Nietzsche and Longfellow

October 14, 2004 | 27 comments
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I’m neither a Nietzsche-ologist nor a Longfellow-ologist, and it’s likely that this association has been made by others. Still, it’s something that I personally had never noticed till this morning, when it suddenly occurred to me: Nietzsche’s famous charge has already been answered (in a sense) by Longfellow — and the answer came a full decade before the charge was even made.

Nietzsche wrote in 1882:

Parable of the Madman

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 did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

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. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest 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 too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a 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 on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]; online source: Modern History Sourcebook.

It’s a serious charge, that God is dead. (I realize, of course, that it’s open to question whether Nietzsche is actually asserting the phrase himself, since he puts it into the mouth of the madman. There is at least a colorable argument that Nietzsche is claiming the phrase for his own, and of course it has become a phrase that has stayed with Nietzsche and developed somewhat of a life of its own).

This morning, as I thought about that for a second, I suddenly made the association with a hymn text, written in 1872 by Longfellow:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.�

(Side note to philosopher types — Jim? Russell? — is it possible that Nietzsche was writing in response to Longfellow? How likely was it that he knew this line when he wrote The Gay Science?)

So yes, we’re told by (some) philosophers that God is dead. But the poet gives an answer of a sort, telling us to have faith: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. It’s not a rigorous response, but it’s one that seems to work.

And of course, this raises the broader question. How many of our deep, philosophical, academic issues are answered by simple recourse to the green hymn book? I wonder . . .

27 Responses to Nietzsche and Longfellow

  1. Jim F. on October 14, 2004 at 10:56 am

    I don’t know Nietzsche well enough to say for sure whether he knew Longfellow. I did an electronic search of his collected papers and Longfellow’s name doesn’t appear in them. But Emerson was Nietzsche’s favorite essayist, so it possible that there is some connection to Longfellow through his interest in Emerson.

  2. john fowles on October 14, 2004 at 11:44 am

    I like the Longfellow song and enjoy singing it at Christmas time. I always think about it as an answer to Nietzsche but never noticed that it was written a decade too early for that. Perhaps there is a common source that predates both Longfellow and Nietzsche that explicitly treats the “God is dead” theme?

  3. Jim F. on October 14, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    By the way, I think that Nietzsche is, indeed, taking the stance of the mad man. “God is dead” is Nietzxche’s phrase as well as the madman’s. The question, however, is what the word “God” refers to. For Nietzsche, who was unable to untangle the relation between the god of metaphysics and the God of Christianity, the word refers to the fundamental metaphysical principle that explains everything. He thinks there is no such principle, but it is important to notice that he does not take glee in that. In fact, he laments the passing of that principle. It was something that helped us organize life. And he chastises the atheists for too easily denying it.

    However, for Latter-day Saints, there is arguably no such fundamental principle. At least matter (in its variety of forms, fine and gross) has no explanation; it just is. That is one of the reasons that I continue to find Nietzsche intriguing.

  4. Keith on October 14, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    Perhaps also the meaning of “God is (not) Dead” in the two passages is different. Nietzsche seems to be making a point that is primarily philosophical. Longfellow’s assertion that God is not dead appears to be a more personal response to heartfelt doubt in a trying situation. Lonfellow wrote this poem after hearing (on Christmas day or within a day or two–I don’t remember exactly) that his son had been shot in the war. (Knowing that, by the way, seems to me to make the whole Longfellow poem more meaningful.)

  5. Jack on October 14, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Isn’t Nietzsche’s whole thrust really about the killing of God rather than God simply being dead? The irony in his tone as he extols the grand deed of killing God seems to imply a fierce rebuke of the ideologies of his day.

  6. Keith on October 14, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    I should have included these in my last post, but here are two stanzas left out of the Longfellow text in most places. They preceed the stanza that begins “And in despair I bowed my head”

    Then from each black accursed mouth
    The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound
    The carols drowned
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

    It was as if an earthquake rent
    The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

  7. Jeremiah J. on October 14, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Jim F.,
    As you know Zarathustra also says that ‘God is dead’, in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The context of the phrase fits with much of what you say about the phrase, except that Zarathustra, while not equivalent with Nietzsche, is also not a madman. Comments on this passage?

    Kaimi and Jim F., It seems more likely that Nietzsche was responding to previous mentions of the death of God in the German tradition (that that he was responding to a very un-Nietzschean Longfellow poem). I’m fairly sure I’ve heard of more than one refernce to it, but the one I can think of now comes in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Jim, can you think of any others?

  8. Clark Goble on October 14, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    Interesting short write-up on Nietzsche and Emerson

  9. Clark Goble on October 14, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    I’d add that “God is dead” as a notion can be found in negative theology where we have to die to God (i.e. our propositional conceptions of God, which is not God) so as to find God. I seem to recall reading a somewhat similar phrase in Meister Eckhart, although I can’t seem to locate the quote at the moment.

  10. Arwyn on October 14, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    Since Longfellow’s assertion was written before Nietzsche’s claim, one could argue that Longfellow would just be among the crowd who stared at the madman in astonishment — who didn’t understand, because the time of understanding had not yet arrived even though the deed was already done.

  11. Ebenezer on October 14, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    Longfellow’s poem is one of my favorites, especially the passage you cite.

    I am reminded of the scene in Disney’s adaptation of Ray Bradburry’s Something Wicked This Way Comes when Mr. Dark, the illustrated man, owner of the Pandamoneum Theatre Company and Shadow Show quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth in his confrontation with Mr. Halloway in the library:

    By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.

    To which Mr. Halloway quotes longfellow:

    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
    The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
    With peace on earth, goodwill to men.

    Despite the weakness of the film when compared to the book, that scene has always felt powerful to me. The book is a great Haloween read if your looking for something seasonal.

    I am also reminded of these quotes in an essay by Hugh Nibley:

    Deicide has been committed. Existentialism is not the murderer. It is simply the witness to the crime. As Nietzsche said, “is it the churches which are the tombs of God, and God is dead not because He never existed, but because people have killed Him with belief. The very manner of the church’s credence is the murder weapon.” Existentialism detects the crime when it says: “No God could be believed as you believe Him and survive…” (C. Michalson, Un. Sem. Qt. Rev. 13:4) “God is set aside, according to Bultmann, not by denying Him but by affirming Him in the wrong way. Ironically, the theologians are the class of people most likely to commit deicide.” (Ib., 5).

    “According to Aristotle,” as Ortega y Gasset has said, “God does nothing but think about thought – which is to convert God into an intellectual, or, more precisely, into a modest professor of philosophy. To speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in terms so bloodless is deicide and Luther witnessed the crime.” (Ib., 4).

    - from Conflict in the Churches Between the God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers

  12. john fowles on October 14, 2004 at 4:40 pm

    Great reference Ebenezer.

    Jim wrote For Nietzsche . . . the word refers to the fundamental metaphysical principle that explains everything. He thinks there is no such principle, but it is important to notice that he does not take glee in that. In fact, he laments the passing of that principle.

    (1) Does this imply a Hegelian rupture or fragmentalization of morality or of a sense of morality? In other words, is Nietzsche really “lament[ing] the passing of that principle” in the sense that he believes that it once existed in the first place?

    (2) If he believes it indeed existed in the first place, does it relate to that which existed before the inception of the Jewish revolt in morals, or Nietzsche’s “slave morality”? That is, before ressentiment created the new moral dichotomy, was there a “first principle” or a fundamental metaphysical principle that was at once intelligible and moral–or conducive to an objective morality?

  13. Jim F on October 14, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    John Fowles: For Nietzsche the metaphysical principle did once exist, but only as all metaphysical principles exist, as a human creation.

  14. Ben Huff on October 14, 2004 at 7:29 pm

    I read Nietzsche’s point more as indicated in the Michalson quotes Ebenezer offers. On my reading, when God was alive, he was not merely a metaphysical principle. It is partly in making God into a metaphysical principle that we have killed him. We have talked ourselves out of a religiously vital conception of God, replacing this with a dead God, for example, by implicating God in our self-vivisecting Will to Truth. Nietzsche sees great nobility in the Old Testament accounts of God, and the belief in God they implied. This is a living way to believe in a living God. See Beyond Good and Evil aphorisms 52 and 53. By contrast, the cultured Christians of Nietzsche’s day have sacrificed God for nothingness (BGE 55).

