Nietzsche: Bitter truth or happy illusion?


“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.” So Friedrich Nietzsche, aged only 19, ends a touching letter to his younger sister Elizabeth.

Nietzsche, son of a (by then dead) Lutheran pastor from a small, conservative town and family, was at this time a student in Bonn, drinking too much (and getting a beer belly) in his fraternity and even engaging in the odd duel and dropping by the odd brothel. Above all, however, he was expanding his mind. And with that came certain ideas.

Ideas about God, in particular. They horrified his mother and younger sister, who otherwise adored Fritz. Fritz, as we now know, would go on to become the bad boy of philosophy, the man who told us that God is dead and so forth. Those would be the ideas for which I consider him one of the world’s greatest thinkers. But at this point, he was just a sweet older brother, being tender with his li’l sis.

Elizabeth, hoping to bring him back to the church, had written him that

it is much easier not to believe than the opposite, and the difficult thing is likely to be the right course to take…

(I am quoting all this from pages 58-60 in Julian Young’s excellent “philosophical biography” of Nietzsche, which I am currently devouring.)

To which brother Fritz answered:

… Concerning your basic principle, that truth is always to be found on the side of the more difficult, I agree in part. However, it is difficult to believe that 2 x 2 does not equal 4. Does that make it therefore truer?

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?

Is the most important thing to arrive at that view of God, world and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Is not the true inquirer totally indifferent to what the result of his inquiries might be? When we inquire, are we seeking for rest, peace, happiness? Not so; we seek only truth even though it be in the highest  degree ugly and repellent.

Still one final question: if we had believed from our youth onwards that all salvation issued from someone other than Jesus, from Mohammed for example, is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? It is the faith that makes blessed, not the objective reality that stands behind the faith. I write this to you, dear Lisbeth, simply with the view of meeting the line of proof usually adopted by religious people, who appeal to their inner experiences to demonstrate the infallibility of their faith. Every true faith is infallible, it accomplishes what the person holding the faith hopes to find in it, but that does not offer the slightest support for a proof of its objective truth.

Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

There are some timeless ideas in this innocent passage. For instance, Nietzsche already phrased (more eloquently, I might add) what would become Richard Dawkins’ opening attack in The God Delusion in our time.

And he expressed (again, more eloquently) what every free thinker feeling the pressures of political correctness has felt since. (Compare, for instance, Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist at the LSE I like to read.)

Yes, there is indeed a choice to be made.

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65 thoughts on “Nietzsche: Bitter truth or happy illusion?

  1. Interesting as usual! There has been a bit of an uproar down here of late because a group called The New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign raised money to put its messages on buses. But the bus company said no because people found the messages “distressing.” So the Campaign people put up billboards. One of the best, which echoes Nietzsche is:

    “We are all atheists about most gods. Some of us just go one god further.”

    I’m not sure what’s distressing about that, except that it makes you think. Which is also what Nietzsche was saying (I think).

    • @ Thomas

      I really love that quote! I wonder, though, whether, even in monotheism, there’s only one god. I’d rather suppose every believer would have his or her personal god…
      And, being an atheist, even I am entertaining some kind of an image of some kind of a god, be it on the back of my mind.

    • I just had a Noble Peace Prize-worthy idea:

      Let’s go backward in that process. Ie, I will sacrifice to G.d, if we all also sacrifice to Zeus, Wotan, Vishnu, Thor, Ceres, Isis, Baal…..


    • @ Ronald–Interesting question. I wonder if the problem is that there are too many “personal gods” or if that people don’t keep their gods personal.

    • @Andreas:The Nobel Peace Prize Committee might balk at the prospect of sacrificing to the millions of gods in the Hindu pantheon.

      @Thomas: I think people not keeping their gods personal is the problem. Having lots of “personal gods” doesn’t seem to be the trouble when we consider Hinduism, for example,in which there are only three gods, but the ‘millions’ that I mention above came up because everyone had their own versions (‘avatars’) of what they wanted those three gods to be, and they’ve all coexisted quite peacefully.

