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This week for our theological article, we will be examining Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844 – 1900) infamous statement, “God is dead.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (pronounced ‘knee-cha’) was born in Röcken, near Leipzig, on October 15th, 1944. His father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche (1813 – 1849), was a Lutheran pastor and former teacher, and his mother was Franziska Oehler (1826 – 1897). The Nietzsche family quickly grew to include a daughter, Elisabeth (1846 – 1935), and another son, Ludwig Joseph (1848 – 1850). Unfortunately, the family would be beset by tragedy. In 1849, when Nietzsche was five-years-old, Karl Nietzsche would suffer a devastating brain haemorrhage and die. Then, as if to rub in salt in their wounds, the infant Ludwig Joseph, would die unexpectedly shortly after.
Nietzsche was educated at the prestigious Schulpforta school near Naumburg. There he received an education in theology, classical languages, and the humanities. After graduating, young Nietzsche attended the University of Bonn before moving to the University of Leipzig. During his time there, Nietzsche became acquainted with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) whose work, the World as Will and Representation (1818), would have a tremendous influence. Then, aged only twenty-four, Nietzsche was awarded the position of professor of Greek language and Literature at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He had never written a doctoral dissertation.
Nietzsche left academia briefly to serve as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He was discharged due to poor health. Nietzsche returned to Basel where he came acquainted with the cultural historian, Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897), and the composer, Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). Wagner’s influence on Nietzsche can most readily be seen in the Birth of Tragedy.
During the late 1870s, Nietzsche became increasingly beset with debilitating health problems: digestive problems, poor eyesight, and migraines. He was forced to spend months off work, and eventually agreed to retire with a modest pension. Nietzsche was only thirty-four years old.
From there, Nietzsche devoted the rest of his life to the study and writing of philosophy. Between 1870 and 1889, Nietzsche wrote nineteen books, including: The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (1873), Human, All Too Human (1878), the Gay Science (1882), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), Twilight of the Idols (1888), Ecce Homo (1888), and the Will to Power (1901, technically unpublished manuscripts published by his sister, Elisabeth).
In 1889, in Turin Italy, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown after seeing a horse being flogged in the Piazza Carlo Alberto. In the following days, Nietzsche sent a series of ‘madness letters’ to Cosimo Wagner (1837 – 1930) and Jacob Burckhardt in which he signed his name ‘Dionysos’, claimed to be ‘the crucified one’, and asserted that he was the creator of the world. It was quickly agreed that Nietzsche should be brought back to Basel. There he was incarcerated in a clinic in Jena.
In 1890, Nietzsche’s mother, Franziska, brought him home to Naumburg where she looked after him until her death in 1897. From there, Nietzsche was cared for by his sister, Elisabeth, in Weimar. He died on August 25th, 1900 at the age of fifty-five.
The statement, “God is dead” is Nietzsche’s most memorable and provocative statement. (Of course, he wasn’t the first one to coin the term. That was Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856). Nietzsche merely philosophised it). It first appeared in the Gay Science in a fable entitled, the Parable of the Madman. In the parable, the madman asks, ‘where is God?’, only to be informed that God had been killed by man:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderer of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe the blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves?”
Of course, Nietzsche wasn’t talking about the literal death of God (he was, after all, an atheist). Instead, he was referring to the death of the concept or idea of God. The statement was meant as a reference to the decline of traditional and metaphysical doctrines that had dominated European thought and culture for centuries.
Nietzsche observed, correctly, that western morality was predicated on the presumption of the truth of Judeo-Christian values. Christianity had become infused in European culture and thought. Philosophers and scientists like Copernicus (1473 – 1543), René Descartes (1596 – 1650), Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), George Berkeley (1685 – 1753), Saint Augustine (354-430AD), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), and more were all deeply influenced by their belief in God. Culturally, Handel’s (1685 – 1759) Messiah, Da Vinci’s (1452 – 1519) the Last Supper, and Michelangelo’s (1475 – 1564) Statue of David are all infused with religious themes.
The decline of Christianity’s supremacy in society began with the Enlightenment. Science replaced scripture. During this time, the belief in a universe governed by God was replaced by governance through the laws of physics, the divine right to rule was replaced with rule by consent, and morality no longer had to emanate from a loving and omniscient God.
