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The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 54): Friedrich Nietzsche–The Philosopher of the Hammer

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 54): Friedrich Nietzsche–The Philosopher of the Hammer

Deism, Enlightenment thought, the influence of the industrial revolution, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx…with a little bit of Darwin thrown in—with all this going on in the 19th century, onto the world stage stepped Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was to 19th century European thought what the atomic bomb was to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the thing one must realize about Nietzsche was that he was the only thinker in 19th century Europe who had the guts to push the “Christianitzed-Enlightenment-Deistic Worldview” to its logical conclusions. Or more properly, Nietzsche took the watered-down brand of 19th century liberal-theology Christianity that was more akin to deism than it was to historical Christianity, and he crucified it, completely.

Now, I’ve already written a number of posts on Nietzsche, so allow me to reference them here, and invite you to read a little more of the details and nuances about Nietzsche’s philosophy, particularly how it relates to biblical Christianity.

19th Century Liberal Theology: Keep the Morality, Lose the History
By the mid-to-late 19th century, the European outlook regarding religion was this: “Well, if there’s one thing the French Revolution taught us, it’s this—we can’t completely do away with religion! If we do so, we’ll end up with the guillotine and the Reign of Terror.”

Enter modern 19th century liberal theology. It basically said, “Let’s all agree that hardly anything in the Bible—at least the miraculous stuff—ever really happened. After all, we’re influenced by deism, and the deistic worldview acknowledges there’s a God, but rejects the idea he interacts with the world—it’s just the laws of nature that guide us, with no help from God. And so, since our presupposition is that God doesn’t interact with the world, and that the world is run by the laws of nature, it goes without saying that miracles do not and cannot happen—for that would entail (a) God intervening into human affairs, and (b) the laws of nature being broken….

“BUT…since we would like to stay living in a moral and stable society, we’ll agree that although the historical claims and the miracle stories in the Bible didn’t really happen (at least in any supernaturally-influenced way), the moral lessons in the Bible are very good and should be followed! It’s the Good Book! We’ll honor its moral teachings, but we’ll agree that science and our advances in philosophical thought has proven that none of that biblical stuff really happened in the way the Bible claims it did!

And there you have 19th century liberal theology in a nutshell: the Bible is good for its moral teachings (after all, it reflects Enlightenment thinking of natural religion: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—sound familiar?), but otherwise, it is pretty useless when it comes to finding out about actual history, or what Jesus really did. A perfect example of this mentality can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. He cut out all the miraculous stories, and was left with just the wisdom and moral teachings of Jesus. For the most of the 19th century, nominal European Christians were all too happy to adopt this view: Jesus, the nice, moral teacher…but miracles? Ehhh….

Nietzsche, the Big, Bad Dionysian Ubermensch
Then along came Friedrich Nietzsche, a man who made it his life’s goal to completely annihilate such a worldview. He called himself “the philosopher of the hammer”—and he proceeded to smash every vestige of 19th century Christianity (or moralistic deistic-thought) he could find. As Andrew Hoeffecker states, “Nietzsche foreshadowed the postmodern tradition that effectively eradicated the easy confidence in human nature and in rationality that was trumpeted by his Enlightenment predecessors” (Revolutions in Worldview, 301).

Simply put, Nietzsche’s message was this: Enlightenment thinkers have essentially killed God by denying he has any interaction with human kind, but they are too weak and scared to actually live out those implications.

And those implications are huge, especially when it comes to morality. For Nietzsche made it clear: if there is no God, then moral law is a fiction; moral absolutes do not exist; morality is completely arbitrary. Or to put it in Platonic/Aristotelian terms: without universals, then the particulars have no inherent, fixed meaning.

