"Supposing Truth Were A Woman--What Then?"
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the most controversial philosophers in the history of the art. He began his publishing career in 1872 with a book called The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music which rapidly made him one of the least popular philosophers in Europe. These days, regrettably, Nietzsche is most widely known as a straw man held up by political right wing actors who claim to be supported by his works. This state of affairs is the genesis of many essays, such as this one, which attempt to exhume Nietzsche’s flamboyant spirit and wrest his likeness from the hands of Nazis, fascists, and other weak minds.
The most striking aspect of Nietzschean thought is the recursion which develops in it during his later writings, most particularly in Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil. Zarathustra is a story, told in a fantastic and strange way. It is the birthplace of the Ubermensch, the characterization of the super-man or overman whose creation humanity seems to be striving toward. Nietzsche seems to be quite sardonic in his telling of this tale, using a tongue-in-cheek style that forces a wary reader to think about the value of my life, as a human being, unavoidably raising the personal question of a life spent only in pursuit of something better to come later.
It is precisely this recursive rhetorical device which allows Nietzsche’s writings to become poison to the weak while remaining food for the strong—a weak man, similar to a minor in the later writings of Kant, cannot function autonomously; hence weak Nietzsche readers go on about the overman while strong, free-thinking readers recognize this anecdote as the paradox it is. Beyond Good and Evil is itself a much more clearly self-reflective work, a work which functions as a sort of codex to the rest of the body of Nietzsche’s thought. A clear difference is observable between works such as these and The Birth of Tragedy, whose novel insights do not seem to clearly touch German society in the way Nietzsche later wanted to but rather find a focus upon the politics of the ancients.
Unfortunately for many would-be Nietzsche enthusiasts from far-right circles, it does take a significant amount of time to develop a deep understanding of the Nietzschean thought process. What falls out of this understanding is in every sense Nietzsche’s: a deeply caustic rejection of social philosophies which to any extent contradict liberal individualism. Strength needs no parade! Indeed, the very stance one must take to write in the polemical style Nietzsche takes up itself implies a deep embrace of the right of the individual to critique the group. And critique the group, he did! In some places it is still argued that the University of Basel paid Nietzsche a stipend not to teach, though sources such as the reputable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy still maintain that the primary motivation behind the separation Nietzsche underwent from the university involved his health, mainly.
This essay gets its title from a favorite aphorism of the author’s, to be found in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil. “Supposing truth is a woman—what then?” By inviting his audience to question the very character of the goal of philosophical investigation, Nietzsche brings an important point home: the relevance of truth itself is contingent upon the end we would use said truth in service of.
In the age of Donald Trump, the age of Russian misinformation, the age of Brexit, a phrase from this preface strikes home with an accuracy Nietzsche himself could likely never have foreseen. The “strange, wicked, questionable questions” (BGE, 9) which compel us to search for truth are still visible in the political realm many have taken to describing as a “post-truth” world. The only reason it seems to modern thinkers that many have abandoned truth is that the vast majority of subjugated mankind has never had any use for it—leaders upon pedestals and social identities replace truth for them.
Nietzsche realizes that we need to understand the world as it is before we begin to act in it. However, the simple truth of the matter is in many cases “we do not yet know for certain” –cases which involve such phenomena as the specific outcomes of climate change, or the impact of a trade war upon international relations. Questionable questions such as “can we be certain that climate change is a threat?” seem to demand a higher standard for truth than political action ordinarily requires. These sorts of questions are well and good from a philosophic standpoint, but when they are employed with an agenda behind them they become political, even dangerous. With respect to climate change in particular, humankind has used the difficulty of making specific predictions to justify inaction for at least forty years.
