Here is a paper I wrote for my History of Philosophy class in seminary. Hope you enjoy! NOTE: Since WordPress can’t do footnotes apparently, the quotes are not cited, but there is a Bibliography at the end. If you really need help finding the source of a quote for one reason or another…well…try harder, untermensch.
Introduction to Nietzsche and His Thought
Friedrich Nietzsche, like many prominent atheists throughout history, lost his father at the age of 5 and came of age with primarily female influences. The removal of his father, it appears, caused him to ultimately abandon the idea of God and forge his own system of epistemology, ethics, and life in the absence of a deity. Although he is perhaps best known for declaring that “God is dead and we killed him,” (a quote often taken out of context) Nietzsche was profoundly theologically educated and did not arrive at this statement lightly. Nor, it should be noted, does Nietzsche think that a literal god existed whom human beings were capable of killing, and they had done so.
Instead, Nietzsche seems to be commenting on a phenomenon which had already taken place, largely due to Enlightenment thinkers and even Christian philosophers like Sören Kierkegaard. Namely, that in a human-centered society, the need for God had evaporated, therefore, humans were free to go on with their lives in his absence. Whether or not God is actually dead, or absent, or ever existed at all, seems to matter less when one can live however she pleases sans divine punishment or instruction. This attitude and ethic took the reins in the decades following Nietzsche’s death, with one milestone being the TIME Magazine article which boldly asked from the cover of the publication, “Is God dead?” Wrote the article’s author: “No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago.”
Nietzsche spoke what others at the time were perhaps too afraid to say aloud, as if uttering it to others might make it true: That God, or at least the primacy of His influence in the world, its ethics, and its progress, has eroded and is presently unnecessary for human flourishing. In many ways, this was the cultural pendulum swinging to the opposite extreme of the era of the Puritans, who saw God as involved in every single aspect of their life. Theirs was the mentality that repented of hidden sin if one of their corn stalks wilted in the sun; God was imminently involved in every part of the world and their lives. Starting this theocratic civilization was even their motivation for fleeing the oppressive Catholic state in Europe. One could imagine Nietzsche praising the Puritans who lived this way because, although he intrinsically disagreed with them, they lived in a logic that aligned with their confessed belief. This way of life would change in just a few centuries between the age of the Puritans and the time Nietzsche was born (mainly due to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution), and this is essentially the sentiment behind his statement that God has died.
Nietzsche states bluntly that religion lingering in the modern world only serves to satisfy the longing of the religious, simple-minded men to be herded like an animal. Ice writes, “It has a cultural meaning: God has passed out of our existence and become a dead entity for us because we crowded him out of our consciousnesses in creating and worshiping idols of our own ethnic likenesses…God language is dead and we have no factual way of determining anything about such an entity—hence, the term “God” very likely has never referred to anything actual.”
The struggle with power dynamics, stemming from his conception of slave-master relationships, pervades all of his thought processes. This led to one of Nietzsche’s largest critiques of the Christian church over time: the hermeneutic of suspicion, which brought to light certain doctrines which benefitted the power structures of the institution. This paper will not, however, focus on sociological power dynamics, but on the death of God and how, in the phenomenon of eternal return, the more individualistic übermensch, or ‘overman’ (but referred to as ‘superman’ from here on) rises above the rest of the herd animals, creating his own ethic by which to live rather than be subject to the terms of others more powerful than him. This idea was first announced in The Gay Science, but filled out more fully by the quasi-Christlike figure Zarathustra in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Death of a Deity
In his observations of modern secular culture, Mark Sayers points out that the average postmodern, post-Christian person longs for ‘the kingdom without the King.” They want the benefits philosophically provided by belief in the Judeo-Christian ethic, without the restraint or allegiance to an actual, living deity. Sayers explains how, over the past two millennia, Christians have championed everything from public education to healthcare as a basic human right. In the past couple centuries however, the growth of atheism, agnosticism, and ‘nones’ has shifted most people’s mental assents away from religion and toward either a vague spirituality or a total obliteration of the religious system. They do, however, continue to want things like justice, education, food and water for all, and healthcare. These things, in light of their looming nihilism, run counter to their longing for autonomy and lack of basis for human worth.
