Nietzsche and the Death of God

In his book Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche announces:

“What is called idol on the title page is simply what has been called truth so far. Twilight of the Idols – that is: the old truth is approaching its end.” (Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In the last lecture, we investigated true world theories, which were examples of some of the old ‘truths’ Nietzsche thought were on the decline.

In this lecture we will investigate why Nietzsche thought these ‘old truths’ were approaching their end. To do this we’ll analyze what is perhaps Nietzsche’s most famous and controversial statement: “god is dead”. We’ll look at what such a statement meant to Nietzsche, what led him to make such a bold pronouncement, and what he thought would happen if this belief were to become as widespread as he anticipated.

So what did Nietzsche mean by his statement ‘god is dead’? On the surface it may appear that he was referring to the observation that belief in the monotheistic god of Christianity was on the decline. However, such a view is not generally accepted by modern day scholars,  rather many suggest instead that with this statement Nietzsche wante to symbolize his conviction that faith in true world theories in general were deteriorating. 

Many scholars and philosophers who have been influenced by Nietzsche have claimed that in communicating the death of god to the masses, Nietzsche should be characterized as a modern day prophet. What is it about his message that qualifies him for such an honorable title?

Nietzsche was only one of a number thinkers in his time to recognize the growing skepticism towards Christianity, as well as other less prominent true world theories. So surely this alone does not qualify him for the title of ‘prophet’. 

Rather, the uniqueness of Nietzsche’s message lay in his remarkable ability to foresee the potentially devastating consequences which would befall those individuals unable to retain their faith in true world theories.

Nietzsche thought that when true world theories lost their influence, individuals would be torn from the very worldviews which gave their lives meaning, and the strength to persevere in life despite sometimes miserable conditions. In short, Nietzsche understood that the death of god could potentially vault a large majority of the human race into a state of nihilism.

The great Walter Kaufmann, in his classic work on Nietzsche, described exactly why Nietzsche is often heralded as a modern day prophet:

“Sometimes prophecies seem to consist in man’s ability to experience his own wretched fate so deeply that it becomes a symbol of something larger. It is in this sense that one can compare Nietzsche with the ancient prophets. He felt the agony, the suffering, and the misery of a godless world so intensely, at a time when others were yet blind to its tremendous consequence, that he was able to experience in advance, as it were, the fate of a coming generation.” (Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann)

The generation following Nietzsche in many ways seemed to have experienced the fate he had prophesied. As the historian Ronald Stromberg, in his book Redemption by War, explained, the turn of the 20th century marked a time when  intellectuals in Europe were gripped by a growing sense that life was meaningless – and it was this feeling which can help to explain the now forgotten fact that the vast majority of European intellectuals were in fact pro-war in the years leading up to World War I.

Stromberg wrote:

“How, in the end, are we to explain this so fateful explosion of warlike ideas and sentiments among all manner of European intellectuals in 1914? Of the ingredients we have found to be pervasive, all are important: hatred of the existing society; the apocalyptic “sense of an ending”; need for some kind of worthy cause to give meaning to one’s life; sheer thirst for adventure against the background of a dreary materialism…”  (Redemption by War, Ronald Stromberg)

Fortunately the modern age is much different than the spirit of the early 20th century, as today most individuals are not fervent war supporters. Instead, modern individuals seem to search for a cause which will give meaning to their life in different ways. However, this search for many appears to be a lost cause, as despite the high standard of living we enjoy in the West, the question ‘what is it all for?’ still grips most of us in our moments of solitude.

As the psychologist Victor Frankl pointed out:

“For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” (Viktor Frankl)

Nietzsche announces the death of god in a famous aphorism in his book The Gay Science, called The Madman. In this passage he tells a tale of a madman who runs out onto the street screeching  “I seek God! I seek God!” Understandably, those on the street give him a strange look and continue on with their evening, however, the madman does not cease.

He yells:

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers…There was never a greater event,- and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history before this!” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Despite the madman’s attempt to enlighten his fellow citizens regarding the enormity of the death of god, the individuals on the street pay little attention to him. When he noticed the utter indifference of those around him, “he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished”.

“I come too early, I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling, – it has not reached men’s ears.”

Later in his life, Nietzsche reached the opinion that the loss of faith in true world theories was in fact the most glorious event to befall mankind. In his book, The Gay Science, he wrote:

“In fact, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel as if we are illumined by a new dawn, on receiving the news that “the old God is dead”; our hearts overflow with gratitude, wonder, premonition, anticipation. At last the horizon seems to us open again…the sea, our sea again lies open before us; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.” (The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche)

A universe without god, or without a transcendent purpose driving the lives of men toward a common end, was in fact a universe, according to Nietzsche, where strong and creative individuals could freely sculpt their own worldviews.

