Given the discussion of “physics” in yesterday’s reading, it is appropriate that today’s begins with “weight.” Specifically, the weight of the knowledge of what will come to be called the “eternal return.” Imagine, Nietzsche tells us, that a demon were to come and tell us that we are living a life that is on a repeat cycle for all eternity. We will continually experience the same pains and pleasures forever:
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “you are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” (IV.341)
The idea is that those who know themselves and are living according to who they are will find that this revelation is a benediction, an “ultimate eternal confirmation and seal” (IV.341). These are the ones who have overcome and achieved the life that Nietzsche has been talking about all along, the life of happiness wherein the “Gay science” is lived.
And yet, this is not where the book ends. Over and over Nietzsche has told us that this life is a life of solitude—perhaps only existential solitude (the cranky old man in me would point out that “existential solitude” is not actually solitude at all), but solitude nonetheless. At the end of book four, we see that the individual who has achieved happiness does not remain in solitude but is compelled to take what he has gained and try to share it with others:
Behold, I am sick of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to receive it; I want to give away and distribute until the wise among men enjoy their folly once again and the poor their riches. (IV.342)
The note points out the connection between this paragraph and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, so I’ll pass over that here. Instead, we again should note that like Christians, Nietzsche understands that there is something about the truth which turns those who hold it into evangelists. While he and I disagree about what the truth actually is, his observation here is nevertheless a good one. You cannot have important knowledge about reality and keep it to yourself—even if the act of sharing it with others feels like a kind of “going under.”
And what is it that these evangelists of truth are to share? Well, among other things, that God is dead and the world is now changing. A handful of people know this fact, but the man on the street seems not quite to have picked it up, and its implications have not yet seeped through every aspect of the culture. For that matter, nobody seems to know what the implications of this fact are, though the suspicion is that the death of God means catastrophe for the world:
how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality. (V.343)
Yet Nietzsche argues that the most aware and thoughtful observers are not concerned at all. Although the death of God means the collapse of the old order, it also means that a new era of freedom and possibility may be dawning:
Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright. (V.343)
As the old morality dies, we have the chance to build something new, if not actually better (that remains to be seen).
What we are to build will be related to science, morality, and truth—the three components of the last section in today’s reading. Nietzsche argues that the new God-less world must realize that it still operates very much by faith. Even science, with all its “proofs” and “evidences,” relies exclusively on our faith in the presuppositions that go into it in the first place. For example, in order for science to be able to find answers, we have to believe that there are answers to be found.
So what are we to do? Well, if we begin with a “will to truth” (presumably necessary whether we’re talking about morality, science, or religion), we find that there are two possibilities:
Is it the will not to allow oneself to be deceived? Or is it the will not to deceive? (V.344)
The former of course is to some extent out of our hands, but really is necessary for life in the world and in a functional society. But the latter, the idea of the will to truth as a refusal to deceive others or ourselves, is utterly destructive to human existence. This kind of “will to truth” contains within it a “will to death” (V.344). Why? Because
…those who are truthful in that audacious and ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world”—look, must they not by the same token negate its counterpart, this world, our world? (V.344)
Thus our presupposition that “there is absolute truth” comes into conflict with “I will not lie to myself,” and so has to invent another, transcendent, world which we may believe in, and which sets us against the “real” world that you and I live in. And so we become proponents of death rather than proponents of life. Nietzsche even suggests that all are caught in this trap, including himself (V.344).
More on this line of thought in the next post.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.