The Concealment of Truth in Literature: Nietzsche in the Context of Plato
The tradition of thinking about literature has evolved and expanded significantly in many different aspects over the years. In 380 BC Plato begins and suggests that language or representation generally puts one at a remove from the truth. Thousands of years later, in 1873 Friedrich Nietzsche writes and responds to these original platonic theories. Nietzsche agrees that one is removed from the truth in literature however he undermines Plato’s idea that based on a moral value, truth subjugates lying. Nietzsche argues that there really is no such thing as truth in language. In his work On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, Nietzsche explains in depth that because of human nature and the reality of language, the truth can never be revealed in art. For the human species, it is crucial for survival that each of us feel as if our existence is important and that we matter, otherwise what would be the point to living.
In the cosmic perspective of things, humans are actually so infinitesimal that it is very hard to comprehend that any of us really do matter. Nietzsche agrees that humans are not necessarily significant in this life but in order for survival and motivation for future generations, this lie needs to be sustained through language and literature. He essentially argues that as “a means for preservation” of one is to develop intellect, and to do this is by the “art of dissimulation” (Nietzsche 765). He theorizes that art and literature must tell us that were important through lies and deception. Moreover, Nietzsche argues that humans are indifferent and do not hate deception but hate “the damaging, inimical consequences of certain species of deception” (766). As long as the lying in art do not harm then it is in the best interest that art does so. Similar to Freud’s concept of repression, he says that consciousness is what allows us to perpetuate these delusions; we bury the truth and hide behind the lies. Due to this, literature has already removed the truth from one completely. Comparably to Plato’s ideas, Nietzsche also believes deception is necessary, however it is not for moral reasons or to teach a lesson, but rather existential reasons; to ultimately persist as a species in this universe.
Furthermore, if the truth is revealed, Nietzsche claims that it is still not actual reality. Language can only go so far as to describe an object using words it will never truly be able to tell you about the object. He explains that when something is discussed, full knowledge of the actual thing itself cannot be known but only the metaphors of the thing. He claims that when reading or listening, we are once removed from the true thing itself and forget the singularity of it. Nietzsche explains it as this, “the simulation of a nerve is first translated into an image: first metaphor! The image is then imitated by a sound: second metaphor” (767). He uses spoken language as a means to understand the fact that humans can never speak the full truth. A word becomes an image the mind creates, then when spoken becomes a sound – now already removing one from the actuality of the thing the word says it is, twice. Essentially, words can never fully simulate the reality of what it is trying to say. He continues, “We believe that when we speak … we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities” (767) further proving this point by saying that truth are always merely metaphors, never reality. The truth, Nietzsche declares is only a concept, and a vast web of lies. He says that all truths are solely illusions in which have been forgotten that they are illusions. These metaphors are the reason that access to the truth, and the actual things themselves are so far away the central meanings become lost. This relates back to Plato’s original theories that the truth is once removed from the thing itself in any literature. He agrees that when written or spoken, it can never truly represent the actual thing itself, just he explains it in a different way.
Nietzsche finds lying a crucial part for existence. He believes humans actually need these deceptions; “only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor” (769) and when the man forgets himself as “an artistically creative subject” (770) he argues that they then can live in peace. He not only argues that humans need deception but we actually seek them. Nietzsche theorizes that humans have an urge to let themselves be deceived, pretending and even creating themselves to be something they are not. For protection or acceptance perhaps, but also instinct. Since evolution, human intellect evolves from life experiences and interprets it positively. Humans’ consciousness’ deceives themselves every day simply as motivation to keep going. Nietzsche writes “Whatever the intellect now does … copies human life, but it takes it to be something good and appears to be fairly content with it” (772). For most, people attempt to stay positive, and to achieve harmony and happiness but also for most this includes deceiving themselves. For example, the common phrase “I’m okay” is very often said when they are in fact not okay. Yet they trick themselves into thinking they are okay, to give themselves peace of mind, as well as reduce the worry of others. Similarly, to Plato in a moral sense Nietzsche does agree that these representations and metaphors should be created off of a somewhat ideal state of mind. However, in contrast Nietzsche further explains that the human consciousness creates these metaphors and illusions to protect and motivate themselves without even being aware of it, whereas Plato says literature does it intentionally to cover reality of detrimental situations.
Ultimately Nietzsche responds to Plato’s ideas that representation is once removed from the truth by agreeing, but also contributing additional and original ideas of which the truth are merely “metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms” (768). All throughout On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, he actually uses metaphors and specific examples in his own text, proving his points effectively. Due to the nature of language, human consciousness and intellect, the true actuality of things themselves as they really are become concealed and is inaccessible; however, it is regarded necessary and vital.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.
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