In contrast to Kant who lived, wrote, taught, and died in the same place, with little or no travel abroad, Friedrich Nietzsche was probably the first European philosopher of note to extensively use the modern railway system. He did his philosophizing on the road, or rail as it were. He was on the go. For Caputo, this is a metaphor for understanding how “truth” is on the go as well, although this travel and this “homelessness” may have impacted Nietzsche’s reflections in very real ways as well. Again, this doesn’t mean “truth” changes—it means we change when we move. We “see” differently when we look from different perspectives. It’s an interesting contrast to Kant and it hearkens back to the beginning of Caputo’s book, where he speaks to the very pace and scope of modern life as affecting the way we “see” things.
Nietzsche was appointed a professor of classics (University of Basel) in 1868 at the remarkably young age of twenty-four (he is still on record there as one of its youngest professors). He was clearly brilliant and, under most circumstances, would probably have enjoyed a successful and long lucrative academic publishing and teaching career. However, his health was not good and he had no real love for academia. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was not received well by the powers that be and he would never return to the university setting in any permanent sense.
After Basel, he began an almost gypsy-like existence traveling from city to city. He sought the south of France and Italy in the winters and the mountains of Switzerland in the summers. While his physical health still remained, he also liked to hike and walk. Again, he did his thinking and writing on the go and in some of the most beautiful retreats and resort locations in Europe. Again, perhaps the very flow and speed of modern life at that time worked to help give Nietzsche’s work part of its radical nature and power. So what did this confluence of modern travel and respective power of intellect bring us? Under the heading, “Truth is a Fiction we Have Forgotten is a Fiction”, Caputo (Unless noted otherwise, all quotes from Caputo) notes:
“Given what the Platonic and Christian traditions were calling truth—he once called Christianity ‘Platonism for the people’—Nietzsche said he would prefer fiction, falsity and opinion, thank you very much. He took his stand with life and he held that whatever truth means, it must serve the purposes of life or else it had no purpose, or worse, had a purely destructive purpose.”
One of his most memorable and radical (for the time) summations of truth came from an essay he wrote entitled, “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense”. Nietzsche wrote that truth was:
“A movable 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 which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have been worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer coins.”
One can only imagine how shocking this must have seemed at the time. And yet, Nietzsche had no doubt tapped into something latent and hidden—something simmering just below the surface. We see a loss of innocence here and especially Enlightenment innocence—the thought that “reason” was pure and universal. Here is the end of the moral or ethical as “truth”, even if those morals or ethics are grounded in pure “reason” or nature.
“Nietzsche didn’t put truth first. He put life first and put truth to work in the service of life, which he took in the full range of this word, from its deepest biological sources up to the sheer joi de vivre. He thought knowing the truth was like having teeth: it must serve some life-function, help promote the exuberance and flourishing of life…he concluded that what is called truth in philosophy, where Greek philosophers like Plato have been allowed to call the shots, is more like death. It is useless for life, or worse than useless, and must be replaced with its opposite. In the history of truth, Nietzsche was a bombshell, a torch thrower, a ‘hammer’, has he described himself. No one before or since has launched an all-out attack on truth. Nobody ever dared to come out against truth or to claim truth did not come first.”
Many atheists read something like this, and say, “Amen!” Fred. But most of them don’t get what a radical thing Nietzsche was really saying. He was not just speaking about notions of “truth” in an objective, platonic, or religious sense. He would say the very same toward the liberal humanist’s notions of “truth” and ethical positions, no matter how progressive, egalitarian, democratic, economic, or environmentally sensitive. If he thought these “abstract” notions were to get in the way of “life” and those powerful enough to “seize” the moment, then they were false too. He knew that one could not have his cake and eat it too. If truth is as he described, then there is only power; there is only matter-in-motion. To make any appeal (even if the appeal is to “reason” “logic” or “science”) beyond the motivation of pure will and power is to lie—to be false.
“Nietzsche got the attention of the pious by famously saying ‘God is dead”…by this Nietzsche certainly did mean God, but not only God, if we may say such a thing. He meant the whole order of truth that had been put in place by the Greek philosophers and joined in unholy matrimony with Christianity to produce the dreaded (for him) Platonic Christian tradition of opposites: being/becoming, truth/opinion, eternity/time, soul/body, super-sensible/sensible. He sought to throw these oppositions into reverse and take the side of the body and change, time and becoming, the lower or more disreputable member of the pair. This does not mean he always took the side of the underdog, since there were other opposites in the old order he warmly embraces, such as master/slave, aristocrat/commoner, male/female. In fact he was famously elitist, patriarchal and anti-democratic, and he decried the French Revolution for giving the aristocracy a bad conscience.”
