“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” —Frederich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
At the very dawn of the 20th century, on 25 August in the year 1900, the great prophet of nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche, utterly insane in his later years, died. His madness seemed to stunningly prefigure the incredible psychosis which would overwhelm the entire genocidal century to come as the civilized West turned against its own spiritual and historical identity in unfathomable matricidal rage. Eighteen years before his death in Turin, Italy, where he had gone to seek the relief of a better climate for his complex physical ailments, Nietzsche, after a period of prodigious literary and philosophical productivity, lost all control of his mental faculties upon seeing a horse abused in the street. In an act of supreme and poignant irony, the great Prophet of cruelty, of the Will to Power, who once said,
“…pity crosses the law of development. It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends those who have been condemned by life”(1),
flung himself on the animal’s neck, sobbing inconsolably for the poor beast, and finally collapsed on the ground, never again to enjoy sustained mental lucidity. He had to be carried back to his room.
Ever afterwards he oscillated between mania and a kind of childlike catatonia. Bizarre notes which he sent immediately after his collapse brought his dearest friend, a minister, Franz Overbeck, to Italy to return Nietzsche to Basel. When Overbeck arrived he found Nietzsche on a couch in a pathetic state. Upon seeing his old friend, the philosopher sprung up into Overbecks arms, sobbing. Needless to say this was entirely out of character. Nietzsche was taken to a Basel asylum and from there to Naumburg under his mother’s care. After her death in 1897, he went to Weimar in his sister’s care.
Many attribute his insanity and progressive paralysis to Syphilis. William Barrett, however, taking account of the prodigious amount of work which he produced just prior to the collapse, thinks that explanation may be too simple:
“One has the feeling,” he says, “in reading him that those ultimate questions with which he dealt with would have been enough almost to drive any man mad. Was it necessary that he be deranged in order to reveal the secret derangement that lies coiled like a dragon at the bottom of our epoch? (William Barrett, Irrational Man, Anchor Press Doubleday, Garden City, NY 1962 pp.204)
The Descending Night
Only eleven years earlier Nietzsche was far advanced in paving the way into that post-theistic straitjacket to which certain currents of the Western world had been dashing since the late Renaissance. In The Gay Science Nietzsche wrote of that Night descending “darker and darker…upon mankind”:
“Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lit a lantern, ran to the market-place and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there he excited considerable laughter. Why? is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? – the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances.
“Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning?
“Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? – gods, too, decompose! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!
“How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to devise?
“Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event – and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”
“Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” he then said. “I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling – it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star – and yet they have done it themselves!” It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: “What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?” (2)
Long Into the Abyss
These are not yet the thoughts of a madman. But they are the thoughts which can make man (and a culture) mad, for they represent the vertiginous thoughts of that rare species, the totally conscious (as opposed to the superficial) atheist. They are the thoughts of one who has looked long into the abyss and considered the myriad implications of the decision not to believe and which experiences the horror, that great revulsion—or nausea, as Sartre later would call it—- the great “unhinging” which cuts man off from the Source and Ground of his being, and thus the world’s Meaning.
They are the thoughts by which Nietzsche seeks to assimilate the existential realities which follow, and which can only be expressed here in stark metaphor (“drink up the sea… wipe away the whole horizon…. loosened this earth from its sun… stray(ing), as through infinite nothingness…).
For if man is severed from the Source of His being, if the whole universe is nothing but a fortuitous inexplicable event, then one must either “create” a life for oneself by way of new delusions and “sacred games” to save oneself from psychically drowning in the immensity of emptiness, or he must “overcome,” as Nietzsche would advocate in his concept of the Ubermensch (Overman). For Nietzsche, the man who “overcomes,” who embraces and thus transcends his own horror and pity, who peers into the abyss from the heights of a transfigured courage and “will to power” utters the great “Yes” to life, “in spite of” its meaninglessness!
If only it worked that way, Herr Nietzsche. If only man did not have to beg the question of being in order to come to Nietzsche’s overheated and overextended conclusions. For the only thing more incredible than a miracle (the notion of which Nietzsche mocked) is existence itself, compared to which all genuine miracles are mere footnotes.
That man “is” at all, is the great stumbling block to Nietzsche’s philosophical thought. In order to pronounce the “idea” of God “dead,” which the so-called Enlightenment had been doing for several hundred years, man has to bracket the question of his own being, put it to the side and try not to think about it, as one tries to ignore the beginning of a gnawing toothache. He must also repress every “Why?” which stirs within him in times of grateful wonder, and in times of perplexing pain. He must put down the irrepressible desire to give thanks for the beauty of the world, and for love, with its sometimes hard but profitable lessons. He must even forfeit Job’s protest against the personal Source of a reality who sometimes seems arbitrary and even bewilderingly cruel; forfeiting the stricken prophet’s intuition that without that Source even the hope of an answer is futility.
Nietzsche came as close as any man can to a full and constant realization of the “magnitude of this deed too great”. Most atheists don’t even try, I suspect, preferring the honey drop on the branch to which they cling over the void.
