Nietzsche on ‘The Question Mark,’ A Note on Section 346, Book Five of The Gay Science By Soraj Hongladarom



Section 346 of the Book Five of The Gay Science by Nietzsche must belong to some of the most interesting passages in all of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Here Nietzsche talks about the role of value in human life. He also talks about the total loss of value and disenchantment of the world, and not only that we find ourselves in opposition to certain traditional values. The ‘Question Mark’ is mentioned at the beginning is a kind of topic for the Section, and toward the end Nietzsche mentions the Question Mark again: Human beings seem to face a dilemma — either accept the values or face nihilism, but Nietzsche’s point is that the values themselves can be nihilistic too. And this is perhaps the real meaning of the Question Mark. He does not explicitly provide a way out of this very debilitating dilemma. Furthermore, he also mentions that the teaching of the Buddha is an expression of self-denying, world-renouncing values that we ‘have turned our backs on.’

It is the contention of this paper that even though Nietzsche does appear to be advocating nihilism, he in fact does affirm life in a very interesting way. Through denying the traditional values as well as any attempt to negotiate those values on their terms, Nietzsche opens up a new vista which hitherto has not been possible. One must not miss the irony in the tone of his writing here. Hence the Question Mark—whether we must go down the traditional route of revering invented values, or face nihilism, or whether everything is nihilistic—is answered in the affirmative, or better in the ironic form. It is through nihilism that nihilism is destroyed, so opening up new vistas of possibilities. The Overhuman blazes a trail for himself through brandishing the nihilistic fire.

In this paper, I will examine the Section thoroughly; my assumption is that we can gain a glimpse of Nietzsche’s thought better if we look at one aspect of his works very closely. This is so because Nietzsche’s thoughts are highly complicated, and more importantly are not presented in a structured, linear manner typical of most philosophers. On the contrary, Nietzsche presents a huge jigsaw of thoughts and ideas, all connected to one another is a vast web of interconnected statements. This presents a challenge to anyone who tries to understand what he is up to, but perhaps a way to unravel these complexities could be found in a very close look at one small passage of his writing. If his thoughts are there in a vast interconnected network, then chances are that one node in the network could ‘mirror’ and ‘be mirrored by’ other aspects. Since his thoughts have no clear place where they begin and since the progress (if such a word can be used at all with how his ideas are developed and presented) of his thoughts is not linear at all, if we then focus upon one place very carefully, then there is a good chance that this close look could illuminate most of his thoughts. This is the technique I will be employing in this paper.

Let us then look at the Section in its entirety, starting with the first paragraph:

346. Our question mark. — But you do not understand this? Indeed, people will have trouble understanding us. We are looking for words; perhaps we are also looking for ears. Who are we anyway? If we simply called ourselves, using an old expression, godless, or unbelievers, or perhaps immoralists, we do not believe that this would even come close to designating us: We are all three in such an advanced stage that one–that you, my curious friends–could never comprehend how we feel at this point. Ours is no longer the bitterness and passion of the person who has torn himself away and still feels compelled to turn his unbelief into a new belief, a purpose, a martyrdom. We have become cold, hard, and tough in the realization that the way of this world is anything but divine; even by human standards, it is not rational, merciful, or just. We know it well, the world in which we live is ungodly, immoral, ‘inhuman’; we have interpreted it far too long in a false and mendacious way, in accordance with the wishes of our reverence, which is to say, according to our needs. For man is a reverent animal. But, he is also mistrustful; and that the world is not worth what we thought it was, that is about as certain as anything of which our mistrust has finally got hold. The more mistrust, the more philosophy.
We are far from claiming that the world is worth less; indeed it would seem laughable to us today if man were to insist on inventing values that were supposed to excel the value of the actual world. This is precisely what we have turned our backs on as an extravagant aberration of human vanity and unreason that for a long time was not recognized as such. It found its final expression in modern pessimism, and a more ancient and stronger expression in the teaching of Buddha; but it is part of Christianity also, if more doubtfully and ambiguously so but not for that reason any less seductive.
The whole pose of ‘man against the world,’ of man as a ‘world-negating’ principle, of man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting–the monstrous insipidity of this post has finally come home to us and we are sick of it. We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of ‘man and world,’ separated by the sublime presumption of the little word ‘and.’ But look, when we laugh like that, have we not simply carried the contempt for man one step further? And thus, also pessimism, the contempt for that existence which is knowable by us? Have we not exposed ourselves to the suspicion of an opposition–an opposition between the world in which we were at home up to now with our reverences that perhaps made it possible for us to endure life, and another world that consists of us–an inexorable, fundamental, and deepest suspicion about ourselves that is more and more gaining worse and worse control of us Europeans and that could easily confront coming generations with the terrifying Either/Or: ‘Either abolish your reverences or–yourselves!’ The latter would be nihilism; but would not the former also be–nihilism?–This is our question mark.

It is not much to say that this short passage contains much of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy, especially those concerning nihilism and the revaluation of all values. Nietzsche says that he should not be described as one who is ‘godless,’ an ‘unbeliever,’ or an ‘immoralist,’ for he has gone much further than that. For him value means nothing at all except as a natural phenomenon, something that is clearly part of nature itself. To be a ‘godless’ person or an ‘unbeliever’ means that one still operates within the confines of the gods, so to speak. One still refers to the gods and asserts that they do not exist, or one refers to an article of belief and asserts that it is not true. Either way one still refers to the entity which one wants to refuse. By talking about the gods, even when such a talk is a denial that the gods exist, one somehow surreptitiously maintains the gods in the discourse. One, in other words, still talks largely in the same language, inhabits the same conceptual world, as those who believe in the gods. However, for Nietzsche to be called ‘godless’ or ‘unbeliever’ or even ‘immoralist’ does not even come close to describing what he is in fact. He says, “[w]e are all three in such an advanced stage that one—that you, my curious friends–could never comprehend how we feel at this point.” Nietzsche is no longer, strictly speaking, godless; he does not merely accept the gods or God through denying that He exists; on the contrary, he does not inhabit the conceptual world in which God resides all together. To see what this actually means one needs to imagine a situation where God is not in the picture at all. Since God used to function as the ultimate basis for all values and meanings, to live as if God does not matter at all, to live in such a way that even being ‘godless’ is too weak a description, would mean that the source of values and meanings cannot be found in any kind of transcendent source at all. Instead such a source can only be found in the mundane world itself, through pragmatic consideration of whether an action leads to desirable results or not. In such a situation, however, there might still be an occasion to talk about God or other transcendent beings; such a talk, nevertheless, must relegate God to be something directly tangible. God thus is a way for humans to answer to their needs. Thus Nietzsche, “We have become cold, hard, and tough in the realization that the way of this world is anything but divine.” God seems to have been banished forever from Nietzsche’s universe. continue reading entire article, please click on read more