The Madman is heralded as the piece that opened the door for postmodernism as it relates to the acceptance of meaning from places and things other than God (Wikipedia, para.2). Though most point merely to the line, “God is dead” (Kaufmann, p. 95), to assert the end of the meaning of life as based on religion, the text in its entirety could suggest just the opposite. I will here argue that The Madman, when taken by itself, may actually suggest that God is not dead; however when taken in conjunction with Nietzsche’s later works The Madman implies that, in his opinion, reason has, in fact, essentially killed God.
Additionally, throughout Nietzsche’s work he asserts the improvements to existence that are possible once God is dead. The major improvement that Nietzsche believes will stem from the death of God is the rise of the over-man (or over-men), although he also argues that mankind will be happier and more successful without a belief in God hindering our progress. As it relates to postmodernism, Nietzsche’s work undoubtedly ushered in an acceptance of meaning from values that did not stem from religion, and made rejection of God an acceptable humanitarian and intellectual endeavor insofar as a Godless society has room for the over-man and an expansion of philosophical thought.
We must first discuss who God must be if He is, in fact, something that can be killed. If God can die or merely cease to exist, then He must not be what the Judeo-Christian tradition has conventionally believed Him to be – an all-powerful, infinite being. According to Nietzsche, God is an idea that was manifested through the misery of mankind. Those who were unhappy with existence came up with the idea for another world in which there would be justice – the poor and miserable in this life would be rich and happy in the next life, while the rich and happy in this life would have the opposite fate in the next. Citing this, Nietzsche asserts that God is merely an idea that stems from human weakness; as an idea, God can cease to exist, die, or be killed.
There are two different ways one could interpret The Madman. The first is that God really is dead and those in the marketplace and in the churches simply do not yet realize it – or don’t care, as in the case of those in the marketplace who don’t believe in God. If this is the case, then God is not what traditional Christianity thinks that He is. According to standard Christian metaphysical beliefs, specifically those put forth by Descartes, God holds the earth in place, keeps us from falling into nothingness, maintains the laws of nature such as gravity, makes the sun rise in the morning, regulates the temperature, and so on. If it is true that God is dead, then it would stand to reason that, based upon the ideas of Descartes and/or traditional Christianity either the earth is falling into nothingness, or God is not what He was once thought to be. It appears that Nietzsche is implying the latter. In his panic over the apparent death of God, the Madman says:
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? (Kaufman, p.95).
Because the earth has clearly not fallen out of existence, if the Madman is correct in his assertion that God is dead, then God, rather than being the one who maintains the universe, is merely an idea. For how can one kill God if He is really what Christians claim that He is? The madman does, however, say, “I come too early…my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering…” (Kaufman, p.96). It could be that God is not yet dead, but well on His way to being so.
It is telling that Nietzsche uses a Madman to be the one to herald the death of God, rather than a scientist or philosopher. A scientist or philosopher would most likely not experience panic when considering the death of God as the Madman does, either because the scientist or philosopher never believed in the existence of God, or at least lost his or her belief more gradually. One may say that the scientist and the philosopher are the ones who killed God; the scientist through his theory of evolution and the philosopher with his reason. If this is the case, then the scientist and the philosopher would certainly not be surprised or concerned about the death of God. Many of those who are in the marketplace when the Madman arrives to announce the death of God did not believe in His existence in the first place, and find it rather amusing that the Madman believes that there was a God to kill, or, at the very least, a God who was important enough for His death to cause such distress. These people – the scientist, the philosopher, and those in the marketplace – could be in the early stages of being over-men, by Nietzsche’s definition. Although to a lesser extent among those in the marketplace, these people have created values through their reaction, or lack thereof, to the news of the death of God.
