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’Death of God’ and nihilism

The statement “God is dead” occurring in several of Nietzsche’s works (notably in The Gay Science), has become one of his best-known remarks. On the basis of it, most commentators regard Nietzsche as an atheist; others (such as Kaufmann) suggest that this statement reflects a more subtle understanding of divinity. Recent developments in modern science and the increasing secularization of European society 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. The death of God may lead beyond bare perspectivism to outright nihilism, the belief that nothing has any inherent importance and that life lacks purpose. Here he states that the Christian moral doctrine provides people with intrinsic value, belief in God (which justifies the evil in the world) and a basis for objective knowledge. In this sense, in constructing a world where objective knowledge is possible, Christianity is an antidote to a primal form of nihilism—the despair of meaninglessness. As Heidegger put the problem,“If God as the suprasensory ground and goal of all reality is dead, if the suprasensory world of the ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory and above it its vitalizing and upbuilding power, then nothing more remains to which man can cling and by which he can orient himself.”

One such reaction to the loss of meaning is what Nietzsche calls ‘passive nihilism’ which he recognises in the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s doctrine, which Nietzsche also refers to as Western Buddhism, advocates a separating oneself of will and desires in order to reduce suffering. Nietzsche characterises this ascetic attitude as a “will to nothingness” whereby life turns away from itself, as there is nothing of value to be found in the world. This moving away of all value in the world is characteristic of the nihilist, although in this, the nihilist appears to be inconsistent:

A nihilist is a man who judges that the real world ought not to be, and that the world as it ought to be does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: this ‘in vain’ is the nihilists’ pathos—an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists. — Friedrich Nietzsche, KSA 12:9, taken from The Will to Power, section 585, translated by Walter Kaufmann

Nietzsche approaches the problem of nihilism as a deeply personal one, stating that this problem of the modern world is a problem that has “become conscious” in him. Furthermore, he emphasises both the danger of nihilism and the possibilities it offers, as seen in his statement that

I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!

According to Nietzsche, it is only when nihilism is overcome that a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive. He wished to hasten its coming only so that he could also hasten its ultimate departure. Heidegger interprets the death of God with what he explains as the death of metaphysics. He concludes that metaphysics has reached its potential and that the ultimate fate and downfall of metaphysics was proclaimed with the statement “God is dead”

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