imperial authority. It is not (p.187) surprising then that Schmitt, Kantorowicz, and Agamben find the doctrine of the restraining force of the katechon essential in the claims to legitimacy put forward by medieval and early modern European states. For Schmitt, the state legitimated in terms of this teaching is the emblem and central institution of the temporal regime that began with the coming of Christ and will end in the world’s last days as foretold in Revelation:

The Christian empire was not eternal. It always had its own end in view. Nevertheless, it was capable of being a historical power. The decisive historical concept of this continuity was that of the restrainer: katechon. “Empire” in this sense meant the historical power to restrain the appearance of the Antichrist and the end of the present eon; it was a power that withholds (qui tenet), as the Apostle Paul said in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians.35

Katechontic political theology involves a very specific sense of temporality, one that helps to constitute the Christian core of Weltgeschichte, which Nietzsche saw as the dominant form of his age’s temporal thought. Katechontic (and world-historical) political time contrast with the temporal consciousness of earliest Christianity, the community of Jesus’s followers, who believed that he had ushered in a new, messianic time. Paul writes: “But this I say, brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is that even those having wives may be as not [hōs mē] having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up. For passing away is the figure of this world” (I Cor. 7:29–32).36

We are to undertake all activities (work, marriage, civic relations) “as not” these activities. Time will be transformed. Yet as Agamben says, “a messianic institution—or rather a messianic community that wants to present itself as an institution—faces a paradoxical task.”37 Institutions and communities are meant to endure. What then is an institution or community that expects an imminent end of all worldly institutions and communities? Agamben observes that both the Christian and Jewish traditions have entered an implicit agreement to see Paul as the founder of a new religion. In doing so, “the aim is to cancel out or at least mute Paul’s Judaism, that is to say, to expunge it from its original messianic context.”38 Agamben cites Jacob Taubes’s 1986 final lectures (and draws on his own vast erudition) to support his stringent rereading and reevaluation of Paul. However, Nietzsche (cited extensively by Taubes) was already aware of the discrepancy between earlier and later responses to the Jesus event.

(p.188) From Overbeck to Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger’s student Karl Löwith wrote an ambitious and illuminating narrative titled From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought. The book artfully combines aspects of a sequential history with a structure based on an array of philosophical topics. The last section is devoted to “The Problem of Christianity.” Running his analysis again, more or less chronologically, through a number of major figures, he concludes the section and so the entire book not with Nietzsche, but with “Overbeck’s Analysis of Primitive and Passing Christianity.” Of course Overbeck, who brought Nietzsche back to Basel after his collapse in Turin, had a productive life that continued for about fifteen years more. Löwith sums up his contribution as having achieved a clear understanding of why and how the Christianity of the bourgeois world came to an end. Yet since Overbeck’s researches demonstrated “the abyss separating us from Christianity,” Löwith ends his book with a qualification and a rhetorical question: “This does not mean that a faith which once conquered the world perishes with its last secular manifestations. For how should the Christian pilgrimage in hoc saeculo ever become homeless in the land where it has never been at home?”39 The expression in hoc saeculo is apparently a reference to Ephesians 1:21, where Paul writes (in the King James version), describing the power given Christ by God: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.”

The Greek term that the King James translates with “world” (and Luther with “Welt”) is aion, also and more recently often translated as “age.” The difference may not be very significant, since the world in Pauline perspective is always only that of an age or era that will give way to “that which is to come.” Löwith, I assume, is playing on the relation between the saeculum and the secular or weltlich. He endorses Overbeck’s view that primitive Christianity was rigorously unworldly. At the same time, we can read something different in Paul’s letter, from which Löwith draws this parting question. Yes, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world or age, Ephesians implies, but it stands not so much or only outside them, but above them. It was openings like this that helped to make Christianity into the “secular” power that Löwith assumed (in 1939) it no longer was. Given the resurgence of religion and political theology, it should be worth exploring just how Nietzsche and Overbeck engaged with the problematic of Christianity and worldly power.

Nietzsche’s Bildung prepared him to understand the striking archaeological gap between the early community and the church that eventually emerged. (p.189) We will follow that understanding by placing him alongside his scholarly shadow Overbeck, whose work showed the way to that understanding in a voice that was as cautiously reserved and balanced as Nietzsche’s was deliberately flamboyant and excessive. As we know, Nietzsche was brought up in a Lutheran pastoral family with ministers on both father’s and mother’s sides. He began university studies in theology before switching to classical philology. By 1865 he was having vigorous arguments with his sister Elizabeth, fueled by his reading of Strauss’s Life of Jesus. It was the same year that he began to wrestle with Hegel’s Weltgeschichte. In any case, he certainly discussed early Christianity personally and in correspondence with Overbeck, for whom this contrast of earlier and later formed the basis of his lifelong investigations of Church history.40

Overbeck was a penetrating student of the early theology and practice of the church, which he saw as attempting to make sense of the time opened up by Jesus’s failure to reappear by constructing a narrative of historical time, building on such scanty and enigmatic Biblical passages as those on Antichrist.41 The 1870s and 80s were marked by a flurry of critical and philological discoveries about early Christianity, its relations with Roman power, and the formation of the Biblical canon. Overbeck was a major player in this research activity. By 1886 Overbeck had informed Nietzsche that recent scholarship had identified Revelation as the rewriting of a Jewish apocalyptic text.42

In lectures on Gnosticism, Overbeck points out that in 150, a canon was unknown to those now considered mainstream Christian writers and Church Fathers, but by 200 it was more or less in place, although the process of its establishment was murky. Overbeck argues that it was the contest with Marcion’s Gnosticism and its canon—which excluded the Hebrew scriptures—that led to the formation of what has since been recognized as the canon.43

In the struggle with Gnosticism, the Church developed a theory of time (as real and continuous rather than punctuated by absolutely abrupt revelations), a political structure (to combat heresy and order lives in the world), and an accommodation with the state (rather than dismissing it as merely an illusion of the fallen world).44 The logic of theology as well as the strategy for suppressing Gnosticism pointed the Church in the direction of organization, doctrine, and practice that acknowledged history as it made its peace with the state.

