I never thought I’d say this, but I enjoy reading Nietzsche.
I took a class on Nietzsche this spring to try something different. After all, if I stay Catholic, I’ll be reading Aristotle (the other elective I was considering) for the rest of my life. Now was the time to branch out.
I assumed that Nietzsche was a moral nihilist: he thinks morality doesn’t exist. But this is an oversimplification of Nietzsche’s view. For Nietzsche, the right moral values are the ones you create for yourself. While this sounds relativist at first glance, it’s not. He holds that some values are better than others. One of his crowning virtues is not rebellion or self-assertion, but honesty.
This is what drew me to Nietzsche. Nietzsche argued that people ought to examine and embrace who they really are and what the world is truly like. Philosophy was for taking a hard look at ourselves and accepting who we really are, even if it’s less that what we hoped.
Though opposed on nearly every issue, I think honesty could be a potential overlap between Nietzsche and Thomas Aquinas. What is honesty for these two thinkers? Could their views on honesty be compatible?
Aaron Harper explores several possible interpretations of the word honesty in Nietzsche’s work. One option is truthfulness. For Nietzsche, one’s access to the truth is limited to their perspective. Even if heaven and the afterlife existed, Nietzsche argues, one could not access them on earth anyway. Instead, he focuses on what we can conclude from an earthly perspective, and from this point of view, existence is meaningless.
A human then must make meaning out of their meaningless existence by having values (Harper, 375). Nietzsche’s ideal human rejects the values of others and creates their own. Some values, though, like obedience and patience, prevent people from creating their own values (Harper, 385). If a person values others’ perspectives more than their own, she will not break from their tradition and create her own. For Nietzsche, honesty does not necessarily mean conforming to some objective truth, but is needed to value at all (Harper, 382).
For Aquinas, truth about the other-worldly can be found while one earth. One example is the ability to identify living things by invisible natures. Nietzsche may chuckle at the idea of invisible truths. However, Aquinas offers a point he could agree with, the truth associated with virtue is one where “a man, both in life and in speech, shows himself to be such as he is, and the things that concern him, not other, and neither greater nor less, than they are.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ IIaIIæ. Q109. A3). In other words, the virtuous truth (if Nietzsche would ever agree with that terminology) is the kind that recognizes what one is and does not exaggerate it nor despair from it. Though these two thinkers disagree on what truth is, they agree that it should be embraced in full both in how they see the world and how they live.
Harper concludes that Nietzsche’s honesty cannot simply be truthfulness because of Nietzsche thinks that access to truth is impossible or severely limited. However, Aquinas’ writings on honesty provide another potential understanding of Nietzsche’s honesty: “a thing may be said to be honest through being worthy of honor” (Aquinas, ST IIaIIæ. Q145. A1).
Interestingly, for both Aquinas and Nietzsche what is honorable is to fulfill one’s human nature.
Each gives nature a different description and end goal. Aquinas argues that human beings are naturally ordered toward God. Everything that is honorable will have order interiorly and be ordered toward truth and ultimately God (Aquinas, ST IIaIIæ. Q109. A2). On the other hand, Nietzsche argues humans are just another animal whose main instinct is to dominate others. He often describes this instinct as the “will to power”. Despite their metaphysical differences, they have a similar vision of the ideal person.
The ideal human being is one who continuously strives for excellence. For Aquinas, this is the saint who continuously conforms themselves to God and grows in virtue. Nietzsche’s ideal individual is the overman, who continuously strives to overcome internal and external obstacles. A saint sees the truth that they are made in the image of God and a sinner and embrace the plan to fulfill their nature through virtue which comes from God’s grace. An overman sees the truth that they are an earthly being and embrace their entire nature, including the natural drives Aquinas associates with concupiscence (ST IIaIIæ. Q145. A4). Both of these figures say “yes” to life, despite its sufferings. Both approach life with great joy. Both discover themselves by achieving fulfilling their nature. Both only see their growth in retrospect because fulfilling one’s nature is a continuous struggle. Despite their different starting and ending points, the process of becoming honorable looks the same: it resembles Aristotle’s path of virtue.
Aquinas and Nietzsche agree that honesty means embracing the truth about one’s life and the world around them in their values and actions. The disagreement lies in what truth is and what one can know on earth.
Harper, Aaron. “Nietzsche’s Thumbscrew: Honesty as Virtue and Value Standard.” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, vol. 46, no. 3, 2015, pp. 367–90, https://doi.org/10.5325/jnietstud.46.3.0367. Accessed 10 May 2022.