Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs

Attributed by legend to the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Nizari Isma’ilites and the founder of the Order of Assassins (Hashshashin), Hassan-i-Sabbah, the line ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted‘, is first found in print in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, and was later taken up in a book entitled Le Grand Maître des Assassins by Betty Bouthoul, where it was discovered by the hit-man for the Apocalypse, William S. Burroughs, who was very fond of quoting it. From there it has infiltrated into popular culture, via movies and video games, and now appears to be the guiding maxim of 21st Century political irreality.

With its perplexing and gnomic quality, the phrase could be read as merely a particularly nihilistic variant of the Liars Paradox. While I am willing to concede that this approach has claims to validity it also shows a lack of imagination, a certain tone-deafness. One can only echo Nietzsche remarks about the labyrinthine consequences of such a proposition as ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. So we can safely leave the logical positivists to their sterile linguistic games and pursue an investigation into its meaning and potential implications.

Karl Jaspars warned in 1936 that the statement found in Nietzsche, if removed from its context and taken by itself  ‘…expresses complete lack of obligation; it is an invitation to individual caprice, sophistry, and criminality.’ Hannah Arendt illuminatingly remarked in The Origins of Totalitarianism that, ‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.’

However others saw in the statement not a dire warning but the possibility of freedom; after all, if nothing is true then everything is permitted. The idea that the world is illusionary is one of the certain tenets of Gnosticism (see my ongoing series, starting with A Heresy for the 21st Century), and the second part of the maxim could easily have been part of the philosophy of a particularly radical and  libertine Gnostic sect. But then the early Nizari, although not Gnostic, certainly seems to have been one of the more esoteric and heretical of Islamic movements, as the following story of the qiyāma (resurrection) illustrates.

In 1164 on the seventeenth day of Ramadan, Hasan II, a student of Sufism and the descendent of Hassan-i-Sabbah, gathered Assassins from the Nizari territories at the mountain stronghold of Alamut. The crowds are carefully positioned around the pulpit so that are facing away from Mecca. Behind the pulpit are tables covered in the finest silk clothes. When the sun reaches its zenith in the sky, Hasan II enters through the gates of the citadel, dressed all in white. Addressing the audience he states that he is God’s khalifa and declares the qiyāma (which is supposed to only happen at the end of time). As the esoteric aspect of religion has now been revealed and Paradise is actualised in the corporeal world, sharia law is abolished and those that continue to adhere will be punished. As a coup de grace Hasan II has the silk clothes removed to reveal tables laden with dishes of pork and flagons of wine. The crowd, fearing a test, do not make a move until Hasan II helps himself to a glass and a plate. Then they begin to realise that nothing is true and everything is permitted: there are no laws in Paradise.

Burroughs, who would return to the statement time and time again, interpreted it in a somewhat Gnostic and Blakean sense, with special relevance to artistic creation, stating, ‘Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour, that would be a minor episode, which would run its course. Everything is permitted because nothing is true. It is all make-believe . . . illusion . . . dream . . . art. When art leaves the frame and the written word leaves the page, not merely the physical frame and page, but the frames and pages that assign the categories.

A basic disruption of reality itself occurs. The literal realisation of art. Success will write apocalypse across the sky. The artist aims for a miracle. The painter wills his pictures to move off the canvass with a separate life. movement outside of the picture and one rip in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to break through.”

But taken literally in the 21st Century with its hyper-mediated and conflicting levels of reality, where truth has become something of an unknown quantity, depending upon your own personal, subjective point of view, the maxim has become a political tool in the hands of media-savvy opportunists. We expect politicians to lie, but we are far beyond that stage now. Our precarious sense of reality has eroded to such an extent that nothing is true, everything is permitted, is no longer just a verbal paradox but a damning assessment of the situation it which we find ourselves.

As for me, well, I have Gone to Persia.

60 thoughts on “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

  1. Nothing is true, everything is permitted and everything is deniable. It’s all fake news even if it happens right in front of your eyes. Maybe you’re just not smart enough to understand what your seeing/hearing. You heard that one, right?

    Have fun in Persia. Don’t forget to write!

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    1. Arendt talks about the curious mixture of gullibility and cynicism. It has been exploited before, Goebbels said that what they were just doing to reality what Dostoevsky did to fiction. I am in Alamut (in my imagination at least) with Marco Polo, Hassan-I-Sabbah, Burroughs and Borges. I can see the fabled garden with its houris. I also wanted to be a bandit.

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      1. Ah, that is a serpent chasing its tail for sure. To be fooled into believing one set of ideas based upon suspicion of another set. Well, enjoy your imaginative excursion, A bandit, eh? On horseback, wielding a sword? I can just imagine.

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  2. Like the experiential mantra in some Sufi circles … ‘Everything matters, nothing matters.’
    A phrase similarly abused and narrowly apprehended. In the mystical context it is meant to loosen the grid of rules, though it’s always only a minority who dare to step over the threshold of a religious construct established to uphold social order.
    All individuals, group, nation and belief system have necessary phases of doubt, usually before new insights gain momentum and make change inevitable, requiring a new order.

