Slaves in the Empire of Intellect
By Friedrich Nietzsche, Translated by Damion Searls, Edited by Paul Reitter
NYRB Classics: 2015
In 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche was not yet famous for the beauty of his prose or the audacity of his opinions. He had not yet created Zarathustra, the fictional prophet who would declare, “God is dead!” Nor had he penned the book called Anti-Christ, or proposed the transvaluation of all values, or coined the term übermensch, or taken his position between Stalin and Mark Twain in the pantheon of famous moustaches. Instead, he was the golden boy of German academia.
When he was just 24 years old, Nietzsche had become a full professor of philology at the University of Basel. He had secured this plum post without completing the German equivalent of a Ph.D., purely on the strength of his apparent promise and the lavish recommendation of his college mentor. The young professor took his place in a firmament whose constellations were beginning to guide the world. Visiting educators like Mark Pattison of Oxford and Charles Eliot of Harvard came away from Germany with ideas to transform the research universities in their own countries. The culture of newly unified Germany was approaching the zenith of its prestige. Nietzsche could expect a long and glorious career – though it was beginning in Basel, in Switzerland, it could very well end in Berlin itself – filled with professional accomplishment and the adulation of his peers, with the respect of well-prepared students and the camaraderie of brilliant colleagues. Naturally, therefore, he was miserable.
He felt trapped and demeaned by his job. He worried that the university was no place for a real thinker. And so, in a rather overt gesture of dissatisfaction, he delivered a series of five public lectures, entitled On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, which NYRB Classics has recently released in a new translation under the more appropriate title Anti-education. In addition to providing a fascinating window onto the life of a famous philosopher before he was a philosopher, it calls us to reflect on the surprising longevity of what we like to think of as our very own crisis in higher education.
How did Nietzsche manage to turn his extraordinary personal luck into the pretext for a jeremiad? Three things had combined to disillusion him about German culture: reading the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, befriending the composer Richard Wagner, and serving in the Franco-Prussian war.
Schopenhauer took possession of Nietzsche when he was still a student at the University of Leipzig. Nietzsche’s biographer, Curtis Cate, describes the event like this:
One day in late October [Nietzsche] was browsing in his landlord’s second-hand bookshop when he chanced upon a volume of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World As Will and Representation). He leafed through it casually, then began reading with rapt attention […] Nietzsche found himself transfixed.
He spent the next few days doing little but reading. He allowed himself a scant four hours of sleep each night.
The book which so strongly affected him was the magnum opus of Arthur Schopenhauer, an academically unsuccessful philosopher who had set himself up as the chief representative of philosophical pessimism. The main fact about the world, thought Schopenhauer, was that everything – including human consciousness – moves and acts at the behest of an irrational and malignant will to life. Humans are creatures of their drives. Only an ascetic lifestyle, suppressing natural urges and rejecting the pleasures of the flesh, could salvage some dignity from the general degradation of things.
There have been other philosophical pessimists, by which I mean those whose outlook is not a phenomenon of mere temperament but a matter of reasoned principle. They include the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, and, nearer to us, the French novelist Albert Camus. None of them elaborated an entire system of philosophy, from metaphysics to ethics, characterized by such thoroughgoing pessimism as Schopenhauer did. But like these other pessimists, Schopenhauer was a masterful prose stylist.
So the book’s sensibility as well as its ideas impressed Nietzsche. It was so different from the respectively dry and dark infelicities of Kant or Hegel. Also, he perceived that philosophical pessimism could provide him with an Archimedean fulcrum from which to practice the relentless criticism of all existing things. What more could a precocious and somewhat arrogant college student desire?
Richard Wagner was the second source of Nietzsche’s disillusionment with German culture. Nietzsche met Wagner at the end of his undergraduate career. The composer was by then already well into a tempestuous career as the inventor of a new kind of long, strange, romantically excessive opera. Nietzsche himself was a pianist and amateur composer who knew and appreciated Wagner’s music even before he met him. This was always a prerequisite for getting any respect from Wagner. But there were further grounds for friendship. Wagner was a Schopenhauerian (not least because Schopenhauer had declared music the highest form of art, because it most viscerally represented the nature of the blind, malignant will to life). This was a remarkable coincidence, since philosophical pessimism is not, by its nature, a popular worldview. And serendipity still hadn’t finished with Nietzsche and Wagner. When Nietzsche was invited to come to Basel as its newest professor, he discovered that he would be moving to a city just miles from the Villa Tribschen, where Wagner was currently living with his consort Cosima von Bülow. They would practically be neighbors.
