Today’s reading begins with a recapitulation of what we saw last time—that the modern world and our modern ways of knowing have not actually gone beyond the wisdom (or even the questions) of the pre-Socratics. “Our descriptions are better—[but] we do not explain any more than our predecessors” (III.112). We are superior in our understanding of how one thing interacts with another, but not in understanding the principles that underlie the infinite number of causes and effects that make up that action. In fact, if we adjust our perspective even slightly we see that that which we think we know is really little more than opinion in any case:
An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality. (III.112)
And so when taken as a whole, we are really no better off than the generations which came before us. We don’t even realize that our modern world is made up of poison, perhaps is itself even poisonous. Nietzsche uses the example of the modern scientific method, which is composed of individual components (doubt, patience, etc.) that by themselves are destructive but together form something that works very well. We just assume that because the scientific method is good, all of its components must be unmitigated goods as well. This simply is not true, and it may even be the case that the scientific method, along with the rest of what we believe and do in the modern world, may itself be poison that is only a single ingredient in a future, better, cocktail (III.113).
As the note points out, Nietzsche here switches from epistemology to morality, beginning with the observation that we filter all of our observations (not irony) through our past experiences in a way that affects our moral perception of the world. The problem is: our past experiences, both as individuals and as a species, are by no means infallible. For example, Nietzsche thinks there are things that have shaped humanity’s self-conception which are simply wrong, including:
1) An incomplete perspective;
2) False beliefs about ourselves;
3) A false elevation of ourselves above nature;
4) A false list of virtues that we create and then declare to be eternal. (III.115)
The next few reflections are all dedicated to dismantling these and other popular self-perceptions held by the Western world as a result of our historical development, culminating in the famous claim that “God is dead” in 125.
Again, these are not just false beliefs and values that we hold as individuals, they are beliefs that have become ingrained in the species through the millennia for the purpose of helping the species survive (we should note the implicit Darwinism here):
[Morality is] always [an] expression of the needs of a community and herd: whatever benefits it most… that is also considered the first standard for the value of all individuals…. Morality is herd instinct in the individual. (III.116)
So we see—and should expect to see—that morality changes over time. In the distant past, individualism and free will were seen as immoral:
To be a self and to esteem oneself according to one’s own weight and measure—that offended taste in those days. An inclination to do this would have been considered madness. (III.117)
Nietzsche doesn’t use the example, but we can see Socrates as a picture of the conflict between the old herd morality and the individual who stands according to his own ideals.
Those of us who are not moral relativists at this point will object, but Nietzsche calls on the example of nature as a response: is it a bad thing when one creature eats another? Or is it just the way the world works? For that matter, is it maybe even a good thing, according to the operations of nature?
Is it virtuous when a cell transforms itself into a function of a stronger cell? It has no alternative. And is it evil when the stronger cell assimilates the weaker? It also has no alternative; it follows necessity, for it strives for superabundant substitutes and wants to regenerate itself. (III.118)
We cannot make moral judgments based on ideals that we create that fail to account for reality (III.119) and that do not understand where true “health” lies (III.120). For that matter, the fact that something works and makes this world bearable is no sign that that something is true or virtuous:
Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error. (III.121)
And to some extent, Nietzsche argues, Christianity agrees with everything he has said so far. The Christian says (at least, the faithful Christian says) that what the world tells us is good and virtuous is actually wicked and that going that way is the way of the serpent and leads to destruction. Instead, it is only in death—the death of Christ and the death of the old man—that we find life. Yet Nietzsche argues that this approach has been turned on Christianity as well:
In the end, however, we have applied this same skepticism also to all religious states and processes, such as sin, repentance, grace, sanctification… (III.122)
Likewise science fails to provide our source for truth and virtue. In fact, even its greatest supporters understand that it is to be pursued not for itself but for something behind and in back of it (III.123).
These rejections of tradition, science, and religion as grounds for morality mean that we have come close to the foundation that Nietzsche wants us to see:
We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom—and there is no longer any land! (III.124)
In a sense, I think this paragraph is more important than the more famous proclamation in the next one that “God is dead.” When we’ve undermined all of the ideas that have been foundational for human life in this world in an effort to get behind and beneath them in order to see the stark and naked nature of fundamental reality, we have to be prepared for the horror of a finite being facing an infinite unknown. (And again, the fiction of Lovecraft is an accessible exploration of this idea.) We claim we want to know the truth so that we can align our lives according to it, but we are not ready for the trauma of facing a truth that is unsupported by the lies our culture and our own minds have constructed to prevent us from seeing how small and insignificant we are by comparison.
The last section of today’s reading, 125, is the most famous passage in all of Nietzsche’s works. This post is already long (sorry, they’ve all been long so far—I blame Nietzsche), so I’ll direct you to the extended discussion of it that took place on the Christian Humanist Podcast episode called, appropriately, “God’s Not Dead.” If you are not already a listener to that podcast, you should be, not least because it has episodes like this one, where in an aside one of the hosts goes on a rant about the Newsboys song of the same name, “God’s Not Dead“:*
This song means nothing. It is a string of disconnected worship music cliches, and I don’t understand what it has to do with Nietzsche, what it has to do with atheism, what it has to do with, really, anything. It has a good beat and you can dance to it as far as I can tell.
It is a meaningless song that makes people feel good because it’s upbeat and has got a crunchy chorus, and the Newsboys should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves for recording it….
[This song] doesn’t mean anything, it’s just nonsense. You could cut every line in this song apart, put it on a different slip of paper, put it in a hat, pull it out and put it in any order you like, and cut up twelve other songs and do the same thing and it wouldn’t change anything, because it’s meaningless…”
Seriously, check out that episode and the podcast as a whole.
So again, there’s far too much for me to say about this passage. The message is clear, we must be ready for the world we are creating as all of Burke’s “pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal” and which generally made life bearable are stripped away and we are left with nothing other than ourselves and existence. Likewise we must be willing to admit that we ourselves are the ones doing the stripping, that we have killed the myth of God’s existence—that we are covered with his blood serves to remind us that we can’t blame anyone else if we don’t like the results. Again, we should note the religious language of this section—as a Christian there’s much I can read here in agreement—I have killed God, He was nailed to a cross by my hands and because of my actions, and that moment was one of horror when the Father turned away from the Son in judgment and all of reality trembled. That’s not the end of the story of course, but it is important to see that Nietzsche understands some of its implications. If Christianity is not true, then our worldview must be shattered and replaced (temporarily?) with the horror of an unmoored relationship with infinity. However, Nietzsche also thinks that we are not quite ready for that realization, he is here too soon…
*For what it’s worth, if you must have popular music that tries to express the truth the Newsboys are getting at, check out Shai Linne’s album The Atonement, particularly the song “Jesus is Alive.” I’m a hymn guy myself when it comes to religious music, but Linne’s theology is spot-on. And sorry for so many “go see this other thing” moments in this post.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.