As Nietzsche, the philologist, points out, presuming to name the Antichrist is a risky undertaking. Historically, the list of candidates has been extensive; a quick look at the Internet shows that almost any significant political figure has been held to deserve the title, beginning with Nero, infamous persecutor of Christians (and philosophers). More recently, some pointed out that Ronald (p.190) Wilson Reagan, each of whose names has 6 letters, displayed 666, the number of the Beast of the Apocalypse. During the thirteenth-century struggle between Emperor Frederick II (one of Nietzsche’s heroes) and the Pope, both sides argued that the opponent was Antichrist.

Jacob Taubes says that “Overbeck’s voice was heard much more clearly from the grave than it was by his contemporaries.”45 The scope and depth of his research and his reevaluation of Christianity and its theology have begun to become evident only in recent decades. Before a critical edition of Overbeck’s works began to appear in the 1990s, he was known mainly through a few very detailed philological and historical studies of early Christian texts and authors, and as “Nietzsche’s friend.” A few thinkers, notably Karl Barth, were deeply affected by the posthumous (and editorially problematic) compilation of some of his notes published in the 1920s. Despite Karl Löwith devoting the final, summary chapter of his magisterial From Hegel to Nietzsche to Overbeck, little has been done to clarify his intellectual relationship with his more famous friend. Yet surely it was Nietzsche, if anyone, who would have been familiar with Overbeck’s program before the latter’s posthumous work began to appear. In 1873 Overbeck published his iconoclastic How Christian Is Our Present-Day Theology?46 He argued that Christian theology, in accommodating state and history—notably from Paul to Constantine—was radically incompatible with the original Christian community’s temporal consciousness. The latter involved rigorous rejection of the life and values of the “world,” coupled with firm faith that its members were living in the last days before Christ’s Second Coming, to be ushered in by catastrophes and tribulations forecast in apocalyptic texts. For a community living in expectation of the imminent end, accepting Jesus’s counsel to take no thought for the morrow, to engage with the world “as not” in the world, theology would have been meaningless or superfluous. Nietzsche’s portrait of Jesus is even more radical; Jesus lives in a pure present without any expectation of the last days, which was an addition by Paul and the early Church. John’s first letter counsels, “Do not love the world [kosmon] or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15), yet Christianity invents world-history as part of the complex process of its accommodation to the world. Overbeck thought that this must eventually lead to a rejection of Christianity; as he wrote to Heinrich Treitschke: “If there is one point where one realizes that Christianity has twisted humanity, it is to be found in all the connections that Christianity has entered into with politics, just as I do not doubt at all that here is the point at which it will one day succumb to a general contempt.”47

(p.191) For Overbeck, the most notable survival of the spirit of primitive Christianity’s rejection of the world and its time was the monastic tradition in its most ascetic and unworldly varieties. Surveying the modern epoch, he (like Nietzsche) singles out Pascal as a unique Christian who managed to recreate something like the antiworldly spirit of the first generations. For both, Pascal is the exception who demonstrates the degradation that has all but obliterated the earlier movement. Parallel to Nietzsche’s attack on Strauss’s “cultural philistinism” and Hartmann’s Weltprozess, Overbeck saw contemporary liberal German theologians as shameless apologists for Bismarck’s Reich. Later, thinking of his arch-foe Adolf Harnack, who supported the Reich, Overbeck wickedly suggested a parallel with Eusebius, probably Christianity’s first political theologian and certainly its most effective one, who provided the chief formulations for Constantine’s “donation” of the Roman Empire to the Church. Both, he said, were “friseurs of the Emperor’s theological periwig.”48

In Overbeck’s narrative, when apocalypse was delayed past the generation who would see the coming of the kingdom in their lifetime, as Jesus preached, explanations seemed in order. Followers of Jesus, as Overbeck insistently repeats, were at first deeply convinced of the misery of earthly life, and they aspired, as in the Acts of the Apostles, to live in loving communion, their compassion for others rooted in freedom from “the world.” But as time passed, the Church increasingly made worldly concessions, eventually appropriating concepts of Greek and Roman philosophy to rationalize its position in the continuing fallen world. This struck Overbeck as an existentially bizarre transformation of early Christians’ sense that they were living in messianic time, that the kairos had arrived, that they were living in the time of the end, that the end-times were near. In his commentary on Paul, Agamben explains that this was conceived as the time of the end, as distinguished from the end of time. Now, in Paul’s terms, time had been contracted; kairos on this understanding is a contraction of chronos. Yet after the initial generation or so of the Christian community had died out, and at least through most of the second century, the meaning of Christianity “itself” was radically up for grabs, as multiple versions and “heresies” (as they were called retrospectively), including Gnosticism and various Judaizing and anti-Judaizing sects, claimed legitimacy and authority. Overbeck’s research concerned the formation of the Biblical canon, which went hand in hand with the consolidation of the Church, reaching a point of crystallization in the theology of Eusebius and Constantine’s “donation” of the Roman Empire. Overbeck said that the upshot of this ferment, given form through fixing the canon and making Christianity the imperial Roman (p.192) religion, was a Christianity that was nothing more than “the last phosphorescent glow of the decomposing ancients.”49

