The doping scandals that plague professional and “amateur” sports have done little to shake the enthusiasm of fans and sportswriters for their heroes. Fans still flock to the stadiums and spend their weekends watching NBA basketball games, NASCAR races, and even (if ABC is to be believed) AFL football exhibitions. As a child, I once saw a mock-scandal tabloid that “revealed” the secret of Bob Feller’s fastball: a cannon surgically implanted into the pitcher’s arm. A crude joke in the 1950’s has become reality, albeit in a more sophisticated form. But no Dr. Frankenstein today would resort to stitching up corpses when there are unborn babies to harvest and recycle.
To be fair, many sports fans do concede that it is wrong to break the rules, that even home-run hitters should be made, from time to time, to face the indignation of the underconditioned effeminates who bask in the reflected virility of star athletes. But, as Frank de Ford opined one morning on National Public Radio, sports have always been about transcending limits, and, lamentable as it may seem, it is not in an athlete’s nature to pass up anything that will put him in the record books or increase the value of his endorsements. Paraphrasing Burke, one might say that, whatever is the road to a record, that is the road that will be trod, preferably on Nike or Adidas.
Athletes are not alone in using magic elixirs to enhance their powers. Students who take Focusin may now achieve higher levels of concentration (though, considering how little is actually required in college these days, I do not know why they bother). And, if the illusion of success is more important than reality—as it seems to be for most people—there is virtual-reality TV for daydreamers who cannot follow the plot of a sitcom, virtual sex and instant messaging for souls too timid to pitch woo or hold hands, and video games to give the thrill of slaughter to little boys afraid to fight with their fists.
In seeking power from steroids and microchips, we become their slaves, and, in losing our freedom, we lose at least a part of our humanity. Even the teenage moviegoers who have sold their souls for so little apparently sense this. Why else did they flock to see Terminator and The Matrix and dozens of lesser-known films suggesting that our “reality” is controlled by electronic or extraterrestrial powers? In reaching for power, or the illusion of power, we slip into imbecility.
Nietzsche, who understood the will to power as well as anyone, also knew that true power cannot come out of a bottle, a magic pill, surgical enhancement, or a computer. By no means in robust health, Nietzsche disliked weakness, deformity, and any form of dependence. He observed that a cripple who gets on a horse and rides it to the top of a mountain will limp, nonetheless, when he dismounts. What is done by a machine or steroids does no credit to frail flesh. Intuitively, we seem to know, or used to, that Columbus was more heroic in setting off, with a small crew in three small ships, to find the way to India than any astronaut sent into space by a vast team of scientists and engineers. Tom Wolfe was certainly right to praise the “right stuff” displayed by American astronauts, but, as men, they seem pale and colorless beside Charles Lindbergh or Captain Cook. If man can only transcend his limitations by relying on the inhuman apparatus provided by technology, he might as well content himself with being human, all-too human.
Nietzsche would doubtless be appalled more by such language of Christian resignation than by the technological transcendence to which sports heroes, mountain climbers, and electronic musicians aspire. After nourishing his genius on Byron’s Manfred, the music of Wagner, and the melancholy philosophy of Schopenhauer, this Lutheran pastor’s son realized that Christianity had reached a dead end in the rationalized theology of 19th century Protestantism. The faith of his fathers was undermined by books, which, in retrospect, seem as childish as the Emerson essays he loved. Anticipating the collapse of progressive Protestantism, Nietzsche was just barely able to acknowledge that the end of Christianity might mean the end not just of civilization but of humanity itself.
His solution, variously stated in a series of increasingly incoherent and megalomaniac books, was to go “beyond good and evil,” recognizing that the will to power is the wellspring of all human endeavor, the saint’s and the scholar’s no less than the warrior’s or the statesman’s. The inadequacy of Nietzsche’s responses (or the bizarre and self-tormented life that Curtis Cate has recently surveyed with, perhaps, greater sympathy than the failed philologist deserved) should not prevent us from seeing that he had diagnosed the illness of his own and the coming age. At the very time that European man was pursuing the uninspiring comforts promised by bourgeois liberalism and Marxist socialism, the brightest spirits—a danger in any age—were dreaming wilder and wilder dreams of surpassing the limits of common humanity. William Godwin had picked up Franklin’s silliest idea, that science could triumph over death (presumably by using Galvanic electrical shocks, as Godwin’s daughter Mary was to employ in Frankenstein); for Carlyle and Nietzsche, life beyond life was to be sought in heroism; for the Wagnerians, it was art. One of France’s greatest poets dreamed of producing a book of verse so perfect that it would transform the world (though even the fragments of Mallarmé’s Livre are unreadable). But sober Englishmen also dreamed the dream of art: Matthew Arnold thought that culture might replace religion and—this is the most preposterous notion of all—that the teaching of English literature could be made the instrument of cultural elevation. In the end, all the projects came to nothing, which is the common fate of all such projects. The moment we are tempted to view human life as a set of design problems to be analyzed and overcome, we have doomed ourselves to inconsequence.
