Nietzsche’s Prophetic Voice Still Speaks

Nietzsche’s parable of the “Madman” has all too often been grossly misunderstood.[1] In this text we encounter the infamous Nietzschean slogan, “God is dead.”  Was Nietzsche by way of the madman proclaiming in a triumphalist tone the literal death of God?  Though he is often labeled a nihilist and is considered the grand advocate for nihilism, this is a misreading of Nietzsche’s text (whether those who propagate the Nietzsche is a nihilist line have actually read the text is another story).

The text recounts a story of a madman who runs into a market place, crying, “I seek God, I seek God.”  The people mock him, asking whether God has gotten lost or perhaps has emigrated.  The madman then stands among them and says,Man With Lantern

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? 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?

The text continues in a similar vein with the madman clearly lamenting the fact that “God is dead” and acknowledging that “we have killed him.”  In what sense have we killed God?  Does he mean this literally?  Of course not.  Rather, he means that we have come to a place in history where we no longer believe that we need God.  We now believe in the progress of science, and we have given up on the possibility of knowing reality in itself.  We now see ourselves as the creators, the constructors of reality.  In short, we have made ourselves gods.  In such a situation there is no “space” for recognition of the divine.  In this sense, God is dead to us and we have killed him.  Understood in this way, Nietzsche’s text has a profoundly prophetic dimension to it, as contemporary society exhibits all the symptoms of Nietzsche’s diagnosis.

On a close, non-literal reading of the text, Nietzsche’s madman is not rejoicing in the death of God but is deeply troubled by it.  As he says, “We have killed him-you and I.  All of us are his murders. 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 does Nietzsche mean by horizon, and what happens when the horizon is erased?  A horizon carves out a space for vision.  Or you might say the horizon creates a space within which we can live because it sets a boundary of sorts for what we can see.  So what happens when I “wipe away the entire horizon?” I destroy the very boundaries that define human existence.  Again, the madman does not take joy in this situation.  Rather, he is describing where we are in history, what we’ve become as a society.  We are a people who think we don’t need God; we’ve become, as Nietzsche says explicitly, a prideful people.  In fact, pride characterizes modern life (and a good bit of postmodern life as well).  As Nietzsche explains,

It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate and ephemeral beings, merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence.  For without this addition, they would have every reason to flee this existence as quickly as Lessing’s son.  The pride connected with knowing and sensing lies like a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men, thus deceiving them concerning the value of existence.  For this pride contains within itself the most flattering estimation of the value of knowing (italics added).

According to Nietzsche, we’ve become prideful in a number of ways.  First of all, we built grander and grander conceptual edifices (what Nietzsche poetically calls, “columbaria”) that lead us away from the forces of life and toward a culture of death.  We forget that our metaphors have lowly origins and believe that our columbaria are impenetrable.  Having such great confidence in the progress of modern science, we believe that with enough time we can even overcome death.  In such an environment, Nietzsche asks, who needs faith?  We have denied our finitude, have made ourselves gods; thus, practically speaking God is dead.  The madman laments this situation.  Do we?  Or do we continue by the way we live our lives to confirm Nietzsche’s prophetic judgment?   Я виновна, as the Russians say.


[1] The “Madman” is found in The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125.

Climacus on Christianity as an Existence-Communication

In his work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus discusses what he calls the dialectical aspects of Christianity or those aspects of Christian belief that one might call intellectual.   Climacus of course do not think that Christianity is merely a set of doctrines to which one must assent.  Rather, Christianity is a way of existence-as Climacus says, “Christianity is not a doctrine,” but is “an existence-communication” (VII, 328-29; pp. 379-380).[1] As C. Stephen Evans observes, this statement has been misunderstood often.  Climacus himself anticipated the potential misunderstanding and gives a lengthy footnote to clarify his meaning.  Here he explains,

Surely a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and speculatively understood is one thing, and a doctrine that is to be actualized in existence is something else. If there is to be any question of understanding with regard to this latter doctrine, then this understanding must be:  to understand that it is to be existed in, to understand the difficulty of existing in it, what a prodigious existence-task [Existents-Opgave] this doctrine assigns to the learner (VII, 329; p. 379).

