One of the topics I opine on regularly is what I term the rise of ‘cliff note’ society. In this digital age of easy access information overload we have a surplus of facts and data but very little time to discover context, interconnectedness of ideas, or even just basic relationships present. We tend to rely on experts to inform us of these things, and I rather envision that mental shinning city on the hill we so seek is in fact built upon the shoulders of Atlas, an Atlas constructed from the sum total of all that came before, but we regulate it to mere giant status, another gatekeeper of convenience, and an excuse to stand among the ruins instead of struggling to understand and create new links in a chain that connects past to future. Tidy summations of contributions in essence making the history of ideas a dead thing instead of a living, breathing, growing organism to be wrestled with and understood in full definition, even if it is a long tamed domesticated creature serving us faithfully for centuries. We talk often of being good stewards, but we aren’t doing a very good job when it comes to the garden of ideas, and from my vantage point, the garden is suffering from a collective drought brought upon by neglect. A strange form of neglect that has busy bees buzzing everywhere in a frantic self-important daze… always working it seems yet with little result or impact in the scheme of things. No time for contemplation or recognition of beauty, truth, or mystery. No time to be alive in terms of mind.
An example of tidy summations at work is Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman. Everyone runs across the infamous “God is dead” phrase at some point in life. If you grew up in a religious environment, probably at a church. Maybe from a clad in black rebellious type in high school. At the very least, a college level intro course in philosophy or perhaps even literature, if not from some source of entertainment. But in my early exposure to this phrase, very rarely did Nietzsche’s name get mentioned, or even the source of the quote, or even the longer misquote, “God is dead, and we have killed him.” And it was devoid of context from the source. My early exposure was in church, and it was always used in reference to those ‘evil satanic’ atheists lying about the living God almighty, can I get an amen.
In high school however, I discovered Nietzsche proper in the course of trying to educate myself. I was keenly aware at how ignorant I was, and how school wasn’t really about educating individuals as much as indoctrinating workers. So discovering the Parable of the Madman was one of my first encounters with what I call idea warfare. It seemed to me everyone had an angle with the phrase God is dead and adapted it to fit their purposes outside of Nietzsche’s work. And what surprised me even more was it was such a short piece. It wasn’t a long slog of philosophy, just a short parable, and yet hardly anyone I met who used the phrase for their cause, had any idea where the phrase came from. Even those who knew it was Nietzsche, often didn’t know the context of the phrase. To everyone I met when I was a young man, it was a simple declarative statement, a prideful claim from some obscure wicked German philosopher denying God.
This was one of my first cognitions of the power of authority, the power of experts. The ability for an idea to be repurposed and redirected away from its original container into something else for the mass consumption of society. And the most damnable thing about it is, that even when presented with context, most hold on to the repurposed version because an authority defined it for them, and that expert definition overrides their own sovereignty over the very ideas within their heads. And there is no struggle within to define things for themselves.
I’m sure many of the road to find out, already know this parable, but here is the Parable of the Madman in full:
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?”
How does summing up that complex idea into God is dead serve anyone? How does Nietzsche become the arrogant atheist from this warning of hubris? How did the madman’s message get repurposed as a strawman for the ages? “And yet they have done it themselves.” Indeed.
I don’t like being dragged about anywhere, especially up ever higher on the shoulders of Atlas. I lag behind often because I struggle to ‘own’ the ideas within my head, not just borrow easily had definitions from the ‘sanctified’ dictionary from the powers that be. This is part of being that fool on the path of fool>pilgrim>hermit. It used to depress me, but it is what it is. To give definition to the future, the very language of new ideas has to be created. If you play around in the sandbox of ideas you understand that process often involves adding bits and pieces to the same complex ideas at work in our minds for ages, often tagged with the place holder names of gods because we have lacked the formal language to express what we know intuitively. We can’t get to the future unless we struggle to understand the language of ideas from the past.