Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nietzsche's attack on God and gods in "Upon the Blessed Isles"

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts on what I call "aesthetic atheism."  You can see the other posts by using the index function on my blog site.  

In "Upon the Blessed Isles" Zarathustra begins by observing to his disciples that his teachings are like ripe figs that are falling to them and that, in this autumn period, it is "beautiful to look out upon distant seas" i.e. upon that which transcends ordinary experience. Before, people mentioned "God" when they looked out onto such seas, but now it is "overman."  So it is clear that "overman" is to replace "God."  This is followed by a series of aphorism that mainly begin with the line: "God is a conjecture."  This reminds us that God is a hypothesis, not an established reality, a hypothesis set up to serve a purpose.

In the first, Zarathustra encourages his disciples not to conjecture beyond their creative wills.  Since they could not create a god, they should not speak to him of any gods.  But they could create the overman, or recreate themselves as fathers or grandfathers of the overman.  

In the second, he encourages his disciples to limit their conjectures to the thinkable, and, he observes, they could not "think a god." What is "thinkable for man" really can be, from his materialist perspective, no other than what is visible to or even feelable by man.  Previous attempts to think God only seemed to be successful insofar as they denied that our cognitive faculties are faculties of our body.  Instead, "You should think through your own senses to their consequences."  The main consequence of the fact that we access the world through our senses is that immaterial entities make no sense (at least not as an explanation for creativity).  Since we cannot get beyond our bodies we cannot think a being without body, particularly one that has all of the other traditional attributes of God, i.e. all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, creator of universe. Traditional believers also often say we cannot think God, since we are finite and God is infinite.  Nietzsche and they are in accord about this, except he would go further.  

The next paragraph seems to advocate a kind of idealism:  "And what you have called world, that shall be created only by you." However this is not a Berkeleyan idealism.  Rather, it is one that says:  the world we experience is the one we deal with and this world can be approached in different ways.  One way could be life- affirming, and this way would recognize that whatever we experience is based on our interpretations.  We may be unconscious of this, but when we become conscious of it we recognize that our reason, image, will and love is "realized."  It is so realized when and if we approach this process in an affirmative way. 

Nietzsche refers to the seeker here as a "lover of knowledge":  such a lover creates his/her world in the sense of constructing that world under his/her interpretation, and in a positive way for her "bliss."  It is only through having this hope, i.e. of an affirmative creation/interpretation of one's world, that the lover of knowledge (the philosopher) can "bear life."  The alternative would be a hopeless world that is "incomprehensible" or "irrational."  

The next passage is the most famous.  Zarathustra provides us with an argument against the existence of gods!  But he initiates this proof not by emphasizing its rationality but by insisting that he is revealing his heart entirely to his friends.  This is the argument. (Admittedly it will appear at first quite bizarre, but it needs to be understood in terms of the rest of the chapter!)  

"if there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god!  Hence there are no gods."  The premise indicates that Zarathustra (and presumably all "free spirits" and "noble" individuals) could not endure not being a god if there were indeed gods.  Why?  Because there would be a limit to his accomplishment, his creativity.  We will see from later passages that the problem with the existence of God or god is not envy so much as limitation of one's creative powers.  A god is someone who creates a world.  God even more so is the only creator, so the hypotheses goes, of our world. Remember that in the last paragraph we found that hope for a philosopher only exists in being able to create his/her own world through his/her body, will, and senses, and under his/her own interpretation.

But what about the inference:  "Hence there are no gods"?  The intervening premises must be something like:  (1) human creativity would be impossible if there were gods, and (2) it is obvious that human creativity exists, for example that Nietzsche is creating a book titled Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  So let us then consider the first premise.

