Anti-Education, by Friedrich Nietzsche review: a colossus warms up to replace God
A reissued early work shows the German thinker’s anti-egalitarian attitude fully formed, writes Rob Doyle
Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions
Friedrich Nietzsche Translated by Damion Searles
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s final book, Ecce Homo, the chapter titles alone indicate Conor McGregor levels of megalomania: ‘Why I Am a Destiny’; ‘Why I Am So Wise’; ‘Why I Write Such Excellent Books’. In an unpublished earlier draft of the same work, we find one of the most jaw-dropping statements ever written: “Well and good, very good in fact: after the old God is abolished, I am ready to rule the world.” This seemingly unhinged, Bond-villain outburst is doubly staggering: first, that it was ever made at all; second, that, well, it turned out to be true.
Nietzsche took control; the 20th century was his. Although in the philosophy section of bookstores, his works occupy their own uncategorisable place in the history of literature and ideas. Moreover, they read like prophetic guides to the catastrophes unleashed in the decades following Nietzsche’s collapse into insanity (he died in 1900 after 10 years in the madhouse). No one foretold with as much scandalous brio mankind’s plunge into the abyss of nihilism, or more passionately sought a way beyond it.
In the grand narrative of western philosophy, Nietzsche is to modernity what Plato was to antiquity: the touchstone, the colossus, a figure of such revolutionary impact that for a long time everything else was essentially a commentary on him. Ignored in his lifetime, in the end he seduced everyone: the philosophers, writers and artists, the left and the right. The Nazis claimed him as a forebear to their genocidal plans, while enamoured socialists wished away the protofascist strains in his thought. (Make no mistake, Nietzsche is as virulent an anti-liberal, democracy-hating whip-cracker as can be imagined – pity has no place in the world he wants to rule.) Albert Camus, the trade union-supporting existentialist, sounded a note of caution when he called him one of the “evil geniuses” of western philosophy.
Who would not be seduced by the myth? Here he is, the brilliant son of a German Lutheran minister who, abandoning an academic career, went rogue, wandering through Europe while announcing, in books of huge force and originality, the death of God and the coming of the age of nihilism. “One day,” he wrote, “my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous – a crisis without equal on earth . . . I am not a man – I am dynamite.”
Before all that, though, Friedrich Nietzsche was a precocious young philologist who, at the age of 24, was granted a professorial post at the University of Basel. Three years later, he gave the series of five lectures on pedagogy that make up this volume, newly published and thoroughly annotated, in the superb NYRB Classics list. Although he never concluded the series, his mission in the lectures was to expose what he saw as the failings of the Prussian educational system.
The result is a peculiar book. Many of the specifics of Nietzsche’s arguments are of no great relevance today, grounded as they are in the 19th-century German system. Of chief interest is the opportunity the lectures afford of seeing a youthful Nietzsche in an unfamiliar light, draped in foreshadowings of the greatness to come. While the publication of Anti-Education is worthwhile in this regard, the uninitiated would do better to start with the celebrated works of Nietzsche’s mature years.
Prof Nietzsche chose, oddly, to present his lectures in the form of a fictionalised dialogue, which he claims to have overheard as an adolescent. A lengthy framing device is trotted out before the dialogue gets rolling, replete with pistol-shooting, teenage high jinks, a woodland setting, and plenty of florid language.
One frivolous pleasure on offer here is imagining Nietzsche’s students turning to one another with raised WTF eyebrows, suppressing giggles at his waffle. Nietzsche had a camp side: consider the flamboyant poetry in his books, or his compensatory cult of hard-man militarism, to say nothing of the moustache.
More importantly, he was a great literary innovator, and this pedagogical inquiry as autofictional dialogue can be seen as a step towards the formal inventiveness of his great works. The likes of Human, All Too Human and The Gay Science are under-appreciated as literary hybrids, which blend novelistic and travelogue elements with an electric updating of the aphoristic philosophical style.
As the introductory essay in Anti-Education points out, the “eminent philosopher” who voices many of Nietzsche’s ideas on education in the dialogues resembles Arthur Schopenhauer, the pessimist whose “cadaverous perfume” hung over Nietzsche’s career in thought. The idea, forcefully approved here, that the highest goal of education is to foster the emergence of the rare lone genius, owes a lot to Schopenhauer.
While Anti-Education is lighter in tone than the shrill later books, there is evidence that Nietzsche’s violently anti-egalitarian attitude is fully formed. “Education for the masses cannot be our goal,” one of his mouthpieces declares: there is, after all, “a natural hierarchy of the intellect.”
The young Nietzsche has clearly latched on to one of the great, obsessive ideas of his life: that grandeur and genius are under mortal threat from ressentiment, the hate-fuelled revenge of the weak, stupid and ugly against all that is higher and nobler. Nietzsche will later come to believe that this millennial vendetta has its origins in the Christian “slave revolt” in morals, which overthrew Roman values through the cunning of the embittered: “they seek to destroy the roots of the highest and noblest cultural powers that . . . give birth to, raise, and nurture genius.”
Throughout the lectures, Nietzsche rails against the perceived ills of modernity, including dwindling appreciation of the splendours of Greek and Roman antiquity, the life force through which “the German spirit” might renew itself. Even “the plebeian ‘culture pages’ of magazines and newspapers” come in for handlebar-moustached haranguing.
Behind the fault-finding is a huge scepticism towards modernity’s facile culture of “the moment”, and a violent contempt for the fashions – of morality, ideology and sentiment – that pass themselves off as “self-evident’” when they are anything but.
Why read Nietzsche today? Because, in the increasingly totalitarian social-media world of the 21st century, in which conformity has become so pervasive that nobody even mentions it any longer, it is invigorating to hear a voice that tears asunder the pieties of an entire civilisation. More than dynamite, Nietzsche is a million-kiloton thinker whose shockwaves will be felt for a long time yet.
Rob Doyle’s latest book is This Is the Ritual