One would have thought the philosopher who thought it “indecent to be a Christian today” would be proudly claimed as intellectual ancestor by the contemporary atheist movement, much as they have done with Charles Darwin. Yet aside from the odd quote to spice matters up, Friedrich Nietzsche is conspicuously absent from the surge in atheist literature we have seen in the past decade. True, he is one of the strangest thinkers in the Western corpus, sometimes more poet than philosopher, and appears to show less interest in correcting erroneous conceptions than in exploring the motivation that helped bring them about. It does not help either that his Teutonic rage can fall so uncomfortably upon the English speaker’s ear.
There is another reason for the New Atheists wariness of Nietzsche though. Unlike the comfortable Victorian materialism of Charles Darwin, Nietzsche’s radical anti-metaphysical stance cuts rather too deeply. For Nietzsche, there is no reason to suppose that once God is gone, only purified liberal humanism would remain. Consider for example what he says about a famous contemporary humanist, George Eliot. If her naturalistic humanism proves anything, it is how difficult it is to get rid of God.
“G Eliot. – They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.
“We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth – it stands and falls with faith in God.” (Twilight of the Idols)
Nietzsche’s difficulties with what he called the “English psychologists” is that they remain committed to a moral essentialism that is virtually interchangeable with the nominal Christianity from which it originated.
Nietzsche found in the atheism of his day a distinct desire to continue the metaphysical certainties of belief in God with the morality supposedly derived from him. It is a desire that we see expressed again today, identical with the Victorian trend but for the difference in vocabulary: neuroscientific rather than classic evolutionism. Given the scientific materialist tendency to dissolve the free rationally acting agent (the “subject”) in a soup of materialistic variables – much as Continental philosophy does with “discourse” or “signifiers” – one is rather surprised at the attachment to the moral self. Indeed, after the publication of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, the focus of the New Atheist Movement seems to have shifted from science to morality.
It has always been a strong theme in Western atheism that contrary to its mission of love, the Church is the personification of man’s inhumanity to man. Mark Twain’s “Man is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology is not straight” will stand for many similar quips. There is no place for religion in conversations about morality. In its stead we are presented with ethical naturalism – the notion that there are objective moral facts and that the real state of the world can be discovered by the methods of natural science. If only it had not been obscured for so long by the folly of religion!
Richard Dawkins attempts to account for the existence of morality by casting altruism as some kind of autonomous instinct that emerged during the long course of our evolutionary development as a survival strategy. In The God Delusion, he writes:
“There are circumstances – not particularly rare – in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically. A gene that programs individual organisms to favour their genetic kin is statistically likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene’s frequency can increase in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm. Being good to one’s children is the obvious example, but it is not the only one … Animals tend to care for, defend, share resources with, warn of danger, or otherwise show altruism towards close kin, because of the statistical likelihood that kin will share copies of the same genes.”
Dawkins is well aware of the objections to biological reductionism and emphasises that our instincts have developed beyond the point of mere calculation. In the process of natural selection a number of fortunate by-products have emerged that have made civilised life possible. Natural selection has programmed the human mind with a number of strong urges or instincts. In pre-historic times, when we lived in small bands of primates, we developed sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges, and of course, altruistic urges. Dawkins suggests that these urges, in the modern individual’s psychological make-up, have flown the perch of pure evolutionary pressure. An obvious example is the sex drive. Originally, the sex drive developed as an evolutionary mechanism that ensured the survival of the species. Today, even though they use contraceptives and by no means intend to procreate, the sex instinct exists.
The “urge to kindness” works upon the same principle. Whereas altruism in prehistoric times was restricted to kin and those who could do something for us, it too, has now flown its perch, an instinct that remained long after it has served its evolutionary purpose. As Dawkins puts it, “We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate), then we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.” This goes back to Charles Darwin himself. In The Descent of Man, Darwin remarks that we appear to have a faculty called “moral sense”, or, the conscience. Darwin too, held that through the long process of natural selection, an “instinct of the Good” developed which is the well-spring for what we today call “morality”.
David Hume famously rejected (along with other metaphysical concepts) the idea of an innate moral “sense”. For him, all judgements, be they moral or aesthetic, are based neither on reason, nor understanding, but simply on feelings of pain and pleasure. In Enquiry concerning Human Understanding he writes: “Pleasure and pain, therefore, are not only the necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence … an action, or sentiment, or character, is virtuous or viscous; why? Because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of particular kind.”
Sam Harris has recently resurrected this idea, only in terms of neuroscience. That which produces pleasurable brain states is essentially good, and what produces painful states is in essence bad. We have become so used to thinking in these terms that Harris’ conviction that we are progressing towards the end of faith and the dawn of the age where our true, rational natures will be realised seems self-evident.
According to Nietzschean criteria this latter-day utilitarianism is only the latest edition of Christian slavishness that reacts upon the conditions found in the world rather than acts upon them. Although ostensibly about the unacknowledged sources of our values, The Genealogy of Morals is also a thesis about the ultimate goal of human behaviour, and Nietzsche concludes that that the ultimate conclusion of all human striving is the acquisition, increase and exercise of power. If this is the case, then there is no reason to think that the avoidance of pain and striving for pleasure by any means constitute true moral action.
