Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Polemic on David Strauss

The final lecture on education never materialized. Nietzsche’s mind drifted to a previously unexplored century of Greek literature and writings. He started blazing a new path, working on a new book on the Greeks with which to follow the by now much criticized The Birth of Tragedy. But work on the book also didn’t last.

Fritz’s attention was conflicted between a growing admiration for some unexplored Heraclitus and his desire to critique the “pseudo-culture” and effects of “journalism” on German society. In truth, he was rather at a loss as to what to do next.

Cate summarizes the way Fritz questioned himself: “Was Nietzsche’s predestined role simply to be a critic of society, as Socrates had been in Greek antiquity, and Schopenhauer in modern times? Was his role essentially a negative one, compared to the positive creations of the artist? Nietzsche fancied he had found an answer to this troubling question in assigning to philosophy an essentially curative role. Which is why…he spoke of calling his new book rather dryly The Philosopher as the Physician or Doctor of Culture. If a society is sick – and it was Fritz’s conviction that this was very much the case with contemporary German society – then it should be the philosopher’s task to try to cure its culture. Nietzsche was hoping to have his new book finished before the start of the new semester, so as to be able to offer it as a gift on the occasion of Richard Wagner’s birthday.” (page 171)

In 1873, Wagner felt that Fritz had slighted him because Nietzsche chose to spend Christmas 1872 with his sister and mother (both with whom he had strong, intimate connections of family) rather than accept an invitation by Wagner to celebrate the season (as Fritz had done the past couple of Christmas’) at his home. Nietzsche felt the need to make amends for this. Wagner was unimpressed with the initial readings of Nietzsche’s new work on Greek philosophy so Fritz turned to something that would definitely please the composer.

David Strauss had recently published a work entitled The Old and New Faith, which Wagner loathed but which, nevertheless, went through five editions in less than a year. It was wildly popular. A combination of Fritz’s inability to focus clearly on a single project and the profound desire to recover Wagner’s good graces led Nietzsche to write a polemic attacking Strauss and, indeed, all popular German culture of the day.

It is useful to recall that this Strauss is the same Strauss that Fritz used to defend his decision to quit going to church years before. He was now turning against someone who had intellectually helped him during a fundamentally life-changing moment. Fritz had the habit - with Strauss, with Schopenhauer, with Wagner, with Socrates, etc. - to make good use of scholarly and artistic ideas as they suited him, but to quickly turn against the originators of those same ideas when his own mind took him elsewhere.

Cate describes Nietzsche’s play with the German language as Fritz attacked Strauss: “…Nietzsche now proceeded…with a polemical verve not seen in Germany since the days of Heinrich Heine, to combine the two notions of Bildung (education) and Philister (philistine), thus creating a kind of hybrid centaur dubbed the Bildungsphilister: the ‘educated philistine’, the current prototype of the supposedly ‘cultivated’ German. Unlike the truly great creative souls of Germany’s eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – men like Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Lichtenberg, Holderlin – all of whom were Suchende (‘seekers’ after truth and beauty), the contemporary Bildungsphilister was a smug, self-satisfied ‘finder’ who did not have to do any more searching, since he had already found what he considered to be ‘true’ and ‘beautiful’.” (page 178)

Nietzsche begins David Strauss: Writer and Confessor by declaring that the German victory in the 1870 war with France had nothing to do with a superiority of culture and calls such pervasive thinking throughout Germany a “delusion”. Nietzsche sets forth a definition: “Culture, is, above all, a unity of artistic style manifest in all the vital activities of a people….The modern German amasses the shapes, colors, artifacts, and curiosities of all times and places, creating a motley carnival of culture…there is no original German culture.” (section I) “True culture always presumes a unity of style. Even an inferior and degenerate culture is unthinkable unless its diverse strains tend of coalesce in harmony with a single style.” (his emphasis, section I)

Fritz labels what Germany has instead to be a “philistine” culture. He then uses Strauss’ recent work (and its popularity) as an example of cultural mediocrity and decline. “The Straussian philistines live like vermin on the works of our great poets and composers: they live by what they destroy, they gnaw what they admire, their homage is swallowing.” (section 6)

Strauss’ work attacks Schopenhauer. Nietzsche responds. “He himself has never studied Schopenhauer – and he knows it. In fact, Schopenhauer would have to say of Strauss: ‘This author does not deserve to be leafed through, much less studied.’ Apparently, Schopenhauer must have gone down the wrong way; so Strauss clears his throat, hoping to cough him up.” (section 6)

Strauss has become “our philistine-in-chief”. “For culture no one has time – and yet, what, above all, should scholarship have time for, if not culture? At least answer this: To what end should all scholarship lead if not to culture? To barbarism, perhaps! Our educated class has in fact made astonishing progress in this direction, if one considers that a book as superficial as Strauss’s satisfies their present standard of culture….Whenever Strauss turns to the great issues of the day, such as problems of marriage, or the war, or capital punishment, his utter lack of real experience and original insight into human nature is shocking. His judgments are all uniformly bookish, even journalistic.” (section 8)

Nietzsche mentioned the negative effects of “journalism” in his five lectures on education. Essentially, he meant that true scholarly discourse had been replaced with the casual style of daily newspapers. There was no substantial depth to any of it. Strauss was just another example of how this mediocrity was passing for scholarship. Strauss is of “this philistine pseudo-culture”.

