Nietzsche and the Bible on Marriage, Possession, and Love

Nietzsche and the Bible on Marriage, Possession, and Love 1

Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps most famous for declaring and lamenting that “God is dead.”

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

But Nietzsche also touched on psychology, and in “Beyond Good and Evil” (in aphorism 194) he wrote some thoughts about desire and possession in marriage. It’s worth noting that despite his amazing mustache Nietzsche never married, often visited brothels, endured numerous physical and mental afflictions, and died at the age of 55.

[I have inserted paragraph breaks below to improve readability.]

The difference among men does not manifest itself only in the difference of their lists of desirable things—in their regarding different good things as worth striving for, and being disagreed as to the greater or less value, the order of rank, of the commonly recognized desirable things:—it manifests itself much more in what they regard as actually HAVING and POSSESSING a desirable thing.

As regards a woman, for instance, the control over her body and her sexual gratification serves as an amply sufficient sign of ownership and possession to the more modest man;

another with a more suspicious and ambitious thirst for possession, sees the “questionableness,” the mere apparentness of such ownership, and wishes to have finer tests in order to know especially whether the woman not only gives herself to him, but also gives up for his sake what she has or would like to have—only THEN does he look upon her as “possessed.”

A third, however, has not even here got to the limit of his distrust and his desire for possession: he asks himself whether the woman, when she gives up everything for him, does not perhaps do so for a phantom of him; he wishes first to be thoroughly, indeed, profoundly well known; in order to be loved at all he ventures to let himself be found out. Only then does he feel the beloved one fully in his possession, when she no longer deceives herself about him, when she loves him just as much for the sake of his devilry and concealed insatiability, as for his goodness, patience, and spirituality.

One man would like to possess a nation, and he finds all the higher arts of Cagliostro and Catalina suitable for his purpose. Another, with a more refined thirst for possession, says to himself: “One may not deceive where one desires to possess”—he is irritated and impatient at the idea that a mask of him should rule in the hearts of the people: “I must, therefore, MAKE myself known, and first of all learn to know myself!”

From Nietzsche’s nihilistic perspective we see three types of men with increasing levels of ambition for possession — not only for possession of a woman, but here using that possession as an example.

  1. The Modest Man is satisfied with controlling the woman’s body and her sexual gratification.
  2. The Ambitious Man additionally requires that the woman give up herself and her desires for his sake.
  3. The Third Man requires all that, but still will not be satisfied unless the woman knows him thoroughly and profoundly, such that she does not deceive herself into thinking that he is better than he is.

When we contrast Nietzsche’s thinking with the Bible we can easily see how his glimpse of the truth was twisted by nihilism. Consider:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Ephesians 5:22-33

Some differences that jump out:

  • Instead of possession, the Bible speaks of love.
  • Instead of control, the Bible speaks of submission.
  • Instead of the wife giving herself up for her husband, the Bible says that the husband gives himself up for his wife.
  • Instead of loving devilry and goodness alike, the Bible teaches that we can be washed clean and made holy.

And yet buried within Nietzsche’s nihilism is a profound truth: we all have the desire to be “thoroughly, indeed, profoundly well known”, and this craving to be known is interwoven with our need to love and be loved. The great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, decimates Nietzsche’s ambition to merely possess and concludes with a deeply satisfying promise that through love we will ultimately know and be known.

… but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. [snip] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:10-12

(Side note: Some Christians are dissatisfied with the teachings in Ephesians 5, especially with regard to love and submission, but be sure to notice the stark contrast between the Bible and Nietzsche. Nietzsche was one of the greatest secular minds in history and has had a profound impact on modern culture. It you “kill God” you must yourselves “become gods” to replace him, and don’t be so sure that you’ll do a better job of it. Nietzsche died alone and insane.)

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