Monday, August 01, 2022

Nietzsche's "Parable of the Madman"

(I re-post this periodically.)

It's no secret that, among atheists, Nietzsche ranks as one of my favorites. I'm not being flippant about this. He was brilliant. If I was an atheist (which I'm not), I would orbit around him.

Atheist Peter Watson, in his book The Age of Atheists, presents Nietzsche as the beating heart behind all atheism that comes after him. Nietzsche is the prototype of current intellectual atheism. 

In the Fall 2018 semester I taught my final Philosophy of Religion class. In that class I presented  Nietzsche's famous "Parable of the Madman," from his book The Joyful Wisdom. I expected my students to know the following. 

The basic point is: Atheism overreaches if it claims one can secure objective morality on the non-existence of God. (See, e.g., Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver.)


1. Spell 'Nietzsche.' (I once put this question on a written exam. I was pleased that 95% of my students got the answer right. It is a mark of good teaching when nearly all students get the correct answer. What is the value of being able to spell 'Nietzsche'? Imagine you are dating someone you want to break up with, but don't know how. On your next date tell them, "I can spell 'Nietzsche'." Then, spell it. The relationship will be over at that point. The ball will be in the other's court, and they will be looking for ways to break up with you. Or, in an unlikely turn of events, they will believe they have finally found their soul mate.)

2. Explain what Nietzsche means by "the horizon of the infinite.'

Nietzsche is writing to the European, especially German, atheists of his time. The metaphysical foundation of their culture, the "land" upon which they stood, which provided the basis for their understanding of morality, was Christian theism. But once a person adopts the worldview of atheism, that metaphysical foundation, and all that is built upon it, must be abandoned. The result is that now the atheist is sailing alone in a boat upon a sea with an "infinite horizon." By "infinite horizon" is meant: there is no "land," no new metaphysical foundation, in sight.

This is one way of expressing Nietzsche's struggle with nihilism. "Nihilism" is the belief that life has no meaning.

3. Explain the "parable of the madman."

  • In the parable the "madman" is Nietzsche.
  • The madman is an atheist who enters a "village" of atheists. In this village there are "village atheists"; viz., "atheists" who do not have a clue about the philosophical ramifications of their atheism; viz., one cannot change worldviews and retain core elements of your previous worldview that you like. Objective moral values and duties fit in Christian theism; they don't fit in atheism. This is where most atheists overreach.
  • The village atheists mock the "mad"-but-logically-consistent atheist, who rants despairing, dismal things like:  "The earth has been ripped out of its orbit around the sun and we're spinning out into total blackness!" 
  • The "sun" for us was Christian theism. It was our light and life, and gave meaning to our existence. Once we abandon that worldview, we're out in the infinite blackness of space, looking for another "sun" to orbit around. Nietzsche's point is: when you abandon a worldview, you its propositional truth behind. This includes the moral values that came from a God as divine command giver. At this point, for Nietzsche, everything is up for grabs; we have begun de novo.
  • On atheism, of course, the God of Christian theism does not exist. The problem is: We acquired our moral values from Christian theism. That's the "village" we've been living in. Now, one can no longer live in this village if one is an atheist.
  • The realization that there is no God is for Nietzsche the greatest event ever, "and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now." This is because an entire world of meaning and value (viz., the Christian theist worldview upon which Europe exists) has been taken away. It is as if, to use a metaphorical analogy, the entire world was seen as the game of baseball, but in actuality the entire world is the game of tennis. In tennis, obviously, the rules and values of baseball do not apply.
  • The madman stares at the pseudo-atheists, holding his little lamp since there's no longer a sun to light our way. They don't have a clue. He smashes his lamp on the ground, says "I guess I've come too early," and goes into an empty European church and Gregorian-chants "God is dead."
  • Such is the logic of atheism. Village atheists are those who live as if there's a moral foundation beneath ("land") while in reality they are all alone in an infinite situation. When a village atheist moralizes, they present as logically incoherent.

I'm not an atheist. Were I one, I'd be sailing in the lonely, drifting boat with Nietzsche (if he would have me), struggling with and against nihilism, the rest of my days. And, hopefully, I would understand that not only moral values, but the very idea of "value" at all, is not part of my world.

Some notes from Stephen Williams, The Shadow of the Antichrist, pp. 118 ff.

Nietzsche's parable tells us:

  1. "First, God and theism are gone." (119)
  2. "Second, there are plenty of people around who know it." (Ib.)
  3. "Third, there are not plenty of people around who understand it." (Ib.)
  4. "Fourth, the demise of God and God's world is the product of human will and of human deed, not an accident."
  5. "Fifth, it is more massively world-historical than anything imaginable." (Ib.)
  6. "Sixth, it induces vertigo as we think about the future." (Ib.)
From his lonely outpost, Nietzsche announces a cataclysm. He is an atheist-prophet, who has been compared to John the Baptist. "Nietzsche has actually been called 'that unbalanced John the Baptist of the modern world.'" (Ib., 120)

For Nietzsche, the death of God, and the end of Christian theism, means that, "intellectually, it all has ended." (Ib.) "We have arrived at the close of an epoch." (Ib.) In Human, All Too Human Nietzsche writes: "There will never again be a life and culture bounded by a religiously determined horizon." (In Ib., 121) Which means: no metaphysical propositions, which includes moral propositions. (How could a rational atheist tell anyone they are "wrong" in an objective sense?)