If we are seeking guidance, we are looking for an answer to the question “how should we live?”. If we find wisdom, we have found a good way to live. If we find ourselves reflecting on the beauty of the way to live, we become philosophers, lovers of wisdom.
But, before we begin to read, we must recall that not all wisdom is “from above” (Jas. 3:17). Therefore not all wisdom is “pure, […] peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial [or] sincere.” After all, “there is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 16:25). Yet, many will celebrate that way and give themselves to it. They, also, are lovers of wisdom but “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16). While encountering them, we may be mocked or persecuted, but “even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened” (1 Pet. 3:14).
God, we ask for discernment as we seek wisdom.
In the preface to his work “The Genealogy of Morals,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes:
“We are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves: this has its own good reason. We have never searched for ourselves—how should it then come to pass, that we should ever find ourselves?” (Nietzsche 1).
How is Nietzsche communicating his wisdom here? He begins with declarative forms to point us toward the way of living he deems to be good. He opens with the two anthropological (concerning the study of humanity) claims that “we are unknown” and that “we [are] knowers.” Not intending such a broad statement, Nietzsche continues, “ourselves to ourselves,” specifying that we are both the ones with the ability to know and the ones with the potential to be known. Then, he supplies a reason for our state of being unknown: “we have never searched for ourselves.” Here he presumes the morality of this reason, having already described it as “good.” And setting his feet upon an unspoken law that we cannot know ourselves unless we search for ourselves, he leverages an interrogative form to rhetorically deny that “we should ever find ourselves” while “we have never searched for ourselves.” In just a few declarative and interrogative forms, Nietzsche has begun to communicate the way he believes life should be lived. Let’s pause to evaluate.
Remembering that not all wisdom is “from above;” we assume all that not all wisdom is to be trusted (Jas. 3:17). So, we have asked God for discernment while engaging with other spirits. And we have analyzed the passage to identify the claims made through the imperative, declarative, predictive, or interrogative forms in which wisdom is presented. Now, we can evaluate the truth of the claims we have identified.
We might be tempted to evaluate claims not made by this passage. And other questions may emerge as we read, such as: “Is knowing ourselves a desirable outcome?” But, in this passage, Nietzsche makes no claims concerning this other question. So, disregarding, or at least, delaying these other questions , we should focus on the words Nietzsche has written.
There are four claims to question in this passage. The first is the claim that we lack self-knowledge. Do we lack knowledge of ourselves? Clearly, none of us possess complete self-knowledge, and Nietzsche affirms this reality. The second claim is that we are “knowers.” Are human beings capable of knowing others and information about others? Again, the claim is easily embraced. Moving on, Nietzsche judges the reason, “we have never searched for ourselves” to be a good reason for our lack of self-knowledge. Is Nietzsche’s reason a good one? Perhaps, it is. Is searching for ourselves the only way to increase our self-knowledge? No, but Nietzsche hasn’t made that claim — at least, not yet.
So, let’s examine the passage’s fourth claim. Using a rhetorical question, Nietzsche denies that “we should ever find ourselves” while “we have never searched for ourselves.” This denial is equivalent to the claim that searching for ourselves is a necessary means by which “we […] find ourselves.” And that is false! Nietzsche cleverly equates the possibility of knowing with the act of finding, as though the only way to “know” ourselves is to “find” ourselves. Again, this is false! Indeed, there are ways of knowing that do not result from searching or finding. Our epistemology (theory of how we have knowledge) allows us to obtain knowledge by listening and hearing as well as by searching or finding.
The one who believes Nietzsche’s words begins to integrate them with their other beliefs about the world. For example, the person who believes self-knowledge to be beneficial, would search to find knowledge of themselves. Others who fear what they might find lurking within themselves would seek distraction from their favorite pleasures, reasoning that “ignorance is bliss.” Either way, belief produces action.
As Christians, we may feel the draw of either application, but whichever way we are drawn, our reflex needs to be one of worship, celebrating the truth that unlike Nietzsche, we are known by listening and hearing others and not merely through seeking and finding ourselves. We rejoice and extend thanks to God for friends who tell us who we have become and where we are going. And, we expect these friends to obey the command to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thes. 4:18). We are not required seek and find ourselves in order to be known. And having resisted a dangerously subtle deception and reaffirmed the truth, we are free to ask our friends to help us know ourselves, or go enjoy a favorite pleasure, giving thanks to God whose “perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18).
As we review our process, we see that it starts with listening to the presentation of wisdom. We identified the claims made by analyzing the passage. Then, we evaluated those claims in light of truth we already know. Finally, we considered both how to apply the truth and how to resist the lies presented in the passage. This process provides a simple method for engaging with wisdom. Let us become increasingly righteous philosophers, as we rejoice in the beautiful ways of wisdom.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Genealogy of Morals.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche., Project Gutenberg, 13 June 2016, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/52319/52319-h/52319-h.htm.
All scripture references taken from New International Version.