Saturday, September 26, 2009

WTF, Nietzsche?

After class on Thursday, I examined Nietzsche’s infamous statement: “God is dead.” I’ll provide a quick recap: In The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells an anecdote of a madman running through a European town, frantically crying “I seek God!” The people sneer at him, sarcastically replying “Does he lose his way like a child?” Finally a man replies to him, “God is dead. We are all murderers.” Nietzsche argues that the Europeans lost their faith in God, and therefore their basis of morality. For Nietzsche, the weak cling to “morality” in an effort to appeal to a Higher power. Humans are naturally weak. They mistakenly believe that they need a God in order to save society from complete chaos. We live ethically for others, for the sake of God, and therefore live by life-denying principles. By saying “God is dead,” Nietzsche implies that, without God, there is no “morality” as we generally see it.

It is true that many devout believers in God live their lives according to some sort of Holy law. The idea of God is comforting. As long as He is “alive” in our minds, there is something worth living for. By behaving morally and having faith, humans are guaranteed eternal afterlife in paradise. In fact, Nietzsche’s claim that we base our morals entirely on God can be used to refute one of Descartes’ arguments in Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes claims that God’s existence is proven by our ability to conceptualize Him in our mind. But it cannot be that God’s existence is proven by the mere thought of Him in our mind. Rather, the idea of God is something that is a comfort to humans. Believing in “God” makes us feel as though there is a distinct purpose to life. In order to uphold God’s standards and live righteously, we must peacefully coexist with each other and avoid corruption and sin. Simply thinking of Him does not justify God’s existence. I can just as easily conjure up images of unicorns or ogres in my mind, but that does not prove their existence any more than thinking about God proves His.

While Nietzsche does not suggest that humans neglect morality entirely, (rather that we should adopt the “life-affirming” morale, which gives us mainly power and wealth), he fails to recognize a couple of things regarding humans’ benefit from the popular, idiomatic view of morality. First, I believe he overemphasizes the effects of religion on the popularized conception of morality. Religion is not the sole base of morality. God is not the sole motivator that encourages us to do helpful deeds or to live tranquilly among others. Many non-religious people live very decent, ethical lives. Nietzsche, however, condemns religion as the slave-morality, that we only live by ethics in order to please God. For those who are pious in their religion, their belief in God’s existence certainly is influential in determining moral behavior. But it seems to me that morality serves as a mutual understanding among most people that we should not do things that harm or degrade each other, simply to avoid descend into chaos that would arise if we had no concept of the decent treating of others.

Nietzsche groups characteristics such as “generosity” and “compassion” in the weaker realm of attributes, while the “wealthy” and “powerful” are strong. According to Nietzsche, when it comes to morality, we should choose that which is life-affirming (wealthy, strong, powerful) over that which is life-denying (poor, sick). However, it is extremely misleading to put such characteristics in either the “good morals” or “bad morals” categories. Such traits arise from different circumstances in people’s lives; education helps people find careers, people can be fired or laid off from work, people can be affected by life-threatening diseases. These circumstances, however, do not solely determine people’s sense of morality. As a whole, people understand the basic rules of society (don’t murder, defame, or steal from others for example). This understanding helps us function as a stronger community. The general idea of morality is popularized for a reason. Without it, we would degrade into some savage, Lord of the Flies-esque society.


  1. I haven't read very much Nietzsche other than in class so I'm sorry if this is off. When you were talking about Nietzsche's condemning religion, I wasn't sure if that was entirely his point. I think if there was a personal religion that promoted life -affirming beliefs and actions instead of ones made to bow to the morals of the religion as an organization, then he might be ok with that. And while people may have morality outside of religion, such as a general understanding of what is deemed good or bad to do to each other, Nietzsche would be just as critical of those who obey that type of morality as well. In general, his problem is with morality as a force that makes slaves out of potentially meaning-making individuals, and not with religion or with religious morality alone.

    With your last paragraph, I also don't know that Nietzsche would place good and bad in terms of morals. Nietzsche would agree with you that to label things like strength and weakness as "good morals" or "bad morals" is misleading. I think that was his objection about slave morality, that the Judeo-Christian religious morality took attributes traditionally viewed as good and bad, such as beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, and made them moral value judgments, so that being weak became morally good instead of simply a unfortunate characteristic. Taken away from the context of morality, things like getting sick, or not having an education, would still be signs of weakness for Nietzsche that the Übermensch would be able to overcome.I don't think he would be concerned so much with morality at all, only with overcoming it so that we can have life-affirming beliefs and actions.

  2. I really like the point that Jen makes in this post especially her point in her last paragraph about "morality being polarized for a reason." I agree about the claim put forth about good and bad morals; however, I would think Nietzsche would set the categories as " good morals" and " evil morals" as opposed to bad morals only to further his point that evil implies morality. Also, I agree that by taking away basic rules in society that people would be living in a very chaotic society. However, to some people all their " basic rules" are formed through their belief in God. The source of how we learn to treat each other decently is natural but to some is seen as something that was God given and therefore is part of most people's essence. Taking away foundamental rules would in turn be eliminating God's creation of these rules according to religious people in a society based on morals.


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