It was 1870 and the Franco-Prussian War had just begun. A 25-year-old philologist, on his way to the front, observed a cavalry battalion exhibiting impressive clatter and pomp as it passed through the town of Frankfort. Taken by the spectacle, the young scholar had a vision, out of which was to grow his entire philosophy: “I felt for the first time that the strongest and highest Will to Life does not find expression in a miserable struggle for existence, but in a Will to War, a Will to Power, a Will to Overpower.”

This ‘vision’ belonged to Friedrich Nietzsche, and his life and his writings would give flesh and form to it. It was a grandiose vision calling for the emergence of a “Superman” who would have the steel courage and the brute strength to attempt things that would cause less sturdy souls to tremble. Bad eyesight, together with a fall from a horse, disqualified him from being an active soldier. As an alternative, he went into the ambulance service where he labored arduously. But he was not suited, constitutionally, for dealing close-at-hand with the gruesome effects of war. The sight of blood made him ill. He contracted diphtheria and dysentery, and was sent home in ruins. If Nietzsche would ever become the Superman he had envisioned, it would not be on the battlefield but rather in the classroom or through the publishing world.

There were two lines of causality that prepared Nietzsche’s startling vision, one negative and reactionary, the other positive and exhilarating. Together, they formed a powerful amalgam that provided the momentum for Nietzsche’s life course.

Nietzsche was born in 1844 to a Lutheran minister. All his family members expected that Friedrich, himself, would one day become a minister. Even his schoolmates called him “the little minister.” But he would later reject Christianity and embrace the Will to Life as his new god.

In 1865, Nietzsche discovered Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. He found it “a mirror in which I espied the world, life, and my own nature depicted with frightful grandeur.” He enthusiastically accepted Schopenhauer’s concept of an instinctive, irrational Will, and used it as the centrepiece of his philosophy. He also took great delight in what he regarded as Schopenhauer’s “unashamed atheism.”

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, the word-doctor, named and baptized his newly adopted deity Dionysos (an alias for the anti-Christ). Nietzsche was enthralled with his new god. For him, Dionysus (Bacchus) was Life, instinctive and undiluted. Christianity, he charged, was nothing but “a will to deny life.” It was “a secret instinct of destruction, a principle of calumny, a reductive agent – the beginning of the end – and, for that very reason, the Supreme Danger.” From the very beginning, in Nietzsche’s estimation, Christianity was preoccupied with self-loathing. It hated this world, feared beauty and sensuality, and deflected its followers from life by directing their real, natural interests toward their ‘neighbour’ and toward an “after-life”.

Although he contends that the noblest of Greek art is a union of these two ideals, it is only too clear, from his writings, that it is Dionysus who has thoroughly captured Nietzsche’s soul. The arrival of Socrates and Plato on the Greek scene for Nietzsche signaled the cooling of the Dionysian spirit and the domination of Apollo. At this time, intellect replaced instinct, critical philosophy replaced philosophical poetry, science replaced art, and dialectic replaced the Olympic Games. Nietzsche excoriates Plato as a “pre-Christian Christian,” while condemning Socrates’s counsel to “know thyself” as barbaric.

Nietzsche adopted the composer Richard Wagner, symbolically, as a second father. But Wagner’s creation of the opera Parsifal, that exalted Christianity, so infuriated Nietzsche that he never spoke to him again. Nietzsche was now orphaned for a second time. All his gods had become irrelevant. His first God, the God of his parents, was dead, Dionysus was trapped in antiquity and Wagner had proved unworthy. He needed to find a new god and teacher. He found him in the form of the Persian deity, Zoroaster. And so, in 1883, he wrote his impassioned philosophical poem, his masterpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra. It would be his Dionysian, anti-Christian retort to Parsifal. “I could sing a song, and will sing it, although I am alone in an empty house and must sing it into mine own ears.” Writing from a profound loneliness, Nietzsche sang the song of his new god. “This work stands alone,” he would later say of it in his autobiographical account, Ecce Homo. “Do not let us mention the poets in the same breath; nothing perhaps had ever been produced out of such a superabundance of strength … If all the spirit and goodness of every great soul were collected together, the whole could not create a single one of Zarathustra’s discourses.”

Zarathustra comes down from his 10-year mountain meditations to preach to the crowd. The adventurous dancer is walking across a rope stretched between two towers. “Rope,” for Nietzsche, is a metaphor. “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss.” Something goes wrong and the dancer falls into the abyss to his death. Zarathustra lifts him to his shoulders and carries him away. “Because thou hast made danger thy calling, therefore I shall bury thee with my own hands.” Live dangerously, is Zarathustra’s wise counsel. “Erect your cities beside Vesuvius, send your ships to unexplored seas, live in a state of war.”

When Nietzsche was 13 years of age, he wrote his first essay on ethics, in which he made God the father of evil. Two years later, he had an ominous dream. In the dream, he was journeying through a gloomy wood at night on his way to a Lutheran town when “a piercing shriek from a neighboring lunatic asylum” terrified him. He then encountered a hunter whose “features were wild and uncanny,” suggesting that Nietzsche travel, instead, to Teutschental (German Valley). The hunter raised his whistle to his lips and blew such “a shrill note” that Nietzsche awakened from his nightmare.

Jacques Maritain has remarked that “atheism cannot be lived.” The good we aspire to, the natural object of the human will, is goodness itself, not the fulfillment of our ego. Atheism ties a person in knots. It rejects the pure goodness that is the true object of the will and replaces it with an illusory good. Being one’s own god is not heroic. It is foolish and self-destructive. And it is so because it is essentially unrealistic. Genuine heroism takes place within the realm of the real. Real courage demands more than posturing. “Thus every will, even the most perverse, desires God without knowing it … every absolute experience of atheism, if it is conscientiously and rigorously followed, ends by provoking its psychical dissolution, in suicide.”

Atheism, particularly, as Friedrich Nietzsche exemplified it in his life and in his works, not only rejects God, but also rejects the self in the same process. The rejection of these two sources of life creates a vacuum that cannot support life and consequently can minister only to a Culture of Death.

Donald DeMarco is professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.