In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Wolf writes, “the beauty of the world, which is soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” The experience of beauty is like that: we take joy in beauty, yet even in the midst of that joy, we are saddened by our awareness of its transience. All good things must come to an end: the colors in fall, fresh snow in winter, the innocence and spontaneity of a child, the very lives of the people we love so much.
Surely the anguish of losing the things that matter most to us and render our lives meaningful is one of the principal things motivating religious belief. William James says that at the heart of religious faith is the belief that “perfection is eternal,” that is, that the best things are the more eternal things, so that ultimately goodness has the final word in cosmic history. The atheist alternative is to say that the best things – love, goodness, beauty – are temporary and fairly recent aspects of cosmic history and will ultimately disappear without a trace, swallowed up by an indifferent universe.
Some philosophers, like William James, think that religious belief is warranted because our lives are made richer, more purposive, and more meaningful by believing that “goodness is eternal.” Others, like Friedrich Nietzsche, heap scorn on this as weakness and cowardice in the face of reality. For Nietzsche, Plato emblemizes this sort of cowardice: Plato longs for the “ideal” (Goodness Itself) and devalues the “real” (life as it is here and now). In a revealing passage in his Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche tells us, “My recreation, my predilection, my cure for all Platonism has always been Thucydides” (and also Machiavelli). What Nietzsche likes about Thucydides is his brutal, uncomplaining, matter-of-fact honesty in describing and accepting the world as it is. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the Athenians responding as follows when other Greeks criticized Athenian imperialism: “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger… calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice – a consideration which no one has ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might. … the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” It is surely this passage and others like it that Nietzsche has in mind when praising Thucydides. Nietzsche contrasts Plato and Thucydides as follows: “Courage in the face of reality is…the point of difference between natures such as Thucydides and Plato. Plato is a coward in the face of reality – consequently, he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has control over himself – consequently he also has control over things.”
Are Plato and William James really just cowards who can’t deal with reality? Hardly. In fact, they are careful thinkers who strive, in their very different ways, to be attentive and faithful to a central aspect of human experience. To love something or someone is to be committed to that value or that person. This attitude of commitment is logically incompatible with any attitude of indifference to, or any devaluing of, the thing or person in question, with merely shrugging one’s shoulders when that value or person is violated. Nietzsche’s contempt for Plato (and Christianity), and his glorification of Thucydides and Machiavelli, mean that he has contempt for the justice that was violated so cynically by the Athenians and for the human lives that have been destroyed in every unjust war ever waged. To love is to feel anguish at any violation of what one loves. To renounce such anguish as cowardice is to reject the commitment that is its flip side.
Of course, it is possible to reject Nietzsche’s repugnant cynicism while not embracing theism. One could be an agnostic or atheist who affirms the importance and objectivity of moral norms. Derek Parfit and Albert Camus both fall into this category. Yet I cannot help but think that such a view must leave one constantly vulnerable to despair. Indeed, for Camus the contrast between the strength of his moral commitments and the indifference of the universe was a paradigm case of absurdity. If the universe is absurd, why should we care so much about it? How can one care so much about it and avoid despair, unless one believes that “perfection is eternal,” and thus that absurdity is only the appearance of things and not the ultimate reality?