God is Dead Morality — Friedrich Nietzsche and Hell Unleashed
With today’s philosopher in our series, we have arrived at the end of the road on our journey through the ideas that have led to the moral (or lack thereof) world in which we live. It all culminates here. To this point we have examined the “thinkers,” those who engaged in ideas. After this we have those who put the ideas into practice. What began with Machiavelli in the 1500s now ends with a man who self-identified himself as the anti-Christ: Friedrich Nietzsche.
If you look back in history you often find two or more concurrent events that, while seemingly unrelated at the time, appear to be incredibly coincidental or perhaps providentially planned.
In 1886, a book was published entitled Beyond Good and Evil by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In the same year the reigning Pontiff, Leo XIII, mandated that the Prayer to St. Michael be said at the foot of the altar after every low Mass. Legend has it that this prayer was composed as a result of a vision that Pope Leo XIII had of Satan unleashed for one hundred years. Whether the legend is true or not it cannot be denied that, from a particular point of view, the prayer was a providential response to the ideas contained in the book.[i]
Nietzsche, of course, is famous for his line “God is dead.” What most people don’t know is that it was not a cry of triumph but one of despair, uttered by a madman, who was confronted by a dwindling civilization.
“Whither is God? … I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are murderers…. Is there any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?… God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” [ii]
As much as I disagree with Nietzsche I have to admit that I admire him insofar as he took his atheism to its logical conclusion, and paid the price for it by losing his sanity. [iii] Nietzsche was brutally honest about what atheism meant and would probably view our modern celebrity atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc.) with contempt and disgust for their lukewarm, humanitarian version of atheism.
Nietzsche and the “superman”
Beginning with Machiavelli we see an intimate connection between the ideas that we have been examining and the final end point that is Nietzsche. The problem for Nietzsche, however, is that he concluded that all those that went before him were ultimately cowards when it came to the ultimate meaning of what it means to reject God-based morality.
A quick review here is needed.
Machiavelli, while not declaring outright atheism, counseled in The Prince that a ruler ought to disregard the question of whether actions were good or evil but rather if they were effective in obtaining and keeping power.
Hobbes advanced a view of human nature wherein good and evil were synonymous with likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain.
Darwin gave us the system by which morality was defined as that which contributed to the “survival of the fittest.” Elimination of the weak and success of the strong is what drives species forward and upward. Abandonment of a creating God implied that mankind could evolve to heights far beyond their current level.
And finally we have the input of John Stuart Mill, namely, that what is moral is that which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
While agreeing with most of his predecessors in principle, by the time Mill was finished presenting his ideas Nietzsche had had enough. Utility was the height of mediocrity and simply meant that the lowest, most base animal-like pleasures would end up swamping the gene pool with the “less gifted.”
You want, if possible — and there is no more insane “if possible” — to abolish suffering? And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it — that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible — that makes his destruction desirable.
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering — do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness-was it not granted through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?[iv]
Think of all the great accomplishments in history. The pyramids, the Roman Empire, the Sistine Chapel or going to the moon. These were only achieved through great struggle and sacrifice, hardship and in some cases slavery and death. This is the cost of human greatness. It pays in the coin of pain, and it would be destroyed if pain was rendered as evil while pleasure was extolled.
Nietzsche married this understanding of the role of suffering with another principle: a great aristocratic contempt for mediocrity. Those who are proponents of democracy may not comprehend his disdain but they cannot deny it:
None of these ponderous herd animals…wants to know or even sense that “the general welfare” is no ideal, no goal, no remotely intelligible concept, but only an emetic — that what is fair for one cannot by any means for that reason alone also be fair for others; that the demand of one morality for all is detrimental for the higher men; in short, that there is an order of rank between man and man, hence also between morality and morality. They are a modest and thoroughly mediocre type of man, these utilitarian Englishmen.[v]
Nietzsche saw utilitarianism as a slave morality, reducing everyone to mediocrity and holding back the aristocratic in character. What was needed, in Nietzsche’s mind, was for a revolution against this democratic, herd-like, utilitarian spirit. If not, then greatness would be extinguished: “Every enhancement of the type ‘man’ has so far been the work of an aristocratic society — and it will be so again and again — a society that believes in the long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and man, and that needs slavery in some sense or other.”[vi]
For Nietzsche it was a historic fact that there had to be masters and slaves. He held that barbarians conquering the weaker, more civilized man proved them the stronger in will, that “in the beginning [therefore], the noble caste was always the barbarian caste.”[vii] This is in line with what Darwin wrote in his Descent of Man. As Wiker points out “The similarities between Darwin’s account and Nietzsche’s are obvious: all rising above the merely animal is caused by struggle, war, and the brutal elimination of the less fit by the stronger. Nietzsche believed this to be the core natural truth of aristocracy, that the better should rule over, and hence should use, the lesser.”[viii]
Nietzsche, however, disagreed with Darwin in three major ways. Firstly, Darwin saw sympathy as the highest moral development of evolution. Nietzsche saw it as destructive of the evolutionary drive forward and was hence a self-contradiction on Darwin’s part. Secondly, Darwin focused on survival as the reason for evolutionary growth while Nietzsche saw it as a property of the fittest, the ability to will-to-power, projected strength not just survival, the difference between the turkey, which survives, and the eagle, which radiates majestic power. And thirdly, while both see morality as a process of evolution Nietzsche divides them into two categories: master morality and slave morality.
