Passages from Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science”

| February 9, 2012 | 7 Replies

I recently finished reading The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche. In many ways, it is a profound work. For me it was a formative book–I encountered it in a philosophy class in college. As to the meaning of the title, see paragraph 327 (below). The numbers refer to paragraph numbers rather than page numbers. These quotes are taken from the 2001 translation by Josefine Nauckhoff. As far as why I chose the following excerpts rather than others?  They “spoke” to me more than the others.  Having written this, I would also note that The Gay Science is loaded with far more thoughtful passages than I have presented here.  I did also enjoy this newer translation (I also have the translation by Walter Kaufmann, which is also excellent).  For those not familiar with Nietzsche, many of his works, including this one, are written in numbered paragraphs.

Preface, Paragraph 3   Life–to us, that means constantly transforming all that we are into light and flame and also all that wounds us; we simply can do no other. And as for illness: are we not almost tempted to ask whether we can do without it at all? Only great pain is the liberator of the spirit, as the future of the great suspicion that turns every U into an X, a real, proper X, that is the penultimate one before the final one. Only great pain, that long slow pain that takes its time and in which we are burned, as it were, over green wood, forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and put aside all trust, everything good-natured, veiling, mild, average–things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such a pain makes us “better”–but I know that it makes us deeper.

Paragraph 19-
Evil. Examine the lives of the best and the most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourself whether a tree which is supposed to grow to a proud height could do without bad weather and storms: whether misfortune and external resistance, whether any kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, greed and violence do not belong to the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible? The poison from which the weaker nature perishes strengthens the strong man–and he does not call it poison.

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Paragraph 110.
Origin of knowledge. Through immense periods of time the intellect produce nothing but errors; some of them turned out to be useful and species-preserving; those who hit upon or inherited them fought their fight for themselves and their progeny with greater luck. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were passed on by inheritance further and further, and finally almost became part of the basic endowment of the species, are for example: that there are enduring things; that there are identical things; that there are things, kinds of material, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in and of itself. Only very late did the deniers and doubters of such propositions emerge; only very late did truth emerge as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it; that our organism was cured for its opposite: all its higher functions, the perceptions of sense and generally every kind of sensation, worked with those basic errors that have been incorporated since time immemorial. Further, even in the realm of knowledge those propositions became the norms according to which one determined “true” and “untrue”–down to the most remote areas of pure logic. Thus the strength of knowledge lies not in its degree of truth, but in its age, its embeddedness, its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seem to contradict each other there was never any serious fight to begin with; denial and doubt were simply considered madness. Those exceptional thinkers, like the Eleatics, who still posited and clung to the offices of the natural errors, believed in the possibility of also living this opposite: they invented the sage as the man of unchangeability, impersonality, universality of intuition, as one and all at the same time, with a special capacity for that inverted knowledge; they had the faith that their knowledge was at the same time the principle of life. But in order to be able to claim all this, they had to deceive themselves about their own state: they had fictitiously to attribute to themselves impersonality and duration without change; they had to misconstrue the nature of the knower, deny the force of impulses and knowledge, and generally conceived reason as a completely free, self-originated activity. They closed their eyes to the fact that they, too, had arrived at their propositions in opposition to what was considered valid or from a desire for tranquility or sole possession or sovereignty. The subtler development of honesty and skepticism finally made also these people impossible; even their life and judgments approved dependent on the ancient drives and fundamental errors of all sentient existence. This subtler honesty and skepticism arose whenever two conflicting propositions seem to be applicable to life because both were compatible with the basic errors, and thus where it was possible to argue about the greater or lesser degree of usefulness for life; also wherever new propositions show themselves to be not directly useful, but at least also not harmful, as expressions of an intellectual play impulse, an innocent and happy like all play. Gradually the human brain filled itself with such judgments and convictions; and ferment, struggle, and lust for power developed in this tangle. Not only utility in delight, but also every kind of drive took part in the fight about the “truths”; the intellectual fight became an occupation, attraction, repression, duty, dignity–knowledge in striving for the truth finally took their place as a need among the other needs. Henceforth, not only faith and conviction, but also scrutiny, denial, suspicion and contradiction were a power; all “evil” instincts were subordinated to knowledge and put into service and took on the luster of the permitted, honored, useful and finally the eye and innocence of the good. Thus knowledge became a part of life and, as life, a continually growing power, until finally knowledge in the ancient basic errors struck against each other, both as life, both as power, both in the same person. The thinker–that is now the being in whom the drive to truth and those life-preserving errors are fighting their first battle, after the drive to truth has proven itself to be a life-preserving power, too. In relation to the significance of this battle, everything else is a matter of indifference: the ultimate question about the condition of life is posed here, and the first attempt is made here to answer the question through experiment. To what extent can truth stand to be incorporated? That is the question. That is the experiment.

