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fuglyduckling's avatar

What did Nietzsche mean by this quote?

Asked by fuglyduckling (405 points ) June 10th, 2014

“Not when the truth is filthy, but when it is shallow, does the enlightened man go unwillingly into its waters.”

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12 Answers

SavoirFaire's avatar

Out of context, Nietzsche is saying that the truth isn’t always appetizing. It won’t always make us happy or appeal to us. But an enlightened person realizes that not knowing what is true in no way changes the facts, so there’s nothing to gain—and everything to lose—by avoiding the truth. Only if you know what is true can you plan accordingly. But you can’t just know something, you have to understand it. Understanding is deeper than just knowing, and people who just learn facts without understanding how to apply them are being shallow.

In context, the quote means much the same thing. But the passage—which is from Thus Spoke Zarathustra—is about lust and chastity, which many find to be “filthy” topics that are not appropriate for discussion. This is why he uses the language of filthiness in the metaphor.

fuglyduckling's avatar

@SavoirFaire Do you read a lot of Nietzsche?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@fuglyduckling Yes, I do. I am a graduate student in philosophy, and one of the chapters in my dissertation is about Nietzsche.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

Nietzsche rejects the idea of universal constants, and claims that what we call “truth” is only “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I believe he is also speaking to the subjectivity of truth

fuglyduckling's avatar

@SavoirFaire I started to read Beyond good and evil, the opening chapter was in the same context. nietzsche was asking us why truth is so appealing. i thought then he was a lover of truths. so i am guessing no?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Yetanotheruser Note the sentence before the part you are citing: “Some regard Nietzsche’s 1873 unpublished essay [...] as a keystone in his thought; some believe that it is a peripheral, conflicted and non-representative fragment in his writings.” In any case, the essay is one of Nietzsche’s early writings. Zarathustra, from which the quote is drawn, is one of his later writings. While Nietzsche remains skeptical of human epistemological capacities, particularly as individuals, the perspectivism of his later period is more nuanced than he straightforward subjectivity of “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”

@fuglyduckling Nietzsche is a lover of truth, despite the passage cited by @Yetanotheruser. He just thinks that truth is more complicated than we normally think—and much harder to get. One of his main concerns is the way that our own minds obscure the truth from us (whether because nature has instilled certain ways of thinking in us to promote our survival, or because culture has instilled certain biases in us to ensure its dominance). Finding truth is important for Nietzsche, and he rejects the idea that some topics are “filthy” and not to be talked about. But he also wants us to be aware that we never get more than an approximation of the truth. We can get closer and closer, but our own subjectivity will always get in the way (either of getting the truth, or of confirming for sure that it is the truth).

fuglyduckling's avatar

What does “unwillingly into its waters” mean?

LostInParadise's avatar

Here is how I would interpret the statement, without looking at the context. or knowing much about Nietzsche.

I would take a shallow truth to be the opposite of a deep truth. It might relate to some piece of gossip or some other area beneath the dignity of the enlightened philosopher, who would address such matters unwillingly.

flutherother's avatar

My take on it is this – that it’s another Nietzschian paradox. We imagine that discerning people don’t like to think about lust and sex but prefer clear and abstract truths. Nietzsche says the opposite is true; his enlightened man has no qualms in thinking about sex and avoids shallow truths which have no real significance for the future of mankind.

kritiper's avatar

The enlightened man doesn’t venture into areas he cannot understand but will immerse himself in things he can fathom.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@fuglyduckling Imagine a filthy pond and a shallow puddle. Just because a pond is filthy doesn’t mean there’s nothing to find there. In fact, what’s good might be obscured by the filth. The same is true of supposedly “filthy” topics: what is interesting might be hidden by people’s disgust and refusal to talk about it. But a shallow puddle is unlikely to have anything interesting in it, and you don’t need to step in it to find out what’s there. You can tell just by looking (shallow puddles can’t hide much). The same with shallow discussions: you don’t need to participate in order to figure out that there’s nothing worthwhile there. A brief listen will do. So the enlightened man will go into the filthy pond or engage in a “filthy” topic without a problem, but he won’t step into a shallow pond willingly or take part in shallow conversation because it won’t yield anything worthwhile.

And here we see the genius behind a good aphorism: paragraphs of meaning packed into a single sentence.

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