There is an intriguing parallel between two texts on the Antichrist. Overbeck began his career with a dissertation on Hippolytus’s treatise on the Antichrist, as Nietzsche completed his with a declaration of war and a curse on Christianity, which he titled and signed with that name.50 Overbeck, already distanced from traditional Christianity and feeling incapable of preaching and pastoral work, opted for the scholarly refuge of theology and teaching. As he wrote Treitschke, he chose Hippolytus as a subject because he feared that dealing directly with canonical New Testament writings could have involved an aspiring professor in conflicts for which he was not yet ready. At the opposite pole, Nietzsche burned his academic bridges early with his Birth of Tragedy, and finally tempted the censors, flaunting the title Antichrist to signal that he was breaking history in two.

Even if young Overbeck was in part motivated by prudential concerns about his scholarly career, his choice of topic turned out to be significant for his later work, which focused on the contrast between early Christianity’s awareness of messianic and eschatological time on the one hand and the later Christian accommodation to the world on the other. From Overbeck’s perspective, early Christianity was fixated above all on the misery, evil, and corruption of the world; it anticipated a rapid transformation through Jesus’s Second Coming. When this event was delayed, well past any living memory of Jesus’s times, accommodation with the world became necessary. Part of this accommodation was theology itself. The very attempt to pose and answer questions about religious matters inevitably involved admitting some of the world’s language and traditions of reasoning. Overbeck never stopped pointing out the ways in which Christianity was forced to use pagan learning, and so, he sardonically observed, it became the vehicle through which that culture survived. In Nietzsche’s more succinct words, Christianity became “Platonism for the people.”51

From the beginning of his work, Overbeck was inspired by a view that Nietzsche articulated much more dramatically in his later writing. Nietzsche’s friend saw Christianity as necessarily containing the seeds of its own destruction. The title of Overbeck’s posthumously edited “book” Christianty and Culture (a selection of his writings) could be taken as posing the exclusive alternative, Christianity or culture? His research focused on Church history, seen as the process by which Christianity accommodated itself to the world. Yet terms must be clarified, for in the early centuries there was not one Christianity but a multiplicity of sects and groupings with competing social, sexual, (p.193) and political practices, beliefs, and texts. The “world” was, by and large, the Roman Empire. Only with the Council of Nicaea and the donation of Constantine did the Church achieve a tenuous stability in doctrine and structure. This complex history is the context for Overbeck’s typical questions: How was the authority of the Church established? How were the canonical texts canonized?

Perhaps Hippolytus’s greatest innovation was his redating of the final events to about five hundred years in the future. This opens up a time of waiting, expectation, and the possibility of accommodation to the world in the time that remains. From his reading of Daniel he deduced, for example, that there were still ten democracies and ten kingdoms yet to come, before the end of the world.52 As I have been claiming, it is something like this time of waiting (chronos), which for Overbeck is both symptom and enabler of accommodation to worldly culture, and for Nietzsche a time that threatens to extinguish a vigilant watch for the opportunities (kairoi) offered by chance (BGE 274). Part IV of Zarathustra can be read as enacting a parody of the waiting that became basic to the Christian tradition. At the beginning of this section, Zarathustra explains his receptivity to the humans who may come to him in his mountain home:

I still await the sign that it is time for my descent … not impatient, nor patient, but rather as one who has unlearned even patience—because he no longer “endureth” [duldet] … for my fate is leaving me time … I am grateful to it, my eternal fate, for not rushing and pressing me, but leaving me time for jesting and wicked tricks … (Z IV.1).53

The rest of Part IV is given over to Zarathustra’s “jesting and wicked tricks” with the higher men who come seeking him. This is not the resigned Christian endurance of life in a vale of tears, but a time that has opened and dilated for the pleasures of play. Waiting has been transformed into playfulness that enjoys rather than merely enduring.

Even after their common residency in Basel, and after Nietzsche had taken leave from the university there, he continued his reading of Overbeck’s work and related research. Some of the signs are evident in Dawn, which contains an extended discussion of Paul entitled “The first Christian” (D 68), as well as many observations on Christianity inspired both by Overbeck and other contemporary scholars. Nietzsche worked on Dawn in 1880. The work’s composition was accompanied by a flurry of correspondence with Overbeck concerning the latter’s research and other recent work on Paul and early Christianity. In June 1880 Nietzsche writes to Overbeck that he has reread (p.194) How Christian Is Our Present-Day Theology? and has understood much more than on his earlier reading, a reading that had already led them in 1873 to call their two-pronged assault on D. F. Strauss and liberal Protestant theology a Waffengenossenheit, or comradeship in arms. In July Overbeck sends Nietzsche his relatively brief new book On the History of the Canon, along with others’ books on Paul’s anthropology and Justin Martyr. He writes that the studies in this book have the value for him of “preliminary works on the emergence (Entstehung) of the earliest Christian literature, and are important for that of the canon and its clear understanding.”54

