Constantine's Sword

Nietzsche vs. Kierkegaard on Power and Victimhood

When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire something strange happened. A persecuted worldview founded on the deification of the victim and the beatification of the meek became aligned with imperial power. The paradox of being both a victim and a superpower was not lost on early Christian commentators and has not been lost in the tradition that has since followed. “Just war theory” is but one way that religious seekers have sought to square the circle of using violence for righteous ends. Without this intellectual development, religious seekers would have to remain on the sidelines, relegated to anti-worldliness. They would be, in Hegel’s condescending language, merely “beautiful souls,” too naive and ethereal to get their hands dirty.

Just as there are no atheists in fox holes, there are no pacifists in the capitol. A religion that elevated martyrdom, asceticism and material deprivation was to fuse itself with a pagan foundation with mixed, dissonant results.

Nietzsche noticed the cognitive dissonance of being a Christian and sought to counsel a kind of return to pagan morals, an ethos of strength rather than victimhood. To be an übermensch is to undo the hard wiring of Jesus’s sermon on the mount. Kierkegaard, by contrast, criticized Christianity from the opposite end: most Christians, he thought, were CINOs—Christians in name only. They go to Church, but are effectively just bourgeois consumers. While Kierkegaard didn’t think we should throw compassion to the ground and become jacked weightlifters (a stereotypical interpretation of Nietzsche), he thought we should be zealous strugglers for truth, passionate followers of a personal journey inward. He and Nietzsche may have disagreed about the goal, but their critique overlaps in its diagnosis of modernity as a hotbed of “last men”—people who prefer to get everything with a tap of the phone, rather than struggle to make something new.

If Nietzsche thought Christians needed to become unChristian, Kierkegaard thought they needed to become truly Christian. If Nietzsche thought the problem was Christianity, obstructing a pagan truth, Kierkegaard thought the problem was paganism, obstructing a Christian one.

Yet this debate only makes sense as a ripple effect of Constantine taking up the cross.

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Christian theologians have long observed the paradoxical image of God on a cross, a God made man and a man made God. Or to quote John, a “word made flesh.” Yet this paradox would exist even without the difficulties of the Incarnation—for it is the same problem as that of the ruler who is also a victim, the powerful person who is also “marginalized.” To center the powerless is not to solve the problem, but to heighten it. And it is this problem that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard respond to. For Nietzsche, power can admit of no victimhood mentality; while for Kierkegaard, the elevation of power as an end in itself is a wrong turn that leads not to heroism, but to buffoonery.

Secular modernity, under the legacy of the American and French Revolutions, enshrined the notion of basic human rights that exist independent of worth or desert. We can see this secular move as a kind of Christianization of society—a fulfillment of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. And yet, in thinking we can make good on the sermon simply by redistributing wealth or legally enforcing “equity,” however defined, is to make light of the paradox and dissonance of Constantine’s Sword.

An imperial victim remains an emperor. The early Church Fathers who fasted in the desert found solace in the trials of their marginalization.

I neither side with Nietzsche nor with Kierkegaard, but rather with the paradox. Lost in the culture wars is an appreciation (on all sides) for the fact that our relationship to power and victimhood, as descendants of Christianized-yet-pagan-Rome, remains unstable. The invocation of victimhood in the name of the right to rule has proved a successful move in the playbook of history, but it is an open question whether it has brought more flourishing.


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