Published on October 25th, 2012 | by Daniel Siksay0
“God is dead”: making sense of Nietzsche’s famous announcement
“God is dead.” You’ve heard it before, seen it written on t-shirts, on quotation memes and spouted by atheists finding their rebellious wings. But if there ever was a phrase woefully and grandly misunderstood, it’s Nietzsche’s declaration about the death of god. In this piece I’ll try to lay out a more nuanced and defensible interpretation of what Nietzsche meant.
Nietzsche and atheism.
Nietzsche was technically an atheist for much of his life. He was born into a Lutheran household, his father was a pastor, and he was rather religious until his late teens. Nietzsche was attracted to the sense of meaning and confidence in morality that Christianity endowed to him. It was in high school that Nietzsche developed a passion for atheism — but this passion was always tempered by the loss he felt at the absence of a god-figure in his life. Indeed, we can read much of Nietzsche’s later writing as an attempt to grapple with the question, “what is possible in the face of God’s absence?”
In his philosophical works, though, atheism is rarely (if ever) regarded as a topic worthy of activism. It ends up being regarded as a problematic, perhaps-oversimplistic theological position. Nietzsche seems suspicious that atheism itself can constitute any significant critique of religious values. If he were to be around to see the so-called “new atheists” of today (ie. those writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and their associates), he would likely accuse them of being reactive and superficial in their diagnosis of Christianity and its effects on our societies. In fact, he would likely cry that they were no more divorced from the Judeo-Christian image of values and morality than were the Christians in his day.
Just because one has rearranged the concepts that make sense of morality (the idea of a “morality without religion”) doesn’t mean that the foundation of those concepts still doesn’t contain the seeds of older moral images. For Nietzsche, the Christian “sickness” lived far deeper than where these superficial new atheists are capable of crawling — the foundation of a non-religious morality would still be a Christian one, in Nietzsche’s likely estimation.
As we explore the “death of God” in Nietzsche’s works, let’s keep in mind that Nietzsche is writing from a self-admitted Eurocentric point of view. He examines Hinduism and Buddhism in a few aphorisms, and has some fairly interesting things to say about them, but they are given a far more anecdotal treatment than is the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy.
Nietzsche would have been historically-nuanced enough in his thinking to recognize that the theological God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is directly and genealogically related to (and even in many ways the same as) the metaphysical “real world” of the post-Platonic Greeks. It’s impossible to understand our modern interpretation of Christianity without understanding how the work of Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato have influenced the tradition. We won’t explore this notion deeply here, but suffice it to say that if one were to make a list noting similarities between modern ideas of Christianity and the philosophical concepts of Plato and Aristotle, it would be a curiously long one.
The most important concept Nietzsche attaches to Christianity is the idea of a “real world” that establishes and informs the one we live in. This is a Platonic idea; that objects, people and things in the world around us can only exist on the basis of there being a immaterial “form” of those objects, people and things that exists elsewhere. These “forms” are primary. What exists in our world are imperfect copies of those original, all-establishing ideas. Ideas come before object in the world. There’s an ideal “form” of a chair, which every chair is made in the image of; there an ideal “form” of justice which human governments, to varying success, strive towards. The highest ideal is “the Good.” It’s the ultimate object of knowledge, the form by which everything else in existence derives its usefulness and value.
The analogy at work here should be pretty evident: in Christianity, the figure of God has come to stand in for the form of the Good. Just like the Good, God is the figure in Christianity that transcends all other things in the world — God is that which gives all other things their value, their meaning, and their life. And just like Plato’s theory of forms, in Christianity the body and the sensible world is always second-to the world of ideas, the world of faith and the world of the mind. Think of a Christian monk who denies himself worldly pleasures in order to be closer to God, and the idea becomes pretty clear.
For Nietzsche, God represents transcendence incarnate, that which is beyond the world around us but which bestows meaning and value upon that world.
Nietzsche and the Christian tradition.
