The death of God (and politics?)

The ‘death of God’ requires examination before we can really understand how it will impact our political landscape. If God and all that he stands for is dead, then the foundation of Christian values and all culture that sprung from the Christian religion is rendered meaningless. It goes beyond just claiming that God does not exist, at the crux of the idea is a newfound awareness that the foundations of our beliefs are gone. The death of God necessitates rejecting the metaphysical basis for what we traditionally hold dear. It is important to note that it is not just an attack on Christianity; Nietzsche rejects any attempt to avoid responsibility for our beliefs and actions. Once this is accepted we are presented with the opportunity to rethink the purpose of politics, but is this opportunity at the cost of well-loved values? This essay will seek to fully investigate the significance of the death of God and if it is possible to combat the crisis of authority that nihilism gives us.

Nietzsche is arguably not a traditional political philosopher, there is no one text that can be held up and identified as his politics and his ideas change throughout his life and works. This, in conjunction with his bold aphorisms often leaves Nietzsche’s work open to misappropriation, most infamously by the Nazis. Mark Warren notes that although there are vast amounts of commentaries that defend Nietzsche from this abuse, often this defence comes from showing Nietzsche as antipolitical and frequently “remain[ing] silent about political implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy” (Warren, 1985, p 184). However, Nietzsche’s ideas do have very significant political implications, so even if the ideas have been abused, or are unpopular, they are still worth studying, especially the death of God. Nietzsche can be read as having a strong connection to poststructuralist thought; the idea that there are no fixed rules and language is a construct which props everything else up has huge political ramifications. So regardless of the fact there is no codified politics from Nietzsche this is not to say he is not a political philosopher.

With the ‘death of God’ Nietzsche is articulating his thought that the Christian values were coming to an end, consequently, “our individual lives no longer had any purpose or meaning” (Robinson, 1999, p3) it reduced our key ideas and values in Western thought to metaphysics devoid of foundation. To fully appreciate the gravitas of the claim there cannot simply be a new horizon or a new ‘God’. For example, despite someone being an atheist, that person is reluctant to say that they have no basis for their moral beliefs; this is to say that there has been a rejection of God as the bedrock for their values and beliefs, but there is a replacement, which needn’t be a religious one. This is erroneous because God is not simply the bedrock of Christian cosmology but is also a metaphor for any “an external authority” which serves as the foundations of our beliefs (Gemes, 1992, p50). Nietzsche argues that death of God and the new modernity we find ourselves in, renders it senseless to appeal to the concepts that we have traditionally attached to the Christian religion, because there is nothing with which to ground them on. It is not enough to embrace atheism, as often atheists carry on living out the Christian moral code, or something else fuels their believes, such as science or reason. This is the thought Nietzsche is considering in §125 of Gay Science – when the citizens laugh at the ‘madman’, they do so because they have not yet recognised the real political and moral significance of the death of God. When fully comprehended the real political significance of the death of God, is nihilism. Nihilism is an unappealing state of affairs, however, perhaps it can be considered as a positive if one considers it as a necessary transitionary period on the way to something better, as Ansell-Pearson suggests, it is “the advent of nihilism which provides the opportunity for a revolution in language and knowledge” (Ansell-Person, 1994, p35).

The death of God makes the moral certainty of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ impossible (Golomb and Wistrich, 2002, p4). Thus we cannot say that the amount of people starving is evil for example, this is unsettling because conceptions of politics sometimes involve combatting ‘evils’. However, can we have the revolution Ansell-Pearson suggests? It requires a positive view of nihilism, and this can only really begin to happen when one accepts there is no truth, or value, or meaning in itself. Truth is like a mysterious woman, and for Nietzsche there is no point in pursuing her (BGE, prologue) – we have been misguided and enthralled by the promise of the truth, but now we no longer have to be. As such, we are in a position to cast aside the moralities of democracy and Christianity as these are meant for the ‘weak herd’ we can then have a “real intellectual liberation” (ibid, p238). This will occur due to individuals who embrace the thought that “[…] the horizon appears free again to us […] at last our ships my venture out again […] perhaps there never has been such an ‘open sea’ (Gay Science, §434, p280), we have a freedom to construct something new. Nietzsche tells us the ‘madman’ came too early: humanity is not ready for the full consequence of the death of God, and this lack of understanding is epitomised by the citizens laughing at the ‘madman’ and the point that Robinson identifies, namely that all humanity did was replace Christianity with something like a faith in science or reason, but these are “equally bankrupt” (Robson, 1999, p7).

