I struggle to interpret this quote from Chapter 1, Book 1 of The Gay Science. If someone could explain what he is trying to say (especially with the first part), it would be much appreciated.

To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh out of the whole truth—to do that even the best so far lacked sufficient sense for the truth, and the most gifted had too little genius for that. Even laughter may yet have a future. I mean, when the proposition ‘the species is everything, one is always none’ has become part of humanity, and this ultimate liberation and irresponsibility has become accessible to all at all times. Perhaps laughter will then have formed an an alliance with wisdom, perhaps only ‘gay science’ will then be left. (Nietzsche 58)


4 Answers 4


I'll give my interpretation, but since Nietzsche wrote in German, I use the German text.

Über sich selber lachen, wie man lachen müßte, um aus der ganzen Wahrheit heraus zu lachen, dazu hatten bisher die Besten nicht genug Wahrheitssinn und die Begabtesten viel zu wenig Genie! Es gibt vielleicht auch für das Lachen noch eine Zukunft! Dann, wenn der Satz »die Art ist alles, einer ist immer keiner« – sich der Menschheit einverleibt hat und jedem jederzeit der Zugang zu dieser letzten Befreiung und Unverantwortlichkeit offensteht. Vielleicht wird sich dann das Lachen mit der Weisheit verbündet haben, vielleicht gibt es dann nur noch »fröhliche Wissenschaft«.

It is worth nothing, that this is a small passage which is named (in English)

The teachers of the purpose of existence

It also may be relevant for English readers, that at least in German to laugh out of the whole truth could be read as the double-meaning to laugh yourself out of the truth (like "laugh the truth away") and to laugh from within the truth (as in truth transcends you). At least that's what the rest of the text would seem to imply.

One could read the entire thing as a rant against purpose and specifically those who seek, preach and strive for it. But I have a strong suspicion, that this wouldn't be quite what he is saying. Rather this: the sentiment the species is everything, one is always none is so obviously true throughout history and across all schools of ideas, that it could be laugh-able (in the sense of how one could laugh mentioned above), but it is not (yet), because nobody gets it, not those who claim it and not those who claim the opposite or anything else really.

You could understand that as a rant against the very idea of any other purpose of being there, than just being there and that's not wrong. But it also sounds truly passionate, dreamy, almost hoping that one day the members of species as a whole would be capable accepting (no: embracing - no: joyfully celebrating) themselves as unimportant and that this liberation would bring with it the end of the necessary cruelty and idiocy that lays in the eager search of purpose and the beginning of untainted, joyful exploration.

Or - in a sloppy tl;dr style I'd translate it into:

Chillax, there is no you in we and isn't the ridiculousness of us and everything the best thing ever? Right, so we could just enjoy this incredible reality of our species as the present it is and amaze around, explore and whatnot.


The "whole truth" that Nietzsche is talking about is the truth of human history and human origins, the truth about our evolution. The best so far lacked sufficient sense for this whole truth because 1) such a history was not available to them, and 2) when it became available none was clever enough to think it through to its implications. As Heidegger says, "Nietzsche is the first thinker, who in view of a world history emerging for the first time, asks the decisive question and thinks through its metaphysical implications." What are the metaphysical implications of evolution? That life has no meaning. That there is nothing special about any individual, that the history of life on Earth is a blind process groping toward preservation of the species--"the species is always everything,"--that the universe cares nothing for you, your questions, your struggles--"one is always none." When this truth becomes part of humanity, when people really understand it at a gut level, they will be liberated from seeking purpose, from the ravings and myth-making of the teachers of the purpose of existence. Then perhaps they will laugh out of this wisdom, out of "the whole truth," and they will see that all that's left--if there is no purpose and no meaning--is to learn and to experiment for the sake of learning--i.e. gay science.

Later on Nietzsche would realize that it's not quite so simple, that the whole truth is capable of breaking some people, that you need to mask such insights so that only people who can handle it and know how to see behind the mask become privy to such hard truths. But, the first four books of The Gay Science was written during his "positivist" phase and he was still hopeful and somewhat naïve. After Zarathustra, his philosophy would take an uncanny turn.


I will give my interpretation of the quote, which might be wrong because reading Nietzsche is hard (and to me very annoying) business.

We see laughter being contrasted to science. Nietzsche was anti-scientific and irrational. For him, the greek culture began to decline with Socrates's 'scientific' method of philosophizing. Rationality, logic and science are Apollonian. Myth, tragedy and war are Dionysian. Dionysian stuff is chaotic, irrational and destructive, but it is a sign of youth and health (Jim Morrison comes to mind). Apollonian things are rational, coherent and peaceful, but they are portents of old age and decline (the wise old man Socrates, the Roman Empire, pax Britannica etc).

Nietzsche saw his Western European civilization as being predominantly Apollonian. Laughter, on the other hand, is a Dionysian element foreign to science.

"To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh out of the whole truth—to do that even the best so far lacked sufficient sense for the truth, and the most gifted had too little genius for that." This means we can re-interpret our Apollonian scientific truths from a Dionysian perspective.

"Perhaps laughter will then have formed an an alliance with wisdom, perhaps only ‘gay science’ will then be left." This means that perhaps in the future, our civilization will rejuvenate itself with a healthy dose of Dionysis.


He means the sentiment that ‘the species is everything, one is always none’ is laughable. In contrast Kant held "A rational being cannot rationally consent to be used merely as a means to an end, so they must always be treated as an end.[25] Kant justified this by arguing that moral obligation is a rational necessity: that which is rationally willed is morally right. Because all rational agents rationally will themselves to be an end and never merely a means, it is morally obligatory that they are treated as such.[26] This does not mean that we can never treat a human as a means to an end, but that when we do, we also treat them as an end in themselves.[25]"

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    I interpreted the quote to mean that full realization of truth requires going beyond what anyone has done with reasoning. Beyond reasoning, one sees that an individual existence is of no consequence. Similar to Existentialism, but further.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 19 at 10:18
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    @ScottRowe There is that side. There's also the opposite — species is everything — suggests that Nietzsche understood, 100 years before the Matrix and AGI that individual autonomy/rationality ultimately individuality itself, is a chimera
    – Rushi
    Jun 19 at 12:46
  • @Rusi In support of my answer : quoting WTP 552 "The "welfare of the individual" is just as fanciful as the "welfare of the species": the first is not sacrificed to the last; seen from afar, the species is just as fluid as the individual." Jun 19 at 13:38
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    Yes there is always this problem with Nietzsche — with what 'valence' to hear him. He speaks in such a poetic, hyperbolic, wild manner that when you 'tame' him to a 'reasonable' frame he's going to sound v different from the original. More importantly alternate tamed conceptualized versions may wildly differ. Eg Here (comments) is a recent case where the famous God is dead statement is read in irreconcilably differing 'valences'.
    – Rushi
    Jun 19 at 14:22

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