Fritz tinges his biting critique with bits of humor. He describes some of Strauss’ thought as being “caught in a momentary fit of complete honesty”. This funny (to me) use of sarcasm would increase as Nietzsche began producing true philosophical works later.

Nietzsche sums up the polemic like this: “To speak frankly, what we have seen here are feet of clay, and appears to be healthy flesh tone is only cosmetic veneer. Naturally philistine culture in Germany will be indignant when we call ‘painted idols’ what it regards as a ‘living god.’ But whoever dares to overthrow its idols will not fear to tell philistine culture to its face, in the teeth of all its indignation, that it has forgotten how to distinguish between living and dead, between true and false, between original and fake, and finally between a god and an idol. He will tell philistine culture that it has lost the healthy, virile instinct for everything real and just. It has earned its downfall.” (section 12)

Hollingdale writes: “Strauss found the tenets of religion no longer credible, and believed that Darwin had demonstrated the truth of the evolution hypothesis, but continued to think and act as if nothing else had changed; but Nietzsche, when he arrived at the same conclusions, grasped the fact that everything else had changed, that the universe had ceased to possess any meaningful reality.” (page 100)

Nietzsche had taken a bold step. Though Wagner was pleased, in the long run it was a first step toward the clarity of vision that would cause Nietzsche to eventually cast off Wagner along with Schopenhauer and Strauss. Safranski: “Nietzsche called Strauss a symptom of the prevailing work-driven scientific and utilitarian culture.” (page 111)

Nothing mattered more to Nietzsche than culture or as he defined it: “a unity of artistic style manifest in all the vital activities of a people.” He was expressing the basic belief that nothing was more important than art and philosophy to elevate culture to a higher plain, beyond the influences of capitalism, science, and mechanics that rather suddenly pervaded all of western civilization. He had turned inward, noting that the “common” masses were “philistines” even as he contemplated “one who dares to overthrow its idols.”

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"On the Future of Our Educational Institutions"

In the early months of 1872, just as The Birth of Tragedy was published but before it had yet caused Nietzsche any professional consequences, he held a series of public lectures delivered before packed auditoriums at Basel University on the subject of education in Germany. They were, perhaps, the highlight of his academic career.

Professor Nietzsche (indeed this is the title he preferred) delivered these five lectures over the course of about 8 weeks from January to March. A sixth lecture was never completed, perhaps an indication of how the response (or lack thereof initially) to The Birth of Tragedy affected him at the time.

What is most interesting to me is not only the ideas presented in these lectures but the fact that Nietzsche places the philosophy inside a story about two young men coincidentally meeting two old philosophers in a beautiful, isolated clearing on a wooded hill overlooking the Rhine River. This is a parable. A parable delivered by Nietzsche orally, telling a different part of the story with each lecture while simultaneously conveying what seem to me to be radical ideas about the nature of education in society.

Briefly, Nietzsche felt the advanced education of the masses should not happen at the expense of the better education of the few; that culture depended upon great individuals and these individuals needed the best education possible. German education was becoming mediocre by pursuing mediocre standards, he said.

Two young gentlemen have traveled to a place in an old German forest overlooking the valley of the Rhine River. They are there to send a signal with pistols to other members of their little troop far off in the valley below. There is a love for nature in these lectures that Fritz reveals as the nest for his tale. They have come here because it is a place of contemplative natural isolation.

In the middle of their second round of pistol firing they are interrupted by a middle aged man and an old man. The older men scold the younger ones for making such a loud noise in a secluded place with their guns and to ask them to leave.

The young men stand firm. This is their “rite”. However, they don’t divulge details about the rite as its sacredness rests on its secret nature among them. It is revealed that the old man is a philosopher of note, though the boys are ignorant of such matters. The philosopher is supposed to meet another philosopher who is coming later from a distant location. Meanwhile, they sit quietly, enjoying nature.

This is wonderful spoken Nietzsche: “Whilst we stood thus in silence for some time, divided into two hostile groups, the clouds above waxed ever redder and the evening seemed to grow more peaceful and mild; we could almost fancy we heard the regular breathing of nature as she put the final touches to her work of art—the glorious day we had just enjoyed; when, suddenly, the calm evening air was rent by a confused and boisterous cry of joy which seemed to come from the Rhine. A number of voices could be heard in the distance—they were those of our fellow-students who by that time must have taken to the Rhine in small boats. It occurred to us that we should be missed and that we should also miss something: almost simultaneously my friend and I raised our pistols: our shots were echoed back to us, and with their echo there came from the valley the sound of a well-known cry intended as a signal of identification. For our passion for shooting had brought us both repute and ill-repute in our club. At the same time we were conscious that our behavior towards the silent philosophical couple had been exceptionally ungentlemanly…”

The lectures are translated in the stiff jargon of the day. But, I try to picture Nietzsche delivering them knowing all that I know about him personally at this stage of his life. The parable is a clever one, filled with twists and turns. The ideas about what I call “heroic education” are developed rather rationally, however, discovered by a young person who knows nothing of philosophy as he eavesdrops on a conversation by the older gentlemen talking on a bench nearby in the clearing’s twilight. It seems to me Nietzsche wanted to infuse a bit of Wagnerian drama into his academic reality.

