Gustave Moreau's depiction of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Oedipus suffered terribly. Was he in despair?


By Wael Al-Mahdi (2011)

“The Jinn are dead.”

Much has been made of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” statement, with people misunderstanding it more often than not.  Many have taken it as a direct affront on God, a lèse majesté, a statement of vile, filthy godlessness, and also as a call for all of us to be equally godless.  But the fact is that many commentators don’t really grasp the reality and truth of this statement, especially from the viewpoint of Nietzsche, the late 19th century philosopher who found himself on a faultline, if you will, between a receding world and a nascent one.

A handy way to put Nietzsche’s famous statement into context is to remember that he was by temperament and behavior a pious man.  When I said this to a friend of mine, he asked how this can be so, given that Nietzsche called himself the first immoralist, though in my opinion  “the first non-moralist” would cause less confusion, in that Nietzsche refused to take morality for granted.  Psychologically speaking, a man can have a pious temperament, in thought and in action, even though he is a declared atheist.  It has been noted, for example, that scientists often have a religious attitude towards their work, even though science is usually presented as the antithesis to religion.  Practically, piety implies a large order of energy invested in the object of interest, along with a great deal of respect, seriousness, and solemnity; it entails a determination and discipline to face difficult issues in the face.  So Nietzsche found himself in the situation where he, coming from a long line of pastors, cried out to a divine presence but was forced by the particulars of his time, place and frame-of-mind (what he called his love for truth, even inconvenient truth) to reject the existence of a god.  In this, Nietzsche was a first-born (as he described himself and those of his ilk) and the harbinger for the largely godless generations that were to come.  If we accept that these large-scale psycho-spiritual changes are outside of human control, we can understand the terribleness of being alone (solitary would be the fancy word here) on the threshold of a brave new age.  This was precisely the source of Nietzsche’s suffering, that he had lost the security of thought and action of a previous age, and was perched on the crest of the advancing tide, where only he, unaided, could devise solutions for himself.  A less aware or less incisive intellect would have cracked under the pressure.

It is a testimony to Nietzsche’s genius that he foresaw the death of the divine presence in the West, and by extension in the rest of the world, in as far as the rest of the world is becoming increasingly Westernized.  He correctly felt that this revelation had extensive implications, from a practical point-of-view.  This can only be understood if we bear in mind the medieval Weltanschauung, where God was seen everywhere.  Who can understand the gravity and seriousness of this now outdated worldview?  An Islamic hadith enjoins believers to live and act, always and everywhere, as if God were looking:  “If thou seest him not, then remember that he seeth thee.”  The Bible, too, reminds us to never forget the spiritual fact of divine omnipresence, and Kierkegaard stressed this as part of the unmitigated seriousness of the believer’s task.  But Nietzsche realized that the divine presence was waning in people’s hearts.  Unknowing (as opposed to ignorance) played a big part in bolstering this divine presence, but now, through science, we knew more, and what’s more, we thought we could explain away everything, even God himself, who now could commented upon in psychoanalytic theory.

A while back I got a sense of how the Medieval mind was held in awe of God’s omnipresence while a reading a treatise on medicine from Islamic Spain.  After every recommendation, assertion, or explanation, the writer wrote allahu a’lam, “but God is more knowledgeable.”  Quite in keeping with the Medieval spirit, as much on the Islamic side as on the Christian side of the Pyrenees, this early medic understood that presumptuousness of claiming absolute knowledge on the part of humans.  He recognized the “qualitative difference between God and man”, in Kierkegaard’s words.  And the Islamic world today, although held up to be a safe fortress for the divine presence, has already become largely godless in most aspects of daily life.  Already the sense for the supernatural has almost disappeared, as it certainly has in the IT company office or the operating theatre (is it then surprising that the largely secular Egyptian revolution had a Google employee as one of its luminaries?).  I believe that we can with confidence declare that the jinn are dead, and we have killed them.  The jinn, or genies, are invisible beings whose existence most Muslims give their intellectual assent to because they are mentioned in the Qur’an;  and yet the sense that the jinn are an abiding psychological fact, which was the pre-modern point-of-view, has disappeared from most Muslims’ minds.  This results in apparent contradictions where highly educated Muslim professors surprisingly defend the existence of the jinn.  But since these individuals have little sense of the divine, their defense of an inconsequential order of supernatural being is in vain.  But what of the mosque, we could rightly ask?  Does the divine presence not dwell there?  Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case.  The mosques of today, it seems, are filled with joyless individuals who promote one thing and one thing only:  rigid and ill-understood conformance to the Law.  Theirs is a world of worshipping the Law without the solace of the possibility of divine grace.

