The Death of a Purposeful Man
One of philosophy’s many great questions is: what is the meaning of life? Late 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claims there is no ultimate meaning of life. He attributes this to the loss in Christian faith stemming from the scientific revelations of the age. In order to analyze Nietzsche’s position one must understand his views.
For Nietzsche, reality is not purposeful or garner any meaning beyond the falsifiable truth systems we as humans have created through our powerful need to imagine a purpose to life. This truth system Nietzsche spoke of was the Christian religion, which had integrated its morals and beliefs into society as a whole since the 14th century. The faith viewed the universe as geocentric, created with order and purpose. Social roles were predetermined by God whose extensive and specific truth system that can be found in the Bible. For example, the Ten Commandments- passed from God himself to Moses- governed the way in which people should act towards one another; commandments societies began to govern themselves by.
Yet, in the 17th century, advancements in technology led to a better understanding of the universe in which we inhabit. The most pivotal discovery of this time period was the realization that the planets did not revolve around the Earth; in fact, the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the sun. This discovery obliterated the geocentric world that the Christian truth system had implemented and gave birth to the heliocentric truth. What came to follow was the understanding of how insignificant the Earth is in comparison to the vastness that is the universe. Philosophically, this realization raised uncertainty within society of the Christian truth system. For example, if they were wrong about the geocentric model of the universe, which was apparently a fact provided by God himself, what else were they wrong about? Thus, for Nietzsche, these scientific revelations proved his belief in life as meaningless. Furthermore, the questions societies were now asking of the Christian truth system proved the systems falsifiability. For example, if the Earth is not the center of the universe but in fact a small insignificant addition to it, than humans, who are significantly smaller than the Earth, surely have no relevance in such a vast universe. Therefore, in the grand scheme of reality, such an idea as a truth system is, in essence, irrelevant. To Nietzsche, this Christian truth system was merely a way to fill ourselves with comfort through a false sense of meaning in a meaningless reality.
Thus, cue the famous Nietzsche saying, “God is dead,” and the truth has killed him. This saying not only embodies the realization of the fallacious Christian truth system, but humans need to cling to it. The latter is expressed through the parable Nietzsche writes in the Gay Science. A mad man is running through the town square proclaiming that God is dead. He is met by laughs from a group of non-believers who tell him they already knew that. Yet, the mad man claims they do not understand the severity of the death of God; it should be a psychological blow to all of humanity.To Nietzsche, the death of God means the death of objective truth and the realization of the meaningless reality; what Nietzsche calls nihilism. The non-believers in this parable represent society as a whole; we accept God is dead but we still cling to the truth systems the Christian faith has integrated into our society. This is what is considered passive nihilism; when one is more secular than religious yet still embraces the idea of objective truth. Active nihilism- the nihilism Nietzsche believes we need to embrace- is when one understands there is no ultimate meaning or God; meaning is what we create.
In the time Nietzsche was writing the Christian religion still had quite the hold on society. Yet, as said in the latter, religion has faded as the source of truth. Thus, I would like to apply Nietzsche idea of the meaningless life to modern day before disagreeing or agreeing with it. Scientific exploration into the universe has progressed immensely since Nietzsche’s time. We now understand the roots of humanity lie in evolution, the universe is infinitely vast and constantly expanding, and there is a sufficient amount of chaos in the cosmos rather than the once believed order. Thus, modern scientific exploration has only further solidified Nietzsche’s theory; the universe is too big for humans to have any impact in it.
For example, if the Earth were to explode no real changes in the solar system would occur. Yet, if the Sun were to do the same, our solar system as we know it would either fall out of existence or drastically transform. Remember, this example only deals with our solar system so imagine how insignificant the explosion of the Earth would be to the cosmos in general. With all this in mind it is virtually impossible to disagree with Nietzsche’s view; in the grand scheme of things, humans are meaningless. Yet, we are here, on planet Earth, living and thriving and prepared to do whatever it takes to defend our meaningless lives. Why is this? Perhaps one should place Nietzsche’s argument on a smaller scale of things; a more humanly scale.
No matter the religious or secular views, morality and the struggle between right and wrong has always been a humanly aspect to existence that fills ones life with meaning. The choice in our morals lead us to the choices of our values, daily regiments, and creation of identity. Yet, it is a truth system that cannot be explained by God and cannot be proven solely on reason. To clarify, Nietzsche believes God did not give us morals and reason cannot help in choosing what is always right and what is always wrong. But, what Nietzsche knows for sure is, all questions of dualistic reality aside, that there is only this world we live in and thus through history we can find where such ideas of truth systems, like morality, come from. Consider cultural relativism which is the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture. Although considered a “principle” one must understand the meaning within this definition; beliefs, activities, and truths vary based on culture.