This is exactly where Nietzsche is most honest while many of his supporters cheat. He acknowledged that a denial of the existence of God meant the death of a whole host of ideas. It meant starting over from scratch and creating a system based on his blend of nihilism, naturalism, and existentialism. “When you give up Christian faith, you pull the rug out from under your right to Christian morality as well…you smash the whole system.” While seeking to pull back the curtain on the little man behind the curtain (who turned out to be dead all along), Nietzsche did almost too good a job, leading the world into an age of moral relativism and a worldwide attitude of “if it works for you, do it.” And this, largely, was what he was after, hoping that the individualistic values would clash and the strongest person would dominate. After all, he didn’t see people as either inherently moral or immoral, but amoral. He thought of good and evil as terms created by societies to control people into doing what they wanted (reiterating his hermeneutic of suspicion), and saw them as utterly unrelated to actions. Many metaphors have been made of this comparison; it is like asking, “how far away is purple?” or, “how heavy is cold?” To Nietzsche, the categories of good and evil, as they related to actions, simply did not apply.
So how did Nietzsche seek to reconstruct his ethic in the face of nihilism? Most commentators see him seeking some sort of egoism which seeks the benefit of only oneself. However enticing this hedonism might sound, Nietzsche is careful to account for the weight of complete autonomy, which most people are not prepared for. “As Nietzsche hints, egoism hardly works for everyone. The weak faint under its burden and submit themselves to the strong-willed egoist who imposes his or her self-interest on them.” Unlike Kant’s categorical imperative, which lies a hair’s breadth away from utilitarianism, Nietzsche’s ethic operates on a highly individualistic imperative. In On the Genealogy of Morals, he writes,
“Originally”—so they decree—“one approved unegoistic actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done, that is to say, those to whom they were useful; later one forgot how this approval originated and, simply because unegoistic actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good—as if they were something good in themselves.”
His argument drops an atomic bomb on the notion of deontological morals containing any sort of external foundation of right or wrong; good and evil. The hermeneutic of suspicion returns, probing the motives behind what was called ‘good’ for most of human memory. His ethic grinds against even such ancient laws as the Code of Hammurabi, who called for justice by means of ‘an eye for an eye.’ Through Nietzsche’s lens, why shouldn’t the more powerful person take two eyes from the weaker one and keep both of their own?
If the majority of people in society are mere herd animals, clinging to the safety net of religious salvation, then in Nietzsche’s mind, the best a man can aspire to is to transcend this herd-like mentality and dominate, both other humans and nature itself. This urge, hardwired into human beings according to Nietzsche, is what he calls the will to power. The will to power is what ultimately leads every superman to his transcending of society. He who is not dominated by the shepherd and thus, behaving like a herded sheep, has overcome the failures of society and can now think for himself. The logic seems to be sturdy: Remove any source of external morality and the only thing humans are left with is, as Nietzsche put it, the will to power; the domineering of the strong over the weak. And this, in essence, is what the superman is. He is no longer herded by the masses and their guiding, unquestioned principles, but by his own will and success.
As an angsty twenty-something feeling enslaved by powerful corporations and surrounded by millionaire pastors who got rich by selling hope, I can certainly sympathize with Nietzsche’s hermeneutic of suspicion, critique of powerful structures, and desire to rise above the existing system. Indeed, many of his modern adherents are men around my age who have nothing to lose and a world to gain. In exchange for ‘not following the same pattern as society,’ they gain freedom from right and wrong, complete autonomy, and perhaps best of all, the prideful position of looking down upon all the enslaved untermenschen. In modern typology, this is best embodied in the character of Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club, who fully embraces his position as an enlightened, nihilistic superman by destroying corporate America and blowing up every skyscraper which houses the nation’s credit companies. Durden presents his twisted vision of utopia in one scene of the film:
“In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
In a film which portrays the utter destruction of the societal ideal, Fight Club overlooks (perhaps intentionally) many logical fallacies that accompany such destruction, such as how the rise of the proletariat simply creates a new bourgeoise. Nevertheless, its nihilistic roots continue to reflect and inspire the Nietzschian ideals which have inspired young men for over 200 years. As much as I’d like to turn in my Christian badge and convert to the ranks of such supermen, there are some logical boundaries which keep me from doing so.
