The Irrational Origin of the Belief In Truth

The Genealogy of Morality begins with an articulation of human ignorance with respect to the self: “we remain of necessity strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we must mistake ourselves…” (1). What is the necessity that demands this ignorance? What is the “good reason” that knowers cannot know themselves (1)? This provocative question, this apparent paradox, is never explicitly resolved. I argue that the requirement of self-ignorance does not spring forth from intellectual coercion or psychological aversion, but rather it is the expression of a tautology. For Nietzsche, in order to qualify as a “knower,” one must believe in truth; one must have faith that there are things that can be known — and to know oneself destroys this requisite belief. The language of the text confuses, eliding the distinction between knowing as an act of believing in truth and knowing as personal awareness, as knowing oneself, but they are distinct and Nietzsche believes that the latter precludes the former. To know oneself, to stare into the abyss, leads to awareness of the ascetic ideal and thus, ultimately, the understanding that all idols and prophets are false and cynical; that science is a charade; that the value of truth itself has no foundation. Thus, in order to know about the world — to believe in reason, calculation, causality — one cannot submit to the type of deep introspection required to truly know oneself, to be self-aware.

Now to examine the origins of the knower. Throughout the Genealogy, Nietzsche evokes them, including them as a co-conspirators, as confederates in his effort to awaken man from his hibernation and inactivity. However, this is merely a rhetorical device. The knowers are not intentional participants in this project. They are those committed to a “naturalistic or scientific view of the universe” (120). However, the knower, the scientist-philosopher, the priest, all function similarly and, at this stage, the will to truth compels them to listen. Thus, they contribute against their will. Nietzsche asserts that “all great things necessarily perish through themselves, through an act of self-cancellation” (117). Eventually the law is applied to the lawgiver himself. In this case, when “Christian truthfulness” becomes conscious of itself and applies the rigorous scrutiny that all else has been subjected to; when it asks the question “what does all will to truth mean?” (117). The knower’s will to truth ultimately negates itself by mandating the inquiry that reveals its irrational foundations.

To appreciate the principle of self-cancellation, it is necessary to understand how science arose from asceticism; how it was shaped and reinterpreted by the ideal. Nietzsche claims that science is “not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather it’s most recent and noblest form” (107). He sees modern science as a new manifestation of this millennia old belief. The ascetic ideal is the product of humanity’s fundamental need for self deception. It emerged to salve the inadequacy of social life to the defanged, declawed, defenestrated being — whose civilization robbed him of the ability to rely on instinct. It infused suffering with meaning and through this infusion filled the “enormous emptiness” that pressed upon man (118). Without the comfort it confers, the essential meaninglessness of existence would be overwhelming. However, asceticism is a peculiar salve. It sickens those who take it as medicine, yet they feel better for it. It does not alleviate suffering, but it provides the narrative scaffolding that makes the pain meaningful through “religious interpretation and ‘justification’” (101). It offers this sublime release by assigning culpability: forging a meaning for suffering in the nourishing admonishment that “you alone are to blame for yourself” (92). Yet from this simple mantra grows modernity. Religion, philosophy, science are all distinct apparitions of the same underlying phenomenon. And if one looks closely, it is not hard to find the threads that tie the ideals of science to the ascetic ideal.

The demeanor and pose of the scientist maps to that of the ascetic priest. The scientist’s “will to neutrality and objectivity” is grounded in a self-denying instinct (79). What is impartiality if not literal denial of the self, the intentional suppression of the subjective? Furthermore, the philosopher-scientist denies the senses, “demoting physicality to an illusion” (84). But this correspondence does not explain why the concept of truth relies on the ascetic archetype. How did knowers come to bare the mantle of asceticism?