Paragraph 112.
Cause and effect. We call it “explanation,” but “description” is what distinguishes us from older stages of knowledge and science. We are better at describing–we explain just as little as all our predecessors. We have uncovered a diverse succession where the naïve man and investigator of older cultures saw only two different things, “cause” and “effect”, as they said; we have perfected the picture of becoming but haven’t got over, got behind the picture. The series of “causes” faces us much more completely in each case; we reason, “This and that must proceed for that to follow”–but we haven’t thereby understood anything. The specifically qualitative aspect for example of every chemical process, still appears to be a “miracle”, as does every locomotion; no one has “explained” the push. And how could we explain! We are operating only with things that do not exist-with lines, surfaces, bodies, atoms, divisible times, divisible spaces. How is explanation to be at all possible when we first turn everything into a picture–our picture! It is enough to view science as an attempt to humanize things as faithfully as possible; we learn to describe ourselves more and more precisely as we describe things and their succession. Cause and effect: there is probably never such a duality; in truth a continuum faces us, from which we isolate a few pieces, just as we always perceive a movement only as isolated points, i.e. do not really see, but infer. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; it is a suddenness only for us. There is an infinite number of processes that allude us in the second of suddenness. An intellect that saw cause and effect as a continuum, not, as we do, as arbitrary division and dismemberment–that saw the stream of the event–would reject the concept of cause and effect and deny all determinedness.

Paragraph 121
Life is not an argument. We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live–by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith no one could endure living! But that does not prove them. Life is not an argument; the conditions of life might include error

paragraph 175
On eloquence. Who has had the most convincing eloquence so far? The drum roll; and as long as kings and commanders have control over that, they will remain the best or tours and rabble-rousers.

Paragraph 179.
Thoughts. Thoughts are the shadows of our sensations–always darker, emptier, simpler.

Paragraph 186
Bad conscience. Everything he does now is upright and orderly–and still he has a bad conscience. For the extraordinary is his task.

Paragraph 189.
The thinker. He is a thinker: that means he knows how to make things simpler than they are.

Paragraph 191.
Against many a defense. The most perfidious way of damaging a cause is deliberately to defend it with faulty arguments.

Paragraph 196
Limits of our sense of hearing. One hears only those questions to which one is able to find an answer.

Paragraph 201
Applause. In applause there is always a kind of noise–even in the applause we give ourselves.

Paragraph 216
Danger in the voice. With a very loud voice in one’s throat one is almost incapable of thinking subtle things.

Paragraph 224
Animals’ criticism. I fear that the animals see man as a being like them who in a most dangerous manner has lost his animal common sense–as the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal.

Paragraph 230.
Lack of silence. His whole being fails to persuade–that is because he has never remained silent about any of his good deeds.

Paragraph 232.
Dreaming. Either one does not dream, or one does so interestingly. One should learn to spend one’s waking life in the same way: not at all, or interestingly.

Paragraph 249.
The sigh of the one who comes to know. “Oh, my greed! In this soul there dwells no selfishness but rather an all-desiring self that would like, as it were, to see with the eyes and seize with the hands of many individuals–a self that would like to bring back the entire past, it wants to lose nothing it could possibly possess! Oh, this flame of my greed! Oh, that I might be reborn into 100 beings!” Whoever does not know this sigh from experience does not know the passion of coming to know.

Paragraph 258.
Those who deny chance. No victor believes in chance.

Paragraph 259.

From paradise. “Good and evil are the prejudices of God” — said the snake.

Paragraph 265
Ultimate doubt. What, then, are man’s truths ultimately? They are the irrefutable errors of man.

