Thursday, July 24, 2008

Quote of the Week - now with Commentary(tm)!

The Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages – which is to say, the theologians, since all philosophy in that era was nothing more than theology – were great ones for taking a small snippet from the Bible, or from “The Philosopher” (Aristotle) and writing these long, elaborate, often quite gonzo “commentaries” on the snippet. Thomas Aquinas was the most famous of the lot, but they all did it. They would offer their quote from an authoritative source, and then use it to prop up some (often philosophically indefensible) position that often had nothing to do with the quote itself. Reading Aquinas and some of the others, I get a sense of the enormous fun they had with this process. And since this is my blog – and since, as we all know, there’s nothing we bloggers like to do more than write lengthy commentaries about every little thing – I thought I’d try an experiment and sex up my Quotes of the Week with some (often philosophically indefensible) positions that will often have nothing to do with the quote itself. It’s going to look a little something like this ...

"God is dead -- and we have killed him."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

This one sentence has generated thousands – maybe millions – of words of commentary, interpretation, and condemnation; the likelihood that I will have anything of interest to say about it is very small. But since I love the quote so much – it’s stuck with me since I first encountered Nietzsche at the age of fifteen – I thought I’d explain what this quote means to me. What Nietzsche is saying here is that our view of humanity as nothing more than another species of ape (and keep in mind that Darwinism was very new and very powerful in Nietzsche's time) has destroyed any sense among the common people that they were somehow "special" because there was some benevolent eternal Big Daddy who loved them and viewed them as the center of his universe. In other words, "we killed" God by virtue of no longer believing in him -- which is to say, no longer believing that we humans had some special place in the universe above the animal kingdom.

Nietzsche was bluntly terrified by the implications of this "death of God," by this idea that there was no longer any eternal reward or punishment for any behavior we might choose to indulge. Nietzsche would have completely agreed with Dostoevsky's famous formulation: "If there is no God, then anything is permitted." Anything. The end result of the "death of God" was, quite simply, the 20th century -- and Nietzsche saw it coming.

No comments: