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:
â€œGod is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.â€?
(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 . . .