Essay by Friedrich Nietzsche
|Truth and Lies Beyond Morality
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense. Trans. Walter Kaufmann.
Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1976.
Throughout history, there have been few great philosophers who have been able to change
the world. Plato and Aristotle shaped early western history, but when the intellectual
revolutionaries rebelled against Hellenism and Romanticism Friedrich Nietzsche was in the
forefront. He examined the social and institutional norms, and was displeased. He saw the
world spiraling downward in a fit of frustration because of the new wave of religious zealots
in his time. He found personal disagreements that he expanded upon, to form his own
philosophy. Nietzsche’s insightful understandings would become formulas and beginnings
for entire generations of philosophers, including the illustrious authors Jaspers, Marcel,
Heidegger, and Sartre. He published his ideas and the world became a deer in the headlights
of Nietzsche’s powerful thought, existentialism. His individually developed style of writing
is such that he provides a logical sequence of argumentation, and asks his reader many
rhetorical questions to which he has genuinely provided an answer. His thoughts may be
difficult to follow, but if each logical sequence is understood then the truth is in his writing.
One of Nietzsche’s earliest books focuses on the search for truth. He digs into the ways in
which people use linguistics, and how they understand the meanings that words carry with
them. The question of the possibility of the existence of truth is the central aphorism that
Nietzsche masterfully develops in On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.
He begins with the allegory, “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and
glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals
invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of world history,
yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever
animals had to die.” When the attempt at a true understanding of truth begins, Nietzsche has
already set up his existential viewpoint in the story. To Nietzsche human intellect is
something which derives its importance only from humans themselves. “There have been
eternities when it did not exist [knowledge], and when it is done for again, nothing will have
The haughtiness or self importance that goes with knowledge, and feelings, shrouds the eyes
and senses and deceives man about the value of existence, and knowledge’s most universal
effect is that of deception. Humans use knowledge as a form of intellect. The chief powers
of intellect are simulation, and in man simulation is achieved into the peak of its art:
deception, flattery, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed
splendor, being masked, the disguise of convention, and acting a role before others and one
self are all simulations. In short, the concentration on vanity is so much the rule and the law
of society that it is incomprehensible that man could make an honest and pure urge for truth.
Out of need and boredom man wants to exist socially, therefore he requires a peace pact in
its crudest form of an end to a war of all against all. This pact carries what looks like a first
step toward truth. With this designation of a pact, we see how words become a regularly
valid and obligatory designation of linguistic legislation. Moreover, since man designates
words to mean one thing, then truth itself may have a linguistic designation, as can a liar.
Nietzsche designates lying as “using valid designations of words, to make the unreal appear
as real.” For example, simply when a man says he is a woman. When the liar alters reality in
a way that is self serving and damaging to others, then society will no longer trust him. Man
does not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception: what man
hates is basically not the deception but the hostile consequences of deceptions. In a similarly
limited way man wants the truth: he desires the agreeable life-preserving consequences of
truth, but is indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences; he is even hostile to
possibly damaging and destructive truths. Therefore one must ask about the convention of
designating words to actions or things. Are they really the products of knowledge, of the
sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate
expression of all realities?
Man is so deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eye glides only over the
surface of things and sees forms; their feeling nowhere leads to truth, but contents itself with
the reception of stimuli. Moreover, man permits himself to be lied to at night, his life long,
when he dreams, and his moral sense never even tries to prevent this. Man prefers the
indifference to his ignorance, he likes to look at pretty pictures and never tries to get a deeper
understanding. He will forever buy illusions for truths. What is a word? The image of a
nerve stimulus in sounds. The different languages set side by side show that what matters
with words is never the truth, never an adequate expression.
The “thing in itself” is that of pure truth, without consequences. One only designates the
relations of things to man and to express them calls on metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first
transposed into an image, then the image in turn imitated by a sound. A leaf can be copied,
painted, photographed, woven, marked, and colored, but no copy will turn out to be a
correct, exact replica of the original form. A picture of a leaf is just that, a picture. Therefore
a word is just a word, only an imitation of a real object or action.
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms--- in
short a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished
poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to
a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are;
metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their
pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
No one knows where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the
obligation imposed by society that it should exist; to be truthful means using the customary
metaphors---in moral terms: the obligation not to provide an image of a false reality.