Eternal recurrence and death of God
The death of God as proclaimed by Nietzsche was undoubtedly one of the most outrageous of all the ideas put forward in the twentieth century. It has been subjected to various interpretations which also makes it one of the most misapprehended concepts. The other doctrine of Nietzsche which got considerable attention was the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. Eternal Recurrence, if not as horrifying as the death of God, was something that terrified people of his times
‘God is dead’ is perhaps the most famous and the most misunderstood of all the statements of Nietzsche. This statement seems to be so frightening to us that we automatically want to deny it without even understanding what it actually means because our entire socio-cultural structure is based around the existence of God. But when Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, he did not mean physical death of God as that would not make any sense. If God is dead, then he must have been alive at some point- but if Christian God were ever alive, it would be eternal and could never die. So apparently the madman in Aphorism 125 of The Gay Science cannot be talking about the literal death of God. By the death of God he means the loss of faith and belief in God. This is evident when he say in aphorism 343, “..the belief in Christian God has become unbelievable.”
What I understand is that Nietzsche was not against the concept of God but just against the way Christianity talks of God. He is against institutionalizing the concept of God because this would lead to the destruction of endless possibilities of humans. He is against a system that would stifle human growth and creativity and also his freedom. Therefore he seems to favor the polytheistic notion of God over monotheistic one as is evident in aphorism 143, “It was here (polytheism) that the luxury of individuals was first permitted; it was here that one first honored the right of individuals.” He said that polytheism placed the sovereignty of individuals over everything else as it allowed them the freedom of the “invention of gods”, whereas, monotheism “threatened us with the premature stagnation”. The liberty of individuals to create their own gods also results in greater faith in them as it is something the individual can relate to; more than an institutionalized, impersonalized God.
Going along with this line of thought, something that really struck me in aphorism 125 was when the madman says, “…Don’t we smell the Divine rot?-for gods rot too!” This statement made me think really hard. I felt that by this statement Nietzsche somehow wanted to talk about the unchanging and inflexible nature of the religious values which has made them irrelevant. The world is a dynamic and ever changing place. For such a world we need values that are dynamic too. We have now reached a stage from where we cannot go back since something that has rotted cannot be made fresh again. It is thus a time for making new beginnings. Here is when he talks of the formation of a new cultural order that wouldn’t be contingent on God’s existence. He believes that we need to build a social system that would suit our needs and times. Our values should be based not on some supernatural entity but something more worldly.
Nietzsche says that the death of God would lead to anarchy when he says, “…Aren’t we falling constantly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in every direction?” But again, this is not enough to prove that he believes God to be the creator and the care-taker of the world. He believes that all the morals and values are dependent on the notion of existence of God. They are made by society but in order to compel people follow to them, they were said to have the seal and sanction of God. Now if this all powerful entity dies, people would no longer be afraid of any punishments and the world would be chaotic. Also the entire social system would collapse since it is based on the existence of an Omni-potent and Omni-benevolent God.
As a solution to this problem he gives the concept of superman. “God hath died: now do WE desire -the Superman to live.”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra, LXXIII -2). He is a human being who steer his life on his own without any external support. He is someone who keeps reinventing himself as per the changing times. He is the epitome of individual will and liberty. He is someone who would base his morals on the realities of life and would keep upgrading them with changing times. This would definitely guide others in their endeavor for formulating their personal value system. Though Nietzsche might be skeptical to the entire idea of progress I think it is only by following his example can we hope to improve ourselves and our society as it would give a taste of reality to our entire belief system. Superman would thus get rid of the rigid moral structure that we are presently tied to which was also one of the reasons of the decline in faith because humans are rational animals at the end. Faith can lead to a certain point but this also has to have some rationale behind it. If the laws are all based on faith then it would be hard to make everyone follow them. The rigidity and the inability of these laws to adapt with the changing times cause the more rational men to denounce them.
