Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, was highly critical of morality and religion in his writings, written in the Victorian times in which he lived. In this essay I want to argue that his critique is not convincing. I want to begin by outlining his life, before considering his works, in which he famously declared that God is dead! I want to conclude by arguing that for huge numbers of Jews, Christians and Muslims, God is alive and well and an integral part of their life. The Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran (Koran) provide all the morality that one needs!
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Röcken, near Leipzig in Upper Saxony, which was then in the Kingdom of Prussia, but is now in North East Germany. This village is only 100 kilometres from Wittenberg, the very cradle of the protestant reformation, where Martin Luther was professor of theology and Prince Hamlet first met Horatio in Shakespeare’s play. Nietzsche was the eldest son of a Lutheran protestant pastor who died when Friedrich was only five years old, so he may have had only a limited impact on his son’s educational and theological development.
After showing aptitude in languages and music, Friedrich started studying theology and the classical languages of Greek, Latin & Hebrew at Bonn University on the banks of the river Rhine with a view to becoming a Lutheran minister. After a year, having lost his protestant faith, he abandoned his theological studies. Already in his paper “Fate & History” (Fatum und Geschichte), written in 1862, he wrote that historical research had largely discredited Christianity. He argued that the negative narrative of much contemporary historical research had been using the past to undermine the present.
In 1865 he transferred to Leipzig University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in classics in 1868 and an honorary doctorate a year later. This enabled him to secure the chair in classics at Basel University, on the Swiss/German/French border, at the exceptionally young age of 24. He specialised in the works of Homer.
He characterised Ancient Greece as a master-slave society that allowed the arts and sciences to flourish. Their philosophy valued bravery, strength, wealth, beauty, purity and happiness at the expense of the slave class. They were fierce, proud, courageous, self-sufficient, glorious and bold. This was a spontaneously affirmative, self-orientated society. This was a good/bad value system. People were either good or bad. Society was both pro-active and positive.
He contrasted the ancient Greek tragedy of the God Apollo, son of Zeus, who favoured light, logic, control and rationality, against his brother Dionysius who was dark, visceral, out of control and irrational (Hughes, 2016).
He characterised the rise of Christianity with the rejection of the master-slave society. The slaves had revolted in favour of equality and “free will”, whatever that is. Nietzsche argued that “free will” was simply an illusion. Events like the first council of Nicea (325 A.D.) were arbitrary codifications depending on who was present and what arguments they put forward.
People were now reactive and negative. Now meekness, love, charity, humility, forgiveness, responsibility, timidity, poverty, passivity, dependency, impotence, intuition, compassion, sympathy, suffering, pain, pity and piety were valued. “Turn the other cheek” was the catchphrase. Harmful activities like fasting were encouraged and monks would die of stomach cancer. He condemned sexual abstinence and solitude, yet spent most of his adult life alone. He argued that religious belief is thus bad for us all.
This was now a good/evil value system. People could be both good and evil, depending on the acts they might commit. The doer had been separated from the deed. This was a value system that uses fear, guilt, and a distortion of the will to power in order to control one’s superiors. Genius was no longer valued and encouraged, so artistic and scientific creativity was diminished. The Dark Ages had begun.
Nietzsche argued that during the Italian Renaissance the Medici rulers in Florence, with their civil servants like Machiavelli, returned to a master/slave society and the Popes in Rome abandoned chastity and celibacy, but this allowed geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to flourish.
1n 1879 Nietzsche retired from his chair at Basel University on the grounds of ill health and became an independent philosopher. In his “Gay Science” (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), first published in 1882, he declares that God is dead and we have His blood on our hands. He has two main arguments for this. Firstly, modern science, particularly Charles Darwin’s work on biological evolution, has undermined biblical authority. The survival of the fittest was inherently immoral.
In 1883 he wrote “Thus spoke Zarathustra” which is more like a novel than a philosophical book. Here he developed the concept of Superman (Übermensch) which the eponymous hero seeks to achieve.
In his “Genealogy of Morality” (Zur Genealogie der Moral) written in 1887, he puts forward his second great reason for the death of god. This is the subversive nature of history. People use their past pedigree to validate their present situation (for example King’s College London Founded 1829).
In "The Case of Wagner: A Musician's Problem" (Der Fall Wagner) published in 1888, Nietzsche condemns his former friend the German composer Richard Wagner over his anti-semitism and support for romantic, folkloric, populist and nationalistic themes and movements. These would later feed into the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP - ‘Nazi’) philosophy. Nietzsche had earlier been a great supporter of Wagner, his wife and his musical works.
In his next book “Twilight of the Idols: How to Philosophise with a Hammer” (Götzen-Dämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophirt) the title is a play on the name of the opera “Twilight of the Gods” (Götterdämmerung) by Richard Wagner. In this book Nietzsche characterises Western European civilisation and culture as nihilistic, contrasting it with Graeco-Roman society (Nietzsche, 1889).
In his penultimate book “The Anti-Christ” (Der Antichrist), originally written in 1888, he seeks to deprecate and bastardise not only Christianity itself as both a belief system and an unhealthy practice, but also the ethical and moral value systems which modern, western society has generated from it (Nietzsche, 1895).
In his final book “Behold the Man: How One Becomes What One Is” (Ecce Homo), published after his death, he gives a potent mix of fiction, psychology, philosophy and autobiography (Nietzsche, 1908)!
Suffering from ill health for much of his short life, Nietzsche died in 1900 in Weimar the very centre of the German Enlightenment. After his death, his reputation rose as his writings became more well-known. His works were read by both left wing anarchists and right wing militarists. He had said that socialism was secularised Christianity, but it was the right wing fascists of the National Socialist German Workers (NSDAP - ‘Nazi’) Party that particularly liked his philosophy. The ‘Nazis’ used lots of ‘sacred’ elements in their rallies like music, lighting, flags, speeches and so on. The ‘Nazis’ latched on to some of his earlier anti-semitic comments, but it has been argued that he was far more pro-Jewish than anti- (Rubin, 2010).
He had argued that the Bible itself was myth not history. He questioned the very authenticity of the Holy Scriptures and their undue focus on the next life. He argued you either believe or you investigate the alternatives (Hughes, 2016).
As a man, he never married nor fathered any children. He had led a nomadic, solitary life dogged by ill-health. He wanted to avoid suffering, not to have it redeemed by religion, but he thought that pain enables happiness. He wanted to avoid the “herd happiness” of the masses. He believed in setting his own goals and overcoming obstacles (Hughes, 2016).
Nietzsche believed that the death of god is a problem not only for the religious, but for non-believers too, since morality and ethics die with it. However, humanists and atheists argue that logic and rationality can give one secular ethics without recourse to religion or God.
Despite what Nietzsche claims, for huge numbers of Jews, Christians and Muslims; God is still alive and well and an integral part of their life. The Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran (Koran) provide all the morality that one needs.
For Christians, Christ is also still alive and well and an integral part of their lives. Nietzsche the anti-Christ merely confirms their faith!
So whether one is a believer or not, Nietzsche’s critique of morality and religion can certainly be criticised.