Already, before On the History of the Canon, Overbeck had been engaged in an acutely political reading of early Christian literature. In 1870 he published an introduction to The Acts of the Apostles, arguing that the text was written considerably later than the activities recounted there, and that the narrative had been shaped to suggest the compatibility of Christianity and the Roman Empire. I quote at some length to give the flavor of the analysis. Overbeck points to

the political side of the Acts—its obvious striving to procure for the Christian cause the favor of the state authorities of Rome by the consistent representation of the good terms on which the personages of the Apostolic period, particularly Paul, stood with the Roman state and its officers …

Especially does the trial of Paul give the Roman officials the opportunity of showing the favorable opinion they have of him; and, shielded by the Roman laws, he is enabled, though still a prisoner, joyfully for a considerable time to fulfill in Rome his duties as an Apostle … Nay, the long detention of the Apostle is in part explained simply by forgetfulness of duty on the part of certain officials … In this account, to which the experience of Paul can hardly have corresponded, we cannot fail to recognize the design to avert political suspicions from Christianity, and such an account, in the form presented in the Acts, cannot have been intended for any other address than the Gentiles outside the Church.55

If such early texts are suspect, their canonization is even more so. Although the explicit subject of the longer of the two essays constituting On the History of the Canon is the question of what can and cannot be known about the date and authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews attributed to Paul, it begins with a rather far-reaching declaration that might equally well have been written by Nietzsche: “It is part of the essence of all canonization to render its objects unknowable, and so it can be said of all of the writings in our New (p.195) Testament, that in the moment of their canonization they have ceased to be understood.”56 Nietzsche was given to stronger formulations: “Paul understood the need for the lie, for ‘faith’; the Church subsequently understood Paul” (AC 47).

Overbeck’s book on the canon continues in the spirit of his analysis of Acts, demonstrating the philological acuity that Nietzsche so respected and admired. The motto of philology in Nietzsche’s and Overbeck’s tradition might be “always more than one language” (paraphrasing Derrida). Philology is critical and diacritical, always marking differences in and within authors, texts, traditions, and interpretations. Overbeck’s critical hermeneutical sensibility was aroused by discrepancies between Hebrews and Paul’s other letters.57 Especially obvious (Overbeck is not the first to note this) is that the letter is composed in much more fluent Greek than the other letters, whose Greek is rather awkward (as Nietzsche wrote, “It was subtle of God to learn Greek when he wished to become an author—and not to learn it better” [BGE 121]).58 To be canonical it was required that a text’s author be one of Jesus’s apostles. Overbeck concludes that the text was attributed to Paul so that it could be pronounced canonical. The desire to canonize came, he argues, because the Church found its content important and useful in securing its doctrines in opposition to Gnostic tendencies like Marcion’s. It could also appeal to Jews who might “come to Jesus” if they felt that, far from surrendering their tradition, they could see this as its fulfillment. Nietzsche had read Overbeck’s critical analyses. He recapitulates such inquiries from his own “physiological” perspective when he writes that “one is not philologist and physician without also being at the same time anti-Christ(ian) [Antichrist]. For as philologist one sees behind the ‘sacred books,’ as physician behind the physiological depravity of the typical Christian. The physician says ‘incurable,’ the philologist ‘fraud’” … (AC 47).59

Times and Temporalities of Christ and Antichrist

Overbeck’s research and Nietzsche’s judgments of Christianity coincide in emphasizing a radical break between the temporal experience and expectations of the early community and the church that slowly took form in the next few centuries. Katechontic time, the time of waiting and deferral, has obvious political implications. With church and state established and coordinated, Christianity finds the basic lines of temporal life defined: the state, with the church’s endorsement, resists the coming of Antichrist. History can now be (p.196) plotted in terms of a story of deferred redemption, with regular payments on the debt in the form of confession and penance. Yet the time of the katechon is only one mode of medieval Christian thought about time and history. At least since Bergson and Heidegger, philosophy has been aware of distinctions like those between chronological time and the lived experience of dureé, or between an authentic grasping of future possibilities and self-deceiving acceptance of the “objective” time of das Man. Nietzsche’s writings abound in accounts of various phenomenological modes of temporal experience. He frequently reminds us that his many styles of writing are intended to convey varying tempos of experience. What needs emphasis is that this sense of temporal plurality is not restricted to purely individual experience. There are social, collective ways of marking and structuring time, not only by measurement and punctuations (for example, by holidays and intercalary days) but in terms of speeding up or delaying, contracting or dilating.

Historians of philosophical and religious thought, like Löwith and Taubes, see the tendency toward condensing the many varieties of temporality as stemming from the apocalyptic and eschatological commentaries and speculations of Joachim of Fiore, who elaborated a three-stage conception of human history consisting of the epochs of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For Joachim, the age of the Holy Spirit was to begin in 1200. Such critical studies lead Agamben to sharply distinguish messianic time (the time of the end) from eschatological time (the end of time).60 Messianic time is experience free of obsessive hope, regret, and nostalgia; it lives in an expanded present, not in waiting or expectation of a future state. Eschatological thought expects, awaits, and frequently attempts to predict the ultimate end. Messianic time is apolitical. Eschatological time requires an interim politics adapted to the specific character of the destined end. For Nietzsche, it was Paul, the evangelist and community organizer, who laid the foundations for eschatological time and its politics.

Nietzsche hyperbolically restates Overbeck’s thesis about the later oblivion of messianic time in Christianity when he writes, “The word ‘Christianity’ is already a misunderstanding—in reality there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” In explicating this famous bon mot, Nietzsche distinguishes between living “practice” and mere “belief,” just as Overbeck distinguishes the first community around Jesus from the Church and its doctrines:

The “Evangel” died on the cross. What was called “Evangel” from this moment onwards was already the opposite of what he had lived: “bad tidings,” a dysangel. It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a “belief,” perchance the (p.197) belief in redemption through Christ, the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian: only Christian practice, a life such as he who died on the cross lived, is Christian … (AC 39).

