A new meaning of Easter (and a discussion about Nietzsche and the death of God)

In the entry on “Rand and conservatism,” I pointed out how Ayn Rand’s hero John Galt not only denies God but becomes himself a god; certainly he is treated as a god by the other characters and by the author. Then, in order to back up the idea that the murderers of God become gods themselves, I quoted Nietzsche:

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers….

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

At her Camera Lucida blog, Kidist Paulos Asrat quotes that passage and adds:

Nietzsche’s ambiguous, ambivalent relationship with the God he perceives as greater than anything he can conceive of, yet deigns to have him killed to supplant him, is surely part of our Easter story.

I like that. Just as Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, then rose into eternal life, the nihilistic modern world has (in its distorted imagination) killed and buried God. But God still lives.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

I have long thought that reading Nietzsche is a way of looking through a window into the heart of Judas. He loves God; he destroys God. In the end, he goes mad / commits suicide. Nietzsche and Judas are each in different ways apotheoses of the gnostic impulse of rebellion. It is interesting to compare their fates to those of Prometheus, Icarus, and Faust.

It should also be noted that gnostic rebellion leads inexorably to zealotry, and zealotry to murder and death. “Judas Iscariot” means “Judas the Knife”; the Sicarii, or men of the knife, were a particularly violent wing of the Zealots, who specialized in assassinating their adversaries by the knife, in public, and vanishing into the crowd. Nietzsche led to Hitler; liberalism leads to abortion and euthanasia; atheists are often suffused with rage and hatred of theists, and with the conviction that theists are evil and subhuman “low men.”

Mark L. writes:

Two quibbles:

1) Kristor wrote, “Judas Iscariot” means “Judas the Knife,” and he links this with the “Sicarii.” It sounds good, but it’s been my understanding that “Iscariot” comes from the Hebrew “Ish Kerioth” or “the man from Kerioth.” Kerioth was in Judea, rather than Galilee, which is somewhat significant—Judas may have been more exposed to formal religious training than a Galileean fisherman like Peter (just speculation). Of course, we do know that there was a disciple named Simon the Zealot, who to my mind bettter fits what Kristor is here describing.

2) You wrote, “… the nihilistic modern world has (in its distorted imagination) killed and buried God. But God is risen.” Would you consider changing that to “The Lord is risen”? I don’t dispute the divinity of Christ, but strictly speaking, there is no direct scripture to support the notion that “God died.” God is a tripartite being, and during the period when the Son of God was in the grave, God the Father was still on the throne.

LA replies:

On your point 2, I know what you mean. I wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of my wording (“God is risen”) myself. But my point here is what I saw as Kidist’s identification of a new meaning of Easter, complimenting the original meaning. Just as the ancient Romans crucified and killed Jesus, but he arose, modern Western men are seeking to kill (and imagine that they have killed) God himself. But he lives.

Yes, it’s not biblical. But to me it makes sense in the context of contemporary realities.

Does that work for you?

Also, “The Lord is risen” would not be appropriate here, since I’m not speaking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but about the “death of God” which despite all the publicity it has received has not occurred.

LA continues:

I’ve changed the sentence in the initial entry from “But God is risen” to “But God still lives.” That avoids the unbiblical notion that God may have died.

Mark L. replies:

I see you’ve added a further comment to your post, which certainly works for me.

Thucydides writes:

Your readers offering comments do not know their Nietzsche. Nietzsche in the famous passage about the death of God, from The Joyful Science, is not speaking about himself.

In brief, Nietzsche saw that we had abandoned God, and that far from being an advance of enlightenment, it would have disastrous consequences, among which were men abandoning all moral constraint; i.e., setting themselves up as God. Nietzsche was the most devastating critic of shallow enlightenment optimism that has ever been. Those who wish to be better informed should read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially the chapter on Nietzsche.

LA replies:

First, if you are translating the title of the book as “The Joyful Science,” then you also do not know your Nietzsche. The correct translation is “The Gay Science.” As Walter Kaufmann explains in the introduction to his translation of the book, Nietzsche himself titled the book:

Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft
(“la gaya scienza”)

“Joyful” is not a correct rendition of “fröhliche.” And Nietzsche’s own use of the Italian made it clear how fröhliche should be translated into English.

Second, Sect. 125 of The Gay Science, about the madman who comes to the market square proclaiming the death of God, is only one of many passages in the book where Nietzsche discusses the death of God. He talks about it over and over, in his own voice, not through a fictional madman. He says unmistakably that God has died and that we have killed him, and that this is the greatest and most significant event in history.

