The recent spate of celebrity suicides has me thinking about why people, even very rich and famous people, sometimes despair and give up. Of course Nietzsche predicted that despair and nihilism would follow in the wake of the death of God, and he worked frenetically to find a solution. Does his solution work? We shall see.
Nietzsche believed that Enlightenment rationalism and the philosophical materialism that followed in its wake had made belief in God untenable. God is dead and we have murdered him he famously announced in The Madman:
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers.
Nietzsche recognized that the death of God had clear implications for morality. He predicted that as the knowledge that there is no transcendent basis for meaning and objective moral norms slowly percolated down from the philosophers to the common man, western civilization would spiral toward despair and nihilism:
But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
Nietzsche’s life project was to find a replacement system of values that would head off the despair and nihilism brought about by the death of God. He believed he had succeeded with his concept of the Übermensch as most fully explicated in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The Übermensch throws off the “slave morality” of Christianity and anything else that would inhibit the unfettered expression of his will:
For today have the petty people become master: they all preach submission and humility and policy and diligence and consideration and the long et cetera of petty virtues.
Whatever is of the effeminate type, whatever originateth from the servile type, and especially the populace-mishmash:—THAT wisheth now to be master of all human destiny—O disgust! Disgust! Disgust! . . .
He hath heart who knoweth fear, but VANQUISHETH it; who seeth the abyss, but with PRIDE.
He who seeth the abyss, but with eagle’s eyes,—he who with eagle’s talons GRASPETH the abyss: he hath courage.—
“Man is evil”—so said to me for consolation, all the wisest ones. Ah, if only it be still true today! For the evil is man’s best force.
“Man must become better and eviler”—so do I teach. The evilest is necessary for the Superman’s best.
It may have been well for the preacher of the petty people to suffer and be burdened by men’s sin. I, however, rejoice in great sin as my great CONSOLATION.—
The Übermensch defeats despair and nihilism through the courageous assertion of pure will. He does not lose heart when he reflects on the vast, indifferent and meaningless universe, because he has evolved beyond man and is therefore able to see past the empty categories of “good” and “evil” held so dear by the petty people. He becomes “eviler” and therefore better, because “better” means the successful assertion of his will to power.
Nietzsche was, of course, wrong about all of this. Science has not killed God. Far from it. 118 years after Nietzsche’s death, scientific discoveries such as the semiotic code contained in every living cell point to a designer more than ever.
But more importantly for my purposes today, assuming arguendo that God was dead, a moment’s reflection shows that Nietzsche’s “solution” to the loss of meaning and morality the absence of God entails is no solution at all. Why? Because his solution is completely arbitrary. The Übermensch transcends values and creates new values based on the courageous assertion of will. But why should we value the courageous assertion of will in the first place? Nietzsche does not say. Apparently, the only reason to value it is because Nietzche valued it. And why did he value it? Pure sentimentality.
Chesterton understood this flaw in Nietzsche’s reasoning well. In Orthodoxy he writes:
But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice; nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive. Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence, so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence.
Nietzsche calls his more highly evolved man Übermensch (superman) and bids us to admire his utterly arbitrary and courageous assertion of his naked will without giving us any reason whatsoever why the arbitrary assertion of will should be considered admirable. To be sure, Nietzsche admires that quality. But that is not enough. For his observations to amount to something more than the expression of pure sentimentality, he must explain more than what Übermensch is. He must explain why he ought to be that way, and this he never does.
In the end Nietzsche’s attempt to replace God fails. Where does that leave us? It leaves us with Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation:
On the contrary, that continual deception and disillusionment, as well as the general nature of life, present themselves as intended and calculated to awaken the conviction that nothing whatever is worth our exertions, our efforts, and our struggles, that all good things are empty and fleeting, that the world on all sides is bankrupt, and that life is a business that does not cover its costs; so that our will may turn away from it.
And it leaves us with Camus who observed that the only interesting question in philosophy is whether to kill yourself in the face of the patent absurdity of life without meaning.
Nietzsche failed to find a solution to the death of God. Fortunately for us, the solution he sought was a solution in search of a problem, because God is alive and well. But it is easy to see why people who believe otherwise would despair. Despair is a perfectly rational response to a universe completely devoid of meaning.