Nietzsche’s Rhetoric and Man’s Worn Out Coins
“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” was written in 1873 by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In my reading of this text, Nietzsche attempts to persuade his audience to see that intellect is merely human, and that it fabricates the illusion of truth—a reflection. Instead of relying on empirical evidence, he illustrates his points through analogical reasoning, thereby demonstrating the very ideas the text proffers: truth is something creative, not factual, logical, or otherworldly. It is nothing more than little moments of discovery. By using dialogic inquiry, figurative language, and illustration, Nietzsche demonstratively persuades his readers to accept that truth is an act of human creation, not a fact, and that metaphors are as close to the truth as man can ever get.
He organizes the essay as a kind of question-and-answer self-dialogue. This approach can be read as a small nod to Plato, whose stance on truth Nietzsche’s own claim counters, in the way the text embodies the idea that “thinking is talking to oneself” (Plato, Theaetatus 189e-190a). What else is essayistic composition but a working through of one’s own ideas with oneself? The reader is only a shadow thought of a future yet to come, at least in the act of writing, even more so in this case, as the essay was never published by the author. Here, the audience is literally the writer. It is the examination of Nietzsche’s own ideas, a way of testing various premises, concepts, presuppositions, from the Latin exigere “to test” or weigh out. This approach is thus a means of exposing, a rhetorical strategy that prepares the way to other kinds of discoveries. It illuminates the author’s own mental topography. By essentially talking through his own ideas, Nietzsche maps out the limits of his own mental constructs, concepts—the dia•logos (through word/language/reason) translated into text. Once the construction is brought forth, then thoughtful engagement with those structures give grounds for movement from room to room—topos to topos, where the grounds of dwelling bear the tread of thought—metaphors all.
The essay begins with a micro-parody of Genesis—an anecdotal illustration that the power of knowing is neither divine nor immortal. This rendering of a creation myth as something “brought about by the intellect,” a dissimulation, sets the tone of the essay (Nietzsche 114-15). It is at once serious and satirical. Never once does Nietzsche state that he is refuting Christian doctrine, but he alludes to the biblical account of both mankind and the world’s beginning indirectly, countering them by describing metaphysical creation as nothing more than an invented fable like the one he gives the reader. However, Nietzsche avoids explicit refutation and openly insulting his audience, German intellectuals in the 19th century—devout Christians—in favor of charging them with curious skepticism. Had he come out and said that the Bible’s account of universal creation was a fictional story, it would have antagonized a hostile (oppositional) audience. Instead, he approaches his topic through a hypothetical anecdote, starting the five-line mini-genesis with “Once upon a time…” (114). Nietzsche creates an analogical strawman to knock down—a challenge to the reader. The point of which is performative, to show that idea-laden narratives can be easily fabricated with words, but that the written word provides no hard evidence of absolute truth, just the thoughts of the author. Here he establishes that the essay does not build on literal meanings or definitional fact, but on something more metaphorical, figurative—a thought experiment.
Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy here is clever. He invokes biblical doctrine without having to say it, and shortly thereafter, does the same to Plato. When Nietzsche refers to “the proudest of men, the philosopher” (114), he alludes to Socrates from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” a story that separates the godly realm of divine and universal truth from the corrupt, phenomenal world of man. Thus, the two of the most influential texts regarding the source of absolute truth in Western culture—Platonic dualism and Christianity—come under attack through a kind of inversion and slight-of-hand. Nietzsche skillfully circumnavigates his opposition through anecdotal implication, and thereby avoids direct conflict, never calling on them by name. Instead, he draws the reader in by refuting nothing more than his own tale. Nietzsche negates his opponents by proxy, and in the process offers a demonstrative analogy to show that any man can make up a good story and claims about the truth of truth. He accomplishes this skillful attack rhetorically, using analogy and anecdote instead of logical reasoning or scientific analysis.
Nietzsche builds upon this first proposition—truth is something made-up by mortal minds, not something transcendent or divine—by stating that “The intellect unfolds its principle power in dissimulation” (115). In other words, man primarily uses intellect for amoral deception. This is where the role of language comes into play. Nietzsche employs rhetorical questions after establishing his subject and context in the introductory paragraphs, asking “Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” (115). In a kind of dialogue with himself, he responds that language “only designates the relations of things to men” and that the only way for an author to accomplish this end is to lay “hold of the boldest metaphors” (116). Based on Nietzsche’s assertion that words are symbols for things, which become concepts, and that the concepts arise “from the equation of unequal things,” he implies that like a metaphor, all language-based concepts are nothing more than mere associations between objects and symbolic or metaphorical representations for the human experience of physical things—fictional confections.