    My controversial Sufi teacher – Fazal Inayat-Khan – used to express it in this way:
    ‘With faith one attains peace and harmony. With doubt one destroys and gains freedom to move on.’

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    1. Thank you for your very eloquent comment. Everything can be misunderstood and turned into a weapon. Definitely a time of change. Although this isn’t part of the Gnostic it is related in a fashion. I am further studying Jung.

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    1. Haha, that was my own private joke. The Assassins were from Persia and the line Gone To Persia is featured at the end of the movie Performance…the header image of Cakeordeath is from that movie and I have written about it, of course, I will write about anything.

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      1. Haha 😄👍there are some assassinations in the history of Persians, surely with the help of Allah against the intellectuals! But I found your research i
        has mirrored the dark side of the man in which many are not aware of 🙂❤🙏

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  3. Every dimension has its natural Laws. Shamanistic impeccability is the knowledge of recognising these Laws. Ignorant hedonism can get you eaten by demons anywhere.
    I can see you in Persia once upon a time Mr. Cake! A great post!

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    1. Thank you Heron, it is a fine balancing act. Burroughs was always trying to exorcise the Ugly Spirit inside. In the movie Performance the character played by Mick Jagger has lost his demons and is in a artistic impasse. It takes the assassin to return him to Persia (metaphorically speaking). I like the idea of me in Persia once upon a time.

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  4. Thank you Mr Cake for your insight we can always rely on you to challenge our knowledge and question our understanding of all the artist that you choose to highlight to us mere mortals.

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  5. I always admired the hashashins for their soft tread and the ability to become a shadow, as they can come in handy at times.
    This is another wonderful post of yours. Everything is permitted… Anarchy! I especially find the part on the vulnerability of artpieces interesting. Ridiculous, really, that their intactness is taken into account that much. Nothing is true, art its nothing more than a construct as money is.

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    1. The hashshahins are fascinating, very dangerous. I think Burroughs is talking about art that comes alive and tears apart the fabric of reality. Of course it is a construct but I am a romantic, with visionary and mystic sympathies.

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      1. Well the art world can be ridiculous… that Leonardo that went for 450 million? I love Leonardo but it was a minor work at the best and the fact that it was auctioned in the modern/contemporary section because that’s where the heavy money is concentrated…verging on the obscene. But that the world we live in, everything and everybody is commodified.

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      1. From Burrough’s last great trilogy ‘the Cities of the Red Night’. The Second book follows Kim Carson as he attempts to evolve beyond a linear existence into a a spatial situation (of being). He’s a hero of mine

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      2. I will have to read it. I am re reading Naked Lunch, a term that has to be worked into my Gnostic series somehow (though I have a few steps to get to that point yet). You always provide great add ons in your comments, thank you Christopher!

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      3. I read this book when I was 15 and it was like a firecracker set off in my ass and lighting my brain. Of course the whole trilogy is based around that ol’ proverb ‘Anal-sex and gun fightin are the only true path to a complete perception of time and space’. So if you are uncomfortable in this existence (and your own skin) it’s maybe time to put down that herbal tea and stop dabbling in pseudo-spiritual callisthenics; hit a coupla shots of Bulleit instead and shoot your way out of this life. After all, “it ain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones…”

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  6. ^mandatory reading if you want your art to breathe and change the essential of ‘reality’. Also i am preparing some thoughts for the continuation of your gnostic series, thoughts that are of the existential fallacy order, perhaps…

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    1. Well not to spoil the surprise but the next ones planned are, in no particular order:Jung, Crowley, L Ron and Scientology, False Consciousness and the Spectacle a la Debord, Phil K (of course), then popular culture (particular movies) and then current manifestations and then conclusion with especial reference to the Scottish writer David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus… the ultimate Gnostic novel (with no offence to Phil, whom I love… Ubik runs it a close second). So any thoughts are welcome as I have a ton on my plate…and that is even without reference to science and technology.

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      1. Well thank you for the high expectations…your initial comment about Bataille’s The Accursed Share did spur me on to explore and expand the initial concept…now that was high praise, as I admire Bataille enormously for his wide range… it’s the epoch of the specialist, while I am more of a generalist.

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      2. Well Lindsay shows how winding that road can be…the realisation that this world is an illusion is in itself illusionary. The ultimate truth is just another trick of the Demiurge. Crooked roads are the roads of genius.

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      3. Valis, of course, it is so incredibly fucked up, the dizzying leaps and the Roman Empire (I love Roman history). I just love the graffiti in the toilet that says I am alive and you are dead…an awful abyss opened up for me reading those words. I haven’t read Stapledon, which is surprising as C S Lewis (terrible novelist, though I loved Narnia as a kid, before I realised it’s heavy handed Christian allegory) but a very astute critic of Sci-Fi and fantasy. Screwtape is fun as well.

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    1. Thank you so much…it has quite a lot of Surrealism, Ballard, a bit of Burroughs, the occult (sceptical but sympathetic) Art Brut and my own poetry and stories and essays. Feel free to look around, comment and criticise.

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