The Big Ideas series has for several months now explored the meaning of a number of familiar intellectual phrases, among them Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message", Hannah Arendt's "the banality of evil" and Adam Smith's "invisible hand". But none of these feels quite as big an idea as Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is dead". After centuries of Christianity, a new dawn is being announced. And the language Nietzsche uses in his famous passage from The Gay Science reflects the enormity of his discovery: "How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?" Nothing again will ever be the same.Nietzsche chafed at the constraints Christian morality places on man's natural inclinations and appetites. To read Nietzsche straightforwardly is to read a call for the "overmen" - the supermen, such as himself - to give free reign to his passion, his selfishness, and his cruelty.
But what is his discovery? It isn't a eureka moment in which Nietzsche comes to understand that God does not exist. Indeed, he is not all that interested in the question of God's existence. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson recently told me that he would be an atheist even if God walked into the restaurant. Similarly for Nietzsche, it's not a question of evidence or the lack of it.
He is in a completely different place to the new atheist brigade of Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling. If God walked into the room, Nietzsche would stab him – for his "God is dead" revelation is that humanity can only become free if it rejects the idea of the divine. Christianity is not a mistake. It is wickedness dressed up as virtue.
Nietzsche's case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he's sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It's the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will.It's ironic that nastiness and cruelty are not really wrong in Nietzsche's world. He despises the Christian, in fact, for influencing the strong and noble to suppress their own nastiness and cruelty. These, for Nietzsche are the prerogatives of the strong, and the weak have no business usurping them or imposing a sense of guilt on the strong who would, but for their feelings of guilt, exercise them.
I have never seen anything to admire in Nietzsche's view of morality or immorality. He was badly interpreted by the Nazis. But his ethics, if one can call them that, are founded on the admiration of power as the ultimate form of abundant creativity. His hatred of Christianity comes mostly from his hatred of renunciation and the promotion of selflessness.
Jesus was a genius for having the imaginative power to reinvent Judaism but a dangerous idiot for basing this reinvention on the idea that there is virtue to be had in weakness. The weak, Nietzsche insists, are nasty and cruel. They take out their frustration on those who have the power of genuine self-expression.
Giles writes an interesting article that serves as a good introduction to the thought of the man who is considered by some to be the first modern existentialist. Give it a read.