By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 to a Lutheran minister father and a strict mother. He was a brilliant student from an early age, and was recognized as remarkably acute and intelligent. Nietzsche’s most famous claim perhaps is that “God is dead”. It bears noting that while Nietzsche thought this was a vastly important idea, he was acutely aware, in fact he suspected that in his time he was pretty much alone in realizing the magnitude of this statement.
Nietzsche : Professor of Classical Philology
At the age of 24—a remarkably, astonishingly young age—Nietzsche was appointed full professor of classical philology at the University of Basel. He held the post for 11 years before resigning due to health problems. His was an academic career that was stifled because he simply wouldn’t work within the confines of what his field decided was acceptable scholarly work.
Of course, if he had done that, a few of his works might still be cited as secondary or even tertiary sources in philological scholarship; but instead, his works are now some of the most assigned in college classrooms and among the most engaged in philosophical, religious, and literary studies. Maybe his aborted scholarly career was only aborted from a particular and particularly narrow point of view.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
From 1879, when Nietzsche resigned, until 1889, he lived the life of an independent writer and scholar, subsisting on his pension and writing furiously. Illness, which had been persistent throughout his life, became slowly worse over this time.
He suffered tremendously debilitating migraine headaches, some of them lasting three or four days, and a number of other maladies that caused him never to be a fully healthy person; ironically, given the pre-eminence of health in his own thinking.
Learn more about how Nietzsche came to regard the human condition as fatally tied to needs and motives.
“We Killed God”
One of Nietzsche’s most well-known statement is “God is dead”. In Nietzsche’s telling of this story in his book The Gay Science, the Madman who says, “God is dead” in the square of the city is just mocked and laughed at by the people around him. He’s shocked at their indifference; but then he realizes something, and in this one can see Nietzsche himself speaking:
This prodigious event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.
Nietzsche thought that we had killed God (“you and I,” he says), and the magnitude of the changes that are underway because of this death are vast. Though we don’t realize what these changes would require of us, one day we would.
Giving Up Morality
Because of all this, beneath his philosophizing, Nietzsche in some important ways thought of himself as fundamentally a prophet, telling us what these changes would mean.
Once we have killed God, once we give up the idea that morality is given to us by the world or the deity himself, then we have to think about how to live beyond that belief, beyond a belief in God; as Nietzsche would say, beyond the language of good and evil.
What we need to come to is a new language of human striving, a new language of human effort, a new language in which to live, a language that is beyond good and evil.
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky
In 1887, Nietzsche discovered the work of Dostoevsky, and in him he recognized a powerful intellect writing in fiction the ideas that he himself had been working out in nonfiction; for Dostoevsky, if there was no God, as he famously said, then everything was permitted.
Nietzsche appreciated the magnitude of Dostoevsky’s realization of that significant fact. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a lot of time to appreciate and explore Dostoevsky’s works further.
In 1889, Nietzsche went completely insane in the city of Turin, Italy, when he was only 45. He was brought back to Switzerland and hospitalized, but he never wrote another word until his death in 1900.
Learn more about Plato’s search for truth.
Nietzsche is hard to figure out. In fact, one is not even sure that he wanted to be understood in the sense of having his thought be perfectly transparent to another intellect. He wanted to provoke and inspire, to agitate and excite, not offer something that could ever be fully cognitively digested.
And yet, somehow, the lack of understanding one feels with respect to Nietzsche is a kind of an achievement. It feels like it is the product of some really hard work to get into the details of what he’s trying to do. It’s not the incomprehension of meeting Nietzsche for the first time, but of rather trying to struggle with the surface of the text, and after that struggle still being bewildered at what is going on beneath the surface of that text.
It feels like both – a kind of consolation and a goad, because understanding Nietzsche the first time is very hard. But he’s well worth struggling with. It’s just that one should never assume that the struggle will ever end.
Common Questions about Friedrich Nietzsche’s Idea of God Is Dead
Nietzsche thought that we had killed God (“you and I,” he says), and the magnitude of the changes that are underway here because of this death are vast. But we don’t yet realize what they will require of us, though we one day will.
In the book The Gay Science, the Madman who says “God is dead” in the square of the city is mocked and laughed at by the people around him.
In 1887, Nietzsche discovered the work of Dostoevsky. Nietzsche didn’t have a lot of time to appreciate and explore Dostoevsky’s works as in 1889 he went completely insane and got hospitalized.