Nietzsche on Professional Philosophers and other Oxymorons | By Chris Berger

When we think of the life of the mind, we typically conjure images of stone and brick walls draped in ivy, where book-laden youths make their way through the crowds to listen to someone pontificate on lofty matters in a lecture hall.  We also tend to think of this life of the mind, or more immediately the education in preparation for it, as a fundamental right.  Everyone who wants to be admitted must be admitted, and furthermore, admission must be funded by the powers that be.  The resulting immense population of would-be independent minds coming out of high school demands a considerable population of teachers, chosen and hired via the summation of what they have published. Originality, sophistication, and acceptance of certain cultural norms ought to be present in what is written and then presented and debated in conferences.  This is then taken to indicate an academic’s competence to raise the minds of students into entities equipped for a conscious life.  Finally, in Canada at any rate, the state pays this intellectual to lecture students in the findings of his or her specialized field of research.  It all works out: those who are called philosophers are paid so that the public may be taught to philosophize, understood as the act of finding oneself in whatever way one might understand that endeavor.  Come one, come all.

Friedrich Nietzsche committed one of his Untimely Meditations, “Schopenhauer as Educator”, to the task of sketching the role of the teacher in education, and in turn the purpose of education in the promotion of true culture.  In that essay, Nietzsche likens education to agriculture and the educator to a farmer in the field.  Culture is the popular soil in the field, and the sprouts are the yield of education.  To begin with, “agri-culture” should serve as reminder of the original meaning of a term like “culture”, which refers to cultivation, specifically to the cultivation of human beings.  “Culture” once had a far more precise meaning than its usage in the current vernacular would suggest.  According to our usage, culture is a way of life of a given people, which is by its definition relative.  Culture as cultivation, on the other hand, cannot but call to our minds an inkling of a rank order of things; we can distinguish a healthy, bountiful crop from sparse, struggling sprouts in an arid field, for instance.  If we extend the analogy to ourselves, and assuming that it holds, we should then be able to distinguish a cultivated human being from an uncultivated one.

Notwithstanding the postmodern Left’s efforts at coopting Nietzsche as its poster boy (think Foucault and Derrida), Nietzsche is an elitist in the truest and most radical sense of the word: he is the personification of the Right par excellence – that is, if we recall the original meaning of Right and Left as standing for inequality and equality, respectively.  Some harvests are simply better than others.  This result is thanks to the labours of certain farmers or gardeners who are both more learned and more naturally skilled than others.  Given Nietzsche’s prominence in much theoretical discussion about the life of the mind as well as the life of public action in our universities, it is prudent to revisit seriously his advocacy of the cultivation by way of education of the most promising sprouts in our culture’s soil, as well as his forsaking of fallow fields for the sake of those very sprouts.

If unattended human culture is like unattended non-human nature, then it is, in many respects, wasteful.  Extravagant deaths and sufferings are required for the sake of perpetuating vitality.  But the task of the farmer is to harness what nature in her blessing grants us in order to realize, to the extent that he or she can, the yield of what nature is otherwise capable of.  Nature is fully capable of growing a crop, but the learned farmer can identify certain species for certain special treatments that will maximize their growth to extents that are unattainable by chaotic nature, and do so with a much lower body count (natural selection need not go through generations of victims in order to find an ideal form for an inevitably timely and finite circumstance).

But the farmer can also change the nature of the crop species in such a way as to render it unfit for independent survival.  A domesticated Black Angus cow would not survive a day amongst wolves and cougars.  If cultivation is for the purpose of perfecting a thing’s nature, then nature cannot be battled against any more than it can be left to its own sadistic devices; it must be worked with and perfected.  Aristotle taught that a thing only achieves the full extent of its being, which is to say its perfection, by doing most fully that which it is most fitted to do; hence a chair is perfected by seating comfortably a tired human being just as a human being flourishes fully by achieving happiness, or the comprehensive good for a human being.

Given that Nietzsche entertains the idea of sacrifice for the sake of perfecting the nature of some of the crop, we might also entertain the idea of a culture that would have to make drastic sacrifices if it genuinely desires the propagation of philosophy, the crowning human achievement.  In Nietzsche’s view, publicly funded philosophy not philosophy properly understood as the pursuit of truth; it is “philosophy” inevitably coopted for politics, i.e. it is ideology.  To escape that danger requires a drastically different approach.

It is a demand of culture that philosophy should be deprived of any kind of academic recognition and that state and academy be relieved of the task, which they cannot encompass, of distinguishing between real and apparent philosophy. 

Furthermore, Nietzsche urges that we:

let the philosophers grow untended, deny them all prospect of place and position within the bourgeois profession, cease to entice them with salaries, more, persecute them, show them disfavour.

Nietzsche promises that, if we do this, we will “behold miracles.”  The most genuine of those who only seemed to be like philosophers (via teaching philosophy in universities) will “take up the plough” and cultivate truly independent souls in the soils available to them.  The true farmer will be set free to cultivate.  It is healthy to remember that the vast majority of those we call poets and philosophers lived in times in which universities, let alone funded ones, were non-existent.

This teaching on education may not flatter our predetermined prejudices about what education is; we may not like to acknowledge that crass capitalism on the one hand and our moralistic obsession with “educating” literally every being in a society necessarily amount to the same reduction of education to training; but hopefully we can agree that an education depends on more than an assumption that excellence can and will be achieved universally simply by putting more money and students into the university.  Whatever the possible evils of failing to fund the liberal arts, at least the penury of the liberal arts ensures that only those souls with genuine longing pursue them.

Can a philosopher really undertake with a good conscience to have something to teach every day?  And to teach it to anyone who cares to listen? Will he not be obliged to give the impression of knowing more than he does know? Will he not be obliged to speak before an audience of strangers of things which he can safely speak of only amongst his nearest friends? And speaking generally: is he not robbing himself of his freedom to follow his genius whenever and wherever it calls him? [Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator” sec. 8, Untimely Meditations]

  • KarahTuininga

    I dare you to state outloud the policy implications you say between the lines! :)