Friedrich Nietzsche and the ‘death of God’

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Friedrich Nietzsche and the ‘death of God’

Thursday, 21 June 2018  | Rex Dale

Friedrich Nietzsche was hardly known in his lifetime, and had poor book sales, but is now more widely read. In academia he is read even when he is not on the list of recommended reading. Outside of academia he is one of the few philosophers who is read by those who are not philosophers.

Nietzsche and God

Nietzsche is known for coining the phrase ‘death of God’. He is said to be the first to recognise that, if God is dead, then the belief system that knowingly or unknowingly has been built around him has to go too. Europe had already begun to abandon belief in God, but in Nietzsche’s view it had not thought through what this was to mean. Nietzsche was emphatic that, if God goes, then to be thoroughly consistent the sense of who we are, our morals and our value system, for the individual and for society, would require a rigorous reordering. We must first decide what our needs are, then choose our morals accordingly.

Nietzsche particularly attacked Christian morality, which he labelled a ‘slave morality’. But he also had other belief systems in his sights. He targeted the moral system handed down by professional philosophers, and also attacked the beliefs of ordinary people, what he termed the ‘herd mentality’. Fellow Germans who lived for the Reich, and even some of the traditions of Ancient Greece, would feel his scorn. In particular he directed criticism at Socrates, and Plato who had promoted him, for reducing life to polite debate on the streets of Athens, putting aside the insights of the older Greek period.

All of this was done in very direct, theatrical and even melodramatic prose. For example, he would say that, to avoid being infected, you should put on some gloves before taking up the New Testament. Or he would say that, in reading the New Testament, the only person who comes out well is Pontius Pilate. His prose was highly regarded by German stylists, but he could have his lapses, as he himself came to admit.

Early influences on Nietzsche

Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran minister, Carl, who had been tutor to the Prussian king’s daughters. In reward for his services, Carl Nietzsche was granted the pastorate of the church in the tiny village of Roecken, not far from Leipzig in Saxony. Nietzsche’s mother came from a line of Lutheran ministers. Nietzsche must have enjoyed many benefits from the circumstances he was born into. Uncluttered country life, and seeing his father’s library, would have stimulated intellectual curiosity. Nietzsche would also have come into contact with a variety of people who were in and out of Carl’s study. But the greatest impact on Nietzsche’s very sensitive nature was from Carl’s agonising death. Nietzsche revered his father’s memory. In later years, Nietzsche was to pay for the erection of a headstone for his father. Nietzsche never had much money but, when he came into some money as a result of a court case against a publisher, he used it for his father’s grave. More surprising still, he had engraved the words from the New Testament: ‘Love never fails’ (1 Cor 13:8).

Nietzsche experienced poor health, as did other members of his family. His father Carl died when Nietzsche was under five years of age. This was a huge blow to him, for he felt a great bond with his clergyman father. Nietzsche was prone to migraines, nervous exhaustion and other ailments. All this must have strengthened his strongly held belief that life is essentially tragic. The pains of life probably intensified his thinking and sharpened his prose, as often happens with literary people. But the pains he experienced could also explain his prose lapses.

His poor eyesight had a strong bearing on his thinking and style of writing. There were days when he could not write and read for long periods. So he would take to the outdoors with a leather-bound pad and pencil, so that he could enter thoughts as they came to mind. This explains why his writings consist of aphorisms and his essays could be short. Nietzsche had read Montaigne, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, and learned a lot from their aphoristic style. The outdoor walks, which could include mountain climbing, stimulated good health, and he began to believe that only the thoughts which came to him in the open air were worthy of his full attention.

Thoughts on God, life and suffering

Nietzsche was well aware of the implications of his philosophical proposals. For example, there were the consequences of getting rid of the ‘slave morality’. What happens then? Well, initially it would be exciting and self-exalting! All constraints would be gone and, to use the modern term, it would be ‘empowering’. Never mind if some lesser people got in the way and were trampled on. Nietzsche’s philosophy was primarily for the Big Man and how he (it was always ‘he’) could be greater. As for ordinary people making society work more smoothly and how friendship could be cultivated, he had nothing to say. The primary task of the majority is to bear the burdens of the elite.

But Nietzsche did not always seem wholehearted in his proposal of the death of God. He chose to make the first pronouncement of it through the mouth of a madman, for he realised that there would be great consequences. If the belief system, values, directions and ensuing consolations were to be demolished unsparingly, then what was to be put in its place and who would decide what the new edifice should look like? And what would happen after that initial time of exaltation and freedom? In the distance there could appear dark clouds, mists and fogs. The human mind is easily overcome by angst and meaninglessness, something that does not afflict the animal world. Spiritual torpor could take hold and end in despair. Nietzsche called this nihilism. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera coined the phrase ‘the unbearable lightness of being’, which expresses a similar thought. For many, the prospect of a life without guidelines is unbearable.