However, this attitude of Nietzsche’s did not come naturally, but was an attitude that he came to adopt only after years of struggle, pain, and suffering.  Early in his life, Nietzsche experienced first-hand the misery of living in what he believed to be a godless world; it was a world with no transcendent purpose and thus no meaning, in which mankind had no special place in the scheme of things. In other words, this worldview led him to experience the agony of nihilism.

In one of his earlier works, Human, all too Human, Nietzsche expressed this agony, he wrote:

“But the tragic thing is that we can no longer believe those dogmas of religion and metaphysics, once we have the rigorous method of truth in our hearts and heads, and yet on the other hand, the development of mankind has made us so delicate, sensitive, and ailing that we need the most potent kind of cures and comforts—hence arises the danger that man might bleed to death from the truth he has recognized. Byron expressed this in his immortal lines: Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life.” (Human, all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

The question we will now examine is why he held the conviction that god was dead. In our modern times, it is usually taken for granted that the general decline of faith in religions and true world theories is a result of the growth of the natural sciences.

However, Nietzsche took a different stance. In his book The Dawn, he illuminated his position:

“In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. When in former times one had refuted the “proofs of the existence of God” put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days, atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep. ” (The Dawn, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Nietzsche didn’t think it was possible to refute the existence of true worlds by putting forth an argument which utilized the latest findings ascertained by science, as he understood that true world believers would counter with arguments of their own.

Instead, Nietzsche thought he had refuted the existence of true worlds with his keen and penetrating psychological insights.  He looked into the mind of the believer and understood why it was that they held such beliefs. Faith in true world theories, Nietzsche espoused, fulfilled deep seated psychological needs – such theories were created by individuals in need of solaces to protect them from the harsh realities of this life.

Before we conclude we will examine an apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought with regards to his views on the death of god. In a very important, and often neglected passage from his book Human, all too Human, Nietzsche admits that for all we know a true world, or what here he calls a metaphysical world, could indeed exist. He wrote:

“It is true, there could be a metaphysical world; the absolute possibility of it is hardly to be disputed.” (Human, all too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche)

Of all the misunderstandings Nietzsche has been the victim of in the last century, and there have been many, one of the most erroneous of them all would be to call him a dogmatist. Nietzsche, as the above quote signifies, admitted that a true world, or gods for that matter, could exist for all he knew. As human beings we are fallible animals, and our knowledge of  this vast universe is extremely limited. In terms of the existence of true worlds we really have no way of knowing one way or the other.

This may appear, at first glance, to be a contradiction in Nietzsche’s thoughts. How could he proclaim the death of god while also stating that a true world could exist for all we know?

This possible contradiction is cleared up with the realization that Nietzsche thought that his psychological insights into the mind of the believer had discredited the validity of true world theories, but he did not think it had disproved the existence of a true world, whatever that may be, altogether. In the back of his mind Nietzsche was always aware that he, like all other humans, did not have special access to ultimate truths, whatever such truths would entail. So although he claimed ‘god is dead’, he admitted that in fact a true world in some form or another could indeed exist.

However, Nietzsche himself was steadfast in his conviction to live the rest of his life without believing in any form of a true world. The reason for such a conviction being utilitarian, that is, he thought that his life, and in fact the lives of all human beings, would be more successful without such a belief.

By believing a better life is awaiting one following death, the individual escapes from the responsibility and burden of having to make the most of this life. Thus in discarding faith in true world theories, an individual is left alone in this world with the choice of either making the most of it or spending their days in a state of guilt and self-pity over what could have been.

Therefore, for more than any other reason, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of god because he felt that a world composed of individuals who did not believe in true world theories would be a much better world.

In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, written shortly before Nietzsche descended into madness, he conveyed this idea. He wrote:

“The concept ‘beyond’, ‘true world’ invented in order to devalue the only world there is—in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality!” (Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche)

In the next lecture we are going to investigate the phenomenon of nihilism from Nietzsche’s perspective, looking at, among other things, the difference between active and passive nihilism, and why Nietzsche thought nihilism was a ‘transitional stage’. We will then have put ourselves in a good position for the final lecture, where we will look at different ideas Nietzsche thought would help an individual overcome nihilism.

Further Resources

Good Places to Start One’s Study of Nihilism
The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism (1988) – Donald Crosby
The Self Overcoming of Nihilism (1990) – Keiji Nishitani
The Dark Side: Thoughts on the Futility of Life from the Ancient Greeks to the Present (1994) – Alan Pratt
The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness (1992) – Karen Carr

Nietzsche and Nihilism
The Will to Power – Friedrich Nietzsche
The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (2009) – Bernard Reginster
Nietzsche: A Collection of Critical Essays (1973) – Robert Solomon

Other Nihilistic Works
The Trouble with Being Born – Emile Cioran
A Short History of Decay – Emile Cioran
The Plague – Albert Camus
The Fall – Albert Camus
The Rebel – Albert Camus