We have now entered a period of modernity characterised by this nihilism; Warren identifies nihilism as being powerless and causes the “collapse of Christian culture” (Warren, 1985, p189). Our “conceptual apparatus” (Ansell-Pearson, 1994, p34), the tools which we view the world by are no longer viable and so the “world seems devoid of meaning, aim or purpose” we are deprived of the values that once helped us to make sense of the world (ibid). In terms of politics it is now not possible, for example, to condemn someone for murder, as we have nothing to appeal to when we want to make a case for the inherent value of life. Nietzsche describes it as “the most terrible, most questionable, and perhaps the most hopeful of all spectacles (GM III §27). It is terrible in that it requires a rejection of our cherished beliefs, such as a right to life in the above example, but it is hopeful for the reason that we are in the position to construct a counter-ideal. Nietzsche wants to avoid this pessimistic nihilism; to be able to do this requires a presentation of a counter-ideal and how we achieve this. Before we can arrive at this counter-ideal, full explication of the political manifestations of nihilism is needed.

 If nihilism removes meaning from our lives, it seems to decree that political action and progress is not possible because we do not have a meta-narrative to ground our beliefs upon. This has further implications upon our agency, because if nihilism signifies that our capacity of reason can no longer be used to explain a transcendental foundation, when this is put in conjunction with the absence of any other framework for self-understanding we are confronted with a “paralysis of individual agency” (Warren, 1985, p190). This paralysis comes from the scenario that the tools we once used to comprehend our experiences and to direct our actions no longer work.

This is a worrying political implication for two main reasons. Firstly, when we consider what characterises ‘agency’: rationality, morality, and freedom, these come from an appeal to metaphysics above us, so if Nietzsche has rejected metaphysics then he has also rejected agency and the qualities that come with it. To reply to this, we can suggest that Nietzsche has not rejected metaphysics, only that he has shown us how metaphysics defeats itself via our scholarly detachment and attachment to science: The Will To Truth. A manifestation of the Will To Power has been pitched against Christianity. Our search for the truth has shown it to be untenable. This is what is meant by the claim we killed God, because we have revealed that we cannot appeal to a fixed external truth. However, Nietzsche can still hold onto the positives of human agency by including them in the new evaluation of politics. In fact he does this when referencing the ‘sovereign individual’ (GM II §1-2), a person who can master himself. A second worrying impact of nihilism is how can we hope to continue with political action that seeks to better the lives of others if we cannot draw upon human rights or democratic principles, as with the rejection of metaphysics comes the rejection of an appeal to reason or justice which often serves as the justification for democratic ideals. This essay does not see a difference in appealing to a God or something like Utilitarianism, for example – they are both external apparatus guiding our actions and telling us what is right and wrong. It is far easier to get people to act via an appeal to a higher source, and as Nietzsche argues, it is far harder to craft truths then claim discovery of them.

This shows the other manifestation of nihilism, how it renders the idea of there being one singular truth as invalid, this is his Perspectivism. It shows how ‘truth’ is made by humans to help understand the world, and this changes from person to person. It means that the only knowledge available for humans is knowledge of our direct experience, it is futile to attempt to find knowledge of the thing in itself, as any search to what the world ‘really is’ as a thing in itself necessarily involves the process of imposing categories that humans have constructed. So, talk of a transcendent non-physical world as the source for good makes no sense, as all we can know is our own private world. Thus, the philosophies of Plato, the Christians or Enlightenment thinkers who sought knowledge of a “single objective, noumenal or transcendent truth is an error” (Robinson, 1999, pp57-58), but despite this, it is not needed for the development of the human species.

