Nietzsche and the End of Modernity?

Nietzsche and the End of Modernity?

Human beings suffer. The suffering of the human being is unique amongst all creatures on the Earth, for it is only the human being who poses the decisive question: ‘Why am I here?’ That is to say, unlike any other animal, the human being seeks a purpose, a meaning, a goal to their existence. In an attempt to answer this question, humans have developed elaborate systems in the form of art, religion, morality, and philosophy. In so doing, man has found a means of making life endurable.  

   The dominant system in the West has been Christianity, according to which this life is one of suffering, but it is nevertheless a temporary one which leads to an afterlife either of eternal salvation or damnation. For the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), writing in the context of such minds as David Strauss and Charles Darwin, the great catastrophe of the West is that this very system, this attempt by man to answer the question ‘Why?’, has collapsed. ‘The lightning bolt of truth’, Nietzsche tells us, ‘struck that which formerly stood highest (EH: ‘Why I am a Destiny’, 8). Nietzsche, the son of a devout Lutheran pastor and himself a student of theology, declares in 1882:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?’ (The Gay Science: 125).

There can be no overstating the profound significance of this event. For the death of God (arguably) entails the collapse of the very ‘idols’ that mankind relies upon in order to live at all: objective truth and objective morality. There is neither eternal salvation nor eternal justice. The objectives of the contemporary ‘social justice’ movement presuppose dead truths. As Nietzsche writes:

‘The time is coming when we shall have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years; we have lost the essential thing on which our lives depend; for a long while we will not know what to do with ourselves’ (The Will to Power: 30).

   Nietzsche was not the first to declare the death of God. Hegel had made that statement decades before. Yet, Nietzsche was the first to truly appreciate the full implications of this event. When Nietzsche declares that God is dead, he means that belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable. The death of God, Nietzsche maintains, is a consequence of Christianity itself, which like Plato esteemed ‘Truth’ to be the highest good, and in pursuing this goal it reached the conclusion it never thought possible: that God is our ‘most enduring lie’ (The Gay Science: 344, cf. The Will to Power: ‘For the Plan’). In this sense, Nietzsche sees the Enlightenment pursuit of Truth as being one and the same with the goal of Christianity. The values of individual dignity and human equality esteemed by the Enlightenment and dressed up by philosophers in the language of rational objectivity are for Nietzsche Christian values. Thus, to him, the Enlightenment, far from being the repudiation of the Christian world-view, is its continuation, and a supreme example of what Nietzsche castigates as the ‘prejudices of philosophers’ (Beyond Good and Evil). The chief philosophic prejudice, according to Nietzsche, is the pretence to pursue objective truth. Nietzsche interprets philosophy as being successive attempts by great minds to flee from the face of reality and construct higher worlds, from Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’ to Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ and, in so doing, ‘revenge themselves against life’ (Twilight of the Idols: III, 6). In its pursuit of the ‘will to truth’ the Enlightenment made inevitable its own collapse; the unrestrained pursuit of truth leads to its own devaluation. If we take ‘modernity’ to be synonymous with the Enlightenment, then the death of God would suggest nothing less than the eclipse of modernity.

   The death of God unleashes an age of nihilism, when ‘there is no goal, no answer to the question: why?’ and ‘the highest values devalue themselves’ (The Will to Power: 2). In other words, with the death of God comes the collapse of the very values that have dominated the West for two thousand years. To use the Jungian phrase, the death of God brings man before the ‘void’, from which he turns away in ‘horror’.[1] Nietzsche’s great fear is that once men come to realize the full implications of the death of God, they will conclude that nothing is worth striving for, which is essentially at one with Schopenhauer’s conviction – consolation? - that it would be better to never have been born. This for Nietzsche is the greatest of errors since the collapse of Christianity does not entail the collapse of all meanings, merely those that orient themselves around a transcendent world, that is, a world other than our own.

   Precisely because man is a creature who suffers and, as such, requires an answer to the question of why he suffers (On the Genealogy of Morals: III, 28), Nietzsche foresaw that men would seek out new sources of meaning to guide their lives. With a prescience that has proven nothing short of uncanny, Nietzsche predicted that those who came after him would replace the worship of God with the worship of the state, the ‘coldest of all cold monsters’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: I, 2), and that the convulsions wrought by the death of God would bring about ‘wars the like of which have never been seen before on Earth’ (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am a Destiny’, 1). The worship of God gave way to the worship of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles!’, with terrible consequences for the twentieth century.

