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Profound Atheism: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)


Life, Character, and Work
Critique of Western Intellectual Culture: Morality and Religion
Critique of Western Intellectual Culture: Philosophy and Metaphysics
Nietzsche’s Vision of the Death of God
Ciccarelli Creation: Two Happenings: Reflections in a Nietzschean Mode

Life, Character, and Work

Here is a picture of Nietzsche as a young man and here he is with his mother. There is also a picture of an oratoria score (1860), a photograph of his death mask, and a number of other images in the gallery.

Nietzsche, though coming from a Christian background, and aware in some sense of an impulse in his own work that could be called "Christian," was Christianity’s Darth Vader: the Dark Lord who promulgated an incredibly fierce, and many say devastating, critique of Christianity. In the 20th century that critique reappeared in the thought of Camus and Sartre, and atheistic existentialism as well as other movements continue to revere Nietzsche’s insight.

Trained as a philologist, Nietzsche was a megalomaniacal philosopher of culture who intended to end metaphysics, transform Western intellectual life, and deconstruct Christianity (perhaps through personally supplanting Jesus Christ in the West). His penetrating psychological and cultural insights force us to face up to the half-truths and evasions in the history of philosophy and in our own lives. He is the philosopher who above all others confronts us with that most disturbing of questions: Are we honest with ourselves when we are alone?

Some important dates:

1844: birth

1849: Father, a Lutheran minister, died; lived with his mother, sister, grandmother, and two maiden aunts. He attended Schulpforta, a first-rate boarding school and then studied classical philology at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig.

1868: Professorship at Basel (Kaufman, p. 7 includes a nice quote from F. Ritschl, a Leipzig professor, who wrote a letter of recommendation for the Basel job).

1872: First book: Birth of Tragedy. This is an idiosyncratic interpretation in which original Greek brilliance is killed off by Socrates’ rationalism. It includes chapters on his idol, the composer Richard Wagner. He broke with Wagner a few years later, possibly because he suspected Wagner of anti-semitism, but probably mostly because his reverence of Wagner had to be put aside for Nietzsche to develop as an independent thinker.

1879: Resigned from Basel, with a pension, citing ill-health; but he also felt the need to break from philology. He spent the rest of his life in Switzerland and Italy, sickly and writing furiously. Her produced many books in the next few years.

Thus Spake Zarathustra is the most comprehensive statement of his position

Twighlight of the Idols is the classical expression of his thought

Ecce Homo is a rather odd autobiography

Others are mentioned below.

1888: On Christmas Day, Nietzsche Contra Wagner was finished, thus completing the turn against his former hero. Two weeks later he broke down insane, possibly due to syphilis (though he led a highly ascetic life, so this would have to have been contracted from a possible brothel visit as a student, or perhaps from nursing wounded soldiers in 1870).

1900: He dies, having become quite famous in the period of his inactivity.

Nietzsche was an extraordinarily talented writer, crafting everything from complex arguments to aphoristic sayings. He even wrote some music, which I am told is pleasant but a bit derivative. Gay Science illustrates his diversity as a writer most effectively. In it he tries to overcome boring traditional philosophy through a playful kind of wisdom, a crazy merry-making that he took to be a convalescence from the dreary and tortured emotionalism of Romanticism that obsessed over life’s meaninglessness. Thus it is full of vicious parodies, glorious poetry, wonderful parables and stories, funny jokes and riddles, outrageous songs and ditties. It is an intensely personal book with its brevity and wit, and every bit as much indicative of Nietzsche’s character as the aggressive philosophizing of Beyond Good and Evil.

Nietzsche himself was sickly, weak, and a nifty dresser—in short, a giant philology professor nerd. But he crafted his persona in his works, and this reinforces one of the major themes in his thought: individuals must be treasured above uniformity and commonality; it is the colorful swathe of a life that he admired most, and tried to live. We shall see why this was so important to him presently.