So we come back to Nietzsche, his pious temperament and his extraordinary position of not being able to accept the existence of God.  What does a man like that do?  We are speaking here of a sensitive man with an incisive and uncompromising intellect.  We cannot exaggerate the precariousness and seriousness of his predicament.  God’s death and what to do about it was a very real and dangerous issue to Nietzsche, on an order of seriousness that the average man could never comprehend.  Nietzsche attempted to present a solution to this dilemma through philosophy.  And he put down this philosophy in his books, but especially in the grandly poetic and personal Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Can we today, with our self-help-one-size-fits-all mentality and our facile ideas on God and grace, even begin to approach a serious understanding of Nietzsche’s attempted solution?  In Zarathustra, Nietzsche said that a man could not imbibe the concept of the existence of God and its implications without dying; but in my opinion, in his case and in the case of like-minded thinkers (of whom there was and continue to be precious few, so that solitariness is their customary condition), the implications of the death of God could not be imbibed without leading to death.  Therefore Nietzsche knew the greatest suffering, which in a formula was:  being extraordinarily talented spiritually, having a great yearning for the divine, and yet being forced by reason and Zeitgeist to reject God.  It follows that a solution must be found, and it must be effective and convincing enough to answer the very sophistication of the psyche that discovered the problem in the first place.  The problem was already there, undermining a whole worldview, much as termites can silently undermine a house; and yet even the gradual discovery of a problem of this magnitude requires an active and urgent search for a solution which is on an altogether much higher level than the problem.  In Kierkegaard’s thinking, Nietzsche appeared to be in despair, that is, unable to accept the possibility of a  relationship with a completely non-human divine presence, while recognizing the urgency and seriousness of the issue.

Nietzsche’s solution was complex but gave pride-of-place to the Overman, the man who has withdrawn all projections from the divine and has made the earth the center of his interest.  Zarathustra is full references to the earth, by which Nietzsche meant all that interests humans in their direct, tangible reality, as opposed to the heavenly sands, or metaphysical worlds that in no real way overlapped with the tangible world, in Nietzsche’s thinking.  Now that God is dead, according to Nietzsche, we are free;  this freedom we should take very seriously and responsibility.  To Nietzsche, the ailing theist is suffering from a disease;  he cannot make his peace completely with his God-belief, yet he cannot leave it.  He puts like this:

And truly, it came not to me from the beyond!  What happened, my brothers?  I surpassed myself, the suffering one; I carried my own ashes to the mountain; a brighter flame I contrived for myself.  And Behold!  Then the phantom withdrew from me!

But we have reached a collective point where believing in a god, or a phantom, is becoming increasingly fraught with doubt and aimlessness.  It follows that by while abolishing all gods, we are to set up a new god in their throne:  the overman.  The overman is the perfect man, as has been sought in traditions as diverse as Hinduism and Sufism, but with a fundamental twist:  he is no longer perfect before God.  And what is this perfect man’s prerogative?  He can revaluate all values.  Life, death, religion, wealth, war, peace, truth, selfishness, and giving;  all these no longer mean for him what they used to mean to untold numbers of past generations.  Because wealth is no consequence, the Overman can give until he has no more, but he also no longer expects any reward for giving; and because God does not own everything anymore, the Overman’s giving is an act of fate, of necessity, an expression of psychic health.  On the other hand, the Overman is not so presumptuous and insolent as to claim that he owns everything:  even his life he is prepared to “squander”, in Nietzsche’s words, if he sees fit to do so.

