Why Weak Fools Can Dominate

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Exploring the fool in Christ and the fool in Antichrist

Ivan the Terrible

Czar Ivan IV was a psychologically unbalanced and cruel man: ambitious, unpredictable, frightening to be around.

In the sixteenth century, Ivan strove furiously to expand Russia’s borders, bring her into modern commerce, and unify her under the authority of the Czar.

He waged ceaseless and unjust wars against neighbors. He endorsed the aggressive merchant/Cossack conquest of sleeping Serbia. He instituted a ten-year reign of terror throughout his realm in an intense effort to crush opposition to his domestic policies. He mercilessly executed opponents, including their wives and children. He confiscated lands, forcing families to relocate to different countries.

His ferocity climaxed against the city of Novgorod in 1570. When he heard that a document was discovered in Novgorod which pledged the city’s cooperation with Poland to overthrow him, he immediately pounced on the entire city (without even waiting to determine whether the questionable document was authentic).

He racked vengeance on all, attacking even the innocent. The monasteries were sacked. Clerics were arrested and held for fifty rubles’ ransom — those who couldn’t pay were flogged to death. Thousands were massacred. All the shops were burned; merchants’ homes in the suburbs were torn down; farmhouses in the countryside were destroyed.

No Russian dared oppose Ivan. No one rebuked him.

You’d be a fool.

And a fool did.

Nicholas of Pskov walked up to Ivan and rebuked him by slapping a piece of bloody raw meat in Ivan’s hands, vividly symbolizing Ivan’s bloody sins.


The Yourodivyje

Nicholas of Pskov was one of those men known by the Russians as the yourodivyje, the fools in Christ (the word is derived from the word yourod, meaning “something strange”).

The fool in Christ was a frequent phenomenon in Ivan’s sixteenth-century Russia — the only time in history that the phenomenon was a common societal occurrence.

But the phenomenon is well known throughout the wider Eastern Orthodox Church, which venerates six saints as fools in Christ going back at least to St. Simeon of Ernesa (d.550). The West, too, has had fools in Christ, like St. Benedict Joseph Labre.

The fool in Christ was a person who carried the ideal of self-stripping and humiliation to the limit. He renounced all forms of intellectual gifts, voluntarily adopting the Cross of madness.

The fool practiced absolute poverty: he had no possessions whatsoever, wearing rags even in the savage Russian winters, sleeping outdoors in random sheds and church porches.

He was thoroughly detached: thoroughly humble and self-forgetting, he desired, expected, and anticipated nothing for himself. His was a thorough sacrifice — physically, emotionally, intellectually — for Christ.

But because he sacrificed all, he gained all. He had no home, but was at home everywhere; he had no family, but was a brother to everyone.

The fool was an imposing figure, as Ivan the Terrible experienced. A foreign visitor to sixteenth-century Russia wrote that the “fools, venerated as prophets, can take whatever they want from the stores, and the proprietors fall all over themselves in thanking them, without asking for any payment.”


The Fool’s Power

In his modern classic, The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware described the fool in Christ’s powerful impact on society:

“The true fool in Christ, possessing purity of heart, has upon the community around him an effect that is life enhancing. From a practical point of view, no useful purpose is served by anything that the fool does. And yet, through some startling action or enigmatic word, often deliberately provocative and shocking, he awakens men from complacency and pharisaism. Remaining himself detached, he unleashes reactions in others making the subconscious mount to the surface, and so enabling it to be purged and sanctified. Because he has renounced everything, he is truly free. . . [H]e can rebuke the powerful of this world with a boldness that others lack.”

The weak fool can rebuke the powerful.

By giving up all power, the fool gains power.

It’s paradoxical, but not absurd.

The fool is humble, is detached from all worldly things, and, perhaps most importantly, sacrifices all. These are among the highest pursuits available to humans. It makes sense that they would yield powerful, even divine, results — results that awaken the community, unleash reactions with one word, instantly cleanse another’s subconscious with a simple action.


Dark Virtue

There’s a dark flip-side to this.

All traits, even traits that are objectively virtuous, can twist.

