The Ubermensch v. The Last Man: Nietzsche Contemplates the “Death of God”

From The Gay Science, aphorism 343:

The meaning of our cheerfulness.— The greatest recent event—that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian God has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least, whose eyes, the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle, some suns seem to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt: to them our old world must appear daily more like evening, more mistrustful, stranger, “older.” But in the main one may say: the event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet; much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means—and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it: for example, the whole of our European morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending: who could guess enough of it today to be compelled to play the teacher and advance proclaimer of this monstrous logic of terror, the prophet of a gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth? . . . Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that the “old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation,—at long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea.”

The free spirit that relishes the death of God is what Nietzsche calls elsewhere (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) the “Ubermensch.” But I especially like this part of his above quote:

[T]he event [of God’s death] itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having arrived as yet; much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means . . .

One should not become an atheist without real trembling for the human future and for the real psychic obliteration that a godless, non-heroic, and ultimately purposeless universe represents for humankind. I think that Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche absorbed—or at least tried to absorb—this. But many contemporary neo-atheists—aping Nietzsche’s glib, comfy, and ultimately nihilistic “last men“—have not.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to The Ubermensch v. The Last Man: Nietzsche Contemplates the “Death of God”

  1. Alan Lenzi says:

    “One should not become an atheist without real trembling for the human future and for the real psychic obliteration that a godless, non-heroic, and ultimately purposeless universe represents for humankind.”

    Can I say amen? Triumphalism should be short-lived and the business of how to proceed engaged head-on. The neo-atheists haven’t given us much in this regard.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Alan L:

    As an agnostic, I find contemporary atheist “triumphalism” as very naive. I am an agnostic, but I am one only because I think it is (for me) my most coherent option. I would love to have the certitude and optimism of the naive neo-atheist or the triumphalist religionist, but I find both positions to be born of delusions. I find myself in the middle with the older and sobered post-WWII atheists and the liberal theologians of that same generation (like Niebuhr and Tillich) who, from different vantages, arrived at similar modest conclusions: we don’t know much, and the world may not go in a very good direction just because we think we have some right answers, but still we have to choose and do the best we can.

    —Santi

  3. Sir Gnome says:

    Nietzsche. Awesome.

    In his book “Reason, Faith, and Revolution,” Terry Eagleton laments that Atheism has made so little progress since Nietzsche. I couldn’t agree more, except to say that it has probably digressed. And when you apply Nietzsche’s level of philosophical discourse to your everyday “new” Atheist snobs in their thousands, you only elicit the same shallow, anti-existential threads of bad-faith and ideology pulsing through their obsessive ranting about “religion”; or religion as they—and only they—conceive of it. But I think people are really beginning to pull the curtain back a bit, and are beginning to see the absurdity in new Atheism apart from its ploy as a scheme to sell a lot of crappy books to the petty, bourgeois arm-chair intellectuals whom Nietzsche frequently railed against.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    I agree with you that neo-atheism campares poorly with some of the more sophisticated skeptics of past generations, but I do give Hitchens and Dawkins (a.k.a Ditchkins in Eagleton-speak) credit for leaping in where angels fear to tread and stirring the pot a bit.

    I just would like to see contemporary atheism tempered and nuanced and made more serious by an encounter with Camus etc.

    Neo-atheism’s chief flaws, in my view, are its metaphysical and epistemic positivism, its reductionism, its failure to wrestle seriously with the ontological mystery—and its glib psychological optimism in the midst of what is obviously a fucked situation.

    —Santi

    • Sir Gnome says:

      Epic.

    • Sir Gnome says:

      I kind of think selecting quotes from Nietzsche removes them from their essential linguistic and contextual meaning—and thus akin to a deadly philosophical sin. But so be it, commit me to the flames:

      “However, the fact that generally the ascetic ideal has meant so much to human beings is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui [horror of a vacuum]. It requires a goal—and it prefers to will nothingness than not to will… Science is in fact the “most recent and noblest form” of the ascetic ideal. It has no faith in itself, and acts only as a means of self-anesthetization for sufferers (scientists) who do not want to admit that they are such. In its apparent opposition to the ascetic ideal, it has succeeded merely in demolishing the ideal’s ‘outworks, sheathing, play of masks, […] its temporary solidification, lignification, dogmatization.’ By succeeding in dismantling the claims to the theological importance of man, it has merely come to substitute the self-contempt of man as the ideal of science.”