In lieu of a religious imperative to live life by, Nietzsche attempted to construct a morality apart from God. He got further than more atheists, and even agnostics, throughout history, but his argument still falls short. The issue found all throughout his writings, is that in the absence of a deity or a larger force or metaphysic on which to base his ethic, Nietzsche fails to satisfy the large question of Why? Writes Rosen, “The striking failure of Nietzsche’s thought is that although it is dedicated to rank-ordering and the reinstitution of aristocratic values, nowhere in his writings, published or unpublished, is there any satisfactory analysis of the concept of value.” Indeed, Nietzsche builds emotional and Herculean calls to might and overcoming, but this call is rooted in nothing more than itself; reach the top of the pyramid and then what? What is the motivation, other than overcoming for its own sake? It appears that there is an endless cycle within the ideas of Nietzsche, and not only that of eternal return in the metaphysical sense. In the rising and falling of supermen, being replaced by more supermen after the previous has risen and fallen, there is no real progress; only a meaningless cyclone of ‘overs’ and ‘unders.’ Just as Marx’s conception of the ruling proletariat inevitably results in a new bourgeoise, Nietzsche’s turnover of supermen doesn’t yield any universal good, which means two things: Nietzsche would be forced to abandon the idea of good and evil altogether (which he did), and that the sought-after ethic of his thought would be one of power rather than virtue. With the death of God, apparently, comes the death of morals. It also results in the death of meaning and purpose, save those purposes which serve to elevate oneself above society and above the enslaved herd animals, thus liberating them for their short stint alive.
One issue I see in his genealogy of morals argument is that, most unegoistic actions do not serve the victors. It’s often said that history is written by the winners. However, history would need to be written by losers—or at least underdogs—if the idea of unegoistic actions being good really served to benefit them more than the strong and powerful who helped them out. In other words, if the best a human can do is dominate others, where would the idea of “unegoistic actions = inherently good” come from? Masters would always dominate their slaves and pat themselves on the back for being stronger than their fellow men. Slaves, in Nietzsche’s paradigm, would either grow comfortable with their ‘herd animal’ lot in life, or they would rise up and overthrow their master, creating a new ruling class and therefore becoming the height of humanity—the superman. Strength and dominance cannot be the ultimate end of human moral imperatives, or else there would never have been a genesis of the idea of humility and other unselfish values being praised. That, or we would inhabit a world in which the Nazi regime, Stalin’s gulag, the Kim family’s North Korea, and Mao’s China truly represent the heights of human accomplishment. I would hope that Nietzsche himself, were he alive to see these atrocities, would denounce them and adjust his critique accordingly.
Perhaps the final blow to Nietzsche’s ethic is perhaps the simplest, and that is: the deep-rooted conscience embedded in every human on earth, save perhaps a select few sociopaths. Something within the heart of humans urges us to fight for justice, especially for those who are weak and oppressed. One needs to look no further than every film ever made to see that the human spirit is hungry for justice, and for the vindication of the downtrodden. One would have a hard time justifying Nietzsche’s principles to any group of people around the world, save some theorizing think tank of philosophy students. As Catholic saint John Henry Newman related, one’s “conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” This innate desire to see wrongs righted, to see the broken healed, and the haughty brought down, points to something deeper than societal conditioning to honor selflessness.
Indeed, if Christ is the center of all things, no matter how one slices history, psychology, and theology, then the moral accuracy of Nietzsche’s superman simply cannot stand. Jesus of Nazareth came as the antithesis to all things high and mighty, making Himself weak for the sake of those He could have easily conquered. For this reason, we know of many hospitals where strong, healthy doctors and nurses care for weak, sick patients. As a society, we see these places as an overall good: healthcare helps humans. It is also for this reason that these hospitals are typically named after saints, and why there will never be a place of care named after Friedrich Nietzsche. After all, why would a strong and healthy superman pause to offer any sort of care to an underman?
Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher. 20th Century Fox: 1999. Film.
Geissler, Fr. Hermann, FSO, Conscience and Truth in the Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman, p. 8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1778.
Harper, Robert Francis, The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon: about 2250 B.C. : autographed text, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1904.
Ice, Jackson Lee and Carey, John J., The Death of God Debate, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.
Kaag, John. Hiking with Nietzsche, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
Nietzsche, Friedrich and Kaufmann, Walter. Beyond Good & Evil, New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
Nietzsche, Friedrich and Kaufmann, Walter. On the Genealogy of Morals, New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
Nietzsche, Friedrich and Kaufmann, Walter. The Gay Science, New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich and Norman, Judith. Twilight of the Idols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Rosen, Stanley. The Mask of Enlightenment, Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Sayers, Mark. Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016.
Spencer, C. Ivan. Tweetable Nietzsche, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.
Theology: Toward a Hidden God. Friday, Apr. 08, 1966 http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,835309,00.html