Anyone who has dabbled in the literature of the 19th century is familiar with the search for surrogate Christianities. Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, and Arnold had all lost whatever faith they had received and spent their lives in a desperate search to fill the void. Theirs was a painful dilemma. Whatever good there was in the world had been either invented or transformed by the Christianity they rejected. Nietzsche, with his boundless ignorance of Christianity, could rail as much as he liked against Christ, the Church, and the notions he erroneously attributed to both, but even he acknowledged that the medieval Church produced splendid men and a genuine aristocracy. In repudiating Christendom, none of them had any remotely practical substitute. Their dreams of high art, free love, and barbarian violence were as atavistic and contemptible—and as impossible—as the Marxists’ socialist dream of economic equality and state-imposed community.
In failing to resolve the dilemma, 19th-century prophets point to a deeper issue. If God (or “the gods”) are indispensable to man, and if the worship of God can only be replaced by some set of supermen, whether artists or heroes, then perhaps humanity is not possible, not even conceivable, in a universe without God. E.O. Wilson, a staunch unbeliever, once conjectured that religion must have a “survival value” like other universal human phenomena (such as the incest taboo and competition for power). In any society, liberals and reformers who reject religion or sexual taboos or the virtues of courage and patriotism are effectively eliminating themselves, their followers, and—if they are really effective—their whole people from the gene pool. From the Darwinist perspective, then, it hardly matters whether God or gods exist, since religion—true or false—is indispensable to human existence.
In a dim way, even deists—who are little better than well-intentioned atheists—acknowledge the social significance of religion. The argument goes back at least to Polybius, who attributed Rome’s success to the deep piety of the Roman people. The Roman republic, as Polybius acknowledged, depended on the favor of the thousands of gods whose will they were forever ascertaining through auguries and whom, in their sacrifices, they were seeking to propitiate. The Romans, he observed, could not have been more religious (that is, scrupulous in their rituals) if they tried, and the result was a people who kept their oaths and won the confidence of friends and enemies alike.
Compared with Polybius’ insight, the tepid endorsement of religion offered by deists is trivial and even dangerous. If supernatural terrors are only useful as a tool for repressing the anarchic masses, the superior man will reject religion. Nietzsche himself would have found his argument made already by Critias, the friend of Socrates and leader of Athens’ “30 tyrants,” and Plato puts it in the mouths of Critias’ kinsman Callicles (in the Gorgias) and Thrasymachus (in the Republic). The acknowledgement of religion as social necessity, however, begs a more serious question that escaped Voltaire as much as it did Critias and Nietzsche. If a successful human culture requires religion, man must be regarded as, by definition, a religious animal, in which case man, living in a universe devoid of gods, could not be fully human.
Man cannot live without God, even if it is the god he makes of himself. The heirs of many Roman emperors were brought up as little divinities, and the result was monsters such as Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Caracalla. Now we are rearing Americans in much the same way and with much the same results. As students, they rank at or near the bottom of developed nations, but at the top in self-esteem. In transcending the limitations of the flesh, in piling Ossa on Pelion to overtop Olympus, we reject our own nature and assume the mantle of divinity. But what kind of a garment does it turn out to be?
The Greeks told the story of Hercules, the son of Zeus who labored mightily for the human race. In a minor episode, he killed Nessus, the man-bull who attempted to rape his wife, shooting the beast with a poisoned arrow. The dying centaur told Deianira to smear his blood on a cloak and to give it to her husband as a magic philter if she ever lost his love. When the hero returned with a younger mistress, she sent the cloak to him, and he donned it, out of respect to his wife, as he was making a sacrifice. The warmth of the fire activated the poisoned blood, and, enveloped in searing flames of agony, Hercules threw himself into the sacrificial fire. His father, in one version, took pity and made him a god.
Our own mantle of divinity turns out to be deceptive, imbued with the bestial poison that will burn up our humanity, but none of us will receive the reward of Hercules, who, for the pains he endured for humanity’s sake, was elevated to the company of the gods. Christians recognize, in the stories of Hercules and Dionysus and Orpheus, a dim foreshadowing of the Christian story, but, as they also know, that story is unique. Our fate, if we attempt to rise above the merely human, is to become a beast like the centaur, a slave of the most brutal passions. Man is a social animal, warned Aristotle, and those who try to escape this limitation must either rise above humanity, as only Hercules and a few others did, or sink below it.
I have been speaking, for the most part, to well-intentioned pagans. Christians already understand that all the methods used to subvert the purposes of nature—whether abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, or genetic engineering—are devices of the devil, and, if there are Christians who do not know, shame on the faithless pastors who have betrayed their sheep and on the churches that have betrayed the teachings they have received. Luther and Calvin, no less than Augustine and Thomas, were entirely clear in rejecting every attempt to frustrate the ends of our sexual nature. But pagans, too, are rejecting the best pagan traditions embodied in the Hippocratic prohibition on abortion and in the Delphic “know thyself” endorsed by Socrates and Pindar’s even more explicit admonition: “Do not seek to become a god.”
Nietzsche, who could not content himself with mere humanity—real women, a decent university job in Basel, the ordinary pleasures of life—ended up mad with syphilis and self-absorption. The man who spurned Christian sexual mores could not bring himself to make a pass at a woman he could not pay for, and the nearest thing to a sexual proposition he could make was to propose a chaste ménage à trois involving himself, a friend, and a sexually disturbed liberated woman. In so many ways, this human, not-quite human philosopher anticipated the things we have become.