      I think that quote neatly critiques the notions most Atheists have of science as a “self-anesthetizing” totality (neverminding its circularity, of course). It is precisely the point of departure of philosophical atheism from suburban, capitalist, and supposedly scientific “new” Atheism—a la Dawkins’ gene arguments and Dennett’s ideas of autophenomenology. They use science as a presumed crutch for a vague, gestural, and purely negative “Atheism” without even recognizing that contemporary empirical science has itself determined that the sovereignty of scientific inquiry—Foucault’s “medical gaze”—is a purely ideological and non-scientifically-derivative construct. While there are relevant pressing issues related to their ideas, the fact that they just co-opt Atheism and give it steroidal injections of demagoguery and anti-religious demagoguery deprives them—Ditchkins—of any prior validity except as book-slinging bigots.

  5. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    Question: In the past, and for many years, you have seemed to remain at least minimally optimistic about the prospect of morality without God. I’m sure you remember that this has always been, for me, the most unacceptable aspect of non-theism; it seems to me that there can be no objectivity to moral values in a godless universe (and the enlightened person, if she is rational, will maximize her own interest at all cost, rather than put some moral code, divine command theory, or system of equality, justice, and brotherhood/sisterhood at the center of morality).

    Can you tie this in to your admiration for Nietzsche and Niebuhr for me? And I mean that respectfully. I’m not trying to provoke a debate. What is it that you appreciate about Nietzsche if you, as a non-theist, are still optimistic about human morality? Does it all come down to mortality for you? We are all dead. Period. But in the meantime, until we all cease to be, morality without God is no problem?

  6. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    That was a wild Nietzsche quote. Thought provoking.

    —Santi

  7. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    You ask a very complicated question. I’ll try to answer it briefly, and then maybe in more detail another time.

    First, if I have optimism about morality it is because evolutionary psychology suggests that it is something plausible to cultivate. I think that human beings, as pack animals, are pro-social with those that they deem in their “in-group.” We are good to our family, shitty to all outside the family. Niebuhr, in my view, tries to expand the “family” out beyond, say, concepts of nation or religion, to all of humanity. If humans perceive themselves as part of a large global family, I think that the possibility for a pro-social cooperative human existence is real. It’s one reason I liked Obama’s Cairo speech.

    Second, I’m optimistic about morality because I think that humans are temperamentally and genetically as inclined toward the bonobos as the chimps. Bonobos are famously hippie primates, highly pro-social.

    Third, I’m optimistic about morality because I think that human empathy is a characteristic of human consciousness. The ability to recognize pain in others, and to walk in the shoes of others, and imagine what it is like to be others, is part of what it means to be human (unless you are a sociopath). If, for example, sharks ever developed consciousness, I’d be highly pessimistic about morality (with or without their belief in God) because sharks are not very pro-social, even among themselves. If dogs or dolphins, however, with or without God, evolved consciousness akin to humans, I’d be very optimistic about their ability (with or without God belief) to live a moral existence (because they are highly social animals).

    Fourth, I’m optimistic about morality because I think that with or without God, morality is not objective. God’s grounding of morality is, in my view, illusory. There is, from my perspective, atheistic nihilism and theistic nihilism. In other words, you can justify evil actions with God or without God. When, for example, the Canaanites are destroyed in the Book of Joshua, it is a kind of nihilistic theism that justifies it. If we admit that morality is not grounded by God or nature, then we are free (ala Nietzsche) to set morality on a rational basis (hopefully exploiting our “pack animal” natures for the common good ala Niebuhr-like psychological expansion of the notion of family).

    Fifth, I’m optimistic about morality because I think that humans, as pack animals, have a sense of fairness in groups.

    Lastly, I admit that Nietzsche’s full freedom is scary and potentially catastrophic, but I think that because humans are more like dogs and dolphins and bonobos, and less like sharks or scorpions, that pro-social forms of freedom are more likely to be chosen by most human beings (with the shunning of those who are grossly selfish). I really think that the pro-social evolutionary traits that humans already possess can be hijacked by conceptual memes (like the notion that we are one big human family) for moral purposes. This hijacking of our pro-social impulses for larger social goals (justice, resistance to kill “brothers” in war etc.) can be achieved with or without God. I do agree, however, that God-memes can be highly pro-social and moral (as when Niebuhr, as a theologian, speaks of human brotherhood from a Christian vantage).

    Imagine how far my long answer might have gone!

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    One more quick thought on this: the Christian critique of atheist morality is the presumption that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that man is a wolf to man. But it should be remembered that wolves are pretty good and pro-social with other wolves in their pack and family. And where wolves are, say, red in tooth and claw, it is with those outside of their family. Morality, in my view, is not a question of whether you believe in God or don’t believe in God. It is who you regard as family and who you do not regard as family. Think of the Sopranos. Even the Sopranos maintain a certain degree of morality, loyalty, and love among those within the “family.” All human beings know what to do with those outside the family. They demonize them and treat them with indifference or cruelty.

    I think that perhaps the largest factor making for an immoral world today is the dispersion of responsibility through the maze of bureaucracy, not human nature as such. If people have an expanded view of family AND accountability can be traced (and not lost in bureaucratic structures) human life can be lived pretty morally by most people.

