‘[S]keptical resignation, insight into the unknowability of the world of reality, is no mere negation, is our best knowledge; philosophy is epistemology, epistemology is critique of language; to critique language, however, is to work on the liberating thought that, with the words of their languages and with the expressions of their philosophies, men can never get beyond a figurative depiction of the world.’1

Eternal truths

Schiller’s beautiful sentences are not the only things called ‘eternal truths’ in the language of our school essays. In philosophy too, for millennia, axioms have been readily called eternal truths, and even the personification of truth itself is occasionally given the epithet eternal, timeless, although such epithets pertain to people least of all. Fervent is the thought which imagines the Christian God to be the summa veritas, expressed by Augustine in a sentence which recalls Schiller: ‘Erit [igitur] veritas, etiamsi mundus intereat.’2 Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant speak, more or less critically, of eternal truths. But even in our own day, when the concept of truth has been psychologically investigated and recognised as a relative concept, when pragmatism on one side and Nietzsche on the other have introduced into philosophy Goethe’s simple idea—namely, that what is biologically useful is called true—the talk of eternal truths does not cease; the logicians in particular happily recite the logical tautology that the truth of a judgment has no relation to time, is supratemporal, therefore eternal.

We will yet learn that truth and belief are not at all so very different from each other as the common language of our scholars believes or deems true.3 Now, whoever finds himself incapable of teaching that a belief has eternal duration, that it is not historically formed and reformed, ought also to refrain from speaking of eternal truths. Truth is nowhere in the world except in human heads, and there too it is nothing more than a particular attentiveness, an affirmation of judgments and prejudgments which, even without this attentiveness or affirmation, have been deemed true. This applies to the most banal of eternal truths (‘offences must be punished’) up to the highest principle of the new worldview (‘energy is constant’). Truths are not in reality, are only in human heads (Descartes: ‘Aeternae veritates nullam existentiam extra cogitationem nostram habent.’4), are strictly speaking only in human language, which is formed and reformed from people to people, from generation to generation. Eternal truths can therefore as little exist as there exists somewhere an eternal language. Even the proposition of the conservation or constancy of energy will not (in this form) eternally endure; and I do not mean the form of its words, but the form of its concepts.


Part I

It is often said: ‘If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him.’5 Would have to? We should say: would do well to. For the highest moral reasons. For reasons of a morality which is derived from the dictates of the existing or invented God. We really did have to invent him. Not because we were supposed to, but rather because it was in accordance with the nature of men and their language. That we had to invent God therefore means: We invented him—necessarily. The sense of the famous sentence is therefore: Because God does not exist, men, in accordance with their nature, invented Him.

God, the God of our word-inventory, the one or only God of the Christian West, is not to be understood as the generic concept of those imagined beings which the heathens called gods. Those gods were conceived according to the image of man. (Feuerbach was not the first to express this parodical thought; I find it already expressed in the Theory of the Gods by K. Ph. Moritz: ‘Human imagination could attribute to the gods themselves no higher formation than that of man.’6) So they were images at least, images produced by a rich, young, beautiful imagination. The one God, on the other hand, is a mere word, an effortfully constructed word, without an image to depict its content. All attempts to see this paternal God figuratively are heathen. Protestantism with its iconoclasm was merely consequent.  

If, for the purpose of comparison, we want to place this abstruse concept of God alongside other concepts, then we encounter the difficulty of finding words of similar nonsensity and yet of similar historical power.  

The philosophers’ stone never existed and yet miraculous powers were attributed to it. But the philosophers’ stone was not only an article of human faith, but also in other respects real, an article of human making, as when it was fabricated and sold by fraudsters.

I prefer to compare God with the concept of phlogiston in chemistry. For almost a hundred years, from the end of the 17th until the end of the 18th century, the theologians of chemistry and with them the world believed in this word, which was supposed to explain the combustion of bodies, therefore heat, therefore the origin of the most important earthly force. We know today that lead oxide is lead plus something else, Pb + O. Back then it was taught, contrary to appearances—for the greater weight of lead oxide had already been observed—that lead is leadchalk plus something else, that lead is leadchalk (lead oxide) + phlogiston. Something which had never existed in the world was supposed to be the cause of something which did exist. Just as phlogiston was thought into every metal, so God was thought into all events: through God’s providence hazard becomes history, through God’s righteousness vengeance against a criminal becomes punishment, through God’s invocation a statement becomes an oath.

The infamous ontological proof of God’s existence is but one instance of many; man’s habit of using illusory concepts allows the existence of those concepts to be imagined at the same time. Oldenburg, in a letter to Spinoza (27 Sept. 1661), already stated this beautifully: ‘Do you believe you can prove clearly and beyond doubt from your own definition of God that such an entity exists? I of course think that definitions contain only concepts of our heads and that’s all; that, however, our heads conceive much which does not exist, and are extremely fruitful in the multiplication and augmentation of things once conceived: I therefore cannot see how I am supposed to get from my concept of God to God’s existence.’7

The respectable endeavour of Deism to serve in its way humanity’s need for rest and to avoid the regressus in infinitum led to the acknowledgment of a God with which free thought believed it could get along. God is the answer to the most beautiful and childish question, to the eternal Why and to the Why of the Why. God is therefore the ultimate cause. Except that the subject and the predicate of this judgment are alike anthropomorphisms. Admittedly, in the fetish-making popular imagination, too, the concept of God is an answer to the old childish question, but this old God is created according to the image of man. And Hume sought to prove the boldest doctrine, namely that the concept of cause is also a kind of personification of temporal succession. Alongside such ideas, I don’t know what is left of the Deists’ judgment that God is the ultimate cause.