On the Opening of Nietzsche's "On the Pathos of Truth"

"Art is more powerful than knowledge," Nietzsche declares, and part of me wants to scream

On the Opening of Nietzsche's "On the Pathos of Truth"

To my readers: I'm trying to illustrate what it means to write "about" something, not "at" it. I'm realizing this means I have to embrace repetition in order to discuss the same theme at multiple levels of depth. My arguments are circular, but hopefully they're circling spiral-like in a fruitful direction.

I hope you'll read Nietzsche's "On the Pathos of Truth." I am reasonably sure this is the citation for the work quoted below:

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870's. Edited by Daniel Breazeale. Indiana: Humanities Press, 1979. 61-66.

I'm not thrilled with my conclusion. I feel like I jumped into "defend the liberal arts" mode. I hope it reads a bit differently to you. That it continues the tone of the rest of the essay, which is dedicated to asking what it even means to ask about things such as "fame" or "culture."

"Art is more powerful than knowledge," Nietzsche declares, and part of me wants to scream. It's a statement which can be used by the worst sort of pedant. For example, the one who says you don't listen to a band because you can't sing their lyrics backward. Or asserts that since you said the date wrong, an event which haunts you didn't actually happen. They know art, after all, and its power. Your need of established truth, your need to know what matters, doesn't count. I'm reminded a bit of Auden's "Epitaph on a Tyrant," a lyric which makes me wonder which poets were tyrants and which tyrants were poets:

Epitaph on a Tyrant
W.H. Auden

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

However, "[a]rt is more powerful than knowledge" comes at the end of Nietzsche's "On the Pathos of Truth," an essay remarkable for being fan-fiction about Heraclitus. It is very good fan-fiction. Line-by-line, it pushes readers to think through words like "fame" and "knowledge" and confront their hidden expectations. I believe Nietzsche is most memorable when presenting his portrait of Heraclitus. Below, I'd like to carefully consider two aspects of his first two opening paragraphs, where it is unclear what he even means to talk about. The value and excitement of these paragraphs lies in the debates they indulge-- debates utterly alien to ours--about how anything which lasts actually works. It's a crucial discussion to have at a time when fantastic projects such as colonizing Mars meet universal applause while the planet literally burns and a huge number of our fellow humans rot in carceral states.


"Is fame actually nothing but the tastiest morsel of our self-love?" This is the first, marvelous sentence of the essay. Yes, it sounds too pretentious to bother addressing, and I've often found myself frustrated trying to parse it. Still, the sentence rewards attention.

To illustrate, start with the link between fame and deliciousness. I don't think many of us believe fame to be nutritious. Maybe an afterthought, a nuisance, or a hopeless addiction. Fame can't be relied upon. But look around--if you want to sell anything, if you want to make it in the market economy, you need recognition beyond your immediate peers. Want to be a YouTuber? An essayist? An artist? An audience does not hurt; some degree of fame is essential. Thus, the addiction involved in running a monetized channel or stream can be readily explained. You want to show yourself that you can master the skill of getting the attention you need consistently.

Is this sort of fame tasty? I guess it can be, in the way anything is tasty to a starving person. Fame is necessary for some of us to feel a measure of worth. However, Nietzsche probably has another conception of how fame, self-love, and deliciousness relate. Maybe someone in the 19th century could have churned out content like a TikToker by hustling with a printing press, but it is more likely that fame was considered a rarity which couldn't be had by just anyone.

The big question is what exactly Nietzsche means by "self-love." Later in the paragraph, he treats it as wholly justified pride:

In the eternal need which all future generations have for these rarest illuminations such a person recognizes the necessity of his own fame. From now on humanity needs him.

This, of course, raises more questions than answers. We recognize some as indispensable after the fact. Some do more with life, giving others a chance that they wouldn't have had. Some do less with life, hurting others and displaying disgusting levels of ignorance and carelessness. How is it possible to make a determination before all is said and done that one is "necessary," that one ought to be famous? Wholly justified pride stands on the edge of violent egoism, the greatest virtue on the edge of being the greatest vice.

There aren't any easy answers to this problem, and the portrait Nietzsche draws in the first paragraph of "the rarest of men and... their rarest moments" ultimately sounds ridiculous. What's important is that he sees fame and self-love in a completely different way than we do. Maybe we need fame for the sake of our business model, employment prospects, or power. Nietzsche is looking at fame as either defining history or the sociopaths who believe themselves the fulcrum upon which history rests. Because he's willing to entertain both possibilities in his rhetoric--this could be about history, or this could be about a loser who will try to buy, conquer, or redefine everything--he's in a better position than we are to deal with the demagogues of our age. We're stuck giving grudging respect to those who can build mass audiences no matter how they do it. Nietzsche can say they're going to be history, one way or another.


