Fighting Nihilism: Why Life Is Not Meaningless
Friedrich Nietzsche: discovering the god within
It was Nietzsche who announced the death of God in his book “The Gay Science”. In the passage titled “The Madman”, he tells the story of a man who runs out onto the street screaming, “I seek God! I seek God!”. The people walking along the street looked upon him suspiciously and assumed he was mentally ill. They turned away from him, but, without care, he carried on crying into the air. Suddenly, he began to preach:
“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has so far possessed, has bled to death under our knife, who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What purifications, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history so far!”
The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche
Still, no one bothered to notice him. The sheer indifference of the people was frustrating. With anger, he threw his lantern on the ground, shattering the glass on the concrete floor so that he might shock his passive audience into taking his words seriously. At last, the Madman gave up. He declared the ignorance of those around him and went on his way, still believing in his own self-righteousness. Only he knew the fate of the people after the murder of God.
“I come too early, I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling — it has not reached men’s ears.”
Many have understood the words “God is dead” to be a triumph against the old order, against dogmatic values and oppressive morals. But for Nietzsche, it was a warning.
What will replace God and Christianity? Indeed, the morality that had structured the Western world was predicated on the idea of divinity, that there existed a higher ideal beyond the follies of human beings. This system, which had oriented society for two thousand years, cannot simply be wiped from the Earth without someone noticing it.
And when the people feel its absence, when they understand themselves to be insignificant and helpless, what will be the consequence?
The images of God, Jesus Christ and the monarchy, and the stories in the Bible, once prominent features in our world, were divine representations of mankind; they gave a meaning to the lives of the people not by serving their desires, but instead by honouring a higher purpose.
The divine and the sacred embodied the spiritual ideals which have enabled those of the past to strive for the highest of ideals. We were once children of God and, as such, we carried his image in everything we did; our architecture, art, history, and culture were all constructed in God’s likeness.
But when the guillotine fell from the frame and cut through every symbol that had once represented the higher world, the people were left without an eternal meaning to their lives. Decapitated heads rolled into buckets, portraits were set on fire, and dust climbed over the Bible. But after the cultural revolution, after the terror and the chaos, when the streets fell silent and the pitchforks were tossed away, the question remained, what will replace God?
Nietzsche believed that when an ancient belief system lost its strength, the people would lose the very worldviews that gave their lives meaning, and the strength to persevere in life despite sorrow and the misery. Nihilism, then, would spread from the open wound left by the death of God. Indeed, intellectuals across Europe would become obsessed with the idea of nihilism, especially after the First World War.
For what reason was The Great War fought? For God? For civilisation? But with the death of God and the corruption of our civilisation, how can we justify the War? What is the story that we must tell ourselves? How can we argue that life itself is meaningful if an entire generation can be murdered without a reason or purpose? For the common soldier, who had witnessed the greatest betrayal in history, the world seemed to be filled with persistent lies — everything was false, nothing was certain. And so, he returned from Flanders without religious faith of any kind.
But Nietzsche worried that if mankind was to fall into the pit of nihilism then they would drastically underestimate their potential as human beings. We have not realised that we are our own king, it is we who sits upon the throne. God exists within. But we lack the elevating symbols of divinity that are able to communicate the higher ideals of man.
Without these symbols, we have lost touch with the greater good. We now exist in a world filled with what Nietzsche called “the last men”, namely those fascinated with pleasure, lust, consumption, and comfort, living quiet lives without individuality or meaning.
Nietzsche was not calling for a return of formal Christianity. He understood that the people no longer need to be controlled by a power beyond their understanding. Instead, he wanted man to stop looking towards the skies and accept the warning of The Madman: God is dead. Unfortunately, however, it has been the instinct of the people to take power away from their leaders and then avoid the responsibility themselves.
“Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a poetic tale of a man who leaves his ordinary life to seek wisdom in the mountains. After ten years of solitude and deliberate poverty, Zarathustra feels that he has acquired too much wisdom to keep for himself. He returns from the mountains to pursue the new purpose of sharing his wisdom with mankind.
After some time, Zarathustra stumbles upon a small town where a crowd is gathered, awaiting the performance of a tight-rope walker. Seizing on the opportunity, he leaps upon the stage and begins preaching about the potential of mankind:
“I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man?”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, Nietzsche was trying to answer the question, “Can we create our own meaning for life without God?” For Nietzsche, the answer was not only yes, but that we have no other choice. Either we live meaningfully or fall into the despair of nihilism. And The Superman is, Nietzsche believed, the highest ideal that man should strive towards. For life is meaningful because of our vast potential, and when we endeavour to become all that we are meant to be, we invite the experience of life itself.
The Superman is he who creates new worlds, who embraces his natural instincts and sees them as guides of his immense passion, who lives dangerously in order to discover the boundaries of his soul, who disciplines himself to wholeness and becomes his own god for the greater good of his people. In short, the Superman represents the ideal of overcoming the limitations of the self.
We each have a definite and set limit, a nature that cannot expand or change in any way. We hold onto prehistoric and primitive drives that have kept alive our ancestors since the beginning. The past flows through us. And if we do not explore and re-discover this volatile energy, we lose touch with our ancient helpers and rely instead on our mind, trapping ourselves in the weakness of consciousness.
This ideal is similar to the ideals of divinity, except that it focuses primarily on the individual and how one can live meaningfully according to their own nature, rather than the grand, over-arching structure of the ancient religions.
We need a meaning for our lives if we are to navigate through the world. Because when the human instinct for meaning dies, the entire culture will die also. With the absence of God, man must answer the impulse to become his own hero, as Zarathustra did, and in doing so, he in turn elevates the rest of the world too. Rather than being overcome by the inner chaos that weakens those without a higher meaning, the hero faces up to himself and discovers his own meaning against the burdens of his time. There must be a higher ideal that is worth fighting for.
“Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was Nietzsche’s attempt to encourage the modern man to realise the divine within himself and to restore the pride of human existence in a spiritually impoverished world. We are not puppets, we are not victims of some distant being. We have created this world for ourselves and we invited God to help us. And so, Nietzsche believed, we can forge our own justification for being here, rather than remaining at the mercy of institutions that belong to another time.
Harry J. Stead