The virtue of love, for instance, often warps into a twisted form that alternates between the object loved and self-interest, creating instances of neurosis, such as the overly-protective but abusive mother. Because love (the highest virtue) in the form of the mother-child relationship (a sacred link) is at work, the results can be devastating, as evidenced by the neurotic mother’s unhappy, perverse, and/or criminal adult children.

And there’s been dark flip-sides to the fool in Christ. The most-celebrated, Nietzsche, could be called the fool in Antichrist.


Schopenhauer and Hindu Ascetics

Young Friedrich Nietzsche’s first permanent intellectual jolt came from Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer, drawing heavily from Hindu metaphysics, held a very pessimistic view of life and taught that renunciation, denial, and resignation — in short, complete suppression of the will — are the only answers to our horrible earthly existence.

By completely suppressing the will, upon death a person’s individual existence is snuffed out, she attains moksha and her miserable existence on the wheel of life (samsara) and reincarnation are extinguished.

Even though he disdained existence, Schopenhauer, like his Hindu mentors, opposed suicide on grounds that it represents an act of desire and will, instead of an act of complete resignation and suffocation of the will that is the proper response to our earthly predicament.

But an extension of the Hindu-Schopehnauer philosophy could logically lead to suicide through starvation — complete suffocation of any will whatsoever, even the will to eat.

This occurred in India in the fifth-century b.c., when the Mahavira, the greatest teacher of Jainism (an outgrowth of Hinduism), starved himself to death at age 72.

Nietzsche was Schopenhauer’s Mahavira. Taking Schopenhauer’s pessimistic resignation and suppression of the will one step further, Nietzsche sacrificed his mind and health through a suicidal form of self-denial that made him deranged at an age when most men reach the prime of intellectual life.


The Self-Punisher

Nietzsche’s life was full of self-punishing denial.

He spurned physical comforts. He was sexually abstinent (having, at most, one or two sexual encounters in his early twenties). Periods of his life were spent in highly-regimented routines. He eschewed most friendships, choosing to live in loneliness.

His diet was so severe that one biographer opined that it was partly motivated by masochistic self-discipline. He would restrict himself to 2–4 hours of sleep a day. He suffered from physical ailments all his life, so much so that one wonders how much of it was willed, either consciously or subconsciously, especially in light of his tendency to throw himself back into his work after an illness without giving himself time to recover.

There is also good evidence that he intentionally inflicted himself with syphilis — a slow-torturing, incurable disease in the nineteenth century.

Nietzsche implicitly explained the source of his physical ailments in his book, Sunrise: Thoughts on Moral Prejudices. In Sunrise, he asserted that the great creative intellects in history willingly suffered from mental agony and that they welcomed convulsions and delirium. These great creators, he wrote, must be mad or induce madness in order to empower themselves to think above society’s laws.

Nietzsche biographer Ronald Hayman says the book has been called a distorted mirror on his life.


Deranged Nietzsche

In 1889, at age 44, a deranged Nietzsche collapsed and spent the last decade of his life on the verge of being institutionalized (which he would have been, if it weren’t for the constant, caring efforts of his mother).

Significantly, a few friends visited him after his collapse.

And walked away questioning the ingenuousness of his madness.

One friend had the impression that “his mental disturbance consists of no more than a heightening of the humorous antics he used to put on for an intimate circle of friends.” The same friend thought Nietzsche did not want to be cured and that he was perhaps merely feigning the madness. His long-time friend Franz Overbeck said ‘I cannot escape this ghastly suspicion . . . that his madness is simulated.”

But Nietzsche continued to weaken until an early death in 1900. This (of course) is awfully good evidence that the madness was not faked.

But that does not mean it was not self-induced. Like the madness of the yourodivyje, the madness might have been invited, but, once acquired, was not faked. In imitation of the great characters illustrated in Sunrise, Nietzsche sacrificed his mind, with the result of real madness.

He was a nihilistic fool in Antichrist who finally collapsed.

