Dr W Large

Nietzsche and the Death of God

 We are reading Nietzsche as a response to Kant. What is important to understanding his refusal of God is that it takes place after, and within the context of Kant’s critical philosophy. For this reason, Nietzsche takes it for granted that God does not exist as an objective being. Nowhere in any of his text does he show the slightest interest in the proofs of God’s existence, because he does not need to, since Kant demonstrated their illegitimacy already in the Critique of Pure Reason. On the contrary, Nietzsche is only interested in the moral God, the God which Kant defends postulates of the Critique of Practical Reason, and sees its highest formulation or expression in Christianity in Religion within the limits of Reason alone. The only justification of religion is moral and not ontological.

      In the broadest sense possible, Kant defends the necessity of the idea of God through the threat of nihilism. We need the idea of God subjectively because it makes sense of morality as a whole, and gives the ultimate purpose or sense to our lives. Nietzsche, on the contrary, argues that religion is the very opposite of life, and that Christianity is the highest form of this hostility. But this means that we have to think life very different from the way that it is conceived in Kant’s philosophy. Life for Kant has to measure by rational ideas or moral and ethical principles, but for this to be possibility there has to be a clear and absolute separation between life and thought. This is the fundamental dichotomy of Kant’s philosophy, and perhaps all idealism. It is this opposition between life and thought which Nietzsche’s philosophy questions in the will to power. Life and thought are not opposites, but thought is a particular expression of life. Thus, for Nietzsche, there is only life and it must be understood on its own terms and not how thought distorts it.[1]

      What, then, is the importance of God to this relation between life and thought? Why, to express the immanence of thought to life, does Nietzsche have to kill God? This is because God is the third term through we can separate live and thought. It is through the idea of God that thought declares its autonomy from life, for the idea of God is nothing else than the declaration that the mind has nothing at all to do with the body, that they are too distinct substances. Descartes needs the proof of the existence of God in order to sustain the separation between the mind and the body at the level of ontology. Kant rejects this ontology, and so for him there is no division between the mind and the body at the level of nature. He re-establishes this separation, however, at the level of the morality, through the idea of freedom. Though freedom does not exist as a fact of nature, as an idea through which I can determine my actions, it ensures that my moral choices are not merely the result of  natural causality (one billiard ball striking another and causing it to move) but results from my own deliberations. To deny the existence of God is to deny that there is any separation between nature and freedom, or ultimately between life and thought.

      This is precisely what is at the heart of the famous section in The Gay Science.[2] What should first strike us about this passage is that Nietzsche does not say that God does not exist, but that he is dead, and that it is the madman who is seeking God, and his audience that appears not to believe in God, and not to take this non-belief very seriously at all:

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? – thus they yelled and laughed.[3]

The madman’s audience is like a crowd of philosophers. For them the non-existence of God is not a serious matter. Who care whether God exists or not? It is perfectly obvious and normal that He does not exist, and we barely need to think about it. This is why the madman seems so mad and elicits only laughter, for he seems to the take God far too seriously. But why is it different to write ‘God is dead’ rather than ‘God does not exist’. Apart from the fact that first of more passionate and fervent than the former, it implies that someone or somebody has killed God. If God is dead, then there must be a murder and the murder is ourselves, we have killed God:

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes, ‘Wither is God’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers.[4]

What matters for Nietzsche is not the ‘truth’ in a logical and objective way that we could prove that God does not exist, but that even if God did exist, we would need to kill him off. As Rosenzweig, writes, Nietzsche turns his back on God personally, not as a conclusion arrived at through a proof as a philosopher would. If the problem of God for Nietzsche is not a question about the existence of God, then what is it? The answer to this question is that it has to do, as we have already seen with life, and not life as the abstraction of thought, but life as it is lived by an individual. So we can see that Kant and Nietzsche’s question are not that far apart. Don’t ask whether God exist or not, which is the most uninteresting question, but whether God is of any value to your life. Kant’s answer is that He is, Nietzsche’s is a resolute and fiery ‘no’.

But do we know what it really means to reject God in this way, to kill him off even if he did exist. The crowd of philosophers, who are not at bothered that God does not exist, in the marketplace, do not. First of all it means that there is no external measure to my life. There is nothing outside of my life to which I could measure it to be good or bad (this is what Nietzsche means by ‘beyond Good and Evil’). Only in this way can the world, as Nietzsche’s writes at the end of The Twilight of the Idols, be redeemed, for there is not criterion outside the world that we could claim it has failed to read, or even shot over – the world is what it is and nothing else.[5]

There is no doubt that the madman experiences the absence of God as something real, painful and harrowing:

Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?[6]

We are meant to directly compare this with the laughing philosophers. Their atheism isn’t like this at all, perhaps because they only believed in God as a thought, and not as life. But if there is no God how are we to redeem life at all? What possible meaning could it have for us?