Because the Christianity of Climacus’ day had become overly speculative, he purposely distances himself from the word “doctrine,” as he fears that by employing the word, Christianity will continue to be categorized and understood as a philosophical theory instead of way of existence.  Thus, he comes up with a new term, “existence-communication.”  In no way is Climacus denying that Christianity has intellectual content; rather, he wants to make sure that this content is set forth in such a way that the uniqueness of Christianity as a transcendent (as opposed to an immanent) religion is upheld.  As Climacus explains,

If Christianity were a doctrine, it would eo ipso not constitute the opposite of speculative thought but would be an element within it.  Christianity pertains to existence, to existing, but existence and existing are the very opposite of speculation.  The Eleatic doctrine, for example, is not related to existing but to speculation; therefore it must be assigned its place within speculation.  Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine, it holds true, as developed previously, that there is an enormous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.  With regard to a doctrine, this distinction is unthinkable, because the doctrine is not related to existing.  I cannot help it that our age has reversed the relation and changed Christianity into a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and being a Christian into something negligible.  Furthermore, to say that Christianity is empty of content because it is not a doctrine is only chicanery.  When a believer exists in faith, his existence has enormous content, but not in the sense of a yield in the paragraphs (VII, 329; p. 380).

The content of Christianity is dialectical; it is the “absolute paradox” and as such, it differentiates Christianity from immanent religions in which in principle all doctrines can be penetrated rationally, making revelation superfluous.  Climacus is firmly committed to what the orthodox Christian tradition calls the “mysteries of the faith”-the Incarnation, the Trinity and other doctrines which are both central to the Christian faith and can only be known through revelation.  In addition and related to the previous passage, Climacus believes that the content of Christianity has the potential to actually transform a person’s existence, giving him/her a new passion-“it is relating to the pathos-filled as an impetus for a new pathos” (VII, 488; p. 559).  Christian belief then is intimated related to action.  As Evans explains,

Climacus understands Christian belief as not merely accompanied by action but as essentially expressing itself in action.  Because of this he attempts to rethink the nature of that belief in such a way that it does not exclude belief as an intellectual act but does exclude even the possibility of belief being only an intellectual act.  This conception of Christian belief is itself demanded by “existential appropriation” that is Christianity and the content of Christianity, which is the absolute paradox, can be seen to correspond exactly to each other [VII, 532; pp. 610-611].  Both the content of Christianity and the appropriation of Christianity become “specifically different” from everything else (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 210).

[1] All citations are from the Hong translation.

Climacus on the Uniqueness of Christianity as a Transcendent Religion

SKJohannes Climacus, whose view often overlaps with Kierkegaard’s own view yet is never to be simply identified with the latter, emphasizes Christianity as a transcendent religion.  By this he doesn’t mean to suggest that there is no continuity whatsoever between nature and grace or that grace destroys nature.  Rather, his point is to stress the uniqueness of Christianity in comparison with what he calls “immanent” religions, religions that do not require any kind of divine revelation but which arise from the human mind itself and are, as you might guess, obtainable by unaided human reason or via religious experience.  Because Climacus believes that human beings in their current state “lack the truth” due to sin and that this condition causes them to be prideful and to proclaim their own self-sufficiency, Climacus points to humanity’s need for “the God” to become man, for the eternal to enter into time and reconfigure all of history. Given these beliefs, Climacus draws attention to the Incarnate Christ as the object of the Christian’s faith; thus, according to his account, the historicity of the incarnation is a non-negotiable.  Commenting on Climacus’ view, C. Stephen Evans observes,

If Jesus’ life is merely a collection of stories or myths, or if Jesus is merely a creation of the early church (so that it is considered unimportant whether or not what the early Christians believed is literally true), then Christianity is essentially transformed into its opposite, and no “advance” on Socrates has been made at all.  For in such a case Jesus’ life would merely represent a possibility that man must be assumed to be able to know.  What distinguishes Christianity, according to Climacus, is that man is assumed to really lack the truth, and therefore must acquire it in existence in a genuinely historical relation to the God as he actually appeared (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 249).

Plato’s Myth of the Metals and Parallels with Racism in the Ante-Bellum South (and Beyond)

