When I hear atheists proclaiming their good news that gods are well and truly dead, I get the uneasy feeling they haven’t seriously considered or fully comprehended the implications of this apparent fact. In his justly famous “Parable of the Madman” Nietzsche cautions against underestimating the seriousness of killing gods:
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? 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 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.
Later in the parable the madman realizes that he has come too soon, his message has fallen on deaf ears and those who hear don’t understand. Rarely has a parable, including its infamous assertion that Gott ist tot, been so misunderstood.
This misunderstanding has often scaled to Nietzsche’s work as a whole. When I wrote a thesis on Nietzsche’s “Madman” parable in the late 80s, Nietzsche studies were entering a newly mature phase. Over the last few decades, few thinkers have received more serious and well-deserved attention. This attenti0n has been sustained, as is apparent from two recent pieces on Nietzsche.
In the first Ross Posnock deftly reviews Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s new book, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. Special attention is given to Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who warned: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.”
For those who have yet to discover this thinker, Brian Leiter provides an introduction and recommends five books to get started; one is a biography, two are interpretive, and two are by Nietzsche. While I like the list, I would add The Gay Science and recommend reading the Safranski biography in conjunction with the three Nietzsche books. After you have gotten your own feel for Nietzsche, Leiter’s two interpretive recommendations would come next.
If we could get the self assured new atheists to read these books, things would be different: more serious, intense, productive, and lasting.