Nietzsche and Secular Humanism

By | May 19, 2020

When we first come to Nietzsche’s writings we’re likely to see him as an ally of secular thinking.  He  rejects divinity, traditional religion, and the metaphysical philosophies allied with religious theism.  And, in his early work,  HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN, he praises what we could call the scientific method that enables humans to get at some truth regarding the natural and human world.  In short, there’s plenty in Nietzsche’s work that conforms to secular thinking on issues like the validity of religious truth (see section “The Religious Life” in HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN)  and the nature of human existence.  After all, Nietzsche is famous for announcing the “death of God,” and his very blunt rejection of Christianity and religious-based morality in his book, The Antichrist.

However, when we look a little deeper into Nietzsche’s works, starting with Human, All Too Human,  we  might question  his status as a precursor of secular humanism in the true sense of that phrase, “precursor of secular humanism.”  Why would I say that?  And why would a  Nietzsche scholar like Richard Schacht state the following regarding the spirit of the investigation that Nietzsche expresses in HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN?   “…the passion that drives it is not only that of an honesty that will tolerate no nonsense or groundless wishful thinking, but also of a desperate search for enough to work with and ways of doing so to sustain ourselves despite all.  To call this ‘secular humanism’ would be to sell it short; for while Nietzsche’s outlook is radically secular, he is far from taking humanity,  either in general or as embodied in each and every one of us, to be the locus of meaning and value.”

Before we try to say what Schacht may have meant, let’s consider the “humanism”  at issue here (modern humanism)  and compare it to some the 19th Century atheistic and agnosticism that was being expressed in Nietzsche’s time.

Consider first a few definitions of modern secular humanism:

Humanism is a progressive life stance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity. • American Humanist Association

 Humanism is an approach to life based on reason and our common humanity, recognizing that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone. • The Bristol Humanist Group

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality   –  The International Humanist and Ethical Union

Other definitions and statements of principles emphasize the commitment to democracy,  to justice and fairness in society.  In short, modern secular humanists have  a commitment to humanitarianism and democratic institutions as their best hope for achieving some degree of justice and happiness.

Probably one word sums up much of the contemporary humanist outlook:  Progress.  Secular humanists tend to believe in progress.  With our move away from irrational religious dogma and theism and as people abandoned much of pre-scientific thinking of the past, we have realized and will continue to realize progress in most phases of life.  With the Enlightenment, the increase in rationality, and the rise of the natural sciences, we have progressed toward a vastly improved world.  The attitude generally is one of optimism, as expressed by Steven Pinker in his latest book, Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.  In short, humanists tend to emphasize our capacity for human progress based on rational behavior, rationally grounded ethics, and commitment to science as a basis for our view of the world.

Although some of Nietzsche’s writings tends in this direction,  significant parts of his writing diverts from this type of humanism.  First, he gives voice to an attitude expressed by other “philosophical” thinkers prior to and leading up to the 19th Century (Pascal, Dostoevsky) who lamented the loss of belief in God.  Contrary to a celebratory attitude accompanying the abandonment of belief in a God,  some of the 19th Century secularists (in the West) were just breaking with a whole culture of religious ‘truth’ and values and found the prospects to be daunting, even frightening.   The end of theistically based thinking and acting were not causes for celebrating.   And Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God, in the book, The Gay Science,  (Bk 3, 125)   is not a celebration but a warning that without belief in God humans were setting out in uncharted waters, so to speak.  The early Nietzsche at times is ambivalent about the “death of God,” which was his reference to the end of an entire culture of values and version of ‘truth.’

Secondly, as a result of his inquiry into human thinking on philosophy, morality, and religion and his investigations of actual behavior in human society and governments (state), Nietzsche’s picture of the human condition is one very far from an optimistic one. He is most skeptical of humanistic claims that when freed of religious constraints and pre-scientific beliefs humans will rely on reason and commit to ethical ideals.

So what can we say about Nietzsche’s early work, Human, All Too Human, and Schacht’s remark that it does not represents Nietzsche as a secular humanist at all? We can draw few preliminary conclusions, among them the following:
In this book Nietzsche develops a strict, naturalism that rejects idea of human as rationally driven. He does a psychological analysis of man’s values and beliefs and as a result rejects claims to rational ethics, democracy, and a rationally based philosophy.  Even the title of the book, Human, all too human implies limitations of human action and motives. What do we imply when we say of someone, he is human all too human? Often the phrase implies that someone has failed to perform up to ethical ideals and maybe even acted dishonorably.   In short, it is a way of saying that we should not expect consistently rational, ethically good behavior from human beings. Intellectual excellence and ethical virtue are not often part of our nature as evolved human animals. Nietzsche was markedly aware of our evolution as biological beings and aware of the psychological (often irrational) limitations of our actual values and beliefs to accept the view that humans are rational, ethical beings.

According to Nietzsche, the values and beliefs that drive human thinking and belief have a variety of sources. We learn these by a close study of human psychology, human interaction with other humans, culture, and the actual valuations that drive human behavior. But Schacht sees all this as a denial that “humanity … is the locus of meaning and value.” It is not exactly clear what this means. Surely Schacht does not imply that for Nietzsche meaning and values are derived from a source external to human existence. Maybe all he means is that Nietzsche would have rejected the humanist’s claim to value and meaning as being too idealistic and optimistic. If so, then we have no reason for objecting.
A constant theme in Nietzsche’s perspective is the idea that humanity is on its own, i.e., no God or transcendent reality to guide him. * Maybe what we should say is that for Nietzsche any meaning and value that man derives are to be gotten from a realistic appraisal of the human condition, not an idealized, overly optimistic one. Accordingly, we would say that evolution and psychology are as pertinent to any humanism as rationality and a scientific orientation.
Moreover, there’s a side to Nietzsche’s early work that is more encouraging for the secularists among us. This is expressed by Schacht as follows:

He [Nietzsche] has become convinced that only by something like a continuation and radicalization of the Enlightenment thinking, ruthlessly getting to the bottom of things and exposing all false hopes and dangerous palliatives, can afford us at least the possibility of a future worth having and a life worth living. Nietzsche’s dedication to Voltaire was the announcement of an intellectual re-orientation, placing him squarely in the courageous tradition of Enlightenment thought and effort.

Being in “the courageous tradition of Enlightenment thought and effort” surely conforms to the aspirations of many secular humanists. If we invoke a realistic, critical form of humanism, one that recognizes the limitations and actual tendencies in human behavior, we can profit from reading a philosopher like Nietzsche and while retaining a humanistic orientation.

* Jean P. Sartre argued for a existentialist version of humanism in his essay, “Existentialism is a Humanism.” (1946) His main point is that man is on his own; he determines his meaning and value.

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