Third, the idea that the murder of God leads man to become a god himself is not limited to the “madman” scene. It is central to Nietzsche’s view, since the superman, who is a godlike figure, comes into being in the act of affirming a universe without God or meaning or coherence, a universe, moreover, which eternally recurs in all its meaningless and horror. The nihilistic “Yes” to the eternal recurrence of a meaningless, painful universe—the act of overcoming all negativity by which man becomes a godlike superman—is at the very center of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

LA continues:

Guess what? I just stuck “Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft” into Google Translate and the German-to-English translation was “The Gay Science.”

Thucydides writes:

I am sorry if you are offended by my use of the translation “The Joyful Science.” [LA replies: What makes you think I am offended? I was simply correcting you, or, at least (since you say “joyful” is an acceptable translation), disagreeing with you.] This is a term that has sometimes been used in English translations. I speak German modestly well, and thought it a reasonable choice when addressing someone I did not assume to know German. Langenscheidt’s Dictionary translates Froehlich as “cheerful, happy, merry;” “joyful” especially in light of its prior usage, seems reasonable enough, even if Kaufmann disagrees.

I was aware of Nietzsche’s use of “La Gaya Scienza,” and I am also familiar with Italian, but these days “The Gay Science” just does not sound right, as the word “gay” has unfortunately become encumbered with unwanted associations. [LA replies: I totally disagree. I think it is incumbent on civilized people not to allow a perfectly good word to be expelled from the English language, or at least be deprived of all its former meanings, just because it has been appropriated by the homosexual movement. Traditionalism means not accepting the dictates and premises of liberalism and not letting them control our heads. It means standing against liberalism, and living—to the extent possible under current conditions—in a non-liberal world. Yes, we don’t control our external society. But we certainly have control over the language in which we think and speak. If we are not willing to resist the prevailing liberalism on this relatively easy point, where will we resist it?] The Oxford Paravia Italian dictionary has “gaio” (the masculine form of the adjective) as meaning “cheerful” when applied to the tone of something. I should have simply stuck to Die Froehliche Wissenschaft, but I didn’t want to sound pretentious by employing the German title with someone I did not assume to know German.

To suggest that this somehow shows I don’t know Nietzsche is a bit much. [LA replies: I was only using your own phrase on you; that doesn’t seem unfair.] I will plead guilty to not knowing Kaufmann.

When I said that Nietzsche was not speaking for himself, I meant to say that I don’t think he thought that this was a desirable thing, but rather just a fact. I should have been clearer. Given that state of affairs, he then goes into his mythopoetic nonsense in an effort to supply meaning in a world become meaningless. This latter aspect is really of no value; what is of value in Nietzsche is his devastating dismissal of “enlightened” cheerfulness about this state of affairs. See Paragraph 335.

I might have been more diplomatic about how I put all this, but I wanted to suggest that it is wrong to dismiss or ignore Nietzsche out of hand. As MacIntyre points out, he is the most devastating critic we have of enlightenment insouciance about the significance of the decline of religion, and we shouldn’t let his foolish mythopoetic efforts to replace this loss obscure this fact.

LA replies:

Your point is well taken. Nietzsche was not only the supreme nihilist and prophet of nihilism, he was a supreme critic of nihilism as well. For example, in Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Moderan Age, Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose treats Nietzsche as his main authority on the meaning of nihilism.

LA continues:
But I have to repeat: “The Joyful Science” is a totally wrong translation. “The Gay Science” is not just the title of the book, it is one of its central motifs, and it means science or knowledge that is cheerful, lighthearted, frolicsome. The book is filled with frolicsomeness, not “joyfulness.” “Joyful” conveys a completely different idea from “frolicsome.”

A translation that not only renders the title as “The Joyful Science” but translates each reference to “gay science” in the text as “joyful science” would woefully distort Nietzsche’s thought and intention. And why would it be done? Out of some pitiful, ridiculous fear that someone somewhere will think that “gay science” means “homosexual science.”

Thucydides writes:

I generally agree with you on not giving up the language to liberal usages. However, there comes a point when some particular word has been so trashed through tendentious usage that it inevitably carries unwanted associations.

The National Socialists did this to many words in the German language. To pick the most extreme example, the very serviceable word “endloesung” or “final solution” has become unusable for all practical purposes. I am afraid the word “gay” now necessarily carries so much unwanted association that it is best to avoid it where there is a choice. Whether we like it or not, the dominant liberal culture is trashing our language. We must resist this, but there are practical limits, and they are reached when insistence on using older meanings will distract from what we are trying to say.

I suppose the word “gay” is OK, however, as part of a long established book title, where there is little chance of confusion.

I suspect that what Nietzsche was seeking in his title was the opposite of what we would call serious; not unserious in the sense of lacking logic, but rather wissenschaft, or knowledge, free from teutonic heaviness. The nearest I can come, if we were starting afresh to translate, is “cheerful,” as in “The Cheerful Science.”

LA replies:

“Cheerful” is certainly better than “joyful.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 20, 2011 10:03 AM | Send

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