GoldAs Socrates unfolds his city-in-thought, the so-called perfectly just city of the Republic, he speaks of the need for the rulers to promulgate the notorious “noble lie” (414c).[1] The noble lie consists in two parts.  First, the citizens are told that their true parent is the earth, that is, the city or polis (414d).  This part of the noble lie is designed to promote a kind of sold-out commitment to the polis-a loyalty willing to forsake even the closest (traditional) familial ties.  When this aspect of the noble lie is embraced, the citizens view each other as brothers and sisters who are all connected to a common parent, the polis (“Father/Motherland” themes come to mind).  Second, the citizens are presented with the “myth of metals.”  According to this myth, each citizen is born with one of three kinds of soul:  gold, silver or bronze.  As you might expect, the citizen’s worth and function in the city is determined by what kind of soul s/he possesses.   The myth of metals is created to promote strict class separation and is an attempt to eliminate factionalism.  The gold-souled people are best-suited to rule, the silver-souled people (the warrior class) assist the rulers in their plans for the city, and the bronze-souled people are simply to obey.  In addition, the classes must never intermarry, as those who “by nature” are superior cannot be tainted by a lower class.  For the good of the polis, the bronze-souled people must come to recognize their natural inferiority to the silver and gold-souled classes and be willing to obey and carry out their orders-after all, they are intellectually inferior to gold-souled rulers and cannot properly direct their own lives without the guidance of their natural superiors.

Of course Plato is not giving us a blueprint for an actual city (contra Popper); however, Socrates’ “building plans” strike a similar chord with modern racist projects.  (There are, no doubt, significant differences between the two projects; I’m not claiming that a one-to-one correspondence exists.  Nonetheless, the commonalities are worth pondering).   Drawing from the insights of historian Kenneth Stampp, Floyd W. Hayes III describes the ways in which slave-owners in the American ant-bellum south attempted to “create a good slave.”[2] The following are five common strategies employed by slave-owners in the process of making and managing a slave class.

First, those who managed the slaves had to maintain strict discipline.  One slave-owner said, “Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed.”  Another said, “the slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly, that he is never, for a moment, to exercise either his will or judgment in opposition to a positive order” [Stampp, The Peculiar Institution:  Slavery and the Ante-Bellum South, p. 145].  Second, slave-owners thought that they had to implant in the slave a consciousness of personal inferiority.  They deliberately extended this sense of personal inferiority to the slave’s past.  Slave-owners believed that in order to control black people, the slaves “had to feel that African ancestry tainted them, that their color was a badge of degradation” [to use Socrates’ language, they needed to feel that they were mere “bronze” souls] (ibid.).  The third step in the training process was to awe the slaves with a sense of the slave-owner’s enormous power.  It was essential, various slave-owners declared, “to make them stand in fear” (p. 146) [following the Republic, to show them the force of the warrior class/silver-souls if they decide to overstep class boundaries].  The fourth aspect was the attempt to “persuade the bondsman to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of ‘good conduct'” (p. 147) [you must believe our “noble lie” and embrace the solidarity and customs of the city-after all, it’s for the good of the city, which is our Mother].  Thus the slave-owner sought to train slaves to accept unquestionably his criteria of what was good and true and beautiful.  The final step, according to Stampp’s documents was “to impress Negroes with their helplessness:  to create in them a habit of perfect dependence upon their masters (ibid.)”[3]


[1] On my interpretation, the city-in-thought is not a kind of blueprint for an actual city.  Rather, by showing the impossibility of such a (totalitarian, calculation-oriented) city, Plato highlights the theme of eros (broadly construed as “love”, “desire”, “longing,” etc.) as that which constitutes human existence and which cannot be controlled or managed by mathematics, calculated reason, eugenics etc.  In other words, all humans are lovers of something and these various loves, desires and longings are what drive us and direct our lives, actions and decisions.

[2] Hayes, Floyd W. III.  “Fanon, Oppression, and Resentment  The Black Experience in the United States,”  in Fanon:  A Critical Reader.  Gordon, Lewis R., Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, and White, Renee T. eds., (Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1996), p. 16.

[3] Hayes, p. 16.

Climacus and de Silentio on Ethics and Repentance

Soren KierkegaardAccording to Johhanes Climacus, though the ethical is not absent from the religious person’s concerns, what separates the two spheres is the manner in which the religious person (in particular, the Christian) relates to God.  As C. Stephen Evans explains,

[h]er relation to God […] consists primarily not in self-confident action but in repentance.  Her task is not primarily to achieve a God-relationship herself by positively realizing her moral duty, but to achieve a sate of inward obedience to God by allowing God to transform her character.  This is well illustrated by Fear and Trembling where Johannes de Silentio claims that “an ethic which ignores sin is an absolutely idle science, but if it acknowledge sin, then it eo ipso transcends itself” (III, 146; p. 108).  The reason for this is given in a footnote attached to the same paragraph:  “As soon as sin appears, ethics perishes, precisely because of repentance; for repentance is the highest ethical expression, but precisely as such the deepest ethical self-contradiction” (III, 146n, p. 108n).[1]


[1] C. Stephen Evans.  Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript:  The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus, (New York:  Humanity Books, 1999), 140.