The death of God is in fact taken positively by the more rational men. Nietzsche says, “In fact, when we hear the news that the “old God is dead”, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel as if we were struck by the rays of a new dawn; at this news, our heart overflows with thankfulness, wonder, presentiment, expectation.” This shows that Nietzsche himself was expecting something good to result from the death of God. He believed that this would free us of all the restrictions placed on us in the name of God. We can now tread on paths that were earlier prohibited in the name of God. We can discover what is best for ourselves on our own. It also seems to me that he might be indicating about the creation of “new god”. This god would not have some out of the world existence, but would be worldlier. This might be his superman.
Nietzsche, thus, doesn’t leave us alone and helpless after the death of God as he knows that we humans are too much dependent on Him to carry our lives further without His existence. He leaves us with a superman who would be our guide in the trying and difficult situations following God’s death. But what conditions would stimulate the creation of the superman? One of them is the death of God. But another important thing is the doctrine of eternal recurrence. It is based on Nietzsche’s concept of time and space (Morgan, 287). He believes that time is infinite whereas space and events are limited. So events have to be repeated over and over again in the same space through eternity. In other words, humans will have to live the same life over and over again eternally. This realization is a great disturbing factor for humans as this would strip us off all the meaning and purpose in life (Guignon and Pereboom, 105). This would be a hard fact for us to take in. A person who succeeds to accept this reality willingly and get over his initial horror and one who realizes that he has to take thoughtful decisions in order to have a good life in all the future births would first show the traits of the superman.
Nietzsche was himself horrified by the whole idea of eternal recurrence as is evident when he says in aphorism 341, “What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you ….” The fact that he calls that person a demon that chose to come to you in your utter loneliness to break the news of your eternal recurrence, shows that Nietzsche was somewhat terrified of this idea (Kauffmann, 17). But he put it forward with some specific purpose in mind. He talks about it in aphorism 341 “The heaviest burden”, of the Gay Science. So it might be thought of as an attempt to provide a solution to the sense of “weightlessness” that would follow God’s death. (Guignon and Perebroom, 104). It seems that he calls it a burden because with it comes the question as to in what way do we want to live our life so that we can live it not just once but countless times again. This is a difficult choice to make and thus a great burden. Each and every decision and choice that we make in our lives would be influenced by the fact that we would have to go through the same thing through eternity. This obviously makes our lives burdensome and very difficult. But Nietzsche chose to view this in positive context. He believes that this would help us get rid of most of our impulsive and unthoughtful actions which usually make us commit errors. The moral vacuum created by the death of God would be filled up by this as every person would invent a moral code for himself. He would be more inclined to follow it as it comes from within and is not externally imposed.
Nietzsche believes in the individuality and sovereignty of a person. Every person has the right to live according to his belief system. Ordinarily, this individualistic belief system faces opposition from all over but the doctrine of eternal recurrence places a check on this.
The idea of God’s death also throws light on the existential side of Nietzsche’s philosophy. He gives great importance to humans and their ability to construct a whole new socio-cultural system which would not dependent on any higher order but would be of this world. This also shows his belief that humans can function without using the crutches named God. We have depended on Him for a long time and now it’s time that we start functioning on our own. He is a great believer of human freedom and wants them to have total control over their lives. He believes that we ought to construct our own values and morals. He asks us to question authority and not to take everything as it is given to us. Further, he says that the death of God would lead to a sense of “weightlessness” of all things. This can be compared to “homelessness” of existential philosophy. Our lives seem to have no meaning after God’s death because He is the center of our existence in the present day society. We would not have anything to hold on, no all powerful Father to take care of us. We would be alone and would have to carve our own paths. These things go to make Nietzsche an existential philosopher.
Nietzsche, an atheist, after proclaiming the death of God does not leave humans stranded but gives meaning to their existence by creating a superman. The superman would be a guide for others and thus would be a sort of replacement for God. He also gives weight to the “weightlessness” created by the death of God by talking of eternal recurrence which he calls the heaviest burden. To accept this would require great love for fate and life. Acceptance of life as it is would liberate humans of all sorts of cravings and desires. This would definitely have a positive effect on the society as most of the crimes originate out of desire for something. He thus gives a new look to morality. He, though unintentionally, also gives a whole new world for humans to build a more worldly and progressive socio-cultural system.