Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: I.48–II.58

We are anxious to turn unhappiness into a monster we can defeat.


We’ve seen several times now Nietzsche’s idea that pleasure and pain always travel together. This is a difficult idea in the modern world, where we are increasingly in the business of minimizing suffering to the point where we don’t even want to think about it, let alone experience it—hence the rise of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and all other manner of attempts to offset potential suffering. As a result, we’ve seen the development of pessimistic philosophies and cynical worldviews, which can only be offset by actual misery—the very price we are unwilling to pay.

Just as pain and pleasure go together, so we find that there are other pairs as well:

Magnanimity contains the same degree of egoism as does revenge, but egoism of a different quality. (I.49)

Again, we see that where we would want to compare and contrast vices and virtues, Nietzsche holds both up as different aspects or potentialities of the same individual. In fact, such things may be reduced to our true motivation: fear of solitude. We can’t stand the thought of being rejected by others, so we go along with the crowd on the outside (I.50) and hide our true selves on the inside (I.52). The antidote to this is honesty:

I favor any skepsis to which I may reply: “Let us try it!” But I no longer wish to hear anything of all those things and questions that do not permit any experiment. (I.51)

We need people who are willing and able to see the false facade that covers over society and push behind it to see what’s there. This includes the need to see the true motivations and impulses that drive the world.

Where the poor power of the eye can no longer see the evil impulse as such because it has become too subtle, man posits the realm of goodness… (I.53)

And that is the source of our sense of security—we don’t see what is really going on. Those who can tend to be full of “gloominess and grief,” but they are at least the few rather than the many.

This statement about seeing true good and evil behind the facade leads Nietzsche into a discussion of appearances and the characteristics of the “noble” people that he has been describing all along that make them able to see through these appearances. I’ll admit that some of this was a little beyond me (fortunately, Kaufmann’s introduction suggested that book one was a little too obscure at times, so hopefully it’s not just me), but from what I can tell the idea is that all of us are made up of our physical and spiritual heritage, but that we have covered that over with a facade of… civilization, or culture, or something.

I have discovered for myself that the human and animal past, indeed the whole primal age and past of all sentient being continues in me to invent, to love, to hate, and to infer. I suddenly woke up in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am dreaming and that I must go on dreaming lest I perish. (I.54)

Just because we realize the truth does not mean that we may now set aside the appearance and live in a different way. We have to stay in our place in society and live with the other “dreamers,” at least for now. This sounds something like Plato’s “noble lie,” in that the lie is what keeps society going and makes life livable.

Who are the sorts of people who can see behind the appearances to the reality, and yet continue to live in the appearances? Nietzsche here repeats his definition of nobility as those who see what others cannot. They are the ones who feel “heat in things that feel cold to everybody else,” or who discover new values or new ideas, who offer “sacrifices on altars that are dedicated to an unknown god” (I.55). They may be tapping into an older virtue that has become stagnant in the modern world, or they may be seeing a better truth than that which our regular customs allow—but as with any truth they see those who are actually noble may be the people who can see the better truth and hold to the customs anyway:

To become the advocate of the rule—that might be the ultimate form and refinement in which noblemindedness reveals itself on earth. (I.55)

Again, it may be that life is only livable because some people overlook what they see in favor of what society demands. This is a sort of suffering on their part, unlike that silly suffering that many young people seem to demand today. This suffering is an internal suffering the likes of which few can imagine. What most people want is

that not happiness but unhappiness should approach from the outside and become visible; and their imagination is busy in advance to turn it into a monster so that afterward they can fight a monster. (I.56).

If you want a clear example of this at work in our own world, consider the video game created by a Christian family who lost a child to cancer. People who enjoy video games (back when I had spare time, I was one of these people) are quite willing to “face” and slaughter unimaginable evils by the millions, yet many regular gamers refused to play this game because they were worried about the effect it would have on them. This is suffering that is intolerable, and that is where Nietzsche ends book one.

Book two begins with a further discussion of the importance of our perspective when it comes to our interactions with the world. We cannot have a view of “cold hard reality,” because we are viewing it through the filter of all our prejudices and ideas that have been passed down from generation to generation. But in this realization, we also see some encouraging truth:

The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and weight of a thing, what it counts for… all this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in it, until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body. (II.58)

It is true that we see the world through our own filters of perception, but it is also true that those filters have had a hand in shaping the world. I think this idea could be pushed too far, of course, but in its most basic form it does seem to have a good deal of truth to it.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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