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The Ethics of Good Reading

A common misconception of the modern world is that one can separate technical training or the mastery of skills from moral formation.[1]  In this essay I will argue that good reading is not just a skill but is a moral or ethical act.  Why that is so will lead us into issues concerning the nature of truth and the existence of God.  In fact, we need to start there, and we’ll do so with my favorite atheist author—Friedrich Nietzsche (To see why I like Nietzsche see my post

The traditional understanding of truth is that which corresponds with reality.  In other words truth exists independently of our perception of things.   Knowledge results from conforming our thoughts to the way things are.

Nietzsche contradicts this traditional understanding of truth.  He writes, “The criterion of truth is that which enhances the feeling of power.”[2]  For Nietzsche there is no truth in itself.  There are only competing interpretations with the result that we exist in a world in which various powers struggle for dominance.  What is true then is the interpretation that helps us gain and keep power.

Nietzsche’s atheism is a crucial foundation to his definition of truth.  He realizes that if there is a God and especially one that has created the universe, then there is a reality independent of our interpretation of it.  In order to know the truth of that reality, we must submit our minds to that which exists.

For Nietzsche, then, belief in God and in truth as something we conform to limits us.  The Other is a threat to our authentic existence.  Nietzsche wishes to free us from these limits.  Proclaiming the death of God Nietzsche writes of the higher human beings, his supermen, who “are bent in seeking in all things for what in them must be overcome” and finding that the greatest enjoyment in existence is “to live dangerously!  Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!  Send your ships into unchartered seas!  Live at war with your peers and yourselves!  Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge!”[3]  Thus, Nietzsche calls for the superman that is freed from the restrictions of traditional ideas of truth and morality and who imposes himself on “reality” and others.

The correspondence theory of truth requires a different kind of person.  He must be humble because knowledge comes from submitting one’s mind to a reality outside of himself.  Such humility demands a kind of faith or trust that the world and others are not just out to enslave him.  Such a person sees himself as part of a community in which he willingly gives himself to others and receives from them.  Such mutual giving and receiving can be properly called love.  It is difficult to see the possibility of practicing this risky self-giving love apart from faith that there is a God of love who has created the universe and all of its inhabitants.  Without such faith, one must admit that Nietzsche’s view of life as a power struggle in opposition to others does make sense.

What does this have to do with reading?  Since there is no truth as traditionally understood in the world according to Nietzsche, every author has an agenda. The author is seeking to exert his power over the reader and cause the reader to submit to his truth, to be shaped by him.  Therefore, the reader must approach every text with suspicion.  He must seek to discover an author’s tools of enchantment and at all costs defend himself from being enslaved by an author’s bewitching claim to present the truth.   The reader is in a power struggle with the author, whom he must resist so that he can define himself and his own reality.

C. S. Lewis understood the relationship between the author and the reader and the act of reading differently. He warns, “No poem will give up its secrets to a reader who enters it regarding the poet as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken in.  We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything.”[4]  To benefit truly from the act of reading, we must not see ourselves as being threatened by the author.  Rather in the experience of reading we should “seek an enlargement of our being.”[5]

Lewis states that “the primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself,”[6] which would appear to be an apt description of the world according to Nietzsche.  A higher and, according to Lewis, a secondary impulse is “to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness.”[7] Lewis compares this kind of reading to love in which “we escape from our self into one other.”[8]

Therefore, in contrast to the war between the author and the reader, a traditional view of truth opens up the possibility of a hermeneutics of love in which the reader permits himself to be influenced by the author.  Such a reader is not gullible.  Just as he knows that he does not always conform to the truth, he knows that the author will also fail.  Discerning error is an element of good reading, but it is not its fundamental principle, otherwise why read at all?  The good reader, who believes in a truth to which he ought to submit, has formed the habit of conforming his mind to reality and approaches a text with anticipation and openness to being shaped by it.  He is willing to take a chance because he wants a world that is larger than his own perspective and to be transformed by the knowledge of that world and of himself gained by insights from the author.  He is not threatened by the other, but rather welcomes his influence.  As Lewis concludes, “I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”[9]

Yes, reading is a skill.  We need to learn vocabulary, master grammar, and understand syntax, but it is much more than that.  With its openness to the author good reading is a moral act, an act of love.  A key to helping students experience the transforming power of reading well is to help shape their characters so that they conform to the character of the God of love who commanded us not only to love him, but to love our neighbor as ourselves, including even authors.



[1] My concern here is not the obviously correct one that a bad person can use technical knowledge for wrong ends.  For example, training someone to use a gun should include moral instruction about the proper occasions to use the gun.

[2] Nietzsche, Will to Power, #534.

[3] Nietzsche, The Happy Science, #283.

[4] An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), p. 94.

[5] Ibid., p. 137.

[6] Ibid., p. 138.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 141.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Good Reading

  1. Bill,

    Thanks for these really fine thoughts. They come to me at an opportune moment, as I was just yesterday teaching some great folks about what it means to read sympathetically. In the biblical passage we were reading, to do so changes everything.

    Thanks again for this post.


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