Master morality is the natural morality of the stronger over the weaker. For the aristocrat there is no good or evil. There is “noble” and “contemptible,” “master-like” and “slave-like.” Whatever is strong and great is good, whatever is weak and trivial is bad. Slave morality, for Nietzsche, is the attempt by the weaker to protect themselves from the stronger.
Suppose the violated, oppressed, suffering, unfree, who are uncertain of themselves and weary, moralize: what will their moral valuations have in common?… The slave’s eye is not favorable to the virtues of the powerful: he is skeptical and suspicious, subtly suspicious, of all the “good” that is honored there [by the aristocrat] — he would like to persuade himself that even their happiness is not genuine. Conversely, [in slave morality] those qualities are brought out and flooded with light which serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendliness are honoured-for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring existence [for the slave]. Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility.[ix]
If this “slave morality” sounds a lot like Christianity you would not be far off. Nietzsche sees the Judeo-Christian religions as the cause of the decline of the West.
Christianity has been the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet. Men, not high and hard enough to have any right to form man as artists; men, not strong and farsighted enough to let the foreground law of thousandfold failure and ruin prevail, though it cost them sublime self-conquest; men, not noble enough to see the abysmally different order of rank, chasm of rank, between man and man — such men have so far held sway over the fate of Europe, with their “equal before God,” until finally a smaller, almost ridiculous type, a herd animal, something eager to please, sickly, and mediocre has been bred, the European of today.[x]
The solution to this crisis then, for Nietzsche, was the needed rise of the ubermensch, the overman (super-man), who would be willing to risk all for the advancement of humanity.
Ideas have consequences
Nietzsche lamented that “God is dead,” not because he believed in God but rather because the demanding nature of a morality based on a judging God, “with its original asceticism, absolute demands, passionate desire to suffer with and for Christ, the difficult virtues, the awe before the divine, the self-abnegation, and the saintly heroic struggle were degraded through liberal Christianity and then through godless utilitarian liberalism into a kind of charity of softness that demanded nothing while it provided for every earthly comfort.” [xi] The destruction of Christianity (God is dead) brought about the utilitarian “animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims.”[xii]
Nietzsche’s answer to the problem of the soft and pleasure seeking European was not a return to Christian strengths but rather a recapturing of the natural aristocracy that is pitiless and cruel in its demand for greatness and its contempt for slave-like desires for mere physical pleasure. The “ubermensch” would assert his will-to-power over the mediocre herd-like men and through suffering and struggle drive human evolution forward. For this to happen Nietzsche saw the need for a great danger to present itself so that it would call forth the desire to fight and conquer:
I mean such an increase in the menace of Russia [for example] that Europe would have to resolve to become menacing, too, namely, to acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe, a long, terrible will of its own that would be able to cast its goals millennia hence — so that the long-drawn-out comedy of its many splinter states as well as its dynastic and democratic splinter would come to an end. The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth — the compulsion to large-scale politics.[xiii]
In his own way Nietzsche was prophetic in foreseeing the devastation that would soon befall Europe through two world wars.
The rejection of God that began with Machiavelli finds its logical conclusion in Nietzsche. In him we see the full implications of godlessness: a world without good and evil, a world ruled by the will to power, a world of immense suffering, cruelty and man’s inhumanity towards man seen on a level never before witnessed in history. The twentieth century ran with blood, both on the battlefield and in the womb. A world without God has become a world where hell has been unleashed.
Nietzsche was not wrong in his contempt for the mediocrity of Europe in his century. We see God’s similar disgust in scripture when we read in Revelation that “because you are lukewarm …I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). In a way Nietzsche was truly the “anti-Christ” for his solution was the complete opposite of Christ’s. Nietzsche’s godlessness led him to the ubermensch who lorded his power over the weak but had he responded to God’s grace he would have discovered that the answer was not in the over-man but rather the saint, that suffering was in reality the embracing of our daily Cross and that the battle needed to move men forward was the spiritual combat that we are all engaged in.
[i] The origin of the Leonine vision is hard to pin down and confirm. No written record was made by Pope Leo XIII and the first verbal account seems to date from several decades after his death. Regardless of whether the account is true or not we can conclude two things: firstly, it is self-evident that the great evils of the last 100 years seem to indicate an increase in demonic activity and secondly, it is also clear that the Prayer to St. Michael was indeed timely and providential.
[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1974), section 125, as quoted in Benjamin Wiker, 10 Books That Screwed Up The World, (Regnery Press, Washington, D.C., 2008), p100-113
[iii] There are two theories as to what caused Nietzsche’s condition. The commonly held theory is that it was due to neurosyphilis while another posits frontotemporal dementia. Either way, what affects the soul affects the body and so, in my non-medical estimation, I think there is some correlation between the two. http://mindhacks.com/2006/12/01/what-caused-nietzsches-insanity-and-death/
[iv] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Walter Kaufmann, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1966), section 225
[v] Ibid, section 228
[vi] Ibid, section 257
[vii] Ibid, section 257
[viii] Wiker, p107
[ix] Nietzsche, section 260
[x] Ibid, section 62
[xi] Wiker, p111
[xii] Nietzsche, section 203
[xiii] Ibid, section 208