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Nietzsche’s Parable The Madman: An Interpretive Exercise


Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944), Friedrich Nietzsche (1906)

A. Nietzsche’s Madman: Text

The Gay Science
("la gaya scienza")

I live in my own place,
have never copied nobody even half,
and at any master who lacks the grace
to laugh at himself—I laugh.


Published in 1882. Second Edition published in 1887, adding: Preface, Book V, and Appendix of Songs. Excerpts from translation by Walter Kaufmann.
Text amended in part by The Nietzsche Channel.

Selected Text
Book III


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? And 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 not 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: they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to 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 the 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?"

B. Nietzsche’s Madman: Interpretive Questions

1. In what sense is the madman insane? Upon what basis, or according to what standard, is he considered insane?

2. What might be the symbolic or analogical meaning of the madman utilizing a lighted lantern to search for God on a bright morning?

3. According to the madman: “we have killed God, we are his murderers.” Beginning with “But how have we done it?” the madman poses a series of passionate questions in response to the murder of God. What do you think is the basic point of these questions? What do these questions imply about the consequences of the ‘death of God’ for his murderers?

4. The madman claims that the murder of God is the greatest event ever and that those born after it belong to a higher history. What do you think the madman means? Why do you think he makes such strong claims?

5. The madman throws down his lantern, in response to the silent and stunned audience, and proclaims that he has come too early. He also states that this murderous deed “is as yet further from them than the furthest star—and yet they have done it!” What might the madman mean? Why do you think he throws his lantern to the ground, so that it’s light is extinguished, at this precise moment?