Nietzsche and the Parable of the Talents

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth And Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.)

I think most philosophers will be familiar with this famous essay by Nietzsche deflating our conception of truth into a kind stripped metaphor. This idea that words are like coins who have gotten so old and rubbed clean that they count only as weights of metal and not as coins captures the ways in which the etymologies of words can surprise and delight us, and give us an understanding of our history–and ultimately of human meanings–that we have not previously explored.

Yet it has always seemed to me that there was a direct reference hidden in these lines–almost certainly a well-known one that Nietzsche the philologist would have been expecting us to catch. The coins that become mere metal complete a transformation that began in the Gospel of Matthew, in the “parable of the talents.” The word “talent” in modern English means a natural skill or aptitude. It’s a term for innate competence or mastery. Yet for the Greeks it was a unit of measure, and for the Romans it was a unit specifically used for the measure of currency. How did this odd “worn out metaphor” come about?

In the parable, Jesus depicts a master leaving on a long trip: he leaves different sums of money to three different servants. When he returns, those with the most money had invested it. The servant with the least money had merely preserved the original loan. So the richer servants hand over increased wealth, while the poorest merely returns the principle. The master punishes the servant for not investing as the richer servants had done.

It gets worse:

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

On their own, these lines from Matthew seem to be advocating for a kind of “success theology,” by which God demands that we grow rich or suffer punishment. If nothing else, it supports usury and interest-bearing loans, which the Church forbade.

But this passage is followed by a list of commandments that seem utterly at odds with the claim that “Them that’s got shall have/Them that’s not shall lose/So the Bible says/And it still is news” as Ella Fitzgerald sang. Thus the passage–or perhaps the compositor–already begins the transition in the meaning of the word (we see the same in Luke, but the term there is “mina,” which didn’t receive the same development.) How do we save the passage from the explicit reading?

As early as Augustine, the passage has been interpreted as an allegory: since the direct meaning is offensive and at odds with what follows, the implicit meaning must be otherwise. Augustine saw it as a passage on salvation, and not wasting the opportunity it supplies. Later commentators analogized the talents to God-given abilities, and later still we find ordinary language mentions of “talents” without the connection to the Biblical text, including the success theology idea.

But back to Nietzsche: it seems to me obvious that Nietzsche is referencing this particular history in his account of the coins returned to metal once again. How odd that we would embed meanings in innocent words, and have later generations read them back out again? We’re doing that all the time, at many different levels, mobilizing that army of metaphors in a way that takes crystallized human relations as if they were merely for expressing banal observations about the color of snow.

I call it “deflationist.” Nietzsche makes an effort to reduce Christian allegories to their constituent parts, to take all meanings and make them mere patterns of behavior, all while spinning out more allegories, parables, and poetic embellishments. In particular, explorations of metaphysics become etymological explorations into the play of metaphors. In a future post, I hope to detail the ways in which Hannah Arendt picks up this metaphysical deflation in her own work, and try to specify what it means for her conception of truth.

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