Nietzsche and Truth

“Truth” for Nietzsche – the No and the Yes of truth – traced through “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” and beyond to that autobiography of a mind and a body — the two inseparable — that is Ecce Homo. Truth traced to understanding what Nietzsche meant by truth.

The No of truth:

The “senses nowhere lead to truth” (TL, 80) – how can they when our bodies deceive us about our own bodies, masking and thus making us forget about “the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers!” (TL, 80)?

Does truth exist outside of man? No. Truth was invented so we can live together socially (TL, 81). Truth: “a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth” (81).

Are words truth? No. “What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus” (81). The designation of certain sounds to certain objects or, more accurately, concepts, is arbitrary (82), that is: “truth alone” is not “the deciding factor in the genesis of language” (81).

“With words, it is never a question of truth” (82).

“The thing in itself” — a Kantian concept — is this the truth? “The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for” (82). Words, therefore, do not correspond to “the thing in itself,” and “the thing in itself” is itself a pointless pursuit – why pursue what, by definition, you cannot know? And what of the “would be”? Does not this “would be” require an “if”? If, perhaps, there were such a thing as “pure truth?” In any case, “pure truth” is something Nietzsche sees as “something not in the least worth striving for” since words do not correspond to pure truth, to “the thing in itself.” The “genesis of language” is “not derived from the essence of things” (83).


“We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things – metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities” (83).

What is a metaphor? Saying one thing is another. Words, therefore, themselves are metaphors. What are words for? Particulars? No. Words are for concepts. We cannot name each particular, unique object. Therefore, words “correspond in no way to the original entities.” More: “a word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases” (83). And what is a concept? “We obtain a concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts” (83).

Concepts are created in the human mind: “our contrast between individual and species is something anthropomorphic and does not originate in the essence of things” (83). “Concepts, forms, etc. is based upon” “an equation between things that are unequal” (94). There is no perfect “original model” of things, like leaves “according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted” (83), presumably be a deity –- the only thing capable of such weaving, sketching, etc. This is a truth that does not need a god. This is a truth found only in the mind of man. The “essence of things” does not appear “in the empirical world,” (86), but only in the mind of man, since artists “reveal more about the essence of things than does the empirical world” (87). It is we who bring “truth” into existence (87-88), “truth” as “the essence of things.”

So, “What then is truth?” (84). What, indeed, is the Yes of truth? Truth is:

A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are not considered as metal and no longer as coins (TL, 84)

That is: “to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors” (84), which means that it “is the duty to lie according to fixed convention” (84). We have forgotten that these are lies, and that is how we have arrived at our “sense of truth” (84). Truth means using things “in the designated manner” (85).

Truth, therefore, is mere convention – the way things have been done. Truth, therefore, is not permanent. “New truths” are possible – new truths are merely new ways to do things. But these are all”anthropomorphic truths,” which means we have designated concepts with words, and then act surprised when we find something else that fits that category, and so declare the concept we originally created as “truth” (85).

Is all truth anthropomorphic? What about the “true in itself”? Is there something “really and universally valid apart from man” (85)? By forgetting metaphors and being particular – “this sun, this window, this table” – do we come to “truth in itself” (86). Knowing “truth in itself” is knowing the world as a place, not of concepts and forms, but as a place of unique particularities.

So, can we get away from anthropomorphic truths and get at the “true in itself”? “The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive” (88), and the mind “seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally” (89). Indeed, “it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn apart by art” (89).

We prefer our anthropomorphic truths to the “true in itself,” they create comfort, convince us we are awake. It reflects the regular, the rational – and it is in fact the rational man who wants to use the usual metaphors. But it is the intuitive man, the “liberated intellect” who creates new concepts and shatters (by dividing up) old ones (90). This is the artist, the creator of new metaphors, the creators of untruths, without which “there can be neither society nor culture” (92).

“His nose wrinkled into a prune” creates a new concept – one that includes human noses and prunes – and therefore creates a new truth. It is also a particular – a particular nose, “his,” that is associated with this thing, “prune,” to make his nose have a particular look – thus making it unique and, therefore, a “truth in itself” as well as a “new truth.” The new metaphor creates a new concept (new grouping of objects) that results in a “new truth” in the anthropomorphic sense, while bringing us closer to “truth in itself” by unveiling the particularity of the wrinkled object.