The legacy of the Enlightenment, Nietzsche rightly observed, was that Christianity lost its central place in Western culture. (Of course, it can also be argued that Christianity’s central doctrines and tenets have been so absorbed by society people no longer recognise their influence). Science, replete with its elaborate depictions of physical reality, ultimately replaced religious truth.
Nietzsche’s assertion is often seen as a triumphal or victorious statement. However, analysis reveals that Nietzsche did not necessarily see the death of God as a good thing. He recognised that as society moved closer to secularisation, the order and meaning religion gave to society would fall by the wayside. People would no longer base their lives on their religious beliefs, but on other factors. Their lives would not be grounded in anything. As Nietzsche wrote in the Twilight of the Idols:
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”
Nietzsche believed the solution to the problem would be to create our own, individual values. Christian morality (derided by Nietzsche as ‘slave morality’) would be replaced by ‘master morality.’ Human beings would strive to become Übermensches or overmen.
The problem with Nietzsche’s suggestion is that it is virtually impossible to keep society ordered when everyone’s values are different. Furthermore, as Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) points out, it is impossible for us to create our own values. Most of us can’t keep our new year’s resolutions, let alone create a value system that will bring order to society.
Nietzsche, along with Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881), predicted that the 20th Century would be characterised either by apocalyptic nihilism or equally apocalyptic ideological totalitarianism. In the end, the world experienced both. The wake of the Great War (1914 – 1918) saw Europe plagued by communism, fascism, Nazism, and quasi-religious nationalism. In Russia, communism, through which a person’s value was derived from his labour, arose under the Bolsheviks. In Italy, fascism, through which a person’s value was derived from his nationality, arose under Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945). In Germany, Nazism, through which a person’s value was derived from his race, arose under Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). All of these systems attempted to give people’s lives meaning by replacing the state with God.
In the end, the 20th Century would be the deadliest and most destructive in human history. The legacy of two world wars, nuclear weapons, communism, and fascism has been millions of painful and unnecessary deaths. This is what we get when we remove God from society: needless pain and suffering.
There is an alarming trend in media today. Type into google ‘men are useless’, ‘men are worthless’, or ‘society doesn’t need men and various articles, mostly by left wing and pro-feminist news organisations, will come up. These articles have the same basic message: men are, at best, a nuisance in the age of ‘girl power’.
Feminist philosophy is centred around the idea – a conspiracy theory in reality – that men have deliberately conspired to keep women down and take power for themselves. In reality, the differences in male and female achievements have been the result of the differing expectations thrust upon men and women and the different choices they make. As Camille Paglia wrote in her article It’s a Man’s World: “history must be seen clearly and fairly: obstructive traditions arose not from men’s hatred or enslavement of women but from the natural division of labour that had developed over thousands of years during the agrarian period and that once immensely benefited and protected women, permitting them to stay at hearth to care for helpless infants and children.” Civilisations were constructed not to keep women down, but for their benefit. The result of this natural division of labour is that men have dominated many tiers of achievement.
It could, therefore, be argued that much of feminism’s vitriol towards men is derived not from injustice, but from envy over male achievements. Second and third wave feminists have spent a great deal of time vilifying men and turning their shortcomings into symbols of pure evil. They have written a slew of anti-male books designed to erase men’s contribution to civilisation and devalue their achievements. Among the more infamous have been the End of Men by Hanna Rosin, Are Men Necessary by Maureen Dowd, and the Female Brain, in which author Louann Bridendine tells men they’ll be envious of the female brain. (Just imagine the reaction if an author wrote a book telling women they’d envious of male brains!).
What these writers fail to understand is that men are the builders and protectors of civilisations. It has always been men, and not women, who have built the larger edifices of civilisation, who have constructed the institutions upon which civilisations are founded, who have been the pioneers in virtually every aspect of human endeavour, and who take up arms to protect civilisations (and as a natural extension, its women) from outside threats .
