Bill Honsberger


1) What does Nietzsche actually mean by the phrase “God is dead”? Explain in relationship to such notions as “overman”, “eternal recurrence”, “will to power”, “nihilism”, and the “moral view of the world”. Quote extensively with proper citations to back up your argument.

The phrase “God is dead” has several possible meanings. Given the protection that Nietzsche gave his ideas through his style of writing (aphorisms, parables, etc) and given his penchant for irony, one can hardly say with certainty just what he meant but instead propose several options. One popular postmodern option as argued in class is that Nietzsche was arguing that western Christianity and western philosophy had become in turn “idolaters”. By reducing God to logical syllogisms and to simple moralistic tomes, God had become tame, limited and hardly worth noticing. By the writing of theology, God had become a pile of words, and this reduction had “killed” God. Nietzsche it is argued here is primarily blaming Kant for this extreme reduction whereby “God” has become good for nothing except a justification for morality. To the extent that Nietzsche is in fact making these complaints than I can agree with much of it. However I don’t believe that language, written or spoken, is the enemy and would argue that it is what is said about God that is a potential reduction. For example if I say that “God is all powerful and all knowing”, then the statement about God is not a limiting one and should be indicted under Nietzschean standards. It is too much of a straw man to think that Nietzsche was indicting the mere presence of text as if people were worshipping the text as opposed to the real God.

This brings another possibility as to what he meant by “God is dead”. God is dead; we (European Christians) have killed him. There is no good and evil. The argument is simple and profound. By the late 19th century, German philosophers and theologians had for the most part abandoned orthodox Christianity in favor of an enlightenment sort of view. The God of the Bible, who created and ruled the world, who engaged in the world through miraculous acts, was “fine” for uneducated fishers and farmers, but we “modern” people who know about science and logic cannot accept such an account. Following the lead of Hume and then Kant, the miraculous or supernatural world view which had dominated the continent for thousands of years was gone. Kant in moderating Hume a bit, did leave open the possibility of belief being rational, but faith was reserved for another category, that of the possible not of the space time world in which we live. After “destroying” the traditional rationalistic arguments for God, Kant proffered a moral argument for God. God must exist to ground universal morality. By the early 19th century, Kierkegaard and Schliermacher have taken up the point. Faith is irrational or emotive. A sense of “dependence” is all that is left of the once powerful God who moved heaven and earth. Hegel then reduced God to what ever has been done in the world. The Weltgeist is history, and that of the world. This immanence did not judge the world, but is the world and justified all the “progress”. Marx and Darwin come along as atheists and simple apply the logical conclusion to what the “Christians” in Germany had already done. Marx substituted the “state” for God in Hegel, and Darwin substituted natural selection for the formerly powerful creator. Towards the end of the 19th century then, Nietzsche surveys and honestly points out the obvious. “God” is dead. He has no role; he has no job. “Christians” don’t believe in the supernatural, they believe in science. Christians and Jews don’t need God to explain the universe, and as the social Darwinians are pointing out at the time of Nietzsche, they don’t need God to supply a basis for morality either. The “we” is I think German Christianity, which leads the way for the rest of Europe in Nietzsche’s understanding of things. God was not killed by strangers, but rather by those who claimed they “believed”. Of course this belief was qualified to the point of extinction. We will believe in God, if and only if (how do you like that for analytic talk?) he remains incidental to real life, or perhaps if he will be the base for our morality, but nothing else. This impotent God was killed easily enough, Nietzsche might think. And to Nietzsche, Kant did not understand just how fully he had undermined God. A God who has nothing to do with the space/time world has nothing to do with the morality in that world either.

