In an English translation of Nietzsche, Beyond good and evil, chapter two, section 40, is ‘Everything That is profound loves the mask’

What is the exact wording of the original German text of this phrase?

  • 3
    "Alles, was tief ist, liebt die Maske". The entire German original is available online. – Conifold Jun 23 '20 at 20:25
  • @Conifold - thanks. Looks as though a better translation would be ‘deep’ rather than ‘profound’ – Maureen Norrie Jun 23 '20 at 20:46
  • Having looked up a German-English dictionary, ‘tief’ can translate as ‘profound’ - but also translates as ‘mean, base, nasty, villainous’ - this second group of words fully fitting the sense of the section. This makes ‘Profound’ - as understood in modern English - a mistranslation. – Maureen Norrie Jun 23 '20 at 21:41
  • If Nietzsche had intended a meaning of "mean, base, nasty, villainous", he likely would have chosen a more suitable word, or disambiguated the word. He uses the word multiple times in the section. Also it may be that in combination with "Geist" later in the same section, the other meanings would be unnatural. Some English sources also use "deep". To me it seems in that section he talks about anything that is not shallow or superficial, but does talk about good or bad. – tkruse Jun 24 '20 at 0:32
  • The issue may be with translation per se. Each word contains potential nuances: to translate it as a word with only some of these nuances, limits understanding when read in translation. It may be better to have left ‘tief’ untranslated. Re-reading the section, I’m coming round to ‘not shallow or superficial’: there may be aspects of ourselves, good or bad, we want to keep private, so we create a ‘mask’ to hide these. We may also feel a bit embarrassed by some of these aspects (the ‘mean etc’ aspect would be involved here if even only slightly). ‘Profound’ doesn’t cover these nuances: tief does – Maureen Norrie Jun 24 '20 at 9:25

The complete sentence in German is:

Alles, was tief ist, liebt die Maske; die allertiefsten Dinge haben sogar einen Hass auf Bild und Gleichniss. Sollte nicht erst der Gegensatz die rechte Verkleidung sein, in der die Scham eines Gottes einhergienge?

One could translate the second part of the sentence as "the most profound things even hate image and likeness."

From the context, it seems that this part of the sentence refers to the second commandment in the bible, i.e.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

Exodus 20,4 NIV bible translation

So, "profound" seems to be the correct translation, since even the following sentence (rhethorical question) means that God might be disguising himself as the opposite of what he is.

For the record: I disagree with Nietzsche on this point.


I feel that my first answer is to short, and that it led to a lot of misunderstanding. I've read the whole section in the original, and I'd like to expand on my first answer.

Nietzsche alludes in the beginning of this paragraph to a common concept in his time and place, namely, that the highest, most dignified, most profound things are shrouded in mystery. Like we use clothes to "cover our shame" (which just means the opposite of going nude), he says that a god might cover his nature and hide it behind a mystery, even so far as to seem to be the opposite of his true nature.

He then goes on to the application to human nature, and treats cases where people are ashamed of their good deeds, and try to hide them behind a mask of rude behaviour. He says that exposing love and true feeling makes "profound" people vulnerable, and that they tend to protect themselves by talking and behaving in a way that makes them seem hard and impregnable. He says that this is not even intentional, but something that happens by itself, and that it is a good thing.

His conclusion:

Jeder tiefe Geist braucht eine Maske: mehr noch, um jeden tiefen Geist wächst fortwährend eine Maske, Dank der beständig falschen, nämlich flachen Auslegung jedes Wortes, jedes Schrittes, jedes Lebens-Zeichens, das er giebt.

Every profound mind needs a mask: more than that, around every profound mind continually grows a mask, because of the persistently wrong, i.e. superficial interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives.

  • I'm not sure I'd go with this idea of the profound disgusting itslf as its opposite. I think Nietzsche is closer to the daoist idea, here that the profound is beyond description, and any description we give is merely a mask that hides it from our view. – Ted Wrigley Jun 24 '20 at 16:14
  • My thoughts on this are developing, but elsewhere Nietzsche seems to refer repeatedly to the ‘hidden’: hidden factors behind a (conscious) intention, a (hidden) world that is different to the one we perceive and conceive of. Here, to me - at least in my present thoughts - he seems to be talking of hidden aspects of the human psyche. Does ‘god’, here, refer to us? I’m still wondering – Maureen Norrie Jun 24 '20 at 19:44
  • @TedWrigley Taken at face value, the German text seems to indicate that the overly good image/appearance of God/god is rather a masking expression of the opposite, namely their shame preventing them from showing their real selves. This neatly links to the second sentence, the hate for (true) images, ie. having a mirror held in front of you. The overarching idea seems to be that persons with depth (as opposed to shallow ones) have their dark sides and thus would not want to see/show (all of) themselves. In a sense, it is a truism since that kind of depth means that you are hiding something. – Philip Klöcking Jun 25 '20 at 5:50
  • @PhilipKlöcking: Well, I don't read German, so I can't comment on the translation specifically. But I'm not sure how well this fits in with the overarching theme of this work. I mean, would Nietzsche invoke a good/evil, visible/hidden dichotomy in a treatise that's trying to transcend (or at least do away withy) that very dichotomy? I don't think we should take his sardonic dismissal of conventional morality as an end in itself, and if we don't there's implication of something that does not fit well within simplistic concepts like good and evil. – Ted Wrigley Jun 25 '20 at 6:41
  • @TedWrigley I don't think it is about the dichotomy at all here, rather psychology and false gods. He basically expresses that "saints" and "gods" (as all humans with depth to their person) have more to them than what meets the eye, things they do not want to see or show to others or even themselves. This, in turn, is an argument against a simplistic good/evil dichotomy. – Philip Klöcking Jun 25 '20 at 6:54

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