Yet most people, Nietzsche said, are simply too afraid to admit this, and therefore, they fall back on unsubstantiated truth claims about morality. Most people simply are too afraid to live out the implications of their worldview. In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche essentially laid out the two fundamentally opposed worldviews in the world: (1) The Logic of Reason, as exemplified in the Greek god Apollo, who wishes to bring order and balance, and (2) The Logic of Life, as exemplified by the Greek god Dionysius, who celebrates life to excess, and damn the consequences.

For Nietzsche, it was Dionysius all the way. He insisted that it was up to human beings to create their own meaning, regardless of what others might say. After all, all truth is relative, so be Dionysius-like, and live out the truth as you see fit. Put yourself and your wants and desires first; refuse to be a slave to anyone; exercise your will to power, and be the Ubermensch (Superman) who makes and lives out his own morality, despite the inherent chaos of life.

Nietzsche’s Hatred of Christianity
Not surprisingly, Nietzsche hated Christianity—at least the 19th century brand of liberal/deistic Christianity. He saw Christianity as slave morality; he saw Christianity emphasizing meekness, humility, and love of neighbor, when people should be living boldly, reaching for their greatness, and loving themselves first and foremost. For Nietzsche, if one was to become great, one had to reject all things Christian, and become a true atheist—not one who claimed not to believe in God, but then clung to some idea of moral absolutes or truth. A true atheist not only rejected the idea of God, but also the idea of absolute truth and morality. And a true atheist had the guts to live such convictions out.

…and as far as Nietzsche could tell, there weren’t too many of those around.

Like I said, I wrote six posts on Nietzsche’s philosophy, and how it (surprisingly) relates to actual Christianity. I invite you to read them. I personally find Nietzsche fascinating—I don’t there has ever been a thinker who has been more right and more wrong at the very same time. But if you want to begin to really understand our society today, you have to get a grasp of Nietzsche. If nothing else, he has some amazing quotes…

Nietzsche ended up going insane. He had contracted syphilis, as a result of his many sexual encounters, suffered a mental breakdown in 1889, and then a number of strokes in 1899. In his insanity, he would just repeat over and over again, “I am dead because I am stupid…I am stupid because I am dead.” And when he died, he was hallucinating that he was Jesus Christ.

As fascinating as Nietzsche is, his deterioration, insanity, and death, I believe, foreshadow much of the madness in our postmodern world today. Indeed, Nietzsche was somewhat of a prophet in that regard. Unlike anyone else at the time, Nietzsche was able to see into the future what ultimate implications for 19th century Enlightenment thinking were going to be.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 5): Classical Greek Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics…Oh My!

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 5): Classical Greek Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics…Oh My!

The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle ended up having a great deal of significance throughout Church history (as we will eventually see). Yet our understanding of the philosophical outlook of the Greco-Roman world would be dreadfully incomplete without at least a few brief words about Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism. As should be obvious, no society is a philosophical monolith. In fact, every society, no matter how predominant a particular worldview might be, consists of a number of competing worldviews, and most people, in actuality, derive their particular worldview by treating these competing worldview as essentially a smorgasbord, and simply picking and choosing from each one what suits their particular tastes. It is true today just as much as it was 2500 years ago in Greece. That being said, let’s briefly (and I mean briefly!) familiarize ourselves with the three other schools of Greek philosophical thought.

Zeno and the Stoics
ZenoStoicism gained its footing during the Hellenistic period. The philosopher most associated with Stoicism is Zeno of Citium (350-258 BC). At the risk of being too simplistic, Stoicism viewed the natural world as the only reality, governed by an ultimate natural law. Therefore “God,” for the Stoics was essentially nature itself, or more properly, the divine will in nature, which was the natural law—Stoicism was fundamentally pantheistic.

In any case, the Stoics taught that the purpose of man is to live a virtuous life, “virtue” being that which is harmony with nature. Living in harmony with nature took precedence over everything else, even any particular pleasure or desire for that matter. Stoicism meant to simply accept life as it came to you—pain, heartache, tragedy, etc. were all part of the way of nature. The Stoic’s ethical outlook was to accept those things, and live in harmony with them.

