“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”
“He said there couldn’t be any more universal philosophers. The weight of knowledge is too great for one mind to absorb. He saw a time when one man would know only one little fragment, but he would know it well.”
-John Steinbeck, East of Eden
In this paper I will engage with issues pertaining to the Nietzschean theme of “the death of God.” I will delineate some of the more notable features of modern life, particularly the concept of “authenticity.” I will discuss the unique opportunities that this emphasis on authenticity presents. I will also address some of the perils of modernity, particularly its susceptibility to subjectivism. I will attempt to show that authenticity is not only compatible with but dependent on an objective good.
In section 125 of “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche tells us of a madman who causes a disturbance in the local market place. “Whither is God?” the man cries. “I will tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers….Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The listeners who had at first jeered at the madman are reduced to a stunned silence by his piercing jeremiad. He continues: “This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men…deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard” (Sec. 125).
“The death of God” is a potent metaphor for modernity. The forces that gave rise to the modern world are complex and interlocking–cause and effect blur in a tableau that encompasses Luther’s Theses and laicite, the Critique of Pure Reason and the Wealth of Nations, the sexual revolution and the spirit of 1776. But one cannot fail to acknowledge that the world in which we live, move, and have our being is not the world of the medievals. Modernity is animated by a distinctive vision of human freedom, a stance in the world with implications and reverberations that are still unfolding. As Charles Taylor points out, “Modern freedom was won by our breaking loose from older moral horizons. People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a ‘great chain of Being,’ in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders” (3).
Prior to modernity, the course that one’s life would take was, to a great extent, dictated by one’s social status, culture, and inherited roles with very little room for flexibility or adaptation. The world was orderly and regimented and, generally speaking, there was no sense that reflection and exploration might be required to find one’s place within it. But a revolution in outlook and attitude has taken place. The characteristic feature of modernity is its emphasis on “authenticity,” the notion that one should be, in some sense, the author of one’s life rather than simply adhering to a pre-fabricated script dictated by the circumstances of one’s birth. Nietzsche underscores this epochal shift in section 117 of ‘The Gay Science”: “Today one feels responsible only for one’s will and actions, and one finds pride in oneself….But during the longest period of the human past nothing was more terrible than to feel that one stood by oneself….While we experience law and submission as compulsion and loss, it was egoism that was formerly experienced as something painful and as real misery….There is no point on which we have learned to think and feel more differently” (sec. 117).
One might feel a twinge of melancholy at the demise of the ancien regime. There is an enchanting stability to its routines and rhythms, a givenness and gravitas that are not entirely without appeal. As Taylor puts it, “But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life…The discrediting of these orders has been called the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. With it, things lost some of their magic” (3). The burden of freedom sometimes feels more sisyphean than promethean.
But if there are costs to living in modernity, there are distinctive prospects and possibilities as well. To be in some sense a self-author choosing one’s ends and aims is terrifying. It is also exhilarating. Modern life is at once more chaotic and more compliant, more permissive and more demanding. Its dynamism and fluidity are intoxicating. We may occasionally yearn for the simplicity of Eden, but we know deep down that we wouldn’t choose to return even if we could.
Nietzsche often contrasts the metaphysical and moral underpinnings of the pre-modern order with the religion of the ancient Greeks. The comparison invariably places the Judeo-Christian order that supplanted paganism in an unfavorable light. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190). The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that, in Nietzsche’s view, the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance. Fortunately, the death of God liberates us from this moral straitjacket to live more passionately and abundantly.
Nietzsche celebrates this vision of human freedom in section 27 of “The Gay Science,” in which he introduces the “man of renunciation,” whom he compares favorably to the “man of affirmation.” The man of renunciation breaks free of the constraints and preexisting conditions that would make a claim on him. The man of affirmation allows them to hold him back. In relinquishing all such attachments, the man of renunciation catapults himself to a higher plane than the “man of affirmation.” And in so doing, he can himself rightfully be called a “man of affirmation” in a deeper and more authentic sense than the desiccated man of affirmation that Nietzsche sets up as his foil, for his renunciation of societal restraints constitutes an affirmation of life, freedom, and creativity.
It seems to me that the modern elevation of individualism and autonomy is a genuine achievement of our civilization. The old order really was too restrictive of human freedom, too dismissive of self-actualization. It doesn’t seem to be merely coincidental that the liberation of the individual has coincided with an outpouring of innovation, prosperity, and scientific and medical progress that past ages could scarcely have imagined. The modern skepticism of institutions and authority figures can be corrosive but surely it also has something to do with the gradual uprooting of unjust relationships of dominance embedded in traditional hierarchies and relationships that would not have been questioned in less skeptical ages, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall (Obama).
We may lament the passing away of comforting certainties and clear-cut obligations, but it has made us less tribal and parochial, more tolerant of human diversity and attuned to the complexities of the cosmos. As Damon Linker puts it in a discussion of traditional religion and modern life, “the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don’t want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be. The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it’s especially acute in matters of religion” (The Week). To the extent that pre-modernity imposed a single, totalizing world picture that didn’t do justice to the variability of the human condition, we should welcome its supersession.
However, we should also be aware of the unique perils of modern life, dangers that many have also detected in Nietzsche’s work. We moderns rightly look with skepticism on accounts of the good that are overly narrow and constricted–consider, for instance, Nietzsche’s derisive references to “morality.” But as a result we are perhaps more vulnerable to what Charles Taylor calls “the slide to subjectivism”–that is, the equation of the good with whatever it is that I happen to value. Subjectivism, far from fulfilling authenticity undercuts its very possibility.