So: the “God” Nietzsche is referring to is explicitly the Judeo-Christian God, including the Platonic idea that God exists apart from the world but bestows meaning and significance upon the world. Included in this notion is the concept of redemption; that humans are fundamentally less-than-adequate in some way (sinful, falling short of the Good, etc.), in contrast to the perfection of a transcendent space that in turn gives humans and our world meaning through itself. Plato, as you’ve read, asserted that the world of the Forms was metaphysically prior-to and more “real” than the apparent world of bodies and human interaction. And what argument could a Christian give us about the status of our world other than that it is given meaning (and the chance to resemble perfection) through the transcendent world of God in heaven? (ie. that God is “prior-to,” more important and more “real” than our sensible world?)
When Nietzsche announced, in writing, that “God is dead,” he was writing with all of the above in mind (and probably more). Keeping this in view as we examine the declaration itself, it will clearly transform it from a simple atheistic cheer into something far more philosophically potent. Let’s look at the first time the phrase “God is dead” appears in Nietzsche’s writing. It’s one of the most famous pieces of philosophical writing of the last three hundred years:
Nietzsche’s aphorism: “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 standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? 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 continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest 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 we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” 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 into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves. It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
When Nietzsche wrote this grand aphorism in his book, The Gay Science, he was making a declaration about the status of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and all of the ancient Greek philosophical concepts that came with it. The Judeo-Christian God is dead, and with it a whole host of traditionally-philosophical concepts about the metaphysical structure of the world and life. The madman in the aphorism is “mad” because he can see the implications of the death of God: the notion of a transcendent world beyond our world that gave us meaning and value has fallen away, and that we’re aimless and wandering in the face of this event. We have lost our compass. “Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?”
The village-folk who listen to the madman’s rant in the aphorism are all “atheists” themselves; they poke and jeer at the man not because he declares God dead, but because he seems to take seriously the idea of a God at all. But the madman’s perspective is that the event of God’s death is too massive to be seen in its full light by these non-believers. It’s not that the madman is bemoaning his religious idol and the village-folk just don’t care — it’s that the madman has realized just how unprecedented God’s death really is, how unprepared for this event humankind actually is, all the while the village-folk go on with their simple lives in the shadow of a God who has died.
Perhaps it’s not inappropriate to think of Nietzsche himself as a figure like the madman. Throughout his life, Nietzsche declared that he was “higher” than all. This could be seen as a declaration of superiority, but it can also be seen as a declaration of complete solitude (for Nietzsche, it was both of these things). Nietzsche recognized this latter portion of his philosophical positions as well; not even atheists today really grasp what it means that God is dead. This is why it is a madman that makes the declaration in his aphorism. The madman asks, “is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?” And Nietzsche means it. We were not ready for the death of God, and we still are not ready for it.
Making sense of a world without transcendent meaning.
Much of Nietzsche’s philosophy after The Gay Science can be read as an attempt to diagnose what the death of God means. This is what baffles me about so many uninformed Nietzsche readers today; they attempt to summarize in a few sentences what they think Nietzsche meant by his declaration, when the large part of the Nietzschean corpus can be read as a response to the injunction to figure out just what this event (that is greater than we are today) even means. Ironically, the best we mere humans can do to understand what this deed means for us and our future generations is to engage in some kind of no-saying game that examines out what the death of God isn’t, and guess on that basis what it might mean. When God dies, what goes away? What do we lose?
In the face of Nietzsche’s aphorism and the preparatory work we’ve done before reading it, then, I think we’re in an acceptable place to lay out in a bit of detail just what Nietzsche means when he announces that “God is dead.” Keep in mind that such an summary will always be tentative at best. There are countless other things to add, to clarify, to subtract, to say “yes” and “no” to. All I am capable of doing, here, is tracing a very simple picture:
The death of God means that, without necessarily realizing we’ve done so, we’ve stopped taking the idea of a “real world” a space that gives our world meaning, seriously. Somewhere along the way, our sciences, our politics and our societies started acting without depending on that kind of world, on that kind of God. Our moralities suggest something else about themselves, our sciences something else about our knowledge, our politics about our understanding of others — but we still see these institutions through the lense of a time when God was still alive. It is that act of no-longer-taking-seriously that has, even if we don’t really “get it” yet, pulled the carpet out from under us.
