On the 'Esoteric' Reading of Nietzsche

21 Pages Posted: 16 May 2014  

Brian Leiter

University of Chicago

Date Written: May 14, 2014


This essay is a critical commentary on Maudemarie Clark & David Dudrick's 2012 book "The Soul of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil" (Cambridge University Press). The book embraces a distinction between “exoteric” and “esoteric” readings of Nietzsche, which they borrow from Leo Strauss. Strauss was enamored of the exoteric/esoteric distinction for very particular reasons: he was a reactionary ideologue and wanted license to ignore the text and read “in between the lines” to find a politically palatable message. Clark & Dudrick want to have nothing to do with Straussian ideology, but they still want to insist that “surface meaning differs substantially from what Nietzsche actually argues.”

Clark & Dudrick proceed as follows. First, they set out what they usually call a "standard" or "natural" reading of a passage (hereafter the “Exoteric Reading”) — frequently, though certainly not always, my reading, I must acknowledge. Second, they point out that this Exoteric Reading seems to commit Nietzsche to something absurd or mistaken (hereafter the “Reductio Problem”). Third, they then propose an alternative “esoteric” reading — one that focuses on "what is left unsaid" and what is allegedly "between the lines" — that avoids the Reductio Problem (hereafter the “Esoteric Reading”). Too often, as I shall argue, it turns out that the Reductio Problem is a pseudo-problem, that the Exoteric Reading does not entail something asburd or mistaken, and that even where what they call the Exoteric Reading confronts difficulties, there are alternatives to the Esoteric Reading, alternatives consistent with the Exoteric Reading, that resolve the alleged problem. In the end, I conclude, Clark & Dudrick mimic the fatal flaw of the Straussian readings: they use the flag of “esotericism” as cover for misreading the texts for an ideological end — not a reactionary political end, to be sure, but rather as way of reading Nietzsche to embrace "the normative aspirations of traditional philosophy," ambitions that, on my view, he fully repudiates.

Keywords: Nietzsche, Maudemarie Clark, David Dudrick, Leo Strauss, philosophy, morality

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Brian, On the 'Esoteric' Reading of Nietzsche (May 14, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2437228 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2437228

Brian Leiter (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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