  2. As an atheist, I understand Nietzsche’s point and agree fully.On the other hand, Kierkegaad also considered himself a disciple of truth (as do all philosophers, I suppose) and he sought it through religion.

    ‘Truth’ itself is a vague concept. For me, that which is scientifically proven (or at the least has the most evidence on its side) is the truth, because as Richard Dawkins says, science is our only means of navigating the world. Religious people argue for a ‘higher’ truth which can only be realised through faith.The only way to counter this is by repeatedly stating ‘but there’s no PROOF’, as poor Dr. Dawkins does most of the time.

    It’s unfortunate that the individual choices we make about religion often have unfavourable social and political ramifications. Faith should be personal, but it never is.

    • Well put, Susan.

      You notice, btw, that Nietzsche in this letter to his sister is not actually asserting that God does not exist. He is simply “priming” her to become aware of her own thought processes and mental habits, to make her more “honest”, as it were, about how she has arrived at her convictions.

      To me, that’s the point of the quote, not any specific conclusion about God/no God that one might arrive at.

    • “Is not the true inquirer totally indifferent to what the result of his inquiries might be?”

      It’s the Bhagvad Gita all over again.

  3. “…….is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people…..”.

    If Nietzsche means by this that it makes life easier to believe all we’ve been taught, and which everyone, too, believes (I find Nietzsche difficult to follow) then I agree, and unreservedly.

    Only when we reject the Official Truth of anything – the Official Truth which most swallow unquestioningly – do we realise how oppressive is the tyranny of mass opinion.

    • I agree completely, although I think you go two words too far:

      “…of anything…”.

      Ie, we have been taught that 2 x 2 = 4, which is therefore Official Truth, but that does not mean we should reject it.

      But that’s knit-picking. yes, let’s re-examine everything we’ve been taught.

    • Phil, you and I seem to agree on a fairly rare basis but on this we do. Andreas takes some issue with your “of anything” but there I will disagree with him. Question anything, everything, even if it is a simple as 2+2=4. After all, you might have questioned that when you first were taught it. Until proof was shown. Someone once told me (a long time ago) that 2+2=4 only if we agree what 2 stands for and that 4 represents its sum.

  4. I agree, Phil. Bertram Russell is always over quoted in these sorts of discussions, but he’s always got a good point. One of my favorite lines of his is:

    “What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite. “

    • “I mean by intellectual integrity the habit of deciding vexed questions in accordance with the evidence, or of leaving them undecided where the evidence is inconclusive. This virtue, though it is underestimated by almost all adherents of any system of dogma, is to my mind of the very greatest social importance and far more likely to benefit the world than Christianity or any other system of organized beliefs.” – Bertram Russell

      Carl Sagan criticized the general form of the argument for ignorance as an “impatience with ambiguity”, famously pointing out that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

      and there it is – neither proof of existence nor proof of non-existence “Yes, there is indeed a choice to be made.” for my part, i’m o.k. with ambiguity.

    • Great quote by Russell, Thomas.

      dafna, ambiguity is OK. As I said to Susan above, I don’t think Nietzsche yet intended to disavow God completely in this letter. I think he just wanted to be honest about how many people (ie, his sister) come into possession of the beliefs they hold.

    • yes, nietzsche instructs to reject dogma (or at least examine our conclusions).

      there is also a great deal in the excerpt about determining the “Truth” as it pertains to the existence of a god. the title of the blog topic also implies there is some sort of “truth” to be had.

      “…but that does not offer the slightest support for a proof of its objective truth.” “if you wish to be a disciple of truth,” etc.

      that’s what i hoped my excerpts were addressing. atheism is based on “faith” as much as anything else. a faith that god does not exist.

      there is no “support for any objective proof/truth” either way; which is why i like your quote “it’s a choice” (and a personal one).

      from a scientific angle, wouldn’t proving God did not exist first require the proof of a God? it’s a catch-22, to prove the absence of a thing, mustn’t there first be “evidence” of it’s existence?

      hence the carl sagen and russell quotes.

      even dawkins book, (at least the amazon excerpts) are rather innocuous. but the title does it a disservice by using the word “delusion” since the definition is “an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary” –

      to beat a dead mustang (i thought cheri was referring to the horse also) absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

  5. “However, it is difficult to believe that 2 x 2 does not equal 4. Does that make it therefore truer?”

