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Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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January 19, 2023 12:01 am


Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 19, 2023 12:01 am

Rather than hiding from the meaningless void created by atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche sought to embrace the haunting emptiness that comes with denying God's existence. Today, R.C. Sproul examines the father of modern nihilism.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

Today on Renewing Your Mind. Nietzsche is often considered the modern father of nihilism, and nihilism basically has the creed that there are no eternal truths, there is no eternal purpose, and there is no ultimate meaning or significance to human existence. And oh, how we see the consequences of that philosophy.

It's played out before our eyes every day it seems. What was sin just a few years ago is now lauded as virtue. Hello and welcome to the Thursday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

I'm Lee Webb. The modern father of nihilism that R.C. Sproul referred to is the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Let's find out why his ideas continue to be so destructive. One of the most frequent questions that people ask me from time to time is the question, what is existentialism? And my standard reply to the question is existentialism is the philosophy of existence. And when I give that kind of an answer, the people kind of look at me like to say, thank you very much.

That doesn't really help. Well, we'll be looking in the lectures to come at some of the most important characteristics of modern existential philosophy, because apart from Marxism, there's been no philosophy that has such a radical impact on our own culture as this philosophy has had in the last 50 years or so. Now the philosophy called existentialism has its roots in the 19th century in two distinct varieties or kinds of existential philosophy.

There is on the one hand that existential philosophy that is called pessimistic existentialism or atheistic existentialism, which is distinguished from an existential movement that sought a synthesis with historic Christianity. And the most important figure for Christian existentialism in the 19th century, and many regard as the father of modern existential thought, at least as it impacts theology, is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. But today I want to look at the 19th century father of atheistic existentialism, whose name is Friedrich Nietzsche. Now everybody's heard of Nietzsche. He's famous for the saying that God is dead. Nietzsche was born towards the middle of the 19th century in 1844, and he died at the turn of the century in 1900.

The last 11 years of his life were spent in insanity, and he had been committed to a lunatic asylum for those final periods of his life. But Nietzsche was a student of history and a student of 19th century culture, and he began with a complaint against the chief characteristics of 19th century European culture, which he described as being decadent. And to be decadent means to be in a process of radical decay or corruption. Now Nietzsche saw this decadence as being driven by the negative influence of the Christian church, because the Christian church posited certain values that Nietzsche was convinced would undermine and destroy the human spirit. For example, the ethic of Christianity stresses grace and mercy and pity. And for Nietzsche, these so-called Christian virtues instill weakness into people and cause them to live in an unthinking and non-creative way, a way that sort of dwarfs the basic human spirit and destroys what the existentialists call authentic human existence. And Nietzsche saw that the necessary antidote for the survival of Western civilization and for culture to reach its potential that, first of all, what had to happen was we had to get rid of this sentimental religion that blinded people from the reality of human existence as we find it. Nietzsche is often considered the modern father of nihilism, and nihilism basically has the creed that there are no eternal truths, there is no eternal purpose, and there is no ultimate meaning or significance to human existence. That in the final analysis, what we meet in life is what Nietzsche called das nichtig, the nothingness, the nothingness of meaninglessness. There is no God, and because there is no God, there is no ultimate meaning to human life.

And that's what is meant by nihilism, or the nothingness of human experience. Now, his thought was formed in his college days, and he advocated an approach to existence called biological heroism. Biological heroism, which was articulated in part in his most famous work in German, also Sprach Zarathustra, or in English, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, who was the prophet of the age who declared the death of God. Now, in this declaration of the death of God, Nietzsche described how this took place in two stages. He said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that originally there was a pantheon full of gods and goddesses, and Western civilization had a view of polytheism, where you had a god for this and a god for that. And he said that what caused the death of all of the rest of the gods and ushered in monotheism was when this Jewish god stood up in the midst of the assembly of all of the deities and declared to the universe, Thou shalt have no other gods besides me. And he said, when this Jewish deity made that outrageous claim of exclusivity, that the rest of the gods broke out laughing, and they laughed so hard they laughed themselves to death. And so only one god was left, the god Yahweh. And of course, this god then later succumbed, and his fatal illness, that is that which killed God according to Nietzsche, was pity. God is dead. He died of pity.

He died from this same weakness that has now been infected in Western culture. And the response to this is to create a new existential humanity based on what he called biological heroism. Now, by the way, in passing, it's important to know that as a historical footnote, that during his struggles in his early years before he came to the full level of power that he enjoyed, the Bavarian corporal Adolf Hitler sent copies of Nietzsche's works to all of his close friends and henchmen because he was convinced that he found in Nietzsche the justification for creating a new super order or super race of people, the Aryan race that he sought to institute.

