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North American Philosophical Publications/University of Illinois Press


This article1 will argue that at the center of Nietzsche's vision lies his concept of the "terror and horror of existence."2 As he puts it in The Birth of Tragedy: King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus .... When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: "Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is-to die soon."3 Why is it best never to have been born? Because all we can expect as human beings is to suffer. Yet, still, this is not precisely the problem. In a passage most central to this article's interpretation of the horror of existence, and a passage found not in Nietzsche's early but in one of his very late writings (in Genealogy of Morals, III, §28), Nietzsche tells us that human beings can live with suffering, what they cannot live with is meaningless suffering-suffering for no reason at all.4 In Nietzsche's view, we are "surrounded by a fearful void."5 We live in an empty, meaningless cosmos. We cannot look into reality without being overcome. Indeed, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche suggests that "it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish."6


This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Kain, P. J. "Nietzsche, Truth, and the Horror of Existence," History of Philosophy Quarterly, 23 (2006): 41-58.. See the publisher's website at for final paper.

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