Instead of the traditional academic honesty, regarding difficult matters such as these and others, dogmatism has been put up as an answer to questionable questioning. Regarding climate change, we are instructed that nothing is known—a deep stretch of the position taken by a majority of scientists! And it is easy to connect this unknowingness with political inaction. Regarding trade, regarding war, regarding the fate of the Western democracy itself, vast media empires compete for the attention of the masses by vying for the latest, most sensational story—a story which is almost always spun out of the web of a questionable question. The value of untruth is at a premium: only the untrue can support the unjust! And how profitable these enterprises are. Seeking truth as a freethinker or as a philosopher is not a lifestyle choice anyone should freely make.
Instead of seeking the truth in issue politics, where the questionable questions asked serve only as hooks to catch the public by the eye, an educated populace must rather strive toward the immediate surroundings which we each possess on our own, without the “aid” of the political circus our news-media insists upon spoon-feeding to us. Political minds such as the American Koch brothers employ scripts designed to directly target the affect of a predetermined audience. Lower taxes (not much lower, and not for the people being sold on the idea) provide the rationale for the elimination of public transit, but by posing questions, (“do you want higher taxes, sir?”) millions of people can be manipulated into acting against their own, and their communal, best interests. A question is a powerful thing. What questionable questions indeed!
Government of a nation as large as America, or for that matter the U.K., is prohibitively complex—a sure cavern of Socrates into which to direct the attention of the masses! Truth, untruth—the purpose of political discourse at the national level is to prevent such a discussion from taking place at the local level. Worse, philosophers of contemporary times such as Alexander Dugin actively decry the development of knowledge and seek to pollute the flows of information in order to manipulate the public basis for decision making. Rather than, as Nietzsche might say, confronting an incomplete understanding of the world, these philosophers seek to throw such efforts by the wayside and instead spoon-feed the public with completely comprehensible untruths.
Nietzsche recognized the possibility of such toxic discourse—it is the soul of his famous notion of nihilism, the description which applies to leaders who do not believe the words which pass their lips. Perhaps it was as prevalent in his day as it is in ours. His keen intellect discerned the possibility of widespread public manipulation: “Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?” (BGE, 9). In fact, if one’s agenda is dishonest, if one is what Nietzsche termed a ‘nihilist’, untruth in particular is precisely what allows one to advance in the minds of one’s fellows. If we seek to control others, untruth is of value because it renders predictable the decisions based upon it. Truth, on the other hand, simply lays out a level playing field for the best decisionmaker to win the game.
Collectively, it is best for us if the truth is spread wide, but colloquially, parochially, individually… we can benefit by lying. And benefit more by deceiving more minds.
Nietzsche’s personal answer to this conundrum was a simple one which is strikingly reminiscent of the move Kant made in speaking up for autonomy as the expression of reason: turn away from simplicity. Reject the thesis that life can be easy. In seeking conflict, complexity, and life wherever his scholarship took him, Nietzsche’s polemical individualism made it possible to question everything. Such was, in fact, his un-doing, from the scholarly standpoint, as his works became incomprehensible to his deeply offended—dare we say outclassed?—colleagues, a fact it seems he may have harbored a deep regret for! If nothing else, it seems Nietzsche found himself lonely. Yet it is by virtue precisely of his unpopularity that Nietzsche’s name and books live on into the present day, as it is precisely the clear thinking virtue of his powerful mind which enabled him to write such astounding philosophy.
Readers of Nietzsche must recognize that the weak spirit is the spirit which does as it is told, as opposed to the strong spirit—which does as it wishes. Nietzsche was a powerful mind who wanted to find other powerful minds to spend time with, and though he seems to have failed, his description of the world has provided modern philosophers with endless inspiration. Yet, we must not forget that it also serves as a description of Nietzsche’s political opposition.
And it is thus that we find Nietzsche today just as relevant as he ever was—the misinformation culture of the early twenty-first century exists because of the weakness of the people who partake in it. Instead of allowing the populists to claim Nietzsche as their own, readers and thinkers today need to read everything, including Nietzsche’s works, with care. We must be more critical, more questioning, when we read the news—when we cast our ballots. The very soul of individualism itself is at stake in elections across the globe.
Dylan Daniel, author of Formal Dialectics