Nietzsche was honest enough to admit that if there were no God, nothing transcendent, no eternal forms, no purpose, and no meaning to existence then such also touched upon abstract notions of “reason” “logic” and such ethereal terms as “progress” and the “common” good. It meant that “better” or “worse” as terms of description melt away into meaninglessness. Yes, we could make up our own “meaning” but in such a world it only meant that whatever the powerful said was “meaningful” was “true”, even if that meant a master/slave environment of “meaning”. If Exxon says it is “meaningful” and “true”, then it is. And to rail against such, in the name of terms like “fair” “better” “good” or “evil” or “reason” was simply a loser’s (or slave’s) way of saying, “I want the power, —I want to be the master—I want to be Exxon”. All is power. Most liberal humanists and atheists do not get this about Nietzsche. If Exxon, or Hollywood, or the Republicans (name your boogey-man) define “life” and living in and for this world as this one thing: ______ (fill-in-the-blank) and are powerful enough to push and narrate that definition of “life” and living, then more power to them—they are the “winners” in Nietzsche’s view. Those who oppose them are losers, who simply want the power the “winners” hold. All the rest, all the “movable metaphors” like “moral” “ethical” “reasoned” “logical” “progressive” “fair” “better” “scientific” are simply metaphorical poetic covers for what is really always a naked grab for power and an attempt to change whatever the current master/slave relationship’s is at the time.
“So what could it possibly mean for a philosopher to deny truth…? First of all, in any straightforward sense, that would be logically contradictory because the claim ‘there is no truth’ would then be true, and therefore false. That is not only a contradiction in terms; it is the very definition of a contradiction in terms. Now since Nietzsche was a precocious genius and presumably knew what they teach in the first week of introductory logic, and what most people know anyway, he must have had something else in mind, which I think goes something like this. He did not let what we mean by truth judge life; he insisted that life judge what we mean by truth. He denied what philosophy called truth in the name of another idea of truth, one that must adjust itself to life, not the other way around.”
Now, of course, the question here would be what does Nietzsche mean by, and how does he define, “life”? To be charitable, I think he meant our deepest loves and desires in the ancient, pagan, noble sense. But this was still nostalgia, a looking back, where we can almost hear him saying, “When men were men and everyone knew their place.” This is still an “ideal” that he has just undercut us all from having (whatever the ideal)—although he would admit it is an “ideal” stripped of any metaphorical dressing such as “true” or “good” “better” or “evil.” Perhaps he meant by “life” simply what our impulses, drives, and desires compelled us to do and that any idea of “truth” must bow to these forces.
“For example, whenever ‘I’ make a conscious judgment, Nietzsche thought that was not my ‘I’, but an underlying vitality, or life-force, or ‘will-to-power’, speaking and acting through what he regarded as the grammatical fiction called ‘I’. The question was not whether the judgment was true or false, but what end it served—life or death. What is considered true is not the result of a dispassionate judgment but what serves the life-force or will-to-power. Gilles Deleuze, a brilliant twentieth-century neo-Nietzschean, puts it this way: whenever you come upon a judgment or a desire, ask who, or better what, is doing the judging or desiring. A truth is but a perspective adopted by the vital forces that flow through my body in their struggle for ascendency. The field of truth is simply the composite of contending vital forces, some stronger, some weaker. So compared to Hegel, Nietzsche is a materialist, who is speaking about basic, physical and biological forces, not about spirit. The idea of an evolutionary drive was congenial to him but he criticized Darwin’s version of it, where organisms adapt to their environment. Nietzsche insisted that they dominated their environment.”
So Nietzsche stripped away what, for him anyway, was just pretension. He basically accused the entire western philosophical world (including the Enlightenment’s beliefs in a universal “reason” and “logic), Christianity, and western culture of masquerading, of pretending, of lying, of being something they were not. According to Nietzsche:
“What the Christian Platonists call ethics is a morality of and for slaves, of and for dog-like fawning beings who are beneath the contempt of a real man, which he called his Ubermensch (let’s say ‘overman’ since ‘superman’ has been pre-empted by Clark Kent). When you read Nietzsche, you have to realize he means these things and he does not mince words. He divided the ‘slave moralities’, those that go down with the ship, those that go under (unter, as does the sun), those who are defeated by life’s midnights, from the ‘master moralities’, the morality of those who ‘go over’ (Uber), who ride out the tempests of life, those who think that life is justified (made worth it) by its high noons, so that one moment of unqualified joy, of exuberant life, justifies all the suffering. This is a bracing thought for the individual, a call to hold up under the worst, but as Nietzsche was of a deeply anti-modern and aristocratic temperament politically and culturally, he also applied it to the culture at large. He thought that the high achievements of a culture, above all its art, justified whatever misery was being endured below. The base structures of a society (the slaves who do the work) brace and support a social order and serve to free up its higher-order expressions.”
