“Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a a devotee of truth, then inquire.”
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Letter to His Sister, 1865
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher and professor of philology, wrote the essay, “Truth and Lie in a Non-Moral Sense,” in 1873 and it was published in 1895 (German) and 1896 (English translation). The first part of the title is sometimes translated as Truth and Falsity… and the last part is sometimes Extra-Moral or Non-Moral.
We all have that one essay or book that removed the veil from our eyes and “Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense” is mine. Some experience this penny drop moment and remain forever changed. “Truth and Lie” is mine.
I was the young age of 18 when I first read it. It was assigned in my freshmen composition course and we were instructed to read it, and then read it again, and then read it again. We spent three weeks reading and discussing this essay. It was not only a lesson in the person and work of Friedrich Nietzsche but a discussion on how language works. This short work went on to influence the way I read and understand the world and every text thereafter.
Texts that knock the wind out of you often do so because they defy your expectations. Nietzsche was not an unknown entity to my 18-year old mind. I knew of him when I read this essay – but all I knew was that he said God is dead, which made me think he was probably the devil, or the antichrist. I didn’t know the context of the argument or how I was grossly misinterpreting him at the time – that came much later. I admit this to you now because this is often the most dominant idea that people associate with Nietzsche. Daniel Conway, a philosophy professor at Texas A&M, emphasizes this point and elaborates on Nietzsche’s continual influence in the opening of his essay, “The Life After the Death of God: Thus Spoke Nietzsche,”
“Nietzsche presents an enduring, dangerous temptation to young people, malcontents, outcasts, loners, free-thinkers, subversives, sociopaths, iconoclasts, and free spirits. The persistence of his influence and notoriety is attributable to a diverse array of insights, allegations, pronouncements, and provocations – he was, after all, a master aphorist and sloganeer — but one teaching in particular stands out as quintessentially Nietzschean: the death of God. Even those who know nothing else about Nietzsche know that he dared to announce the death of God and that he has been memorialized for having done so by poets, playwrights, anarchists, and graffiti artists.”
While I can understand how this teaching disrupts a comfortable status quo, especially when the authority of the church was so closely tied to the state and rarely questioned, it is often oversimplified and misunderstood. Ian Buchannan’s points to the complexity of Nietzsche’s thoughts on God:
“Although he was anti-religious, his position on religion was complex: he argued that it is better to believe in God than to believe in nothing, but that the belief in God had over time become such an empty gesture it amounted to the same thing as believing in nothing.”
You know how we use the adjective ‘religious’ to describe behavior that we perform without thinking? For example, I watch that show religiously. Well, that is precisely Nietzsche’s beef with the God of the Christian religion in the 1800s. The church functioned as a metaphor for God, and when I say church, I don’t mean the biblical ekklesia which is a gathering of people but the institution of religion – the system. Those following God were following the church — the man-made institution with state-awarded authority — and they did so without thinking.
A short time later Gustave Le Bon wrote the book The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind and identified the way members of any given crowd become absorbed into the shared spirit and sentiment of those around them and are inspired to unconsciously act on behalf of the masses. You might find the crowd in the military, the classroom, the corporation, the political rally, the concert, or every Sunday morning at church – essentially any time people gather together for a united purpose – you have a crowd and statistics show individuals in a crowd are less likely to use skills of reasoning and discernment. Modern psychology calls this phenomenon groupthink. Nietzsche is no stranger to this idea and refers to this notion of the crowd as the herd. Even a century and a half later, Nietzsche’s argument about the institution of religion is still quite compelling.
I suspect that part of the reason for his long-lasting influence on thought has to do with the his style and delivery of his writings. Even in this early work, or his essays in The Birth of Tragedy on Music (before he dropped the “on Music”), the writing is quite lyrical or even poetic. I’m not sure if you associate Nietzsche with aesthetics or not, but if not, I hope to correct that some. I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is one of the most rewarding and beautiful reads in all of philosophy.
Nietzsche celebrates a balanced Apollonian and Dionysian approach to art – light and dark – good and evil. A great deal of the text discusses images, especially those evoked by music, as metaphors. Nietzsche famously criticizes it – he calls it juvenile, reductive, and awkward (in slightly different words), but if you can read it without imposing the rigid categorical standards on it that he does, it is a joy.
“Truth and Lie in a Non-Moral Sense” is one of Nietzsche’s earliest works but not only does it remain an important contribution to his own body of work, readers can also see the way this text plants seeds of thought in the minds of so many thinkers after him: Albert Camus and his dedication to absurdity, Michel Foucault and his conception of madness, Jean Baudrillard and his emphasis on appearances, Jean Francois Lyotard and his articulation of judgement as the will to power, and Gilles Deleuze and his understanding of value designations and philosophy in general.
So what exactly makes one man’s writings so influential? In speaking about how to read Nietzsche, specifically his later aphoristic writings, Victor Vitanza describes the reading experience:
“When you read him, you don’t get a proposition. You get a bunch of words colliding with each other and they just vibrate.. they resonate.”