   And herein lies Nietzsche’s crucial point. The Western philosophical canon from Plato onwards has esteemed ‘Truth’ to be the highest good. In response, Nietzsche simply asks: Why? Why esteem truth over falsity? What if, as Nietzsche argues in Beyond Good and Evil, error is of higher value to man than truth? To paraphrase Nietzsche:

‘What if all that which was hitherto at stake in philosophy was not at all truth but life itself?’ (The Gay Science: Preface to the Second Edition)

In posing this question alone Nietzsche sets himself up as the antithesis to Plato. For two thousand years, Western man has been guided by the lie of Christianity. This lie served man for as long as it lasted, preventing him from being overcome by the sufferings of this mortal world. Hence, much like the young Marx before him, Nietzsche appreciates the deep need that religion fulfils for man by providing a means by which we can cope with the ‘vale of tears’ that is this world. The death of God creates the need for new lies, new horizons, new ‘truths’ to guide man. Hence, Nietzsche’s call for a ‘revaluation of all values’. It is in this sense that Nietzsche considers the death of God to be not only a great disaster but also a great opportunity.

   Indeed, according to Nietzsche, the Christian valuation system has not affirmed life but has turned against it, postulating like Plato a ‘higher’ world of ‘being’ as against this mortal world of mere ‘becoming’ (Twilight of the Idols: III, 4). ‘The concept of ‘the Beyond’, ‘real world’ invented so as to deprive of value the only world which exists’ (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am a Destiny’, 8). It is for this reason that Nietzsche lambasts Christianity as ‘Platonism for the masses’ (Beyond Good and Evil: Preface). The very act of creating a higher world – the Christian heaven – is to devalue this world, here and now. When Nietzsche writes that ‘all that which is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil’ (BGE: 153), he is saying that Christianity causes man to turn against his natural instincts by, for example, creating shame out of the sexual act and, in so doing, denigrating life itself. Thus, Nietzsche sees the Christian valuation system that has hitherto dominated the West as being an underlying expression of nihilism all along; a turning against life, a saying ‘No’ to the very condition of existence (namely, suffering). In calling for a revaluation of all values, Nietzsche is effectively calling for man to replace life-denying values with life-affirming values.

   In short, Nietzsche’s task is nothing less than responding to the question of whether it is possible to live life given the death of God. Nietzsche is challenging his readers – the ‘very few’ (The Antichrist: ‘Foreword’) – to gaze into the abyss…and to experience the abyss gazing back into them (Beyond Good and Evil: 146). Contra his ‘educator’ Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s answer of the question of the possibility of life is an emphatic ‘Yes!’, or so he claims.

   I am not concerned here with whether Nietzsche’s response to the challenge of nihilism is feasible or desirable. That requires an article in its own right. Rather, I am concerned here in drawing attention to what Nietzsche saw as the end of modernity and the inception of an age ‘beyond good and evil’, that is, beyond the Christian world-view. That we today in the West continue to live in the name of the Christian-Enlightenment principles of the dignity, freedom, and equality of all shows that man continues to live as if God is alive. This for Nietzsche would be hardly surprising. After all:

‘Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the starts requires time, deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard’ (The Gay Science: 125).

As such, Nietzsche considers himself a posthumous thinker, as one who foresaw the fate of a coming generation. His act was nothing less than calling into question the very possibility – desirability? - of the Enlightenment project. As such, Nietzsche stands besides such thinkers as Schopenhauer and those two great psychologists of the twentieth-century – Freud and Jung (both of whom were heavily influenced by Nietzsche), as undermining what is perhaps the convenient fiction of man as a rational agent.

   Did Nietzsche signal the end of modernity in declaring the death of God? Perhaps. It’s still too early to answer that question. But if the contradiction, ambiguity, and invective that so often characterize Nietzsche’s writings and those of the so-called ‘post-modern’ age are direct results of the Enlightenment’s decline then I cannot see this decline as being a desirable process. As Walter Kaufmann recognized, a certain irrationalism underlies the so-called ‘existentialist’ movement and therein lies its danger. If we ‘moderns’ jettison truth and reason what really are we left with? To his credit, Nietzsche appreciated that he himself was a ‘decadent’ (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am So Wise’, 2), and this leads us to ask whether he was ultimately a symptom of the very nihilism he set out to confront.

   Even if Nietzsche is right that modernity is finished, then for better or for worse the shadow of the Enlightenment (and with this project the shadow of God himself), will continue to guide men for much time yet to come (The Gay Science: 108). I’ll end with Nietzsche’s penultimate words:

‘Have I been understood?

This article was written by Matthew Berto


[1] Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1968, p. 15.