The “belief” in question here is a belief about what is to come, at the end of one’s life or the end of time. The Stoics criticized time experienced as mere waiting and deferral, a critique that can be applied to the Church’s conception of katechontic time as that during which governments ward off the coming of the Antichrist. Stoics aimed at eradicating hope and fear, both of which blind us to the lived experience of the moment and the readiness for real opportunity or kairos when it arises.61 As Seneca writes: “Two things must be cut short: the fear of the future and the memory of past discomfort; the one does not concern me anymore, and the other does not concern me yet.”62 Jesus, as Nietzsche understands him, was free from time-as-deferral but lacking a sense of kairos; this reading supposes that the idea of the imminent arrival of the kingdom, understood as total transformation or end of the world, is already an invention of Paul and the early Church. Nietzsche engages in an abductive inference, leading him to his idea of Jesus as a Dostoyevskian “idiot,” living blissfully in the moment, announcing the kingdom of God and time’s accomplished fulfillment, totally indifferent to institutional structures as he declares that we should “take no thought for the morrow.” This blank canvas allows the inscription of history’s palimpsest and is very close to Overbeck’s picture of early Christian community psychology.63 In Nietzsche’s counternarrative, Christianity was Paul’s invention, positing Jesus’s resurrection as history’s turning point and the basis for a new, potentially universal faith community of both Jew and gentile. Nietzsche’s parody of Paul (The Antichrist) offers another way of splitting history in two.

Nietzsche’s deliberate caricature of church and theology coincides with the critique that Overbeck pronounces in more restrained but no less cutting fashion. The typical Christian theologian (in the spirit of Hippolytus) constructs a story about Jesus and the Church that accommodates the persistence of mundane time when the eschaton fails to arrive. The theologian makes his peace with the “world,” which the earliest Christian community prided itself on dismissing. The theologian must be concerned to sublimate the various forms of what Walter Benjamin called Jetztzeit that characterized primitive Christianity, that amalgam of Gnostic salvation, Stoic kairos, and Jewish messianic time. Eventually theology leads to the invention of world-history. Some of Nietzsche’s most vicious remarks about the theologian as a type emphasize the theological core of German idealism. Kant was so well received by the (p.198) Germans, Nietzsche says, because with his thought “a secret path to the old ideal stood revealed” (AC 10; cf. 8–11). That idealism culminates in Hegelian world-history, which Nietzsche had been in the business of bracketing, exposing, and undermining since at least the Birth of Tragedy.

At the heart of Nietzsche’s Antichrist, then, is the rejection of the theological time of waiting, deferral, and gradual culmination. Christian time eventually became world-history, whose core is the state, “God’s march through the world,” as Hegel said. From this perspective, the final page, the “Decree against Christianity”—signed “the Antichrist”—symbolically announces a new calendar and new experience of time. If time was measured previously from Jesus’s birth, a new beginning is possible after the demolition of Christian world-history.

The last paragraph of the main text of The Antichrist promises a writing on the walls and a revision of the calendar based on Nietzsche’s declaration of war on Christianity: “Wherever there are walls I shall inscribe this eternal accusation against Christianity upon them—I can write in letters which make even the blind see … And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose—from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last?—From today?—Revaluation of all values!” (AC 62).

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes of the profound structure that underlies this phantasm of the splitting of time. He contrasts the Cartesian “cogito” and the Kantian “I think.” The cogito determines the “I” as a thinking being whose identity is dependent upon God. Kant saw that only the bare form of temporality was implied by the “I think,” and so consequently “time signifies a fault or a fracture in the I and a passivity in the self.”64 Rational psychology must go the way of rational theology. Hölderlin and Nietzsche are the true heirs of Kant, rather than Fichte and Hegel. The time is out of joint and necessarily marked by a caesura. This “caesura, of whatever kind, must be determined in the image of a unique and tremendous event, an act which is adequate to time as a whole.”65 So Nietzsche’s interruption of time, whether in the thought of eternal recurrence or in the introduction of a new calendar, is to be understood as a “symbolic image” of time out of joint.

The Antichrist’s time is war-time, the war against Christianity and its “false reckoning of time.” It is the war that follows in the wake of God’s death. War-time cannot be planned, plotted, or predicted—or rather, these actions can all be attempted in full knowledge of their impossibility. In the parable of the madman, time is out of joint because the true news of God’s death, like the light from distant stars, is still on its way to the traders in the marketplace. What they do not see, in their all-too-easy, all-too-human atheism, is that their (p.199) Wall Street Journal is always already out of date, and that the market is deeply complicit with the more radical risks of war. In war we become other, reduced to our position in the ranks or reidentified with a nom de guerre. Nietzsche’s war-time is the time in which “I is another,” in which the Antichrist repeats the tragic age of the Greeks in its post-Christian and post-Cartesian difference.