Critique of Western Intellectual Culture: Morality and Religion

Nietzsche’s critique of morality and religion is found especially in two books: Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche tries to locate the origins of ethical judgments and moral systems. He argues that morality is a matter of interpretation that takes us away from nature, which is essentially moral-neutral. But there are two main ways of interpreting the world in moral terms: herd morality and master morality.

Herd morality is the morality of Christianity. It derives from the rebellion of Roman slave class which took Christianity as its vehicle of liberation. In this interpretation, "Good" and "Evil" are mythologized and used a way of stimulating pity for the weak; there is heaven and hell; "Good" refers to the supposedly intrinsic value of people and the world; "Evil" refers to the behavior of the powerful warrior types who were uninhibited by conscience; and all this was projected onto the universe, backed up by divine authorization and revelation, and used for the rescue of the enslaved. "Evil" is an invention of the weak to control the independent brilliance of the strong, who define their own place in the world. It is a kind of revenge of the weak and helpless upon the strong, upon those who can realize their desires directly, so resentment must be understood as the key to the origin of herd morality. The result is the infection of Western moral thought with lies: the moral neutrality of nature is denied as we make of ourselves exceptions to its bare facticity. And instead of taking responsibility for our moral constructions, Western intellectual culture and Christianity especially, blames it on the heavens. What is really a gigantic power move of the weak against the strong is masked by a mythological projection of "Good" and Evil."

Master morality is, by contrast, utterly realistic. It is oriented to achievement in this world. It derives from warrior-aristocrats and artists, from those with the physical and imaginative strength to get things done in the world. Nature is just what it is and ought not be subject to absolute judgments of Good and Evil: "There are no moral phenomena; there are only moral interpretations." Thus, master morality speaks of "good" and "bad" rather than "Good and Evil." Rather than being tied down by the weakness of pity and mercy, and lying about the will-to-power that underlies moral judgments, master morality is self-conscious about the will-to-power, and so produces superior human beings.

There are two types of the superior person in which the will-to-power is expressed clearly but in ways that seemed to Nietzsche inadequate.

  • The warrior does just what he or she wants in a predatory way, just as nature has predatory creatures. There is no limiting conscience here; warriors just blast away, doing whatever they want to do, whatever their strength enables them to do.
  • The priest, by contrast, harnesses the lie of herd morality using myths and verbal techniques to control and pacify the herd, all the while exercising their own will-to-power in master morality fashion behind the scenes.

To exercise will-to-power appropriately, naturally, it must involve centeredness and actually a kind of holiness. The archetypal human for Nietzsche is a blend of the centered warrior (think not of capricious violence but rather of patient, centered power of the hero of the Kung Fu television series) and the earthy mystic. The mysticism theme is strong in Nietzsche and it is the key to his conception of the process of healing by which human beings are able to approach the archetypal ideal for their lives. Thus it is that Nietzsche describes the eternal return in mystical fashion as fullness and presentness. The theme of healing in Nietzsche is more scattered than many other, better known themes but it is no less important for being a little harder to reconstruct.

In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche tries to determine how we became dominated by the projected, mythologized lies of herd mentality; how we stopped taking responsibility for our own moral judgments. Part of the argument of this book examines the origins of German and Latin words to see whether the origins of this disaster somehow left traces that were preserved in our language. For example, though in English, the contrast between Noble and Base, or between Noble and Mean, expresses contrasting moral valuations in ways that are associated with class. Such usages derive ultimately from moral judgments along master morality lines, in which the good means the strong and superior; yet the original function of these words is no longer effective, thanks to the rise of herd morality.

Another line of attack in this book is Nietzsche’s interpretation of conscience. The invention of "Evil" as a way for the weak to control and exact unconscious revenge on their independent masters is a serious mistake, because it also invents conscience, which serves to inhibit greatness (in art, philosophy, politics, etc.).

