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Aug 26 Nietzsche and the 'murder' of God

Today in 1900 the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died. The last ten years of his life had been filled with unhappiness and suffering after he had suffered a mental breakdown whilst in Northern Italy. Two policemen had approached him after he caused a public disturbance in the streets of Turin. What actually triggered this remains unknown, but an often-repeated tale from shortly after his death states that Nietzsche witnessed the flogging of a horse at the other end of the Piazza Carlo Alberto, ran to the horse, threw his arms around its neck to protect it, then collapsed to the ground. His life had been marked by an intense genius and mental anguish, which increased towards the end and he had lived it in self-imposed near-isolation.


His emotional instability was linked to his creative genius and had probably been exacerbated by the large doses of opium he had taken in periods whilst he was having trouble sleeping. Maintaining friendships had been a life-long struggle for Nietzsche and after severing his social ties with the composer Richard Wagner, Nietzsche had few remaining friends. The direction, and intense content of his later work became even more alienating, and Nietzsche recognized this and maintained his solitude, though he often complained. His books remained largely unsold. In 1885, he printed only 40 copies of the fourth part of Zarathustra and distributed a fraction of them among close friends. After his breakdown he returned to Germany to be with his mother and then after her death, his sister Elizabeth. During these last years he suffered at least two strokes which had partially paralyzed him, leaving him unable to speak or walk. After contracting pneumonia, he had another stroke during the night and died at about noon on 25 August. Elisabeth had him buried beside his father at the church in Röcken Lützen. One of his few remaining loyal friends and secretary Gast gave his funeral oration, proclaiming: "Holy be your name to all future generations!

Nietzsche's father, Carl Ludwig Nietzsche was a Lutheran pastor and former teacher who had died from a brain ailment when Frederick was only five. Academic records from one of the schools attended by Nietzsche noted that he excelled in Christian theology and as a young man he began studying theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn in the hope of becoming a minister. However, after just one semester (and to the anger of his mother), he stopped his theological studies and claimed to have lost his faith. In his essay "Fate and History", Nietzsche argued that historical research had discredited the central teachings of Christianity. In spite of this he also conceded that David Strauss's Life of Jesus still seemed to have had a profound effect on him. This was an early indication of his contradictory nature. Ludwig Feuerbach's influential book The Essence of Christianity convinced him that people created God, and not the other way around. Feuerbach also had a similar impact at the time on Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. So in June 1865, at the age of 20, Nietzsche wrote to his sister Elisabeth, who was deeply religious, explaining his loss of faith. Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.... Concentrating on philology the study of language as it is preserved in written sources; he became a lecturer in classical philology – focusing on texts written in the classical languages of Latin and Greek. He had obtained a professorship at the age of 24, a sign of his brilliance and precocious nature. However, even though Nietzsche wasn’t a systematic thinker – he was harshly critical of the attempt to systematise thought - his often-contradictory thinking had great influence and power. His method was brutal at times, and he said he did philosophy with a hammer. At a time of great geological discoveries, he felt he could unearth the truth by breaking away a lot of cultural accretions that covered them up. After he died, he became a cult figure through his some considering him to be a prophet, whilst many others saw him as dangerous. 15 of his major works have been translated into English, mainly through the translations of the Princeton professor Gerald Kaufmann, with originals in German numbering more than double that.

Three prominent elements of his philosophy have had a significant impact on Christian thought – Firstly, he took his philosophers hammer to Christian morality, which was ubiquitous at the time. His radical critique of truth is influenced by the emerging body of philosophy known as existentialism, and Nietzsche, instead of absolute truth offers the theory of perspectivism (a form of moral relativism). Secondly in On the Geneology of Morals, considered to be his masterpiece by some scholars, he looks at the evolution of moral concepts with a view to confronting "moral prejudices", specifically those of Christianity and Judaism arguing that it is related to a master–slave morality. It is up to us to reconstruct our own values. Freud wrote of Nietzsche having anticipated psychoanalytic concepts – however his concept of the superego being responsible for our conscience has now been widely discredited. Modern psychological studies into the phenomenon of the human conscience indicate that values are something that we discover and therefore can be described as co-creation which is a more subtle point than Nietzsche is making. Finally aware of the profound crisis of nihilism that may follow this swinging of his philosopher hammer, Nietzsche offers an affirmation of life in response to the ‘Death of God". This death was not a fading away – the dying of an outdated concept - but a more accurate reading of Nietzsche is that he is chronicling the murder of God as a result of the ‘Enlightenment’. He was the first to stare unblinkingly into what ‘the murder of God’ would mean for civilisation – saying ‘ When one gives up on the Christian Faith – one pulls the right to Christian morality from under ones feet’

