If God is dead as Nietzsche claimed, what happens to truth and mortality?
N.1 • WHEN HUMANS WERE ENLIGHTENED
“Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it. ” - William Butler Yeats
Philosophers have always been interested in what’s unique about human beings and how they engage with and make sense of the world.
What does it mean to be a human being? What is the meaning of life? How should we live? Why do we behave in the way we do? What happens to us after we die?
Before the Enlightenment, religion was the only authoritative cultural system that was able to give defined answers to these questions. When a four-year-old child would ask: “What happens to people when they die, dad?”, parents were confident enough to say something along the lines of “They go to heaven, darling, if they have been good”.
If the parents don’t believe in any religion, though, what would they answer when the child asks that question? Today, people are increasingly declaring themselves as atheists or deists in Europe, and there is no clear consensus about life and the universe. Consequently, the sole honest answer would be for the parent to say “I don’t really know”, but would they be able to say that to their child? Could a child bear to hear such uncertainties about life at a young age?
Nietzsche believes faith in true world theories satisfies subconscious psychological needs. This is similar to how children feel a need to believe in fairytales. Nietzsche adds that such theories or religion were created by individuals in need of solace to protect them from the harsh realities of life. However, during the Enlightenment, people couldn’t really escape from these harsh realities anymore, as God was dead!
Nietzsche announced the death of god in his book The Gay Science (1882) through a tale of a mad man stating that ‘God is Dead!’, which later became a famous aphorism:
The mad man runs out onto the street screeching “I seek God! I seek God!” Understandably, those on the street give him a strange look and continue on with their evening, however, the madman does not cease.
“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers…There was never a greater event,- and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history before this!”
-The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882
What happens to truth and mortality when God is dead?
“For most of our Western history, we have not talked about the meaning of life. This is because we used to be quite certain we knew what it was”, says Julian Young, author of The Death of God and the Meaning of Life.
20th-century cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker describes life with a dark side in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death as:
“The real world is simply too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe. Immortal in some ways.”
Ernest Becker wrote that even though we know objectively that we are mortal, we cook up all kinds of schemes to escape this devastating truth.
Why the truth is too terrible to admit is pretty obvious: the prospect of death is very scary.
Philosophers and psychologists also believe that the main reason behind many of our actions is based on the fear of death. Death is always in our subconscious, and knowing our time is limited and not knowing what will happen to us after death creates anxiety.
Ernest Becker believes that “modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons.”
It is undeniable that the revolution came with a burden: it erased past beliefs and stories, and left people to face harsh realities. We might seem to keep ourselves busy to get away from this truth, but subconsciously, people are still and always seeking for a true meaning to the universe.
The next subject of Understanding Life is on the question of ‘Why do human beings need a meaning of life?’ while explaining Nietzsche’s thoughts on how to overcome nihilism.
AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. This era was also known as the ‘Century of Philosophy.’
Just before this era began, the idea of modern science developed through scientific revolutions that occurred across disciplines such as mathematics, physics, astronomy and biology. Among the leading figures of the Scientific Revolution were Galileo and Copernicus, both of whom led a shift from an earth-centred view of the universe to a sun-centred view. Around 100 years later, Isaac Newton published his famous book Principia, forming the law of motion which is the foundation of classical mechanics and Newton’s law of universal gravitation. These new scientific developments created a world vision of centring ideas on reason and science. The assumptions of scholastic living and human rights were greatly challenged. Human beings were no longer at the centre of the universe, which destroyed the fundamental base of Christianity.
The Scientific Revolution triggered the Enlightenment, and a broader intellectual movement from the late 17th century until the early 19th century, emphasising themes like reason, human rights, individualism and scepticism.
This was the time when humanity had begun to gain a new perspective on the universe, which caused a great decline in the number of people holding on to the power of the Catholic church. The increasing secularisation of thought created the idea of a universe governed by physical laws and not by divine providence.
This was one of the immense events of all time, which created a modern Europe that no longer needed God as the source for morality, value or order. Philosophers and scientists insisted that larger and consistent moral theories could exist without reference to God.
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