  • Psychological origin of conscience: everyone has a will-to-power, a primal desire to inflict pain on others, which expresses a basic predatory human instinct. This applies to women as well as men, according to Nietzsche, which would be his reply to the obvious feminist objection here. When this will-to-power is suppressed by the herd mentality, we try to inflict pain on ourselves instead—and this is conscience. It is deformed will-to-power.
  • Interpretation of suffering: Priests convinced people that suffering has meaning; this is mythologized in the idea of God and preeminently in the interpretation of cross and resurrection.

Critique of Western Intellectual Culture: Philosophy and Metaphysics

Nietzsche accepts conceptual-linguistic schemes and saw them as perspectives—among most of which is was impossible justifiably to decide. Good and bad perspectives are not so because they correspond to the way the world is, but because they allow you to do things, to express the will to power, to help you control your environment, including both other people and yourself.

He distinguishes between two kinds of perspectivism.

  • External perspectivism: scientific realism is one way of seeing the world—it is useful but it is not necessarily the way things are.
  • Internal perspectivism: we have perspectives on ourselves (masks), but there is no ultimate self; interesting people construct themselves by choosing a persona.

From all this it follows that our views about the world and ourselves are interpretations. While correspondence can remain the meaning of truth (in one perspective, at least), two ways of justifying interpretations are ruled out:

  • We cannot authorize an interpretation through correspondence considerations alone; many factors play into the truth of interpretations.
  • We cannot authorize any interpretation uniquely; the complexity of the world rules out the possibility of vaulting one interpretation over all others. Alternative interpretations are thus always to be desired as ways of disrupting our attachment to our favorite ways-of-seeing.

It may also be inferred from this that Nietzsche’s metaphysics is thoroughly pluralistic (in the fashion of Heraclitus, perhaps), denying the ultimate meaning of the world and even the world’s ultimate unity, to the extent that it determines an ultimate meaning.

Nietzsche’s Vision of the Death of God

Nietzsche had many detailed critiques of Christianity and Judaism, and morality and religion in general, all of which have some interest and great force. Here we can concentrate on just one prong of his truck-full-of-pitchforks-criticism: the death of God. We encounter a compelling statement of this view in the story of "The Madman" from The Gay Science.

The Madman. Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, "I seek God! I seek God!" As many of those who did not believe in God were stanfding aournd just then, he provoked much laughter. Why, did he get lost? Said one. Did he lose his way like a child? Said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

"Whither is God" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How are we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become Gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us—for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history than all history hithertoo."

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke and went out. "I come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering—it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves."

It has been related further that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang his requium aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, "What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?" (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ∂125; trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Nietzsche derided rational proofs of God’s non-existence. They have no force; they are boring. The death of God is an historic fact being realized in western culture; it is the destruction—the self-destruction—of the foundation for human goodness, beauty and truth. It is something humans have done to themselves, for Nietzsche, and it is an act of great mystery.

On the one hand, it can be thought of as a disaster. Western culture is slowly awakening to the realization that there is no sure foundation, that there is no God to command us or to reward us; we have to make our own decisions and live with them, therefore. As the culture awakens to its achievement, there will be gradual panic, for foundationless, responsible existence is incredibly daunting, and impossible for most. People will prefer the world of their illusions, their comfortable pretend games about a real God as a foundation for moral and political decisions. They will react to their impossible situation by being violent and self-destructive, wars will rage, and hopelessness will reign.

On the other hand, if we survive the madness that results when the death of God is recognized and nihilism takes over, then God’s successor, the self-directed, self-valuing, superior human—the ‹bermensch—will emerge out of the chaos. The ‹bermensch is no cruel tyrant, but the one who knows how to overcome the human, who knows how to train the will to power that drives humans in the direction of self-control, self-cultivation, self-direction, the result of which is an abundance of joy and peace.

What, we must ask, is the character of the ‹bermensch’s orientation to life? The ‹bermensch is not the consummate truth seeker. The ‹bermensch is not the perfect human, living life according to the moral law, for there is no moral law. How, then, should we describe the ‹bermensch’s life? It is, above all, beautiful: it is a stylish, graceful movement through the world, leaving its glorious mark, rejoicing as it goes. Human life in this vision of it is an artistic creation, it is morality transcending the moral law, truth transcending the truths of human knowledge, love and joy and community created out of nothing while on the way of life, created with courage and humility, created beautifully.

