The Humanities’ Nietzschean Degeneration

The study of humanities has lately come under much scrutiny. Many have shared their thoughts and have tried to come to an accurate assessment of the problem. As a university student  — studying in the humanities and education sector — I have a unique angle on the situation. It seems clear, even through the fog of ambiguity and student unrest, that the universities have lost their punch. Humanity degrees have begun to decline in their moral, societal and educational function. Conservatives have placed the blame on the ‘wokification’ evident in gender studies, race relations and historical revisionism, plus the cultural relativism diminishing history and English courses, until now the backbone of thought and knowledge about who we are as humans.

But this is only the symptom of a much more problematic malady. In the West today we have abandoned the core values that put these institutions in place. Ultimately, it is our culture’s morality that has begun to quiver, as the foundational moral paradigms of the Judaeo-Christian framework and the search for reason falter and fade. Instead, we have a Freudian appraisal of the senses, followed by ‘critical theories’ that find their roots in cultural Marxism and postmodernist thought.

This is where we should understand that all conflict is theological because, at their essence, all issues are problems of the human heart. We cannot look to secular solutions to solve spiritual problems, and this is why we should turn to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, which acknowledged the inevitable collapse of culture once man had killed God. This is because Nietzsche’s search for morality mirrors the crisis we are seeing in humanities: we do not know where to look without a foundation for ethical thought. Nietzsche both diagnoses the problem and represents our intellectual attempt to construct an alternative moral paradigm. For if “God is dead”, then what is there to fill the void of purpose in the humanities?


In order to appreciate Nietzsche’s contribution to the humanities we must first consider what the humanities offer. The hermeneutical understanding of ontology and its application to the knowledge of one’s own nature has long been debated, the Socratic endeavour to “know thyself” championed by the humanities facilitating the best attempts at reconciling people to themselves. However, what has remained integral to man’s search for meaning has been the foundation of morality. Here, I shall quote Quadrant‘s Peter Smith to introduce this idea

Biblical precepts are that moral code. Perhaps that is too categorical. It is better said in another way, I think. Which is that a society living within a Christian culture would have no truck with any of these so-called rights. None would have ever got to first base. And there is the clue. They have got to first base and beyond because our Christian culture is crumbling and collapsing. Lies are supplanting truth. It is then not surprising that the fightback is feeble. Only a resurgence in Christianity offers concrete hope


This is where Nietzsche presents a pertinent diagnosis, one similar to that introduced by Smith. He offers his sharpest remarks in Twilight of the Idols:

They are rid of the Christian God and are now all the more convinced that they have to hold on to Christian morality: this is an English consequential reasoning … In England, after every little emancipation from theology, people have to regain their respectability in a terrifying manner, as moral fanatics. The rest of us see things differently. If you abandon the Christian faith, at the same time you are pulling the right to Christian morality from under your feet

Nietzsche has accurately acknowledged the futility in teaching the morality of a worldview that has now been fundamentally rejected. But what becomes of a world that worships ‘virtue’ in its current definition while being unable to define what is good and what is evil? Well, there is a myriad of consequences, one in which Nietzsche observes to be an emerging ‘ersatz’ culture that is eating itself alive. Shakespeare recognised how the absence of order would be followed by discord in Troilus and Cressida

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows. . . .
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself.

Our culture has become a wolf devouring its own flesh, and the humanities have become a symptom of this internal struggle within the West. Universities cannot teach right and wrong, purpose and meaning, without a backbone of ethical thought. In its absence we  are engulfed by the shifting sands of human opinion and postmodern subjectivity.


The death of God 

How did we come to this? Who killed God? Nietzsche argues in The Gay Science

Do we still hear nothing of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose! Still dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! … There was never a greater deed—and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!

This passage offers some key insights. Firstly, God and theism are gone. Secondly, it is man’s doing that God is dead. Third, it is not happenstance but an active murder that killed him. Fourth, all humans know that this has happened. Fifth, this is the most significant event in history. Finally, man must overcome the chaos left by the shadow of Christianity. It is not just an acceptance of atheism. “God is dead” is not a rhetorical way of saying “God does not exist”. Stephen N. Williams in The Shadow of the Antichrist notes

Nietzsche is relatively uninterested in the question of whether God exists. This is not to deny that he is an atheist but to ask what kind of atheism he is advancing. It is not philosophical atheism. Nietzsche’s concern is the business of salvation. What he denies is a Saviour, not an intellectual proposition. They are not quite objections; they are attacks.

Today, in the minds of many, God is dead as a door nail. Intellectuals have gone to great lengths in attacking belief and many, or so one gathers, would not object to restricting religious liberties where this has not happened already. This is not a shock to Christianity itself; indeed, Jesus foretold such persecution (John 15:18, Mathew 5). And this is where we find the state of the humanities: open attacks on our history, truth, Christianity, Western civilisation. It was only in my second week of university that I was told in my education lecture that “Christian fundamentalism is the greatest challenge for teachers to overcome”.