How does it do this? Because art admits it is a lie: “Artistic pleasure is the greatest kind of pleasure, because it speaks the truth quite generally in the form of lies” (96), and therefore comes closest to revealing itself as truth. “Art works through deception – yet one which does not deceive us” (96). Why? Because “art treats illusion as illusion; therefore it does not wish to deceive; it is true” (96). “His nose wrinkled into a prune” – an artistic statement, and therefore closer to truth than anything else in this protokoll. Why? “Truth cannot be recognized. Everything which is knowable is illusion. The significance of art as truthful illusion” (97). A redundant statement: “truthful illusion”: since truth is identified by Nietzsche as “illusion” (93). Thus art is an “illusionful illusion,” and, as such, like love and religion, one of “the truest things in this world” (95).

This then leads us to Ecce Homo, to the autobiography of an intellect. In keeping with the theme of truth, I thought we should see how Nietzsche’s ideas on truth have evolved. A lifetime of philosophizing has passed, and this immoralist, this Anti-Christ, has come to proclaim that “Overthrowing idols (my word for “ideals”) –- that come closer to being part of my craft (EH, 218, 4). (I give first the pg. of the Kaufmann translation, then the Hollingdale) And what are ideals (idols)? “What is called idol on the title page is simply what has been called truth so far. Twilight of the Idols – that is: the old truth is approaching its end” (EH, 314, 86).

He shows the old truths –- the anthropomorphic truths –- are what have been called “ideals.” He reiterates that the world of ideals, what he is now calling the “true world,” or what philosophers past have considered the true world, is really the invented world (218, 4), the world invented by man, through concepts. Only Nietzsche’s words have now become stronger: “The lie of the ideal has so far been the curse of reality” (218, 4). And not only this. “Error (-belief in the ideal-) is not blindness, error is cowardice . . . Every acquisition, every step forward in knowledge is the result of courage, of severity towards oneself, of cleanliness with respect to oneself . . . I do not refute ideals, I merely draw on gloves in their presence . . .” (218, 4).

So, error is “belief in the ideal,” and, not only that, but cowardice as well. Naturally, courage is the opposite of cowardice, meaning courage is disbelief in the ideal. For Nietzsche, only those who do not believe the lie of the ages – truth, ideals, “the thing in itself” – are courageous. He sees this “truthfulness as the highest virtue; this means the opposite of the cowardice of the “idealist” who flees from reality” (328, 98). “Cowardice in face or reality” is “cowardice in face of truth” (320, 91).

But Nietzsche here, as in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” refuses to be dogmatic -– that has not changed. This is why, despite his saying those who do not believe in ideals have courage, Nietzsche says “I do not refute ideals, I merely draw on gloves in their presence . . .” Why gloves? He does not want to be soiled by the filth of “ideals.” This, despite his acknowledgment that “ideals” had been “the real fatality in my life, the superfluous and stupid in it, something out of which there is no compensation, no counter-reckoning” (241, 25) –- ideals have been difficult for Nietzsche himself to rid himself of –- they are “the fundamental irrationality of my life” (242, 26).

Looking back, Nietzsche realizes that it is difficult to shed ones life of the lies one is raised with. “We all fear truth” (246, 29), undoubtedly because we fear change – and we fear the world unmasked of truth. At best, ideals have been frozen by Nietzsche, if not truly refuted (284, 60). He hopes he has gotten us to see, as he has, that “all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity” (258, 38), while acknowledging that most are not capable of seeing: “‘where you see ideal things, I see -– human, alas all too human things!’” (281, 59). Truths remain mobile. There are “my truths” (259, 39), and Zarathustra “creates truth” (307, 76). And if truths can be created, they are impermanent, changeable, “a moving army of metaphors.”

While the “true in itself” comes “upon every image (metaphor),” while “words and wordchests of all existence spring open to you; all existence here wants to become words” (301, 73) because words, concepts, are more comforting than “truth in itself.” Only when we realize that “Nothing that is can be subtracted, nothing is dispensable” will we be able to realize that “precisely by this measure of strength does one approach truth” (272, 50) –- again, it is the particular that is the “true in itself,” not words, not concepts, which require that something be subtracted in order to be conceptualized, in order to be given a sound tag –- that is, a word to represent it. And the more conceptual –- the further from reality -– something is, while claiming to be truth (unlike art, which admits to being a lie), “Those things which mankind has hitherto pondered seriously are not even realities, merely imaginings, more strictly speaking lies from the bad instincts of the sick, in the profoundest sense injurious natures –- all the concepts ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘sin,’ ‘the Beyond,’ ‘truth,’ ‘eternal life’” (256, 36).