Nietzsche suggests that “[c]ontemplation first appeared on earth in disguised form,” out of necessity (81). The “inactive, brooding, unwarriorlike” instincts of these original thinkers made them the objects of suspicion and mistrust (81). Thus, their continued existence required that they adopt “the previously established types of contemplative human beings —as priest, magician, soothsayer, as religious human generally” (82). And so, the prototypical philosopher-scientist was formed in the mold of those who came before. To sell the illusion required that they act their role, and to act well they had to believe it.
But, to reiterate Nietszchean methodology, the “cause of the genesis of a thing” is divorced from its final function (50). The two must be understood separately. If, in the beginning, science inherited its asceticism out of existential necessity, the ideal has since reinterpreted itself. The tenets of modern science, rather than just the outward appearance and behavior of its practitioners, have been infected by asceticism. The ascetic ideal, through science, as through religion before it, advocates the complete removal and denigration of the self in the name of ‘truth.’ Science is, as a result, directed by this “unconditional will to truth” which requires “the renunciation of all interpretation” (109). There is no space for sensuality or individuality: everything must be reduced to that which can be observed ‘objectively.’ But the demand for objectivity requires “[t]hat we think an eye that cannot be thought, an eye that must not have any direction” (85). Objective truth aims to remove any trace of the self from the act of knowing — the eye is “trained for an ever more impersonal appraisal” — which Nietzsche sees as an “absurdity” (50) (85). For him, there is “only perspectival seeing, only a perspectival knowing” (85).

Knowers, adherents to this cult of objective truth, “are mistrustful of every kind of believer now” as a strong faith “raises suspicions against that in which it believes” (108). So science ‘overcame’ God and exorcised what was “exoteric about [the ascetic] ideal” but this only renewed its vitality. The ideal, now “stripped of its outworks,” was reduced to its core proposition: “its will to truth” (116). The habit of truthfulness, which originated in Christian confession, was surreptitiously “sublimated into scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price” (116). And so, while belief in gods became fanciful, belief in truth, despite its divine origin, became “more firm and unconditional” (109).

Here lies the tautological contradiction that condemns “knowers to be unknown to themselves” (1). Modern science is predicated on a subtle metaphysics; so subtle, that those who claim to see the world as it is — the knowers, the scientists, the scholars, the “trumpeters of reality” — necessarily overlook it (107). And what is it that they are not permitted to see? That their belief in truth is derived from the apocryphal axiom that “God is truth, that truth is divine” (110). Despite the godlessness and materialism of modern thinkers, they “still take [their] fire from that great fire that was ignited by a thousand-year old belief” (110). They are blind to their role as heirs to a grand delusion; they “stand too close to themselves” and thus overlook the hollowness of the foundations that sustain their belief (109). In fact, they cannot even conceive of the need for any foundation at all: they think they float in the ethereal realm of absolute truth, and buoyed by that conviction, they overlook its divine and irrational origin. They are honest victims of the “dangerous old conceptual fabrication that posited … such contradictory concepts as ‘pure reason,’ ‘absolute spirituality,’ ‘knowledge in itself’” (85).

The concept of truth emerged from deception: “truth was posited as being, as God, as highest authority; because truth was simply not permitted to be a problem” (110). For a knower to know themselves (in other words, to be self-aware), they would be asked to do what they are “not permitted” to do: to “open their eyes towards themselves, [to] know how to distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘false’ in their own case” rather than kowtowing the inherited proscription (100). Knowers would be forced to justify the will to truth — to prove the value of truth itself, now that it has been stripped of its divine authorization (110). And it is not clear that such a justification exists. This final introspection is the culmination of “a two thousand year discipline in truth, which in the end forbids itself the lie involved in the belief in God,” thus debasing itself entirely (116).

Yet, for Nietzsche, this event, this self-overcoming of Christian truthfulness, is “hopeful” one (117). His call to self-awareness and his disdain for the ascetic ideal do not constitute an entreaty to understand reality more precisely, with more accuracy. He is instead concerned for the progress of mankind. Nietzsche views modernity as diseased and effeminate; dependent on meaning provided by the ascetic ideal, a self-denying delusion, that constricts the strong and beatifies the weak. He fears that modern man, through his embrace of the ascetic ideal, lives comfortably “at the expense of the future” (5). Self-awareness hastens the end of this sickened state by moving truthfulness closer to its ‘self-overcoming,’ which will throw the world into disarray, and perhaps, making life “worthier… of living” (80). When the old systems of morality have been weakened, something new can replace them. With the constraints of ascetic morality abandoned, the strong are unshackled and once again able to stamp their “own functional meaning onto” reality (51). The pending self-sacrifice of truth may destabilize the world, destroy nations, impose a new suffering upon the many, yet these are the conditions under which Nietzsche believes improvement can occur. Remember: “the forfeiture of meaning and purposiveness …. belongs to the conditions of true progress” (51).

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