Here’s an example: My grandparents were Swedes, and if you know anything about typical Swedes, you know that they are very Stoic in a lot of ways. They never get too down (or if they do, they certainly don’t show it), and they never get too excited (and if they feel excited inside, they certainly don’t show it). They just accept what comes along and keep doing what they’re supposed to do, whether it be raise that family or work that job. You do your duty, and let nothing upset that balance.

Epicureanism was found, not surprisingly, by Epicurus (341-270 BC). If Stoicism taught that the highest good was to live in harmony with nature, Epicureanism taught that the highest good was the pursuit of one’s own personal pleasure and happiness and the elimination of pain. Oftentimes this is misunderstood as pure hedonism, but Epicurus would not have encouraged anyone to just stay in their basement and smoke weed for their entire life, because that “made them happy.” Epicurus, in fact, held wisdom to be the supreme virtue, for the wise man would be able to discern what was truly beneficial or harmful to him. The wise man would reason that a little wine is good for the heart and it brings joy, but an all-night drinking binge would result in a massive hangover, and probably a number of poor decisions in the process. The wise man would reason that it is good to be kind and generous and to work with others, for that would bring about a greater possibility for happiness and pleasure for all

EpicurusNot surprisingly, Epicurus had very little need for “God” or “the gods.” They might exist, Epicurus reasoned, but they have no interest in human affairs. He is the one who first reasoned that if God was willing to prevent evil, but couldn’t, then he was not omnipotent; if God was able to stop evil, but chose not to, then he was malevolent and evil himself; and if he was able and willing to prevent evil, then why is there evil? Simply put, Epicurus was much like an ancient Deist, who gave a cognizant nod to the existence of the gods, but who then really preached that the goal of mankind was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Sound familiar? Did you know that Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean?)

The Cynics
Diongenes of SinopeThe founder of the school of Cynics was Diogenes of Sinope (400-325 BC). Like the Stoicism and Epicureanism that was to follow Diogenes, he taught that true happiness was to be found in living in harmony with nature. But for Diogenes, the main obstacle to living according to nature was the structures of society itself. Therefore, the Cynics often railed against societal conventions—they were, in fact, some of the first “anti-establishment” anarchists in history. Politicians? Temple priests? The gods to which both politicians and priests made much of? Screw them all! Therefore, the Cynics would often ridicule the political and religious conventions society, and even stage public demonstrations in which they would purposely do vulgar things just to mock the social mores. (Diogenes, for example, would publicly masturbate in the marketplace, and then mock the people who decried it as shameful).

For the Cynics, the “morality” of society was neither reasonable nor in harmony with nature. Nature itself should dictate morality, certainly not society.

Conclusions About Ancient Greek Philosophy
As one can see, the philosophy and culture of ancient Greece has much in common with our modern world. We have our Stoics; we have our Epicureans; and we certainly have our Cynics.

Although the masses undoubtedly cowered in the shadow of the powerful and unpredictable Olympian gods, the educated and the elite of Grecian society debated and philosophized on the existence of the gods, the nature of reality, and what constituted the ethical life. And even though many of the philosophers doubted and ridiculed the existence of the Olympian gods, they nevertheless maintained the social customs involving temple sacrifices, for those customs were not seen as simply “religious.” They were seen as part of the societal fabric that held their culture together. For many of the Greek philosophers, “the gods” might not be real, but religious observances were just good societal traditions that helped the cohesiveness of society.

In that respect, ancient Greek culture was very much like our culture today.  Indeed, this is one of the points I will be making throughout these “Worldview and Western Culture” posts. If you just take a little bit of time to understand some of the basic concepts of philosophy, and if you think about the issues and beliefs that a culture like ancient Greece, you will soon see that many of the issues we are dealing with today are the same issues they were dealing with then, be it political, religious, or moral. And although it might seem tedious to spend time getting a handle on these old philosophers, by the time we get through all this, I believe you will see just how much we can learn from them. Not only that, I also believe you will come to see much more clearly the various contentious and controversial issues that challenge our current society.