In philosophy, it is men who have given us Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. In literature, men have given us Homer’s the Iliad, Shakespeare, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Johannes Gutenberg gave us the printing press, Alexander Graham Bell gave us the telephone, Thomas Alva Edison gave us the lightbulb, and Karl Benz gave us the car. The modern world is an epic of male achievement.
Needless to say, society views men and women differently. Drawing from mountains of data on gender stereotypes, psychologist Alice Eagly found the existence of a ‘women are wonderful’ sentiment held by both men and women. Women are considered women purely by virtue of their existence. By contrast, manhood has to be earnt. Civilisation and culture set up the parameters upon which men ‘earn’ their masculinity.
Much of the ‘earnt manhood’ philosophy comes from the different roles men and women have occupied in civilisations. Men have always been expected to build and protect civilisation. Women, on the other hand, have always been valued as creators of life. This is derived from a symbiotic relationship between men and women which existed for civilisation’s benefit. Civilisation was organised so male strengths could offset female weaknesses, and vice-versa.
In reality, men are both better and worse than women, and the way society views its men depends on which men it chooses to focus on. If a society chooses to focus on men who are leaders, entrepreneurs, social reformers, and innovators, it will conclude that men are ‘better than women.’ But if it chooses to focus on men who are homeless, incarcerated, mentally ill, or suffering from intellectual disabilities, it will conclude that ‘women are better than men.’
It is motivation, not ability, that explains the vast differences in achievements between men and women. Men and women are motivated by different incentives to attempt different tasks. Research by Jacquelynne Eccles suggests that the shortage of women in maths and science is not the result of women’s inability to perform well in these fields per se, but a reflection of their different motivational choices. In simpler terms, there are fewer women in the maths and sciences because women are less inclined to study those fields. Similarly, fewer men do housework or change dirty diapers because they are not inclined to do so.
And, of course, the way one chooses to spend one’s time will reap different rewards. This may explain the often-fabled gender pay-gap myth in which feminists argue that women are deliberately and systemically paid less than their male colleagues. In fact, economic study after economic study has found that the difference in earnings between men and women are the result of different lifestyle choices men and women make. Men, on average, are willing to work longer hours and take fewer holidays. (To be fair, women do take significant time off work to raise children). This explains why men not only earn more money over the course of their working lifetimes but also why men gain more promotions and climb the ladder of success better than women.
Society encourages men to attempt high-risk ventures for the benefit of society and gives them big rewards when they manage to pull them off. (Women are not encouraged to take big risks and therefore do not reap big rewards.) It is men who are sent off to die in war, it is men who are given the dirty and dangerous jobs, and it is men who comprise the vast majority of workplace deaths. Women have never been expected to sacrifice themselves in this way and society has never seen fit to reward them in the way it has rewarded men.
It is a well-known fact among economists that men are, on average, more willing to take risks than women. One explanation for this may be the historic differences between the reproductive success of men and women. DNA analysis suggests that today’s population is descended from twice as many women as men. It would be reasonable to assume that this disparity has produced some significant personality differences.
For women, the best strategy was to play it safe, be nice, and go along with the crowd. Sooner or later, a decent man would come along with whom she could have children. It is no wonder, then, that women are not known for exploring uncharted territories or conquering far off lands. As Roy F. Baumeister, social psychologist at the University of Queensland, puts it: “we’re descended from women who played it safe.”
For men, however, the outlook was radically different. The competition between males for available females was a lot tougher. A man can choose to sit at home and play it safe if he wants to, but he probably won’t reproduce. Men, therefore, had to distinguish themselves by becoming risk-takers and innovators. Men who took big risks and managed to pull them off reproduced, men who stayed at home didn’t.
The American psychologist B.F. Skinner once wrote: “Men build society and society builds men.” It is the result of the different expectations civilisation thrust upon men and women and the different choices they make. Men are expected to ‘earn’ their manhood and are motivated by different things than women. Feminists can ridicule masculinity and male achievements as much as they like, but female achievement is only possible in civilisations that have been modernised and protected by men. And when things go wrong, as they inevitably will, it will be men, and not women, who save the day.
 One should also note that it has been the social and technological advances achieved by men that have freed women from lives as homemakers and child-bearers.