The scholars disagree as to whether Hitler was taking Nietzsche to his logical conclusion or was simply distorting Nietzsche in the process. But in any case, he does have this view of biological heroism whereby we need a new kind of authentic existence, which existence will be modeled by what he called the übermensch, or in translation is the phrase Superman. And as the word super or the German über suggests is that this new model of humanity, the Superman, will be higher above and beyond the normal course of humanity. Now, to understand that, we have to understand something of Nietzsche's basic anthropology. We've seen that historically we've defined human beings in terms of homo sapiens.

We saw how that was challenged by Marx's substitution of the phrase homo faber because it's our labor that chiefly characterizes and distinguishes our uniqueness as people. Nietzsche, on the other hand, was influenced by what's called voluntarism whereby it is the will and the ability to make decisions that differentiates people from the rest of the beasts. And he said that the most distinctive characteristic of a human being is found in our natural inherent will to power. It's not simply an aspiration to significance whereby every person has in their heart a desire to have their life count and be meaningful, and you may be driven for success or so on.

It's more than that. It is a will to dominate. It's that will that is manifested in the pyramid structure of the corporate world. It is that will that is exhibited, for example, in our own childhood games that we play that are highly competitive and intensely designed for domination. I remember when I was a kid, one of the games that we played outside was called King of the Hill. We would find a dirt pile and one guy would scramble up to the top of that dirt pile, and it was everybody else's challenge to climb up the pile and push him off the top of the pile and replace him.

And of course, the guy who was on the top would do everything he could to prevent being kicked off the top of the mound, and whoever was left standing at the end of the game was declared to be the King of the Hill. And that's a childish manifestation of the games that grown people play in trying to achieve domination. It's what triggers wars and economic competition and all of the rest. Now, Nietzsche does not see this as a bad thing. He said that this is what we're all about as human beings, and what's bad is for the person out of his own insecurity and out of his weakness to fail to make the assault on the hill, because the decadence of modern man is found in that he is a coward. He lacks the virtue of courage, but the Superman is the man who is not afraid to exercise his will to power to the ultimate level. Indeed, Nietzsche's greatest heroes from history were those who became famous for their conquests of others in the world. Now, over against the will to power, we see the negative influence of religion, which tries to squelch this natural human spirit, and not only that, the societal conventions and customs that militate against the existential individual who walks to his own drumbeat. He says that 19th century Europe is a culture and a society that manifests what he called a herd morality, that people are slavish in their following of societal customs and conventions and are afraid to break out of the pack, and like stupid sheep, they just go around and follow whatever is expected of them by their peers, and that also squelches human spirit and the advancement of human greatness. Now, you may wonder why he would be on a crusade for a Superman who would bring us a new world order and a new dawning to humanity in light of his earlier conviction that there are no values, there is no meaning, and there is no such thing ultimately as right and wrong. If that's the case, then even the exercise of one's will to power would, in the final analysis, be an exercise in futility and an exercise in meaninglessness, and Nietzsche agreed with that.

I mean, he said, that's right. It's contradictory, but so what? It's nonsense.

It runs against reason, but never mind. He said the chief virtue or the chief characteristic of the Ubermensch is courage, but it is a particular kind of courage. It's what Nietzsche called dialectical courage. There's that term, dialectical, again. We saw it in Hegel, we saw it in Marx, and now we see it in Nietzsche. And Nietzsche's talking about the dialectic that operates in a real human passionate tension. And the tension of dialectical courage is this, that he says to people, you've got to act with courage, but if you act with courage, the results and the fruit of your courageous act will be meaningless.

But do it anyway, because the only thing you have left is to exercise your will to power. And he described his Superman in these categories. The existential hero is the one, Nietzsche said, is the one, Nietzsche said, who sails his ships into uncharted seas and who builds his house on the slopes of Vesuvius. Now what is Vesuvius?

Vesuvius, of course, is an active volcano. And for a person to build their home on the side of Mount Vesuvius is to have an attitude of defiance towards the blind, impersonal forces of nature and against what we might call fate. It's a man who takes his destiny into his own hand and, according to Nietzsche, is subject to the values or the customs or the laws of no one else, but he has the courage to create his own values, to live by his own rules, and in a sense he becomes the anti-hero that is so often celebrated in the modern film industry. Or he's the Dennis Rodman of the philosophical world who challenges all of the conventions and does all things that are outrageous in the eyes of the public, but nevertheless continues to dominate as a basketball player. In one sense, he would be the embodiment or incarnation of the Nietzschean hero.