Certainly, Nietzsche had the reputation of being a fine lecturer, so I suspect this public series of education in Germany were given with an entertaining, yet serious flare.
The Good European indicates how his pupils felt about him in at least the classroom setting. “Their reports are in accord: he was the one teacher whose expectations they did not want to disappoint, and so they worked harder for him than anyone else. As for Nietzsche himself, he prided himself on his ability to reach even the least talented and least motivated of his charges.” (page 66) This last quality is rather ironic, considering the content of the lectures with which we are presently concerned.

The whole of his five critical lectures can in a sense be summed up in these spoken words by Nietzsche in the third lecture: “I have long accustomed myself to look with caution upon those who are ardent in the cause of the so-called ‘education of the people’ in the common meaning of the phrase; since for the most part they desire for themselves, consciously or unconsciously, absolutely unlimited freedom, which must inevitably degenerate into something resembling the saturnalia of barbaric times, and which the sacred hierarchy of nature will never grant them. They were born to serve and to obey; and every moment in which their limping or crawling or broken-winded thoughts are at work shows us clearly out of which clay nature molded them, and what trade mark she branded thereon. The education of the masses cannot, therefore, be our aim, but rather the education of a few picked men for great and lasting works.”

From the fourth lecture we find a commentary on allowing students the freedom to choose their own classes: "All culture begins with the very opposite of that which is now so highly esteemed as 'academical freedom': with obedience, with subordination, with discipline, with subjection. And as leaders must have followers so also must the followers have a leader—here a certain reciprocal predisposition prevails in the hierarchy of spirits: yea, a kind of pre-established harmony. This eternal hierarchy, towards which all things naturally tend, is always threatened by that pseudo-culture which now sits on the throne of the present. It endeavours either to bring the leaders down to the level of its own servitude or else to cast them out altogether. It seduces the followers when they are seeking their predestined leader, and overcomes them by the fumes of its narcotics. When, however, in spite of all this, leader and followers have at last met, wounded and sore, there is an impassioned feeling of rapture, like the echo of an eversounding lyre, a feeling which I can let you divine only by means of a smile."

According to Young, Nietzsche expressed these lectures within the context of a greater criticism of capitalistic European society: "The 'mechanization' of education is an aspect of the mechanization of life in general. Nietzsche's critique of education is addressed to those 'few human beings' who, like himself, feel out of step with the rolling age, those who 'still do not feel the idolatrous pleasure in being crushed by its wheels'. (page 143)

Still, the purpose of education is to propagate "great individuals" in spite of the dominant trends in society. "In accordance with 'the aristocratic nature of the spirit', the 'natural order of rank', Nietzsche tells his audience, the proper order of society is 'the mastery of great individuals', the 'servitude of the mass...under the sceptre of genius'. What is important to him is not that the genius should assume political leadership of the state but rather that he should provide 'spiritual leadership' in 'the empire of the intellect', cultural leadership in the realm of civil society." (Young, page 145)

"The ultimate reason, then, that 'education to culture' is important is only by giving birth to, and nurturing, the genius and his works can a community recall itself from a 'fallen' and 'barbarous' condition to those 'eternal', but 'infintely distant', values which make it the community that it is." (Young, page 146)

Cate writes: “Nietzsche (in a letter to his mother and sister) felt the success of his lectures had been ‘extraordinary – emotion, enthusiasm, and hatred – nicely combined’. Jacob Burckhardt, who attended all five lectures, later wrote to a friend that he and all the others were waiting impatiently to hear what kind of solution Nietzsche was going to provide to the ‘questions and complaints so boldly and broadly tossed out …You should have heard them! In places it was quite enchanting, but then a sadness again made itself heard, and just how the Auditores humanissimi should draw comfort from the matter, I do not see. One thing was surely had: a man of lofty aptitude, who takes and dispenses everything from the first hand.’” (pages 150-151)

The effect was to make these lectures somewhat of a sensation with the public though this would soon wane as The Birth of Tragedy became better known.

But, Fritz never wrote the last lecture. Worries over the fact the The Birth of Tragedy had not generated much public comment at all (the negativity arrived slowly) combined with trying to amend for being temporarily out of favor with
Richard Wagner led Fritz to throw himself into a polemic to impress die meister.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche left towering issues almost unresolved, as if they needed no interpretation. Of course, these are the very sources for some of the most serious academic debates about Nietzsche today. Some think he did this intentionally, not to be vague, but to be true to himself. Things must be intimately experienced and interpreted. Nietzsche is a guide but the destination is a multiplicity.