  15. Ben Huff on October 14, 2004 at 7:39 pm

    John, as your questions suggest, I take Nietzsche to have understood God as fundamentally a moral phenomenon — God embodied a morality. Not necessarily Christian morality! It is one of the great frauds of Christianity, on Nietzsche’s view, to have presented itself as morality itself, the beginning and end of morality. The morality of the Jews under David was not that of the Christians of Nietzsche’s day, in N’s judgment. So yes, the living God is associated better with the morality that preceded the slave revolt in morals, though as I read (and here my thoughts are a little more sketchy) Christian morals have themselves recently been replaced by yet a later stage of asceticism, in post-Christian forms of the Will to Truth, embraced by both Christians and atheists.

  16. Jack on October 14, 2004 at 8:51 pm

    Ben H. Wonderful comments. May I sit at your feet and learn more about this the next time you’re in Spanish Fork? (This is your wicked cousin by marraige) : )

  17. john fowles on October 14, 2004 at 10:01 pm

    Ben–so four stages really: the Greek stage of strength vs. weakness, the Jewish stage of ressentiment which led to the Christian stage of good vs. evil, and now as you posit this later stage of Will to Truth asceticism?

  18. S. Taysom on October 14, 2004 at 10:06 pm

    John Fowles–The same John Fowles from Logan?

  19. Jordan Fowles on October 14, 2004 at 10:21 pm

    There’s a John Fowles in Logan?!? Who knew, John?

  20. john fowles on October 14, 2004 at 10:50 pm

    S. Taysom–sorry, not that John Fowles. Believe it or not, John Fowles (not that John Fowles either!) is a much more common name than you might expect. Google it and you will get 58,000 hits at least. Thus, I sink into anonimity.

  21. Jim F. on October 14, 2004 at 10:55 pm

    Amen to Ben’s fuller reading and explanation of Nietzsche.

  22. Clark Goble on October 15, 2004 at 1:46 am

    I found the quote I was looking for. It is sermon 54 where Ekhart says, “I pray God to rid me of god.” The basic notion is the same found in many mystic or quasi-mystic systems. For instance the Tao Te Ching says, “the way that can be spoken of is not the true way…” Same idea. I suppose one could read Nietzsche in those terms. However if we do, I think we’re left with a “God” more akin to Heidegger or Derrida where they are ever announced and never appearing.

  23. Ben Huff on October 15, 2004 at 2:07 pm

    john fowles, I would identify five “stages” in your sense.
    (1) The “Greek” warrior/aristocrat morality (parallel moralities show up among Arabs, Japanese, Celts, Goths, many warrior peoples).
    (2) The morality of a state ruled by priests, as ancient Israel was, but believing in a living God who fights their battles, whom they thank for their secure enjoyment of a land flowing in milk and honey (not necessarily after being ruled by warriors, but a somewhat different morality for a different society). This is still a very pro-life morality, akin to (1).
    (3) The resentment of a nation in captivity (Jews in Babylon, under Romans), which is concentrated and moralized in the priest/leaders.
    (4) The Christian revolution in morals.
    (5) The post-Christian, ascetic religion of Truth.

  24. Jim F. on October 15, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    I like Ben’s other post on Nietzsche. I’m less comfortable with this one. I don’t think Nietsche really believes in these stages as historical facts (thouh early in career he may have). They are something like allegories rather than description of historical institutions.

  25. Ben Huff on October 15, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    Jim is right to be cautious about referring to these as stages (hence my scare quotes: “stages”). These five are different moralities, corresponding with different kinds of society, but their connection with the factual history is loose. Nietzsche is more interested to think through a variety of moralities, in light of which to more richly reflect on the morality or moralities of his contemporaries, than he is to get the particulars of history right. His genealogy of morality is fanciful if one reads it straightforwardly as history. Still, I think it shows real insight into the sorts of purposes which moralities can serve, for different sorts of people and different sorts of peoples, and into the psychology of certain salient forms of religious life.

  26. Jim F on October 15, 2004 at 6:50 pm

    And, once more, an “amen” to Ben.