On subjectivism, all preferences are equally valid. Yet is self-evident that pushpin is not as good as poetry simply because I prefer pushpin to poetry. A life voluntarily spent in a drunken stupor and a life integrated around family relationships, the music of Chopin, and the uplift of the indigent may both be autonomously crafted, but they are not equally valuable. Clearly, some ways of life are better, because more in conformity with human flourishing, than others.
It follows that it is not the case that the object of choice becomes good in virtue of being chosen; rather, it is chosen because we perceive it to be good. So although we should tread carefully when it comes to judging other people’s choices, we should not fall into the error of simply equating genuine self-authorship with sheer self assertion. If that were truly the case, then freedom would be stripped of its dignity and drama. An authenticity reduced to subjectivism is triviality masquerading as nobility.
To this we one might add that a vision of human freedom as entirely unconditioned, of human beings as unbound by any ties prior to consent seems more debilitating than liberating. Fortunately, it also seems to be empirically false. Even we moderns are claimed by contingent and partial attachments that rightfully press upon us prior to any act of consent on our part. After all, we are not disembodied souls or unencumbered selves floating free of all contingency. In truth, we are embodied, rational animals in particular times and places, embedded in networks of meaning and belonging not of our own making. We experience ourselves as radically situated, claimed by relationships, places, and patrimonies that are not merely encumbrances to be cast aside, but inheritances that are partially constitutive of our very identities. To be is to be in relationship to others, and these relationships are not merely instrumental.
The reality of human encumbrance has implications for how the quest for authenticity should be conducted. Elements of the good, the pursuit of which grounds our quest for authenticity by forestalling the slide to subjectivism, will be embedded in the relationships and encumbrances in which we find ourselves. Our antecedent attachments and relationships cannot dictate the precise forms our lives should take–that would be incompatible with authenticity. But they do have an integral role to play in our quest for authenticity. Our self-constitution inevitably takes place against the backdrop of a language, relationships, and culture that are given. This implies an ongoing dialogue between the self and the relationships and environments in which it is embedded–a dialogue whose course cannot be fixed beforehand but in which both participants must be allowed to say their piece.
For example, perhaps Jacqueline inherited from her parents a religion in which they raised her and which they in turn inherited from their own parents. Part of living an authentic life is to take a critical and reflective stance toward the web of beliefs, practices, and traditions into which one is born, and Jacqueline may eventually come to distance herself from her family’s religion. But she should not do so lightly or cavalierly. If she does choose to pursue some other course, she should retain a salutary and respectful awareness of her connection to the religious matrix in which she was raised. She should seek ways to remain in continuity with and to carry on the legacy of her parents and even earlier generations of her ancestors.
As Charles Taylor puts it, “We are expected to develop our own opinions, outlook, stances to things, to a considerable degree through solitary reflection. But this is not how things work with important issues, such as the definition of our identity. We define this always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us. And even when we outgrow some of the latter–our parents, for instance–and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live” (33). The upshot is that to live well is to find the most creative and authentic mode of being within the contours of the existence gifted to me by forebears and fate, to put my own unique spin on the inheritances that constitute the sources of my life.
Our modern consciousness of human diversity, the varieties of religious experience, and the follies of fundamentalism should preclude any disposition on our part to oversimplify the good. As Linker puts it, “There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole. A pluralistic whole. A differentiated whole shot through with contradiction and paradox” (The Week). An adequate notion of the good has to be reflective of reasonable pluralism. It cannot be infinitely open-ended, but it must be expansive. It won’t be the sort of thing that can be pinned down in a list of commandments or captured in a catechism. Its precise contours will be indeterminate, its elaboration an ongoing process.
I believe that Nietzsche’s criticisms of herd morality and his references to the divergent experiences associated with different ways of life can be harmonized with the view of the good that I have sketched. Interpreted this way, Nietzsche is not calling for us to simply create our own values. However, as Nietzsche takes great pains to impress upon us, “Those who want to mediate between two resolute thinkers show that they are mediocre; they lack eyes for seeing what is unique” (228). There are a diversity of sometimes mutually exclusive values and each stance we might choose to occupy in the world will inevitably realize some and preclude others.
So modernity is not a moral vacuum. The error of pre-modernity was not that it had a notion of the good but that its notion of the good was too constrictive. In truth, we inhabit a world overflowing with value, teeming with permissible permutations of the good awaiting incarnation in the lives of individual self-authors. It follows that the proper stance toward the death of God is neither despair nor elation, but cautious optimism. We should embrace autonomy and authenticity, while remaining cognizant of the truth that we are not disembodied souls floating free of all contingency and therefore at liberty to latch on to whatever ends strike our fancy. We have the responsibility to use our freedom well.
In conclusion, Nietzsche clearly grasped the immensity and the potential of the changes afoot in our society. Wrestling with Nietzsche is thus imperative for those who must live in the world that he so memorably limned. Yet if we are to navigate modernity we must chart a middle way between a unitary good that would undercut our diversity and individuality and a purely subjective good that would replace moral freedom with moral anarchy. In so doing, we can redeem the promise of modernity and avoid the slide to subjectivism.
Linker, Damon. “Why Would a Young Person Today be Religious?” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/447742/why-young-person-today-religious. Accessed 15 April 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kauffman,Vintage, 1974.
Obama, Barack. “Inaugural Address,” 21 January 2013, West Front of the U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC.
Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press. 1992.