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The Sublime Metaphysical Illusion

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche contends that we live under a “sublime

metaphysical illusion.” This illusion introduced into the world by Socrates. The illusion

consists of faith in knowledge, in the belief that knowledge is virtue, and “that thought,

using the thread of causality, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being.” Those living

under the sway of this illusion believe that “thought is capable not only of knowing being

but even of correcting it. (p.95)” This illusion is like a mirage of water in the desert,

leading the scientist toward the false promise of knowing, of mastery of this world.

This promise is false because the gathering of knowledge is endless. Once one

problem in scientific inquiry is solved, several more immediately rear their heads. The

pursuit of knowledge will not lead humanity to unraveling of the great questions of life,

nor will it allow for a peaceful, harmonious lifestyle. Omniscience is beyond human

limitation. Thus, the quest for knowledge is endless and the one who places the highest

value on knowledge is doomed to be eternally restless. In the quest for knowledge, one

neglects the mystical or the side of life that cannot be penetrated by the intellect. The

illusion dictates that what is unknowable is not worth consideration. This has found

ultimate expression in a positivism that denies the existence of God in the absence of

evidence of its existence. The mystery of faith is likewise forsaken, belief can now only

rest upon empiricism. The peace that can be achieved through contemplation of this

unknowable God, or through simply having faith, is forsaken and modern man continues

his futile quest toward the limits of knowledge.

Nietzsche thinks that moderns have given up something profound by taking on the

quest for knowledge as their highest endeavor. He does not fret, however, because he
realizes that “science, spurred by its powerful illusion, speeds irresistibly toward its limits

where its optimism, concealed in the essence of logic, suffers shipwreck. (p.97)” This

optimism comes in the form of faith in the illusion that the nature of things can be

fathomed. It is shipwrecked when the quest for knowledge reaches the limitations of

knowing, “the periphery from which one gazes into what defies illumination.(98)” Here,

logic is forced to turn on itself. With this realization comes the “tragic insight.” Moderns

are now forced to confront the futility of their quest and must adopt a more holistic view

of life.

Modern man’s salvation lies in the “tragic insight.” It is the tragic insight that

leads man back to art and the experience of the inexplicable sublime. The tragic insight

strikes a death blow to the Socratic optimism, faith in the ability to know all being is

shattered. Man is suddenly confronted once again by Silenus and his deep pessimism.

Suffering can no longer be born under the banner of the quest for knowledge, man must

find a new outlet for its expression and alleviation. Here is where moderns return to art

and rediscover the intellectually impenetrable sublime.

Nietzsche here shows his colors as a Romantic and a student of Schopenhauer.

Art is set on a pedestal above the rest of existence. The only thing that can give our lives

any moments of true meaning, the only thing that can liberate us from our suffering and

the illusion that blinds us, is art. But should be so quick to dismiss the search for truth as

meaningless only because its goal cannot be reached?

The limits of scientific knowledge are easily perceived, but it is also true that

these limits are ever pushing outward. The quest for knowledge is perhaps ultimately

empty because it has no end, but if the quest itself is the important thing, then why should
this matter at all? By circumventing the areas of inquiry impenetrable by rationality, in

effect enlarging the illusion to cover up more aspects of life or specifying it to certain

areas of inquiry, the illusion can be sustained and the quest will continue. Borders will

constantly be reached but instead of causing “tragic insight,” they will be taken in the

faith that someone is capable of shining a light into the darkness and advancing

knowledge further.

Nietzsche’s real enemy is faith. The virtue of art is that it does not require faith.

Art is directly experiential. It imparts an impression upon the viewer that resonates more

deeply than only the winding passageways of the intellect. The quest for meaning is

simultaneously undertaken and achieved. Art is not subject to doubt, it does not lend

itself to reason or intellect. It is a direct expression of a universal, an experience of the

sublime that can set us free from our endless dialectic and blind faith.