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Nietzsche, Art, Illusion & Truth

This post was written in response to an article by R. Anderson published in 2005 in the European Journal of Philosophy, entitled “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption.”  doi/abs/10.1111/j.0966-8373.2005.00227.x

In “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption,” Anderson addresses the Nietzsche’s apparent inconsistency in regards to truth and its value. Anderson explains Nietzsche’s rejection of things in themselves and a ‘true world’ in favour of an epistemology that speaks of truly unknowable chaos given shape and organized by human perception. Still, Nietzsche is committed to truth of a phenomenal world despite our cognitive distortions and perspective and honesty as a correct moral aim. Anderson, having established

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Nietzsche’s position on truth, shifts the focus to the value of truth in a human life, from which point he addresses Nietzsche’s puzzling indignance for illusion, religion, and self-deception, yet concurrent endorsement of illusion in art. Since honesty and artistry act as regulative drives, they are not incompatible but rather require a balance in the tension between them. Both drives are necessary to fulfill the moral imperative of redeeming our lives by willing them and affirming every event, doing so by retrospecting on the past to reinterpret the unpleasant events that are fated for us. In that way, we become poets of our own lives, shaping our lives into meaningful works.

I understood the difference that the author was attempting to draw out between illusion in feel-good, pretend, make-believe, and illusion in reinterpretation for the purposes of redemption. However, the distinction seems fragile and arbitrary, and there still seems to be a problem in trying to justify, if not glorify, these artistic fictions while criticizing other falsifications. On this issue, Anderson makes the point that “pretending to be redeemed is no redemption” (208), for “it does nothing to make our actual, honestly described, lives any better, but offers only a make-believe redemption, in which we palliate ourselves by pretending things are otherwise (208)”. According to Anderson, Nietzsche’s response to my worry would seem to be that the artistic illusion is not make-believe, but has actually created value and made things beautiful, and the life is thereby redeemed. Furthermore, the author of the fiction (i.e., the human thinker in question) is morally obligated to actually become the fiction he created in order to affirm his life.

I found this response to be inconsistent. Earlier on in the article Anderson emphasizes Nietzsche’s distaste in regards to truth claims that are useful to us. We all endlessly and unknowingly embellish, re-frame, omit details, etc, for our own interest, especially when we are reinterpreting past events. If a self-aggrandizing lie gives a person mental freedom and real feeling of power, then why is it morally any different from memoir written to redeem an entire life? It seems arbitrary to differently value these two falsifications.

Nietzsche’s theory of the moral task of human beings to retrospectively redeem their lives is 1) pessimistic and 2) overly-complex. Events happen to us that cause a range of painful physical circumstances and unpleasant emotions, even that life often appears chaotic and pointless. But even my agreement does not make me a pessimist about life and nor does it motivate a moral task to redeem my life by reinterpretation of its events. Nietzsche’s theory seems to require a valuation of life as not worth living just as it is – that the cold, hard truth of the chaotic world is that we were an accident and would be better off not being born at all. If Nietzsche’s pessimistic view is correct, then naturally illusion is necessary either to help you to avoid such a truth and distract from unpleasant events (weakness) or to help you redeem your life in retrospect as Nietzsche endorses. However, it’s unnecessary to take Nietzsche’s initial attitude towards life. If you value contrast (the difference between emotional lows and highs that come with events), rather than pleasantness, then the experience of life is redeemed without resorting to illusion or retrospective interpretation.

Finally, why devise a moral theory that is unnecessarily complicated and requires a moral imperative that is to most people overly-strenuous (given that they are not capable of the deep level of thinking required for redemption)? The alternative moral imperative would be to accept and embrace fateful events as we live them. We ought still to become poets of our own lives, but instead of reinterpreting in retrospect, we directly live our art by exploring, embracing and exploding emotional upheavals and affirming the unpleasant events as we live them. The greatest show of strength would be a person who is unshaken by events as she lives them as fully as possible and accepts her fate without resorting to any illusion whatsoever. Taking my optimistic view of life and “true” art means that there is no need to try to justify illusion or give it a special position as a regulating drive. In this way, truth retains its place as the un-trumped value.

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