He was looking for a chemical mixture—a potion or tonic perhaps—that would give him eternal youth. Instead, when it caught fire, the ninth-century Chinese alchemist discovered gunpowder. From there, our global obsession with fireworks was sparked. From then on, fireworks were used in celebrations to bring happiness and luck, and also to ward off evil spirits.
Almost a thousand years later, upon signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife that the day “ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” The first anniversary of Independence Day, in 1777, was indeed full of pomp and parade and illuminations. The fireworks were slightly more subdued than the ones that are used today, since colored fireworks, mixed with strontium or barium, would only be discovered in Italy fifty years later. For the first American Independence Day, orange would have to do.
Fireworks, hypnotic and sublime, are used to celebrate national independence around the globe, as signs of sovereignty or political autonomy. They are the window dressing of the modern state. The exploding rainbows are a tribute to the bloody wars that made the celebration possible. They are a reminder that—under that same sky and upon that same land to which the ashes float—we are kinfolk.
There is exactly one European thinker who could be considered the “philosopher of the firework”: Friedrich Nietzsche. “I am dynamite!” Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo. Dynamite, from dunamis, meaning power. Nietzsche, more than any other contemporary thinker, grappled with the draw and the danger of a fiery blaze.
Born into a nineteenth-century culture that throbbed with German nationalism, Nietzsche was well aware of how such a spectacle—beautiful and potentially disastrous—could influence people. In 1865, he wrote to his mother, after the celebration of Prussia’s annexing of Rheinland, that “the ceremony was extremely imposing. The Rhine, the bridge over it, the innumerable hotels on the banks, the towers, and the mighty cathedral all ablaze with illuminations, a continuous deafening boom of guns and muskets, myriads of fireworks all let off at the same time from various points all these seen from the opposite bank produced an almost magical impression.”
The young Nietzsche admitted that the sight was stunning, even aesthetically valuable—something like the effect of a grand opera. But incendiary devices have other uses, as Nietzsche found out as a medical attendee in the Franco Prussian War of 1870. The nationalistic fervor that had lit up the Rhine in 1865 drove Germany into a conflict that changed the face of warfare. These battles were dominated by fireworks—by artillery fire that ripped through flesh in Europe’s last great cavalry charges. The Germans, with their technologically superior weaponry, defeated the French. Bismark and Kaiser Wilhelm I unified the German Reich in 1871. Nietzsche, and his view of nationalism, was forever changed. From that point forward, he was of decidedly two minds regarding the prospects of patriotism. He would caution restraint at the very moment the fireworks were to be loosed.
Up until the late twentieth century, Nietzsche had a reputation for being a fascist, which couldn’t be further from the truth. However, his younger sister Elisabeth and her husband Bernhard Förster were leading anti-Semites, and after Nietzsche’s descent into madness, manipulated his work for their own agenda. Elisabeth forged letters, fabricated comments, twisted his words, selectively edited his prose, and deleted parts of his work that condemned anti-Semitism such as, “Have nothing to do with a person who takes part in the dishonest race swindle.” It took about a hundred years for scholars to realize the extent of her interference, and to undo it.
And yet even before he knew what Elisabeth would do, he worried that his work might be misappropriated for subversive purposes. In a draft letter to Elisabeth written in 1887, Nietzsche raged against her family’s political commitments: “I am now in a position of emergency defense against your spouse’s Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!” In a draft preface to the Will to Power, he wished he had written it in French, and not written Thus Spoke Zarathustra in German, so that his ideas would be less likely to lead the unthinking astray. At one point he tried to recall Zarathustra, saying that he wanted “to protect it from mishaps. It won’t be ripe for publishing until after several decades of world historical crises—wars!” His concerns were valid: 150,000 reinforced copies of Zarathustra were distributed to German troops during World War I, and they carried it alongside the bible.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Persian prophet Zarathustra takes a break from his hermitage in the mountains to spread the word that “God is dead,” to teach people about the Übermensch—the great human who strives passionately and creatively to become even greater—and to learn from others. Ironically, the book is a warning against mass thinking, such as religion and nationalism, because docile submission to authorities is a lazy, slavish strategy to escape responsibility for creating one’s own path in life. It might feel like it gives us something to cling to—a sense of meaning and comfort in a chaotic world. But really, if we are dangerously honest with ourselves, this security is a lie:
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers, are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them.
Nietzsche calls for us to be braver, to seize our freedom, and to refuse to march with the herd.
Nietzsche knew that just as fireworks mesmerize audiences, patriotic rhetoric and talk of national identity herd the masses into a passive unthinking that can become dangerous. “Insanity,” he writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “in individuals is something rare — but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” And Zarathustra explicitly warns against the violence that nationalism encourages: “But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!”
In the same way that fireworks were meant to scare away the unfamiliar, nationalism turns us inward. It’s perhaps no wonder that the vulgar notion of Blut und Boden—the common blood of racial ties upon a common soil—became a Nazi slogan. Nietzsche was disgusted at such idealization of race-based hatefulness and deplored the absurd temptation to quarantine and barricade: “Is there any idea at all behind this bovine nationalism? What value can there be now, when everything points to wider and more common interests, in encouraging this boorish self-conceit?”
The danger in nationalism is not only its blindness, inwardness, and violence, but also that it’s restrictive—both physically and intellectually. We ought to have outgrown it. It might feel as though we’re more connected than we ever were. We are, technologically, but with the resurgence of enthusiasm for building walls and trade barriers, and the breaking down of international unions, we are at risk of regressing. And to keep from regressing into acquiescence and somnolence, to stay awake to the risks of nationalism, we do need, as Zarathustra suggests, “thunder and heavenly fireworks.”
Nietzsche’s warning in the late 1800s, as he wrote in fear of a Nazi Germany that he saw looming ominously on the horizon, resonates: “We who are homeless are too manifold and mixed racially and in our descent, being ‘modern men’, and consequently do not feel tempted to participate in the mendacious racial self-admiration and racial indecency that parades in Germany today as a sign of a German way of thinking and that is doubly false and obscene … you know better than that, friends!”
Yes, we should know better.
Skye C. Cleary is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love, the associate director of the Center for New Narratives at Columbia University, and teaches at Barnard College and the City College of New York.
John Kaag is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and author of Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, which will be published in September.