Will to Power

What is the response to such a culture? For Nietzsche in The Will to Power, it is enhancement. Historically, this has been through the process of civilisation and a Kantian control of one’s own desires under a moral law. But, Nietzsche is strictly opposed to anything that hinders man’s internal nature. Therefore, he marks the pathway to enhancement as the “maximal state … the evolution of the will to power”.

Charles Darwin saw the organism as a self-preserving entity, but Nietzsche stipulates the maximisation of its power as its key motive. In a more rudimentary fashion, the “will to power” is a form of metaphysical naturalism in a biological sense, with a constituent tendency to live for power that Nietzsche sees as the creation of value. But who can overcome man and beckon a will to power? His answer is the infamous Ubermensch. However, the very word “Superman” as a translation of Übermensch is problematic. Williams offers the following insightful analysis.

The Übermensch surely has a rangy connotation: the man who overcomes, the overcoming man, the overman, the one who as man overcomes, and who overcomes himself as man. It is also the man of the future, the man of the “beyond,” who does and will transcend good and evil.

But how do you transcend good and evil? Williams continues

So, Nietzsche teaches us, we must love or hate. The world must be taken as a whole, either denied, rejected, hated as a whole or accepted, affirmed, loved as a whole. Christians, like Platonists, divided the world … One (ideal) world they loved, the other (real) one they hated. You can’t do that. Schopenhauer denied God but proceeded to deny the reality that was left: the world. Christianity needs to be totally inverted. Deny God and love the world.

Nietzche’s answer to a godless society is a will to power by accepting the world. Would-be moralists have broken the foundations on which they stood and can no longer rest on Christian thought without having such a faith, for they are one in the same. Hence, Nietzsche attempts to offer another path’s moral structure through the Ubermensch. This is what the humanities have become, a Nietzschean search for morality outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But how does Nietzsche manifest such ideas and express this human endeavour? Well, much like universities, it is through art and high culture. This is where we must turn and understand Nietzsche’s appreciation for the Greeks and his view of art’s relation to culture.



Most of how Nietzsche saw human existence was through the lens of his ardent appreciation for Greek culture, as in his 1870 work The Birth of Tragedy. Prior to its publication, the Franco-Prussian War saw Nietzsche serve as a medical orderly. In the midst of the death and destruction he was preoccupied with the question of culture. He concluded that life is strife, so we should be neither pacifists nor squeamish when it comes to the question of war: “The truth is that we ought to be wretched and are so.” As Nietzsche was profoundly in tune with Schopenhauer: life as the misery of existence. Hence, the thesis of the work is announced in its title. The birth of tragedy was born out of the spirit of music. This is where he is connecting his ideas with Richard Wagner who also believed that Greek tragedy was Greek culture’s supreme creative achievement. Nietzsche argued that the key to enhancing culture is the classification of two states of nature driven by physiological precepts. One drive is drawn to illusion, signified by the dream. Art and music order these illusions through the god Apollo. The second drive is the state of intoxication, which in turn produces ecstasy. This is symbolised by the god Dionysus, the genesis of tragic drama. The reality of tragedy in human life is unveiled by Apollonian art.

For the Greeks, Dionysus symbolizes an ecstatic and tragic union with nature. Although reality is fundamentally tragic, you can behold it up against the mirror of art. Nietzsche praised the Greeks for this Apollonian drive influenced by the Dionysian instinct. As tragic awareness becomes the ultimate expression for his philosophy, an intoxicated state of ecstasy. Prosaically said, the Dionysian drive embraces suffering as a form of tragic joy, and so we are deeply reconciled to that reality. However, both from Nietzsche’s view and the Christian, biblical eschatological hope is founded in the worlds temporal nature which is redeemed, as Christians believe, by Jesus crucified and risen.

Here, we should sympathize with Nietzsche. If art does not address tragedy on what scale can art really foster cultural renewal? The world is indeed a melting pot of chaos and order subjected to the whims of forces seemingly beyond human comprehension. Nietzschean Dionysianism seems to be an authentically emotional response to a tragic state of affairs in a godless order as “joy is rooted at the heart of sorrow”. He dissects this attitude in the canonical story of Job. If we take an analytical approach, the book of Job seems to vent the frustrations of God’s supremacy manifested in his unwillingness to unfold his plans before humanity, in which the words of God seem to be the author’s conduit. This may be an ad hoc Dionysian canonical moment.

We should depart from Nietzsche on this point. Williams argues “God has joy. The possibility of a realm of transcendent justice and redemption, far from banishing interest in what happens … the transcendent exalts and does not squash the natural”.

Hence, we can see that both scripture and art romantically capture a longing for home, and that joy can be found even in the deepest of sufferings despite the existential crisis of loneliness and death. Educational practice in the context of the humanities has seen a reversal of fate. Nietzsche was right in valuing the exploration of human suffering which seems almost forgotten by universities. By embracing the cosmic suffering and harsh realities of life, we may significantly draw our attention to things that truly matter.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind similarly notes the failure to recognise the utility of pain in making us mature and resilient people. This should be the focus of education, not protecting our minds against bad ideas — which will in due course manifest themselves as undesirable ­— but foster resilience by having a canonical discussion on suffering.

