Nietzsche on pity and the death of God

Christopher asked:

Nietzsche is famous for stating that ‘God is dead.’ After reading Zarathustra I felt that what he meant by this statement is that because of the progress of science and the fact that more and more church ‘dogma’ was being disproved he felt that belief in god was no longer needed and that Zarathustra’s primary purpose was to give a basis for morality in a godless world. However, he talks about god dying because of his pity for humans. What does he mean by that? Also, does he consider pity a ‘sin’ because in expresses a level of stature in that the person pitying is perceived as being ‘better than’ the person being pitied, or because pity only makes the person being pitied become more ‘pitiful?’

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Nietzsche evaluates Christian and ‘Modern Ideas’ as symptomatic of physiological decline of the peoples of Europe. Their drives – which are instantiations of will to power – are in chaos. Each drive wants to rule. This inner physiological storm makes people weary, exhausted-literally world weary. According to Nietzsche, priestly theology blames this sickness on sin. It is punishment for not following the strictures of the priests. Nietzsche obviously does not believe in sin but he understands it as a Priestly device that attempts to account for the suffering of the slave masses. The natural drives are to be condemned, as is this worldly life in preference of another super sensible world – the afterlife.

Part of the theological world outlook is pity. As this life is so unfair, so hard, so terrible, we should pity ourselves. Nietzsche opposes pity on the grounds that it is a depressive, it makes people worse. Instead of trying to combat their sickness with affirmative, earthly values, people accept it by applying pity. Pity augments their unfortunate situation. ‘Never mind, this world is awful, let’s gnash our teeth and wail but the next will be better’. It reinforces a negative, world negating view. Pessimistic fatalism is hegemonic over life-affirmation. Nietzsche would prefer a world affirming ethos that follows from his ‘revaluation of all values.’

A further aspect of pity according to Nietzsche, is that it actually conserves the sick contrary to the laws of evolution and natural selection [Anti-Christian #7] The sick ought to perish but, Pity keeps them alive. So according to Nietzsche, Pity is anti-life.

‘Let me repeat, this depressing and contagious instinct stands against all those instincts which work for the preservation and enhancement of life. In the role of the protector of the miserable, it is a prime agent in the promotion of decadence-pity persuades to extinction… Of course, one doesn’t say ‘extinction’, one says ‘the other world’, or ‘God’ or ‘Nirvana’ salvation, blessedness.’ [Anti-Christian ibid]

Transference Theory of God

Also in The Anti-Christian, Nietzsche analyses the different conceptions of God, gods, a people has at different times in its history. For example, an earlier conception of God was that of power, joy, hopes, of victory. This corresponded to the success the Jewish people were enjoying at the time. Hence a naturalistic conception of God existed expressing the affirmativity of the will to power of the people: expressive of national egoism as Nietzsche terms it.

When society started to experience setbacks this was interpreted by the Priests, as punishment by God for the failure of the people to obey His will. He becomes the judgemental, wrathful and vengeful God.

With the triumph of the slave revolt in morality, God becomes the god of the world weary slaves and Priests. The physiological decline of a people which is also a decline in their will to power is transferred and represented in their conception of God. He becomes the God of the physiologically degraded, the sick or as they term themselves – the ‘good’.

‘How can we be so tolerant of the naivete of Christian Theologians as to join in their doctrine that the evolution of the concept God from ‘the god of Israel’, the god of a people, to the Christian god, the essence of all goodness, is to be described as ‘progress’?… When everything necessary to an ascending life, when all that is strong, courageous, masterful and proud has been eliminated from the concept ‘God’: when he sunk step by step to a staff for the weary, a sheet anchor for the drowning: when he becomes the poor man’s god, the sinner’s god, the invalid god par excellence and the attribute of ‘saviour’ or ‘redeemer’ remains as one of the essential attributes of Divinity-just what is the significance of such a metamorphosis? What does the reduction of the god-head imply?’

This is a ‘transference theory’ conception of God as espoused famously by Ludwig Feuerbach. Here, ‘God’ is the representation of transferred human desires, fears, characteristics. Hence, following the successful revaluation of values by the Priest led slave masses, their conception of God expresses their values. And if their God practices their pity, he would be persuaded that life is not worth living; that his creations-human beings-are such an unpleasant spectacle. He shares their pity, pities them and the logic of this contagion kills him.


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