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The Concept of the Lie in Political Thought: “Nietzsche and Rousseau” Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2018

In the realm of political thought, there exists a troubling paradox: how is it that the political elite can continue to lie to the populace with impunity, particularly when the populace is well aware of said lie yet takes no action to affirm the truth? The most blatant case to reveal this troubling reality in recent years was the suicide of David Kelly.

As Guardian reporter Carne Ross states, evidence that supported “an imminent Iraqi threat [was] picked out, polished and formed the basis of public claims like Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council” (Ross n.p.).

David Kelly recognized the lie, and recognized the construction of a “false case for war…not by the deliberate creation of a falsehood, but by willfully and secretly manipulating the evidence…to ignore contradictory evidence. This was a subtle process, elaborated from report to report, in such a way that allowed officials themselves to believe that they were not deliberately lying” (Ross n.p.).

How is it that we know about this? How is it that such an article can appear in a major newspaper and yet over a 100 000 Iraqis lost their lives regardless?

For Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Jacques Rousseau, the answer rests on a foundation of conditioning. Nietzsche argues that political lies persist due to the conditioned perception of nobility, learned passivity and the belief in the referred justice of the afterlife. Rousseau attributes the tenacity of the political lie to the arbitrary nature of language and the erroneous perception of ownership.

Both philosophers understand modern life to be rife with lies, yet the acceptance of these lies speaks to a deep psychological paradigm in the human species that must be transcended in order to take action against political deceit. Essentially, for both Rousseau and Nietzsche, we accept the told to us by the political elite simply because we don’t know how to refuse them.

Written in 1887, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemical Tract set out to expose the deep conditioning that hobbles the advancement of the human species. He found that many of the troubles began with the Greek system of free born men forming a government, as these men created a psychological polarity between nobility and common birth which remains deeply rooted in the human psyche to this day.

As Nietzsche pointed out, “we should not fail to hear the almost benevolent nuances which for a Greek noble lay in all the words with which he set himself above the lower people—how a constant form of pity, consideration, and forbearance is mixed in there, sweetening the words, to the point where almost all words which refer to the common man finally remain as expressions for “unhappy,” “worthy of pity” …designating the common man as a slave worker and beast of burden” (Nietzsche n.p.).

The language itself supported a view of the common human being – the multitude not in the polis – as accepting the evaluation of the nobles, rather than evaluating themselves with their own criteria, and internalizing the idea that they represented a lower form of humanity.

For Nietzsche, this linguistic and political inheritance supported “the old, noble, aristocratic way of evaluating…The “well born” simply felt that they were “the happy ones”; they did not have to construct their happiness artificially first by looking at their enemies, or in some circumstance to talk themselves into it, to lie to themselves, the way all men of ressentiment habitually do” (Nietzsche n.p.).

Nietzsche also argued that learned passivity on the part of the common human being created a false view of their own power, namely, the idea that they did not posses any. The only proof required then for this belief to shape the minds of the common people became the fact they were not noble.

“The Greek nobles knew, as complete men, overloaded with power and thus necessarily active, that they must not separate action from happiness…all this is very much the opposite of happiness at the level of the powerless, the oppressed, those festering with poisonous and hostile feelings, among whom happiness comes out essentially as a narcotic” (Nietzsche n.p.).

Nietzsche also wrote of the problem of religion as it pertains to the continuance of political chicanery, particularly in the belief of a referred justice received after death.

In Nietzsche’s words, “there’s no doubt that these weak people—at some time or another they also want to be the strong people, [believe that] some day their kingdom is to arrive—they call it simply the kingdom of God…People…must have an eternal life, so they can also win eternal recompense in the kingdom of God, for that earthly life in faith, in love, in hope.

Recompense for what? Recompense through what? (Nietzsche n.p.). Paradise in organized religion in Nietzsche’s thought is a forum for settling debts, an arena wherein the common human can attain a sense of power, which allows the lies he or she encounters in life more bearable, because the truth will be told after death.

This belief engenders “the consciousness of being in debt to the gods…the pressure of as yet unpaid debts and the desire to be relieved of them” (Nietzsche n.p.). Nietzsche’s caustic response to this belief reads, “over the gateway into the Christian paradise and its “eternal blessedness” it would, in any event, be more fitting to let the inscription stand Eternal hate also created me—provided it’s all right to set a truth over the gateway to a lie! (Nietzsche n.p.)

Jean Jacques Rousseau held the understanding that language, the arbitrary nature of naming things independent of their inherent purpose or value, created a situation wherein the political lie could proliferate, and he attributed the separation between humans and nature as facilitated by conceptual language as one of the main precursors to the lie.

“O man, whatever country you may belong to, whatever your opinions may be, attend to my words; you shall hear your history such as I think I have read it, not in books composed by those like you, for they are liars, but in the book of nature which never lies.

All that I shall repeat after her, must be true, without any intermixture of falsehood, but where I may happen, without intending it, to introduce my own conceits” (Rousseau n.p.).

In Rousseau’s thought, “the first language of man, the most universal and most energetic of all languages, in short, the only language he had occasion for, before there was a necessity of persuading assembled multitudes, was the cry of nature” (Rousseau n.p.). Given that language evolved to form societies, opinions and governments, by definition it became more convoluted and more separated from its original intention and purpose.

“As this cry was never extorted but by a kind of instinct in the most urgent cases, to implore assistance in great danger, or relief in great sufferings, it was of little use in the common occurrences of life, where more moderate sentiments generally prevail” (Rousseau n.p.).

Political lies developed out of the conceptual separation between humans and the natural world, and as this separation intensified over the centuries, lies became more commonplace, since the origins became so far removed.

“When the ideas of men began to extend and multiply, and a closer communication began to take place among them, they laboured to devise more numerous signs, and a more extensive language: they multiplied the inflections of the voice, and added to them gestures, which are, in their own nature, more expressive, and whose meaning depends less on any prior determination” (Rousseau n.p.).

Rousseau understands language itself to be susceptible to manipulation, and therefore a vehicle for political lies, by virtue of its arbitrary nature and separation from nature.

Rousseau also sees the lie of ownership as the precursor of the political lie. “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.

How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (Rousseau n.p.).

Ownership – specifically the desire to acquire or the desire to hold on to that which one has acquired – creates competition. Competition creates the need for a competitive edge, and the need for a competitive edge creates the need for a lie. For both Rousseau and Nietzsche, until the human species accepts that we won nothing, not even our own lives, it will be doomed to continue to be duped by its own members.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemical Tract.” Trans. Ian Johnston. Vancouver Island University Records, 2009. Web.

Ross, Carne. “Curveball and the Manufacture of a Lie.” The Guardian February 15 2011

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. “(1754) A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind.”The Literature Network. The Literature Network, n.d. Web.

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