The Truth is Terrible
Journal of Nietzsche Studies (Fall 2018 Forthcoming)
26 Pages Posted: 4 Jul 2012 Last revised: 18 Apr 2018
Date Written: April 7, 2018
When Nietzsche says, as he frequently does, that "the truth is terrible" he has in mind three kinds of terrible truths: (1) the terrible "existential" truths about the human situation (the inevitability of death and suffering); (2) the terrible "moral" truth that "life is essentially something amoral"; and (3) the terrible "epistemic" truth that most of what we think we know about the world around us is illusory. These terrible truths raise Schopenhauer's question: why continue living at all? Nietzsche's answer, from early in his career to the very end, is that only viewed in terms of aesthetic values can life itself be "justified" (where "justification" really means restoring an affective attachment to life). Something can have aesthetic value even if it has no epistemic value -- indeed, Nietzsche takes it to be a hallmark of art that "the lie hallows itself" and "the willl to deception has good conscience on its side." Similarly, something can have aesthetic value even when it lacks moral value, something well-exemplified, he thinks, by the Homeric sagas. But how could the fact that life exemplifies aesthetic value restore our attachment to life in the face of the terrible existential truths about our situation? I suggest that there are two keys to understanding Nietzsche's answer: first, his assimilation of aesthetic pleasure to a kind of sublimated sexual pleasure; and second, his psychological thesis, central to the Genealogy, that powerful affects neutralize pain, and thus can "seduce" the sufferer back to life. Finally, life can only supply the requisite kind of aesthetic pleasure if it features what I call the "spectacle of genius," the spectacle represented by the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, and Napoleon. Since such geniuses are not possible in a culture dominated by "morality" (in Nietzsche's pejorative sense), the critique of morality is essential to the restoration of an affective attachment to life, since only by defeating morality will the spectacle of genius continue to be possible.
Keywords: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, life, morality, art, aesthetic value
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