Wagner soon began to invite Nietzsche to Tribschen for weekends of music and high-minded conversation. They began exchanging birthday and holiday gifts. Nietzsche would send neatly bound copies of his essays or lectures, and Wagner and Cosima would read them aloud together and send back notes with thoughtful criticism and ego-boosting praise. Wagner made it known that he thought of Nietzsche as a son. But for all the warmth and confidence this relationship provided to Nietzsche, it also exacerbated his disaffection with academic life to an almost unbearable degree.
He considered Wagner a genius; and a genius, Nietzsche was rapidly coming to believe, was the only thing worth being and the only kind of person who mattered. In fact, he decided that the whole point of education must be the production of geniuses. The German educational system was decidedly not a machine for the production of geniuses. Instead it was the prototype of the modern research university, a machine for the production of specialists. With Wagner living just down the road, Nietzsche found himself increasingly annoyed with his students, his colleagues, and the current idea of the university itself. Ironically, Wagner’s love – bestowed on no one for purely altruistic reasons – depended in part upon his perception that an alliance with Nietzsche would lend academic credence to his own semi-lunatic views and projects.
The Franco-Prussian war that drove Nietzsche from the last stronghold of his respect for German culture. It began in 1870, when Otto von Bismarck goaded Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. Bismarck hoped that this declaration would cause the southern German states to join the Prussian confederacy, bringing his schemes for unification closer to consummation. Despite being sickly and unqualified for military duty, the newly minted professor of philology, Friedrich Nietzsche, requested leave from the University of Basel to join the fight. His request was grudgingly granted by the neutral Swiss city.
For Germany, or at least for Bismarck, the war was a smashing success, an entirely one-sided conflict in which Prussia quickly had Napoleon III’s France upon its knees; but for Nietzsche, the war was an eye-opening horror. He joined it in the only capacity his health and lack of training permitted: a volunteer assistant to the medics. He experienced none of the thrill or fear of battle, but wallowed for weeks in its hideous collateral. The nadir of his war came when he was cooped up for a long journey tending ten men with diphtheria only to catch it himself. Thereafter he took a dim view of German nationalism, and especially German militarism, and of the educational system that was being directed more and more to promote it.
War, Wagner, and philosophical pessimism: these were the flames bringing Nietzsche’s dissatisfaction to a boil. And that dissatisfaction found its form in Anti-education..
The lectures are really a long dialogue, complete with extended scene setting, and comical interludes where the characters even get into a fight with a dog. Repeated invocations of the authority of Plato throughout the book leave no doubt about Nietzsche’s model. But beyond mere imitation of Plato, the dialogue form served another purpose. It distanced Nietzsche from the harsh claims he was about to make.
This distance arises from the fact that Nietzsche locates himself in a subordinate role within the dialogue. Once upon a time, he and a friend, he tells us, revisited a rural location where they had come up with the plan to form a club. This club had saved them from careerism: “It was thanks to our club, we knew, that we basically never thought about a so-called career back then.” (This club has a genuine autobiographical origin: at Nietzsche’s gymnasium – a gymnasium was a high school more academic than the vocational realschulen – he and a few friends formed a club which required each of them to produce something artistic or philosophical once a month and share it with the group.) But now they were graduating, and they needed a new plan to direct their future education, so they returned to the scene of their best idea to wait for an inspiration. And it came along in the form of an irascible old philosopher and his disciple, who had sought out the same secluded location in order to discuss nothing less than the sorry state of modern education. Nietzsche’s lectures, therefore, are primarily the report of an imaginary overheard conversation. There are numerous hints that the old philosopher represents Schopenhauer.
In the first lecture, Nietzsche diagnoses two tendencies in modern education: the first is toward the wide dissemination of education and the second toward the specialization of scholarship. Nietzsche found both tendencies deplorable, because he thought the purpose of education was to cultivate genius, and geniuses were always few in number and never specialists. “It is in journalism,” he decided, “that the two tendencies converge.” These days,
the daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism […] to grout the gaps between every form of life, every social position, every art, every science, every field. The newspaper epitomizes the goal of today’s education system, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of the genius, our salvation from the moment and the leader for the ages.
Needless to say, Nietzsche’s philosophers disapprove of these developments. The first lecture ends with the old philosopher claiming that he will try to give the young philosopher some hope.