Following from this discussion, a question to ask is why is it possible to consider nihilism as ‘hopeful’? The hope arguably comes from the new position that ‘truth’ now occupies. Nietzsche’s perspectivism holds there is not ‘one truth’ to be discovered. It may prima facie appear that perspecitivism is the same as relativism, but this would be misguided. Perspectivism does argue that there is no one truth, but not that it is impossible to dismiss different ‘truths’. When Nietzsche writes “the falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement” (BGE: 1 §4 p35) he is telling us that we can hold judgements about claims to truth, As Warren explains, truth claims allow us to interoperate the world in such a way to help us achieve goals with our actions (Warren, 1985, p195) it follows, then, that Nietzsche wants to preserve the ‘truths’ that promote life and preserve the species, as he puts it the most “life-advancing” (BGE: 1 §4 p35). This can allay fears that the new politics would just be a hedonistic bacchanalian party – in fact, totally unrestrained desires would be far too destructive and would not be tolerated.

We are now in a position to see that the death of God gives us as modernity characterised by nihilism – this is an undesirable situation, and for a while it seemed that it would have a debilitating effect upon politics. However, by embracing perspectivism and understanding that it does not equate to relativism we can now see the clear horizon and construct our ‘counter-ideal’. This ‘counter-ideal’ is the embodiment of the ideas that satisfy our cognitive interests (Conway, 1992, p147) and our cognitive interests are those that develop humanity. When first confronted with this idea, it can perhaps read some kind of society based upon equality, where everyone can thrive and help each other. This is not exactly the picture that Nietzsche envisaged.

In Beyond Good and Evil, we are told that “everything evil, terrible, tyrannical in man, everything in him that is akin to beasts of prey and serpents, serves the enhancement of the species ‘men’ as much as its opposite does”, (BGE 2: §44 p72). We can no longer rely on the Christian distinctions of good and evil. We have an opportunity to ‘re-do’ politics. There is a need for a new type of person to do this. An individual or group, who would understand and rejoice in this new state of affairs, who will then help to construct this new politics? Foot’s essay tells us that this construction is “for the sake of the ‘higher’ man” and “that the values of Christian morality must be abandoned” (Foot, 2001, p215), thus we can start to see some un-palatable political significances of the death of God. There is now no longer the assumption that we should look after the weak, in fact the strong man will no longer be condemned by society; rather he will be rewarded in line with the consequences of the rejection of the dogmatic slave morality that has followed from the birth of Christianity. This is essentially characterising the idea of the ‘great politics’ a state of affairs where we are governed by the laws laid down by the philosopher-legislators, it is these people – the strong but the few – who will overturn the old virtues.

Along with a rejection of Christianity there is strident rejection of democracy, Nietzsche’s account is that “not only [is it] a decadent political movement, but a pronounced diminution of man, which lowers his value and turns him into a mediocrity” (Zeitlin, 1994, p45). To some members of modern audiences Nietzsche’s rejection of democracy is not pleasant, specifically as he rejects democracy largely due to his view that exploitation “pertains to the essence of the living thing” as it is part of the Will to Power, and therefore is totally unavoidable (BGE 9 §269 p194), it is part of what it means to be man to seek to dominate others. Further to this there is a glorification of the differences the masters and the slaves that is contra to traditional conceptions of democracy. He argues that there is a need for slavery and the “pathos of difference” (ibid) the huge separation between the noble and the slave is encouraged by Nietzsche’s morality, ideas such as these seem to be the total negation of an idea of democracy. The ruling caste is up made up of the ideal man, the Ubermensch: characterised as masterful and an individual who has a thirst for life and power. The master needs no external validation and would laugh at the thought of dedicating their life to the service of “the poor and helpless” (Rogers, 1912, p34). These noble men look down on the subjects as the instruments needed to elevate man, as such they recognise that in order to produce culture, you “ought not to yield to any humanitarian illusions” (ibid). We can see that Nietzsche’s origins and purpose of the state are totally at odds with democratic understanding – the state is not for everyone on the contrary, it is for the powerful few. The state for Nietzsche rests on difference, and the superiority of the noble ruling class, whereas (at least with an ideal form of democracy) there is the assumption that everyone is equal and should be treated as such. As Warren surmises, Nietzsche was advocating a society that ran on slavery with the majority as instruments because the only justification for society “is as a foundation […] which a select class of beings may be able to elevate themselves to a higher existence” (Rogers, 1912, p38).