Did Nietzsche kill God? No – all the real work was done by the “believers” in God. Nietzsche is profoundly religious – for an atheist. As Heller said about him (The Importance of Nietzsche p11.) “He is, by the very texture of his soul and mind, one of the most radically religious natures that the nineteenth century brought forth.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra on page 185 the pope calls Zarathustra (Nietzsche’s alter ego) “the most pious of those who do not believe”. Although he certainly despised Christianity, Nietzsche was very open to many aspects of eastern religion, in particular Buddhism. Some of this can be seen in some of his more popular themes. Take for example the idea of der Ubermensch or overman. Some connect this to the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva or enlightened one who having reached enlightenment returns to the masses to help them out of their dilemma. In Nietzsche’s case the overman was the one who rejected or transvalued all values and established his own values. In TSZ page 228, Nietzsche says of the overman that he “must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and break values. Thus the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness.” In Beyond Good and Evil page 68, Nietzsche says of the overman that he must have “opened his eyes to the opposite ideal! The ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity”. This shows part of the relationship between the overman and that of the eternal recurrence. The overman starts by throwing away all the conventions of slave morality, with its Judaic/Christian overlays, and transcends and creates his own morality. This transvalued morality is not a morality of what is right and wrong or mere preference for one code over another, but rather an acceptance of whatever is! This “is” is whatever life has to offer and no less. This world-valuing of Nietzsche demands that it must go on. The acceptance of whatever is must go. It must be accepted and desired by the overman. If the overman is seen as a verb (interesting idea but perhaps trans-nietzschean!) then each individual must also value life, with all that it means and desire for it to happen over and over.

This eternal recurrence is also similar to the idea of samsara in Buddhism. In discussing the theme he notes that “let us think this thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is, without meaning or aim, yet occurring inevitable without any finale of nothingness; the eternal recurrence. This is the most extreme form of nihilism; the nothing (the meaningless) eternally! The European form of Buddhism: the energy of knowledge and strength compels this belief.” (The Will to Power. P 35-36) Although both in the case of the Bodhisattva and Overman, and the case of Samsara and eternal recurrence, there are distinctions as well as the commonalities already mentioned, I am not saying there is a one for one correspondence between the ideas, but rather there is a major influence in Nietzsche’s writing. As these relate to the notion of the death of God, it is interesting to note that the oldest version of Buddhism is the Theravada version, which is atheistic. So perhaps for Nietzsche the death of the biblical God is not the final religious statement but rather creates room for the ascendancy in European thought for a new religious point of view. The strength for Nietzsche might be found in another commonality between Buddhism and Nietzsche’s thought – that of the “disruption” of the moral view of the world. In classical eastern thought of almost all varieties, morality in all its forms are part of Maya, the illusion. They have no intrinsic reality or veracity and therefore no need for a god or gods to ground them. This is especially the case in versions of advaita Vedanta. Nietzsche state his affinity for this in this manner “The Buddhist religion is the expression of a fine evening, a perfect sweetness and mildness – it is gratitude towards all that lies behind…emancipation even for good and evil appears to be the essence of the Buddhist ideal.” (TWTP. P.597) Similarly, Nietzsche states in (BGE p. 44-45) that “We believe that morality in the traditional sense, the morality of intentions, was a prejudice precipitate and perhaps provisional something on the order of astrology and alchemy, but in any case, something that must be overcome.” In the same book he argues later that there are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena.

In this sense you can see part of his attack on Kant. There is no moral “thing in itself”. There is only a phenomenon. And this phenomenon is interpreted in different ways. Therefore there is no essential or universal morality. It then is not an abandonment of morality, for the overman chooses his own morality and affirms himself and life. It is the destruction of any notion of universal morality, which interferes with the Overman’s creator abilities. This is one of the reasons why Nietzsche “dances” with the announcement of the death of God. Without the one great light to dim all others, the “lesser” lights can now shine forth and blaze for themselves. Thus the will to power is born. God the one formerly dominant power is dead. This opens up the door for all others to become overman and thus show forth their own power. For Nietzsche this is again is worthy of a dance. How can one ever have power is there is always a power beyond our touch? But with the death of God, all power is now available. Since for Nietzsche all statements and affirmations are in fact willing to power, now they all have meaning and in this sense nihilism can be held off. This nihilism was the result of “decadence” and decadence was the result of both Christianity and other forms of morality, in particular philosophy. Bernd Magnus notes that “Christianity is the fruit of resentment. As a product of weakness it represents the decline of life, decadence, degeneracy, in contrast to the exuberant ascent of life which seeks expression in master morality. And so it follows for Nietzsche that Christianity, like platonic philosophy, severs body and soul, that it deprecates the human body, impulse, instinct, beauty, passion, the intellect.” (Reading Nietzsche. P. 166) In the Will to Power, Nietzsche argues that morality was seen as the “antidote” against both practical and theoretical nihilism. Morality gave purpose to God. Nihilism was perceived by western tradition as the great threat, always waiting at the door for an opportunity. With morality came purpose, design and other “Christian/western” values. Nihilism can be ignored because there was a cause to the universe, a design to the universe and therefore a purpose and meaning for the inhabitants thereof.