Another possible interpretation of The Madman, however, is one in which God is exactly who Judeo-Christian theology claims that He is and, because the earth has not fallen out of existence, He is surely not dead. Taken by itself, The Madman can reasonably be understood in this way. One may say that the Madman is foolish to believe that God is dead, and those in the marketplace are merely those who never have and possibly never will believe in God. Although there is a slightly sarcastic tone in Nietzsche’s writing, one may overlook the irony of the Madman crying out in despair over the death of One who cannot, by definition, die and assume that Nietzsche is attempting to prove just the opposite – that God is not dead. In this interpretation one may assume that Nietzsche chose to make the Madman the one who heralds the death of God in order to show that only an idiot would claim such a thing. For if God is who the Christian believes He is, then nothing can kill Him, and only a fool would claim that He is dead. It could also be assumed that the Madman really did “come too soon” as he asserts after his announcement to those in the marketplace. It could be that God is not yet dead, although science and reason have paved the way for the end of mankind’s dependence on someone not of this world against which we measure ourselves. This interpretation, however, may only be gleaned if one takes The Madman entirely out of context.
Throughout The Gay Science Nietzsche asserts his disdain for standard religious and moral thought. Nietzsche believes that religion is a failure of the intellect and that the reason for the growth and progression of religion can be traced to dissatisfaction with existence (Nietzsche, p.196). The origins of belief in an alternate universe, according to Nietzsche, stems from, in addition to the dissatisfaction with existence mentioned earlier, the two-world thesis of Platonism. According to the two-world thesis there is a super-sensuous world, which is the true world, and the sensible world, which is the world of appearances (the empirical world). The super-sensuous world is that for which we strive while the sensible world is merely the world we must endure until we reach the super-sensuous. Nietzsche disapproves of the Platonist two-world thesis as well as the Christian version of heaven and earth in that it places focus on that which we can never experience in this life. As an Existentialist, Nietzsche believes that the focus of one’s life on something that can never be achieved is detrimental to the life that one actually lives, and should thus be disregarded. In striving toward the super-sensuous world (or heaven, or utopia, or whatever) Nietzsche believes that we miss out on what could, realistically, be the only world in which we may ever live.
Without God, Nietzsche believes that we may live happier, more colorful lives in which we may doubt without guilt, fear not of demons, and strive toward something that we may actually achieve (Nietzsche, p. 196-197). Doubt, for many in the Christian faith (although I will not concede all) is a sin; one must believe in the existence of God and the death on the cross without question for fear of retribution. If God has been killed by reason, then we are free to doubt the one who no longer exists. Nietzsche believes that the death of God will mean the advance of philosophy for “What was philosophy when doubt was experienced as a sin of the most dangerous kind – as mistrust of all that was good, high pure, and merciful?” (Nietzsche, p.197). So long as God is dead, the philosopher may examine ideas that were closed to her in the past, such as the creation of values. Nietzsche does not, however, take into account those who will not believe his message for the very reason he claims to be destroying through his writings – their refusal to doubt God for fear of doubting being a sin. There are many who will not accept the death of God because they have already examined their beliefs and are comfortable with the evidence or because they are still afraid to doubt. It is not necessary, though, for one to believe that God is dead to be a philosopher or an over-man; so, while Nietzsche’s world may be improved by the death of God, it is not necessary for God to be no more in order for one to doubt without guilt, fear not of demons, and strive toward something that we may actually achieve.
Nietzsche claims that without God we shall not fear demons and may now have passion for those things that we were once afraid. So, for those practicing this religion to which Nietzsche refers, this may be the real temptation for the ones who are and remain fearful of doubt as a sin. Even though one may not doubt the existence of God, the passions are an attraction that not all may be able to resist, especially if reason destroys belief in demons (and we may hope that it does!). If one may consider that demons are not something to be feared, simply because they do not fit with reason, then we are free to pursue passions that may improve mankind (although there is the chance that these same passions may destroy mankind). As man strives for those passions, some men will become great, and we shall then have something new against which we may measure ourselves. When man relies on God for his ultimate goal, we are forever disappointed in our inability to achieve perfection. When, however, we gain our striving from man, we may realistically believe that we may one day achieve that for which we are striving.
