Did Nietzsche Kill God?
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
Or did we?
Nietzsche’s aphorism number 125, “The madman”, speaks of the death of God. This aphorism is an expedient spyglass through which to glimpse Nietzsche’s philosophical mind-set. In the following essay I will show how this aphorism contains aspects of philosophy. I will also attempt to show that, in the absence of God, we have failed to affirm life on its own terms, and argue that to do so is not necessary to assign value to this world, here and now.
The Nietzschean critique of Western Metaphysics goes hand in hand with its view of nihilism. The entire history of western metaphysics is, according to the Nietzschean view, a history of nihilism. Nihilism is defined here as ‘the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability’ where the world here and now (hic et nunc) is degraded and not seen as valuable in and of itself. Western metaphysics looks for transcendental signifiers of meaning rather than looking in the space we actually occupy, which Nietzschean philosophy says does indeed have meaning in and of itself. Transcendental signifiers devalue this life in this world hic et nunc. Because western metaphysics looks to such signifiers, it is – for Nietzsche – Nihilistic.
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?
Nietzschean philosophy proposes that all of western metaphysics has degraded life here and now. However it is incorrect to assume that Nietzschean thought leaves the matter there, Nietzsche in fact proposed that Nihilism can and must be overcome. We should value life here and now in and of itself, hence the Nietzschean affirmation arises. The Nietzschean perspective is that contemporary nihilism undermines traditional values and signifiers of meaning; it therefore allows new conceptualisations of meaning which seek to affirm this life in this world hic et nunc. This is the Nietzschean affirmation, which seeks to overcome Nihilism by affirming the value of this world instead of a transcendental one.
The Nietzschean idea of life-affirmation is made possible through the idea of trans-valuation or revaluation. Trans-valuation means altering the manner in which we attribute value and meaning to life and the world. This is a very logically necessary process in Nietzschean philosophy. There seems to be a crevice left by the “death” of God, a hollow that needs to be filled in order to overcome the Nihilism of western history. This void is filled by changing the way in which we attribute value to things and our lives. Instead of relying on transcendental meaning we should focus on life hic et nunc, in so doing we revaluate our world and see it as meaningful on its own terms. Trans-valuation, seeing the world as valuable in and of itself, allows us to affirm life and ultimately overcome Nihilism.
For Nietzsche the death of dogma and of the dogmatic God leaves a path for affirming the present life. In “the madman” Nietzsche says “for the sake of this deed we will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto." Nietzsche sees the death of God has a step in the process to overcome Nihilism.
The Nietzschean Übermensch ties in with the ideas of affirmation and trans-valuation. It is the ultimate figure of existential affirmation. The Übermensch is an entity of becoming, as opposed to being, an embodiment of affirmative will to power, of overcoming the negative. Nietzschean philosophy posits that the Übermensch is not yet in existence. Nihilism must first be overcome and then kept at bay, so to speak, by constant active affirmation. The Übermensch affirms his own life in and of itself, and takes responsibility for his own existence.
Nietzsche’s claim “God is dead…and we have killed him” is more a perceived observation than a judgement. Nietzsche, a post-enlightenment thinker, was influenced by the Spirit of his age. The general criticism surrounding any religious or traditional conviction led to a popular intellectual atheism of the time. Nietzsche’s claim no doubt had something to do with this state of affairs. He merely observed that positivism, science and a reliance on the individual mind in general had begun to replace God. According to Nietzsche, the movement from dogma to free thinking signified the death of God, and opened up the possibility of affirming life on its own terms (overcoming Nihilism). Post-enlightenment men and women no longer had to rely on a God; they had become free-thinkers, unrestrained from the “chains” of religion and the “oppression” of God.
In the absence of God, Nietzsche’s Nihilism, instead of being overcome, and destroying itself, is trapped in an inescapable void. Perhaps life is unaffirmable on its own terms, perhaps the reason we struggle to affirm life here and now in and of itself is because it is not inherently valuable. Yet it is valuable. I don’t think it is Nihilistic to value something for the sake of something greater. Humans sometimes need to look for meaning in things greater than themselves, to rise above themselves, and their weakness. It is in and through the greater causes that real love has endured, real courage been achieved and meaning obtained. If a soldier sacrifices his life for the sake of his country, or a mother for the sake of her children, who is to say that it devalues life? Life does not need to be “affirmed” on its own terms, just as death can be something great – even (or especially?) for the sake of something better.