Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nietzsche's "Parable of the Madman"

(For my Philosophy of Religion Students)

1. Spell ‘Nietzsche’. (I ask my students to, in their 1-on-1 oral exams with me, to spell 'Nietzsche'. The ability to spell 'Nietzsche' gives them a sense of empowerment, since few can do it. This ability can, e.g., help them in dating relationships. If one is in a relationship that one wants to break off without hurting the other, here is a suggestion. Go out to dinner. As you are eating, look at the other person with wild eyes and say "I can spell 'Nietzsche'." Then spell it. They will begin looking for ways to break off the relationship with you, and you won't need to do it yourself.)

2. Explain Nietzsche’s phrase “in the horizon of the infinite.” Nietzsche is speaking metaphorically. The “land,” for him, is that firm ground of Judaeo-Christian theism, which provided a metaphysical foundation for morality, gave meaning and purpose, and so on. The turn to atheism meant, for Nietzsche, leaving this land forever, burning the bridge behind, and sailing in a little boat alone on a sea with an infinite horizon. There is no land in sight. Our condition is worse than that of Tom Hanks, who at least had a volleyball named “Wilson.”

3. Nietzsche presents his famous “parable of the madman” to illustrate the ontological status of the atheist. A madman (who is Nietzsche, the true atheist) enters a village inhabited by “village atheists”; viz., atheists who intellectually deny God’s existence but remain attached to Judaeo-Christianity’s vestigial moral and telic organs. These atheists still inhabit the Judaeo-Christian village – how can they?! Don’t they realize that they have killed God, and God is dead? (Viz., belief in God is dead) The result is our planet has been ripped away from orbiting the sun, and now moves away from all suns. We have no reference point any longer. We’re in a perfect dark void, where direction is meaningless (no up or down, no back or forth). Nietzsche calls this the most historic moment in all of history. The historicity of this is not that some people now call themselves “atheists.” Rather, the historicity involves the absolute abandonment of the entire noetic framework of Judaeo-Christian theism.

4. The madman looks at the village atheists; they look at him. He throws down his little lantern, and says “I guess I came too early. These atheists are not ready for this.”