Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Even a Madman Can Glimpse the Truth: Friedrich Nietzsche on the Death of God

Some of you out there have seen this famous quotation, but it is worth reading again. One of my friends passed it on to me for a lecture I'm doing on truth, and I thought it so fascinating and so insightful, so breathless and beautifully written with such vivid, dramatic language, that I needed to pass it on to you. Read the whole thing.

The madman.— Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!"— As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?— Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried. "I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I! All of us are his murderers! But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? And backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?—Gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives,—who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed,—and whoever is born after us, for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto!"

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners: they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering—it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars—
and yet they have done it themselves!"— It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"

--The Gay Science

I of course disagree entirely that God is dead (the thought itself makes me chuckle), and there are other major flaws in Nietzsche's comments (and his philosophy more broadly), but I think that Nietzsche did provide a sound critique of the Enlightenment philosophes and their haughty attempts to refashion the modern mind and its worldview beliefs through autonomous human reason. If one could say that the philosophes announced the death of God relative to the formulation of theological and philosophical thought, one could say that Nietzsche, an atheist German philosopher who struggled with insanity, announced the ramifications of this passing. If God is dead, then man can (no, must) fashion his world around himself. This is exactly what happened in influential corners of twentieth-century philosophical thought, and this line of thinking exerts influence in the current day in manifold ways.

Wisdom from the atheist. Nietzsche's words, though fatally flawed, show us that even a madman can catch glimpses of the truth, if only from a distance and without saving knowledge of it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Nietzsche did not mean that God had literally died (this is by definition absurd). Rather, the point was cultural--sociological and psychological rather than theological. His point was that Europeans no longer "believed" in God, but were as yet still unaware of the implications of this unbelief for politics and philosophy. People still embraced political and philosophical positions even though these positions depend for their validity on a God whose existence they now deny. (Incidentally, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe made a similar point about 50 years ago with respect to popular positions in moral philosophy in her seminar article "Modern Moral Philosophy." She asserted that modern moral philosophy, both consequentialist and deontological, was the vestige of a Christian past that was no longer shared. Once this past world-view is jettisoned, terms like "duty" and "obligation" make no sense). Returning to Nietzsche, this is why in other aphorisms he compared 19th century Europeans to "free-born birds" facing an empty (godless) horizon. Once folks finally realized they no longer have the right to depend on God to shape their destinies, they would realize the great freedom to create their own destinies. Unless, of course, they turn into "last men," nihilists, Schopenhauer (the philosopher, not the fat cat), or fail to escape from the dreaded "eternal recurrence of the same."

Your UK-based mate, Fanny

2:57 AM  

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