The other day I was asked by a friend how political activists can remain so strong despite the enormous pressure they’re under.  This got me thinking about the two sources of human strength:  the human source, and the divine source.  With people who believe in God, both sources are in operation.  Atheists, secularists, or people who are simply unattuned with spiritual facts, depend exclusively on their own source of strength.  These two sources, in a formula, appear to be the only the possible solutions for the overarching problem of human existence, and I speak here of the problematic nature of existence itself, which proceeds essence, and not of the particular problems of an individual’s life.  We humans recognize our existence and the existence of the world as a problem because we are aware of it; and if we can recognize something, we shall recognize it.  And in this, in as much as we are aware of any problem at all, we can either adopt the human solution, of which Nietzsche’s version was a sublime example; or the divine solution, which although is a response to the same basic problem of existence is on quite a different level from the human solution, and was exemplified in dramatic fashion by the martyr Bonhoeffer.  Interestingly, both the atheist and theist start from a position of suffering; to Nietzsche’s mind, this suffering was the spirit of gravity, of joylessness, of the lack of the will to power and ability to create; while the Christian individualist Kierkegaard, in keeping with the three Abrahamic religions, equated suffering with sin.  Nietzsche saw us as intensely alone, while Kierkegaard saw us as intensely in God’s presence.  What, in the last analysis, is the better solution?  If I knew the answer to this question, I would either be declared a great thinker or a raving madman.  But we can take solace in that in spiritual matters we focus on the individual, on his or her individual journey, with all its unique details, needs, and paths of growth.  In the end, we might discover that it all comes down to the ironclad necessity of fate, God-ordained or otherwise, and to the vagaries of the individual temperament.


14 Responses to Nietzsche the Suffering Atheist

  1. Edward says:

    Kierkegaard and Nietzsche despaired, and each tried to posit an ideal; for the former it was authentic Christianity, a knight of faith, for the latter, it was the Overman, an ideal person. But really are they both worshiping a fantasy? Kierkegaard’s God doesn’t exist any more than a Nietzsche’s Overman does.

    Kierkegaard was right: “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all — what then would life be but despair?” Life is indeed despair.

  2. jsm23 says:

    ‘In the end, we might discover that it all comes down to the ironclad necessity of fate, God-ordained or otherwise, and to the vagaries of the individual temperament.’

    I can’t make any sense of this conclusion in the context of the question which was apparently being considered: namely, whether seeing us as ‘intensely alone’ or ‘intensely in God’s presence’ is ‘the better solution’ (which, I would have thought, turns on the question of the existence of God). It just seems to randomly change the subject, for the sake of saying something which sounds conclusionish.

  3. admin says:

    The question is: do we accept the humanist solution for the problem of existence, or do we accept the theist solution (to be ‘intensely alone’ or to be ‘intensely in God’s presence’.)

    Which of the two paths we choose, if indeed we do consciously choose at all, may not be a question of free-will or rationality, but may rather depend on the temperament of the individual in question (Jung and Nietzsche before him recognize that their respective ideas would be accepted only by those of like temperament), or they may depend on our fate, which is necessity in the Nietzschean sense (an individual is a piece of necessity, according to him, and should not apologize for the way he is). In other words, our ideas may depend on already determined factors and not on complete objectivity.

  4. Ibrahim Andalusi says:

    As my active command of English is so poor, I leave the translation up to you:

    Mi tre shatas vian provon legi la bazan sintenon de Nietzsche el pozitiva vidpunkto. Precipe mi shatas, kiam vi montras lian grandan spiritan talenton, lian enorman religian aspiron, kaj lian dramon, ke la Zeitgeist pushas lin al rifuzo de Dio. Kiu el ni ne estas viktimo de nia propra Zeitgeist?

