Nietzsche’s Prophetic Voice Still Speaks
Nietzsche’s parable of the “Madman” has all too often been grossly misunderstood. 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,
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.
 The “Madman” is found in The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125.