Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nietzsche's Secondary Education by Julian Young



1858 – 1864

The picture of the boarding school Pforta ( founded in 1543) as a 'sadistic machine designed to produce Prussian robots' needs qualification: one needs to attend to the spirit of renaissance humanism pervading its worldview, which arose from the centrality of the classics to the curriculum. Pforta humanism embraced a reverence for Rome, but above all Greece, as the highest point of Western civilization. From this it derived a quiet, yet real, commitment to an ideal of freedom and republicanism based on the model of the Athenian city-state and the Roman Republic.

Politically, the dominant culture at Pforta was 'liberal' in the nineteenth-century sense, which embraced liberation from authoritarian rule, extension of civil rights and the franchise (sometime even to women), and moves towards democratic government. And, in the specifically German context, it embraced the cause of German unification. Though in the event, thanks to the authoritarian Bismarck and a benighted Emperor, the German Reich ( which came into being in 1871) proved a great disappointment to them, liberals had supported its creation, hoping that it would bring an end to the multitude of petty states run, on feudal lines, by dukes and princes.


Moreover, the 'deconstructive' spirit of classical philology, as soon as it extended itself beyond ancient texts, had an intrinsic tendency to undermine established convictions and authorities. (Later, Nietzsche refers to “Voltairean deconstruction' as a salient effect of historical studies.) At least as important as Darwinism in the undermining of Christian faith in the nineteenth century was the philological deconstruction of the Bible by scholars such as David Strauss. ( When Jacques Derrida told the radical students of 1968 that it was more important to deconstruct texts than to barricade the streets of Paris, he was simply recalling what philology had been doing for the past hundred years.)


Thus Pforta, like the best English boarding schools both then and now, was riddled with 'creative' contradictions. On the one hand, it venerated Prussian authority, but on the other, it quietly subverted all authority. On the one hand, it was oppressively Protestant – frequent doses of prayer and chapel were compulsory – but on the other, it venerated everything about antiquity, including the Greek – that is, pagan – gods. And though on the one hand oppressively loyal to the Prussian thrown, on the other it was quietly republican.

Nietzsche never doubted that Pforta made him. And he was always loyal to the school and grateful, not only for the magnificent education in the humanities, but also for the character 'formation' it had given him. Twenty-four years after leaving, he wrote:

“The most desirable thing of all...is under all circumstances to have severe discipline at the right time. i.e. at the age when it makes us proud that people should expect great things from us. For this is what distinguishes hard schooling from every other schooling, namely that a good deal is demanded; that goodness, nay even excellence itself, is require as if it were normal; that praise is scanty; that leniency is non-existent; that blame is sharp, practical, and has no regard to talents or antecedents. We are all in every way in need of such a school; and this holds good of physical as well as spiritual things – it would be fatal to draw a distinction here! The same discipline makes a soldier and the scholar efficient; and looked at more closely, there is no true scholar who has not the instincts of a true soldier in his veins.”

Nietzsche was, and would remain all his life, at heart a Prussian. His home predisposed him thus, but his unwavering commitment to Prussian discipline – to 'self -overcoming', in his own later terminology – was very largely Pforta's creation. But being itself a contradiction, Pforta produced, in Nietzsche, a contradiction. As the British public schools have produced the leaders of mainstream society but, at the same time, its disloyal opposition – communist spies such as Burgess, Maclean Philby and Blunt – so Pforta produced, in Nietzsche, a Prussian anti-Prussian, Prussia's own 'mole', someone who, in his maturity, would set out to undermine everything for which it stood.

The heart of the Pforta curriculum was Greek and Latin and, to a lesser degree, the German classics. Natural science and mathematics always came a poor third, disciplines to be specialized by the less able boys. Predictably, mathematics was badly taught, so that Fritz, after doing initially doing well, came to find it very extremely boring. He became so bad at it, when it came to his school-leaving exam, the maths teacher wished to fail him, prompting another examiner to ask quietly, “But gentlemen, are we really going to fail the best pupil in living memory?” In the 1870s, developing a keen interest in the natural sciences, Nietzsche became acutely aware of his lack of grounding following the perfunctory way the sciences were taught at Pforta, without a sense of delight or reverence.

In addition to Latin and Greek, Fritz also studied French and Hebrew, the later on account of his dutiful intention to follow his mother's desire that he study theology at university. In fact, however, he never completely mastered any foreign language, ancient or modern. Though one was supposed to be able to think in Latin, Fritz never quite managed it, his Latin compositions always looking like translations from German. In later life, though he spent much time in Italy, he understood comparatively little of the language. To read French he always needed a dictionary, while his English was non-existent: Byron and Shakespeare, whom he loved, he read in German translation. These facts are of some importance since, though he came to style himself a 'good European' and to deplore German chauvinism, he always thought in German and therefore, in a strong sense, as a German.


Until his final year Fritz had no really close friends at the school. Usually at or near the top of his class, he seemed to his fellows something of a Streber [striver] – a goody – goody who strives too obviously to be top. Reserved, earnest beyond his years, and not given to the physical rough- and -tumble of boarding-school life, he seemed to his fellows somewhat weird which, given an episode in which he held a lighted match to his hand to prove that his self-discipline was up to Roman standards, he indeed was.

For this reason, his normal boarding school yearning for the holidays was a yearning not only for the comforts of home but also for the company of his only two friends, Wilhelm and Gustav. In the summer holidays in 1860 the three friends decided to found a society for literature and the arts, to be called Germania. This was the first glimmer of a very German phenomena, the desire to found 'a circle', such as the Wagner Circle or, later, the Stefan George Circle, devoted to cultural regeneration, a desire which would persist throughout Nietzsche's life.



A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young; Cambridge University Press, 2010

1 comment:

  1. "The same discipline makes a soldier and the scholar efficient; and looked at more closely, there is no true scholar who has not the instincts of a true soldier in his veins.”

    For a similar view see William James's essay "The Moral Equivalent of War.", the introduction to which and a truncated version given in the form of a lecture at Emory University are available on line.

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