God is dead – Friedrich Nietzsche
There’s no one there, you can do what you bloody well like – Kerry Packer (Australian businessman, after being revived from a heart attack).
This post isn’t directly about wellbeing and health as we normally understand them. It is about spirituality (and our values).
What I think about Nietzsche.
1. The first thing that I want to say about Nietzsche is that he could write. Even in translation his prose sings with poetic intensity. (I’ll quote some of his stuff later on).
I don’t know any other philosopher who is a patch on Nietzsche as a writer.
2. When we read Nietzsche we can’t doubt that he is in earnest.
Nietzsche writes with passion. For all his analysis and argument there is no sense of academic detachment.
3. I think he is easily the most important modern philosopher. Firstly because he was the one to most famously say that, “God is dead”. Secondly because he thought seriously and profoundly about what this means.
Nietzsche raises profoundly the question of values. If God doesn’t tell us what is right and wrong, then how are we to know?
“God is Dead”
I would like to quote from the section of The Gay Science which has the most famous declaration of God’s death (Nietzsche said it in other places too; the famous one though is Bk.3 Sec.125). I want to quote extensively from this section (the translation is by Walter Kaufman, Vintage Books 1974).
Have you not heard of the madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” . . . 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 the earth from its sun? . . . Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? . . . Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? . . . Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? . . . “
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners. . . 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 deed is still more distant than the most distant stars-and yet, they have done it themselves.”
This puts with extraordinary force the connection between God (or some transcendent realm) and ethics. If there isn’t something/someone telling us what is right don’t we have nihilism, can’t we do whatever we bloody well like? (as Kerry Packer thought).
Perhaps the only answer to Nietzsche’s challenge is testimony. ‘I know that God is not dead, because of this experience I have had.’ Strange experiences, those which imply some more than material realm, are more common than is often acknowledged. Some are no doubt delusional, but then some people who don’t believe in god are no doubt delusional also. The experiences I have heard of are most often around times of birth, death or other moments of particular emotional intensity. I don’t feel that I need to believe everything I am told, but some of the experiences I have heard of I find convincing.
There are other attempted answers. The most popular one in our culture at the moment seems to be Nature – from Gaia to a new paganism or something much more informal. I find this an unsatisfactory basis for ethics (or at least the kind of ethics I like). It has the problem of showing why it doesn’t lead to Social Darwinism: nature kills off the weakest – so this is what we should do. (Might makes right, the strong should triumph over the weak.) The reply that Nature most of the time is characterised by mutual aid (ants nests are extraordinarily co-operative ‘societies’ for instance) doesn’t quite cut it for me. It doesn’t show why moments of vicious torture and extraordinary cruelty are wrong – it only shows that these shouldn’t be done terribly often (which isn’t exactly what I’m looking for).
For me I have had experiences where I and the other person, when we have been dealing with what matters most to us, and we have both been open to each other, have had a sense of presence that includes and goes beyond either or both of us. I think many of us have experienced these kinds of moments. For me these moments of intimacy are also moments of transcendence. I think our ethics need to have room for these kinds of experience. This may not mean that Nietzsche’s God is alive, but it does seem to me that it means that we have experiences where we sense some kind of transcendence. That these can come in moments of intimacy seems of great importance to developing a human ethic.
Well, this post has certainly been taking on some big themes. I would really value your comments about this. I think we have to deal with Nietzsche and the challenge that he made, I think it lies at the heart of our Western culture. Looking forward to hearing from you.
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