The declaration of war, the “Decree against Christianity,” removed by Nietzsche’s sister and early editors, was finally restored by Colli and Montinari.66 Its title and form no doubt owe much to his studies in comparative political theology, from the interests he shared with Overbeck to his fascination with Jacolliot’s book The Religious Lawgivers and its eccentric translation of the Law of Manu along with quasi-Darwinian commentary. The “Decree,” meant to form the last page of The Antichrist, could be the text of a public poster, defining the law of an occupying power—or as the parody of such an act, emphasizing the political thrust of the text. It declares that priests should be imprisoned, that “every participation in a religious service is an attack on public morality,” that Protestantism is worse than Catholicism and liberal Protestantism its worst variety, that all preaching of chastity or denigration of sexuality are to be condemned, that eating with a priest is forbidden, and that ostensibly laudatory Biblical words like “God” and “redeemer” should be understood as insults. It is impossible to determine what in this decree is parodic and what is meant in total seriousness. Nietzsche, who constantly tells his readers that he expects the most subtle, philologically attuned ear for his writings, offers something in comic book or graffito style, a set of directives as shockingly simplified, if not more so, than the instructions and videotapes of many recent terrorists.

The dateline immediately following the title of the “Decree” reads, “Proclaimed on the first day of the year one (—on September 30, 1888 of the false time scheme).” Nietzsche’s career could be said to culminate in his failed project to recalibrate earthly time. He cannot avoid citing what he calls the old, false system of reckoning time. It should be day one, year one, of a time that has been newly divided in two—a new common era. Nietzsche’s day one is put forward as an affirmative date, yet to the extent that it recognizes a prior time with which it marks a contrast, the question arises whether it can indeed be completely affirmative. In declaring war against Christianity, he must mark time with a new calendar that is not indebted to the very system of values he is combating. But like Christianity and Islam, Nietzsche’s calendar splits the history of humanity into two, unlike the Jewish calendar, which begins with the creation of the world and so has nothing anterior to its basic date. Nietzsche’s new way of reckoning time is tied up with wars and battles.67 But then (p.200) Christianity, as Nietzsche describes it very explicitly in the concluding pages of The Antichrist, has always been at war. It has always been political, at least since the Church transformed Jesus into Christ. Whether surreptitiously conducting its vampiric raids on Rome, its Crusades against Islam, or its cultural wars—from Luther’s attack on the Renaissance to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf on behalf of the Reich—it is indeed a war-machine masked by its professions of peace.

The Antichrist began by taking its (or his) distance from Zeitgeschwätz, or the chatter of the media. It ends with a rapid-fire, scathing review of Christianity as an embodied historical and political force, announcing a new way of reckoning time. Media chatter takes place unreflectively within the world; at its most ambitious, it aims at positioning itself within its ultimate context of world-history. The final condemnation of Christianity and the curse upon it portray it as an infamy on the earth. The “Decree” goes so far as to declare that churches must be regarded as pollutions or miasmas of the earth. To shift the focus from church and state to the earth they pretend to subsume and rule involves at least a sketch of what a “great politics of the earth” might be, and what kinds of things might be termed “great events.” Ever since Nietzsche introduced that term in his last Unmodern Observation, describing what he then took to be the tasks of Alexander and Wagner, it had a scope that surpassed the “world-history” on whose discovery the nineteenth century so prided itself. Insofar as The Antichrist constitutes all or part of the project of transvaluing values, it raises the question of the earth’s future in a way that neither the op-eds of the journalists nor the world-historical speculations of the Hegelians could. At the very edge and distant horizon of the Christian and world-historical traditions, forgotten, ridiculed, or marginalized by their modern heirs, the paleonym (or older name) of Antichrist was a way of thinking about earth’s future on a larger scale, however confusedly. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that apocalyptic thought tends to resurge in times that fearfully anticipate climate change, transnational religious war, shortages of basic resources, new waves of migration and nomadism, as well as rapid and unpredictable technological transformations that penetrate deeply into all social relations. Unlike those who scour the Biblical texts for literal, all-too-literal, news of the last days, Nietzsche’s donning of the Antichrist mask can be read most fruitfully as a way of asking now, at this date—is it early or late?—how we might begin to think earth’s times in ways that do not foreclose being open to great events and great politics.


(3.) There is just one more literary reference by my count in The Day After Tomorrow, and it is to Nietzsche. Deciding which books to burn for warmth, one of the male high school students says his book must be saved because he is the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century. The female student replies that he’s a chauvinist pig who was in love with his sister.

(4.) When Nietzsche was eighteen he wrote in an essay, “That God became human refers only to this: that humans should seek their salvation not in eternity, but establish their heaven on earth instead”; “On Christianity,” in Young Nietzsche and Philosophy.

(9.) Ibid., 442.

(10.) In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull proposes the possibility of an indefinitely extended and continuing leveling-down process, such that nihilism would never reach the point of self-destruction or self-overcoming that Nietzsche assumes it will. Although this may be possible as a thought-experiment, what could make it desirable?

(11.) The Christian New Testament speaks at various times of the kosmos, sometimes as the whole of what is, sometimes as the “worldly” opposed to faith (as frequently in Matthew); oikoumene appears as simply designating the (known) inhabited world (e.g., Romans 10:18).

(12.) Yet an aggressively materialist philosopher like Hobbes could argue that even the final divine kingdom will be an earthly one.

(14.) In addition to his documented knowledge of Zoroastrianism (from his readings in Hellwald and other scholars), Nietzsche was almost certainly familiar with von Hammer’s book on The History of the Assassins, which argues (if rather tendentiously) that there is a lineage of thought and power from Zoroaster through the medieval Assassins, who ruled a significant swath of territory from their mountain stronghold in Alamut (in Persia, now northwestern Iran). In von Hammer’s account, the Assassins transmitted their atheism, materialism, and communism to secret societies like the Freemasons. This widely read nineteenth-century book was very probably the source of the motto Nietzsche attributes to the Assassins, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” and of the similar saying in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (GM III.24, Z IV.9). Cf. Shapiro, “Assassins and Crusaders: Nietzsche After 9/11.”

