What I said to Brian Leiter

Below are the comments I made on Brian Leiter’s paper, “The Truth is Terrible,” at the “Nietzsche and Community” Conference at Wake Forest University this week.  While I cannot post the content of his talk, my comments summarize his view pretty succinctly, so you can probably get the gist of it even without his paper.


Brian Leiter deftly sums up the terrible truths that might lead a reflective person to despair.  There are the terrible existential truths:

  • We’re all going to die.
  • We’re all going to suffer before we die.
  • There’s no ultimate point to the suffering, or to the dying.

Then there are the terrible moral truths:

  • Society is organized to exploit most people for the benefit of a few.
  • Those few are mostly philistine plutocrats who create little of value.
  • Social and political concerns aside, most people are motivated by base greed, lust, vengeance, spite, and resentment.

Finally, there are the terrible epistemic truths:

  • Most people know very little.
  • Worse, we think we know a lot.
  • Worse still, we can’t help thinking that we know a lot even though there’s good evidence to the contrary.

It’s not a rosy picture of the human situation, and it raises what Leiter calls the Schopenhauerian challenge: why keep living at all?  I hope we can all agree, as he imagines we will, that “Nietzsche was always interested in responding to [this] challenge,” and that Nietzsche’s response to is somehow tied up with treating the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, taking a Dionysian stance towards the world, or affirming the eternal recurrence.  The question then arises what these flowery ideas amount to.


According to Leiter, the answer to this question does not involve any kind of reason-giving.  There is no rational or cognitive warrant for life.  Instead, the answer refers to how one experiences life, to one’s “affective attachment to life,” which “turns on the causal mechanism of a psychological process: the arousal of affects acting as a narcotic on pain.”  This answer assumes that such an emotional valuation of life is consistent with the terrible truths.  Something can have aesthetic value even if it lacks epistemic, moral, and existential value.  I find nothing problematic with this assumption, but I am worried by the details of Leiter’s interpretation, specifically the notion that in Nietzsche’s positive proposal the affects function primarily as a narcotic.


The wedge I’d like to use in addressing my worry is this: what is the relation between the terrible truths, on the one hand, and the affects, on the other, such that affect – especially positive affect – makes life bearable or even attractive?


We can distinguish a variety of answers that might be given to this sort of question.  One is instrumental: we often advise people to put up with a modicum or even a great deal of suffering now because it’s instrumental to some highly desirable payoff in the future.  Exercise so that you’ll look good at the beach.  Invest so you can enjoy your retirement.  Decline that last beer so you’ll avoid the hangover.  The Christian promise of eternal beatitude fits this model, but it plainly will not do for Nietzsche.


A second, similar way of relating the terrible truths to the affects is through the notion of desert.  This is how the ascetic priest handles things.  Why go on suffering?  Because you deserve it, scum.  Again, such a response will not work for Nietzsche.


Yet another answer to the question Why go on? attempts to debunk suffering: it’s not really suffering because your senses deceive you, or you misinterpret their deliverances, or you’re hyper-sensitive.  Perhaps suffering pales in comparison to aesthetic enjoyment, such that when you consider the terrible truths while listening to Beethoven they lose their terrible character.  This again is evidently not what Nietzsche has in mind.  He never denies the horror of existence; he wants to affirm life despite that horror.


A fourth potential way of relating the terrible truths to the affects is through a utilitarian calculation.  Yes, life is meaningless, society is a mess, and we’re all ignorant; these are genuine detriments, but they’re outweighed by aesthetic joy.  While Leiter does attribute what he calls the minimal hedonic thesis to Nietzsche, that thesis has nothing to do with adding up utiles and finding a net positive.  According to Leiter, the idea is rather that “aesthetic experience is arousing, that it produces a sublimated form of sexual pleasure,” and that this arousal and pleasure act as a narcotic on pain.


This brings us to yet another way of relating the terrible truths to the affects: distraction.  On this view, feeling any powerful affect makes it difficult to attend to anything else, including the terrible truths.  Think of the famous video of the invisible gorilla: when you attend to the antics with the basketballs, you fail to even notice the man in the gorilla suit beating his chest.  In the same way, the “discharge of affect is the sufferer’s greatest attempt at relief, namely at anesthetization – his involuntary narcotic against torment” (GM III:15).  Finite creatures that we are, we can only experience so much at a given time.  So if we distract ourselves sufficiently with emotions (negative emotions in the case of the ascetic ideal, positive ones according to Leiter), then there will simply be no room in consciousness for the terrible truths.


This seems to be an accurate characterization of the strategy of the ascetic priests, but so far as I can tell, Nietzsche never claims that positive affect functions as a narcotic.  Moreover, consider the fact that so much of Nietzsche’s writing is devoted to the terrible truths themselves.  Writing about the terrible truths seems to be a particularly ill-conceived strategy for distracting people from them.  While I of course recognize that reading Nietzsche is itself a source of aesthetic pleasure, it strikes me as implausible to think that his purpose in writing the Genealogy was to distract his readers from the very content of that book with his literary verve.  Mr. Rash and Curious didn’t need to go into the dungeons where values are created.  He could have exulted in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Surely that would have been a more effective distraction.


I want to suggest that, in his mature writings, Nietzsche has a different picture in mind: the relation between the terrible truths and the affects is not one of distraction but of attraction.  Among the things that most seduce Nietzsche to life are the terrible truths themselves.  How could this be?  The answer, I think, has to do with Nietzsche’s notion of gay science and his valuation of the intellectual virtue of curiosity.  I don’t have time here to go through the details of the argument that Nietzsche places great value on curiosity, about which both Bernard Reginster and I have written, but the basic idea is this: for Nietzsche, curiosity is the virtue of overcoming great intellectual resistances by inquiring and investigating into the most problematic features of reality.  Those turn out to be precisely the terrible truths.


In the Preface to the 2nd edition of The Gay Science, Nietzsche says that for someone like him, “The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.  Yet one should not” (as Leiter does) “jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one gloomy. […] The attraction of everything problematic […] flares up again and again like a bright blaze over all the distress of what is problematic.”  Odd as this may sound, the terrible truths themselves are the attraction here.  Nietzsche concludes: “We know a new happiness,” the happiness of someone who wants to overcome the hardest questions and understand the most terrible truths.  Or consider Gay Science 324: “‘Life as a means to knowledge’ – with this principle in one’s heart one can live not only boldly but even gaily.”  Knowledge of what?  Of something that distracts from the terrible truths?  On the contrary, “the great passion of the seeker after knowledge” is to live “continually in the thundercloud of the highest problems and the heaviest responsibilities” (GS 351).  This answer is, I think, nascent in Leiter’s paper.  He talks of “restoring our affective attachment to [life] through pleasurable, quasi-sexual affective arousal.”  That’s not a matter of distraction but of attraction.  Attraction to what?  To life.  The very thing the terrible truths are about.


One thought on “What I said to Brian Leiter

  1. Thank you for sharing. I always like the way Brian Green started his book “Fabric of The Cosmos”. He quoted from Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” that the only purpose to to figure out why we should not kill ourselves. (paraphrased of course) For Brian the exploration of the vast amounts of unknowns was a reason to keep living. The idea the discovery, or the process itself is worth it. I like this, and keeps me out of the Schopenhauer trap of negativity.

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