In my next post, I will look at ancient Rome.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 4): Classical Greek Philosophy: Aristotle–Finding the Universals in the Particulars

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 4): Classical Greek Philosophy: Aristotle–Finding the Universals in the Particulars

The AcademyAristotle was Plato’s student, just as Plato had been the student of Socrates (He’s the guy in in blue, in the middle of the picture, pointing downwards). Yet, even though he was originally a disciple of Plato (the guy on the left, pointing upwards), he ended up disagreeing with Plato on the most fundamental of philosophical issues. Not only did he split from Plato, he actually founded a rival school in 335 BC to Plato’s Academy, named The Lyceum. Aristotle is also famous for being the tutor of Alexander the Great.

Universals vs. Particulars
Whereas Plato believed that there was essentially a “split reality” (the world of universal, unchanging forms vs. this world of ever-changing and imperfect particulars), Aristotle taught that the forms are not in some other, higher, perfect dimension or world. Rather, they are found within the present, particular objects all around us. “Ultimate reality” is to be found within the particulars, not is some other world of unchanging forms. This view obviously had implications for how one views God. Aristotle described God as “thought thinking itself,” or as “the unmoved mover.” Rather than having perfection as being as “other-worldly” reality that must be imposed on this imperfect world, Aristotle argued, essentially, that the “seeds of perfection,” if you will, are to be found within this imperfect world, and are to be cultivated so they can grow to their fullness.

Therefore, whereas Plato preferred essentially a dictatorship of a philosopher-king to govern society, Aristotle preferred a democracy in which citizens could devote all their time to contemplating philosophy and virtue, and having a say in how society should be governed. One could understand why the two men had their views: Plato actually witnessed the shortcomings and destruction of the Athenian democracy, whereas Aristotle wasn’t even born yet. Instead, Aristotle witnessed the rise of King Philip the Macedonian.

AristotleAristotle’s philosophy (as we will later see) had a tremendous impact on the later “High Catholic Age,” namely in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. For that reason, it is necessary to spend some time explaining as simply as possible some of the most significant aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy. This means delving a bit into philosophical terminology and concepts.

Plato taught that a person’s soul was a completely different entity than the material body in which it was trapped, just like the universal form of something was completely different than the ever-changing particular piece of matter that faintly reflected it. But for Aristotle, such a division between universal-form/particular-matter was wrong. For Aristotle, a person’s soul was the form of the body. Every human being is an intricate combination of universal and particular, of form and matter. This combination of form and matter is what Aristotle called the substance of the individual thing.

To put it more simply, Plato would say that you are a soul trapped in a body (hence the term “body and soul”), whereas Aristotle would say that your body is an intricate part, along with your form, of your soul/substance—perhaps a new term is needed: “body and form = soul.” For Plato, the material world of the senses consists of shadowy distortions of ultimate reality that can only mislead people who trust in their senses, whereas for Aristotle, the material world of the senses, for all its incompleteness and constant change, points us in the right direction of truly understanding ultimate reality; it provides clues to the ultimate reality of the forms that we can piece together with our logic and reason.

In any case, since Aristotle believed that the forms of things are to be found within the particular things in the material world, he believed that we can learn about morality by observing nature. By observing things in nature, we can use our logic to reason our way to understanding the universal forms, and hence our moral obligations. Such moral obligations cannot be “proven” in any scientific sense, but they can be reasoned out from observable things in nature (hence, the concept of “metaphysics”).

