Between the Prophets and Nihilism: Nietzsche Responds to Apocalyptic Thought
The problem addressed in this study is nihilism. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche traced its origin to the long history of apocalyptic and eschatological thought in Western religions, and to the survival of the linear and universalizing aspects of their theology in modern secular thought. Nietzsche saw this unconscious legacy affecting everything from Enlightenment philosophes, to the natural and biological sciences, to politics and economics. An existential crisis in European civilization – the advent of nihilism – thus came about because of the “death of God”, i.e., the loss of unshakeable objective faith amongst Europeans in the truth of the Abrahamic faiths.
I take seriously Nietzsche’s suggestion in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of a genealogical relationship between the ancient Iranians and the ancient Hebrews, which Nietzsche scholars have neglected. Exploring that historical interchange allows us to establish that Zoroastrian concepts of universal time and absolute morality entered Judaism, and thus the West, at a formative stage. I then discuss some key modern thinkers to which Nietzsche’s project responded, and show that apocalyptic eschatology lived on in the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and the Darwinians. Having established for himself that modernity was tainted at its origin by this kernel of religious dogma, Nietzsche saw no need to save modernity from itself, and thus looked beyond it, and beyond the naïve worship of reason that underpinned it.
The solution to the problem of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s view, was not to overcome religion, but to transform it. What was needed was a new mythology – one consistent with the natural sciences, and one which glorified the world as it is, and not an ideal world to come. His challenging notions of Eternal Recurrence and Overhumanity were contributions to this new, life-affirming mythology.
I make use of an extensive body of primary sources, ranging from the works of philosophers and scientists of the nineteenth century, to that of the ancient Greeks whom Nietzsche so admired, to the scriptural traditions of Zoroastrianism and Judaism. The work involves close reading and historical contextualization, seeking to establish contingent relationships as ideas moved and were transformed over time.