The question now is who is going to become the one that is our new goal. The over-man is one who has come to despise himself and the world around him and, with his own energy and desire, has become someone better than man once was. Once one has come to believe that God is dead, one may feel desperation or a lack of purpose. However, according to Nietzsche, this, in certain individuals, will lead to an overcoming of his or her dismal surroundings. This person may or may not know what sort of impact they will have on the world, but through his/her actions are creating or altering values. Take Nietzsche, for example; Nietzsche may have felt sadness or despair (or possibly anger) at the state of mankind, which made him want something greater toward which to strive. Without God, Nietzsche could have chosen another person after which to model himself, he could have given up and allowed his illnesses to overtake his body, or, through his writings, could have shown the importance of philosophy. Nietzsche was frustrated by the focus of the people of his day on the afterlife. Nietzsche wanted to focus on existence as it is now, not what it may or may not be at some point in the future. Because of this, Nietzsche focused on his writing, making it clear that he believed present existence to be far more important than the religious afterlife touted by his peers. In this way, Nietzsche created values, which is the primary objective of the over-man, whether or not the over-man is aware of his doing so.
Then again, there is a possibility that the over-man will not show himself for a long while and that during that time spent waiting, mankind could fall into an irreparable despair. For ages man has defined and measured himself against God, the highest being. Once reason kills the idea of God, then we must have something that will replace him or there is a risk of falling into an irredeemable mediocrity. Nietzsche claims that mankind created God to fill a void; without something to fill that void, what shall we then do?
Throughout The Gay Science Nietzsche builds either a straw-man of Christianity or gives a characterization of only a certain sect of Christianity (I am assuming that Nietzsche’s assertions are primarily against Christianity, as he speaks of the saints and refers to God rather than Allah or Buddha). There are many branches of the faith today, as I am sure there were at least a few in Nietzsche’s day, who do not distrust philosophy or find doubt or questioning to be a sin, as the sin of doubt is not scriptural (although many may admittedly take the story of Doubting Thomas as some indication that doubt is a sin, there is no biblical command forbidding doubt). There are also many Christians who either do not believe in demons or who feel that they are certainly nothing to be feared, again because any biblical reference to demons are used to show the power of God, not to provoke a fear of them. While one may realistically argue that striving to be Christ-like is frustrating, for it is something one will never achieve, this particular striving does not lessen the importance of the over-man. One could easily argue that St. Paul, St. Augustine, and John Calvin were over-men like whom we should strive to become, and this in no way diminishes either the importance of the over-men or the importance of Christ; and as Paul, Augustine, and Calvin were all members of the masses until they overcame mankind, it is not unreasonable to believe that we could become like them.
While Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God more than one hundred years ago, belief in God has remained consistent, if not growing slightly in the last decades. Although, it would seem, that we have become a more reasonable people with more information available to more individuals each day, belief in God has not waned. Can reason truly kill God? There is little doubt, when taken in conjunction with his other works, that Nietzsche believed that God (or, more accurately, the idea of God) was dead. His disdain for religion, passion for present existence, and devotion to reason gave cause to Nietzsche’s claim that reason had killed God; that does not, however, make it so. Even if God is merely an idea, dissatisfaction with life, it seems, has and shall continue and the desire for an afterlife in which justice is the rule will persist.
One may sensibly assume that the Madman did, in fact, come too soon. Although reason has made it not only possible but also acceptable for some to reject the existence of God, reason does not make it possible or acceptable for all. Those who face the evidence and find it to be adequate, those who are afraid to doubt, those unhappy with their existence, or those who think not apart from the teachings of their childhood – even with the influence of the over-man – will not give up their belief in God, and thus He shall not be killed.
Despite Nietzsche’s strong beliefs that religion is detrimental to the progression of mankind, reason and his Madman’s declaration of the death of God was simply not enough to actually kill God. God, even if He is only an idea, is alive and well just as He was during Nietzsche’s time. Neither has belief in God hindered mankind’s progression over the last century, as science and philosophy continue to advance by leaps and bounds (although this is arguable, in that some may point to stem-cell research as an aspect of science that has been hindered by religion). This is not to say, however, that Nietzsche’s work was without impact. An over-man himself, Nietzsche created values by declaring (although arguably falsely) that God is dead, in that he made it acceptable to turn from traditional standards and find meaning in one’s present existence rather than in some future world.
Kaufman, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. Viking Penguin Press, 1982 (latest printing).
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science.(Translated by Walter Kaufman) Random House, Inc., 1974.
Wikipedia, Definition of Postmodern Philosophy. Retrieved on October 29, 2005 from