How Not to Read Nietzsche

Cover of "The Portable Nietzsche"
Cover of The Portable Nietzsche

As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased my copy of The Portable Nietzsche at Niantic, CT’s wonderful used bookstore The Book Barn. The book’s prior owner—S. Pritchard, according to a note on the title page—took a lot of notes in the margins, notes which I was hoping would provide insightful commentary on some of the more difficult passages. No such luck. S. Pritchard’s notes are easily the most frustrating thing about my reading experience so far, and only useful insofar as they are an excellent primer in how not to read philosophy.

From S. Pritchard’s notes I gather that he is a committed Christian, which means that there’s much in Nietzsche for him to disagree with. If S. Pritchard were interested in a challenge to his beliefs, then his problems with Nietzsche’s philosophy would make for far more interesting notes, not less. After all, Walter Kaufmann, in his excellent introduction, advises the reader to allow Nietzsche to challenge him. While the philosopher’s arguments often challenge some of my most deeply held convictions, I can’t imagine how much more frequent the challenges would be were I a person of faith.

In a way, it makes me envious of the devout Christian who dips into Nietzsche for the first time. The philosophers you disagree with the most often yield the greatest rewards, but only if you’re willing to give their position the most charitable reading you possibly can. When it comes to your own philosophical development, the harder an argument you disagree with is to refute, the greater its riches.

S. Pritchard squanders those riches by being extraordinarily uncharitable. In his notes on the title page he accuses Nietzsche of “emotional perversity” and “philosophic nihilism.” The first charge is a bad faith ad hominem attack, and the second should appear obviously untrue to anyone who’s even skimmed the book, let alone taken notes on it. Nietzsche describes himself as having “a more severe morality than anybody,” which, if not strictly true, is at least closer to the truth than the accusation of nihilism. Just because his moral intuitions do not align with ours does not mean he had none.

But S. Pritchard’s agenda—making himself feel more secure in his own belief by denouncing contradictory views—overwhelms his capacity to understand Nietzsche’s arguments, and even his capacity to mount coherent responses. Instead he contents himself with scribbling dismissive notes such as, “idolatry of reason.” Most egregiously, he writes “CONTRADICTORY” next to every single line in which Nietzsche refers to something or someone as “God,” even though he is obviously using it as a metaphor.

The irony of all of this is that S. Pritchard’s notes serve as evidence for a lot of what he is so quick to dismiss. Nietzsche, though probably not a humble man himself, strove to teach us intellectual humility by exposing how easy it is for our own arrogance to lead us astray.

Or, as he put it: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

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