This interlock between joy and suffering is most present in James 1:2-4

“Consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”



So where does this leave us? Dostoevsky notes:

“If anyone could prove to me that Christ was outside the Truth, and if it really was the case that the Truth was outside Christ, then I’d rather remain with Christ than with the Truth.”

The truth has been rejected and society has not remained in Christ. The answer is the same for atheist, agnostics and believers, regardless of personal preference and an understanding of truth, a resurgence in Christianity is the only hope.

This is where universities find themselves. They can follow Nietzsche’s assertion to love the world and seek power, which is far too often the answer. Or they can seek truth, by seeking the Christian foundations in which western civilisation has stood and now begins to crumble. Nietzsche has diagnosed the problem and represented our attempt to find an alternate solution. He was right, life is in some sense tragedy. It is fraught with cosmic injustice and immeasurable suffering. This is a symptom of a fallen world, one that has turned away from the Creator.

But we should separate from Nietzsche here. He went on to have a mental breakdown and die slowly at 55 of syphilis, his degeneration starting, and his work having ended, at the age of 44. Our culture is now facing the same eschatological downfall — the Shakespearean universal wolf, driven to insanity, devouring itself much as madness consumed Nietzsche. He tried to find an alternative to life without God and was lost in the hubris of his endeavour.

The only redemption found on earth from evil and suffering is found in the message that constructed western thought – the message of the Gospel. Either way, it ends with a rejection or an acknowledgment of Christ. The humanities are dying because we continue to kill God. But Christ did not come to redeem culture, he did not come to save Western civilisation. He came to glorify himself through the saving grace of the resurrection. Paul had the answer in Colossians 1:19-20

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross

Luke Powell is studying English Literature and Modern History at Sydney University


  • Doubting Thomas

    *Perhaps better known as John O’Brien. In my opinion he is worthy to stand right up there with the other more famous Australian poets of his generation.

  • Alistair

    A retired university lecturer recently assured me “The problem with Australia is that it has no culture” Only an academic could be so foolish. But if one does not recognise the culture that we have – how on earth can we expect anyone to attempt to preserve it or save it.
    I think of Aborigines who ended in the terrible plight that they find themselves in simply because, after 50,000 years of isolation, they too were unaware that they were in possession of a “culture” that needed preservation and protection. It was something that had had for so long without ever having to think about it. Thus – their religion evaporated and left them empty. We are in exactly the same place heading for the same future. We (in the West) have had a culture that is so dominant that we dont even acknowledge its existence and see no need to preserve it. But without its foundational religion, Christianity, we will continue heading for that same place empty of meaning that Aborigines have found. With the phrase “God is dead” I think this is what Nietzsche was trying to warn us.

  • pgang

    A well written treatise Luke. But I don’t think the humanities are going to save us. Their very existence in modernity is predicated on the idea that mankind doesn’t need God, and that we can find our own solutions to life’s problems. So as long as the humanities are taught in secular universities, I can’t see us doing anything but going backwards.
    We can put aside the belligerent atheists who have happily sold themselves into eternal shame – those who deliberately misconstrue the Word for who-knows-what personal gain, but who must have a tragically low opinion of themselves. Of this set are those who probably know the Bible reasonably well but are still happy to vilify it with their ‘God-is-an-ogre’ type of nonsense. I suppose they think this offers them some sort of public intellectual credibility – and perhaps it does in their own limited circles – but they live blissfully unaware of the fact that to the wider world they come across as vain.
    It is theological ignorance that is the far larger problem for the West. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find anybody with even a basic working knowledge of the Scriptures today, including amongst church-goers. This is played out most prominently in the widespread view that Christianity and The Bible is some sort of moral code, or system of ‘values’ and ethics. Whereas it is in fact our means for determining truth itself through promises and contracts made to and with humanity by God. Any desire for, demand for, need for, or love of morality is merely an outcome of the function, in the way that light naturally comes from heat. It is an unavoidable thing. But the public understanding of Christianity today is to think that the light itself is everything, and that you can choose, personally, whether to bask in its glow or not. What the West needs to re-educate itself about is that there’s no escaping the heat.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    ‘God is dead’ but the idea of God and the and desire for human placement and moral purpose is not, for we are reasoning beings. Christianity did it for us, for so long, and its tide is out. I can’t solve that conundrum and I don’t think Nietzsche could either.
    Theology may help some; poetry does it for others.

    Some, like Christopher Brennan in ‘The Wanderer’, a poet I discovered when I was nineteen and greatly attracted to Zarathustra’s twilight of belief, muddle the two.
    ” Come out, come out, ye souls that serve, why will ye die?
    or will ye sit and stifle in your prison-homes
    dreaming of some master that holds the winds in leash
    and the waves of darkness yonder in the gaunt hollow of night?
    nay, there is none that rules: all is a strife of the winds
    and the night shall billow in storm full oft ere all be done.
    For this is the hard doom that is laid on all of you,
    to be that whereof ye dream, dreaming against your will.”

    At the end of this poem Brennan, an Australian Catholic and alcoholic, still felt ‘a peace fall in the heart of the winds’. Which is theology. As is ‘soul’.

  • yofus

    Might it be simply put, those without faith are bound to be forsaken.

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