For example, female circumcision is a common practice in over twenty Africa countries while in Western societies it is viewed as female mutilation and illegal. Through the examination of history one could find how such a practice came to be and viewed differently in both societies yet what this difference proves is if there are objective truths then there must be a right or wrong here. Yet, a right or wrong verdict would go against the undeniable fact which is cultural relativism. That being said, for Nietzsche morality is not a given or timeless; it is a system subject to change. The latter backs this claim by showing that there are no objective truths, such as morals that humans find bring meaning to their lives, but rather subjective ideas we fill ourselves with. Once again, it seems that Nietzsche has proven the meaningless of human life on a more humanly scale through the logical dismemberment of the truth system of morality.
And yet, after all this talk of the meaningless human life, we are still here. This just begs the question: why? If we are so insignificant why would we even be here? It is questions like these that make people believe in what is seen as the leading cause of assumed human meaning; fate. Nietzsche has shown how we as humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe as well as the subjectivity of truth systems on the humanly scale which in turn makes us merely vessels to fill ourselves with our own ideas of things such as morality. Yet, he never truly proves there is a no meaning to our lives in terms of why we are here. Thus, allow me to play devil’s advocate and address the idea of fate. Fate does not follow a moral code or truth system; it is merely the idea that you are here for a reason whatever that may be. Fate is grounded in the belief of a predetermined path one travels to the understanding of their ultimate meaning that is traditionally relayed at death. This meaning could be bad or good, significant or insignificant, and so on. Thus, on the grand scale of the universe and the minute scheme of humanly existence, no matter how insignificant we are or the validity of our truth systems we are alive in this universe so there must be some meaning to that or reason why. Therefore, fate, existing separately from the relevance of truth systems or scientific fact, becomes an independent unbiased entity that challenges Nietzsche claims that human life is meaningless by filling humans with the belief in a predetermined objective meaning.
Although a strong counter argument to Nietzsche’s theory, the idea of fate can be challenged through the notion of choice, which reinstates Nietzsche’s belief. We as humans have the total freedom to choose what ever we want to do no matter the social laws or norms instated in society. Fate would claim that even though it may seem like you had choices in life, those choices were predetermined which is illogical to claim. For example, imagine you awake in a white room with doors on either side of you. If you walk through one you will become a successful businessman and if you walk through the other you will become a successful actor. Both choices are equal in all economic, personal, and emotional aspects. Thus, you have total freedom to choose one or the other. It is not a question of fate because fate is only ever relevant in the presence of binaries upon arrival at a destination.
For example, you are standing at a crossroads with no idea of what is ahead but you see four paths. You can choose to go down any path because they are all equally unknown to you. Yet, the moment you walk down that path one believes it was their fate because it becomes the known beside the unknown you were presented with when choosing. More simplistically, you are at a similar crossroad and you take one path that leads you to your one true love. Upon arriving, the other paths are revealed to you and you see they all led to unequal and varying destinations that make you assume that choosing this one and dodging all the other paths was an act of fate; you were destined to be there. Now consider, you chose the same path but upon arrival, when the other paths are revealed to you, they all have a similar outcome with a similar true love. This would make you realize there is no predetermined path because any of those choices could have led to a similar outcome. Thus, we realize fate is not as unbiased as claimed earlier; its relevance relies on the appearance of binaries. Choice on the other hand is truly unbiased and fits perfectly into Nietzsche’s theory. There is no predetermined fate in choice so there is no meaning in it other than the meaning you supply it with. Choice is the compass with which humans use to construct meaning in a meaningless life.
Upon analyzing and applying his theory to both the grand scheme of the universe and the humanly scale of morality and truth systems I find myself agreeing with Nietzsche’s logic; life is meaningless and thus we attempt to fill it with meaning. Ironically, although I agreed I find myself clinging onto the belief of humanly meaning within existence by supplying the idea of fate as a counter argument to Nietzsche’s theory. Yet, once examined, one finds the role of choice effectively disproves the idea of fate and solidifies Nietzsche’s theory. In turn, we come to realize the death of God is also the death of the purposeful man.
What do you think? Leave a comment.