Now Nietzsche's views on these sort of things, as I said, were in large measure formulated while he was in his educational developmental stage. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the culture of ancient Greece, and he compared and contrasted two images or two heroes from the ancient Greek system, which he saw in radical tension and conflict with each other. The one was the figure of Apollo, and Apollo represents the golden age of Greek culture, the Greek ideal, the ideal of perfect form and symmetry and coherency and consistency, such was seen in the philosophy and the art and the music of classical Greek. That was the spirit of Apollo, which became the idealized spirit of Western civilization. Over against Apollo in the ancient world was the figure of Dionysius, and you've heard of Dionysius as the god of the grape, you know, related to Bacchus and so on, and that there were religions devoted to the worship of Dionysius, and what they did was in order to achieve communion with the deities, they had to get past the orderly control of the brain and the mind and the conscience on the human spirit to be released from these restraints that conscience brings to us, and so in the Dionysian frenzy, the basic point of the frenzy was to become so intoxicated with wine that you could then be released to be engaged in unbridled sexual orgies and be so out of control and stoned that in this state of ecstasy, one would then have this mystical communion with the god Dionysius, and Dionysius became the anti-symbol of ancient Greece. Dionysius became not the symbol of order and purpose and harmony, but the symbol of chaos and the symbol of willful disobedience to convention, and in his doctoral dissertation, he praised the image of Dionysius rather than the image of Apollo because he was convinced of another ancient Greek idea, which was the cyclical view of history and which Nietzsche described as the myth of eternal recurrence, the myth of eternal recurrence, that the Christian view sees history on a progressive linear path that is moving always towards the fulfillment of the consummation of the kingdom of God.

The other philosophies of history of the 19th century were evolutionary in scope, assuming an optimistic omega point of fulfillment. Rather, the ancient myth was that history is cyclical. It has no particular beginning.

It is not moving towards some particular purposive destiny, but is simply going round and round forever in an endless circle, beginning with nothing and ending with nothing, going absolutely nowhere. If you want to catch the spirit of this, you remember the movie They Shoot Horses, don't they? Jane Fonda starred in that film.

Red Buttons was in it, some others. The period that was suggested was the Depression period, where at that time people were out of work, unemployed, selling apples on the street corner for a nickel, that one of the favorite pastimes in America was the marathon dance. It also gave people an opportunity to make some extra cash. And in this film, these people were engaged in this marathon, and the man who's the master of ceremonies, in order to facilitate the event and make people drop out, he would increase the speed of the promenade and make people move around the room in a rapid circle. And as he was doing that in a diabolical way, he would taunt them and tease them and say, round and round and round they go, and where they stop, nobody knows. And then at the end, in the Tragic Consequences of the End, Jane Fonda gave the expression whenever contemplating suicide because of the utter meaninglessness of this whole experience and the utter futility of it, she raised the question rhetorically, which was the film's title, they shoot horses, don't they? In other words, if life is nothing but a marathon that goes round and round and is going nowhere, and you're caught up in the myth of eternal recurrence, then really the only significant question as later existentialists raised, left to observe, was the question of suicide. Well, as I said in his later years, Nietzsche spoke of horses as his brothers, and his sister sold tickets to the lunatic asylum where he was kept because his brother was famous and she was exploiting her brother's fame and dementia and exercised her own will to power. And Nietzsche in his final days signed his personal letters with the signature, the crucified one, as in his madness he saw himself as the reincarnation of Christ. When we base our worldview on our own ideas, nothing but badness remains.

It's a tragic story, isn't it? But we've learned some profound thanks today here on Renewing Your Mind, and I'm glad you could be with us for this message from R.C. Sproul series, The Consequences of Ideas.

In 35 Lessons, Dr. Sproul traces the growth of philosophical thought in the Western world, and he helps us see the significance of those ideas, why they matter. We invite you to contact us today and request this full series. We'll send it to you. It's a nine-DVD set for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. You can make your request online at, or you can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343. In addition to the full series, when you contact us this week, we'll also make the digital study guide available to you in your online learning library. There you'll find an outline of each message, additional reading suggestions, and group discussion questions. So again, request this 35-part series when you call us with your gift of any amount at 800-435-4343. Our online address is And let me invite you to take advantage of our online archive of past Renewing Your Mind programs. One easy way to do that is with our free Ligonier app. Download it today and begin exploring the resources that are available there.

You'll find audio and video clips, articles, blog posts, and much more to search for Ligonier in your favorite app store. Well, tomorrow we will discover another gloomy, pessimistic philosophy of life. You didn't choose to be born where you were born.

You didn't choose the parents that you have or the culture in which you live. You experience a sense of having simply been hurled into time and hurled into space chaotically for no purpose and no great reason. You're simply there. We'll learn about that tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind as Dr. Sproul introduces us to the meaninglessness of Martin Heidegger. I hope you'll join us.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-21 23:06:16 / 2023-01-21 23:14:17 / 8

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