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Friedrich Nietzsche Pronounces "God is Dead": The Gay Science (1882)

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) had a tremendous impact on German philosophy in the nineteenth century and was one of its most original, provocative thinkers. After studying theology and philology, he was offered a professorship in Basel in 1869, at the mere age of 24. He briefly participated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 as a military medic. In 1879, he was forced to give up his professorship in Basel because of health problems (he suffered from poor eyesight and frequent migraines). In 1889, he had a mental breakdown (brought on by syphilis) from which he never fully recovered.

Nietzsche is often regarded as a key proponent of an irrationalist philosophy. But he was a powerful and eloquent cultural critic, eager to unmask the hypocrisy of the educated German middle classes [Bildungsbürgertum]. Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement, “God is dead,” is from The Gay Science [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft] (1882). It appears near the end of the excerpt reprinted below, in section 25 (“The madman”). The argument advanced in the preceding sections makes the logic of Nietzsche’s startling conclusion more comprehensible. Nietzsche attributed “God’s death” to powerful contemporary currents in German thought, including rationalism and the natural sciences, both of which had deemed God untrustworthy.

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New struggles. – After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave – a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead;* but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. – And we – we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.

Let us beware. – Let us beware of thinking that the world is a living being. Where should it expand? On what should it feed? How could it grow and multiply? We have some notion of the nature of the organic; and we should not reinterpret the exceedingly derivative, late, rare, accidental, that we perceive only on the crust of the earth and make of it something essential, universal, and eternal, which is what those people do who call the universe an organism. This nauseates me. Let us even beware of believing that the universe is a machine: it is certainly not constructed for one purpose, and calling it a “machine” does it far too much honor. Let us beware of positing generally and everywhere anything as elegant as the cyclical movements of our neighboring stars; even a glance into the Milky Way raises doubts whether there are not far coarser and more contradictory movements there, as well as stars with eternally linear paths, etc. The astral order in which we live is an exception; this order and the relative duration that depends on it have again made possible an exception of exceptions: the formation of the organic. The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos – in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms. Judged from the point of view of our reason, unsuccessful attempts are by all odds the rule, the exceptions are not the secret aim, and the whole musical box repeats eternally its tune** which may never be called a melody – and ultimately even the phrase “unsuccessful attempt” is too anthropomorphic and reproachful. But how could we reproach or praise the universe? Let us beware of attributing to it heartlessness and unreason or their opposites: it is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of these things; it does not by any means strive to imitate man. None of our aesthetic and moral judgments apply to it. Nor does it have any instinct for self-preservation or any other instinct; and it does not observe any laws either. Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning. Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type. Let us beware of thinking that the world eternally creates new things. There are no eternally enduring substances; matter is as much of an error as the God of the Eleatics.*** But when shall we ever be done with our caution and care? When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification of nature? When may we begin to “naturalize” humanity in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature?+

[ . . . ]

* This is the first occurrence of this famous formulation in Nietzsche’s books. We encounter it again in section 125 below, which has been anthologized again and again after it was quoted in the chapter on “The Death of God and the Revaluation” in the first edition of Kaufmann (1950), and then included in The Portable Nietzsche. It even brought into being a predictably stillborn movement in Christian theology that created a short-lived sensation in the United States. But most of those who have made so much of Nietzsche’s pronouncement that “God is dead” have failed to take note of its other occurrences in his works which obviously furnish the best clues to his meaning. The most important passages include section 343 below and seven passages in Zarathustra (VPN, pp. 124f., 191, 202, 294, 371–79, 398f., and 426). This list includes only places in which death or dying are mentioned expressly. No less important are sections 109–56. [Please note: this footnote and all subsequent ones are taken from Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, edited by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.]
** This is an allusion to the doctrine of the eternal recurrence.
*** A group of early Greek philosophers who lived in Southern Italy. The most famous among them, Parmenides, was born about 510 B.C.
+ “Naturalize” is here used in the sense of naturalism, as opposed to supernaturalism. Man is to be reintegrated into nature.

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