And, of course, one could imagine what this type of nihilistic philosophy might do if grafted to the scientific thinking of the day, especially in the area of biology and eugenics. Well, we don’t have to imagine. We can look back and see that such is exactly what happened. Racism was “scientific”. We also see the existential nature of his philosophy. Truth is a decision. Truth is an action. Truth is rising up and defeating the odds, of dominating one’s environment whether social or natural. And if one loses to life or nature, he is to stand proud, fighting to the end, shaking his fist in the face of it all. And we see the post-modern nature of his philosophy, as it called into question a universal “reason” or “logic”—the very hallmark of the “modern”.
“So we have here a new model of truth: not the truth of the Platonic-Christian tradition—the one where truth is in solidarity with the great chain of being and not the truth that is subject to the rule of Reason in the Enlightenment. Truthfulness is the truth of suspicion, a cold and unvarnished truth, a suspicion of life-denying motives simmering beneath the surface of the rhetoric of truth, defending a kind of underground truth or truthfulness which suspects that what has been called truth up on the surface is a lie, what Jean-Paul Sartre would later call ‘bad faith’…if you want to see what is really going on, you have to look down, not up, go down the stairs into the dark corridors of the underground, get down in the mud, feel about in the bowels, and search the dark subterranean abyss for the hidden forces that hide beneath our skin…”
The other thing Nietzsche did differently was he didn’t really write or make his case as a philosopher in any sort of traditional sense. He didn’t make analytical arguments; in fact, his method called the very idea of communicating in such a way into question. He understood all the analytical arguments, he knew what people meant, and he was familiar with the current thinking in the areas of the humanities, science, theology, and philosophy of his day. He sensed however that the supposed objectivity and cold analysis behind these disciplines and their “analytical” nature was a fake sort of posturing. The supposed objectivity and cold distance was simply a mask—a way to sound important or authoritative.
He was probably the first philosopher to try and “out-narrate” the Christian narrative. He knew what was being told was a story. He knew the same of the Enlightenment. It was a story too. The power for each came from their compelling narratives, not their specific analytical arguments or doctrine. Other than those modern, mostly Protestant theologians and pastors, many of the Church theologians (mostly Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) knew that Christian theology is a story, a narrative (as opposed to an analytical argument). This doesn’t mean they thought it false or untrue; it simply meant they knew the form in which truth was heard, happened, was held, and passed on.
“The force of his thoughts rests on the persuasiveness of the portraits he paints, the capacity he has to make religion and Platonic philosophy look bad, and to expose the dark motives underpinning our prim and proper bourgeois lives up here on the surface of modern life. It does not rest on a knockout metaphysical argument (philosophy), divine revelation (religion) or modern physics (science). He does not use modern science to debunk religion as a fiction. He thinks science too is a fiction, albeit a useful and productive one as opposed to Christianity, which is a destructive fiction (except to the extent it kept the masses in their place)…Truth for [Nietzsche] is something we have to face, something with which we have to struggle, something we wish would go away and leave us in the tranquilized peace of everyday amusements and superficial distractions so that we might not notice that we are going to die; indeed we might not even notice that we, like our God, are already dead.”
So Nietzsche told a counter story to both the Judeo-Christian and the Enlightenment narrative, but he did so by first recognizing that such was what each were doing, although the Enlightenment was under the delusion (and where it remains—it is still under the same delusion) it was an appeal to objective “facts” and engaging in distant, cold, analysis. To the extent that modern Protestant theologians and philosophers tried to copy this so-called “scientific” (see modern fundamentalism) approach to their theology and reasoning, they came under the same critique and the western philosophical and religious worlds would never be the same after Nietzsche (many even now do not realize the comfortable narrative they inhabit—which they believe isn’t one!—was unmasked long ago).
We can admire his brutal honesty. Most recent (and certainly the “new”) atheists either do not understand Nietzsche or are unwilling, or afraid, to go as far as he went. But his logic was relentless, given his narration. If he was right, then why not go where he was unafraid to trod? We have liberal humanists who while jettisoning God and transcendence still believe in a world to come of endless rainbows, fairness, equality, human-rights, dignity, full employment, environmental sanity, peace, flowers, butterflies, and puppies and kittens for everyone (and I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with such a vision). Nietzsche would be the first one to see however that such is no more than the humanist’s attempt to bring heaven down to earth—it’s just a secular copy of a religious eschatology—the secular Kingdom to come. But, if heaven doesn’t exist, then there is nothing to bring down—there is nothing higher or lower. Thus, there is nothing to lift “up”, even from earth. There is only an abyss to gaze into if one is brave enough. And what does the one brave enough see as he slowly peers over the edge? He sees a dead man’s reflection in the shimmering watery mist covering a silent nothingness stretching into infinity. Nietzsche’s response to this unsettling event: Either man up, or get out of the way.
We will finish up with Nietzsche in our next post.