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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 31 (2006) 1-9

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Nietzsche's Homeric Lies

University of Missouri, Kansas City
Une croyance presque instinctive chez moi c'est que tout homme puissant ment quand il parle et à plus forte raison quand il écrit.
Some never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.
—Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

Nietzsche has a duplicitous relationship with deception of others: although he is at best suspicious of most kinds of lies people tell one another, he also recommends deception as a legitimate technique of—indeed, even as a sign of—the higher type of human being.2 However little else we know about Nietzsche's elusive Übermensch, we rightly suspect that, were one to appear, he or she would be a liar.3

But I am not here concerned about the much-vexed question of the character of the Übermensch, artist and liar though he or she likely would be.4 I am rather concerned about Nietzsche's so-called type of the "great man," which seems to be importantly related to, but I think qualitatively different from, Aristotle's famous megalopsychos man. At times Nietzsche seems to endorse a morality that recommends (something like) the virtue ethics of Aristotle's "high-minded" or "great-souled" man.5 But in the context of ethical constraints on what he thinks of as "great" individuals (such as, for example, Napoleon or Caesar), Nietzsche reverts to a pre-Aristotelian version of Greek morality. With his "great man" (who he sometimes also calls "the great transgressor"),6 Nietzsche develops an ideal of individual heroism and self-legislation that vividly recalls (at least one kind of) ethics from a Homeric point of view.7 I shall illustrate this idea with particular reference to Nietzsche's remarks on the lies the great man may tell.8

Nietzsche often takes Odysseus as his model of a "great man," and when he does he almost invariably adds that Odysseus was a liar. So when he writes in a catalogue of "great types," including Napoleon and Julius Caesar, that "increases in deception [are] indices of an ascending rank among beings," he is quick to give the Greek example of "Odysseus" (WP 544 [1888]). And in an [End Page 1] early passage he asks: "What did the Greeks admire in Odysseus? Above all, his capacity for lying . . . the ability to be whatever he chose" (D 306). Odysseus need not be the most noble of the Greeks; he must merely have the facility of "appearing nobler than the noblest," and indeed "the most remarkable thing about it is that the antithesis of appearance and being is not felt at all and is thus of no significance morally" (ibid.). Odysseus is a "consummate actor": he lies his way into his own greatness, and does so without any moral compunction about the lie. His greatness is not so much a matter of doing as persuading others that he can do, not so much a matter of being great as combining appearance and reality in the successful simulation of greatness.9

This may sound a bit odd to us: it seems that here the great man need not be great at all so long as he can merely appear to be great. Using whatever deceitful means necessary, he creates the impression that he desires to convey to his listener—and the successful creation of that impression is a confirmation of his (at least, rhetorical) power. And indeed it does not sound very much like greatness until we consider the case of Odysseus. Precisely unlike Aristotle's high-minded man, who tends to speak in a manner so frank that he clearly does not—in fact, refuses to—consider the consequences of his words,10 Odysseus is always conscious of...


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