Maimonides said what Nietzsche said

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) offers three main ideas in “The Gay Science,” written in 1882 with additions in 1887, a book called “one of his most beautiful, most idea rich books,”[1] whose title is also translated as “The Joyful Wisdom.” First, God is dead or, as I understand it, the reliance on God should cease. He is saying, in essence, that we should act as if there is no God.

Nietzsche contended that the character and motives of Christianity were unnatural, mendacious, and injurious. And true happiness cannot be obtained until people cease relying on religion. The best human, he wrote, was the ubermensch, the “overman” or “superman, or “ideal man,” who ceased living in accordance with the traditional theological and moral conceptions of God as the source of existence and of moral values. The ubermensch lives and thinks outside the norms and values of society. He recognizes that morality is a system developed for average unthinking people who need a generally inflexible absolute code of conduct that tells the masses how to act for every situation they encounter, what is “good” and what is “evil.” The ubermensch are people who go “beyond good and evil” and rely instead on their intellect, on what is “true” and “false.” They realize that morality does not always give individuals the proper way of acting in every situation, it does not tend to create the ideal result, it fosters an unthinking system, it often prompts people to be passive, not to exert themselves, not be creative, and not be overly concerned for the safety of society. The ubermensch realizes that he or she must do his or her best and not act like the herd. There are different codes of morality for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, etc., each designed to further the ideology of the religion, and each insists that the adherents of the religion accept and act according to the morality they are teaching without deviating from that morality since the morality, they say, is what God dictated. Each disparages the ubermensch because the ubermensch does not make decisions and act according to the religion’s view of morality, what they insist is the behavior God requires.

Maimonides (1138-1204) expressed Nietzsche’s first idea about morality in the first two chapters of his Guide of the Perplexed. He was convinced that this idea of using one’s intelligence vs. morality is taught in the opening chapters of the Bible. Maimonides notes that the Bible states in Genesis 1:26 that God proclaimed “Let us make man in our image.” This, Maimonides explained, certainly does not refer to humans looking like God. It refers to the intellect. Humans were created with a mind, with the ability to think. This ability to think, as the Greek Aristotle (384-322 BCE) taught distinguishes humans from animals and plants. People who do not use their intellect are no better than animals and plants. Maimonides viewed the following chapters in Genesis about the Garden of Eden as a parable. He noted that the forbidden fruit was not from a tree “of truth and falsehood,” but “good and evil”: Adam and Eve, representing all people in the parable, are told not to eat from “the tree of good and evil,” meaning living their lives according to the rules made for the masses, the laws of morality as to what is good and what is evil, but eat (that is, live) according to “the tree of truth and falsehood,” by using their intellect throughout their lives.

Nietzsche’s second idea in this book is similar to the first. It is “the eternal recurrence of the same.” By these words he distinguishes between people who disparage the natural world and this life and focuses all their thoughts and actions on what they consider a promise of an award in the afterlife and, in contrast, the ideal people who enjoy life and want their moments of joy to recur eternally.

The third idea is “the love of fate,” the realization that what seems harmful or difficult is good. It can make a person stronger, more creative, and more responsible.  Those things in life that are easy will not help people grow. Maimonides has the same teaching in his Guide 3:24 where he states that the “sole object of all the [six] trails mentioned in scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired; it is but an example for our instruction and guidance.” In other words, when people experience trials – that is, difficulties – they learn from their experience, apply what they learnt to other situations, and grow.   


[1] Page vii.

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