Written in 1882, Nietzsche’s brilliant and provocative parable The Madman is even more relevant today, when the continuing erosion of religious authority so accurately forecasted by Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” pronouncement has lead to a growing vacuum in the moral and ethical framework of Western society as evidenced by a corresponding decline in spirituality in how we approach the challenges of modern life, and in particular each other.
Of course, not all of society’s woes can be laid at the door of a decline in religion, but if the church was good for anything, it was often the critical glue that bound communities together towards a sense of common purpose – including reaching beyond individual self-interests and promoting empathy and compassion for the less fortunate among us to ensure the wholeness of society.
That these values are far less present now I can only point to the increasing marginalization of individuals at the bottom end of the economic scale, when even in the wealthiest of communities many are falling by the wayside in the race to ever greater material wealth. You only have to look around you and see the vast number of homeless people that dwell in the city’s inner core in just about all the major population centres in North America, seeking handouts, looking for food and shelter. People of all ages, men, women, so many young people, evidence of failing relationships, families and their communities falling apart as they try and fail to keep up with the runaway train of mindless consumerism as expressed in the Western dream of being able to acquire ever more goods and services as the definitive proof of having achieved success in life.
The demise of religion and its mythologies has meant that (at least in the West) we have lost our way – i.e., we are no longer the children of a god of sorts – with the promise of heaven if we behave and do as we are told. Instead, we need to be setting our own course now, as morally and metaphysically confused as we are, and for the moment seemingly quite unable to accept that we are the masters of our own fate, and that means that no one will save us from ourselves
And so yes, here we are – and at a time in history once characterized by Martin Heidegger as being “too late for Gods, and too early for Being”. Where do we go from here? This is what life is all about.
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 do not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Why, did he get lost? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they yelled an laughed. The madman jumped in their midst and pierced them with his glances.
“Whither is God” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, side-ward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? 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 and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful 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 to great for us? Must no we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us – for the sake of this deed he will be part of higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I come too early”, he said then; “my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars require time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can 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 entered divers churches and there sang his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said to have replied each time, “What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”