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God Is Dead

Posted on 20th February 2010. 2 Comments

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Luke Turner considers the life of Friedrich Nietzsche…
‘the teenage Nietzsche was determined not only to rebel against his puritanical upbringing, but to excel…’
The average man knows little about Nietzsche (1844-1900) beyond his infamous quote “God is Dead”. A fascinating figure, arguably no philosopher other than Marx has had a greater impact on the 20th century.
Born in Prussia into the Victorian era of stringent morality and piety,  it was no surprise that Nietzsche’s books, titles including The Antichrist and the autobiographical Ecce Homo, were not best sellers. He died in obscurity following a decade of madness. It was not until his rediscovery by 20th century philosophers such as Heidegger and his subsequent misappropriation by Mussolini and Hitler that he was elevated to his current place in the pantheon of philosophy.
It would be fittingly ironic to apply the biblical epithet “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” to Nietzsche. His father died when he was just 5 and he was brought up under the watchful eye of his mother and aunts in an austere Victorian atmosphere. But the teenage Nietzsche was determined not only to rebel against his puritanical upbringing, but to excel. Disdaining the family vocation of clergyman (breaking his mother’s heart in the process), he abandoned his theological studies and plunged head first into the classics. With a head filled with tales of Odysseus, Troy and Agamemnon, Nietzsche went on to become one of the youngest professors ever at 24, an offer he received before even obtaining his doctorate. But the illness that would plague him for the rest of his life, rumoured to be syphilis, struck in 1879. Unable to continue lecturing, he resigned his chair and turned to philosophy. Having renounced his Prussian citizenship in 1870 in disgust at the formation of the new German Empire, he headed south for sunnier climes to Italy. His intellectual fire, however, remained undimmed, and while recuperating from his illness, he wrote the first book of his masterpiece Also Sprach Zarathustra in less than 10 days.
For all his ‘generous spirit’, Nietzsche’s Superman appears to be something straight out of Sparta
Zarathustra was the result of Nietzsche’s early life projected onto the macrocosm; the book in which the now famous aphorism ‘God is dead’ appears. Gone is the figure of Christ with his Christian love and piety, in his place is erected a statue of Ulysses towering to the heavens. The titular prophet rants and raves against Christianity as a slave-ethic giving them hope of a better life after this one, instead, he advocates a Grecian mentality with the individual as master, the great man in the here and now, with no time for the life hereafter. This is encapsulated in striving to be the ‘Ubermensch’, or superman.
For all his ‘generous spirit’, Nietzsche’s Superman appears to be something straight out of Sparta with all its worst excesses. ‘Women’ Nietzsche writes ‘are the recreation of the warrior’ and the old woman in his masterpiece reminds the titular prophet: ‘When you go to women, do not forget your whip’. Naturally, Nietzsche himself did not have much success with women but amidst numerous admonitions against such terrible cold entities as ‘the state’ and ‘the masses’- sounding like Ayn Rand on steroids- Zarathustra offers a glimpse of an idea that was to change the next century. This was, simply, that morals were only set by those with power. While this concept had ugly echoes in the Nazi propaganda ‘Triumph of the Will’, it signified the shift of political systems away from religious dogma and towards rational principles.
But if to get to this point requires ploughing through a whole book, the question is why does anyone want to read the work of this selfish misogynist? The answer is very simple. His prose.
If your soul is not stirred by the strains of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, then you might prefer to curl up at home with a copy of T S Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”
The manner in which Nietzsche writes is unique, steeped in metaphor and irony. His wit, wordplay and style are unparalleled in the philosophical world. A hybrid of Platonic dialogue and biblical prose, Also Sprach Zarathustra details the journey of the anchorite (hermit) Zarathustra down from the hilltop to bring the fire of the superman to the people. One can almost hear the Wagnerian bombast of his prose as Zarathustra berates the people for failing to strive to become supermen, as he instructs the adder to take its poison back, as he bids farewell to his disciples. Not since Plato has philosophy seen such brilliant delivery. Of course, it is all, as a good friend pointed out, decidedly German. If your soul is not stirred by the strains of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, then you might prefer to curl up at home with a copy of T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Neither is it advisable to actually attempt to follow Zarathustra’s instructions, notable individuals who have done so (and become total bastards in the process) include Mussolini, Hitler and Enoch Powell.
After the commercial failure of Zarathustra, Nietzsche seemed to lose something. Before, the supreme romantic philosopher, subtle and witty, after an impotent Nero railing against Christianity and the world in general. The disease which had encouraged his transition to philosophy ironically was the driving force behind his sad decline and eventual breakdown. Although his output never let up, the tongue-in-cheek nature of Zarathustra’s edicts was replaced by something far darker and demented. Following a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II to go to Rome and shoot himself (which would have ironically, averted WWI), Nietzsche was checked into a psychiatric institution where, alone and friendless, his last days were spent in the care of his sister.
But if one is looking for some hope of redemption for the man whose ideas cast a dark shadow over the 20th century, the apocryphal tale of Nietzsche just before his breakdown throwing his arms around a horse being whipped may provide hope. Dying not as Caesar did in glory, but in ignominity, the last rational act of a man who preached rugged individualism throughout his life was caring for another.
Luke Turner


  • Donnchadh said:

    “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends” – Woody Allen. Had to be said.

  • David said:

    The idea that God is dead is ridiculous. You can see his worship everywhere

    In love songs…