“You can’t read Nietzsche the same way you read fanfiction, or a car repair manual, or a status update on Facebook. It’s different.”
It’s how I begin every fall semester, teaching introductory philosophy students how to read a philosophical text.
“The most important thing is this,” I say, “Don’t stop. Keep reading. Read all the way to the end. You’re going to think you’ve gotten to the philosopher’s big ‘point’ in the first couple of pages, but then he (almost always ‘he’ in the early weeks of introductory philosophy) will seem to change his mind. He’s not changing his mind. He’s just looking at an idea from every angle. Eventually–usually–he’ll come to a conclusion, but not until the end.”
I propose to them that the closest kin to reading a philosophy text is reading a poem. I have a favorite I pull out. It’s “Inheritance,” by W. S. Merwin. You see, I say, how you could misunderstand if you stop after the first few lines? You’ll think it’s about a dictionary, but that’s not all. You have to keep reading. It’s about his father, the country preacher. But there’s more. Keep reading. It’s about words. Yes. It’s about meaning. Yes. It’s about all these things taken together. Yes. And would you understand it if you stopped after the first eight lines? No.
Do you get it? The students nod, and slap themselves awake (it’s a night class), and inevitably they forget. Or they get lazy. Or both.
Their habit of stopping too soon is no more evident than in their reading of Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (read here), chapter 4 of his book length The Myth of Sisyphus. The students’ writing prompt asks, “According to Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” is consciousness our enemy or our friend? Why?”
Boy howdy, face palm after face palm, they stop reading too soon.
The students get as far as the first paragraph: “…(T)here is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.“
“Right there!” they think. “Enemy! For sure!”
Oh no. No. Keep reading.
The students make it through a few more paragraphs. “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious,” they read. Aha! Consciousness is the enemy! It makes Sisyphus tragic!
So close. Keep reading for a few more sentences. You’re getting close!
“The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory,” Camus continues. “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.”
You’re getting there!
“One always finds one’s burden again,” Camus begins to land his verbal plane. “But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well.”
So close! You’re so close!
Finally, the last line, concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Consciousness is freedom and friend. And the reader would not have known had the reader not finished the whole essay.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reading of philosophical texts as a metaphor of right living and even right faith.
We stop too soon, with the easy answers, the low hanging fruit. We don’t give people a chance to change. We don’t give science a chance to discover more. We don’t give ourselves time to heal. We stop too soon, too often.
One of my all time favorite moments for Moses happens in Numbers 11. The people are complaining, and the work is too hard, and Moses has had enough. I call it Moses’ kill-me-now moment:
He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin. (Numbers 11:11-15)
But, no, God says. Don’t stop too soon.
God sends people to help. God promises (again) to be at his side. God sends food to eat (again). It’s enough, and Moses decides not to stop.
It’s a pattern repeated. Just a little later, the people Moses trusts most speak against him (Numbers 12:1). He wants to stop again, too soon. God intervenes, and Moses keeps going. He doesn’t stop too soon.
I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve told my children, “Patience is a virtue and a fruit of the Spirit.” It’s a gift. It’s a practice. Say thanks. Keep going.
Dearest folks, whatever mud you’re slogging through, whatever fog you’re inching your way into, whatever mess you’re sorting out, whatever wound you’re watching fade, keep on. Trust God’s timing. Trust the strength he’s given you abundantly by the Spirit. Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop too soon.