Confronting Delusions: Reflections on Friedrich Nietzsche "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense"

Monica Thain

*Second Place Winner of the Prestigious Bassen Prize*

As a "rational" being, he now places his behavior under the control of abstractions. He will no longer tolerate being carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions. First he universalizes all these impressions into less colorful, cooler concepts, so that he can entrust the guidance of his life and conduct to them. Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept. For something is possible in the realm of these schemata which could never be achieved with the vivid first impressions: the construction of a pyramidal order according to castes and degrees, the creation of a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, and clearly marked boundaries-a new world, one which now confronts that other vivid world of first impressions as more solid, more universal, better known, and more human than the immediately perceived world, and thus as the regulative and imperative world. (Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Extra-Moral Sense”)

To rely on intuition and striking first impressions is to force us to think about things we encounter and experience as mysterious and undefined. This is scary, this means living life in constant uncertainty and never feeling a sense of mastery or feeling the authority to be sure of anything. To live life in such an unassuming way, to see the brilliance or horror of things without preconceived notions to fall back upon could be overwhelming. But when everything we come across is just reduced to a concept that falls into a category of which we feel we have a sense of understanding, life is simpler and seems to really make sense. Through putting these blinders on our perceptions and seeing through a constructed lens of vast generalizations and categorizations that all society shares, everything is made much simpler, and we are not constantly faced with new uncertainties. We are not forced to be stricken by something we see before us as originally happening without our preconceptions. It is as if it already happened, for we, long before the event actually took place, have already defined all the objects involved and reduced them to generalized concepts. There is no need or ability, in this way of seeing, in this way of thought, to contemplate anything you see unless it is perceived within your schemata as something that directly affects your existence. Even then there is usually a predetermined method of action to deal with anything that could affect you. There is no such thing as originality or absurdity in the things we come across; something could only be perceived as absurd is if it either is contradictory to our schemata of things, or if it is contrary to our believed knowledge of logic and correctness (which are just parts of our schemata anyway). In either case, the thing perceived as absurd is discarded as rubbish, as nonsense, and never thought of again. At the very moment that it conflicts with our construct of concepts that are “truth”, it is forgotten and causes us no worries, confusion or fear. We effectively accomplish this by discrediting it for not fitting into our ideas of legitimacy and truth, which are based on the huge graveyard of metaphors from which we create concepts. Man “desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth. He is indifferent toward pure knowledge which has no consequences; toward those truths which are possibly harmful and destructive he is even hostilely inclined” (Nietzsche). In this way we maintain a sense of mastery, of understanding. We hold a great amount of composure because we are never confronted with something we do not already have a category for. And for all these concepts we have comfortable explanations. And, as previously stated, if something is encountered somehow that we do not have a category to neatly place into, it is thrown into the dumpster reserved for the discarding of things perceived as absurd and therefore meaningless, not even worthy of putting further thought into. This is one way that we live happy, consistent lives, by conceptualizing the inconceivable, and if there is any inconceivability left, by discarding that inconceivable something as nonsense.

We define things as they apply to us and create in our minds broad concepts of things that are totally dismembered from the unadulterated thing itself. By defining things as analogous to us instead of seeing a thing and thinking of it in itself, we are really seeing a concept of a thing, the definition of which is created with the intention to relate it to ourselves. So our only definition of things, the only way in which we care about external objects or wish to understand them, is in how they are going to affect us. We define them in the way that we see them relating to or affecting ourselves. Through this we feel assimilated into a world that revolves around our own human existences, as long as things are seen only as they apply to us, we are not seeing the thing in itself nor are we provoked to worry or care about these things unless they are affecting us. We see “the entire universe as the infinitely fractured echo of one original sound-man” (Nietzsche). God created man in his own image; god has all the same attributes, thought processes and kinds of feelings that men have. One could deduce that this angry man in the sky many people call god in fact suffers from borderline personality disorder and is extremely bi polar, thus the intense mood swings and impulsive smiting. I don't remember who it was that said we killed god by anthropomorphicizing him, but it makes perfect sense when applied to Nietzsche's view as everything being defined as existing in application to us or being assigned human emotions of some kind.

