In his 1882 book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche controversially announces the ‘death of God’. What does Nietzsche mean? And is God still ‘dead’?
The Gay Science (1882) is a much-revered text written by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He was a German philosopher and philologist. In the text, he provides an unsystematic representation of one conceptualisation of power. The book contains a considerable number of aphorisms, which are simply pithy observations and tinctured truths. Nietzsche’s aphorism 125 represents a morbid forecast of a world in the aftermath of God’s “death”. The aphorism, entitled “The Parable of the Madman”, tells the story of a “madman” who, with lantern in hand and crazed importunity, dashes into a marketplace searching for God:
“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?’[…] [the madman responds]: 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?
Nietzsche wrote the parable over 130 years ago. This aphorism continues to be important today, especially given the increasing degrees of irreligiosity spreading across the globe. In general, religion continues to increase, internationally, with irreligion increasing in particular areas, especially in Western Europe and North America.
Even with this particuar increase and overall decline in irreligiosity, how is Nietzsche’s rather anomalous aphorism above at all relevant to us today? It centres on the death of God and in the powerful phrase, “We have killed him.” God has been killed. By whom? We did it. We murdered the all-powerful creator of the universe. It is direct, personal, and powerful, and especially accusative. What Nietzsche here means by ‘God’ is the Christian deity. We killed Jesus, or God incarnate, on the Cross. But, then again, what does this really mean?
To answer this question, it would be useful to begin with an explanation of the proverb. So, what’s Nietzsche on about here? Let’s focus on the historical context in which Nietzsche is writing The Gay Science.
He was in Continental Europe. His homeland was Prussia. He was witness to increasing numbers of people discarding their belief in God, or a deity. This was particularly fascinating, and also hauntingly worrying, for Nietzsche for many reasons. The principal reason for this concerns the trap of nihilism. Nihilism is the rejection of every highest moral and religious principle in life. A world and life without firm and eternal values and precepts. Some might argue this leads to the view of life as meaningless and without true moral values – the “why” starts to lack meaning.
With religious Continental Europe and Prussia rejecting God, and so becoming irreligious Prussia and Continental Europe, the question arose for Nietzsche: can we be certain that our previous source of values, i.e., heaven, can be supplanted straightforwardly with a new source? It could have been convoluted, even impossible. Nietzsche’s main concern, as seen in the haughty derision of the madman’s interlocutors, is that many of us (Nietzsche had in mind the British-utilitarians) are so smug in our conviction that all our values will be just as consonant as before in a post Judeo-Christian world that any worries we might have concerning the justification of our values preceding God’s death would be met with confused glares – if not malicious mockery.
Now, what about us today? Whilst Nietzsche thought that a trans-valuation of values was necessary – the principle of the task being the quasi-naturalistic drive in all life he called the ‘will-to-power’ – was crucial to overcome nihilism, many might discount that it is an alien idea and, actually, a little overblown. Is the task really that pressing as Nietzsche thought? Put another way, is the danger of nihilism as threatening as Nietzsche insists? Let’s first explore the worries in more detail.
If we decide to kill God, murder him, many would claim that the end-result will be that we’ll find ourselves unequivocally standing upon a flimsy sort of ethical shifting sand. So, ‘whither is God?’ No God; thus, an unsound foundation for morality at face value. That is, grounds that will, whether we like it or not, cave-into a state of subjectivity in which our values, and the sense of morality that manifests, become a mere product of personal whim – an objective ground of values has thus decomposed. Nothing less than momentary desires, wants, and whims in each person is brought to pass in the aftermath of God’s demise.
Why, in the face of the dissolution of our objective source of morality, should godless people not just gall, exploit, or even harm those around us? What’s the point of doing anything, let alone anything traditionally ‘good’ as opposed to ‘evil’?
Whilst I cannot possibly contend this rather face-value-only view in thorough detail, I will try to give a brief compendium of why many of us are not bereft of the invaluable structures that afford us a solid ground upon which our values are sourced. Like many misunderstandings about value-theory, Nietzsche sadly joins contemporary exponents of the view that values can only be sourced, exclusively, in a timeless supernatural realm. Where, then, are values to be sourced? What other than the supernatural, or the magical-mystical, can our values be based?
Let’s first think about who we are and build upwards from there. I think it would be rather uncontroversial to claim, and I am sure most people would be willing to concede, that who we are is, in many ways, a product of our culture. Indeed, I am certain of the fact. We are constructed from the building blocks of the arts, the humanities, the sciences, the people, the places, the relationships, the cultural customs and norms, and so on, of our environment.
Our beliefs, the power which we are able to yield, our tacit knowledge, gender roles, etc., are largely constructed in virtue of the community – however large or small – with which we are principally associated. This should not be seen as a moot point. However, this should not be seen as some unavoidably determinate condition of our behaviour. Rather, such communal structures can, along with those more innate components of who we are, provide a strong basis for a structurally grounded, but nevertheless individuating, sense of self.
Every product is a result of the various evolutionary selective pressures on us. That is, there will be universals within most or all cultures because we are, as is a truism about every living thing, a product of evolution. What’s more, we are a common species. All more than 7 billion of us. In evolution by natural selection, we have a natural process creating living things, organisms, capable of culture. Our cognitive architecture and subsequent outputs in interaction with the environment; our physical abilities and concomitant limitations. Each the product of evolution, and so with the suite of derivatives from them, especially those under the rubric of “culture”.
Organisms are naturally evolved and culture is derivative of evolutionary processes as products of some species like ourselves. A proper response to Nietzsche’s concern about nihilism follows from this. That being said, there need only be face value concerns about nihilism. In fact, upon further examination, and brief consideration, our evolved tendencies, moral senses and sensibilities, culture, are naturally grounded, and unavoidably so, from a modern scientific standpoint.
And so we have a sufficient universalism in moral senses, or an affirmation of most within a species having an inter-subjectivity, a common range feelings, which is a solipsism with acknowledgement of our being social creatures. We can’t help it. It’s how we evolved. So even if God is dead, a la aphorism 125, and even if we are the culpable murderers of Him, then nihilism is the first conclusion. What else follows from this?
It is something probably best termed sufficient universalism. It is a good-enough, evolved moral sensibility. It develops over time. As with every other organism, every trait we have is the product of evolution. And many of these wax and wane throughout the course of the developmental life course from child to adult to elder. A moral sensibility developing through the life course within a single species is sufficiently universal, and answers the face-value concern of Nietzsche’s “The Parable of the Madman”.
So we can say to Nietzsche and his disquieting disciples: have more faith in us humans. Whilst we (impressively) slay god, whilst we entomb him, whilst we dole out his will-arrangements, we can (impressively) lead valuable, structured and deeply moral lives after he’s dead whilst, of course, gleefully dancing on his grave whose epitaph reads:
“God is Dead – So Let Man Hopeth That His Suffering Doth Die, Too”
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.