    Se paroli pri moskeoj, mi opinias, ke la plej granda tragedio de islamo hodiau estas, ke la moskeoj estas kaperitaj kaj sekvestritaj de juristoj, kiuj nenion scias pri la spiritaj aspiroj de la homaro, kiun ili pretas shohhti sur la altaro de miskomprenata religia legho, kiun ili faris pli “legha” ol “religia”.

    Cetere, mi opinias, ke la alternativo, kiun vi montris en via konkludo, ne nepre ekskludas la diversajn eblecojn. Nome, char la diversaj solvoj proponataj por la ekzisto-problemo ekskludas unuj la aliajn nur teorie, dum la diversaj homoj fakte miksas la solvojn kaj serchas siajn vojojn, kiujn nur eksteruloj nomus jen “humanismaj”, jen “religiaj”. Mi pensas, ke la realo kutime estas pli kompleksa ol niaj provoj sistemigi ghin.

    Kaj laste, la demando pri destino, racieco kaj libera volo shajnas al mi nesolvebla en la nuna stato de sciado de la komuna homo. Eble ia solvo aperas al chiu homo sur la propra vojo. Sed mi tre dubas, ke ies solvo taugas por aliies vojo. Tamen, allâhu a’lam.

    Thanks, Ibrahim, for your beautiful comment in the beautiful language Esperanto. English translation:

    (I like very much your attempt to view the basic argument of Nietzsche in a positive light. What I most like is that you showed his great spiritual talent, his enormous religious aspiration, and his drama, that the Zeitgeist pushes him to refuse God. Who among us is not a victim of our own Zeitgiest?

    Speaking of mosques, in my opinion, the greatest tragedy of Islam today is that the mosques have been captured and hijacked by jurists, who know nothing of the spiritual aspirations of humanity, which they are prepared to sacrifice on the altar of misunderstood religious law, which they make more ‘legal’ than ‘religious’.

    For the rest, I think, that the alternatives that you presented in the conclusion, do not have to exclude diverse possiblities. Namely, because the diverse solutions proposed for the problem of existence are mutually exclusive only in theory, while many people in fact mix the solutions and seek their paths, whom only outsiders term sometimes “humanistic”, and at other times “religious”. I think that reality is usually more complex than our attemps to systemize it.

    Finally, the question of destiny, reason, and free will appears to me insoluble in the current state of the common man’s knowledge. Perhaps some kind of solution appears to each person on his or her own path. But I very much doubt that someone’s solution will be suitable for another’s path. But, allahu a’lam (God is more knowledgeable).)

  5. admin says:

    Dankon pro via komento, Ibrahim. Mi konsentas pri la “plej granda tragedio” de la moskeo, kies juristoj ne nur malscias la spiritajn aspirojn, sed ecx mankas la kutiman kompaton kaj gxentilecon.
    Aliflakte, bonegas via observo pri la ne-eksludebleco de la ‘du solvoj’, kaj praktike homoj ja miksas, kaj estas vane sistemigi la vivon. Kaj jes, sxajnas ke nunepoke almenau la plej profondaj el niaj demandoj restos nesolveblaj.
    (Thanks for your comment. I agree with what you said about the “greatest tragedy” of the mosques, whose jurists are not only ignorant of spiritual aspirations, but also lack the usual compassion and politeness.
    Also, excellent comment about the non-exclusivity of the ‘two solutions’. Practically, people mix approaches, and we attempt to systemize life in vain. And yes, it appears that at least for the moment our most profound question will remain unsolved.)

  6. C.S. Wyatt says:

    I found the essay a very practical guide to Nietzsche, addressing much of the confusion surrounding his intentions. Too often young and misguided students embrace “Nietzschean” ethics, without understanding that Nietzsche was not an “amoralist” or an “immoralist” but instead suggest an inner-morality, a self-morality that was the result of contemplation and choice. I have wondered if it might be easier to compare Nietzsche’s approach to those of Eastern religious traditions in order for students to grasp you can be “atheist” or “agnostic” and still both spiritual and moral.