All of these elements: words, concepts, phrases, stories, are thus nothing more than “A moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished” (117), the thesis statement of the essay. Nietzsche sets up questions like “What is a word?” and “What then is truth?” to work through answers, illustrations, and examples until he is able to formulate a propositional conclusion (117). In response to his own inquiries, he is proposes that “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer coins” (117). This self-dialogue allows Nietzsche to discover his own theory of truth as a human act of associative metaphorizing, mortal creation instead of something divinely given—the action of mind recreating its experience of a physical world in fictions.
What Nietzsche is doing is, again, largely demonstrative. He cannot successfully persuade his audience by telling them that everything they know is a lie, made-up. People tend to recoil when called a liar. Thus, rather than trying to tell them what he has uncovered in his own philosophical introspections, Nietzsche works through his own thoughts on paper to show the reader how he came to his conclusion. He does not simply state what he believes, he shows how he got there and takes the reader through the process. By doing this, Nietzsche is able to both appeal to the reader’s impulse to know and establishes his own credibility. He connects to the reader by being his own skeptic, asking himself hard questions, and then working through the complex knots of concepts until they seem to reveal, not prove, their underlying meaning. Then, he challenges the reader to see himself as the subject of the work, stating that every man is a “Genius of construction” (118). Thus, he shows his relation to the reader as part and parcel of the same faculty of intellect.
In addition to his use of analogy, anecdote, rhetorical questions, and demonstration, Nietzsche largely frames his ideas in the subject of his philosophical reflection—metaphor. Having suggested that what man believes to be truth is nothing more than metaphor, it would be ironic and hypocritical for him to try and support his claim with anything else. Thus, rather than trying to analytically define his own ideas or experiences, Nietzsche composes poetic images to juxtapose theory with comparative illustration. When he suggests that man clings to the art of dissimulation to hold up constructs and conventions as facts, he says the act is man “hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger” (115). When he examines the human compulsion to fabricate expressions that represent experience, he says it is “with the same necessity with which a spider spins” (120). His metaphors bring concepts alive through imageable comparisons to real life phenomena, thereby showing the mind’s eye something more concrete and experiential than defining words with words, abstractions with abstractions. This technique only further reinforces his message by using the tool he espouses is “the fundamental human drive” as his primary form of communication (121). Thus, Nietzsche not only argues his position, but he matches form with function, guiding the reader to his own revelations, rather than telling him what to imagine, think, or believe.
In this thought-experiment essay, Nietzsche essentially starts an ideological revolution that breaks with the philosophical traditions of the past. He indirectly renounces systems of thought that degrade or reject human creative impulses as the primary force of all meaning, value, and truth. In opposition to Christian and Platonic doctrine, Nietzsche reclaims reason and creativity as something mortal, and returns the scepter of judgment and valuation back into human hands. While the text is dense and can seem intentionally obtuse at times, Nietzsche offers a kind of olive branch to his readers and opponents alike. He seeks out what it means to be human and elevates the mind as the great aesthetic creator of its own world. This essay does not openly condemn the beliefs of others, as many have argued that Nietzsche’s work does, but instead bestows upon the reader the great responsibility for determining what has meaning in his own life—what he believes and what matters. It is a rhetorical exercise in exploration and discovery through an examination of language and thought as the makers of truth.
By providing comparisons instead of facts, Nietzsche compels his readers to react to his seemingly confrontational claims, imploring them to think for themselves. The reader then has to work out what merit he will give Nietzsche’s claims, and because the author does not simply tell the reader what think, he has to come to his own conclusions. Nietzsche reveals truth by concealing it in metaphors—showing one thing by masking another. Thus, he avoids making logos driven arguments, preferring to use pathos and analogical reasoning to stimulate his audience’s curiosity. This act of discovery, however, requires an educated and interested audience, limiting the range of effectiveness for his argument to a small, esoteric community of academics, clergy, and the philosophically minded. At the same time, his lack of deductive reasoning and clear, coherent explication makes him more appealing in that he does not try to force his own ideology on anyone, instead leaving everything up to the reader’s interpretation.
Nietzsche’s combination of analogical comparisons and metaphorical images make his argument more artistically evocative than axiomatic. The fact that the essay continues to be controversial nearly 200 years later indicates just how powerful this piece of rhetoric is, albeit dense, often times confusing and circular, and at others too ambiguous for the average reader to understand on his own. What the essay does succeed at, however, is illustrating what is arguably one of the most important pieces of compositional style and philosophical investigation of the last three centuries. Nietzsche’s essay is an ontology spun out of his own imaginative “metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms” (117); it is a meta-rhetorical expedition into how meaning comes to mean. This essay is perhaps more poetry than persuasion, but that may also be its most enduring strength.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. 115-23. Print.
Plato. “Allegory of the Cave.” The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. University of California:
Richard Cohen, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.
—. Theaetetus. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 13 Sept. 2008. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.