A quote is a quote is a quote, or maybe not. Vladimir Bartol included the words “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” in his well known novel Alamut. Many would know this to be central to the video game series Assassin’s Creed” and the creators borrowed this phrase from Bartol.
William Burrows borrowed it from Bartol and included it in his novel “Naked Lunch.” Batol’s phrase echoes Dostoevsky’s phrase in his earlier novel “The Brothers Karamazov” where the character Ivan Karamazov states: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” And this in turn is an echo of St. Paul’s theological reflection in his first letter to the people in the church in Corinth where he says: “You have the right to do anything, you say, but not everything is beneficial.”
For St. Paul and Dostoevsky the question is – do we need God/a god for ethical living? Which the two resolve in the affirmative. For Bartol (who sets his novel in 11th century Persia, and is a thinly veiled criticism of fascism and Mussolini), it is a statement that there is no ultimate truth (and perhaps, albeit, no god). Burrows follows a similar line in Naked Lunch in which totaltitarian forces are jostling for control. It is a disjointed book, presenting a disjointed world in which ethics is a moot point, and nothing can be trusted.
For me the question resolves easily. Nothing is true is unsustainable, it fails in that some things can be true (laws of nature, physics, law of gravity etc.). It is true for me at the level that there is no political utopia. There is no ultimate truth, because life is experienced as relational not as principle, so truth is variously understood through experience. God may be a question more than an ultimate truth for many, but as Dostoevsky makes clear, for some God/a god is one way of creating an ethical community.
For me St. Paul nails it by saying everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial. This is the personal side of it, the ethical relational issue up front. The self must be considerd in the context of ethically living in community, where there are responsibilities as well as rights. In short it can be summed up as the non-harming principle, or as loving your neighbour.
So, nothing is true, but my neighbour is true, so not everything is permitted, or, not everything is beneficial. My neighbour, sister, brother, all living things, are true, and I must account for my behaviour towards them. Not everything is beneficial, but love is beneficial for all.