It is an indisputable fact that the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche have exerted a powerful influence on modern thought. What is more controversial, however, is the exact nature or purpose of his philosophical message. There is a considerable amount of critical debate, for example, about whether Nietzsche’s ideas have justifiably been associated with the tenets of National Socialism, or whether Nietzsche was a nihilist, or whether his philosophy was compatible with Buddhism or Hinduism. Legitimate arguments have been made in defense of all of the above. One aspect of Nietzsche’s thought which has not been explored in depth, however, is its relation to a movement that has become increasingly popular over the course of the twentieth century, purporting to resurrect ancient pagan wisdom in order to produce a global paradigm shift: we mean to speak of the “New Age.”
The relevance of new age thought to the development of modernism, let alone Nietzschean thought, might at first be met with skepticism. A comparison of the neopaganism that forms the core of New Age doctrine and some of the central notions of Nietzsche’s philosophy, though, discloses some remarkable similarities between the two. Both, it will be observed, are deeply embedded in “esoteric” culture, which is opposed to “exoteric,” or mainstream, culture. In his article “Towards the Sociology of Esoteric Culture,” Edward A. Tiryakian defines exoteric culture as “the cultural paradigm which is manifest in public institutions, a set of cognitive and evaluative orientations publicly recognized and legitimated in the network of social institutions […]. [It] provides the ground of meaning and orientation for the everyday social world” (498). Tiryakian considers esoteric those movements which strive to dismantle the exoteric cultural paradigm by attacking its ideological, social and moral foundations. Nietzsche is well known for having placed himself in direct opposition to the exoteric culture of his day, attributing what he perceived as the mediocrity of modern democratic society to the “slave-mentality” which he saw as inherent in Judeo-Christian philosophy. In a deliberate act of heresy he turned to the old gods of pagan antiquity as the source of his philosophical inspiration, invoking Dionysos, symbol of flux, destruction, and revelry; simultaneously the antithesis of modern culture and its cure. Alfred Richard Orage, an influential British thinker in modern avant-garde culture and founder of the popular magazine The New Age, writes in his work Friedrich Nietzsche: Dionysian Spirit of the Age of Nietzsche’s belief that the dialectical struggle between Apollo, or static form, and Dionysos as described in his analysis of ancient Greek culture entitled The Birth of Tragedy, was about to be repeated in modern Europe: “Dionysos, he thought, had come to Europe. […] [W]e were already on the threshold of the new era. […] He would transform Europe, and deliver men’s minds from the dull oppression of Apollo. He began from that time the enormous labour of turning the Dionysian criticism on the whole fabric of European civilization” (40-41). Thus Nietzsche dedicated himself to dismantling European exoteric culture. Similarly, one of the central themes of the New Age movement is its rebellion against the modern status quo, challenging the dominant perspective of scientific materialism and what it perceives as its rigid social conventions and morality. In her work The Fraternity of the Builders, an exposition of the beliefs of Freemasonry (the esoteric teachings of which are the fountainhead of New Age thought), E. Valentia Straighton affirms that “[f]rom the ashes of the past a transcendent science is arising, changing human thought, and certainly destroying much irrational and false teaching” (99). This perspective is confirmed by Marilyn Ferguson, a New Age thinker and proponent of a benevolent global “conspiracy” to overthrow the old order through the dissemination of philosophies favorable to the creation of a new world order in which the ideologies of Judeo-Christian civilization will no longer hold sway. Like Nietzsche, Ferguson advocates exposing the supposed fallacies of exoteric culture in order to bring about its eventual collapse: “[l]ong after an old paradigm has lost its value, it commands a kind of hypocritical allegiance. But if we have the courage to communicate our doubts and defection, to expose the incompleteness, the rickety structure, and the failures of the old paradigm, we can dismantle it” (The Aquarian Conspiracy 36). The desire to destroy the cultural foundations of mainstream modern society, then, is a powerful point of comparison between Nietzschean thought and the New Age movement.
Analogous with this strong antipathy towards the current order is an appeal to ancient wisdom which is distinctly pagan (or heretical in the case of Gnostic Christianity). To substantiate the claim that the New Age movement does this is hardly necessary, as its entire ethos is founded on the premise that the “perennial philosophy” at the heart of all religions is the key to unlocking a paradisiacal Golden Age for all mankind. How Nietzsche’s thought relates to such a notion is more obscure. Nonetheless, Orage assures us that “there was in Nietzsche’s conception of the Superman a good deal of mysticism” (Nietzsche: Dionysian Spirit of the Age 73). Later on, in the same work, Orage proceeds to explain just how this is so, stating that one of the distinctive features of the Superman will be his acquisition of superhuman powers akin to those of a Hindu guru, an oracular prophet, or even a demigod: “[i]t is probable, indeed, that new faculties, new modes of consciousness, will be needed, as the mystics have always declared; and that the differencing element of man and Superman will be the possession of these” (75). But this is not all. Indeed, Nietzsche’s very conception of the universe is thoroughly mystical, viewing it as an impersonal, chaotic force that cyclically destroys and re-creates itself, mirroring the never-ending struggle between Apollo and Dionysos: “[t]his world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end […], eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence […]: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery-world of the twofold voluptuous delight… my ‘beyond good and evil’” (The Will to Power 549-550). This vision of the world is practically identical with the meaning of a well-known mystical symbol called the “ouroboros,” which is the image of a ring-shaped snake eating its own tail. The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines ouroboros as such: “[a] Gnostic and alchemical symbol, [it] expresses the unity of all things, material and spiritual, which never disappear but perpetually change form in an eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation” (“ouroboros”). As stated earlier, New Age paganism is linked to ancient mystical practices associated with Gnosticism and Alchemy, so we have here yet another striking parallel between Nietzschean philosophy and New Age thought.
It is possible, therefore, to draw several parallels between the thought of Nietzsche and the ideas espoused by the prophets of the New Age. To be sure, there are several notable distinctions that must be maintained between the two, for while Nietzsche remains skeptical of any kind of spiritual reality, the New Age movement, for example, claims explicitly that the spheres beyond man’s ordinary field of perceptions are peopled with living spirits. Ultimately, however, both herald the collapse of an old world defined specifically by its Judeo-Christian tradition, and look forward to a coming new age, a Golden Age of paganism, in which a new man and a new society can arise.