Nietzsche on “Drinking up the Sea”

By Colin Bodayle

After accusing humanity of killing God, Nietzsche’s madman proclaims:

How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we loosened the earth from its sun?

Of this trilogy, the first is the most confusing. What does it mean to “drink up the sea?” While “wiping away the horizon” and “loosing the earth from its sun” fit Nietzsche’s discussion of the death of God aptly, the powerful line “how were we able to drink up the sea?” has always struck me as odd. What could Nietzsche mean by it?

The Persian Rubicon

One possibility is that Nietzsche alludes to Herodotus, who says of the Persian army:

Save for the great rivers, was there a stream his army drank from that was not drunk dry? Histories, Bk. VII, 20-21.

By the streams dried up in their wake, Herodotus describes the size of an army. Yet the Persians left the great rivers unscathed; an army that could drink up a sea, on the other hand, would be immense indeed.

On the other hand, a “sea” represents a stationary collection of water, while a river implies motion, a fount, and a boundary to be crossed. An army crossing a river represents action; the drinking up of a sea represents the dwindling of an hourglass.

No marching army drank this sea; the locals drank it up.

Horizon of the Infinite

The antecedent aphorism speaks of the ocean. Nietzsche writes:

In the horizon of the infinite. – We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us – indeed we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. -The Gay Science, §124

Armies burn bridges so as not to be followed; yet the irony here is that a bridge links one piece of land to another; yet Nietzsche speaks of “embarking” in a ship into the ocean. Thus, when he says “we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us,” the “land” he speaks of connects ocean to ocean. “We have left the land … ” that is, we have abandoned all possibility of standing on solid ground: alluding to the “death of God” and the impossibility of foundation.

Now, little ship, look out. Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Ibid.

“Beside you is the ocean” suggests that one stands upon the ship and looks out. The ship, here, represents the new ground. Yet the ship swims now in infinity, all land having been destroyed. Although the temper of the ocean varies, it stretches out infinitely: “the horizon of the infinite.” Nietzsche concludes:

Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage. Woe, when you feel homesick for land as if it had offered more freedom – and now there is no longer any “land.” Ibid.

The bird felt free, but now strikes its cage. Its cage is the infinite, now entirely indefinite. While sailing into the sea seems to offer freedom, without the possibility of returning home, homesickness for land replaces wanderlust. In subtext, the death of God seemed as if it would offer freedom; now, in the face of the infinite horizon, nothing could feel more confining.

New Seas

Nietzsche employs these metaphors again in the following poem:

“Nach neuen Meeren”                                           

Dorthin – will ich: und ich traue
Mir fortan und meinem Griff.
Offen liegt das Meer, ins Blaue
Treibt mein Genueser Schiff.

Alles glänzt mir neu und neuer,
Mittag schläft auf Raum und Zeit -:
Nur dien Auge – ungeheuer
Blick mich’s an, Unendlichkeit!

“To new Seas”

Thither, I will, and I trust
Myself  henceforth and my grip.
Open spreads the sea, into blue
driving my Genoese ship

All seems new and newer
Midday naps on space and time
Only your eye – monstrously
Stares me down, infinitely!

-Ibid. (my translation)

In the face of the infinite and its monstrous eye, the sailor trusts herself and her grip. In the infinite horizon, open spreads the sea. “Genoese” alludes to Columbus; the poem speaks of sailing towards undiscovered countries where new seas might be found.

Yet Columbus, setting out to establish a new sea route to India, sought after new lands. The poem speaks of “new seas.” The sailor doesn’t wish to leave the water; rather, she seeks “new seas” i.e. new bodies of water surrounded by lands. If land, for Nietzsche, represents “ground to stand on” in terms of “philosophical foundations,” then to search for “new seas” means to search for new foundations – not to “stand upon,” but to sail with a shore upon the horizon.

Nietzsche speaks of “new philosophers” in Beyond Good and Evil – free spirits who create their own values. Certainly the individualism of this sailor, seeking new shores, expresses a similar individualism.

Drinking the Sea

Given this metaphorical framework, how maddening then, would it be to speak of “drinking up the sea?” If the sea represents our dwelling place, our range of possibilities, then formerly humanity existed surrounded by land: the theological and supernatural stage of Christendom. By “drinking up the sea,” humanity stands, not merely in the infinite expanse of an indefinite ocean, but without a sea itself. With the death of God, both sea and shore are obliterated. Humanity has nothing to sail within. No common shore for human voyage.

“Drinking up the sea” can thus be explained in the following movements:

  1. Unhappy Consciousness: Humanity places its values in the super-sensible, eternal realm. This “shore” gives compass to finite, mortal existence.
  2. Nihilism: “The highest values are devaluing themselves.” The super-sensible, eternal world loses its binding force over the human stage and vanishes. Human existence loses its value and becomes despair. “Woe, when you feel homesick for land as if it had offered more freedom – and now there is no longer any ‘land.'”
  3. Drinking the Sea: without the eternal shore, humans lose the finite realm as well. Human existence no longer occurs within the space framed by paradise. This space has been used up and run dry.
  4. New Seas: the search for new values, at the discretion of the individual, but ever with the eye of infinite nothingness in view.


Much more could be said about the three lines quoted initially and the parable of the madman could be further unpacked. Nevertheless, we have a basic framework for understanding this sentence. By drinking up the sea, humanity no longer has a place to sail within. According to Nietzsche, the annihilation of the eternal realm spells the destruction of the realm of mortals. Values wither; humans no longer act upon a cosmic stage. Yet might we yet discover new seas?



One thought on “Nietzsche on “Drinking up the Sea”

  1. I doubt Nietzsche was familiar but in the Talmud, drinking the sea is an image used to evoke the impossibility of absorbing the totality of one’s teacher’s knowledge (BT Sanhedrin 68). If that is at all a useful guide Nietzsche could be expressing the feeling of one now masterless, whose act of overcoming their master leaves them bloated and guilty (as with erasing the horizon, something destructive is perceived in the act).

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