But that is the first of what will be many false promises in this lecture series. Instead of providing a prescription for reclaiming true education, Nietzsche’s second lecture simply applies his critique with more precision to a specific high-school subject: German class. German class, asserts the old philosopher, ought to teach such a respect for grammar and style that its students will spontaneously vomit when reading the degraded prose of newspapers: “Let no one think it easy to develop one’s sensitivity to the point of physical nausea – but let no one hope that it is possible to acquire an aesthetic sense along any other path.” Moreover, German class ought to put its students in touch with the pure air of Ancient Greece, by exposing them to that culture’s heirs, the best of German literature. And finally, it ought to train its students to express themselves thoughtfully and beautifully. Instead, it teaches them to appreciate the bad prose of journalists, read the classics insolently, and express themselves in unlovely inanities. Instead of a reason for hope, Nietzsche’s second lecture only provided its listeners with more precise reasons for despondency.
In his third lecture, Nietzsche finally gets down to prescribing things. Sort of. While resolutely hopeless about the possibility of cultivating true education, his old philosopher suggests that Germany could at least cut down some weeds. There were just too many universities and too many professors:
[W]e live in an age when the incessant […] call for education gives the impression that some tremendous cultural need is desperately thirsting to be satisfied. . . [But] these heralds proclaiming the needs of culture, seen from up close, appear suddenly transformed into eager, even fanatical enemies of true culture – one that holds firm to the aristocratic nature of the spirit. Their fundamental goal is the emancipation of the masses from the rule of the great individuals. What they are working toward is the overthrow of the most sacred order in the empire of the intellect: the servitude, submissive obedience, and instinctive loyalty of the masses to the scepter of genius.
In these disturbing assertions, we see the later Nietzsche – apostle of the übermensch – peeping out. Education should be a tall and narrow pyramid, an institution devoted to the genius both by cultivating that rare being and keeping everyone else in their proper place: “Education of the masses cannot be our goal – only the cultivation of the chosen individual, equipped to produce great and lasting works.”
At this point it quickly becomes apparent that Nietzsche has emptied his chamber. The remaining lectures peter out: there are few new ideas, and he spends an increasingly large percentage of his time on the stage-management of the dialogue’s characters and on increasingly frenzied repetitions of points already made.
Perhaps the only further moment of real interest occurs in lecture four, when we check back in with Nietzsche and his friend, who have been listening to the old and young philosophers’ mutual diatribe in the middle of the lonely forest:
I have already told you that we had decided to perform a kind of commemorative ceremony there that evening – to honor nothing less than the cultural and educational riches we youthfully believed we had happily harvested in our own lives thus far. . . Now, as we eavesdropped in silence and abandoned ourselves to the philosopher’s strong words, an entirely unexpected light had been shined upon our whole past. We felt like people who are absentmindedly strolling around and suddenly see an abyss at their feet: not only had we failed to avoid the greatest danger, we were actually running right toward it.
This scene, incidentally, is one indication that Nietzsche’s dialogue is an allegory about his encounter with Schopenhauer. Every conversion involves a debasing conviction of one’s own inadequacy. In Nietzsche’s conversion to philosophical pessimism, the feeling that his youthful dabbling in culture had been a futile illusion was that moment. He seems to have relived it in this dialogue.
As in a conversion to philosophical pessimism, renunciation is the last word of wisdom in these lectures. Nietzsche has nothing more to offer: he seeks to convict, not rehabilitate; his lectures are law, not gospel. He leaves us with a “threefold insight”:
[T]oday’s students are unprepared for and unsuited to philosophy, lack any artistic instinct, and are mere barbarians with delusions of freedom compared to the Greeks.
The only one of Nietzsche’s Basel colleagues who had earned the young philologist’s respect was Jacob Burckhardt, a historian well known to us for a brilliant account of Renaissance Italy, who attended all five lectures and wrote to a friend that at the end of them he did not see how Nietzsche’s listeners “should draw comfort from the matter.” He hoped that Nietzsche would follow up the series with at least some hint of a practical solution.
He never did. Some years later he would leave the academy altogether for the precarious life of an itinerant philosopher, ostensibly due to ill-health. One can’t help but wonder, after reading these lectures, whether the very best of health could have kept him around.
Nietzsche’s denunciation of the university is only one instance of a well-established genre. From his time to our own, every year has seen a number of books complaining about a crisis in higher education. For myself, I suspect the sempiternal crisis is probably due to something inherently unsound or unsatisfying in the concept of the university, rather than to any particular historical conjuncture. A curious fact corroborates this suspicion. Though academic Jeremiahs usually point to recent social changes as the cause of what they criticize, the substance of their criticisms have a way of sounding all the same themes: A materialistic society has forgotten the true worth of seeking knowledge for its own sake. Students only study in order to get a job. The real classics have been forgotten, replaced by contemporary drivel. The golden age lies behind us. The renewal of some discipline (usually the prophet’s own) can bring it back.
