Truth According to Nietzsche, Plato, and O’Brien

By: Andre Lopes Massa

The question of truth has always been one approached from multiple angles regarding whether it is something that can be objectively reached or whether it is a subjective construction that can be manipulated through different techniques and forms of writing. Truth can be represented, for Plato, according to the forms that our souls attempt to remember during our lifetime in the human body. For Plato, the soul is something that is immortal. At birth, everything that we have learned about the forms from our brief visit to the world of the Gods is forgotten and we must spend our lives practicing philosophy in an effort to remember what “Truth” is. In the play Phaedrus, Socrates, in his third speech to Phaedrus, says, “We must have the courage to speak truth, especially when the true nature of things is our subject. This is the place of Being; the Being that is truly colorless, shapeless and untouchable. The Soul looks upon Justice itself, she looks upon Moderation, and she looks upon Knowledge. This process occurs by recollecting those things our soul once saw when traveling in the company of a god, looking up in contempt at those things which we now say exits.” (Plato, Phaedrus, pg. 28, 30, lines 247c-d, 248c) All forms of education therefore, are tailored to guide the soul to remember those truths and that, objectively; there is a concrete conception of what is right or a wrong. This conception of an objective truth that must be searched for throughout life leads Socrates to present truth not as what we know, but what we don’t know. In a conversation with Meno regarding why the servant boy was able to do basic forms of geometry, Socrates closes out his argument about the relationship between truth and education when he argues, “If the, during the time he exists and is not human being he will have true opinions which, when stirred by questioning, become knowledge, will not his soul have learned during all time? For it is clear that during all time he exists, either as a man or not.” (Plato, Meno, pg. 78, line 87a) Despite truth being objective, Plato decides to present the search for truth as admitting what we don’t know, because only by admitting what we don’t know will we be motivated to continue to search for the forms that are hidden within our souls. To simply acquire knowledge for tautological purposes is counterproductive in the eyes of Socrates because we then only use that knowledge for the sake of its utility as a party trick, never seeking to understand why that knowledge came to be in the first place or the theories and principles that constitute that knowledge while we then become content with only that piece of knowledge, never having the courage to try something different in the quest to remember the forms. Yet the tragic flaw of Plato is that he ultimately presents objective truth as something that can never be realistically attained since it exists in the afterlife, foreclosing the possibility of ever understanding the world as it is and never allowing knowledge to move beyond conceptions of right or wrong, bracketing out true creativity in the name of a fruitless search for “Truth”, a perspective Nietzsche’s understanding of truth seeks to liberate.

While Plato believes that truth is something we can come to understand through the constant practice of philosophy, Nietzsche believes that truth itself is born out of lies, meaning that it can never be objective in the first place. In examining the genealogy behind why truth was invented, Nietzsche writes, “As a means for preserving the individual, the intellect unfolds its principle powers in dissimulation, which is the means by which weaker, les robust individuals preserve themselves, since they have been denied the chance to wage the battle for existence with horns or with the sharp teeth of beasts of prey. Deception, flattering, lying, deluding, talking behind the back is so much the rule and the law among men that there is almost nothing which is less comprehensible than how honest and pure drive for truth could have arisen among them.” (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie, pg. 54). For Nietzsche, the conception of “truth” only arose when humans needed something to delude themselves in a world where they could not compete with the raw physical strength of those animals that had claws and sharp teeth to survive. In order for humanity to survive, rather than confront the world, humans continuously told themselves lies that they than branded “truth” to maintain the delusion of grandeur. Here we begin to see a contrasts with Plato’s understanding of truth; truth is not something that exists in a world unreachable to the human body but that truth is a construct of the human mind itself and thus its origin is bound up within the human condition rather than separate from it. When these lies are told long enough and considered to be “true”, Nietzsche believes that morals eventually become bound up together. Recalling this genealogy, Nietzsche writes, “The liar is a person who uses valid designations, the words, in order to make something which is unreal appear real. He says, for example, ‘I am rich’ when the proper designation would for his condition would be ‘poor’. He misuses fixed conventions by means of arbitrary substitutions or even reversals of names. If he does this in a selfish and moreover harmful manner, society will cease to trust him and thereby exclude him.” (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie, pg. 54). This is where the herd mentality comes into play for Nietzsche; if one refuses to conform with the standards of lies that are considered “true”, then they are excluded from greater society and branded a liar which is then arbitrarily associated with sentiments of selfishness and malice. It is necessary to understand that this process occurred because of the fact that morals provided the safe foundation necessary to avoid the web of lies that truth was constructed from in the first place from ever unraveling in the first place, thus necessitating the distinction between “truth and lies” and “good and bad” in order to maintain the legitimacy of the herd. Something is considered “true” if it is considered good and beneficial to the herd while something is considered a “lie” if it is considered “bad” according to the values of the herd. It is this connection between morality and truth that offers an alternative presentation to Plato’s objective truth because, according to Plato, if truth were truly objective and the fundamental form of all things we know, then morality and our conceptions of it would have to come from that objective truth rather than truth being bound up in morality that either preexisted the notion of truth or came about at the same time that would imply that there is no form for what morality is, thus disproving Plato’s thesis of an objective truth in some capacity. It is through this understanding of truth as originating from the human condition and the process of “active forgetting” in which we constantly forget difference in order to form categories of truth that we deem objective that allow for Tim O’Brien to introduce the concepts of what happened and what seemed to happen as a play on the meaning of truth in fictional writing.

