Death of Deity
By Gabriel Blanchard
Only a few authors can claim to have foreseen (or foreshadowed) the chaos of the twentieth century, but the shadow of Nietzsche lies darkly across it.
Nietzsche is a difficult figure. His first and most lasting interest was classical literature, and he steadfastly maintained that Æschylus and Sophocles were its greatest exemplars, at the expense of Euripides; yet his adulation of strength and power and his carelessness about self-contradiction are about as far from the lofty moral idealism of his two favorite playwrights as one can imagine. He clearly loved to provoke people and took a deeply cynical view of morality; yet certain passages of his work include profound moral insights into human character, like “Distrust all in whom the urge to punish is strong” and “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” Educated as a philologist, Nietzsche spent most of his career writing philosophy; an author of philosophy, he hated Socrates! (One is tempted to reach for Whitman in order to describe him: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”)
Perhaps it will be easier to approach him through his books. His first was The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. Here he set forth his theory of ancient ideas about good and evil as contrasted with modern ideas (which he would expound further in later books); the corpus of classical tragedy, or at any rate of Æschylus and Sophocles, is mainly about these values. More particularly, he said, it expressed a tension between two aspects of life, what he called the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Dionysus was the god of wine and revelry, and the Dionysian was, accordingly, that which is passionate, irruptive, chaotic, and mystical. Apollo’s divine portfolio was rather broad: music, healing, the sun, truth, and archery were all under his purview; to call him the god of the intellect would perhaps get near the unifying thing, and the Apollonian (on Nietzsche’s view) was that which is logical, restrained, orderly, and critical. A fusion of both, however, is needed to write plays. Without order a play is incomprehensible, while without passion it is hopelessly dull; and even though Apollo rules the Muses, nonetheless Dionysus is the god of the theater. Nietzsche argued vigorously that with Euripides, drama—culture in general, even—had turned too far to its Apollonian side, granting too much to the rational and abstract.
In 1883 he wrote possibly the most celebrated of his books, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Now, this is a cryptic book, and even scholars of Nietzsche debate its meaning. “Zarathustra” here is the same person as Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian faith. The book presents the reader with a fictional narrative of his life. As represented here, the great Persian prophet reasons almost invariably by paradoxes and arbitrary claims, one of the most famous being the message he opens with: God is dead.
While Nietzsche was an atheist, the idea behind this slogan was not merely atheism but a whole metaphysic. The point of God is dead was that the deity and the consensus values that went with it—particularly the social and ethical ones—were culturally “dead”: unproductive, unattractive, and unbelievable. If civilization were to continue, we would need something to put in the place of these values as a unifying agent. This stuff is closely related to his writings on the Übermensch, conventionally translated “super-man”; it might also be rendered “beyond-man.” This Übermensch was the kind of person, or being, who was capable of accepting the new value schema, and fated by nature to triumph over lesser mortals.
This brings us to that schema, which he set forth in several of his works, such as Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals, The Twilight of the Idols, and The Antichrist. As the last of these titles suggests, it was a self-consciously anti-Christian system. Based upon (or at any rate argued in terms of) the linguistic history of the words good, bad, and evil,* he proposed an “aristocratic” set of values that had been the self-affirming ideals of ancient and heroic ages. The good was understood in terms of health, strength, beauty, pleasure, glory, and the like; the bad was straightforwardly their opposite qualities of disease, weakness, ugliness, pain, infamy, and so on. He compares these triumphant heroes to eagles preying on sheep. Their concept of goodness essentially means being powerful enough to get what you happen to want, and doing so.
And what do the “sheep” think about this? He answered that the weak, since they are impotent to effect the physical retaliation any creature would naturally want to enjoy against its predators, instead fashion a spiritual retaliation by inventing a new idea: the evil. To the weak, evil is those qualities which prey upon them—the very qualities prized in the aristocratic schema. He called this slave morality, and its opposite master morality. Master morality celebrates the blessings of power, pride, conquest; slave morality replies, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers.”
Both moral systems are (on Nietzsche’s showing) entirely self-interested, but they have two important differences. First, the master is more honest, pretending neither to himself nor to others that he doesn’t want what he really wants. Second, because his desires are not frustrated, he is not vindictive or jealous about them, not the type to hold a grudge; he may even indulge the pleasures of magnanimity, showing kindness to rivals and victims precisely because he can afford to. The slave, on the other hand, is not only resentful but wholly controlled by that resent; though H. G. Wells was the one who said it, his view is well expressed in the words “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.” Nietzsche believed that slave morality had taken revenge upon the great empires of the ancient world, and particularly the Roman Empire, by means of Christianity, whose emphasis on virtues like self-restraint and compassion seemed to him the epitome of the slavish outlook. The cure was a return to “master morality,” to be accomplished by and for the Übermensch.
Nietzsche’s legacy is a largely negative one, though the reasons for this are more complex than they sometimes get credit for. His moments of moral profundity notwithstanding, it is hard for the religious reader to feel comfortable with his militant hatred of religion, or for most readers to sympathize with his contempt for values like compassion. He is particularly infamous for the use the Nazis made of his work: they readily identified themselves with the Übermensch and claimed to be the restorers of western civilization he called for. But Nietzsche’s real relation to anti-Semitism is surprisingly hard to parse. He himself was an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism in life, and many of his remarks about the Jewish people were altered by his sister, who inherited the rights to his books after his death, and was herself a vicious anti-Semite. On the other hand, he did identify them as a (even the) source of “slave morality,” and repeatedly referred to Christianity by names like “Jewish hatred.” He may have been quite sincere in consciously opposing anti-Semitism, but it is very unlikely he was so free of it as he supposed. His ingenuity and style produce moments of brilliance; nonetheless, and more perhaps than any other single writer on our Author Bank, Nietzsche must be taken with a grain of salt.
*Strictly speaking, as he was of course writing in German, the words in question were gut, schlecht, and böse. The English word good is related to the German gut, but the etymologies of schlecht and böse relate them to our slight (in all three of its senses) and boast, rather than to bad or evil respectively.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.
If you’d like to read about some of our pleasanter authors, take a look at these brief biographies of Jane Austen, Marie de France, or St. Augustine. You might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT founder Jeremy Tate.
Published on 5th December, 2022.