    I am sorry you had to quote Nietzsche on this fallacy. At least in German we would not normally say that 2 + 2 is “true”. It is only right = richtig.

    This difference was most famously investigated by Kant.

    • Unfortunately, I only saw the letter in English translation. Perhaps N did not make that mistake in German.

      if he did, shall we let him off the hook? He was 19, and writing to his sis, in what would today be an email, text or tweet.

      That said, could you perhaps enlighten us on what Kant said about things being true or right? I’m famous for splitting hairs, and it seems to me that we’re in fractional-hair territory now….

  6. In my fantasies, a thing or two has changed at the Nietzsche household since Fritz left home. Lil sis Elizabeth has taken to hanging out in cafes in a black turtleneck, reading Dostoevsky and contemplating free will and the appeal of the irrational.

    She now (with all the Man-from-the-Underground attitude that she can muster) responds to her brother:

    “Yo, Fritzy, ‘two times two equals FIVE’ is not with its attractions.”

  7. Ooops! I meant to have Elizabeth say: “Two times two equals FIVE is not withOUT its attractions.” I must have spent too much time at the Odd Bar last night.

    • As you know, I dig your fantasies. Yup, I’m going with it. Liz, right now, is a real hottie. Snooty, tattoed, smoking Gitanes, all that.

      The ODD brothel: I worried about that as I wrote it. Obviously, I use it in the sense of “occasional”. Is that British, perhaps?

      Oh, it’s too early for this. See you later at the odd bar.

    • Operative word: “can”

      Therefore it can be true that Earth (Gaia) mated with Sky (Uranus) to make time (Chronos), and that the kid later cut off his dad’s knob and threw it into the sea to make foam which formed into love (Aphrodite)…..

    • To add to Andreas–it can be true that God created light on the first day but didn’t get around to creating the sun, moon and stars until the fourth day.

  8. Is the gathering of oddballs at an oddbar or at the oddbrothel?

    You could do a story about Mustang Ranch outside of Tahoe. I think it might be something else, but what a storied past.

    • Where would you like it to be?

      Funny you should mention a Mustang Ranch. As it happens, I’ve been looking into a possible story on something similar….

    • Oops, sorry. being so innocent I thought you meant an actual mustang ranch. having googled it, I see the ranch is of a different nature, more germane to this thread. My mistake.

    • Oh. You were thinking of a story on the wild mustangs in Nevada, right?

      Maybe you could peg horsing around to another Mustang. Readership would advance.

      Glad to know you are innocent.


  9. Fractional hair territory! Really!
    Would you say that
    2 + 2 = 4 is the same kind of statement as
    God is eternal
    Nietzsche is the greatest philosopher after Kant
    Statements based on numbers and those that are based on measurements are universally binding
    Statements based on words remain subjective or only locally valid, because there is no way to make the meaning of words binding

    But it is the second half of the game Spain vs Germany, so help us pray that Spain wins!

  10. What a coincidence, I was just thinking of old Fritz after having watched a talk with Hilary Putnam and Bryan Magee the “philosophy of science” on YouTube this weekend. ( )

    I wonder, though, if Nietzsche’s point here might be seen as a subset of the Socratic idea of starting from a position of knowing nothing. Truth itself is of course a whole other problem, though here is not the Nietzsche (I don’t think) beyond truth and lie, of truth as a “chaotic totality” of power perspectives. Perhaps we see inchoate, though, the idea of the übermensch resisting the temptations of easy pleasure and peace of mind.

    Incidentally, though, at their own risk scientists invoke Nietzsche, who would not likely have approved of their self-righteous truth-seeking, science’s admittedly “provisional” “truths,” and its overall impression of itself.

    It really is quite remarkable how stimulating, and infuriating, Nietzsche is to read. I must get a headache when reading him at least 50% of the time.