The geography of the Assassins may have contributed to Nietzsche’s imaginative belief in his descent from Polish nobility. See 202 n14.

(15.) He later names this virtue, identifying it as the gift-giving virtue (die schenkende Tugend) (Z III.10.2).

(18.) See Jörg Salaquarda, “Der Antichrist for a full discussion of the linguistic ambiguity, and Nietzsche’s many uses of the term and its variations.

(21.) Sommer, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Der Antichrist,” 51–54. Salaquarda supports his understanding of Nietzsche’s use of the Antichrist name or title as identical with Schopenhauer’s concept of the immoralist by reference especially to his 1886 preface to the Birth of Tragedy (originally 1872) and his preface to the Genealogy. This is plausible as far as it goes, that is, with reference to those specific uses. Salaquarda wants to show that Nietzsche is not simply a resentful, reactive critic of Christianity, but that by adopting the title Antichrist he is taking a positive position that affirms this life and (only consequently) disdains Christianity. However, Sommer’s commentary is strategically limited to the text of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. Here, as he maintains, the main burden of the text is indeed its opposition to and denunciation of Christianity, that is, the historical religion whose initiation Nietzsche credits to Paul.

(p.218) (22.) An important book on Nietzsche’s hero Frederick II is Ernst Kantorowicz’s markedly Nietzschean study, written in the atmosphere of the Stefan Georg circle: Frederick the Second, 1194–1250.

(23.) See the thorough survey in Bernard McGinn, Antichrist.

(24.) McGinn speaks of the period 1660–1900 as “Antichrist in decline,” Antichrist, 231–49.

(28.) Andreas Sommer hypothesizes that almost the entire argument of AC can be read as a parody of Christian thinking (Sommer 2000, 688). Of course in Christian theology the Antichrist will indeed be a parody of Christ, as is clear as early as Hippolytus’s treatise On Christ and Antichrist.

(29.) According to Gilles Quispel, “the Church Fathers, in their polemics against heresy, expressed for the first time the idea that there exists a development in history, the idea that in the education of the human race certain forms were justified in their time only to be rejected by a later epoch”; “Time and History in Patristic Christianity,” in Man and Time, Joseph Campbell, ed., 88.

(30.) The Refutation is a crucial source of what we think of as the fragments of pre-Socratic philosophy and contains considerable testimony about them. It seems worth asking whether and to what extent some typical post-1850s pictures of the entire “development” from Thales to Socrates are structured in some ways by Hippolytus’s program, but that is a question for another occasion.

(33.) The early Cold War doctrine of “containment” of the Soviet Union was formulated by George F. Kennan, who wrote in an influential (but at first anonymous) 1947 article in Foreign Affairs that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies…. Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.” But what happens when “liberation,” the policy of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and of Ronald Reagan replaces “containment,” finally resulting in the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union? As Leonard Cohen expresses it in his song “The Future,” it may mean the end of all divisions and principles of measure, something that leads him to beg, “Give me back the Berlin Wall, give me Stalin and St. Paul. I’ve seen the future, brother, and it’s murder.” Cf. KSA 13.368, where Nietzsche speaks of the mediocre as “the Verzögerer (delayers) par excellence.”

(p.219) (34.) Tertullian, The Apology of Tertullian, section XXXII. Similar observations are made by Jerome in his commentary on Daniel 7:8, and more of the same are attributed to Tyconius (d. ca. 390) in his Commentary on Apocalypse, a lost text, but one much cited, e.g., by Augustine.

(35.) Nomos, 59–60. Schmitt’s post-World War II The Nomos of the Earth, with its articulation of the possibility of a global world order in the age of air power and its making explicit the katechontic dimension of political theology can be understood as sharing a problematic with what Nietzsche calls “a philosophy of the Antichrist.”

(36.) English translation based on Giorgio Agamben’s Italian translation. Agamben, The Time That Remains, 23.

(38.) Ibid., 2.

(40.) It is tempting to think of Nietzsche and Overbeck as a kind of complementary yin and yang pair. Nietzsche was a flamboyant thinker who courted public discussion and opposition. He was proud of “having entered society through a duel,” with his polemic against D. F. Strauss. Overbeck was modest and reserved; while he undermined the canon of Christian scripture by revealing falsifications and distortions, revealing the political motivations of canon formation, he did so quietly and without fanfare. While he published relatively little in his lifetime as explicit as his 1873 polemic, he left an enormous Nachlass of notes, memoirs, and essays, very little of which was available until recently. In the 1990s some of this work was published, including a fair sample of his Kirchenlexicon, a massive cross-referenced personal encyclopedia consisting of 20,000 octavo pages. Previously, an edition of some of these writings appeared as Christentum und Kultur. Gedanken und Aufzeichnungen zur modernen Theologie, edited by Overbeck’s student Carl Bernoulli. Bernoulli also produced the two-volume, heavily documented Franz Overbeck und Friedrich Nietzsche, eine Freundschaft (1908).