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?[7]

Perhaps the most important lesson to take from the death of God is that that we have also killed ourselves or at least a certain idea of ourselves. Why the philosopher atheists are not afraid like the madman, and can stand around laughing, is that they don’t’ realise that the death of God is also the death of man. Why is this so? First of all it is the idea of God which sustains the identity and centrality of man. We already have seen this in Kant’s moral argument for the necessity of God. What maintains the separation between freedom and nature is the idea of God. But to kill off God also means that now there is no difference between freedom and nature, that there is only nature and nothing else. This is why Deleuze can writes at the end of his book on Foucault that what really interested Nietzsche was not the death of God at all, but the death of man.[8] Why does one necessarily follow from the other, such that,

 there has never been a greater deed, and whoever is born after us – for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.[9]

If God exists, Deleuze explains, which is the same as saying the God-function exists, then man does not yet exist. But as soon as man exists, which is the same as saying that the Man-function exists, then already we comprehend the death of man in three ways. If God is dead, then we can no longer confirm our identity in the transcendence of God. Secondly if God is dead, then man can only understand himself in his finitude, since the infinite no longer exists, that he can only understand himself in terms of his own death (Heidegger and Rosenzweig). But what my finitude reveals to me is that at the heart of existence is nothingness – that I am dispersed in my involvements with things and people, and that is nothing left over which I could properly call my own.

Enfin, les forces de finitude elles-mêmes font que l’homme n’existe qu’à travers la dissémination des plans d’organisation de vie, la dispersion des langues, la disparité des modes de production. [Finally, the forces of finitude themselves means that man only exist through the dissemination of planes of organisation of life, the dispersion of language, and the disparity of modes of production][10]

In the end, as Deleuze reminds us, this death of the form of Man, which is not the same as the death of the human being, is perhaps no bad thing. We have to ask ourselves what are the forces outside of us that now constitute our individual lives if they are no longer God or Man. Perhaps it is life itself, the anonymous but singular life that surrounds all of us.

Deleuze, in one of his last writings, ‘Immanence: A Life’, reminds us of that strange and disturbing episode in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, when the villain of the piece, Rogue Riderhood, is found dying.[11] No compassion is shown to him when he lived, but between life and death, when he no longer bears his name, when ‘it is the outer husk and shell of Riderhood and no other’, and when he has becomes a ‘dank carcass’, then all are extremely concerned and affected. But what they care for is not ‘Rogue Riderhood’ at all, not this man, who they all hate and fear, but the impersonal life which lives within him, and which lives within them all:

No one has the least regard for the man; with them all, he has been an object of avoidance, suspicion, and aversion; but the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die.[12]

When finally his life returns, then the same animosity and dislike fills the onlookers, even though moments before they were struggling and weeping over his apparently dying body. What do they hate about him? That the virtual possibilities of this singular life have been crushed by what Rogue Riderhood had become? Such is the life that is in us all; singular but not individual, which bears no name, Deleuze writes, but cannot be mistaken for any other, beyond subject and object, the internal and the external - ‘un sourire, un geste, une grimace’ [a smile, a gesture, a funny face].[13]

Perhaps then the outside is the impersonal and the anonymous, life without name, but which is always singular, a life. Perhaps too what we wanted to conceal from ourselves in the idea of God and in the idea of Man is this anonymous life. But why shouldn’t we celebrate it. What is, as Deleuze reminds us Foucault said about the death of man, to shed tears for?[14]




[1] What is at issue in Houlgate’s reading of Nietzsche is whether this division between life and thought merely repeats the metaphysical divisions that he attempting to overcome. But this would be to interpret this division into terms of a logic of opposition rather than difference. Thought is not the opposite of life, rather it is ‘more or less’ what is life is. Thought is life distorted through life. See, Stephen Houlgate, ‘Nietzsche and Metaphysics’, in Hegel, Nietzsche and the Criticism of Metaphysics (CUP, 1986) pp. 38-95.

[2] The Gay Science, trans W. Kaufmann, (New York: Random House, 1974) 181-2.

[3] Ibid 181.

[4] Ibid 181

[5] ‘We deny God; in denying God we deny accountability: only by doing that do we redeem the world.’ As quoted in Giles Fraser, Redeeming Nietzsche (London: Routledge, 2002) 30.

[6] The Gay Science, op. cit., 181.

[7] Ibid., 181.

[8] On défigure Nietzsche quand on en fait le penseur de la mort de Dieu…. Ce qui l’intéresse c’est la mort de l’homme. [One disfigures Nietzsche when one makes him the thinker of the death of God…. What interested him was the death of man] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Paris: Minuit, 1986) 138.

[9] The Gay Science, op. cit., 181.

[10] Foucault, op. cit., 138.

[11] Gilles Deleuze, ‘L’immanence: une vie…’ in Deux régimes de fous. Textes et entretiens 1975–1995, édition préparée par D. Lapoujade (Paris, Minuit, 2003) pp.359–63.

[12] Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London, Penguin Books, 1998) 503.

[13] Deleuze, ‘L’immanence’, op. cit., 362.

[14] Foucault, op. cit., 138.