  11. To add to the hair splitting discussion on truth. Truth can have different meanings in different contexts – math probably allows for the most solid of truths. A mathematical truth can be derived from a proof which is a logical “statement” that is true in all cases because we have “assumed” the axioms internal to the logic are true. We can get there through deductive reasoning – of course, some would argue nothing is true but only valid or invalid. Basically, it is internally coherent logically – not objective from some superuniversal source.

    This shouldn’t lead readers to think that we can’t use words like true and fact in other domains. No one can say that “the Earth is oblate spheroid, not flat” is true in a mathematical sense, but it is certainly “true” or “a fact” in the broader common and equally accurate usage of the words. The OED defines “fact” as: “Something that has really occurred or is actually the case; something certainly known to be of this character; hence, a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to what is merely inferred, or to a conjecture or fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based upon it.” As we can see, my truth of the shape of the earth fits into this definition because of the huge amount of evidence through observation and experience.

    Nietzsche’s message to her sister can basically be read as distinguishing between accepting truth from authority or faith, which has no way to arbitrate between truth and untruth, and discovering mathematical and, say, our OED defined truth/facts about the world. Like any good skeptic, Nietzsche didn’t reject the ability to know and determine truth but only to have doubt and “inquire” – what a great word choice. He also stresses to his sister and us that anything that makes one “comfortable” should be doubted more so, which is why we must caution against “wishful thinking” and other bias (to use more modern terms).


    I think you might be misinterpreting the “choice” we have in regards to truth. We can’t choose what is true only what we believe (even then I’m not so sure: maybe we can only choose what we “inquire” about). We should believe something is true only if it is actually true not just because we want to believe it. I think that’s what Nietzsche was getting at writing, “if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.”

    And finally, atheists don’t believe that proofs exists of God’s nonexistence; they just don’t accept that there is any credible evidence of its existence.

    • ditto thomas. but i don’t think that’s what dan was saying.

      it sounds to me, and please correct me dan, that you have two points; one of which is that the “truth of atheism is somehow truer than the truth of theism”?

      looks like i need some self-editing – that’s what i hoped my excerpts were addressing.

      atheism is based on (edit)”a belief” as much as anything else. (edit) “a belief” that god does not exist. there is no “support for any objective proof/truth” either way; which is why i like (edit) Andreas’ quote “it’s a choice” (and a personal one) …edit…as to what to believe.

      i had no intention of implying that we can choose “what is true” about god/no god.

    • @ dafna

      If “there is no ‘support for any objective proof/truth’ either way,” why would you believe in the affirmative about a deity’s existence? If we both recognize say that there is no support or proof for invisible pink elephants flying around your room right now how could you sensibly “believe” they are there? What if everyone else believed they were there – and for centuries too? Nietzsche, it seems, would argue that you’re just relying on “custom,” “comfort,” and your unreliable “inner experiences.”

      To expand on this let me quote Bertrand Russell from “Epistemological Premisses:” “Since we are concerned with theory of knowledge, not merely belief, we cannot accept all psychological premisses as epistemological premisses, for two psychological premisses may contradict each other, and therefore not all are true. For example I may think ‘there is a man coming downstairs’, and the next moment I may realize that it is a reflection of myself in a mirror. For such reasons, psychological premisses must be subjected to analysis before being accepted as premisses for theory of knowledge. In this analysis we are as little skeptical as possible. We assume that perception can cause knowledge, although it may cause error if we are logically careless.” Of course, Russell goes on to explain why we can casually rely of perception or we’d become radical and complete skeptics, which is not a advisable way to live. But he points out that perception can cause belief but shouldn’t be the ground of one’s belief.

      So I’m curious, what epistemological ground does one’s belief sit for the truth of god’s existence for a theist? Would a belief in those invisible elephants sit on that same ground? Do you think that someone who doesn’t believe in invisible elephants have the same epistemological standing as the believer in large transparent trunked mammals? What difference do you see in firmness of terrain for the God of Zeus to the God of Abraham? Same? Unequal? Why? Whether you answer these questions or not I’m hoping to get you to at least self-inquire a bit on these topics and question some of the assumptions you’ve made about the “faith” of atheism.

      Ok, I’m getting carried away again. I hope I haven’t ruined Andreas’s desire to ever post on any topic that even glances the subject of faith or religion.

