Slaves in the Empire of Intellect - Friedrich Nietzsche
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 termübermensch, 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.