Review of Abed Azzam, Nietzsche Versus Paul

The subject of each of these chapter is, of course, familiar to any serious reader of Nietzsche, all of them themes that are worked out across the whole trajectory of his writings. What marks out the uniqueness of Azzam’s interpretation is the attention he pays to parallels between Nietzsche’s genealogical analyses and those of (Nietzsche’s) Paul. The chief point of interest here is the way that Azzam marks out a potential equivalence between Nietzsche’s and Paul’s respective attempts at legitimizing their radical breaks with history. Azzam’s key point is nicely summarized in the following passage:

Nietzsche’s achievement lies, above all, in illuminating Dionysian art and paradisiacal science [that is, the science prohibited in the biblical story of the Fall] as that against which slave-morality reacts. On this basis, if the Antichrist remains dependent on its definition by Christianity as “anti-,” it throws into oblivion the positive origin that Nietzsche’s genealogy reveals, and thereafter remains bound to Christianity as its mere negative counterpart. . . . Alternatively, once the Antichrist assumes the original identities of art and science, the Antichrist dissolves its negativity. Here, Christ is remembered as anti-Dionysian, and therefore the Antichrist becomes the anti-anti-Dionysus: the Antichrist is the return of the unquestionably active Dionysus (49).

The point, here, is to recognize Nietzsche’s self-designation as the Antichrist as active rather than reactive, and this depends on recognizing the whole history to which genealogical study attends as the history of reaction. “Christ” stands in for the reactive, and so the Antichrist labors in behalf of the active. All this, of course, relies on a certain attitude toward history. Azzam summarizes:

History reveals before historical consciousness only those instincts that the historical narration points to as being part of history. . . . For the future is open for the realization of instincts of which we are not historically conscious (that is, instincts that at least were never realized in genealogically known history) (100).

For Azzam, Nietzsche’s genealogy of Christian morality—stretching back into the historical conditions of its emergence and forward into its preservation in modernity’s moral sensibility—reconstructs only the history of reaction, but it does so to reactivate what lies at the non-historical origins of that history: the Dionysian.

It is this that Azzam sees as running in parallel to Paul’s structure of thought. For (Nietzsche’s) Paul, the history of (law-bound) Judaism is a reactive history that obscures its non-historical origins: extra-legal Abrahamic faith. Just as Paul presents Christ as reactivating Abrahamic faith after the history of the law, Nietzsche presents the possibility of reactivating Dionysian tragic art after the history of (Pauline) Christianity. The two thinkers share a certain “logic of legitimization” (xvii), but where Paul is the first Christian Nietzsche is emphatically the Antichrist. Naturally, along the way of staking out this argument, Azzam identifies other lesser points of potential parallel between Nietzsche and Paul. The most intriguing of them—and one worthy of notice here—is the possibility that Nietzsche’s interpretation of the (largely one-sided) rivalry between Hegel and Schopenhauer repeats the relationship, in Paul’s thought, between the katechon (the mysterious force that holds back the mystery of lawlessness) and the Antichrist.[1] This is rather suggestive, but Azzam unfortunately leaves the point largely underdeveloped, presenting it more as a provocation and a possibility than as a point of serious argument. Whether this point can be developed convincingly thus, unfortunately, remains to be seen.

The value of Azzam’s book, however, lies less in occasional interpretive provocations than in its attempt at a reframing of the whole of Nietzsche’s project as fundamentally driven by a Paul-like project of legitimization. Azzam attempts to reconstruct the whole trajectory of Nietzsche’s genealogy, drawing from throughout Nietzsche’s corpus, to reveal its Pauline and anti-Pauline motivations. For readers interested in understanding Nietzsche’s interaction with Paul, this is invaluable. For readers already deeply familiar with Nietzsche, the argument is fascinating and worthy of critical attention. And for readers invested in some way in either Heidegger’s or Deleuze’s Nietzsche, the book serves to denaturalize a favored interpretation in the name of another systematic reading. Of these various readers the book might serve best, those it will serve least well are those interested in Nietzsche’s approach to Paul without having yet become familiar with key Nietzschean ideas. Azzam assumes some facility with Nietzsche’s writings and ideas, as well as some familiarity with points of contention in the secondary literature. It is thus better suited to reading by specialists interested in its interpretive thesis than to interested non-specialists, despite its obvious surface appeal to those who hope to gain from it a first familiarity with Nietzsche’s critique of Paul and Pauline Christianity.

Despite what thus seems to me a minor failure in framing, Azzam’s Nietzsche Versus Paul is an important—and daring—contribution. I hope it will receive serious attention and scrutiny. I especially hope that it will help to provoke more direct attempts to situate Nietzsche’s Paul within the emergent conversation regarding the philosophical importance of Paul’s thought.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Translated by Patricia Dailey, Stanford University Press, 2005.
Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Translated by Ray Brassier, Stanford University Press, 2003.
Salaquarda, Jörg. “Dionysus versus the Crucified One: Nietzsche’s Understanding of the Apostle Paul.” Studies in Nietzsche and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, edited by James C. O’Flaherty, Timothy F. Sellner, and Robert M. Helm, University of North Caroline Press, 1985, pp. 100–29. Translated by Timothy F. Sellner.
[1] The Pauline discussion of this point appears in 2 Thessalonians 2 in the New Testament. In the context of recent philosophical interpretation, this text has been the focus primarily of Giorgio Agamben’s work. See Agamben.

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