by Thomas Ross
While Friedrich Nietzsche is considered to be one of the most important philosophers to have lived in the 19th century, he is also one of the most misinterpreted. Many of his ideas have a continuing influence today, such as the notion, “[t]hat which does not kill me, makes me stronger,” and his descriptions of the Übermensch.[i] But perhaps Nietzsche’s most piercing statement was that “God is dead.”[ii] This enigmatic declaration is associated with the philosophical subject of Nihilism, of which Nietzsche is often misconceived to have been a proponent.[iii] In this essay, I clarify this misconception by examining Nietzsche’s claims that Nihilism is both terrifying and (potentially) liberating. I do this in three parts. To begin, I provide lucid explanations of Nihilism and the death of God to lay the foundations for a more detailed investigation. I subsequently outline the reasons as to why Nietzsche believed Nihilism was terrifying, and finally, I substantiate Nietzsche’s belief that Nihilism is potentially liberating. This essay concludes that Nietzsche’s acknowledgment of both the positive and negative potential outcomes of Nihilism reveals that he was not a proponent of it; he instead warned that it was an inevitable means to a necessary end.
Nihilism and the Death of God
To properly understand Nietzsche’s claims, it is important to first understand what exactly he meant by Nihilism. Commonly, Nihilism is understood as the “rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.”[iv] However, for Nietzsche, it was much more than this—it was the complete absence of meaning itself. Nihilism was a dangerous state, brought about by the comprehension of some petrifying mistruths. Although Nietzsche certainly saw Nihilism as a by-product of religion (especially Christianity), he believed that it could result from any systematic belief in terrestrial transcendence: “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity… I call it the one immortal blemish upon the human race.”[v] The famous statement that God is dead depicts a situation in which an individual realises that such systematic beliefs are flawed, and accepts that by extension, their value system is fallacious. This realisation forces individuals into the state of Nihilism. However, it is important to note that for Nietzsche, the death of God was not a triumphant statement but rather a serious warning that humanity was entering into uncharted territory. The misinterpretation of this statement often leads people to the false conclusion that Nietzsche “liked” Nihilism.[vi]
The statement “God is dead” finds its roots in the many rational revolutions that arose out of the Age of Enlightenment. Such revolutions promoted new ideas of “truthfulness” that exposed the flawed foundations of Christian and other transcendent moralities based on principles of, for instance, salvation and the afterlife. Nietzsche believed that centuries of this misdirection in following flawed belief systems had left society blind as to truth, value and meaning. This realisation leads Nietzsche to espouse the death of God. Previously, transcendental “morality was the great antidote,” but in realising the death of God, Nietzsche saw that Nihilism posed a grave threat to humanity: “Now that the lowly origin of these values has become known, the whole universe seems to have been transvalued and to have lost its significance—but this is only an intermediate stage.”[vii] For Nietzsche, Nihilism itself was a transitional process that consisted of three psychological events. Put succinctly, the first event occurs when a person exhausts all possible pathways to find any meaning (whether good or evil).[viii] This situation causes the person great embarrassment because they have searched tirelessly for something that does not exist. The next event sees the person remove their belief in universal domination under a God or another transcendental belief structure. Such beliefs prevent self-determination and the person’s removal from their belief structure leaves them “able to believe in his [sic] own worth.”[ix] The final event is the repudiation of any true or metaphysical worlds.[x] Nietzsche believes that these events instil valuelessness in an individual by eliminating aim, unity and being as tools for universal interpretation.[xi]
Nihilism as Something Terrifying
It would be a mistake to characterise Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead” as a triumphant victory over Christianity. Although Nietzsche disliked Christianity, he admitted that having some values (even if they were deeply flawed) were better than having no values. He thought that values promoted meaning in people’s lives and suppressed their self-loathing.[xii] Christianity, though deeply flawed, had been beneficial insofar as it provided a deliberate pathway for masses of people:
not to speak of many who already knew what had really taken place, and what must all collapse now that this belief had been undermined, because so much was built upon it, so much rested on it, and had become one with it: for example, our entire European morality.[xiii]
For Nietzsche, Nihilism was ultimately a state where one was convinced that there is “no meaning in existence at all.”[xiv] In Nihilism’s most severe form, an individual may deem every belief to be false because they consider there to be “…no true world.”[xv] Furthermore, in The Will to Power, Nietzsche supposedly purported that “the negation of a real world and of Being, might be a divine view of the world.”[xvi] This statement evidences that he saw similarities between the diminished responsibility presented by both Nihilism and transcendental belief structures. The difference was that Nihilism promotes life-denial rather than life-affirmation. This key difference is essential to understanding why Nietzsche feared Nihilism.