Paragraph 278.
The thought of death. It gives me a melancholy happiness to live in the midst of this jumble of lanes, needs, and voices: how much enjoyment, impatience, desire; how much thirsty life and drunkenness of life comes to light every moment of the day! And yet things will soon be so silent for all these noisy, living, life-thirsty ones. How even now everyone’s shadow stands behind him, as his dark fellow traveler! It’s always like the last moment before the departure of an emigrant ship: people have more to say to each other than ever; the hour is late; the ocean and its desolate silence await impatiently behind all the noise–so covetous, so certain of its prey. And everyone, everyone takes the past to be little or nothing while the near future is everything; hence this haste, this clamor, this out-shouting and out-hustling one another. Everyone wants to be the first in this future–and yet death and deathly silence are the only things certain and common to all in the future! How strange that this whole certainty and commonality barely makes an impression on people and that they are farthest removed from feeling like a brotherhood of death! It makes me happy to see that people do not at all want to thank the thought of death! I would very much like to do something that would make the thought of death even one hundred times more worth being thought to them.

Paragraph 279
Star friendship. We were friends and have become estranged. But that was right, and we do not want to hide and obscure it from ourselves as if we had to be ashamed of it. We are two ships, each of which has its own goal and course; we may cross and have a feast together, as we did–and then the good ships lay so quietly in one harbor and in one sun that it may have seemed as if they had already completed their course and had the same goal. But then the almighty force of our projects drove us apart once again, in two different seas and sunny zones, and maybe we will never meet again–or maybe we will, but will not recognize each other: the different seas and suns have changed us! That we had to become estranged is the law above us; through it we should come to have more respect for each other–and the thought of our former friendship should become more sacred! There is probably a tremendous invisible curve and stellar orbit in which our different ways and goals may be included as small stretches–let us rise to this thought! But our life is too short and our vision too meager for us to be more than friends in the sense of that sublime possibility. Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we must be earth enemies.

Paragraph 280.
Architecture for those who wish to pursue knowledge. One day, and probably soon, we will need some recognition of what is missing primarily in our big cities: quiet and wide, expansive places for reflection–places with long, high ceilinged arcades for bad or all-too-sunny weather, where no shouts or noise from carriages can penetrate and where refined manners would prohibit even priests from praying aloud: a whole complex of buildings and sites that would give expression to the sublimity of contemplation and a stepping aside . . .

Paragraph 290.
One thing is needful. To give style to one’s character–a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses that their nature has to offer and then fit them into an artistic plan until each appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of first nature removed–both times through long practice and daily work at it.… Such minds–and they may be of the first rank–are always out to shape or interpret their environment as free nature-wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly and surprising–and they are well advised to do so, because only thus do they please themselves! For one thing is needed: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself–be it through this or that poetry or art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold! Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually prepared to avenge himself for this, and we others will be his victims if only by having to endure his sight. For the sight of something ugly makes one bad and gloomy.

Paragraph 297.
Being able to contradict. Everyone knows now that being able to stand contradiction is a high sign of culture. Some even know that the higher human being desires and invites contradiction in order to receive a hint about his own injustice of which he is as yet unaware. But the ability to contradict, the acquired good conscience accompanying hostility towards what is familiar, traditional, hallowed–that is better yet than both those abilities, and constitutes what is really great, new and amazing in our culture; it is a step of all steps of the liberated spirit: who knows that?

Paragraph 305.
Self-control. Those moralists who command man first and above all to gain control of himself thereby inflict him with a peculiar disease, namely, a constant irritability at all natural stirrings and inclinations and as it were a kind of itch. Whatever may henceforth push, pull, beckon, and tell him from within or without will always strike this irritable one as endangering his self-control: no longer may he entrust himself to any instinct or free wing-beat; instead, he stands there rigidly with a defensive posture, armed against himself, with sharp and suspicious eyes, the eternal guardian of his fortress, since he has turned himself into a fortress. Indeed, he can become great this way! But how insufferable he has become to others; how impoverished and cut off from the most beautiful fortuities of the soul! And indeed from all further instruction! For one must be able to at times to lose oneself if one wants to learn something from things that we ourselves are not.

Paragraph 319.
As interpreters of our experiences. One type of honesty has been alien to all religion-founders and such: they have not made their experiences a matter of conscience for their knowledge. “What did I really experience? What was going on inside and around me? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will turned against all deceptions of the senses and stalwart and warding off the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions. Even today, none of our dear religious ones asked them; rather, they have a thirst for things that are contrary to reason and do not want to make it too hard for themselves to quench it–so they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear the voices of the angels! But we, we others, we reason-thirsty ones, want to face our experiences as sternly as we would a scientific experiment, hour by hour, day by day! We want to be our own experiments and guinea pigs.

