The errors of great men are venerable because they are more fruitful than the truths of little men
Nietzsche, Fragment of a Critique of Schopenhauer
I found a used copy of Kaufmann’s anthology The Portable Nietzsche the other day and couldn’t be happier. I had lost my copy some time ago, and have lost track of the number of times I went to reach for it to find favorite passages, only to realize it was gone. I can’t recall when I first started to read him, though I remember his name being associated with all that was wrong with nihilism (a label which, if I remember correctly, he rejected). Like Darwin, he is someone who is often talked about, but rarely read. His name has become a placeholder for critics and fans alike, into which each camp imports their own agenda. The irony, of course, is that he is the great destroyer of agendas, even his own. When you couple this with a gorgeous writing style (it is worth learning German just to read him), you have an intoxicating mix. Early in my marriage I was sitting, reading him, unaware of myself, lost in his ideas, delighting in his wit and humor, and my wife wryly quipped, “you’re the only person I know who can read Nietzsche and laugh!”. Perhaps not the only, but happy to be among the few…for there are those of you out there who know that to read him without laughing at times is to not read him at all.
I have read through the anthology many times cover to cover, some sections more than I can count. Over the years I have inflicted my students with various excerpts and passages, almost always accompanied by their boredom or bewilderment. I can say without hesitation that he is one of the most important writers I know, and my very conception of critical thought is but a pale reflection of his. When I got home with my new copy I debated going straight to a favorite passage versus starting again from the beginning. While everything in me leaned toward the former, in the way that one might want to hear a favorite song off of an old album, the completionist in me won out, and I started with the opening letter to his sister. I don’t recall highlighting anything from this letter in my old copy (and before some of you recoil in horror: not literal highlighting, which is a blight upon both the text and reader, but a kind of system of marginalia I learned from one of my professors), and yet I found myself stunned by it in a way I don’t recall being before.
He references her statement that truth is on the side of the more difficult, with which he somewhat agrees (unfortunately we do not have here her text, whether by Kaufmann’s omission or the whims of history). Based on his response, it seems she means that which is more difficult to believe, perhaps with a specifically religious bent. (We can only speculate: was she suggesting religious belief, because of its critics, carried a greater portion of truth precisely because it is difficult to believe in their eyes?) He brilliantly turns the idea of difficulty in another direction, though. Truth is not necessarily on the side of the difficult idea, but the difficult enquiry. To believe things that critics may find difficult is really not so hard. We accept most of what we were conditioned to believe from our earliest years, and nothing but the fiercest opposition will wrest those from us. We take comfort in the worldview we’ve inherited, and the most ready and effective defense against a critic is to simply dismiss him. In fact, their opposition is turned into an affirmation that we must be right, otherwise they wouldn’t be so worked up about it, since they are clearly in the wrong.
What Nietzsche is interested in is not necessarily the idea, but the process. If we are to pursue what he calls “the eternal goal of the true, the beautiful and the good” it will require giving up precisely what simplicity demands: comfort, acceptance, community, a clear path, habit, security, steadiness. “Is it decisive after all that we arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Rather, is not the result of his inquiries something wholly indifferent to the true inquirer? Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth—even if it be the most abhorrent and ugly.” (For an almost poetic—and to me, perfect—elaboration of this see Beyond Good and Evil §42–44.)
How can he not be right? But this is terrifying to most people. In the current climate it is hard enough to critique the views of others, let alone our own. And yet those are the ones most in need of it. Truth lies on the side of this most difficult process, regardless of where it takes us. This leads us back to the opening quote. If he is right, then even our mistakes—if we are genuinely taking the difficult, open, honest path—are of immense value. Perhaps of greater value than the “truths” of those who never ventured to ask, never dared to question, never saw the need to call their assumptions into the light. In pursuing truth it may be that the best we can do is courageously own our errors.