Nihilism has the effect of destroying all values. If a person cannot work through the transitional stages of Nihilism, they may stagnate and lose their humanity. Nietzsche held this fear on a mass scale. He believed that it had the potential to cripple reality and purpose irreparably, thus making the world inhuman: “The whole of our culture in Europe has long been writhing in an agony of suspense which increases from decade to decade as if in expectation of a catastrophe: restless, violent, helter-skelter, like a torrent that will reach its bourne.”[xvii] Despite this statement, however, Nietzsche also believed that Nihilism held the potential to liberate humanity.
Nihilism as Something (Potentially) Liberating
With the poisonous dogmatic and “objective” belief structures removed, Nihilism could act as an antibiotic enabling people to create their own “subjective” meanings. Put simply, Nietzsche believed the death of God could afford people the possibility of moving on to greener pastures with Nihilism as the mode of transport. But how is this possible? How could individuals, predisposed to centuries of transcendental beliefs, find value after the death of God? Nietzsche believed that individuals would have to strive to find their own new life-affirming values beyond the established principles of good and evil. The question is: what standards can we use to judge the quality of such values? Nietzsche thought that life-affirming values should be determined subjectively by each individual and sourced from the aspects that comprise our culture, such as art, music and literature (rather than a reliance on transcendental supports). However, this does not to suggest that people should live rigidly and within a single moral code; if this were to happen, they would risk slipping back into an objective value system. Nietzsche believed that if you listen to your conscience “Thou shalt become what thou art.”[xviii]
As we have observed, Nietzsche’s writing incorporates metaphors and analogies in order to explain complex principles (particularly in relation to values). In his teachings on the death of God, for instance, he often makes reference to “antidotes” and “poisons” to describe the effects of objective/absolute value systems. Whether a value structure is observed as an antidote or poison depends on whether it is looked at through a “pre-death-of-God” or “post-death-of-God” lens. At the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche conveys such ideas through his protagonist, who is aware of the death of God: “Remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.”[xix] To explain the concepts of this essay, I will similarly formulate an analogy to highlight what Nietzsche thought to be the process towards Nihilism and its possible consequences.
