My dad was a person of deep faith. His Catholicism was a big component to his life. In fact his faith was a defining characteristic of who he was as a person. He also was profoundly interested in literature and philosophy. He was a big believer in people having a solid background and foundation in the liberal arts discipline- such an education helped provide a level of adequate cultural literacy as well as critical thinking skills that could be translated into any career path. It is with this in mind that I delve into this subject matter by exploring the concept of prophecy as it relates to the writings of two titans, John Milton and Friedrich Nietzsche.
If it is possible to reduce the history of Western civilization to a simple word that word for many is Christianity. Christianity has been the basis of Western humankind’s value system, morality and decision making for the past two thousand some odd years. Put more bluntly Christianity and Western civilization are intrinsically linked. On a more intimate and individual level Christianity has successfully linked the English poet John Milton and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
The crux of their respective outlooks are very much the results of living in a Christian world. In fact they could not get away from Christianity. Nietzsche, an atheist, famously pronounced “God is dead.” Yet it should be noted that this pronouncement is not met with relief or glee from Nietzsche. It is to be seen by Nietzsche with perhaps a bit of trepidation but also as an opportunity for humankind to finally break from the constraining chains of Christian conformity to fulfill once and for all our individual potential. For Nietzsche human potential could not be achieved in a world based on Christian values. These values have inhibited humankind; indeed, restraining human achievement. Perhaps Nietzsche’s outlook and statement that “God is dead” was influenced by the rapid progress of science and the Industrial Revolution which was alive and well all throughout Europe during his lifetime. Nonetheless, Nietzsche dreamt of a new system that was not limited by Christian teachings. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, “Without God all things are possible.” Despite Nietzsche’s atheism and disdain for organized religion he does not dismiss its impact on society but instead Christianity becomes an obsession for him.
Although Milton and Nietzsche differ considerably on the value, nature and importance of Christianity in the world, each use the same vehicle of prophecy to legitimize themselves, much like in the Bible. Both men viewed their work and outlook as prophetic; each a new “Moses” descending upon a misguided humanity.
Aside from removing all traces of modesty claiming to be a prophet begs the need for validation on biblical terms. If it is to be believed that such a claim should be taken seriously then Milton and Nietzsche must place their philosophies and outlooks against the philosophies and life outlooks of the prophets of the Bible. Upon fulfillment of this litmus test one can conclude that both men possess many, if not all the qualities that define their biblical counterparts- commitment, clarity, value of personal strength and individual, and perhaps most importantly understanding that the problems of humankind are purely of this world and not the work of God.
In the Book of Exodus God descended upon Moses as he tended his sheep proclaiming to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in which Moses responds “here am I.” God instructed Moses to go to Egypt and demand that the Egyptian Pharaoh release the Israelites from captivity. It was within this context that Moses entered Pharaoh’s court and uttered the words “Let my people go.” Moses was a revolutionary in possession of unequaled courage to have demanded the release of the Israelites. Furthermore, his commitment to God provided unmatched and unwavering clarity in his words, deeds and life outlook. Prophets like Moses provide some of greatest examples of individual power in the Bible.
Milton pronounces at the beginning of Paradise Lost his prophecy. In Book I, line 8 he refers to himself on parallel ground with Moses- “That shepherd, who first taught the chosen seed, in the beginning how the heavens and earth roes out of chaos.” By placing himself on par with Moses the readers become the Israelites, specifically chosen to receive this new, important and relevant message. England during the time of Milton was poisoned with religious and political turmoil. Milton through his writings possessed the antidote. Likewise, Nietzsche’s writing is littered with prophetic proclamation conjuring up for the reader the great biblical prophets including Moses. One of Nietzsche’s prophetic claims is evident in the section entitled On Old and New Tablets from his work Thus Zarathustra– “For that I am waiting now, for the first signs must come to me that my hour has come. . .nobody tells me anything new: so I tell myself-myself.” Nietzsche’s hour signifies a new prophetic message to the world. A more obvious example of his prophecy is the character of Zarathustra, a character that like Moses descends from a mountaintop to deliver his uncorrupted concept to humanity. Both Milton and Nietzsche although exclaiming different philosophies on humanity, utilize the same identical approach of prophecy that exists in the Bible.
The prophetic message of Milton maintains that the imperfection of humankind is a result of human choice and free will. Therefore humanity must be strong and not give in to the evils of the world. The greatest gift God gave to humanity according to Milton was the opportunity to choose good evil. “I (God) made him (Man) just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” Nietzsche’s philosophy as well resides on the strength of humanity; however, Nietzsche contends that in order to tap this strength humanity must destroy its greatest liability- Christianity. A forerunner of modern existentialism, to Nietzsche before humanity can progress properly and unfettered within the boundaries of this concrete world one must first acknowledge that “God is dead.” Christianity is a hindrance to humankind because it limits human behaviors by advocating a foundation based on false repercussions in the next world. Nietzsche was concerned about this world.
Milton and Nietzsche embodied the qualities of our biblical prophet Moses. The Book of Exodus in the Bible outlines Moses’ life journey as a prophet and it is this Book that the characteristics of a prophet first emerge- the power of the individual, commitment and clarity in worldview. These qualities each manifested themselves in Milton and Nietzsche- albeit for different purposes.
Milton upon writing Paradise Lost solidified himself as a revolutionary within Christianity. Certainly making Satan a sympathetic character to the reader was unique in relation to similar literature of the time. Milton’s revolution linked Satan’s revolt in Heaven with humanity’s sin in the Garden: all of which resulted in Satan becoming the first hero of humanity. Additionally, Milton’s prophet-like commitment and clarity to God centered on his unflappable belief that the individual had the God given right of free will. Power, true power for Milton was contained within the individual. The political and religious climate of his day forced Milton to very much profess his message alone. He like Moses was an individual to his death.
Nietzsche emphasized the power of the individual because he viewed humanity confined to this world. For Nietzsche it was necessary for humanity on an individual level to express the will of power. Nietzsche had no time for the pity and guilt associated with Christianity or with the notion that humans were equal. “Men are not equal! Nor shall they become equal! What would my love of the overman be if I spoke otherwise?” Nietzsche was committed and clear on the fact that the truth for humanity was achieved by becoming a strong human being- physically, mentally and emotionally. He spoke from his own experience of overcoming his crippling maladies each day to write his philosophy. Nietzsche’s uniqueness is in the fact that he attacked the essence of Western culture in Christianity by pirating the very model or mechanism that endeared it to Western humankind- prophecy.
Milton and Nietzsche were prophets of a sort, the first offering new insight into the concept of free choice within Christianity, while the second embraced humanity on its own, offering a new way of overcoming human weakness. Both were revolutionaries, both were humanists and like Moses both embraced their role as prophets.