Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: III.106–III.111

We are still living with the shadows of our gods. Photo by Alexander Shafir, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.


In the last post, we saw Nietzsche discuss something of the role of music/art in human life. At the end of book two, Nietzsche outlines two further points on this subject. First, he notes that music (and again I think we can extend this to art as a whole) is capable of being a medium for ideas such that they become accessible to everyone:

With music one can seduce men to every error and every truth: who could refute a tone? (II.106)

Music, in a sense, acts as the soil out of which ideas grow in the world. Ultimately, of course, it is time that solidifies or destroys an idea, but in the here-and-now if an idea is to take hold in order to get the time it needs to survive, music is a great facilitator.

But this only hints at the overall role of art in our lives. Earlier, Nietzsche argued that we need a grand view of everything if we are to understand our proper place. Both good and evil work toward the preservation of life as driven by power, and if we left it at that such “honesty would lead to nausea and suicide” (II.107). Fortunately,

…there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us to avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance. (II.107)

Art is that which enables us to lay a superficial coat of paint over the horrors of realizing our place in the cosmos. Which is a great opportunity to go on a mild tangent and highlight the similarities with the work of the American writer H. P. Lovecraft:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (The Call of Cthulhu)

Art, if we’re using Lovecraft’s terms, is that which keeps our different bits of knowledge from associating with each other and which maintains order and stability in society and in our individual minds. Art is the thin sane line between us and chaos. We need something to make life in the light of the truth of the reality of our situation bearable, particularly since our realization of this situation has destroyed the morality that we believed to have been foundational to our lives:

We should be able also to stand above morality—and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling any moment, but also to float above it and play. (II.107)

Life above morality should be a life of struggle (as we will see in a minute), but it will also be a life of joy (“play”) rather than a life of fear. In part, this joy comes from the freedom of being released from the old bonds of morality that never quite squared with our view of reality. More on that as we read through the book.

At the beginning of book three, we get the first statement that has made Nietzsche so infamous:

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. –And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow too. (III.108)

The new view of humanity and existence presented in the first two books does not require simply a formal rooting out of traditional beliefs (for example: the existence of God), it requires a rooting out of all the implications of those beliefs that have likewise become entrenched in our minds and in our cultures. This is conversion in the most absolute sense: just as Christians dedicate their lives to fighting the remnants of the “old man” and their sinful natures, so the Nietzschean is to spend his life shedding the false views with which he has been raised.

And this shedding of false views is to be absolute. Both the religious language of teleology and aesthetics and the scientific language of organism and mechanics must go, and we must re-approach the universe on its own terms:

Let us beware of attributing to it [the universe] heartlessness and unreason or their opposites: it is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of these things; it does not by any means strive to imitate man. None of our aesthetic and moral judgments apply to it. Nor does it have any instinct for self-preservation or any other instinct; and it does not observe any laws either. Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses. Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word “accident” has meaning. (III.109)

In other words existence-as-such must be our starting point, and once that is where we begin we find that if we are honest, existence defies our attempts to impose meaning and order and beauty and other created categories onto it. And as we begin to understand that it has its own set of rules which we are to conform to (rather than the other way around), humanity begins to align with nature and nature begins to be de-deified (III.109).

Nietzsche’s claims here clearly do not line up with what we are taught or what the Western tradition has developed in the past millennia. Nietzsche argues that this is because as the human intellect struggled in the past, it produced mostly errors. Some of these errors, however, were useful for certain practical aspects of life—Nietzsche provides a list of basic propositions that he thinks fit this false-but-useful category. Over time, these errors solidify into accepted “truths” that may not be challenged:

Thus the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life. (III.110)

This false wisdom becomes functionally all-powerful, despite the fact that deep down we all know that it is false and that there is a deeper truth we have repressed. There is always a part of us that suspects that the truth of reality is not what we have been taught, but is instead something else entirely. This leaves us with two competing impulses working within us: one which demands we move toward truth and one which demands we work to survive in the world created by errors. Both have “proved to be… a life-preserving power,” and so we must choose which will win:

Compared to the significance of this fight, everything else is a matter of indifference: the ultimate question about the conditions of life has been posed here, and we confront the first attempt to answer this question by experiment. To what extent can truth endure incorporation? That is the question; that is the experiment. (III.110)

That is, can we really continue to live in the world created by useful errors as we increasingly accept the truth of reality?

We should notice the religious language throughout this section—Christians, too, present an alternative truth to that taught by the world and demand that each person choose which he will believe, and then they warn that as you live for one you will die to the other. Obviously, it is quite a different world that Christians present, but still there are some methodological similarities.


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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