June 30, 2001

Nietzsche’s Perspectivism

In order to understand Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism, we first need to understand his metaphysics, as his perspectivism is the logical outcome of his metaphysics. Like Heraclitus, Nietzsche holds that everything in the universe is in flux and, therefore, that the universe is completely disorderly, or chaotic. In such a universe, even such beliefs as the beliefs in “enduring things,” “equal things,” and “things, substances, bodies” can be said to be mere illusions, or “articles of faith” (GS 110).

Since the universe is completely chaotic, it follows that, unlike realists claim, we cannot make a map of reality, or know the “truth.” For, in order to make a map of reality, one must make a “statement” that “designate[s]” reality (World Philosophers and their Works 2,056). But it is impossible to make a statement that designates that which is completely chaotic. For a statement is a rational account and a rational account cannot be given of something that is chaotic and, therefore, completely irrational. To put it another way, it is impossible to make sense out of that which is nonsensical, or to communicate that which is incommunicable. And since the universe is chaotic, it follows that we cannot make a map of it, or know the “truth.”

Since the universe is completely chaotic and since the “truth” cannot be known, it follows that each of us can only have interpretations, or perspectives of life. As Nietzsche puts it, “[T]he world has become ‘infinite’ for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.” And, of course, it would be absurd for any person to claim that he had the “true” perspective of life. As Nietzsche writes, “I should think that today we are at least far from the ridiculous immodesty that would be involved in decreeing from our corner that perspectives are permitted only from this corner” (GS 374).

The fact that “truth” is an illusion means that the countless philosophers who have claimed to have discovered the “truth,” or parts of the “truth,” have been deceivers. Instead of genuinely attempting to discover the “truth,” Nietzsche believes these philosophers have been guided by their own, preconceived values and have merely used reason to support these presuppositions (BGE 5). As he writes, “Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir” (BGE 6). If these thinkers would have been a little “strong and livelier,” he believes they would have realized that “truth” is an illusion and that we can merely “speak of ‘perspectives’” (BGE 10).

Instead of being deceivers and dogmatists, as philosophers have long been, Nietzsche encourages his readers to be “free spirits.” Free spirits, he writes, do not believe that “their truth is supposed to be a truth for every man.” Yes, they believe it is okay to evaluate and compare their differing perspectives, but they make never to forget that they only have perspectives. And acknowledging that we can only have perspectives of life, free spirits look at themselves as artists and create their own beliefs and values. “My judgment is my judgment,” the free spirit believes; “no one else is easily entitled to it” (BGE 43).

Now that we have a basic understand of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, we are in a position to look at perhaps the most commonly raised objection to it, which states that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is self-refuting. For, according to this objection, if there is no “truth,” then even Nietzsche’s perspectivism cannot be true. In other words, if we cannot know that anything is true, then we cannot even know that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is true. And since we cannot know that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is true, then we have no better reason to embrace this view than any other view.

Although I myself do not buy into Nietzsche’s perspectivism (for the simple reason that I do not buy into his metaphysics), I think Nietzsche could easily defend himself against this objection. For it seems to me that Nietzsche does not believe that nothing can be known. Rather, he seems to think that at least one thing can be known—and that is that all things in the universe are in flux. And since Nietzsche can say that he knows this one thing, he can also say that he knows a few other things—namely, that “truth” is an illusion and that we can only have perspectives on life.

June 15, 2001

Nietzsche on Pain and Suffering

To put it mildly, Friedrich Nietzsche believes that living the human life is hard. Life is hard, he believes, because the universe does not possess the values, purpose, and meaning that people have long believed in and found comfort in; moreover, life is filled with pain, suffering, and constant trials. These facts, however, do not mean that life should be condemned as “evil,” or that it is not worth living. To the contrary, Nietzsche believes that the strong and noble person will embrace life’s miseries, and allow them to make him a stronger and nobler person. In the following paper, I briefly explicate how Nietzsche believes one ought to respond to the miseries of life by contrasting how he believes both the strong man and the weak man respond to these hardships.

The weak man, Nietzsche believes, deals with the miseries of life by pretending that this life is not the ultimate state of reality. This world, the weak man claims, is only the “apparent world” and not the “true world.” The “true world,” he holds, is “another,” “better” world. By inventing this fictitious “true world” and thereby fooling himself into believing that this existence is not all that there is, the weak man is able to find an escape from this life and is able to avoid dealing with this life’s painful realities. Christians have escaped from life’s miseries by inventing Heaven. “The true world,” they have claimed, is “unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (‘for the sinner who repents’)” (Twilight of the Idols 484-85). Likewise, Plato has escaped from life’s miseries by creating a World of Forms. Wanting to escape from the evils of this constantly changing world, Plato “flees into the ideal” and puts his hope in a world of immutable ideas. Nietzsche believes that any attempt to make a distinction “between a ‘true’ and an ‘apparent’ world” is a symptom of “the decline of life” (484).

Far from trying to escape from this world’s problems by inventing another world, Nietzsche believes that the strong person boldly embraces life, along with its many hardships. The early Greeks, Nietzsche believes, were such strong individuals. Even though they were “keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence,” the Greeks embraced life and were somehow able to find joy in it (The Birth of Tragedy 3). As Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, they did not try to liberate themselves from the “terror and pity” of life, but instead said “Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems” (562). Nietzsche claims that his own philosophy, which, like that of the Greeks’, abolishes the “true world,” marks the “high point of humanity” (486).

Along with trying to escape from the miseries of life by inventing another world, Nietzsche believes that the weak man responds to life’s hardships by condemning and trying to avoid suffering. Such people, Nietzsche believes, hold to a “religion of pity,” and “experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence” (The Gay Science 338). Along with having an “almost feminine inability to remain spectators, to let someone suffer” (BGE 306), these people go to great lengths to prevent themselves from suffering (GS 338). A good example of how the weak person tries to avoid suffering can be seen in his hatred of his enemies. Christians, Nietzsche writes, have always dreaded opposition and have, therefore, always wanted to destroy their enemies. Not only have they sought to get rid of their external enemies, but they have also sought to get rid of “internal enemies,” as can be seen in their desire to attain “peace of soul” (TI 488).

The strong man, on the other hand, finds great value in suffering. Far from dreading suffering, he welcomes it, recognizing that it is through opposition, hardship, and pain that he is made strong and noble. Just like the solider, who is only able to become a stronger and better soldier through warfare, the strong man realizes that he is only able to become stronger and better by experiencing and enduring life’s most difficult hardships. As Nietzsche puts it, “The discipline of suffering” has created “all enhancements in man so far” (BGE 225); and “[p]rofound suffering makes noble” (BGE 270). For this reason, while the weak person wants to abolish suffering, the strong person—who believes, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” (TI 467)— wants suffering “higher and worse than ever” (BGE 225). Unlike the Christian, the strong man does not try to get rid of his enemies. Rather, he values opposition, believing that he “needs enemies more than friends.” And unlike the Christian, who attempts to attain “peace of soul,” the strong man even sees value in internal conflict (TI 488).