Because Nietzsche, who was something of an ascetic, did seek this full consciousness, his tremendous intellect and virile psyche progressively unraveled. He set off a chain reaction which must end in meltdown. The act of compassion toward that horse, then, could only have illustrated what Pascal referred to when he said “the heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of”. Nietzsche’s head and heart had split in two, as fit a definition of insanity as any. For a time he tried to ward off the mind-gale, forestall the erupting plunge into chaos. But such bridges lead to psychic quicksand. Echoing the Serpent’s promise to Eve who also stood before the Knowledge of a “deed too great,” Nietzsche came to believe he was God:
“The world is transfigured, for God is on earth. Do you not see how all the heavens are rejoicing? I have just seized possession of my kingdom, am throwing the pope into prison and having Wilhelm, Bismarck and Stocker shot” (3) and “since the old god has abdicated, I shall be ruling the world…there are no coincidences anymore, either. If I think of someone, a letter comes from him politely through the door”(4).
He talked like this before the final collapse.
The Enlightenment, following the Reformation which sought to rend faith from the Church, was the seed of the death of God in its post-Christian orientation. The reduction of Christ from the revelation of God Himself in the Incarnation to a mere mortal began, arguably, when Luther nailed 95 theses to the Wittenburg Church door, separating Scriptural interpretation from the patrimony and magisterium of the Church. If only he had kept to suggested reforms things would have gone better. Instead he tore the veil in the temple of his soul and plunged headlong into schism, forcing a whole nation with him.
It is not surprising that so-called higher (as opposed to textual) criticism of the Scriptures began in Germany. The Christ of Faith would have to be divorced from the historical Jesus if man was ever going to truly undo and then remake a world altogether “liberated” from the Church. The essentially rationalistic Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura (private interpretation of the Scriptures and then Enlightenment skepticism and criticism) was destined from the beginning by an inner logic to turn on the teachings of the Scriptures and Protestantism itself, even if it was an outcome Luther could not foresee, though arguably he feared it in the dark of night and “threw inkwells” at his fears (visions of Satan). Together with assimilating certain radical and pagan elements of the Renaissance, the trajectory would be from post-Catholic, to post-Christian, to post-theistic.
Pope Leo’s Vision
With Nietzsche the transition from post-Christian to post-theistic was more or less complete. Into this world and world view was set the drama of our time. That the 20th century opted to follow Nietzsche into the straightjacket, there is no doubt.
Five years before Nietzsche’s mental meltdown, however, on October 13, 1883, Pope Leo XIII also collapsed; but it was not a mental breakdown born of a contemplation of the Nihil. Rather, at the Agnus Dei whilst celebrating Mass in the Sistine Chapel, the Pope saw something deeper than Nothingness, something which, like creation itself, is rooted in reality, in being, only of the preternatural order. He reported that he saw Satan asking for— and obtaining— the twentieth century in order to do his worst against the Church of Christ. The cardinals who carried him out thought he was ill, but the Pope described instead a frightful vision be had seen. After this vision Leo composed the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel and ordered its public recital after each Low Mass throughout the world.
While Nietzsche never recovered the use of his mental faculties after his heart, arguably, swelled up in existential rebellion against the philosophy of his head in an act of pity, Leo peered not into the imaginative abyss of nothingness, but behind the metaphysical curtain of being to the Tri-Personal Source of the universe, Who alone, as Creator, can account for the whence and why of being, of evil and redemption.
Nothingness is an erroneous, imaginative extrapolation rooted in the fact that once we did not exist. Evolutionists are so imaginative that they consider this nothingness to be some sort of potency which, given sufficient time, plus chance, will birth “life” out of its own void.
The Triune God
Deeper than Nothingness, however, is the Real, Being Itself, the Triune God, Source and Ground of all being. But much of the modern world would rather “feel” than think, rather exert its “will to power” than acknowledge God as Maker who bestows His commandments on us for our own good.
Unbelief is, in the end, a decision.
The year before Nietzsche went mad, a little boy was born, Francesco Forgione, later to become known as the stigmatist and holy man, St. Padre Pio. While Nietzsche’s mind was unraveling first in an asylum, then in the final days with his mother and sister, a young girl, too, Therese Martin, was asking the same Leo XIII for permission to become a Carmelite. She, St. Therese of Lisieux, was destined to speak to more souls than the prophets of doom.
Nietzsche stoically said yes to “life” but No to God —and so missed both. For, ever has it been that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, Jesus said. Only by choosing Him Who is the “Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6) can we find Life in the surrendering of it to Him Who triumphs over the Nothing.
Nietzsche’s demise teaches that when there is no Center the psyche—when it is fully conscious of the severing from its Maker—does not hold. It is the same with civilizations. Christians look beyond the vicissitudes of time to Him who is greater than unbelief, apostasy, and nothingness, to Him Who is the Real, the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega. His Word is “a light for our eyes and a lamp for our feet”. He who follows him “shall not walk in darkness”.
1 Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, The Antichrist, #7, p. 573
Viking Press, edited by Walter Kaufmann, 1976 2 Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #125
3 Nietzsche, A Critical life, Ronald Hayman, Oxford University Press, NY, 1980 p. 335