In the preface to the English translation of Gilles Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy, Hugh Tomlinson articulates this collision in the following way:
“A Nietzschean “aphorism” is not a mere fragment, a morsel of thought: it is a proposition which only makes sense in relation to the state of forces that it expresses, and which changes sense, which must change sense, according to the new forces which it is “capable” (has the power) of attracting. And without doubt this is the most important point of Nietzsche’s philosophy: the radical transformation of the image of thought that we create for ourselves. Nietzsche snatches thought from the element of truth and falsity. He turns it into an interpretation and an evaluation, interpretation of forces, evaluation of power. – It is a thought-movement, not merely in the sense that Nietzsche wants to reconcile thought and concrete movement, but in the sense that thought itself must produce movements, bursts of extraordinary speed and slowness (here again we can see the role of the aphorism, with its variable speeds and its “project-like” movement). As a result philosophy has a new relationship to the arts of movement: theatre, dance and music.”
Moving forward, in thought and argument, “Truth and Lie” lays the groundwork for this radical transformation of the image of thought. And while “Truth and Lie” is packed with profundity, I sense one major argument that then has many manifestations and implications that I’ll describe now.
Throughout the article, you hear Nietzsche refer to this kind of impulsivity for truth – this is precisely how he conceives of the intellect. The impulse is real and I think of it like the desire for truth that Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans. So he argues the desire is real, but the fictions we invent to convince ourselves we’ve found it are what we should rethink. He goes on to explain how truths are illusions, histories are fictions, and every attempt to stabilize knowledge requires forgetting.
What exactly do we forget?
All of the inconsistencies, the errors, the tragedies, the inconvenient realities. We impose a kind of cause and effect — 2 + 2 = 4 — on the world, and we forget, we really, truly forget, that we are the ones who assigned the value designations to the language that we constantly use. We pretend language is self-evident and that there is an ontological link between language and reality.
This is quite an argument, right? What’s even more invigorating is the style in which he delivers it. Just look at this opening illustration:
“In some remote corner of the universe, effused into innumerable solar systems, there was once a star upon which clever animals invented cognition. It was the haughtiest, most mendacious moment in the history of this world, but yet only a moment. After Nature had taken breath awhile, the star congealed and the clever animals had to die.”
He begins his argument with this fable-like illustration of animals inventing cognition as a way for us to understand the man-made nature of the intellect. Some translations even begin with “Once upon a time…” He invents a myth to show us how utterly foolish and fleeting it is for us to operate in a world that we believe revolves around the intellect. The intellect, for Nietzsche, is the emphasis on certainty, reason, and rationale. Said another way, the intellect results from our impulse for truth.
Intellect, the impulse for truth, prompts us to invent causes for effects and then we forget we invented the cause. These ideas are a little abstract, so I encourage you to think about any kind of boundary in your life. Think about how we categorize time, or draw lines between countries, or create laws for behavior – we let these inventions govern our existence, which is only problematic when we forget we invented them. Money is a perfect example, which is precisely what Nietzsche uses when he articulates truth:
“What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seems to a nation fixed, canonic, and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no loner of account as coins but merely as metal.”
In other words, truths, like coins, no longer signify the way we intended, and more importantly, they never really did. It is all an illusion, and once again, we forget that. In his later work, Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche offers a compelling beatitude to contextualize this same notion, “Blessed are the forgetful, for the get the better even of their blunders.”
To drive home the significance of this work, I want to conclude with Terry Eagleton’s explanation of postmodernism. Eagleton, echoing Lyotard and in the spirit of Nietzsche, speaks of the contradictions of totalizing systems emphasizing the illusion of reason, the absence of totalizing systems, and the culturally-dependent nature of truth:
“We cannot found our activities rationally, not only because there are different, discontinuous, perhaps incommensurable rationalities, but because any reasons we can advance will always be shaped by some pre-rational context of power, belief, interest or desire which can never itself be the subject of rational demonstration. There is no overarching totality, rationality or fixed centre to human life, no metalanguage which can capture its endless variety, just a plurality of cultures and narratives which cannot be hierarchically ordered or ‘privileged’, and which must consequently respect the inviolable ‘otherness’ of ways of doing things which are not their own. Knowledge is relative to cultural contexts, so that to claim to know the world ‘as it is’ is simply a chimera — not only because our understanding is always a matter of partial, partisan interpretation, but because the world itself is no way in particular. Truth is the product of interpretation, facts are constructs of discourse, objectivity is just whatever questionable interpretation of things has currently seized power, and the human subject is as much a fiction as the reality he or she contemplates, a diffuse, self-divided entity without any fixed nature or essence. In all of this, postmodernity is a kind of extended footnote to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who anticipated almost every one of these positions in nineteenth-century Europe.”
Join our newsletter to find out more about our Critical Theory & Philosophy Mini-Courses