    I’d certainly consider Nietzsche spiritual — eternal recurrence hints at a spirituality. Plus, Nietzsche (and even Sartre) could not escape the moral and ethical traditions of Christian Europe. A philologist certainly finds patterns of morality and ethical systems appealing in some sense, or why study the history of morality?

    You’ve certainly captured what I consider major points that escape many when they refer to Nietzsche. It was a pleasure to read the essay an I am likely to save a copy for contemplation.

  7. Andrew O'Desky says:

    Nietzsche went to great lengths to emphasize how important he felt it was for man to have within himself the element of creation. In the passage that you’re referring to where Nietzsche (well Zarathustra) asks how one could possibly imbibe the implications of the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God without dying, I feel this is a direct call to his — note: “his” — need for the element of creation. The existence of an all-knowing God implies some aspects of determinism; hence if all elements of this reality were created by God, Nietzsche says that he would be unable to live, for that implies that anything he creates is actually something that He creates, taking away from Nietzsche the value that he feels is absolutely fundamental to himself and his conception of the overman.

    I think your opinion is rather naive in that you think you have the insight to know Nietzsche better than he knows himself, in such a fundamental matter as the role of God in his mind and in his work and philosophy. I agree with your implied assumption that to consider a presented philosophy one need also simultaneously consider the psychology of the philosopher, but verily I do not think Nietzsche’s philosophy can be so simply negated by such a flip of the table.

  8. admin says:

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with your explanation of Nietzsche’s emphasis on the will to create, and his idea about “if you could conceive a god, then you might as well become a god.”

    I do not presume to “know” Nietzsche. But I think that he like all of us, and especially because he had a complex personality, did not know even himself completely. Further, as Nietzsche himself said, even the greatest philosophers operate from unconscious ideas that others might later recognize (precisely the “hammer” he used against Socrates, the English, the Utilitarians, and his other philosophical betes-noirs). This was the case in Jung’s Seminar on Zarathustra, where Jung detects strands in Nietzsche’s thought that presumably Nietzsche was not aware of. Say what you will about the correctness of Jung’s conclusions in that specific instance, but I think we can agree with the basic premise; as Albert Camus said “a great work of art always says more than the artist is aware of.”

    Nietzsche’s writings, like all great writings, have different meanings for people of different understanding at different times. Obviously, you can’t randomly read into them whatever you want, but the observer’s frame-of-mind, knowledge, and background will certainly enter into any interpretation (as Nietzsche himself did when commented on philosophies and ideas which he apparently did not know well enough.) My understanding of Nietzsche’s ideas is mostly within the context of my own philosophical ‘zone’ at the moment of writing, and will remain a personal take and not a scholarly exposition.

  9. Andrew O'Desky says:

    Good reply, and I agree. I’ll have to check out that Jung book you mentioned.

  10. Andrew O'Desky says:

    Parallel to what you mentioned, I often consider my own writings as portraits of the frame of thinking I had at the time and generally impart them value only to myself and insofar as interesting psychological expositions, regardless of whether they may have any objective or scholarly value to anyone else.

  11. admin says:

    Agreed. And again from Nietzsche: Das Eine bin ich, das Andre sind meine Schriften “I am one thing, my writings are another matter.”

  12. Jean Raffa says:

    I really appreciate this thoughtful and articulate article, especially the comparison between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

    In response to your comment, “The other day I was asked by a friend how political activists can remain so strong despite the enormous pressure they’re under,” I’d like to cite this quote from May Case, “No pressure, no diamonds.”

    Your posts are precious gems.


  13. [...] كانت في عهد أجدادنا، والتي أشرتُ إليه سابقاً بتعبير the jinn are dead أي “لقد مات الجن” (لا يشير ذلك إلى موت جسدي، كما [...]

  14. Brigette says:

    I stumbled upon your blog Googling “Jung evolutionary psychology” and have been reading posts for over an hour. I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read so far, and am sorry to see that your most recent post was in 2012. I look forward to reading more of your previous posts, and hope you decide to start writing again.

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