“Know thyself” is one of Western philosophy’s most recognized maxims. It shows up on signs, bulletin boards, and t-shirts; it makes cameos in Hamlet, The Matrix, and certain U2 songs. People go on retreats, vacations, sabbaticals, and to college to “find themselves,” and modern obsessions with personality quizzes and Facebook profiles indicate that very few are content with how well they know themselves.
“Since the fifth century B.C.,” Clancy Martin, chair of the philosophy department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, explains, “we’ve had this idea of gnothi seauton, nosce te ipsum, ‘know thyself’ as not merely good vis à vis knowledge, or even merely psychological good, but a moral good.” The idea is that you will somehow live a better life if you know yourself. But Martin disagrees, arguing that “life would be unlivable if we knew ourselves too well.”
Deception of self and others, he says, can be a necessary and sustaining good. These thoughts follow the example of Friedrich Nietzsche, the first philosopher to seriously question the inherent good in truth. Martin has been working with Nietzsche’s ideas on deception since 2000, considering “how one draws those lines between good lies and bad lies, good deceptions of oneself, bad deceptions of oneself.” Using University of Missouri Research Board funds and release time, he undertook translations of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885) and Beyond Good and Evil (1886), two of the German philosopher’s most important works. “These are Nietzsche’s two longest books, and arguably the two most challenging to translate, so that was very foolish of me to undertake both,” he laughs.
By tackling these pieces, Martin hopes to correct some of the difficulties translators often run into with Nietzsche. That is, nuance in German does not always communicate well into English, and some translators choose to rename concepts when the nuance of the idea has changed significantly—even if the original author does not alter its name. On this score Martin wonders: “How do you maintain conceptual consistency while capturing this change in nuance that he’s introduced?” His love for writing will come to bear on this problem, as well as Nietzsche’s poetic composition style. “I may not be the most sophisticated philosopher ever to approach [him],” Martin admits, “but I can say with a clean conscience that I’m paying more attention to Nietzsche’s virtues as a stylist than other translators into English have.”
While much of Martin’s time has been devoted to translating Nietzsche, he has also taken the opportunity to add his own twist to the philosopher’s ideas. How to Sell (2009), his last novel, was “a study of the relationship between brothers and fathers and sons, and a study of deception, of course.” It chronicles the highs and lows of two brothers in the jewelry business, along with all the showmanship, risk-taking, and deception that business entails. Advance work is already underway on The Primitive, another fictional work that will investigate the relationships between mothers and children, bonds between siblings, and the self-deception that emerges.
Martin’s current focus is a non-fiction piece—funded by a UMRB grant. “The working title is Love, Lies, and Marriage,” he grins. “Plato was the first person to argue that love is a kind of ladder that leads us up to the truth, and that there is ultimately some identification between love, goodness, and truth—which is a very attractive idea. It informs all kinds of our romantic tradition and marriage.”
Attractive though it may be, the tie between love, goodness, and truth may not be so realistic. “The more you think about love—the process of falling in love, the way parents love their children, the way love develops between friends—it involves at least as much false belief as true belief,” Martin observes. Consider first dates, when people take special care to clean up and go to a nice restaurant; parents gloss over their children’s flaws, blinded by love for them.
Examining Love, Lies, and Marriage inherently requires a multidisciplinary approach. Drawing on philosophy, psychology, sociology, biology, novels, and memoir, Martin does not exempt himself from his study, but uses personal stories as vehicles for analysis. “When I was very small, I had a Lite-Brite,” he recalls. “I had made this incredible design on my Lite-Brite, the best design I had ever made. I went down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom and knocked on the door. My mom looked out, and I told her about my Lite-Brite, and she said, ‘Well, I’ll come see it in the morning. Now go to bed.’ So I went to bed. And I got up in the morning, and I went downstairs. I went to my mother, who was standing at the stove in her bathrobe. I pulled on her bathrobe, and she turned around, and it wasn’t my mother—it was our babysitter, and my mother had left for Hawaii for two weeks.”
“She had good reasons for telling that lie,” Martin notes of his mother, but it is difficult to draw the line between “good” and “bad” lies. Lies are told to manipulate others, but in some situations, this manipulation of autonomy is valued: “Seduction is a great example of this. It almost always involves feints, ploys, guises, manipulations, all deception. We love seduction, but we are very suspicious of deception, and if one is required by the other, we’ve got a problem on our hands,” he explains.
This is the essential problem of deception: if it is not always bad to deceive, when is it good? Psychologists from Freud onward have been interested in self-deception and the maintenance of the psyche. People, he claims, have the tendency to misremember events to sustain certain self-images of themselves, their families, their lives. It helps them get through the day, as well as accomplish goals. Some of this misrepresentation takes the form of ‘clear-eyed deception’: “You can deceive yourself, know that you’re doing it, and do it strategically,” he explains. “Let’s say you are convinced that one of the best things you could do with your brain is to write a novel, and you are simultaneously convinced that you don’t have the talent or the ability. Nietzsche thinks that you can recognize all those beliefs, and tell yourself, ‘Despite the fact that I know all those beliefs are true, I’m going to pursue this impossible project.’ As a consequence of this, you manage to accomplish this goal, and you prove all those true beliefs false.”
Strategic self-deception could be required for certain tasks—some faith is needed when falling in love, for example, and it might be necessary to generate that belief on one’s own. “It’s a creative process, like writing a story or painting. You know that you’re engaged in the illusion, but that’s okay: you recognize that these illusory components are constitutive of the good that you can create no other way.”
Though Martin is presently engaged in the creation of Love, Lies, and Marriage, along with his other investigations of deception, the study will not last forever. Eventually, the topic will be settled for him. “I can feel that day approaching,” he laughs, “when it comes to deception and self-deception. I’ve still got a ways to go to get there—about a thousand pages—but the day is coming. I can tell.” When that day arrives, the world may be left with many unsettled questions—but if Martin knows the answers, he isn’t telling.