Why do we do this? “The concept of the “beyond,” the “true world” [was] invented in order to devalue the only world there is –- in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality” (334, 103). In fact, “Twice, at precisely the moment when with tremendous courage and self-overcoming an honest, an unambiguous, a completely scientific mode of thinking had been attained, the Germans have known how to discover secret paths to the old ‘ideal’, reconciliations between truth and ‘ideal’, at bottom formulas to a right to reject science, for a right to lie” (320, 91).

So now science, in addition to art, is a path toward the truth, since the “right to reject science” is seen here as the “right to lie.” The “true in itself” now seen as achievable through both art and science, through the breaking apart of the old metaphors and the realization of the particularity of the world, that the world is first perceived, then conceived, and not vice versa. This is now Nietzsche “was the first to discover the truth by being the first to experience lies as lies” (326, 96). This is how Nietzsche can say ” –- the truth speaks out of me. –- But my truth is terrible; for so far one has called lies truth” (326, 96), and he has shown us the lies we live by.

Fear and Injustice

How often do we fail to do something because of fear? How often do we allow injustices to continue because of fear?

Think about all of the people being accused of sexual harassment. Think about how many of them preyed on others for decades because their victims wouldn’t say something out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing a job, fear of not getting a job, fear of what people would think of them.

Of course, much of the time the people who are most aware of the problems in society are aware of those problems precisely because of the jobs they have. If they were to let people know about the underlying corruption, the way people actually behave, the way money is wasted, the way people are treated, they would be fired–and likely find themselves unable to get another job in that fields. Or, sometimes, in any field (you don’t want to be known as the person who roots out corruption in a society permeated with corruption).

If you want to know the degree to which public education is corrupt, ask a public school teacher. Actually, that won’t do you any good, because they won’t say anything because they are afraid they’ll lose their jobs. Better, ask a former school teacher, who has no intention of ever working in public education again.

The laws “protecting” whistle-blowers are useless. Government whistle-blowers just get accused of being traitors. When that whistle-blower is a police officer reporting on the corruption among the police, he can find himself an unfortunate victim of an unsolvable crime. When that whistle-blower is an employee of a corporation, that person had better be independently wealthy, as they will have a very hard time getting a new job. Our prisons are full of such whistle-blowers, who suddenly find they violated some piece of legislation that primarily exists to protect business and government from whistle-blowers.

And just try to report something to the EEOC or some similar government entity supposedly designed to protect workers. How often is something not found, when you know the business was screwing you over?

This then gets into something other than fear. This gets into the fact that bureaucracies make you feel helpless. If you overcome your fear, you will find yourself essentially helpless in the face of the bureaucracies that are supposed to be helping you.

To return to the issue of fear, there are also a number of social issues we simply cannot deal with because of the fear of political correctness. It is impossible to criticize certain people for certain things for fear of being labeled a sexist or a racist or a homophobe or such. If you criticize something–say, a lack of trust–that is found primarily in a certain group–say, among the poor–you will likely find yourself accused of racism because of your accuser’s perception that the poor are mostly minorities (which isn’t actually true). You will likely be accused of saying all the poor are untrusting or even untrustworthy (although you didn’t), or of saying that this or that minority group is inherently untrusting or untrustworthy (although you didn’t). As a result, people learn not to even make cultural or subcultural criticisms because you’ll find people overapplying what you said to make you look bad. From fear, we won’t criticize anyone’s ethics or morals.

Of course, if you cannot say anything out of fear, fear is preventing you from changing the world. Is this, perhaps, the point? We are allowing injustices to continue because of fear. We fear what people will say, what people will think; we fear losing our jobs, or being unable to get a new one. We live in a culture of fear–and we’re deathly afraid to say so.

The Father of Lies and His Minions

If the devil is the father of lies, then a few observations need to be made.

1. It is not lying per se that is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, but “bearing false witness.” This is a legal term, and means that you cannot lie to either harm an innocent or to help a guilty person. In other words, you cannot tell the kinds of likes that harm society. Thus, fictional stories are not covered by this commandment, as fictional stories not only do not harm society, but in fact benefit them by showing the truth and giving moral examples. It is for this reason that bans on works of fiction, especially novels, are often called for –- because the people who call for such bans are afraid of the truth, and are acting immorally. Nietzsche says that “Art tells the truth in the general form of a lie.” And Aristotle prefers fiction to history precisely because history says what did happen, while fiction says what could and ought to have happened.