Nietzsche's second paragraph pulls us into wondering how the natural became the artificial, how two opposed concepts could possibly define the other. He begins with a statement about being which brings a Parmenidean sentiment to life: "We observe every passing away and perishing with dissatisfaction, often with astonishment, as if we witnessed therein something fundamentally impossible." There are many problems with Parmenides' most famous idea, that "being" is unchangeable and "nothing" is truly unuterrable, but maybe Parmenides' biggest problem is a lack of immediate emotional resonance. A statement such as "there is no such thing as change" sounds absurd and disconnected. Nietzsche, by contrast, speaks of beings "passing away and perishing," but in doing so they create "dissatisfaction," perhaps causing us to reevaluate the "impossible." It's not really Parmenides who believes there is no such thing as change. Rather, our everyday approach to life treats life as static. We're really not prepared for the trees of our childhood to pass away, much less our parents. Nietzsche continues with these lines:

We are displeased when a tall tree breaks, and a crumbling mountain distresses us. Every New Year’s Eve enables us to feel the mysterious contradiction of being and becoming.

The world, just by being, gives us a sense of permanence, but then it breaks that sense by shattering the things we think will outlive us. Nowadays, a "tall tree" and a "mountain" sound innocuous to our ears, because we destroy on such a grand scale. We're causing lakes and rivers to dry up, raising the oceans to recreate the Flood, and tearing down rainforest (thereby changing the chemical composition of the entire atmosphere).

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But I think for readers of Nietzsche's time, not being able to properly appreciate "a tall tree" or a "mountain" was a mortal sin. If the future was going to be better than the past, it might depend on returning human being to a more natural state. This could entail envisioning someone whose natural sense of inquiry would lead them to science, the ability to see the world as it is and build their knowledge upon that. Someone whose natural sense of socialization would embrace a more democratic culture, as they appreciate the different gifts others have to offer and lean toward equality. I'm not saying Nietzsche himself believes these things, but a discussion centered around the potential of humankind probably touches on ideas like these.

Nietzsche himself posits the very concept of "man" (i.e. humankind) is at stake:

But what offends the moral man most of all is the thought that an instant of supreme universal perfection should vanish like a gleam of light, as it were, without posterity and heirs. His imperative demands rather, that whatever once served to propagate more beautifully the concept “man” must be eternally present.

You feel disappointed when a tree collapses, you feel like your world is crumbling with that mountain, because the more moral you are, the less you can believe this is all for naught. "[T]he concept 'man' must be eternally present." Being moral entails feeling a sense of loss that things naturally pass. This does not lead a human being, though, to acceptance. Rather, our natural tendency leads directly to artificial prolongment. We need fame, we need culture, in order to know what our species is and does:

The fundamental idea of culture is that the great moments form a chain, like a chain of mountains which unites mankind across the centuries, that the greatest moment of a past age is still great for me, and that the prescient faith of those who desire fame will be fulfilled.

It's impossible to overstate just how different this line of thinking is from anything we have at this time. We've touched on how fame can be immensely practical to those of us in the present as well as used to advance gimmicky ideas about the future. The cultural conversation Nietzsche is in, though, wonders aloud what function fame and culture have in the first place. I've never cared personally for cries of "the humanities will save us." I know plenty who are reading old books, and some of them do more harm than good. But it is simply wild that the impact of big futurist projects is predominantly conceived in material terms. It's like we've given up trying to tell the future that we stood for something, or that something important for everyone is at stake.


I don't know if "art" is more powerful than "knowledge." But I do know for a lot of people, the pursuit of knowledge is throwing together a bunch of random facts without an understanding of what to do with them. Many who have been through years of formal education can't tell you why it's important to master a language (this can literally advance world peace), how hard it is to write music or theater criticism (I tried this. I ended up with "the notes sounded very notey"), or explain where the world as they know it came from. For myself, I'm not sure if a serious education is about advancing the concept of "humankind" as much as simply being aware. If you asked me right now how I'd like to use my one wild and precious life, I'd like to be able to say I worked to be aware, and when possible, used that awareness to make things a bit better. But this statement, however humbly stated, brings me closer to Nietzsche's rhetoric than to believing culture is useless.