However this was not the mystical existentialism of Kierkegaard (pod Aug 8) but Nietzsche had taken existentialism in a darker direction and one that would be exploited in the 20th Century by totalitarian states. Although Nietzsche recognised that the dignity of humankind and the dignity of labour were Christian concepts he felt that cross was a scandal and there was nothing holy about it, but had allowed Christianity to make humanity sick with its focus on weakness. He despised the poor and considered concern for the lowly and suffering as a form of poison. In his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, written in the latter stage of his life – he repeated the ideas in his previous work Thus Spoke Zarathustra but with a more polemical approach. He accused past philosophers of lacking critical sense and blindly accepting dogmatic premises in their consideration of morality. The work moves into the realm "beyond good and evil" - leaving behind the traditional morality which Nietzsche subjects to a destructive critique in favour of what he regards as an affirmative approach that fearlessly confronts the perspectival nature of knowledge and the perilous condition of the modern individual.

In his 1882 book – the Gay Science - he famously wrote ‘ Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even Gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead and we have killed him’ This a more subtle point understood in the context of the wider book – Nietzsche is arguing that scientific developments and the increasing secularization of Europe had effectively 'killed' the Abrahamic God, who had served as the basis for meaning and value in the West for more than a thousand years. He realised that the death of God may lead to outright nihilism, the belief that nothing has any inherent importance and that life lacks purpose but Nietzsche believed that Christian moral doctrine provided people with intrinsic value, and thus Christianity was an antidote to a primal form of nihilism—the despair of meaninglessness. This may make it harder to label Nietzsche as an atheist; one of his foremost translators - Walter Arnold Kaufmann a professor at Princeton University. suggest that his statements reflect a more subtle understanding of divinity. Nietzsche had turned away from Schopenhauer, the thinker who had interested him in philosophy calling it a passive nihilism, or Western Buddhism— Nietzsche approached the problem of nihilism as a deeply personal one, calling it a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. He claimed that the Christian faith as practiced was not a proper representation of Jesus' teachings, as it forced people merely to believe in the way of Jesus but not to act as Jesus did; in particular, his example of refusing to judge people, something that Christians constantly did. He condemned institutionalized Christianity for emphasizing a morality of pity which made suffering contagious. In another book Ecce Homo Nietzsche called the establishment of moral systems based on a dichotomy of good and evil a "calamitous error", he indicated his desire to bring about a new, more naturalistic source of value in the vital impulses of life itself. Nietzsche felt that modern antisemitism was "despicable" and contrary to European ideals & that Jews should be thanked for helping uphold a respect for the philosophies of ancient Greece, and for giving rise to "the noblest human being (Christ), the purest philosopher (Baruch Spinoza), the mightiest book, and the most effective moral code in the world." Surely he would have found it tragic that his concepts of the superman ‘the ubermensch’ who had shaken off the shackles of traditional morality was taken up by the Nazis. His argument about the will to power, which he maintained provided a basis for understanding human behaviour—more so than competing explanations, such as the ones based on pressure for adaptation or survival - also helped shaped the direction that Hitlers propogandists took. The Nazis made selective use of Nietzsche's philosophy and Hitler was a frequent visitor to the Nietzsche museum in Weimar and used expressions of Nietzsche's, in Mein Kampf.

Nietzsche never married, was never able to root is hope in bringing offspring into the worlds. He proposed to Lou Salomé, a beautiful Russian psychoanylst three times and each time was rejected. Nietzsche’s friend Paul Rée had previously proposed marriage to her, but she, instead, proposed that they should live and study together as "brother and sister", along with another man for company, where they would establish an academic commune. When Fredrick was invited to join them Nietzsche is believed to have instantly fallen in love with Salomé, as Rée had done. They toured together with Rée and Salomé touring through Switzerland and Italy together, planning their commune, they intended to set up their commune in an abandoned monastery, but no suitable location was found. On 13 May, in Lucerne, when Nietzsche was alone with Salomé, he earnestly proposed marriage to her again, which she rejected. After discovering the situation, Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth became determined to get Nietzsche away from the "immoral woman". Arriving in Leipzig, however, they separated from Nietzsche after a falling-out between Nietzsche and Salomé. Salomé viewed the idea of sexual intercourse as prohibitive and marriage as a violation, and reflecting on unrequited love, Nietzsche considered that "indispensable ... to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference. Nietzsche had served in the Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) as a medical orderly and witnessed the traumatic effects of battle. He contracted diphtheria and dysentery and syphilis, which affected his health for the rest of his life. Freud, later confirmed that the acquisition of Syphillis was from an infection from a homosexual brothel and his homosexuality was widely known in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society,

His fame grew after his death, and his legacy of prolific writing has influenced many. His reputation survived his thoughts being associated with Hitler. Carl Jung In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a biography transcribed by his secretary, cites Nietzsche as a large influence. Maybe his lasting legacy is expressed in the ideal of the "grand striver" For Nietzsche, this grand striver overcomes obstacles, engages in epic struggles, pursues new goals, embraces recurrent novelty, and transcends existing structures and contexts