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Existentialism in Philosophy

Existentialism is regarded as one of the dominant philosophic ideas in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. Although the term as self-description was introduced only by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is generally accepted that first traits of existentialism appeared in works of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century; the aforesaid philosophers are now referred to as precursors of the idea. Generally, existentialism is considered to be a literary phenomenon along with its rendering as a philosophic movement, given the fact that most of the philosophic thoughts of the existentialist authors, such as Sartre and Camus, were retrieved from their fictional works.

The complex definition of existentialism can hardly be given, considering the fact that the aforementioned branch touches upon a wide spectrum of life matters and comprises of several, sometimes contrasting approaches. However, philosophers of existentialism are united by a tendency to center on the problem of human existence, analyzing human condition in its relation to the world and to itself, often addressing the problem through ontology. Existentialism emphasizes the subjectivity of existence of an individual, expressed through personal will, personal choice, and personal freedom. The existential perspective suggests that natural science cannot give answers to all questions concerning human existence nor can it elucidate the essence of human being. Existential thought goes beyond division of people into mere “mind” and “body”, claiming that these categories, along with the moral approach, are not sufficient enough to give substantial explanations to existential problems.   

Friedrich Nietzche is regarded as one of the key figures in German philosophic thought. His philosophy has inspired leading representatives of different spheres of human activity. Nietzsche’s philosophic ideas were innovative at the time, having inverted the traditional approach by analyzing the motivation in Western religion, philosophy, and morality, introducing somewhat revolutionary thoughts instead. One of the leading Nietzsche’s ideas, concerning the death of God and nihilism, has agitated the society and resulted in one of the most controversial and provocative theories in the intellectual history of humanity.

In the novel The Gay Science Friedrich Nietzche proclaims: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers?” (The Gay Science 125).  These words have created an immense resonance among the minds of the most renowned thinkers starting from the nineteenth century and up to the present moment. Various interpretations of the message have been introduced over years; however, it is generally accepted that Nietzsche did not imply the literal meaning of the phrase. On the contrary, it is necessary to examine the background in order to understand the words completely.

The nineteenth century witnessed rapid scientific development that started during the epoch of Enlightenment. The scientific horizon was being expanded significantly, and the viewpoint of the church could no longer stop the process nor could it hold it back. The notion of scientific progress was accompanied by the active development of the philosophic thought, which also underwent alterations in accordance with the dominating orientation in the society. Hence, similar to the epoch of the Renaissance, God was no longer a center of knowledge; instead, human being took its place as the main object and subject of studying and the mediator of the authentic knowledge. The model of the world introduced by the church was out of date due to the new scientific discoveries. As a result, the process of secularization began, and the church gradually started to lose its educational and didactic function, along with its social and political influence, remaining a mere place of spiritual contact, associated with superstition and ignorance. Everything that could not be explained, discovered or proven rationally was considered untrue - similar to the Medieval times, but vice versa (Hitchcock).

Thus, Nietzsche, after observing the situation, came to the conclusion that God was dead as a social factor, hence acknowledging the transition from the age of dominant religiousness to the post-religious era. Although the context suggests that it is Christian God Nietzsche refers to, given his previous criticism concerning this religious trend, the interpretation may also implicate that it was a notion of God rather than a personal God that the philosopher meant. Hence, taking this understanding into consideration, no particular Western religion was addressed directly, and yet each religion was touched upon. Nietzsche believed that with the death of God, the society was on the way of losing the morality and faith, which he believed to be vital for human existence. In terms of cosmogony, religion in general and God in particular – any God, regardless of the specific belief – is associated with creation, life, and birth, and thus, with cosmos. The death of God can be interpreted as a symbolic starting point of change, of transformation of the cosmos with faith and life into chaos with nihilism and nonexistence. Therefore, Nietzsche feared that, having declined religion as a basis of individual development and a source of faith, people will lose the highest moral authority, which will disrupt the determined order granted by religion.

Apart from social and scientific aspects that Nietzsche believed to have led to the decrease of morals, he also claimed that Christianity was no longer the religion that could provide people with spiritual harmony. In fact, Nietzsche is famous for his passionate Christianity criticism. The philosopher stated that Christianity was concentrated on hatred towards life and all its matters – the desires, the passions, even the body: “The church combats passion by means of excision of all kinds: its practice, its "remedy," is castration. It never inquires: "How can a desire be spiritualized, beautified, deified?"  In all ages it has laid the weight of discipline in the process of extirpation…” (Twilight of the Idols with the Antichrist and Ecce Homo 24). Furthermore, Nietzsche considered Christian values out of touch with reality because the Christian vision of world falsifies and even denies reality to a certain extent. The notion of verity that people once bound up in was falsely substituted for the Christian nonentia, such as God, immortality, sin or redemption. Nietzsche believed these nonentia to be false and corrupted; hence, once the truth started to be exposed, the fake church morals and values would also become obvious. Since all of the Christian values are false, humanity will be left with nothingness, and thus, will turn to nihilism (Al-Sharif). Hence, Nietzsche claimed that Christianity actually killed God.

