I reached an important milestone this week in my reading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.
While reading through Chapter Two, Part 25, I got completely lost.
I didn’t have a clue what Nietzsche was talking about, and at the time of writing this, I’ve only partly managed to pull myself out of the mire of my misunderstanding.
Part 25 consists of a single page-and-a-half paragraph, and the first half of this was coherent enough. Actually, it was refreshingly accessible. And maybe that’s why the second half of Part 25 left me so confused—because my guard was softened by an uncharacteristic bout of straightforward and sensible opining by Nietzsche.
We’ll come to those befuddling later lines soon enough. For now, let first things be first.
Part 25 starts off bluntly: “After such a cheerful commencement,” begins Nietzsche, “a serious word would like to be heard; it appeals to the most serious.”
This kind of gravitas is on brand for Nietzsche, and it isn’t the first time he’s put on such grandiose airs. I seem to recall mention of a risk greater than all others at the beginning of BGaE.
Anyways, the “serious word” that Nietzsche’s referring to is, for all its seriousness, not a new sentiment. It’s an old and oft-repeated admonition, but one that’s worth every repetition.
Nietzsche starts Part 25 by warning the reader against defending the truth too zealously. He doesn’t necessarily say that we should avoid all debate, but that we should not become martyrs for the truth, or suffer too much on its account.
He says getting too keen on seeing one’s own truth win out over others “…spoils all the innocence and fine neutrality of your conscience.”
It causes a person to clam up, grow hostile to new ideas, and become more intent on being right than on actually promoting truth.
The truth is the truth no matter what, Nietzsche says, and I’m sure most would agree. It will remain true regardless of who does and doesn’t accept it, and to think it needs defending—that it can’t hold its own—is to make a Don Quixote of oneself.
Now there’s a whole potential sidebar here—about whether truth really matters, or whether it really exists outside of human perceptions or is just another one of our numberless constructs.
But I’d like to keep my eye on the prize. After all, I believe I mentioned something about my own cluelessness, and I still have to get to that part.
Regarding the idea that truth isn’t worth suffering for, and that to do so is laughable more than laudable, I can see what Nietzsche means. Even for those of us who disagree with the core of this statement, there’s no denying that getting too attached to an idea is risky business.
If we come to identify too much with a particular version of the truth, it becomes a matter of personal pride that others believe that same truth. When this happens, we can end up arguing in favor of something we don’t actually believe, for no reason other than to save face. Because of this, we should always leave even our most deeply held beliefs open to questioning, and welcome attempts to disprove them.
If they are disproved, then our understanding of the world deepens and we’re better for it. And if our beliefs survive an earnest debate, then we can take comfort knowing that our views stand up to scrutiny.
Nietzsche sums this idea up nicely when he says that “…there might be a more laudable truthfulness in every little question mark that you place after your special words and favorite doctrines (and occasionally after yourselves) than in all the solemn gestures and trumps before accusers and law courts.”
And now we come to the point at which he lost me completely.
“Rather, go away.” he continues. “Flee into concealment. And have your masks and subtlety, that you may be mistaken for what you are not, or feared a little. And don’t forget the garden, the garden with golden trelliswork. And have people around you who are as a garden—or as music on the waters in the evening, when the day is turning into memories. Choose the good solitude, the free, playful, light solitude that gives you, too, the right to remain good in some sense.”
Now I know that was an unusually long quotation by my standards. Under normal circumstances I’d summarize what Nietzsche says, and include a short excerpt in order to illustrate his point.
But my usual modus operandi won’t cut it here, because at this point I lost my grasp on Nietzsche’s meaning.
At first it seems like he’s just telling the reader that if they insist on blindly defending one ideology or another, then they should just get lost. They can keep their clever arguments, for all the good they do.
But then comes the garden with its trelliswork, and then the suggestion that this hypothetical advocate should surround themselves with people, while at the same time fleeing into concealment. I think?
Is he suggesting that if someone wants to rail and argue in support of their beliefs, that they should do so only in the presence of people who will tolerate them and agree with them? And is he saying that being around such people is tantamount to solitude?
Maybe he is, but then that makes the next couple sentences all the more confusing.
“How poisonous, how crafty, how bad, does every long war make one, that cannot be waged openly by means of force! How personal does a long fear make one, a long watching of enemies, of possible enemies!”
He continues at length to describe how people who are isolated from society, whether on account of persecution by others or their own deliberate retreat, become “…sophisticated vengeance-seekers and poison-brewers…”
They sink into moral indignation and dejection. Such is their martyrdom, and the end of what Nietzsche calls a “…long, real tragedy…assuming that every philosophy was in its genesis a long tragedy.”
So Nietzsche is telling us that we must avoid suffering for the sake of truth, and spurn the idea of martyrdom for truth’s sake. Instead, we should “flee into concealment,” but also surround ourselves with people who are “as a garden,” and amenable to hearing about our moral convictions. It’s an odd definition of solitude to say the least.
On top of all this, Nietzsche also laments the ill effects of not being able to openly wage war. This while simultaneously warning us against waging an open war on behalf of the truth, lest we become embittered recluses, brooding in our moral indignation.
I don’t get it. I get parts of it. I get sentences and groups of sentences taken separately from the whole of the text, but I don’t get it. I don’t understand what the unified message is supposed to be here.
All I see is a bunch of statements which seem reasonable on their own, placed together in such a way as to create a frustrating jumble of contradictions from which I struggle to learn anything at all.
And maybe it’s just because I happen to be tired and grumpy at the time of writing this, but I don’t even see any Nietzsche’s characteristic winking or double meanings in this run-on paragraph.
I just see a big wall of nonsense.
Now I’m sure there’s something I’m missing, because I’ve read through plenty of Nietzsche’s disjointed rambling with far less bewilderment. But then this also raises the question, which I’m sure I’ve brought up before, of whether I’m just too lenient towards Nietzsche in his flightier moments. Perhaps the break I took from his writing has allowed me to come back to BGaE with a more critical eye, and a weakened tolerance for nonsense.
At the very least, I can say with certainty that I’m glad Part 25 is over. Maybe I’ll read it again and give it a second opinion in next week’s post. Or maybe I’ll move on to Part 26 and hope against hope that I can forge ahead while pretending that Part 25 never happened.