Monthly Archives: May 2020

Nietzche’s Truth-Loving Test

In this blog, I have kept a running list of tests for telling whether you love the truth, including:

Today, let’s add one from Friedrich Nietzche:

Something might be true, even if it were also harmful and dangerous in the highest degree; indeed, it might be part of the essential nature of existence that to understand it completely would lead to our own destruction. The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.

Friedrich Nietzche, Beyond Good and Evil, paragraph 39, translation by Marion Faber

I credit Jordan Peterson for bringing this to my attention. Riffing on Nietzche’s idea, Peterson said, “The pathway to who you could be if you were completely who you [are] is through the truth. …And so the truth does set you free but the problem is that it destroys everything that isn’t worthy in you as it sets you free” and that is often painful.

I can attest to the truth of what these gentlemen have said. It took me four decades of growing up before I was finally ready to squarely face some difficult questions about my own beliefs, and then it took four more years of study and critical thinking before I was ready to abandon those beliefs. It was very painful but it did set me free.

In my experience, Nietzche’s description of the weak-spirited person as one who needs to have the truth “diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, [and] falsified” does not so much refer to the outer truth being examined (i.e., a belief system) as to inner the truth about the person himself: the fact that he harbors confirmation bias, and why he does; his willingness to go along to get along; his fear of life falling apart if he allows his beliefs to change; his attachment to the positive outcomes of his belief system; his need for life to make perfect sense; and many other counter-productive traits.

Until those character defects are exposed and rectified, the project of correcting the outer falsehoods is hopeless.

Are you facing the unpleasant truths about yourself? Take this handy homemade quiz and find out! Every “Yes” answer says you are on the right track.

  • When someone corrects your behavior, or an argument you are making, are you grateful rather than defensive?
  • Do you help your ideological opponents fashion the strongest possible argument for their position before you attempt a rebuttal?
  • Do you refrain from attributing bad motives to others unless you have incontrovertible evidence?
  • Have you given as much thought to your method of arriving at truth as to whatever you have concluded is the truth?
  • Do you often catch yourself believing what someone says because they are good-looking, or of your race? (We all do this, so if you’re at least catching yourself, that’s a good thing.)
  • Do you often catch yourself reflexively believing someone is “bad” because they disagree with your political or religious convictions? (Also something we all do, so the more you catch yourself, the better.)
  • And one more for these days of COVID-19: Do you respect the conclusions of acknowledged experts more than the opinions of your friends or conspiracy theorists?

The Real Lord of the Flies

Scene from the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Flies

Although I somehow got away without reading it, a large percentage of high-schoolers read The Lord of the Flies, the story of a pack of adolescent boys stranded on an island. It starts off optimistically enough, with a democratic assembly and three rules: (1) have fun; (2) survive; and (3) keep a fire going to alert any passing ships. By the end of the book, the island is in ruins, the boys have devolved into warring tribes, and three of them are dead.

The novel’s dark view of human nature is the default view in Western culture. It is as old and pervasive as, well, original sin.

Fortunately, the book is only a work of fiction. This week, I learned what happened when a pack of boys was shipwrecked in real life. The outcome was quite different, as you can read here: The real Lord of the Flies. In a nutshell, the boys form a cooperative society. They start and end each day with a song and a prayer. (The Catholic school from which they had escaped would be pleased!) They fashion a guitar out of a coconut and salvaged wire, which they play to cheer themselves up. They allocate duties fairly and with a buddy system. When a quarrel does break out, they solve it with a “time out” rather than violence. When they are finally rescued after 15 months, they are astonishingly healthy and sane. I commend the whole article to you; read it and let your spirits be lifted!

Some people are real villains, but most of us want to do the right thing, even if we struggle at times.

Appendix: While rooting around the Internet for this post, I came across this account of a researcher who tried to construct a Lord of the Flies scenario artificially: A real-life Lord of the Flies: the troubling legacy of the Robbers Cave Experiment. Psychologist Mufazer Sherif manipulated some boys at a summer camp to try to make them fight each other. The first experiment did not go well — for the experimenters. The second experiment produced the result that Sherif desired and became standard reading in the field but, these days, should make us skeptical of all such experiments.