Given these unvarying tropes, an entry in the genre can really only distinguish itself by the location of its golden age and its proposals for reclamation. Nietzsche located the golden age in Ancient Greece. In his third lecture, he said:
[U]ntil the true German spirit, in its noblest and uttermost need, reaches out for the hand of Greek genius, as though for a firm handhold in the raging river of barbarism; until an all-consuming desire for what is Greek breaks forth from this German spirit; until the distant view of the Greek homeland, laboriously achieved, with which Schiller and Goethe refreshed their spirits has become a place of pilgrimage for the best and most gifted among us – until then, the gymnasium’s goal of classical education will flutter about in the air, untethered to anything.
There was nothing particularly revolutionary about this at the time. At least since J.J. Winckelmann’s 1764 History of Ancient Art, a certain kind of German intellectual had been obsessed with the idea that the social, political, and intellectual conditions of Ancient Greece – especially the city-state of Athens – represented the perfect environment for philosophical and artistic creativity. To live like the Greeks was to be whole, free, and beautiful. The list of those who subscribed to this ideal comprises a list of the luminaries of Romanticism in Germany: Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Hölderlin, Heine. Compared to Ancient Greece, the rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and regimenting German empire of Otto von Bismarck seemed a sorry state indeed. But the problem with this golden age is that it never existed.
Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art was a triumph of imaginative scholarship, but the worshipful attitude to Greek culture was being superseded in Nietzsche’s time by a more sober instinct of historical scrutiny. The philological work of people like his own mentor, Friedrich Ritschl (the man whose recommendation got Nietzsche the Basel job), was bringing a hard light to bear on romanticized notions of the ancient world. That world was certainly a marvel: but it was also a world whose economy required slavery, in which daily life was full of ugliness and pain, and where the feeble institutions of nascent states remained ever-exposed to the depredations of famines, tyrants, violent migrations, and natural disasters.
Instead of challenging what was cruel, unjust, and primitive in the institutions of Ancient Greece, Nietzsche’s solution is to endorse those features, to build them into the golden age. Part of his golden age, if it was ever to return to Germany, will be establishing an intellectual aristocracy. For most of us, our only role in the “empire of intellect” would be to serve the genius. This is the fundamental bait-and-switch of the lecture series. Nietzsche presents himself as an advocate for freedom: “today’s students are […] mere barbarians with delusions of freedom compared to the Greeks.” But then his version of freedom turns out to be an empire, the empire of intellect, in which the vast majority of people are slaves.
When a publisher brings out the minor work of a major thinker, it’s always worth asking why. Is Anti-education just a piece of juvenalia, a glimpse into the mind of Nietzsche in the years before his decade of major philosophical writing? On consideration, I don’t think so. It’s worth more than that, especially to those – every graduate student and professor in the humanities, basically – given to ruminating on higher education and its crises. To us, the anxious citizens of academia, I think Anti-education is cautionary.
At points I felt the horrible shiver one gets when just the tip of one’s toe slips over the edge of a carpeted staircase: the body’s premonition of a fall that doesn’t come. I felt it as I watched the transition between a Nietzsche whose diagnosis of the ills afflicting higher education enlisted my sympathies and a Nietzsche whose vision of the alternative disgusted me. Is the tendency of all talk about the crisis of education a tendency toward the “empire of intellect”?
I should add that there are strong hints – as there are throughout the work of Nietzsche, when he seems to have ventured some horrible assertion – that the book’s main thesis is not the author’s. For one thing, because of the distance created by presenting these ideas as a dialogue, it’s the Schopenhauer character, not the Nietzsche character, whose position the lectures present. Nietzsche would ultimately diverge from Schopenhauer (as he would break up with Wagner), so it’s important to note that the lectures cast Nietzsche himself not as a disciple but as a respectful listener to the irascible opinions of the old philosopher. For another thing, in the preface to the lectures Nietzsche takes a more optimistic tone: “given these disastrous tendencies toward over-inflation and weakening, one might well succumb to hopeless despair – were it not possible to help two opposing forces to eventual victory.” Damion Searls, the volume’s editor, chose to place this preface at the end of the book, and I think Nietzsche’s disruptive moderation of his own pessimism makes that choice appropriate.
The ambiguity in Nietzsche’s thesis may be unsatisfying, but the reflection it provokes, about the possible hidden presuppositions in talk about the crisis of higher education, will be a salutary exercise for its most likely audience. The editors of Anti-education, therefore, deserve the last word for bringing us this volume: “whoever wants to think seriously about the future of the humanities in our educational institutions would do well to consider these possibilities, even if the answers bring us little comfort.”