    A lot of the great crimes of recent human history are the result of harnessing non-accountable bureaucracies to devilish ends (such as the elimination of Jews in Europe by Hitler). Accountability is dispersed through a bureaucracy and those outside the “family” are treated as less than human.

    The recent banking crisis is a product of bureaucratic concealing of responsibility and people taking a narrow view of “family” interests.

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    With regard to your Cormac McCarthy joke, you are certainly correct that I may be a wee bit too optimistic concerning human nature.

    BUT I genuinely think that psychopaths are, by brain injury or genetics or an overactive consciousness and obsession, unusual among humans.

    —Santi

    • Sir Gnome says:

      Naw, naw, naw—it wasn’t intended as a joke, and sorry if it came across that way. His novels really confront these sorts of issues. The fact that he often uses “psychopathic” antagonists is kind of “anti-McCarthy” as most of his themes defy those sorts of reductive paradigms. His books are often read from a purely “thriller” sort of interpretation, which is only characteristic of his most recent works; it also ignores that when you dig through his most common motifs, they are interwoven with very profound and emerging philosophical issues. These aren’t protagonist vs. antagonist bildungsromans. So it is an annoying and unsolicited plug, I know—but he’s definitely worthwhile soma for the politically-nauseated intellect!

  10. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    No need to apologize. I wasn’t insulted, even taking it as a joke.

    And thanks for the soma. Is soma legal now?

    Also, could you tell me which one of McCarthy’s books (for you) tackles some of these issues most directly? Are you referring to Blood Meridian?

    If you’d tell me which novel you think is McCarthy’s most philosophical, I’ll take another look.

    —Santi

    • Sir Gnome says:

      Yeah–certainly Blood Meridian. And as a philosophical elaboration, I’d say The Crossing. After that, whatever arouses your interest; McCarthy’s works complement each other very well, so it’s a good idea to read a few. I might also suggest reading The Road before it comes out in theaters, though the Coen rendering of “No Country” was spectacular.

  11. santitafarella says:

    Sir Gnome:

    Thanks for the clarification. I’ll do some fresh Cormac McCarthy reading in the order that you suggest.

    —Santi

  12. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    Thanks for replying. I understand your response on morality, I do. I have some problems with it, but that is not really my point at the moment. I suppose I’m asking you to tie what you wrote about morality into your quote from above:

    “One should not become an atheist without real trembling for the human future and for the real psychic obliteration that a godless, non-heroic, and ultimately purposeless universe represents for humankind. I think that Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche absorbed . . . this.”

    If one is okay in knowing she will someday die, and if one feels relatively optimistic about human morality without God, what is there to tremble about exactly?

    What, for you, is existential angst about? That we all die?

    Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this isn’t really the deeper, or at least entire, point of classical existentialist thought. That is, even the dumbest, most unsophisticated atheist (or religious person) basically grasps that he will die someday.

    What of importance, and unrelated to our day-to-day lives and moral choices, are Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche telling us?

    I may be pressing a little here, but I promise I am really interested, not trying to debate.

  13. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    What I appreciate about you is that you really are someone who probes about for nuances and the truth of things, not just trying to score some debating points, or the reinforcement of a prejudice. Your questions are always thought provoking, and I rarely know how to answer them adequately (which is good).

    I think that atheism has a horrendous track record with regard to communism and tolerance for diversity, and I think it is generally much too glib about issues surrounding eugenics and manipulation of the genome, and the assumption that the world would necessarily be better if humans gave up believing that the world is a cosmos with some ultimate purpose. I think that atheism can lead to nihilism (as fundamentalist religion can), and that concerns me. It’s always a real danger.

    I also don’t know what atheism does to human vitality, or whether it is sufficiently powerful to unite a social animal into a knit that sustains moral behavior. Maybe it doesn’t. I think that Obama-style or Niebuhr-style notions of humanity, with its nebulous theism, might, but outright atheism and secularism I think probably simply generates “underground men”—that is, terrorists and anti-capitalists, fundamentalists and anti-moderns. I think that, in a peculiar way, secularism feeds energy to fundamentalisms and fanaticisms. People cannot live on the pleasures of capitalism and DVD watching alone.

    As an agnostic, I don’t know what to tell my growing children about ultimate meaning and death and life’s purpose, and it bothers me a lot. I see instabilities and inadequacies in all answers—religious and non-religious.

    I also think of the violence done to the psyche by both theism and atheism. Both are strewn with landmines for neurosis. I just think that the end of atheism or the end of theism does not solve the difficult human existential situation that we are all in. Both sides imagine that the world would be better without the other.

    I doubt it, seriously.

    In a way, the war between them is a way for the participants to avoid grappling with harder questions.

    —Santi

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