Actuality and Potentiality
So what Aristotle reasoned was this: just as everything is a combination of both form and matter, and since form is unchanging and matter changes, that meant that everything is a combination of what Aristotle called actuality and potentiality. Why do things change in the first place? Aristotle said the reason why things change is that within everything there is a combination of actuality and potentiality. Take a blue rubber ball, for example. (I got this example from Edward Fesser’s book, Aquinas). There are certain aspects it possesses that are essential to it being a ball: it’s solid, it’s round, it’s bouncy—those things are part of its essence of being a ball. If it were a square, for example, it wouldn’t be a ball. On the other hand, if it was red instead of blue, it would still be a ball. But in its current form, it is actually a blue, rubber ball.

GumbyPotentially though, the blue rubber ball can become something else. If someone painted it, it would become red; if someone melted it down, it would become a pile of soft goo; and if someone then reshaped it and then painted it green to look like Gumby, that blue rubber ball could potentially become a green rubber Gumby doll. Of course, once that happened, what was once potentiality (i.e. it could become Gumby) is now actuality (i.e. it now is Gumby). And what was once actuality (i.e. it was a blue rubber ball), is now no more.

Now three things need to be pointed out here. First, the blue rubber ball does not have the potential to become just anything else. Its potentiality must be “rooted in the thing’s nature as it actually exists” (Fesser 11). It doesn’t have the potential to grow a tail, start barking, and become a dog. Its potential is limited to what is already contained in its actual nature. Second, whatever change happens to that blue rubber ball, the source that initiates that change has to come from outside the ball. In other words, no potential can “actualize” itself. For that potential to become actualized, something from outside must initial that change. The ball cannot heat itself and make itself gooey, and thus actualize its potential to become gooey all on its own. That change that turns a potentiality into an actuality has to be initiated from outside the ball. Third, Aristotle held that actuality has metaphysical priority over potentiality. What that means simply is this: potentiality cannot exist on its own as pure potential, with not actuality at all (Fesser 12). As soon some potentiality comes to exist, it no long is potentiality.

By contrast, you can have actuality exist without potentiality…well, sort of! You can’t, because as long as you are a living human being, you are susceptible to change and various potentialities that are inevitably initiated from outside yourself. Your genetic code will cause you to go bald, or become near-sighted as you get older; your favorite high school teacher might be the reason you learn French. But there is one being, according to Aristotle, that is pure actuality, in whom there is found no potentiality—God. Human beings, if you will, by virtue of being “souls” comprising of both form and matter, are always in a state of becoming. By contrast, God, by virtue of being pure form, and immaterial, is pure actuality, and thus is in a constant state of actualized being. He isn’t becoming anything; He simply is.

Now, Aristotle’s concept of God certainly is not that of the Christian God. Aristotle’s described his concept of God as “Thought thinking itself.” Aristotle’s God was the fundamental ground of all being that initiated and sustained the constant change we find in this material world of particulars, but he was not “personal” in any way. Nevertheless, as we will look at later, Aristotle’s concept of God—being that he is involved with the material world as its ultimate sustainer—was nearer to the Biblical understanding of God than that of Plato’s concept of God.

Aristotle’s Four Causes
Since Aristotle believed that the ever-changing material world of particulars can provide us with clues to understanding the universal forms, he developed a method to understanding and categorizing the natural world. In effect, Aristotle is the one who really introduced the concept of the scientific method. It basically works like this: Aristotle said that you can take any particular thing in the world and, through logic and reason, categorize what that particular thing is particularly for. He called this the Four Causes. We will use our rubber ball as a way to illustrate this.

Aristotle’s first cause was what he called the Material Cause: what material is the thing made of? In the case of a rubber ball, it’s quite obvious: it is made out of rubber. You can do this with everything: a table is made out of wood; a football is made of pigskin, etc.

Aristotle’s second cause was what he called the Formal Cause: what form, structure, shape, or pattern does the thing exhibit. In the case of the rubber ball, we would say that the ball is in the form of a sphere, it is a solid, and it is bouncy. A table, on the other hand, would be flat, solid, and possible a square; a football would be oblong, bouncy to a degree…you get the idea.

