Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Gay Science: V.381–V.383

“…an as yet undiscovered country whose boundaries nobody has surveyed yet…” Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, own work, GFDL 1.2,


As much as I appreciate some of the sentiment, I suspect that Nietzsche’s comments about being understandable have been more abused than properly used:

One does not only wish to be understood when one writes; one wishes as surely not to be understood. It is not by any means necessarily an objection to a book when anyone finds it impossible to understand: perhaps that was part of the author’s intention—he did not want to be understood by just “anybody.” (V.381)

Obviously there is some truth to this statement. Authors who are writing for others in their given profession by definition will use in-language that excludes those outside the discipline. Whether the technical language of the sciences or the terms of philosophy, or even the more spiritual language of a book written by one member of a religion for another, we should expect this sort of thing to be common.

And yet, to say that a book is hard to understand should not be taken to mean that it is deep, meaningful, or useful. It may be that difficult language has been used to obscure meaning, obstruct truth, and make the author appear better and more intelligent than his ideas actually merit. (I may or may not have tried that from time to time on a paper in college—though I doubt my professors were ever fooled.)

Although this method has been abused, it’s not what Nietzsche intends. His obscurity is at least to be brief, rather than prolonged. This is because he thinks reflection and extended meditation tend to hide the truths that we know instinctively and that come to us in flashes of inspiration. Shame and doubt are the products of time, not the truth that Nietzsche is searching for.

If we have kept up with Nietzsche through this work, and if we have seen what he intends us to see, then we should have a vision of a new land:

it will seem to us as if, as a reward, we now confronted an as yet undiscovered country whose boundaries nobody has surveyed yet, something beyond all the lands and nooks of the ideal so far, a world so overrich in what is beautiful, strange, questionable, terrible, and divine that our curiosity as well as our craving to possess it has got beside itself—alas, now nothing will sate us any more! (V.382)

This philosophical heavenly vision will leave us completely dissatisfied with our lives in the here and now, and with the people who live around us. From their perspective, our beliefs will be unnatural, even inhuman, since they are so far beyond what currently defines our beliefs and morality now. But it is this challenge to the reigning paradigm that moves us forward and changes “the destiny of the soul,” though that change will be the beginning of a tragedy (V.382).

Here at the end of the book, if things have gotten too heavy for us, Nietzsche suggests that we listen to some light and happy music. Of course it should be noted that an appendix in “songs” follows, so maybe there is another way Nietzsche can make his point to us. As with the Prelude in Rhymes, I am not equipped to comment much on these songs. So we’ll leave it here and pick up next time with Beyond Good and Evil.


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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