Since the 1990s some German scholars, especially Andreas Sommer, have begun to consider the Nietzsche-Overbeck relation in a philosophical rather than biographical way. In the conflict between Nietzsche’s “Basel” and “Weimar” friends, relatives, and associates, Overbeck was overshadowed and considerably outlived by Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, another factor that contributed to downplaying the relationship and producing the conventional picture of Overbeck as simply a “friend” who helped Nietzsche with financial and other practical matters, finally fetching him from Turin after his collapse. See Sommer, Der Geist der Historie und der Ende des Christentums, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Der Antichrist.” For important evaluations, see Karl Löwith’s conclusion to From Hegel to Nietzsche, 374–85, and Jacob Taubes, “The Demystification of Theology: Toward a Portrait of Overbeck,” in From Cult to Culture, 147–61. For a good introduction to Overbeck in his relation to Nietzsche, see Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt: A Study in Unseasonable Ideas, 413–38.

(41.) See Taubes, From Cult to Culture, 157. As Taubes explains Overbeck’s position: “History is not to be restrained by means of Christianity. ‘Every attempt made to take the Christian periodization of history seriously’ must shatter on this fact. The Christian reckoning of time would only be substantiated if Christianity had brought about ‘a new era.’ But Overbeck denies precisely this, for ‘Christianity itself originally spoke of a new time under the prerequisite—one that was not met—that the existing world should perish and make room for a new one. This was, (p.220) for a brief moment a serious expectation and, as such an expectation, surfaced continually but fleetingly, never becoming a fact of historical permanence—which alone could have provided the real basis for an incontrovertible account of time, one corresponding to the facts of reality. The world, and not the Christian expectation of it, is what held its own.’”

(42.) Oehler and Bernoulli, eds., Nietzsches Briefwechsel mit Overbeck, 352. Overbeck wrote Nietzsche, reporting that Eberhard Vischer “has made and published a very beautiful scientific discovery: the Johannine Apocalypse is a Jewish text that has been given a Christian rewriting” (Dec 12, 1886, 86).

(44.) On the Gnostic understanding of time, see Henri-Charles Puech, “Gnosis and Time,” in Joseph Campbell, ed., Man and Time, 38–84, esp. 80–83.

(45.) Taubes, “The Demystification of Theology,” in From Cult to Culture, 147.

(47.) Quoted by Taubes, “The Demystification of Theology,” in From Cult to Culture, 154.

(48.) Overbeck, Christentum und Kultur, Werke 6/1, 246. For Overbeck’s 1873 critique of German theologians supporting Bismarck by arguments drawn from political theology, see How Christian Is Our Present-Day Theology, 63–67.

(51.) A very strong version of the “Platonism for the people”—or more precisely Stoic universalism—thesis is found in Bruno Bauer’s eccentric 1877 book Christ and the Caesars, reviewed by Overbeck in 1878. Nietzsche and Overbeck were corresponding frequently about theological matters around this time, and Nietzsche mentions Bauer in several contexts: KSA 6.317; KSB 6.242, 7.270, 275; 8.106, 205, 247, 370.

(52.) The multiplicity of regimes yet to come is compatible with Hippolytus’s relatively anti-Roman stance, which can be contrasted with Tertullian’s contemporary idea of Rome as katechon.

(53.) As Graham Parkes points out in his note on this passage, duldet is Luther’s translation of the passage in I Cor. 13:7, where Paul writes of love or charity that it “endureth all things”; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Graham Parkes, 315.

(54.) Nietzsche to Overbeck, June 22, 1880; Overbeck to Nietzsche, July10, 1880, in Oehler and Bernoulli, eds., Friedrich Nietzsches Briefwechsel mit Franz Overbeck, 133–36.

(55.) Franz Overbeck, “Introduction to The Acts of the Apostles,” 23–24 (accessible at

(57.) Hebrews is framed differently than those letters; it is not addressed to a specific group in a geographical location, and there is something odd about the supposed author, Paul, as apostle to the gentiles, writing to the Jews. As its title suggests, the text firmly links messianic faith to the Jewish tradition, citing sacred history and prophecy. The letter was accepted quickly in the Eastern Church, but was suspect for some time in the West; under dispute were such theological issues as the rejection of rebaptism in Hebrews 6:4–6 as well as philological questions.

(58.) See Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, 4, for Taubes’s anecdote concerning his conversation with the literary scholar Emil Staiger in Zürich during World War II. Staiger had been (p.221) reading Paul’s epistles, but exclaimed bitterly: “But that isn’t Greek, it’s Yiddish! Upon which [Taubes] said: Yes, Professor, and that’s why I understand it!”

(59.) Here Nietzsche’s usage does seem to permit reading Antichrist as simply anti-Christian.

(61.) Agamben, “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum” in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, 97–116.

(62.) Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 78, 14. Quoted by Pierre Hadot in Philosophy as a Way of Life, 228.

(63.) Shapiro, “The Text as Graffito: Historical Semiotics,” in Nietzschean Narratives, 124–41.

(65.) Ibid., 89.

(66.) It was found in Nietzsche’s papers, glued to the last pages of The Antichrist; Colli and Montinari argue convincingly that it was intended to be the last page of that work (KSA 14.448–54).

(67.) In the Jewish and Christian imaginary, which Nietzsche probably shared on this point, there is a tendency to think of early Islam as defined by its wars. But the Islamic calendar begins with the Hijra, understood as an act of complete submission: Muhammad saves the faith and its revelation by leaving Mecca for Medina. Since Nietzsche praises the Islamic war on Christianity, he may have felt some kinship with what he took to be its associated way of dividing time into two parts. And like Jewish and Islamic dates, when presented in Christian or secular contexts, Nietzsche gives the other time scheme as a point of reference. (p.222)

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