Nietzsche had frequently contended that truth was merely a ‘movable host of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms’. This was not just a throwaway line. Nietzsche had stated this with great care. It is a great line for someone seeking after truth, for initially it would bring great relief. But later that same pursuit could lead them out of their area of comfort into great uncertainty. To emerge from that uncertainty would require the building of a new edifice of beliefs and values. If we are going to seek after a fresh body of truth we need to know that we have the capacity to find truth, recognise it when we see it and are then able to live up to it.

So when did Nietzsche become the person who would assail Christianity in such contemptuous terms? This cannot be definitively answered, but probably it was a gradual process. Nietzsche won a scholarship to a pre-eminent Protestant German school. Did the process begin there? What were the perceptions of Christianity that fed into his mind during his schooling? Had the Christianity there gone ‘off’? When Christianity goes ‘off’, it can produce a very marked reaction. You do not hear of Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam going ‘off’, even when bitter wars are waged in their names. The word ‘hypocrite’ is almost always associated with Christianity. Christianity, which has become corrupt or veered off course, is always an object of scorn in a way that no other religion is. Whatever may have happened during these school years, the break with his parent’s beliefs happened during his first year at Bonn University. It was then that he announced to the family he was no longer going to receive Communion.

Or perhaps his health afflictions and those of his family may have pressed upon him to the point when he could no longer believe in God. There is no doubt that the idea of Tragedy and pain was to preoccupy his mind to a degree like few other thinkers. Nietzsche was adamant that a philosopher needed to feel the agonies of life, otherwise the solutions they proposed to life’s questions would fall short or even be absent altogether. This was Nietzsche’s reason for being so cool towards Socrates who thought that life could be rationalised on the street corners of Athens. J.P. Stern says that Nietzsche never forgave Plato for advocating Socrates whom Nietzsche regarded as taking Greek thinking downhill from the earlier period, which Nietzsche saw as a Golden Period. Cool reasoning was not, in Nietzsche’s view, the way to unravel the complexities of life. Indeed there was no satisfactory explanation to tragedy. The genius of pre-Socratic thinking was to transmute human suffering into Art; then it would achieve its metaphysical end. In mastering the difficulties of life, life became a work of art, and that was all the justification that it needed. Tragedy was to be felt, not understood. If Tragedy could be understood, then it was not Tragedy.

Nietzsche attended the University of Bonn. When his tutor, Ritschl, moved to Leipzig, Nietzsche decided to follow, so strong was his attachment to his tutor. In a Leipzig second-hand bookshop, Nietzsche came across a book by Schopenhauer entitled: The World as Will and Representation. The author had died five years earlier. Nietzsche was not one to make immediate book purchases; he liked to give the matter some consideration. But, thumbing through the pages, he realised this was a highly significant find, so he purchased the book without further thought. Schopenhauer took from Aristotle his remark in Nicomachean Ethics that it was essential to recognise that fulfilment in this life was impossible and, if this was accepted, a lot of agony could be avoided. Essentially this meant: resign yourself to life. To try to enjoy life is to become enslaved to it. Nietzsche consumed every line of his new purchase. He wrote to his mother about his exciting discovery. She wrote back saying that she did not like that sort of letter, but wanted a ‘proper’ one with news. She urged him to entrust his heart to God and to make sure he was eating good food.

At the same time, Nietzsche came under the spell of Richard Wagner. Both were devoted to Schopenhauer. Wagner was a special interest to Nietzsche. Nietzsche had felt the power of Bach’s music, especially his Mass in B minor. But of course he did not like the references to God and Redemption. Wouldn’t it be possible to have grand, passionate, soaring music in a setting besides a great church building and with no Christian references? Nietzsche did not see at once that Wagner was able to supply that need. Nietzsche’s first impression of Wagner’s music was that it was ‘bombastic’. But Nietzsche’s opinion was to change, and he saw that Wagner’s music was an exciting development and a great substitute for Bach and others. Nietzsche was never to experience the operas in their proper setting. He travelled to Bayreuth, but at the entrance he excused himself from entering. He had to be content with the music reduced to the piano version. Nietzsche was later to have reservations about Parsifal, which he thought ‘too Christian’. It seems that Wagner was on a journey towards Christian belief.

Break with Wagner and encounter with academia

But then Nietzsche had a big change in his thinking which was to infuriate Wagner and bring an end to their friendship. Nietzsche’s sticking point was that Schopenhauer’s assertion was that we are to resign ourselves to life, even retreat from life, and that ‘will’ was the cause of life’s dissatisfactions. Schopenhauer thought we should live quietly away from the strife of life ‘in a small fireproof room’, as he quaintly put it. Nietzsche took the opposite view. He decided that we should step out, embrace life and not be like ‘shy deer who hide in the forests’. And, whatever difficulties and pain came our way, we should embrace and use them to reach our highest goals. If we exercise our wills to embrace life with its adversities, it will prepare us to attain significance, perhaps on a grand scale. By this process, we become ‘Übermenchen’ (i.e. ‘Beyond-man’). To attain greatness, it will be impossible to avoid periods of misery and even agony, but this is the way to fulfilment. Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner now ended and it never healed.