Thus the heart of Nietzsche’s critique of religion and western culture can be understood as aesthetic in character: religion as it exists is ugly and distorted, bourgeois western culture is ugly and on the point of dissolution, self-denying morality is ugly and twisted. The Death of God is the key to the salvation of humanity, for after the death of God there is no longer any question about where that salvation must come from: it must be a super-human act of the human will, humans receiving human destiny from the hand of God, humans taking responsibility for themselves and their way in the world.

Ciccarelli Creation: Two Happenings: Reflections in a Nietzschean Mode

A perspective. Techno-rituals in the Nevada desert. Is this the Dionysian urge erupting? Note the wild, seemingly meaningless cavorting, the mud people, the furry rabbit. Could the descent into utter meaninglessness be a sign that transvaluation is about to begin? The author even insists that "anything lacking meaning gets assigned one," an obvious recognition that all meaning worth the name is created. Perhaps the Burning Man festival represents a critical moment at the edge of nihilism: after the death of God, there is the burning of an effigy. . . of what? the techno-nerd? the mindless commuter on the information superhighway? Or is it something more diffuse, say, the mediocre American? So many manifestations of herd mentality.

Or. . . is this just a new, not very subtle priestly manipulation? The frenzy, the rituals. Choking dust instead of choking incense. Initiation rites via e-mail. The destruction of the towering figure (could it be a warrior?) re-enacted yearly. Is this merely resentment breaking out, once again? An attempt to impose, via the insidious route of internet and desert revel, a new and ever more oppressive moral absolutism, masquerading as innocent Dionysian play?

It depends on your perspective. Don the mask of the outstanding individual, and you, too, could experience Burning Man as a transformative moment. A break with any possible meaning or value you have ever known, and thus a positive manifestation of your will to power, the first step toward a new creation. A desert creation. Perhaps an upside down desert creation. That figure painted blue, smeared with mud -- who knows? ‹bermensch? The living myth? The line of cavorting celebrants stretching off into the desert may well be the "rope stretched between animal and ‹bermensch" and over the abyss; an act of bizarre defiance.

A different perspective. A woolly, innocent mask. You see a meaningless festival promoted by weirdo Californians with nothing better to do over their Labor Day vacation. A hazard to the health of the participants, indeed, last year, a tragedy. Something to disdain, to avoid, to warn your children about. As disreputable as Woodstock. An affront to all decent, law-abiding, morally and politically conservative Americans, who know it is better to be boring than beautiful, who would rather run bleating over the precipice than take a chance on that shimmering thread that dances over the open-ended question of existence.

And then there is the Apollonian urge to draw the veil over the ugliness, the horror, the poverty of life. To impose order on chaos. To decorate the ghetto with a profusion of abandoned soles. To polka-dot an entire city. Here, at Heidelberg (St.), one can witness the willful creation of new aesthetic value. It is the creative genius at work, at once folk hero and despised innovator. Beloved by tourists and artists who flock to experience his work, and unappreciated and resented by residents who mistrust his vision, and his new and more prestigious address. But nothing will stop the aesthetic warrior of east Detroit. His will to power expresses itself fearlessly. . . concretely. . . on sidewalk, slab, and half-razed wall. And the materials with which he will realize his vision are omnipresent. Indeed, once again, the discarded trappings of mediocrity provide a foothold for a new breed of outstanding individuals.

But wait. True culture will unite the two, the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It could not be mere coincidence that both attitudes should be so prominently displayed in one issue of Time. No. It must be a sign. But to what does it point? What will it look like, this higher culture? Whose truth will it reveal? It will be pointillistic, certainly. Given to pyromancy, do-it-yourself architecture, and a startling new approach to the remembrance of things past. Peopled by strange figures presenting yet another aspect to the world: all dotty and daubed with clay. Enough to give even Zarathustra pause.

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