After determining the material that makes up a thing, and the form/shape of a thing, the third cause is what Aristotle called the Efficient Cause: how did that thing come to be what it was (or in Aristotelian terms, what was it that actualized the potentiality of the thing). The efficient cause of the rubber ball would be the workers and machines at the Acme Rubber Ball company; the table’s efficient cause would be the factory and workers at which it was made; the football’s efficient cause would be the workers at the Wilson company.

The final, and probably most important, cause is what Aristotle called (not surprisingly) the Final Cause: what is that thing’s purpose, and what is it for? The final cause of a rubber ball is to be a play thing for a child; the table’s final cause is to be a thing on which one eats dinner; the football’s final cause is, you guessed it, to be used in football games! The final cause was no doubt the most important cause for Aristotle. For it was the purpose of a thing that ultimately defined the thing and gave it meaning. Without a final cause, without a purpose, meaning cannot exist. For Aristotle, everything in the material world had a purpose and final cause, and it is this purpose that points things in the material world to the world beyond the material world.

These four causes, Aristotle argued, provided a complete explanation of any given thing. Although Aristotle’s theories took a back seat to Plato’s for the first millennium of Christian thought, Aristotle made quite a comeback during the High Catholic Age, in no small measure thanks to Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian and philosopher of all time. We will return to Aristotle, particularly his concept of a final cause, with our discussion of Aquinas and the development of Christian philosophy during the High Catholic Age. For Aquinas used Aristotle’s concept of a final cause in his philosophical arguments for the existence of God. We will then return to this concept again in our discussion of modern philosophy, for many modern philosophers deny the existence of final causes outright. But more on that later.

Equality? Not So Fast
The last thing we should note about Aristotle is that, like Plato, Aristotle did not believe all men were created equal. In fact, he was a full supporter of the institution of slavery. After all, Aristotle reasoned that if the truly enlightened men had to spend their time doing menial labor, they wouldn’t have the time to contemplate, reason, and pursue things like virtue and wisdom. Simply put, the thinkers and philosophers couldn’t be bothered with just base work! Besides, (and this is perhaps the one thing that Aristotle did agree with Plato on!), Aristotle reasoned that slaves were nothing more than ignorant, dumb beasts anyway…nothing like enlightened, free men!

And so, being men of their time, both Plato and Aristotle firmly believed (on philosophical grounds, even) that human beings were not equal, and that some were, by their very nature, simply destined to be slaves to the intelligentsia of their day. Yes, even the famed Athenian democracy was nothing more than a democracy for the intellectual elites. Slavery was still practiced, encouraged, and rationalized by the very philosophy of ancient Greece.

Aristotle Alexander
Aristotle and Alexander the Great

Hellenistic Greece (323-146 BC)
In any case, Alexander the Great’s rapid imperialistic expansion across the known world, and then his sudden death, marked the end of the Classical Greek period. Alexander had taken Greek culture and promoted it in every land he conquered, as far as India. Therefore, when he died, the entire known world was united to a certain degree through Greek culture, but it was a “sham of Greek culture.” Alexander’s empire was soon divided up into four parts, each run by essentially military dictators who were more interested in maintaining their power than they were in cultivating culture and learning.

And so, while these various “Greek-influenced” dictators eventually ran their respective “mini-empires” into the ground, philosophy became less and less concerned with questions concerning an ideal society and government (after all, such topics wouldn’t be too welcomed in a military dictatorship!), and more and more concerned with the inner life of the individual. The result of all this was an odd (but all too strangely familiar) mix within those cultures of the Hellenistic world. There were the philosophers who debated the more “heady” questions of existence; and then there were the masses who were still dedicated to (and fearful of) the many gods. In fact, virtually every city-state, known as the polis, was centered around temples. These temples weren’t built to house large congregations, but rather to actually house that particular god. So even after hundreds of years of philosophical thought stemming from the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, most of the commoners still were essentially slaves to both the gods and to their respective rulers.

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