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The Nietzschean trauma

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a world-famous philosopher, mostly known for his vocal defense of atheism. In fact, this is already an oversimplification of Nietzsche’s own position, which was not only that of asserting that ‘God’ does not exist, but rather proclaiming that all what European (and perhaps also Indian) thought has attached to the word, idea, and symbol of ‘God’ is dead, namely, it has no more currency (or it shall soon lose its value). Nietzsche wasn’t the first intellectual to take this stance, but it has become perhaps the most renowned for it.


At almost two centuries after his birth, and 150 years after he put down his Zarathustra (which he started writing in Rapallo, in 1883), Europe at least seems to have endorsed much of what Nietzsche announced. Traditional religious forms are still well and alive, but the acceleration of the secularization process, and the shift in the default attitude of the general audience and culture at large in most European countries is significant. Perhaps there has never been a period in European history like today, when a significant amount of population, including young people, would declare themselves to be agnostic or atheist (take the Netherlands as an example).


The way in which Nietzsche phrased the issue can be summarized as follows: ‘God’ represents a transcendent entity, existing beyond this world, and demanding human beings to ultimately transcends this world. But this ‘God’ is nothing but the ruin of old values and views that need to be overcome and overthrown, since they block creativity and oppress the ‘will to power’ of human beings. Hence, we should joyfully embrace the ‘death of God’ and see it as an occasion to come back to ‘earth’ and its earthly values. Disclaimer: Nietzsche himself was no friend of hedonism or simplistic existential laziness (for a fuller discussion of his views, see Lectures 9-11 in The Tragedy of the Self). However, the fundamental assumption behind his thought is that ‘God’ and ‘earth’ stand in a fundamental opposition, and one has to embrace one or the other exclusively.


If we dig a bit deeper into this assumption, we can see that it comes with two major and problematic implications.


First, the transcendence of God can be understood (and it has been understood, historically) as a metaphysical claim about the existence of a special entity (God), who exists beyond and independently from the world. However, in a more metaphorical and symbolic sense, God’s transcendence can also be seen just as a pointer or a reminder about the fact that when we think about the ultimate source, ground, origin, or power within which the world manifests, we have to look for something that is irreducible to anything that is currently manifest and actually appearing. In other terms, God’s transcendence (with all its associated symbols about the sky, the heavens, the beyond etc.) is a way of saying that when we talk about the absolute, we cannot possibly claim to know it fully, or chain it to anything determinate. God cannot be this or that, it is inevitably neither and beyond both.


Rejecting God’s transcendence, in this sense, is a way of rejecting the very possibility or intelligibility for experience to extend or encompass anything that is not immediately and actually apparent. In most cases, this means reducing experience to what can fall within the scope of the five senses plus thought (on this front, both Hume and Kant would be happy with that). When experience is understood in this way, then it can be either determinate and constricting, or indeterminate and meaningless. Sense experience is always experience of determinate contents (this or that). Determinate contents are determinate in the sense that they define themselves as negation of other contents (this is not that). When a determinate content is fully determinate and unambiguous (this is really just this), then we have to take what appears in experience as something that, by its very nature, denies to be anything else (and this ‘anything else’ must also appear in some way for that denial to be true). When I define myself as a ‘white male’ or an ‘Italian’ in a fully determinate way, I take these contents of experience to exhaust what ‘I am’, which means that I necessarily have to reject, dismiss, drop, hide anything else that is excluded by the sharp determination of those concepts that I identified with. In other words, I’m reducing myself to the story I’m telling about myself.


By contrast, if a content of experience would be indeterminate (this is this, but it is also a bit of that perhaps) then it would lose its meaning (is this really this or rather that? Who knows!), and the more so the more indeterminate the content becomes. By reducing experience to the limited scope of sensory and actual experience, we fall pray either of self-confinement in our mental constructions, or we fall in the pit of meaninglessness (not being able to account for anything that is not fully determinate). The first implication of Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead is thus that we have to face this reductive understanding of experience and deal with its consequences.