Like the yourodivyje, his sacrifice elevated him above normal standards. By all worldly estimates, Nietzsche was a weak man — weak in body, mentally headed for a breakdown, emotionally unbalanced.

But he was not a weak man.

He was a sacrificing man.

He sacrificed all, and thereby obtained a powerful weapon. A weapon that brought divine jolts in the hands of a fool in Christ became, in Nietzsche’s hands, an evil weapon wielded potently and mercilessly on culture and God.


The Nietzsche Style

Nietzsche wrote with an awesome, penetrating style — a style that can be possessed only by an intensely powerful man. One scholar said Nietzsche wrote too well for his own good.

It was a style he earned from his life of self-sacrifice, a sacrifice that gave him the ability, in his words, to write with his blood. This style, once it caught on, joined with his novel and ferocious ideas to make him hugely popular. Though his books sold slowly at first, by the end of his life the chief benefactor of his books, his sister Elizabeth, was able to live well off the royalties — at times employing a cook, maid, coachman, gardener, and a personal secretary.

Nietzsche used his terrific prose to hammer extraordinary doctrines into society. The doctrines would have been dismissed as dangerously mad ravings if they had come from a less-cogent thinker or writer, but they took root in a culture enraptured by this powerful man.

He taught exultation of the will (the “will to power”) and the necessity to eliminate the conscience.

He celebrated the carefree and orgiastic sex found in the Greek Dionysian festivals — and excoriated the life of reason’s murder of such excesses.

He preached a distorted form of morality, the master/slave morality, which says the strong should be honored and the weak despised, a morality which could only appeal to a wicked person — or a person enamored with the preacher’s style.


The Nietzsche Legacy

The effects of this fool in Antichrist’s writings have been debated, but, in one way or another, his writings have probably contributed to a host of modern problems.

Indeed, the list of problems that he may have furthered are a virtual “what’s what of unfortunate things in the twentieth century”: Fascism, the Holocaust, sexual excesses, drug use, occultism, Satan worship, freakish acts (at least one pair of murderers in the early part of this century said they killed a boy in order to prove they were Nietzschean Supermen who could commit the ultimate transgressive act without conscience or remorse), crime (which is always a celebration of the criminal’s will), and, in general, society’s saturation with self-obsessed individuals who never shrink from trying to obtain their naked desires.

Nietzsche’s life and effects are not merely interesting stories with an ironic parallel to medieval holy men. They are not material for dry, abstract speculation. They have real meaning in everyday life.


Nietzsche Madness v. Christian Madness

Christianity calls its followers to a life of renunciation, self-sacrifice, and asceticism, in imitation of Christ’s life of self-denial that culminated on the Cross. The greatest saints, such as St. Anthony and St. Francis, brought self-sacrifice to new levels, with a flood of good effects on themselves, their neighborhoods, and future generations. All Christians are called to strive for similar virtue.

But they must strive for the right reasons, combining the objectively virtuous with the subjectively virtuous. Nietzsche’s life was a life of austerity and self-sacrifice that few devout Christians could match. He even sacrificed his mind.

But the results were terrible. After St. Anthony, thousands of people flocked to the desert in search of God and to pray for mankind. After Nietzsche, millions died in Nazi ovens.** After St. Francis, thousands renounced worldly goods in order to preach the goodness of God. After Nietzsche, generations fell into the evil thought pattern that “might makes right.”

Nothing is safe. Even virtue — especially virtue — can be used to his benefit. Each person who strives for a virtue strives for a sublime trait. As it is attained, a powerful weapon becomes available. It is then that the individual must most stand guard, for it is then that a powerful and evil spirit can play out in his soul.


**There has long been a robust debate about Nietzsche’s role in the rise of Fascism. Experts disagree on whether there is a nexus and, if so, how strong it is, but I think it’s safe to say Nietzsche himself probably would’ve opposed the Nazis.

References: Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 132. Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Oxford University Press, 1980), 224–225; 340–341. Walter Kaufmann. (See The Portable Nietzsche (Penguin Books, 1976), 1. James Hitchcock, “Murder & the Modern Conscience,” Touchstone, Summer 1997, 25.