  12. To Andreas Kluth:

    “Well, Spain won. As it happens I was “praying” the other way. Clearly, there was nobody there to hear it.”

    God knows what is good for us, and the Holy Spirit tells us what to pray for which will be heard because it is good for us.

  13. As to the difference between right and true:

    1. Statements based on numbers or measurements can receive universal acceptance. Nobody doubts that 2 + 2 = 4 or that on Earth a falling body accelerates at nine point something per square second.

    2. Statements based on words only: God is eternal. All men are equal. Manslaughter is not the same as homicide.
    These are considered true if they are in line with the doctrine that created them: the Bible, a Constitution. Papal authority (for a Catholic). A law code.
    Theology, law, philosophy, sociology, psychology, much of psychaitry, history, all belong here.

    3. Nietzsche is the greatest; Cervantes gave a true picture of XXXX;
    These are subjective and as useless as a sigh, except among friends. To make them useful and even give them some validity, I have to get help from publicly known sources, people with a name, people of some standing.

    I can find my quotes in Kant only in German, in my own little Reclam edition all full of notes. If you like I will translate some. The Kritik is available online in English, but to find things in that immense work by scrolling up and down is just too difficult.

    • …..I can find my quotes in Kant only in German, in my own little Reclam edition all full of notes……

      Regarding Kant, he said this in the Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft):

      Every intuition contains in itself a manifold which can be represented as a manifold only in so far as the mind distinguishes the time in the sequence of one impression upon another; for each representation, in so far as it is contained in a single moment, can never be anything but absolute unity. In order that unity of intuition may arise out of this manifold (as is required in the representation of space) it must first be run through, and held together. This act I name the synthesis of apprehension, because it is directed immediately upon intuition, which does indeed offer a manifold, but a manifold which can never be represented as a manifold, and as contained in a single representation, save in virtue of such a synthesis.

      There is such ineffable wisdom and truth contained in this single little extract, and in words of such clarity and simplicity, that I hope you, Andreas, will devote some of your future posts to Kant.

  14. @ Andreas, if you can be drafted to opine on topics, what do you know of the concept of “Falsifiability”?

    is it a blog worthy topic? it has been used to refute “magical thinking” and theism “can” be called a form of magical thinking.

    • Falsifiability is a blog-worthy topic, dafna. I wasn’t aware that it’s controversial, though. It just applies to scientific claims. (ie, you can’t call what you do science if you don’t put foward a hypothesis that is falsifiable. So Freud would be disqualified, eg.)

    • @ andreas,

      my friend, who is many things… one of which is atheist, suggested that falsifiability could be applied to distinguish notions of God.

      it sounds very complex and very pot stirring – the whole falsifiability concept? i don’t know how it applies to stories, except that it seems like it could.

    • Some very interesting work has been done on Freud in that respect. See especially The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapies by Fisher and Greenberg.

  15. Faith that does not constantly question every root and every branch of itself is absence of faith.
    Absence of faith that does not constantly question every root and every branch of itself is faith.

    • well said richard. well said dan.

      hello dan!

      “Whether you answer these questions or not I’m hoping to get you to at least self-inquire a bit on these topics and question some of the assumptions you’ve made about the “faith” of atheism.”

      i have no assumptions or prejudices about atheism, learning as i go.

      i am a theist (he, he, mind the space or we’ll be one and the same). some people are on this blog and some are not, but be sure that we all gather on andreas’ blog to make inquires.

  16. I really love the beginning of that letter, I remember it saying:

    I have read your letter and understand your beliefs; they are perfect. Just perfect.
    Every belief is perfect; it achieves for the believing person exactly what we intend it to.
    But belief is no basis for [recognizing] objective truth.

    It is in vol 4 of Hanser Verlag: Die Werke Nietzsches in 4 Baendern, which I sadly no longer had. If Julian cites the date of the letter, I would love to know it.



    • Hi, Mo. Julian’s book is now in a container on a ship, to be opened in about 10 weeks. If you remind me about that time, I’ll look to see if he cites the date.

      Great paraphrase, btw.

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