But there is more. The second implication is that the death of God is clearly intended to claim ownership and agency back from a supreme transcendent principle, and reattribute it to finite human beings. There is a whole Nietzschean rhetoric about being creators and being able to bring forth something new, which in turn demands first ‘killing’ God as the major contender in the creation contest. But what can really be achieved by a single, finite, human being? If we pretend to posit ourselves as self-standing entities (from an ontological point of view), we are clearly capable of nothing at all (if this is not self-evident to you, look twice). If we do not posit ourselves as self-standing entities (if we take some sort of ‘relational’ approach to existence, which are today more mainstream), then it is clear that whatever we create is only a co-creation in which we participate with others. In most cases, this amounts to being able to selecting from pre-given menus what we want to (eat, watch, live, die). The second implication of Nietzsche’s claim is thus that human beings should assert their creative power, except that such a power seems to dissolve through their fingers like sand as soon as they try to grab it.


The reason why Nietzsche’s claim about the death of God went relatively mainstream cannot be explained on purely rational grounds (since there are at least as good counterarguments against it than there are in its support). Complex historical, cultural, and emotional conditions must have been into play. But this is not the main point. The main point is the fact that by embracing the ‘death of God’ as a default attitude, we seem to take for granted Nietzsche’s assumption about the inaccessibility of any sort of transcendence, and because of that, we make ours the two implications just mentioned. We get caught into the need for clearly defining an identity that strangles our being when it is precise enough, or drops us in meaninglessness when it does not, and we claim on ourselves the duty to create and assert our power, while having to hide to ourself the fact that we (or what we have decided we are) can actually handle very little power, or become only very mediocre artists.


There is a Nietzschean trauma that hiddenly affects our culture, which has to do with the irreflective and subliminal interiorization of Nietzsche’s assumption and of its implications. This is a trauma because for most people is not something that has been endorsed as a result of deliberate reflection and extensive pondering, but rather as a meme floating throughout the whole cultural sphere—in the same way in which discriminations and other forms of oppressions are also culturally-induced traumas.


The question is: how do we handle this trauma? The first step would be to acknowledge it, which means to acknowledge that most of our ideas about ‘God’ are not the result of well-thought-through reflections, but just echoes or half-digested reactions based on currently mainstream and default views (both when this is ‘pro’ or ‘contra’ God, of course). We think we know about it, but actually we never learned how to think about it.


The second step, would be to appreciate in our own direct experience how these prejudices (since that’s what they are) are in fact harmful, creating hidden and yet vicious attitudes, expectations, and efforts. Much of the ideology in our culture is based on the idea of ‘me’ becoming ‘someone’ and ‘doing’ their thing is based on that, and much of this ideology is heading directly to a charcoal pit of suffering and frustration—you don’t need to ask the Buddha to know why, just look around.


The third step, would be to find ways of stepping outside of the hidden (and fundamentally misleading) assumption that there is a dichotomy between ‘God’ and ‘earth’. It is so easy to see that experience, in its immediate and actual form, does not exhaust the whole of what can be experienced, and yet it does always encompass it. Nonetheless, this still has to be actually seen. How? One suggestion would be to embody it as a threefold openness of body, emotional hearth, and mind.


Notice: this is not a plea for religiosity of any kind. Religiosity is a socially constructed way of organizing social forces and powers around certain views that might concern ‘God’ (or something else, for that matter). While Nietzsche himself might have been led to take his assumption for granted by reacting to the way in which the symbolic idea of ‘God’ had been appropriated by religious forces of his time, rejecting that assumption is a different (and more fundamental) matter than taking any further stance on how to deal with ‘religion’. This latter issue, indeed, might wait, or might not even need to be addressed with urgency at all. What is at stake in the Nietzschean trauma is not how to position oneself respective to a certain religious group or construction (yet another story!) but how open one attitude can be with respect to the very fact that experience appears and manifests. It’s not about who we are, but what we can see, or what we want to allow ourselves to see. It's not a matter of belonging or clan, it's a matter of freedom—something even Nietzsche might have agreed with.


Abby of Valle Christi, Rapallo (IT)


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