2. God—Jesus—Satan form a legal system. God is the judge. “Satan” means “adversary” in Hebrew, and an adversary is the person who brings charges against the accused. In the Old Testament, this was the entire system, and we see this system at work in Job. The Adversary brings charges against Job, and God subsequently tries Job. Job is left with no recourse but to bear what happens to him, and even to challenge to God himself the justice of what God is doing. Job gets chastised by God because the error Job makes in questioning God is not in realizing, as Heraclitus did, that “to man some things are just, some unjust. But to God all things are just, good, and beautiful.” Job also did not have the advantage of having a Defender –- which is the role of Jesus, and why he came to earth. Now, when the Adversary brings charges, Jesus defends us.

3. If you support lies, or use lies, then you are in league with the devil –- the father of lies. This puts most churches, especially in the United States, in league with the devil, as most churches preach and support lies of various kinds. It has been said that the greatest trick the devil ever performed was to convince the world he didn’t exist. I disagree. The greatest trick the devil ever performed was to convince people to believe in the “literal interpretation” of the Bible. He must have had a good belly laugh when people accepted this oxymoron. All texts require interpretation –- and all texts have several interpretations. Scientific texts may be written so that they can have very few interpretations –- but even this statement is not entirely accurate, since scientists often argue over the interpretation of data. But most other texts have many more interpretations –- as many as there are people, and readings by each of those people. Which is not to say that those interpretations should not be in context or not have a family resemblance to each other, because they should (or else they will be bad readings). You know you have a bad reading of something if you have to ignore some other part of the overall text for that reading to work.

4. The word “myth” has taken on a negative meaning since the ascension of science as “the” way of knowing about the world. But science can only tell us about the world below the human level of reality. Myth, poetry, art, religion –- these all speak of things above and including the human. We need to stop thinking that a “myth” does not have the same value as science –- this is a prejudice of modern-day scientific thinking. Too many people think science is the only way of knowing about things –- meaning, for them, if the Bible is of any value, it must be scientific as well. But science as we currently understand and use it was developed 1500 years after the last book of the Bible was written. And scientific history (history as we now understand and practice it) was developed at the same time. So, the Bible has been falsely attributed to being a work of science and history in the modern sense. But this takes away from the value and truth of the Bible, as we see from Aristotle’s distinction (Aristotle actually uses the word “myth” in his definition, not fiction –- I too have been guilty here of modernizing things and causing confusion, since fiction too is a modern idea in the era of scientific thinking). Basically, we need to do away with our modern-day prejudices against ways of knowing about the world other than science. And equally, we need to stop using modern-day usages and understandings of words and ideas for texts outside that time-context. The Bible is not science, nor is it history in the modern sense of the term –- though it certainly is history in the ancient sense, as well as mythology in the best sense of the term, meaning it is a source of truth. To Christians the source of the profoundest truths. But truth is different from scientific fact.

5. I am concerned with the lie of the Bible being science and history in the modern sense precisely because this lie has alienated more people from Christianity than anything else. And it is a lie perpetuated and preached from pulpits everywhere. Anyone with the scientific evidence before them will realize that as a work of science, the Bible is one of the least accurate texts ever written. Now, if the Bible is scientifically unfactual (untrue), then its truth must be questioned in other areas –- if scientific truth is how we measure all things. And many people do indeed do this, which is why they end up rejecting the Bible –- and Christianity. And it does not help when defenders of the scientific facticity of the Bible use outright lies to support their position (like saying fossil ages are determined by the geological level they are in, and that geological levels’ ages are determined by the fossils they have –- which is an outright lie). Those who knowingly use lies to support their positions both know their position is weak, and are bearing false witness. They are of the devil’s party, and are helping to drive more people from Christianity.

But if the Bible is myth, it is true –- and it is also not at all in conflict with science, or the truths science uncovers. The devil trembles when I say this, for fear you might understand: there is no conflict between the truth of the Bible and the fact that the universe is 15 billions years old, born in a big bang that gave rise to an earth 4.5 billion years ago, on which life arose 3.5 billion years ago, and which evolved into all the living forms, including humans, through entirely natural means. The meaning and truth of the Bible is not lost if we reject the lies of the sciences of creationism or intelligent design, and accept rather the truth of evolution. In fact, too many people have already been lost to the truth of the Bible because of the lie of creationism. The proponents of creationism and intelligent design are very much of the devil’s party –- perpetuating lies that drive people from the Bible’s truth and meaning. Their master would be proud.