What if you were told that everything you have ever believed in was fake? The words we give to objects and actions in our materialistic world, the laws of society that have kept humans thriving for thousands of years, and perhaps even our very own purpose in life–what what we classify as “success” and “happiness”–all lies. In Nietzsche’s writing On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, the philosopher delves into what he believes to be the façade behind centuries of truth civilization has built itself upon. Nietzsche’s viewpoint is initially negative towards humans and human intellect; however, halfway through the piece Nietzsche contradicts himself by expressing a positive perspective on human intellect which begs readers with the question of why Nietzsche contradicts himself and which viewpoint he truly presents.
Nietzsche begins in a dark, nihilistic tone, metaphorizing humans as “clever beasts” that “had to die” in in a fable (79). By dehumanizing humans as beasts, Nietzsche expresses his apparent criticism and downcast of human civilization. Yet, in adding “clever” to his description of humans as beasts, Nietzsche dives into his first claim by showing that the distinction that truly differs humans from other mammals and living creatures is human’s “cleverness” or human intellect. However, in the first section of his writing, Nietzsche scorns down on human intellect, calling it “miserable,” “shadowy,” “transient,” and “aimless” in nature (79). His repetitively negative diction emphasizes his pessimistic and unfavorable view of human intellect. He furthers his claim that this intellect, or “act of knowing,” deceives men concerning the “value of existence” which essentially argues that we, as humans, tend to heighten the glories of life and living beyond the scope of what it truly is (80). As Nietzsche mentions previously about humans being clever beats that “had to die,” human death is inevitable, yet we use deceptions and lies to paint a beautiful idealistic picture of our lives that isn’t really there. In particular, Nietzsche explores the concept of “dissimulation,” of how physically weak creatures, such as humans, survive through “deception, deluding,” and “living in borrowed splendor” (80). It appears that Nietzsche paints mankind as a cheating creature who lies to both himself and others in order to rule other forms of life in a manner that he does not deserve since he is not physically strong like the other living creatures around him. This also connects back to the original claim he makes, stating that humans are smart creatures that had to die. Due to our physical incapabilities, we would have died already if it were not for our intellect. Nietzsche argues that human intellect has allowed humans to sit on a false throne of life.
Just as readers are convinced that Nietzsche disapproves of human intellect and demeans the falsehood we surround our lives with, he surprises readers through a second counter viewpoint. In a unique analogy, Nietzsche compares humans to bees by claiming “whereas the bee builds with wax that he gathers from nature, man builds with the far more delicate conceptual material which he first has to manufacture from himself” followed with Nietzsche’s commentary that “in this [man] is greatly admired” (85). Nietzsche utilizes this unique comparison between bees and their wax and humans and our own conceptual material to emphasize the feat of human intellect–instead of drawing from nature like bees, we are able to actually create for ourselves the beliefs, laws, and foundations we live off of. This direct contradiction from the initial cynicism Nietzsche had against human intellect brings up questions to readers. Perhaps Nietzsche is not trying to demean humans and human intellect. Instead, he claims that humans are unique in this way of thinking, in making things that aren’t “truly” there into material, tangible, lifelong values by creating language, social contracts, and civilizations. Even if these truths stem from lies and deception, it’s a way of establishing and preserving life.
Nietzsche’s perspective on language itself and his use of language to describe human intellect is extremely particular and non convention, and functions as a support for his argument. The reader has probably observed that throughout the work, Nietzsche’s language appears negative in his descriptions of human intellect, calling it “deceiving” and full of “lies” which prompts readers to ask why Nietzsche uses such pessimistic diction to describe intellect when he actually finds it unique and useful to humans. Yet, it becomes clear that the seemingly negative diction Nietzsche uses does not parallel his viewpoint when Nietzsche points out that language itself does not accurately describe things as it is is simply generalizations and abstractions created by humans. Nietzsche even questions readers, asking “is language the adequate expression of all realities?” to prove his point that language cannot represent every truth and expression in the world that surrounds us (81). Nietzsche furthers his argument by stating “by creating language” and “designating the relations of things,” in our world to sound and words, man “lays hold of the boldest metaphors” (81). Everything is based off a metaphor–a comparison at most, but nothing that perfectly and accurately represents one thing or another. Something that is “green” isn’t necessarily green, and someone described as “honest” may not have those actual characteristics (83). Similarly, those metaphors apply to when Nietzsche uses words such as “lies” and “deception” that have negative metaphorical connotations, but he does not see it as the same way humans have generalized what the words to mean. In fact, Nietzsche shows that the act of deceiving itself and the way we have associated negativity to it is flawed in its nature. In reality, we are all deceivers, yet we specifically designate a “liar” as a person who misuses “fixed conventions” and does this in a “harmful manner” to society (91). But if our fixed conventions or laws are not, according to Nietzsche, fundamentally the “correct” way of doing things or the “truths” we believe them to be, then everyone is technically a liar and deceiver. Nietzsche expresses the inaccuracy of language and how we too narrowly view “liars” and “deceivers” as only those who harm the community that we’ve created, but in reality humans as a whole are actually liars and deceivers, and in Nietzsche’s next point he shows that he sees that this trait of humans and human intellect is not a negative aspect of humans, but rather an essential component of human life.
Compared to the fangs of a tiger or the claws of a bear, the naked skin and weaker joints of humans would rank us at the very bottom of survival in the world. Yet, dissimulation has allowed us to be ignorant or “deceived” of our position in the world, and instead we are able to thrive through our intellectual inventions that outbest the physical strength we lack. In addition, as Nietzsche has pointed out before–in the view of nature, humans are simply clever beasts that will, like all other creatures, succumb to the inevitable fate: we were all born to die. Yet, dissimulation has allowed us to thrive off of our own illusions. If we didn’t have these set of truths and simply lived to die, we would be consumed by Nihilism where life is meaningless, but because of human intellect, we’ve been able to discern meaning through life–whether this meaning is truly there or not does not matter as long as we believe it and apply it to our lives. Dissimulation is shown to be an act of preservation of us, less robust individuals, not deception and the negative connotations associated with that. In addition, dissimulation isn’t simply linked to physical preservation and survival for humans, preserves our believes on intangible aspects of life as well: beliefs, meaning, emotions, societal foundations. Instead of criticizing the consequences of human intellect, Nietzsche’s points actually show that lies, deception, and falsehood are an essential component to human civilization. They give value to our existence.
Initially reading Nietzsche’s thoughts on human intellect in his writing On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, readers are presented with Nietzsche’s seemingly negative and cynical perspective on human intellect and the deception and falsehood it wrongly creates, but by presenting a contradictory viewpoint halfway through his writing, it becomes apparent that Nietzsche does not view deceptions and lies as a negative aspect, and instead enforces that it is necessary component to bring meaning and existence to humans. In the end, although Nietzsche makes a good point, readers are prompted to even question Nietzsche’s own philosophies and arguments in On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense since throughout his whole writing he pushes forth the idea that no laws or beliefs created by humans are ubiquitous truths so his own might simply be lies and deceptions as well (which we now know are not necessarily bad and are instead important to creating meaning and a world for ourselves). Although, it is certainly true and mildly concerning that understanding that the meaning of our lives comes from lies, and puts the foundation to centuries of our believes in jeopardy. The complexities Nietzsche presents has, ironically, been explored in fields of sciences in the realm of physical realism and quantum realism. Is the physical world we see real and exists by itself or is the physical world a virtual reality, and what we discern is simply a product of our information processing? We now know that we also cannot completely rely on science either, as Nietzsche argues that what “we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them” so in the end all we know is that we don’t know anything for sure (89).