I can't even watch a wildlife documentary about lions anymore. I have dim recollections of watching these documentaries as a very young child and finding them fascinating. I remember the narrator going into detail about how these species has evolved over time to adapt to its environment, their social behavior, mating habits, how humans are affecting their existences among many other informative facts. I've noticed that in more recent years, whenever I try to watch a wildlife documentary, it's all about the human like emotional drama that these angry fuzzy animals are going through. In a really badly contrived Aussie-English abomination of an accent, the narrator declares “Sissy is extremely jealous that Jennifer mated with her brother, for they have altercations that go far back, and she is quite possessive of her sibling's love. It seems that a confrontation between Sissy and Jennifer is imminent, but only time will tell. Who knows when these passive aggressive tactics of emotional expression will explode into overt violence?” Watch next week, and you'll find out how the girly fight is going to go down, you will learn absolutely nothing about meercats, lions, or whatever animal they are attributing human emotions to, because people don't want facts, they want to see fuzzy animals and hear about human drama. It is not as if this consuming need to anthromorphicize everything has just emerged, it has obviously been a pervading factor in human thought processes ever since communication, words, and human society reared its contorted, massive deluded head. I'm just wondering why it seems that there has been a change in the way television networks treat their viewers in the short 12 or 15 years during which I have had the capacity to observe media trends. There seems a great need for immediacy and excitement with big flashing letters and lots of yelling; it seems as though peoples' attention spans are shortening. I suppose this is just swapping depth of information for immediate gratification and the attainment of shallow concepts of many things.

Back to this notion of life based around concepts, it seems that when CNN slams us with five huge stories all at once that only last for five seconds each, we attain a sheer surface understanding of the very basics devoid of any substance. As long as we believe that we “get the idea”, and can put it into our memory banks if it is useful to us, or discard it. But to go into depth about anything would be forcing the audience to really see things from different angles and think about them and contemplate. Who wants to waste time doing this? It is pointless when your boyfriend might be cheating on you, and you need some Lypozene to get rid of those love handles pronto. This flashy bam bam bamming of vagueness in the media results in lesser depth, but maybe a lot of people are too self obsessed to need or desire depth of knowledge. We even tend to define the hardships of others as they apply to us. Terrorists exist. Out there. But soon….they could be in your backyard. They could be strapping bombs to the backs of your children. Whatever is “out there” isn't even seen as worth thinking about, unless there is a perceived possibility that it could be “in here” in this very room or in your very back yard. CNN understands this, so they tend to, when talking about a current issue or happening, always come around to the fact that the audience, YOU, could be directly affected, somehow or some way. But if it doesn't affect me, if it is something completely outside myself, why would I even want to know? I only want to know about things in the sense of how they are going to affect me. Any thoughts outside of this sphere are silly, pointless luxuries of those not involved in the sensible, effectual, correct things that human society dictates to be important and real. Back when those starving babies in Haiti with the flies on their eyeballs were all the rage, everyone was donating money like crazy. I can't remember the last time I heard anything about Haiti. Nothing was resolved; there are still starving children all over the place, but a topic can only be hot for a short time. People will stop feeling good about their supposed altruism when they see how dire the situation really is, so they have to forget about the starving children eventually and maintain in their mind the comforting remembrance that they did something altruistic and therefore they are a good person and deserve to be happy and fly with the angels. As Nietzsche asserts, the intuitive man suffers more intensely and more frequently, for he is not governed by concepts and experiences everything without the comforting blanket of presumption, and, therefore, is deeply affected by experience. On the other hand, the man who is governed by concepts “executes a mastery of deception” (Nietzsche), he can maintain dignity and composure because he has a sense of understanding and sees only what he wishes to see in the way he wants to see it. In a world where nothing is certain and one will continuously be bombarded with overwhelming bemusement and horror if they have no beliefs to fall back upon, it is important to weigh out the pros and cons. Living the life of the intuitive person who sees everything with unassuming eyes, it is certain that you will obtain more meaning from things and will see beauty in objects that would go unnoticed in the conventional man's eyes. But how it is one could lead this faithless intuitive existence without feeling overwhelmed and horrible about the lingering uncertainty of everything and the sheer intensity of all experience is a mystery to me. It seems that these people are doomed to live in a state of anxiety, to grow old quickly and die isolated, bemused, and horrified. I have little faith in the capacity or potentiality of human beings to overcome the need for comforting delusions.

Work Cited

  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”, 1873. Translated by Walther Kaufmann and Daniel
  • Breazeale, retrieved September 25, 2006.