But what to do if all that is lost? What happens if God is dead? Nihilism rushes in to fill the vacuum. All that was settled is unsettled and all the foundations of the earth are off course. Nietzsche celebrates and is also repulsed by this event. He rejoices at the opportunity to affirm what is, to affirm and desire the eternal recurrence of what is, but he frets about the transition period that is coming. This “unsettling” of the entire western tradition is cataclysmic. As Zarathustra notes, how can anyone not notice or how can they not have heard that GOD IS DEAD? Do they not realize what this means? Do they not realize that life will never be the same? As Nietzsche points his finger at German Christianity and accuses it of killing God, he notes with irony that the emperor (the edifices of western churchianity) has no clothes. He will be the child who notes what should be obvious to all. God is dead. There is no good and evil. There is no meaning. There only is. Here I agree with Nietzsche.

This is why I think he is the most consistent atheist I have ever read. If one accepts his analysis then one is driven ruthlessly by the force of his argument. In my term paper I will argue that this is why one must reject his perspectival epistemology, but more on that in that work. If Darwin, and Marx, and the German philosophers are right, that there is no need for a God, because we have taken or explained away all the divine roles, than all there is, is “is”. The jungle as a literal reality and metaphor for life applies here. If no God, and therefore no transcendent or universal morality, then the jungle is what we came from and what must be. There is no slave ambushing the master in the jungle. The strong survive. The strong transvalue all other concerns except their own will to power, their own will to survive. They do not bemoan the plight of the weak – they eat the weak. They do not bemoan their status and attempt to handicap the reality of how they exist – they celebrate and act out of their own strength. This is why Nietzsche loved the old gods of Greece and powerful individuals like Napoleon. The old Greek gods were like human beings on steroids, constantly striving for supremacy. In the same vein, Napoleon overcame his “limitations” and strove for and achieved power. In that way he shows what is possible for any person. One wonders if the slightness of Napoleon’s stature was seen by the similarly small Nietzsche as a point worth celebrating in itself. The will to power being larger than the physical being itself. The will to power bursting beyond its limitations to affirm and expand its own power. I will leave this to the psycho-analytic folks to play with.

What is important here is that for him the higher call was found in “he who affirms all that is questionable and terrible in existence, he is Dionysian.” (TWTP. P. 49) One could not affirm all that is in the world if some things are divided into good and evil categories. This brings us to the ultimate Nietzschean conclusion, the passive nihilism which sees the purposelessness of existence and emptiness of values. The overcomer or Ubermensch then practices the active version of nihilism and tries to destroy the thing which it no longer believes. In this sense Nietzsche is both types of nihilist. He notes that western culture is attempting to talk of meaning, and value and morality, but that it no longer upholds that which gave all those things to it, namely the Christian God. As this God has been removed by those say they believe, Nietzsche then practices in his works the art of active nihilism and encourages others to do the same. Kill that which you no longer believe. Tear down what you do not believe in. You could argue that he is attacking the hypocrisy of what he sees in this culture. In this way he is the most “honest” of all his contemporary theologian, he despises their hypocrisy. And he is a theologian. He writes about God more than most who claim to be Christian. In this way he is also a philosopher. He thinks and thinks again about what his world has to offer and thus seeks wisdom where he can. He affirms the earth and all that is in it. But in another way he despises the earth of people while at the same time affirming nature. Perhaps he should be more consistent. How it is one might ask of him did the weak overthrow the strong? Are the strong really the strong? Why? If they really were strong, then the weak could not have done such a thing. Perhaps God is not dead after all…