On the Afterworldly (a reading from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
How is Heaven like a hospital? It is the place where the sick go to get well when they die. Such a terrible thing to say! The sick are supposed to be healed and free from illness when they go to Heaven. But this is what Nietzsche thinks of the afterworld – that it is a place where the sick, deluded by this world, cast their hopes. The afterworld for Nietzsche is a delusion created by those suffering people who would seek to overcome themselves, to surpass their selves and their miserable place in this world. He says that those who seek the afterworld believe this world is so awful that we can only give up on it. We must look to something beyond ourselves. How shall we treat our Heaven? Is this life something that we must simply endure until the end? And shall we live this way in weary expectation? Or is there something else?
I believe we treat the matter of the afterworld flippantly. We do not think too critically about it lest it quickly seem like we are discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. The afterworld is something that seems to be of pure conjecture, something described only in visions and apocryphae. And we rely on Heaven as a panacea, a finish line of sorts, and perhaps this is partly because of the words of Paul of Tarsus in the New Testament and his contest metaphors of running races and fighting good fights. “If only we can just get through this life, the next will be so much better!” we dream.
And Nietzsche says that it is just that: a dream. What’s worse is that he says we, suffering, have created a god in our own image to create this afterworld for ourselves. But it seems to me that Nietzsche would say that when the sick die, they merely go to a place where they continue their sick delusion.
And why are they sick? Because they cannot stand themselves, their own bodies. Perhaps what he is describing is something similar to Sartrean nausea. I mean that these people are sickened by their own existence and their freedom. They neither can fathom nor endure their being. Thus, they fashion something else, something greater than themselves, a god and a place that can sustain them because they cannot sustain themselves.
If there is a place where Nietzsche seems to attack Søren Kierkegaard (if he were aware of the Melancholy Dane’s writings), it is here. Says Nietzsche, “Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want any more: this created all gods and afterworlds.” The weariness to which he refers is Kierkegaard’s concept of taedium vitae, the weariness of life. The leap is that leap of faith. Kierkegaard writes that only when we have become exhausted by existence that we are living can we take that leap of faith into the eternal. And Nietzsche takes him to task for it. He condemns Kierkegaard to the status of sickness and delusion.
It is true that both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were plagued with health problems throughout their lives. But I believe that Nietzsche misunderstands and misrepresents Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was not attempting to escape the world by leaping into delusion. His leap is not into the afterworld, but into the Eternal, the Religious Sphere of existence, in one’s own life. Nietzsche may be able to attack Kierkegaard for his belief in God, but he cannot call him an escapist. Kierkegaard does not seek to jump from his self, but to leap into who the self is becoming at the moment in which that leap is attempted. Nietzsche refuses boldy to leap.
Here is a critical difference between the two great thinkers: Kierkegaard advocates the willful leap of faith into the Eternal, a metaphysical understanding of existence. Nietzsche advocates the willful planting of the feet firmly upon the Earth. The body is not an evil thing for Nietzsche. If anything, it is what it means to be human as he writes, “A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a new meaning for the earth. A new will I teach men: to will this way which man has walked blindly, and to affirm it, and no longer to sneak away from it like the sick and decaying.” Nietzsche admonishes us to be human and be proud of being human. We should not shirk our humanity for some ghostly dream.
But should we allow Nietzsche to get away with his attacks on Heaven so easily? He plants the individual’s feet firmly on the ground, which is where each individual’s feet should be. Nietzsche is a realist here. But if we are to salvage any belief in God or an afterworld, Nietzsche challenges that believer to take an extremely close look at him or herself. Shall the believer be one who will give up on this world and seek only the next, some fanciful ideal of his or her own construction?
How shall the believer treat his or her understanding of God and the afterworld and not appear sick? Shall sin be that sickness that overpowers so much that a flourishing life on earth is futile? Or is that sickness the inability to will? And what shall that vision of Heaven be other than some hospital on the other side within which the sick shall live?
Let us reconsider what our Heaven is, regardless of our religion or belief. Kierkegaard advocates a hope in an Other. Nietzsche sneers at both that hope and that Other. But both demand that each of us live in the now and demand that we will in the now. Nietzsche finds hope in the healthy body. Why locate our energies anywhere else? They’re needed right here in daily living.
“But, Jesus tells us,” you answer, “to not store our treasures in earthly things that can be destroyed, but in Heaven! Where our treasures are, there our hearts will be also.” Are our bodies treasures that can be destroyed? Did not even Jesus say that the body is a temple? And yet Nietzsche says that we treat the body like something to be endured and sloughed off. Such is our sickness.
Let us not live a sickly life. Let us not live waiting to die thinking that we will have a better life in the afterworld. Let us live now and in the now. Let us be careful not just what we choose to be our treasures, but where we even think we store them. Let us be careful of what we think our Heaven to be. Let us be healthy now, not suffer sickness unto death.