The philosopher stated that the world after the death of God is nihilistic. With all the values that seemed to exist and make perfect sense for centuries having failed, people are facing a crisis of faith. They appear to be left with the reality they know little of and in the state of utter powerlessness because they can neither live under the aegis of morals and values they know to be wrong nor introduce any alternative. As it was previously stated, the world has to be organized; lack of organization inevitably leads to chaos that merges with nonexistence. The only way to organize the world, in Nietzsche’s viewpoint, is to develop a set of values that people will have to adopt and adjust. These values will serve as a basis for a microcosm, inviolable and unquestionable, as a core part of existence, with all of the other factors being on the periphery. However, in case these fundamental values are recognized as false, the microcosm is immediately disrupted, leaving the human being in the state Nietzsche compared to pain and sickness – nihilism. This notion can be considered as a result of the historical attempt “to order life according to values that are antithetical to it” (“Nihilism” 6). Hence, the crisis of cultural values appears to be logical and expected, given the tendency of the highest values to devalue themselves and the incapability of science or art to provide decent substitutes for the values people regarded as true for centuries. Both science and art have a narcotic-like effect upon consciousness and microcosm, and this effect does not last as long as the effect of values offered by religious idea. It was God that was perceived as the highest value, causa sui, and nothing else could have led to nihilism more successfully than proclaiming the dissolution of this value.

The contemporary philosophic analysis suggests that Nietzsche’s philosophy is controversial by its nature; he tends to adopt a certain idea and then provide arguments proving it fundamentally wrong. Thus, it is hard to define the exact philosopher’s attitude towards nihilism as a social phenomenon because he both despises it and advocates it as an inevitable point in the intellectual development of the society. What does not appear controversial is the fact that after realizing that God is dead, people will inescapably arrive at the locus of perception of nihilism. The latter, however, can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, Nietzsche considers nihilism to be a socially destructive factor that leads the society to nothingness and does not leave any obvious alternative but to deal with the absence of values in life. People, similar to Kierkegaard’s idea, resemble herd animals which cannot help but conform to the generally accepted standards of morality; hence, by being utterly docile and thus self-deprived of the freedom of choice, they are doomed to fall victim to nihilism. These people, having once lost a meaning in life, will hardly find another. On the other hand, nihilism can be regarded as a necessary step for the reevaluation of values for those who are strong enough to develop a personal meaning in life and adopt a new authentic set of values. Hence, nihilism is a starting point of the development of new personal philosophy that Nietzsche approves of and regards as a more healthy approach towards life.

Therefore, the philosopher introduces the doctrine of the “Übermensch”, or an overman, who embodies the new set of values and no longer requires conformism as a manner of life. This overman “has understood that nihilism is the ultimate meaning of the moral point of view, its life-denying essence, and he reconfigures the moral idea of autonomy so as to release the life-affirming potential within it” (Crowell). Ergo, the aforesaid Übermensch contradicts the apathy and relativistic traits of nihilism, valuing action in terms of existence instead. Rather than conform to the ruling of the weak, or the previously accepted Christian morals, the set of values represented by the concept of overman benefits people by affirming life and promoting action as a method of overcoming nihilism.  The reevaluation of values does not imply mere substitution of one set of values by another; in its place, it suggests that rather than accept the values dictated from the outside, people should develop them from life itself. The doctrine of the Übermensch sets an example of the process as well as the desired result.

Overall, Nietzsche’s philosophy did not compliment the epoch; instead, he attempted to show the imperfection of the world by unraveling the false values it purports. The Gay Science is one of the books of the late period of Nietzsche’s philosophy, a manifesto and to some extent an apogee of his idea concerning religion. The book does not possess the hateful tone neither does it attack Christianity as furiously as some of the previous creations of the philosopher. The book is illustrative of the author’s both writing and philosophic style, and it supports the idea dominating in the cycle of his later works. The problem of the existence of the human being is brought to the fore, demonstrating existential characteristics of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Nietzsche, in his usual somewhat fatalistic manner touches upon the crisis of values in the society of the time. In a prophet-like way, he proclaims the death of God and the inevitability of consequences that people will have to face, nihilism being the most significant and the most unfortunate. Nevertheless, his viewpoint towards nihilism is ambivalent; the philosopher regards it as a sort of social “filter” that may elicit the strong people, giving them a chance to take control of the world by becoming overmen. The doctrine of the overman, although at some points resembling utopia, appears to Nietzsche to be the only rational way of overcoming nihilism. The philosopher did not consider nihilism as a permanent state of being; rather than that, the overman was supposed to lead the masses out by setting a proper example and not dictating but demonstrating the new values. Nietzsche compares nihilism to the abyss, and his assumption is based on intellectual observing and analysis of the surrounding world, which proves the philosophic idea to be justified. Today’s interpretations of the message in Nietzsche’s philosophy are as contradictory as his philosophy itself. Having stirred the minds of the most significant thinkers of the century, the philosophy does not lose its topicality in the contemporary world, which proves that Nietzsche’s ideas were not only reasonable but also authentic.

Works Cited

  1. Al-Sharif, William. "Nietzsche and Christian Values." Internet Archive. N.p., 2006. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
  2. Crowell, Steven. "Existentialism." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. N.p., 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
  3. Hitchcock, James. "The Secularization of the West." Catholic Education Resource Center. N.p., 2012. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
  4. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
  5. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols with the Antichrist and Ecce Homo. London, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 2007. Print.
  6. "Nihilism." Princeton University Press. N.p., 2013. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
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