My analogy relates a person in denial of their reliance on painkillers to a naïve individual who is oblivious to the death of God. An individual who realises both that God is dead, and the falsity of objective morality, can be compared with the addict accepting that they have a dependence on the drugs, and that their life is in a bad way. With this “rock-bottom” realisation, we then imagine that the addict is involuntarily admitted to a rehabilitation clinic. This change of situation is akin to the first disorientating stages of Nihilism. From here, two futures become possible for the addict. The first is potentially catastrophic (passive Nihilism) and the second is potentially liberating (active Nihilism). The catastrophic future eventuates if the addict does not complete the full course of treatment (passive Nihilism). Instead, the addict stagnates and develops an unshakeable dependence on painkillers (meaninglessness). The possibility that many people would become trapped in such a state was what terrified Nietzsche. The second potential outcome is considerably more positive. In this hypothetical situation, the addict does not stagnate and instead completes the full course of detoxification (thus indicating an active Nihilism). They shake all dependencies and emerge on the other side stronger than ever (having destroyed all predisposed values). Now unburdened by the poisonous addiction, and uncorrupted by false beliefs, they are able to build a new life this time around, immersing themselves in healthy habits/values (that are notably sourced from their culture). This outcome is truly liberating and may set an individual on the path to becoming Übermensch, Nietzsche’s ideal individual. For Nietzsche, Nihilism was a necessary process because “one must still have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.”[xx] He believed that those who never realised the addiction, or the death of God, were “last-men”—the antithesis of the Übermensch. Zararthustra explained that such individuals consume “a little poison now and then: that maketh pleasant dreams. And much poison at last for a pleasant death.”[xxi]
In conclusion, Nietzsche was one of the most important and misinterpreted philosophers to have lived in the 19th century. This essay has clarified some misconceptions surrounding Nietzsche’s writings by examining his claims that Nihilism is both terrifying and liberating. It has done this in three stages. To begin, lucid explanations of Nihilism and the death of God laid the foundations for a detailed investigation. Subsequently, the reasons as to why Nietzsche believed Nihilism was terrifying were outlined. And finally, Nietzsche’s belief that Nihilism is potentially liberating was substantiated. In this essay, I have demonstrated that Nietzsche acknowledged both the positive and negative potential outcomes of Nihilism, thus indicating that he was not a proponent of Nihilism but instead warned that it was an inevitable means to a necessary end. Perhaps the defence of such a conclusion was best made by Nietzsche himself in his last original book Ecce Homo where he anticipates future criticisms:
I know my destiny. There will come a day when my name will recall the memory of something formidable—a crisis the like of which has never been known on earth, the memory of the most profound clash of consciences, and the passing of a sentence upon all that which theretofore had been believed, exacted, and hallowed. I am not a man, I am dynamite.[xxii]
Tom Ross holds a Bachelor of Laws (Hons.) from QUT and is in his final semester at UQ, majoring in History and Philosophy. His philosophical interests include existentialism and the history of philosophy.
[i] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, “Maxims and Arrows,” in Twilight of the Idols, trans. Anthony Ludovici (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911), 8.
[ii] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, trans. Thomas Common (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1910), 125; Friedrich W. Nietzsche, “Prologue,” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Thomas Common (New York: The Modern Library, 1917).
[iv] “Nihilism,” in Oxford Online Dictionary, 2020. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/Nihilism.
[v] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, The Antichrist, trans. Henry Mencken (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918), 62.
[vi] Wilkerson, “Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900).”
[vii] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, “Nihilism,” in The Will to Power, trans. Anthony Ludovici (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1914), 4; 7.
[viii] Ibid, 12.
[x] Ibid, 13.
[xii] Ibid, 9.
[xiii] Nietzsche, “We Fearless Ones,” in The Joyful Wisdom, 343.
[xiv] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 55. Note, The Will to Power was published posthumously. It comprises a collection of Nietzsche’s notes that were gathered by his sister Elisabeth Frster-Nietzsche, and Peter Gast.
[xv] Ibid, 13.
[xvi] Ibid, 15.
[xvii] Nietzsche, “Preface,” in The Will to Power, 2.
[xviii] Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, 270.
[xix] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 3.
[xx] Ibid, 5.
[xxii] Nietzsche, “Why I am a Fatality,” in Ecce Homo, trans. Anthony Ludovici and Paul Cohn (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911), , Project Gutenberg.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Twilight of the Idols. Translated by Anthony Ludovici. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52263.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Ecce homo. Translated by Anthony Ludovici and Paul Cohn. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1911. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52190.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Antichrist. Translated by Henry Mencken. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19322.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Joyful Wisdom. Translated by. Thomas Common. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1910. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52881.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Will to Power. Translated by Anthony Ludovici. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1914. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52914.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Translated by Thomas Common. New York: The Modern Library, 1917. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1998.
Wilkerson, David. “Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. https://www.iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/.