Nietzsche's "madman" and the Madness of the First World War as viewed "In Flanders's Field" and All Quiet on the Western Front
The essence of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche is a stated view of human existence where all individuals possessing attributes of excellence or superiority are at odds with their complacent, or intellectually slumbering society. Nietzsche's supposed madman of his famous "Parable" voiced a critique and a prophesy of the world, a world that had killed God, for better or for worse. Yet the world, said the madman, temporarily remained willfully ignorant of this fact and thus the madman's truth remained unheard and deliberately misunderstood by the masses as merely the voice of madness, so spoke Nietzsche in the "Parable of the Madman." (Nietzsche, 1882).
In his parable as well, Nietzsche suggested that such willed acts of individual knowledge and by extension, excellence, in the form of 'killing God,' were not commensurate with collective human social codes and actions, such as theology, but invariably against them. Hence the madman's proclamation that humanity had killed God was or would be the final moment of the Western tradition. Once individual excellence and the voice of truth could be heard, though it was simply codified in the language of deviancy during the madman's time, humanity would have free reign to recreate a new code and view of ethics and life.
The British poet of the Great War, John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Field," seems, in its beginning stanza, to be quite against the framework of the German's envisioned madman and the philosopher Nietzsche's tone and ethical framework. McCrae paints a picture of sameness and quietude, rather than distinction. He sees the men who died in war in fields covered with the sleeping flowers of poppies, all covered in an anonymous fashion. These men, in their sameness, have lost their distinction and identity. Now they speak as one. Their individual sacrifice in the name of a collective state has erased their identity on earth as human beings in terms of class, political beliefs, families, social standings, and even the honors they earned and endured in military service and tradition. They simply exist under the earth, crying out as one against the foe through their silence.
Like the madman these individual's attitudes towards what they have endured is similarly silenced. The madman states that "we" as a society, as individuals thinking our individual thoughts, have killed God by eschewing our need for religion. The silence of the men buried in Flanders strikes, in the poet's vision, an equally profound death, that of millions of men, for no clearly identifiable cause or objective that is stated in the poem, other than to defend the state. The cry to do so sounds hollow, to the modern ear, in comparison with the mounting death toll, as hollow as the madman's view of religious dogma, of sepulchers and churches.
Despite the horror that God's death inspires, Nietzsche's madman is able to find a kind of delight in the death of God, as the author of the poem finds patriotic inspiration. "Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?" asks the madman "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." (Nietzsche, 1882) The death of God is not so much a crime but an acceptance of human intellectual responsibility, according to the madman. Now that God is dead, humanity must assume its own ethical responsibility for its own actions, and set its own code of conduct anew, according to terms that were not set down by previous society and tradition, but are commensurate with the modern, individual will.
The outcome of any decision to make one's own will known and to create one's own individual code of conduct at the expense of a previous one, of course is not necessarily a happy one, but one fraught with many mistakes, whatever the eventual outcome. Nietzsche's madman might see the dead men of Flanders very much as the result of this decision to experiment with predetermined laws of morality and death. They are causalities, he might say, of the human ethical birth trauma after the doing away of religious inhibitions. Or, the madman could also conversely state that the Flanders deaths mark the death knell of false ideals, as dead men of Flanders show the falseness of old creeds.
After all, World War I was justified as a way of making the world safe not simply for democracy, but also for the pre-existing governmental structures of England and France. Although some of the nations that participated in the war such as Italy and Germany were relatively new constructions in terms of the formulations of their government and the expanse of territory, England and France were not. The deaths of Flanders were also justified by as defenses of existing governmental structures that existed in the name of God, King, and country. These kingdoms of Europe did not simply compete against one another, offering structures of democracy that supposedly must triumph over the Kaiser and the agents of the decaying Ottoman Empire, they had histories of their own and traditions enshrined in religion as well as nationalism.
Thus, one could say conversely in the voice of the madman, that the deaths of Flanders showed the falseness of the old tropes of religion. The crosses of the dead, "row by row" demonstrated the meaningless and anonymous nature of the sacrifice of the men, of all soldiers. Even in the poem, the larks that fly, still "bravely" singing show no caring or concern for the dead men buried in the name of God beneath them. Nature is uncaring, even in the patriotic McCrae's vision, much like God who has been killed in the madman's vision.
Of course, simply because God does not cry out against the meaningless deaths of those who have been killed in the name of God-defended governmental structures does not mean that the poet and the philosopher's visions are commensurate. The defense of the deep, sensual delight taken in the day, the light, and the human existence does not dampen the resolve and the fervor to "take up the quarrel" against the foe, according to McCrae's point-of-view, even if the ear of the modern reader might be stricken at the apparent horror of the tragedy.
One way of joining the vision of McCrae and Nietzsche might be to consider the prose vision of All Quiet on the Western Front. This text shows how the institutions of the school and the social pressures of family and loved ones inspired many soldiers to enlist, long before their country officially called upon them to do so. The fusion of collective religious and social pressure shows that God was hardly dead before the war, in very explicit terms, as it is in Nietzsche's vision.
But even during the war, despite the horrifying experiences of the soldiers, even if the soldiers have ceased to believe in God, and even ceased to believe in the need to take up arms against the designated foes, whom are actually not so different from them in physical, human terms across the trenches -- (As the harrowing scene where a member of 'the enemy' he has killed dies in the protagonist's arms, after revealing pictures of his loved ones back home) -- even after all of this, the institutionalized nature of God is not dead in All Quiet on the Western Front. When the soldiers return briefly to civilization, people still praise their sacrifices in religious language, and try to see them, however vainly, as the heroes they know they are not. The protagonists successfully created…
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