Nietzsche, like Aristotle, follows a perfectionist ideal: that the aim of life is to reach one’s fullest potential. Among his most disconcerting ideas is that cruelty is by no means excluded or forbidden as an expression of the will to power. If anything, the infliction of pain is assigned a positive and productive power. “Man is the cruellest animal” Nietzsche infamously states through Zarathustra: “Whatever is most evil is his best power and the hardest stone for the highest creator.” Moreover, on the crux of the second essay of the Genealogy in Ecce Homo, he writes, “Cruelty is here exposed for the first time as one of the most ancient and basic substrata of culture that simply cannot be reasoned away.”
For Nietzsche, utilitarianism is a latecomer on the philosophical scene that refuses to acknowledge that pain and pleasure are not opposites, but are deeply intertwined. “When pleasure accompanies the infliction of evil – when one strongly feels the joy of stretching one’s power to the limits – it occurs for the well-being of the individual …Without pleasure no life, the struggle for pleasure is the struggle for life. Whether an individual pursues this struggle in such a way that people call him good, or in such a way that people call him evil, is determined by the degree and quality of his intellect.” If altruism developed into an autonomous instinct, so did the drive to cruelty. If the human being is to flourish, he should abandon his childish pursuit of the “nice” aspects of reality, and embrace the full spectrum of life’s potential.
Nietzsche’s genealogy shows that there once existed an entirely different ethos or mode of evaluation where this was indeed practiced. This moral code bore little resemblance to what we today call “morality”. Yet, these values – with variations particular to time and place – were once taken for granted to the same extent that we regard the doctrine of human rights today as self-evident.
The older ethos put little emphasis on what one should not do, and valued pride, courage and self-assertion above all. Nietzsche calls this the “master morality”, and while there is obviously some overlap with slave morality as to the crudest and most obvious things one ought not to do, this morality unabashedly affirmed life and its sensual joys. Whether Greek, Roman, Celtic or Viking in origin, ancient master morality had no fear of cruelty. It viewed humility as a weakness rather than a strength, and rather than to see money as the root of all evil, engaged in the unapologetic pursuit of it as a precondition for the good life. Acts were despised for aesthetic reasons rather than censured for moral ones. Thus, rather than the absolute injunction “thou shall not kill”, we see Achilles punished for the vile, unGreek character of his treatment of Hector, a fellow hero of the Greek world.
Nietzsche demonstrates that the values we have come to automatically associate with the word “good” in a moral sense – altruism, kindness, pity, mercy, tolerance and other instances of charitable concern for the “Other” – is in fact a slave morality that originated among the slave population of ancient Israel, in response to Roman rule. It is a morality formulated by and suited to those at the bottom of society, the weak and powerless who had every reason to fear and loathe those above them.
By radically redefining the terms of the good life, the slaves turned the tables upon their masters, a move that Nietzsche regarded the ultimate act of revenge. As soon as the slaves’ values took hold, classical virtues like ambition, courage and pride were no longer seen as signs of character, but vices of the evilly inclined. Slave morality succeeded by giving a moral interpretation of worldly suffering: they pointed towards the vanity of the grand aesthetic achievements of the masters and introduced the Messianic hope of a better world to come for the “chosen” ones. In a highly secular age, we have seen that atheism mimics the Christian narrative – the rational are now the elite.
Nietzsche is notorious for his hatred of Christian moralism, whether it belongs to believers or non-believers. What strikes one at once upon reading the criteria for “master morality”, is that the era that most fully exhibited master morality is the Christian era. Masters lead a relatively unreflective life of action and immediate physical self-affirmation, such as the most notorious figures of the Renaissance. It is often forgotten that the Church is also the inheritor of the Roman Empire, and for a long time kept that robust pagan spirit alive in its art and ceremony, even if they officially marched under a Christian metaphysics.
Nietzsche admitted this: “Not without deep sorrow do we admit to ourselves that artists of all times, at their most inspired, have transported to a heavenly transfiguration precisely those ideas that we now know to be false … Now, if belief in such truth declines at all, if the rainbow colors around the outer edges of human knowledge and imagination fade; then art like The Divine Comedy, Raphael’s paintings, Michelangelo’s frescoes, Gothic cathedrals, art that presumes not only a cosmic but also a metaphysical meaning in the art object, can never blossom again”.
Like the “masters” of antiquity, the powerful Christian aristocrats exteriorised their will on the environment around them and attempted to create the world in the image of their choice. Like any other born into privilege they “do not know guilt, responsibility, or consideration”; they are “born organizers” (Genealogy). The very qualities of the Christian Church that so enrages the New Atheists – its nonchalant cruelty, its unselfconscious conviction of its own righteousness, its accumulation of riches and its commitment to great art – are the characteristics of a master morality per excellence. Writing on the Church’s most notorious Cardinal, Nietzsche put it this way, “I see before me the possibility of a perfectly heavenly enchantment and spectacle: – it seems to me to scintillate with all the vibrations of a fine and delicate beauty, and within it there is an art so divine, so infernally divine, that one might search in vain for thousands of years for another such possibility; I see a spectacle so rich in significance and at the same time so wonderfully full of paradox that it should arouse all the gods on Olympus to immortal laughter – Cesare Borgia as Pope!”
This grand Dantesque vision was spoilt by the appearance of the moralist Luther: he stripped Christianity of its grand aesthetic visions and returned it to its humble moralistic roots. For Nietzsche, this vision continued in the humanistic legacy of atheists like Eliot: Christianity only became in danger of being practiced after the death of its God – as we see today.