Paragraph 322.
Parable. Those thinkers in whom all stars move in cyclical orbits are not the deepest; he who looks into himself as into a vast space and bears galaxies within also knows how irregular galaxies are; they lead into the chaos and labyrinth of existence.

Paragraph 327.
Taking seriously. For most people, the intellect is an awkward, gloomy, creaking machine that is hard to start: when they want to work with this machine and think well, they call it “taking the matter seriously.” Oh, how taxing good thinking must be for them! The lovely human beast seems to lose its good mood when it thinks well; it becomes “serious”! And “Where laughter and gaiety are found, thinking is good for nothing”–that is the prejudice of this serious beast against all “gay science.” Well then, let us prove it a prejudice!

Paragraph 332.
The evil hour. Every philosopher has probably had an evil hour when he thought: What do I matter if people don’t accept my bad arguments, too? And then some malicious little bird flew over him and chirped: “What do you matter? What do you matter?”

Paragraph 341.
The heaviest weight. What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live it once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even the spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke this? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a God and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, “Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

Paragraph 343
How to understand our cheerfulness. … Indeed at hearing the news that “the old God is dead,” we philosophers and “free spirits” feel illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation–finally the horizon seems clear again, even if not bright; finally our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger; every daring of the lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; maybe there has never been such an “open sea.”

Paragraph 370.
What is Romanticism? Every art, every philosophy can be considered a cure and aid in the service of growing, struggling life. They always presuppose suffering and sufferers. But there are two types of sufferers: first, those who suffer from a super abundance of life–they wanted Dionysan art as well as a tragic outlook and insight into life; then, those who suffer from an impoverishment of life and seek quiet, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and insight, or else intoxication, paroxysm, numbness, madness . . .


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Category: Meaning of Life, Reading - Books and Magazines

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Jason says:

    Aphorism 343 has always been my favorite if only for sheer beauty. Regardless of your appraisal of Nietzsche or his philosophical enterprise, you’re compelled to admit that he was a brilliant stylist.

  2. Nietzsche is awesome. You have inspired me to re-read.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    It’s cool you chose this time to mention Nietzsche, as Kelly Clarkson sings; “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”

    My 13 year old daughter, Bella, and I were just discussing with her friends the origin of the words and how it was a German philosopher. I mentioned to one of Bella’s friends she could play the song in her German class for contemporary influences of German thinkers.

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    Love the Dilbert strip in which Wally observes:

    “Have you ever noticed that the things that don’t kill you make you weaker? And great minds don’t think alike. If they did, the patent office would only have about fifty inventions. I started getting suspicious when I cried over spilt milk and the cashier took it off my bill.”

    Other than that, I’m not compelled to admit anything about Nietzsche’s style. I ground my teeth on Monday listening to two excruciating 45 minute lectures (out of 12) of The Teaching Company’s Great Courses “Philosphy of Mind” (by John Searle). My exploration of any value in philosophy ended when I was in my early 20s. A lot of switches turned off in my mind around then. Foundations of curmudgeony, I suppose.

    I am now listening to something far more fascinating (to me): “Story of Human Language”.

    • Anything you gave up in your twenties, you gave up too soon.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Funny. I (obviously) don’t see it that way. Unsaid in that response was that I’ve revisited the subject many times in the past 25+ years. As I’ve matured, I have less and less use for what I – and I recognize that this is my opinion only, so I’ll say it first – consider a colossal waste of intellectual effort on useless koans (redundant, that, in my mind). “If I imagine an object using my left hemisphere, and you imagine the same object using your right hemisphere, are we thinking of the same thing?” That was one of the examples covered in the second Philosophy of Mind lecture that made me laugh…and decide that others can ponder the imagined depth of such earth-shattering, mind-blowing what-ifs; a mental Marcel Duchamp fountain.

      But, I am still invigorated by the diversity to which I deliberately and consciously expose myself every day. To know that people put so much stock into what I find tedious and valueless, and conversely, dismiss that which I might value is quite enlightening. And fun.

  5. Tony says:

    “Through immense periods of time the intellect produce nothing but errors; some of them turned out to be useful and species-preserving; those who hit upon or inherited them fought their fight for themselves and their progeny with greater luck.”

    Nietzsche describes here the basic principle of evolution. That simple. Which reminds me what Dennett has written about Nietzsche in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, that he attacked the caricature of evolution that was spread by anti-evolution, and came up with ideas similar to Darwin’s.

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