The death of God means the negation of metaphysical foundations (the concepts with which we structure give value to our world) as we know them. But this event is so great, so beyond compare with anything that’s come before, that we (like the village-folk in Nietzsche’s aphorism) don’t realize what it means, yet. We still take our moral and metaphysical presuppositions of the world seriously. We believe that it is good to be charitable, to not step on others, to be chaste and moderate, to make ourselves small, that it is good to dedicate our lives to our minds rather than our bodies, that our world is conditioned by a “real” world of transcendence, that morality means defining good based on what is not evil, that there is some previously-existing moral order to the universe that validates our own moral evaluations (that morality is objective and real), and so on…
But Nietzsche thinks that we are like those cartoon characters who run out over a cliff and do not fall to their doom until they look down to see what they have done. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of his society was they they had not yet looked down, and in his aphorism from The Gay Science he even writes that “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 distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.” We’re off the cliff and about to fall into the chasm, but until we look down to realize our fate, we’ll remain suspended in thin air like Wile-E-Coyote Yosemite Sam.
Nietzsche’s crusade to re-valuate the world.
Nietzsche has essentially thrown down the gauntlet, here. Even at the end of his life, he held that he had seen further and diagnosed more about the truth and future of humanity than any other who had ever lived. His assertion is essentially that everything that has been believed and argued about the construction of the world, about our metaphysics, about our natural sciences, about our politics, about our moralities and social values, has been believed and argued under the guise of some sort of transcendent realm that conditioned and gave those beliefs and arguments meaning. When that guise is revealed for what it is (when we discover God’s corpse), our worlds and the meanings within them will be shattered. The effects of such a diagnosis, if true, would be the greatest explosion that the world would ever have seen. It would be unparalleled, unequaled. Nothing could be greater, for it would undermine even meaning itself. Even if it is not obvious yet, poor Nietzsche felt knew the truth and knew it far too well even, perhaps, for his own good.
Hopefully this is enough to give you some idea of the place Nietzsche was at when he made his declaration that God was dead. The development of his own philosophy can be read, too, as various attempts to deal with this great event, to diagnose it and respond to it, or if not respond to it, then to pave the way for those who might be able to respond to it. Nietzsche’s “early” philosophical period saw him attaching to art the way out of the Apollonian mere-calculability of the world – that it was art, and specifically the tragic dimension of drama and music, that could wrench humanity from their nihilistic slumber and give them the hope for a future. Of course, this period is still heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, and so that future is still only a compromise.
Then, after his break with Wagner, Nietzsche went through what is know today as his “positivistic” period. Science and the scientific method became the direction for humanity’s future; out of the sciences, he thought, would come not only a recognized rejection of Christian and transcendent moral values, but would also come the apparatus by which new values and new moralities could be formed. By the end of his philosophical life, Nietzsche had abandoned that too (as a grand project, at least). His late works reject the tragic or the positivistic as productively new categories for humanity, while still taking aspects from those period that pushed him to greater and even more solitary heights. In the end, there is no word for Nietzsche’s late period (not his “aesthetic” period, nor his “positivistic” period); he is simply Nietzsche, and that proper name becomes a category in and of itself.
In his megalomaniacal autobiography of sorts, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes one of the most powerful and self-knowing phrases he wrote in his life. I think it is appropriate, here, to leave our investigation of Nietzsche’s struggle to make sense of the “death of God” off with that phrase: “I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous — a crisis such that the earth has never seen, the deepest collision of conscience, a decision made against everything that has been believed, demanded, held sacred so far. I am no man; I am dynamite.”
Image courtesy of ▲brian james.