God is dead': What Nietzsche really meant - Big Think

Existentialism is one of the most influential philosophies developed in the nineteenth century. The philosophy intends to discover answers to some of life’s most fundamental questions. The how and why of existence? What is existence, and how does our existence relate to the existence of others. Answering these questions assists in knowing each individual learning the purpose of their existence. Not all nineteenth-century existentialists agree entirely with each other’s views, but their philosophy’s primary principles are consistent. Several twentieth-century philosophers are considered vital developers of existentialism, such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. The precursors of the nineteenth century include Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. This short essay intends to briefly summarize a biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, his existential view, and one of his most famous statements, “God is Dead.”

Nietzsche was born to a Protestant Pastor in Leipzig, Germany 1844. Unfortunately, his father passed while Nietzsche was five, but regardless of the circumstances, he attended one of the best schools in Germany and thoroughly studied humanities. He enjoyed Greek culture, German and English poetry, as well as becoming deeply influenced by the writings of Schopenhauer. At the age of 23, he entered military service in 1867 and was relieved due to a chest injury from a horse-riding accident that did not fully heal. After taking some time to heal, Nietzsche returned to Leipzig to complete his studies. Nietzsche developed a scholarly reputation and was offered a lectureship in Basel, Switzerland, before completing a doctorate and dissertation. In Switzerland, he taught between 1869 and 1879 but became too ill to continue working and lost interest in academics. He became highly critical of Western culture and education and traveled the next ten years producing his most notable works from location to location in solitude and illness. His years of ill health enabled a paralytic stroke in 1889, which resulted in nearly permanent mental derangement. Nietzsche was finally laid to rest in the year 1900 in the care of his sister in Weimar, Germany (Gravil p. 82).

Nietzsche’s writings do not mention the term “existentialism.” Debatably, attempting to fine point Nietzsche to an existential community is not as simple as some think. Nietzsche was not a nihilist, the view that values have no justification, yet his writings convey no justification for absolute moral standards. Furthermore, Nietzsche is an enigmatic philosopher making it difficult to assign him to a particular philosophical school or movement. Philosophy lecturer Jack Reynolds claims that the term “(existentialism) was initially coined by Marcel, describing Sartre and others, and it only came to be accepted by Sartre and de Beauvoir a couple of years later in 1945” (p. 3). The acceptance of the term by Sartre and de Beauvoir enables some to think existentialism is exclusive to an atheistic group of people. Sartre and de Beauvoir did oppose their childhood religion in favor of atheism, Nietzsche doing the same and becoming anti-christian. Ironically, some consider the founding father of existentialism was a devout Christian, Soren Kierkegaard. Modern notable theistic existentialists such as Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel indicate that atheism is not a predetermining quality of being an existentialist.

One of Nietzsche’s most prominent statements is “God is dead.” The statement is quoted from academics to those who do not necessarily know where the quote originated. Nietzsche’s philosophy promoted a sense of humanistic freedom. A perspective of maintaining the mind within the compounds of physical cognitive properties and away from anything transcendental and spiritual. Perhaps a simple formula to understand his reasoning may follow: believing religious dogma blocks the mind from enlightenment, and removing the barriers of systematic belief systems liberates the mind to seek enlightenment confounded in physical existence. Dr. Richard Gavil comments that “God may have been an illusion, but He was a necessary illusion, and while His death may constitute a gift of freedom . . . as long as He lived, man had the possibility of a ready-made table of values” (p. 21). At the core, the statement “God is dead” is not necessarily about the ontological existence of God as a being, but the ascendancy of moral value believing in God influences society. Neither is Nietzsche claiming that the abandonment of God is wrong since an individual liberating themselves away from conformity is a quality in existential thought. Nietzsche seems to have a fair balance in the sense of recognizing the good and bad qualities of believing or not believing in God strictly when referencing moral value.

Removing God as the absolute standard of moral values presents a paradoxical problem in the mind of Nietzsche. In one perspective, God as an absolute standard of moral law creates civil order in society. It creates a standard to measure a justice system instead of subjectively judging people for their crimes. It removes a sense of relativity and arbitrarily defining right and wrong, good and evil. On the opposite perspective, the previous line of reasoning creates a herd mentality. Breaking away from the herd and conformity creates individuality and freedom of thought, considered excellence within the existential community. With the “death of God,” man is now free to think for himself how morality exists and how to apply it effectively. Without God, man has become the existential standard of defining moral law. The question is, to what standard? Nietzsche reveals that morality is a problem without God’s moral law predetermined by God. “Given the death of God, surely everything is permissible, Nietzsche . . . morality is a problem, not something preordained by God” (Reynolds p. 9).

Lastly, Friedrich Nietzsche is considered one of the most influential philosophers and founders of existential philosophy. His philosophy attempts to discover the answers to some of life’s most profound questions regarding the constructs of existence. Nietzsche was a revolutionary thinker, and his philosophy was highly influential. Nietzsche laid the foundation of existential philosophy for philosophers to build on, such as Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, and several others. Nietzsche published several works and within them was one of his most recognized assertions, God is dead. However, the assertion was not necessarily speaking of the death of God’s existence as an ontologically necessary being. Therefore, God is dead is better interpreted as God is abandoned. The abandonment of God provokes a humanistic will to become the standard of moral values. Perhaps if the entire world were to adopt the philosophy of God is dead when in respect to morality, well then, anything goes.

Works Cited

Gravil, Richard. Existentialism, edited by Mark Addis, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP,2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3306074.

Reynolds, Jack. Understanding Existentialism, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. ProQuest Ebook           Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1900188.

Gravil, Richard. Existentialism, edited by Mark Addis, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP,2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3306074.

Reynolds, Jack. Understanding Existentialism, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. ProQuest Ebook           Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1900188.

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