In Plato's Ion creativity is understood as coming through divine inspiration of a dramatic sort.  When the poet is inspired, God is literally speaking through his or her mouth.  If God existed then this would be the only path for creativity:  so there would be no real human creativity. As Feuerbach and Marx observed, traditional believers project their human creativity onto God, and then worship something human in this imagined entity.  (Yes, Nietzsche and Marx are in the same boat on this one.)  It is better to recognize our own creativity in ourselves than in God.  The inference can be drawn that there are no gods from the very fact of human creativity; it is we who create worlds.  Of course we do not create the literal physical world but we do create the worlds we experience or the world as we experience it, not God or the gods. (The explanation of the origins of the physical world can be left to science.)  Moreover, when I draw this conclusion, the conclusion can "draw me":  i.e. I can now be shaped by this recognition.  Thus the God conjectured, once thoroughly understood, would entail either great agony or death, i.e. death as a creative individual.  And if you take faith in his own creative powers away from the creative individual then he might as well be dead.

The problem is elaborated in the next paragraph:  the idea of "God" makes everything crooked since it denies the reality of impermanence.  Nietzsche talks about this thought as sending him into a "dizzy whirl" and making him vomit. The idea is simply that any positing of the One (as in Parmenides and Plotinus) and the Permanent (as in traditional views of God) is sickening when not seen as a parable, and even then, it is not as good a parable for man as those that allow for time and becoming.  These later are denied by these thinkers of permanence. So the problem with the existence of God is that it fails to praise and justify the impermanence needed for creativity. But why is impermanence needed.  See below. 

The main reason for religion is redemption from suffering. Nietzsche is not opposed to redemption or even to religion. Zarathustra says, "Creation -  that is the great redemption of suffering."  But the mistake is to think that the creation in question is that of God or gods.  First and fundamentally creation needs not only change and becoming, which cannot come from an unchanging god, but also suffering.  You are not going to get any creation without suffering:  all creative artists, philosophers, scientists know that.  So why speak of God, who cannot suffer, as a creator?  "To be a child who is newly born, the creator must also want to be a mother who gives birth and the pans of the birth-giver."  If you want the birth you will the pains.

Nietzsche follows this with a passage that could easily be misunderstood as advocating a theory of reincarnation.  It does not, and it cannot.  Actually the paragraph is a preview of the doctrine of eternal recurrence and its fundamental connection with the doctrine of will to power.  Zarathustra says:  "Verily, through a hundred souls I have already passed on my way, and through a hundred cradles and birth pangs."  The idea connects with the previous paragraph:  the birth pangs in the creative process happen again and again with the writing of each book, the painting of each painting. We are not talking about afterlives but about this life.   "But thus my creative will, my destiny, wills it" says Zarathustra, which simply means that my will to power is my will to create even through the pangs that go with the creative process.  

In the next paragraph Zarathustra insists that my will (when it wills in this creative way) liberates me from my suffering and, in doing so, brings joy.  To will in this instance simply means to create. Thus if we could neither will nor value nor create any more we could only feel "great weariness."  This is not only true in the arts but also in the pursuit of knowledge, as Nietzsche realizes.  There is innocence in my knowledge, says Zarathustra, because "the will to beget is in it":  i.e. my knowledge (the knowledge gained by the Nietzschean free spirit) is not knowledge if it is just a reflection, it is fresh and innocent only insofar as it creates:  it does not just discover, it also produces at the same time.  In conclusion then, Zarathustra asserts that his creative will lured him away from God and gods and asks rhetorically: "what could one create if gods existed?"  The answer is nothing.  This comment rounds out the argument.  Once I recognize that it is I and not God or gods that create then I need no longer believe in them:  moreover, I could not create anything if God was the creator.  Either God or me.  But my creativity is obvious to me, God's is a mere conjecture.

So my will to create is directed toward man as the sculptor's hammer to a stone, creating, like Michelangelo, the image that sleeps in the stone.  This image is "the image of my images" in that, in creating myself, I create myself as a creator.  And, as Nietzsche constantly reminds us, the images I create and also reveal sleep in the "hardest, the ugliest stone."  They come out of  passions and drives that "the good" cannot approve.  Damage may result from the creative process and yet in the effort to perfect man (or man in myself) the beauty of the overman is present as a shadow, and this, in all of its possibility and potential, replaces God and the gods.  

Aesthetic atheism does not reject religion but finds a successor concept to religion in the idea of man (man and woman, of course) as creator both of great works, of worlds, but also of him/herself.  It finds redemption in this.  

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