The Intellectual Conscience: A Lamenation

Exactly how does one evaluate the mind of another? Not for psychosis or neurosis, but for that person’s ability to distinguish intellectual garbage from gold and willingness to declare, “I don’t know, yet”, when appropriate?

When I read the following exquisite lamentation, by Friedrich Nietzsche, I learned that the measure of such a thing can be called “intellectual conscience”—the ability to distinguish right from wrong in the intellectual realm.

From “The Gay Science”, Book 1, aphorism 2; probable translator, Walter Kaufmann:

2. The intellectual conscience

I keep having the same experience and keep resisting it every time. I do not want to believe it although it is palpable: the great majority of people lack an intellectual conscience. Indeed, it has often seemed to me as if anyone calling for an intellectual conscience were as lonely in the most densely populated cities as if he were in a desert. Everybody looks at you with strange eyes and goes right on handling his scales, calling this good and that evil. Nobody even blushes when you intimate that their weights are underweight; nor do people feel outraged; they merely laugh at your doubts. I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward: the most gifted men and the noblest women still belong to this “great majority.” But what is goodheartedness, refinement, or genius to me, when the person who has these virtues tolerates slack feelings in his faith and judgments and when he does not account the desire for certainty as his inmost craving and deepest distress–as that which separates the higher human beings from the lower.

Among some pious people I have found a hatred of reason and was well disposed to them for that; for this at least betrayed their bad intellectual conscience. But to stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors [Discordant concord of things: Horace, Epistles, I.12.19.] and of this whole marvelous uncertainty and rich ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving and the rapture of such questioning, without at least hating the person who questions, perhaps even finding him faintly amusing–that is what I feel to be contemptible, and this is the feeling for which I look first in everybody. Some folly keeps persuading me that every human being has this feeling, simply because he is human. This is my sense of injustice.

This work can be read under the title The Joyful Wisdom, translated by Thomas Common, but I can’t recommend this translation.

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