In order to understand the context of how O’Brien portrays the ability to tell a true war story in the context of how one can use fiction to play with truth, it is important to reference the death of the Author as another nail in the coffin regarding Plato’s conception of an objective truth. In the Death of the Author, Barthes highlights that in contemporary writing and literature the Author as the sole source and creator of a text is well and truly dead because the multitude of interpretations one text can have mean that we have moved beyond objective conceptions of what a text means according to the author it was written by. Rather, it is a case in that we should view a text solely based on the interpretation of the reader, yet there remains a “cult of the author” that exists solely to answer the critics by finding the origin of a text. Addressing the evolution of the reader, Barthes writes, “We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning, but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture.” (Barthes, The Death of the Author, pg. 147). This supports Nietzsche’s assessment of truth in some capacity insofar as one’s interpretation of a text and the cultural context in which they evaluate it as “true” are purely of human origin and that the cult of the Author is in some way a resemblance of the herd that has bound truth up in morality in the sense that, if you reject the association between a text and the author even though such a relationship was inevitably severed, then you will be considered a liar and evil because, according to the cult of the Author, nothing is a more supreme authority on a text then the author itself. O’Brien acknowledges this open interpretation of a text and the implications it can have for the meaning of truth when he writes, “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a bobby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” (O’Brien, The Things They Carried, pg. 67-68). O’Brien is referring to the two accounts of how Curt Lemon died. One conception, which was the official report that Lieutenant Sanders documented in which Curt Lemon died from falling into a bobby trap and what seemed to happen according to O’Brien in which Curt Lemon died by getting lifted into a tree by the sunlight. The death of the Author sets this nicely in that the way in which context plays such a vital role in the interpretation of a text supports O’Brien’s claim that there can never be a true war story because there will always be what happened and what seemed to happen. Lieutenant Cross is a representation of the herd, and, to an extent, the cult of the Author because he is only interested in documenting the objective facts of what actually happened and presenting them as an “irrefutable truth” by chasing down its origins yet the fact that context of the text is presented makes O’Brien’s version of what seemed to happened equally plausible. The fact that truth will always originate from human origins and the fact that a text can be interpreted in a multitude of ways is exactly the kind of “seeming truth” that O’Brien is trying to play with because, through the eyes of the reader, the idea that Curt Lemon died by getting lifted up into the trees as opposed to Curt Lemon dying by falling into a bobby trap can potentially be more plausible. It is that potential for interpretation that is what makes O’Brien’s version feel surreal because there will always remain that potential for his version to be true in the eyes of the reader, it is just a question of the context.

Nietzsche’s concept of active forgetting and how binaries are formed is perhaps one of the most insightful theories to understand how truth operates. In explaining the origins of binaries, Nietzsche writes, “Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted–but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model”. (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies, pg. 3). Here we find out how truth, according to the herd operates. In order to establish something as true, we have to forget difference in order to canonize and homogenize truth according to the moral values that the herd adheres to. Truth, in Plato’s objective concept, cannot exist if there are subtle differences in the forms that supposedly exist. Categories and binaries are a necessary tactic of the herd because they are what allow the herd the basis for which they create a “universal” standard to determine what is true and determine the severity of abandonment when someone decided to go against that notion of truth. The process of active forgetting can be used to explain the death of the author insofar as it is necessary to engage in a process of “active forgetting” in order to forget the subtle differences that exist between and author and their texts because, when we can homogenize an author and the text under one arbitrary category, that is what allows for the cult of the author to trace back the origin of the text to its author and create a story of what actually happened to bracket out the multitude of interpretations regarding what seemed to happen. It is through the work of Nietzsche and Barthes and the work of O’Brien that represents the praxis by which we can acknowledge truth not as something that exist beyond our grasp but rather as something that can be understood within ourselves and through writing.

Works Cited

Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.

Cazeaux, Clive. “On Truth and Lies by Friedrich Nietzsche.” The Continental Aesthetics Reader. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 143-148. Print.

Scully, Stephen. “Phaedrus.” Plato’s Phaedrus. Newburyport: Focus, 2003. Print.





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