Nietzsche on the Real and Apparent Worlds

By Jimmy Maher

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, the decline of man began when he created God. I speak not of the pantheons of worldly gods that the Greeks and many others created to explain the world and its pre-scientific mysteries, but of a singular God who is divorced from the everyday world. Christians name this figure Jesus Christ, Jews Yahweh, and Plato chooses to consider Him only an abstract quality called the Good. The details are to Nietzsche irrelevant. What matters is that this figure occupies a better, truer realm than this material plane, and that believers are instructed to live their lives with their gaze firmly focused on the heavenly sphere He occupies. God’s realm is the real world, and the apparent world that surrounds us is but a corrupted shadow. Nietzsche considers such an attitude to be nihilistic in the extreme, for in rejecting the reality and singular importance of the material world one rejects life itself. Such a rejection is the closest thing there is to a deadly sin in Nietzsche’s personal cosmology.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche outlines a six stage history of the relationship between the real and apparent worlds. In the first stage, man considered the real world to be accessible to "the wise, the pious, the virtuous man" (50). Plato and his followers held this view. Many ignorant and unenlightened souls are trapped in the apparent world, but escape to the higher realm is available in this life through education and self-improvement. While Nietzsche’s complete rejection of the notion of another plane of existence outside our own does not allow him to accept this viewpoint, he does allow that it is "relatively sensible." Certainly he must have found its focus on the attainment of enlightenment in this life somewhat mollifying.

The great Western monotheistic religions now enter the picture, and the focus of the virtuous man changes in this second stage from the rewards of this world to the rewards of the next. Although now divorced completely from the material world, heaven is still genuinely believed to be attainable after death. This feeling of a direct, almost tangible relationship between the real and apparent worlds persists through the Middle Ages, for the world remains a largely mysterious place only explainable by recourse to the divine. The birth of science, however, begins to sever heaven from the real world, and God becomes more of an abstract concept, somewhere "out there," rather than a major facet of everyday existence. This marks Nietzsche’s third stage.

The real and apparent worlds continue to recede from one another, until by the fourth stage the divine is seen as utterly divorced from conventional reality and completely unattainable. Yet old habits die hard, and so religion continues to exist as a sort of anachronistic legacy of earlier times. Only in the fifth stage is religion finally rejected. Man at last steps out under the cool light of reason and rejoices in his newfound freedom.

Yet what of the comforts of religion, and of its role in answering the big questions about the meaning of life and the origin of the universe? Nietzsche had little use for comfort, and I believe he would feel that religion does not truly provide the answers it purports to. Yes, when one is asked where the universe came from one might point to God. Yet such a reply only begs the question, what created God? Once again there is no satisfactory answer. We are left at the same impasse as before, only we have now further muddied the waters with this cumbersome and unnecessary God character. Similarly, one might ask what is the meaning or purpose of life on this material plane, and another might answer to join God in heaven. Yet one can imagine the benighted souls in that realm asking, in between their frolicking and singing, just what the purpose of their existence is now that they have achieved the glory of heaven. Again, we have introduced another layer of complication without doing more than putting off the fundamental question.

I believe Nietzsche would say that those who seek a higher meaning beyond this life are confused and asking the wrong questions. The purpose of being (or physis) is being itself, and looking for a meaning for this life outside of itself is folly. The fundamental drive of humanity, and indeed all living things, is not toward any higher goal at all. The purpose of life is what Nietzsche refers to as the will to power. The purpose of life is life itself, and the purpose of the living is to embrace that life, whether it be joyous or tragic, beautiful or ugly. To remove one’s gaze to some abstract heavenly sphere is denying life. Nietzsche is not interested in conventional morality, but he does state over and over that denying life is the ultimate wrong and the ultimate form of negativity. Thus, Christianity and its cousins are pure nihilism. Their practitioners have imposed a rigid logos upon the wild beauty of physis in an attempt to shield themselves from the violent, sometimes ugly reality of being.

To determine if an action is right or wrong, Nietzsche would have us ask just one question: Does the action affirm or negate life? To affirm life one must embrace it in its entirety, reveling in the painful and tragic right along with the joyous. To look away, to retreat into some other realm for false comfort, is to negate life.

Yet Nietzsche does not rejoice in the death of religion, for he realizes that the process is not yet complete. To understand Nietzsche’s critique of the modern rational man we can turn to his famous tale of the madman in The Gay Science.

The titular character there has run excitedly up to a group of atheists, gloating over the death of God and society’s role as His murderer. The madman carries with him the light of wisdom, and babbles excitedly to the atheists about the next stage of enlightenment that they can all finally begin to work toward. Yet the atheists jeer and mock the madman, until he drops and shatters the light of wisdom and slinks away. The atheists fail to understand that simply killing off God is not enough. Indeed, it is only the first and easiest step, for the old values He embodied still infect every aspect of Western society. The atheists are still worshipping God’s stinking corpse. The building blocks of our behavior, our ethics and morality – words and concepts Nietzsche detests – are still hopelessly bound to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thus the atheists in Nietzsche’s parable are even more confused and deluded than the Christians who preceded them, for the Christians at least had a foundation on which they built their concept of proper behavior. The atheists have no such thing, and continue to perpetuate the old ways out of simple inertia. They are passive nihilists, perpetuating the old, dead values even as they congratulate themselves for their vision and courage.

To dispose of God’s corpse and be truly free, one must tear down the framework of values and behavior that has been instilled by the entire tradition of Western history. This act of active nihilism is perhaps painful, but necessary. Having torn things down to their foundation, one can now begin the almost inconceivably daunting task of building a whole new edifice to replace them. This marks the sixth stage of Nietzsche’s progression, and that rebuilding from scratch is the subject of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.