The Conscientious One

“I am the one I must be,” says Zarathustra. He accepts himself fully the way he is. And he walks with a carefree step. So carefree that in fact he is sometimes careless. And walking through the swamp he steps on a man lying in the mud.

The man he has stepped on is angry at first at Zarathustra’s carelessness. The big difference between him and Zarathustra is that he is conscientious. He is careful to limit himself, which is the essence of conscientiousness. He calls himself “the conscientious one” because he takes the time to know only one thing, and knows nothing at all about anything else. To know a bit of everything would be to deal in half-measures, and he despises anyone who is so careless as to do that. He’s lying in the swamp as leeches feed off him, and learning all he can about the brains of leeches. He’s taking all these pains to know the one thing he should know, and to be ignorant of everything else. He is lying here in the swamp, his ears stuffed with mud. He’s taken all this trouble. And here’s Zarathustra, not even looking where he’s going!

Yes, Zarathustra can seem careless and carefree as he dances through the world. He accepts himself and any chance encounter that might befall him. Though he treads carelessly he treads lightly. He steps like a dancer.

This is what makes Nietzsche, the creator of this heroic version of Zarathustra, a source of courage for Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra encourages his hearers to speak from their own heart. No need to limit oneself. You can stumble out into the dark sometimes and see what you find there. Perhaps you will trip over a very interesting man lying in the mud. You can be open to these chance encounters. You don’t need to control everything.

The conscientious one says: I want to be honest. But Nietzsche further has him say: And if I am dishonest, I want to be blind to my own dishonesty. In all of us there is a point where our honesty leaves off, says Nietzsche. This man who calls himself “conscientious” is trying to persuade himself that he is incapable of any dishonesty at all.

Nietzsche seems to be saying here: conscientiousness leads to dishonesty. Conscientiousness means limiting oneself, setting limits for oneself. But you can only limit your conscious self. You can’t keep an eye on everything, and there are even things you yourself do that go on behind your back. Post-Freud, this is a familiar enough idea: you are driven by unconscious drives. The upshot is that if you convince yourself that you have set a limit for yourself, then you are lying to yourself. That is the lie of conscientiousness: that you really can be such a strict guard over yourself.

Conscientiousness wants total honesty, but such absolute honesty is impossible. The best you can hope for is to be aware of where your own honesty leaves off. (And to hope for anything else, Parkes notes, Nietzsche would call a “will to blindness.”) At least don’t lie to yourself in this matter. But the conscientious one doesn’t want this: “Where my honesty ceases, I am blind and also want to be blind.” To become conscientious you must learn to believe the lie that you are honest. Conscientiousness always means hypocrisy.

To be conscientious you must limit and censor yourself so that you hide your own dishonesty. That is dishonest.

Which is more valuable? Honesty or conscientiousness? Nietzsche makes us choose one virtue over another. It is not possible to have all the virtues, so which would you prefer out of these two?

I think that the artist always chooses honesty over conscientiousness. This is why artistic creation always involves following unconscious processes. Let them see the whole of the artist, the whole person, every aspect of the human being.

(I’ve been reading Graham Parkes’ translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Martin Joughin’s translation of Gilles Deleuze’s Negotations.)

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