Nietzsche was awarded the post of professor at Basle University at an age so young it was unheard of. When it was realised that he had not completed his doctorate, the degree was hastily conferred on the basis of some contributions to journals. It was not long before Nietzsche realised that he did not sit comfortably in academia. Within six weeks he had remarked to someone that he felt he was confined to a kennel. The city of Basle was to become to him an alien place and a source of complete indifference.

At about this time Nietzsche was taken by Goethe. He (and others) enlarged his view of life. Far from divorcing himself from life, Goethe thoroughly immersed himself in it. Nietzsche was impressed with Goethe’s statement that we should avoid too much introspection, a maxim that Nietzsche was probably in need of.

At the age of 35, Nietzsche resigned his position at Basle. He had not fitted comfortably into academia and his health was not good. He was granted a small pension. He would now spend winters on the Mediterranean, and summers he would spend 1,800 metres above sea level in Engadine, SE Switzerland. He was drawn to the Alps and in particular to the small village of Sils-Maria. ‘I now breathe Europe’s best and mightiest air’, he declared. Around Sils-Maria were mountains that became metaphors for his philosophical thinking. Nietzsche’s readers must have found great relief, at least for a while, from ideas about God and morality. But it must have taken those same readers considerable energy to follow him in other areas of his thinking. He often climbed Piz Corvatsch, a mountain whose base was just a few Kilometres from Nietzsche’s rented room. Climbing it, he would reflect on how strenuous thinking can be, and would use this to support his stated belief that difficulties are the way to fruitful thinking and to avoiding mediocrity. The mountaintop must be reached, even though the last stretch meant dealing with thin air, steep paths, strong winds and perhaps snow. If we cope with difficult times, then there is the splendour of the view and being able to see things in proportion, gain a perspective that was impossible while climbing through forests and difficult terrain and then assess the journey that you had taken.

Nietzsche’s view of pain and difficulty, which most people would find discomforting, did not of course come from the New Testament, though the NT (indeed, the whole Bible) has a lot to say about life’s difficulties. Instead he got his viewpoint from the ancient Greeks. Nietzsche’s attitude towards those early Greeks was quite different from the view that prevailed in the nineteenth century, put forward by Johann Winckelmann, who believed that the chief characteristic of Greek life was ‘sunny rationalism’. In contrast, Nietzsche passionately believed that the Greeks had their terrors and adversities like others, but that they put their difficulties and pain to use, as he explained in The Birth of Tragedy. As mentioned, Nietzsche hated the street corner, cool, detached rationalism of Socrates. This view explains Nietzsche’s antipathy to Utilitarianism and the nation from which it sprang. ‘Man does not strive for happiness; only the English do that’, he said. Nietzsche despised Christians because in his view they were addicted to comfortableness, and so they drained life of its potential. In years to come Nietzsche readers must have worried about such a highly disciplined view of life, especially when he suggested that, to think well, one should build one’s house on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius!

Assessing Nietzsche

Assessing Nietzsche’s philosophy presents the general reader with many difficulties. Someone has suggested that, when coming across what appears to be a definitive statement, it is better to read on, because he may later say something that appears to be the opposite. Only then can an interpretation of his statements be made. Nietzsche is ‘impressionistic’ and so he should be taken on those terms. Nietzsche placed great emphasis on Art. He suggested that Art, first of all, interprets our inner-selves and then applies healing. At first glance this seems to be the equivalence of Law and Grace in Christian theology: Law (in the New Testament sense) reveals our condition, and then Grace is the remedy. When he saw life at its bleakest he would say that we need Art, lest we perish from the truth.

We cannot avoid asking questions about the use Nietzsche’s philosophy by Mussolini and Hitler. Nietzsche was to have no idea about the political and ideological developments in Europe during the 1930s. But it is clear that Nietzsche had coined words and phrases that endeared themselves to both Hitler and Mussolini, and strengthened their resolve in the conflict ahead. The idea of making a code of morality that suits us, and looking down on Christian values such as compassion and humility, must have been very congenial to Nazis and Fascists. Hitler did not read a lot of Nietzsche, but he eagerly took up ideas like ‘will to power’ and ‘slave morality’ which he had heard talked about. Mussolini was much more of a reader of Nietzsche, so Hitler presented him with Nietzsche’s collected works on the Brenner Pass in 1938. It has been said that Nietzsche’s ideas can be summed up in the words that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Richard 111:

Conscience is but a word which cowards use

Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.

In Nietzsche’s final illness, his friends thought it was just another pose. But when they visited they realised it was much more serious: it was mental illness. It is ironic that, when he was placed in care, his mother and others had to exercise the very virtues - compassion and submission - that he so much despised.

Rex Dale is a graduate of UWA spending much of his retirement reading and writing. He is the author of Insights From Greco-Roman Times and a Christian Response (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2014).


Nietzsche in his early years.

Piz Corvatsch, the mountain Nietzsche would climb regularly.

Nietzsche's writing desk and washing basin in his small room at Sils-Maria.

Nietzsche in his final years.

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