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.”

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