So from this, we can see that one account of Nietzsche’s counter-ideal is the Radical Aristocracy – the political significance of the death of God has been the opportunity to reject our allegiance to democracy and reverse the slave revolt in morality, placing the nobles back in power as Foot indicates. However, is there an alternative? Is it possible, to still live by something like democracy in a way that Nietzsche’s philosophy allows. Nietzsche argues that rather than the grand life following the death of God, we are left with something “contemptible”, where we live in the “universal green-meadow happiness of the herd” (Rogers, 1912, p45). Rogers’ response is that we can agree that this is not a good idea, but do not have to agree that the ‘happiness of the herd’ is intrinsic to democracy. Rogers also identifies that Nietzsche’s ideal seems to only work when we are in a state of fear – he asks how can we maintain this toughness when, for example, there is no external threat of war?

He replies to this worry, by saying that we can create artificial fear, we can use threats a social tool to keep the lesser people in line.

Rogers’ main criticism is attacking Nietzsche’s notion of what excellence is and therefore criticising the ‘pathos of distance’, essentially saying that caste is not the way to establish superiority. Rogers goes further and says that the moment we use men as “mere tools” (ibid p46) we set our standards lower. The divergence between the philosophers comes from Rogers’ definition that excellence does not come from people being inferior to you; rather the excellent individual is the one who is “pacemaker” who sets the benchmark for his competitors (ibid). Thus it means we can still have something resembling the values attributed to democracy, as Rogers does not include exploitation and caste difference in his definition, yet still avoiding anti-life affirming mediocrity. Although Rogers does present a more appealing case, we are left with the issue that these are two competing perspectives; all we can ask is which perspective best serves the interests of humanity. I am inclined to agree that Nietzsche’s notion of ‘great politics’ is perhaps the best way of advancing ‘healthy’ perspectives that overcome herd morality, and advance humanity.

In conclusion, this essay has sought to show that the death of God has huge political implications. When examined closely we can see that the nihilism we have to deal with need not result in political paralysis, as long as the nobles, those who have overcome man are the ones step forward and forge our new values. It is the case that perhaps to modern audiences the new parameters of politics that the nobles draw up will potentially seem undesirable as they are at base a negation of the values, which we have clung onto since the Slave Revolt in Morality, but at least we will be free from the lies that we tell ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Ansell-Pearson, K., 1994, An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political thinker: the perfect nihilist, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 

Conway, D. W., Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy by Maudemarie Clark, The Review of Metaphysics vol. 46(1) pp146-148

 

Foot, P. 2001. Nietzsche: The Revaluation of Values. In: Richardson, J., and Leiter, B., ed(s). Nietzsche. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp210-220

Gemes, K., 1992, Nietzsche’s Critique of Truth, Philosophy & Phenomological Research, vol. 52(1) pp47-65

 

Nietzsche, F., 1882, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Kaufmann, W., 1974, New York: Vintage Books

 

Nietzsche, F., 1886, Beyond Good and Evil, prelude to a philosophy of the future, trans. Hollingdale, R. J, 1973, London: Penguin Books

 

Nietzsche, F., 1887, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Smith, D., 1996, London: Penguin Books

 

Owen, D., 1995, Nietzsche, politics and modernity, London: SAGE

 

Robinson, D., 1999, Nietzsche and Postmodernism, Cambridge: Icon Books

 

Rogers, A. K., 1912, Nietzsche and Democracy, The Philosophical Review vol. 21(1) pp32-50

 

Warren, M., 1985, Nietzsche and Political Philosophy, Political Theory vol. 13(2) pp183-212

 

Zeitlin, I. M., 1994, Nietzsche: a re-examination, Cambridge: Polity Press

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