Nietzsche and Solicitude
Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of education can best be understood as the backdrop or foundation of his larger philosophical project. That said, outlining the philosophy of education presents a fairly unique set of problems. First of all, he did not write a work devoted to that topic other than the romantic analysis of education which he gave in a series of public lectures called On the Future of our Educational Institutions, which played a significant role in his early departure from education, and second, two of the three concepts that make up his pedagogical philosophy are at best elusive and tend to defy a positive definition. The first problem means that a Nietzschean philosophy of education must be pieced together from many of his major works and combined with some of his earlier works. Part of his thought on the topic suggests that contradiction has a role to play, such that many attempts to put together his philosophy of education have often fallen prey to the allure of the “doctrines.” But by remaining open to the development of his thoughts, we can both avoid that allure and bring about a coherent picture of his philosophy of education.
Born on 14 October in 1844, Nietzsche lived in Röcken and Naumburg before attending Schulpforta. After completing his studies there, he matriculated at the University of Bonn in classical philology, but moved to Leipzig after his first year of study due to what he felt was the overly political atmosphere of the Bonn seminar. This point was confirmed later during his inaugural lecture to the chair of philology in Basel in 1869 when he declared that “the estimation of philology in public opinion depends upon the weight of the personalities of the [individual] philologist!” (Nietzsche 1909, p. 146). This problem was something that he increasingly saw as an endemic not just in philology but in higher education in general.
Nietzsche saw this problem as manifesting itself in what he called the Philistine culture of the day. He had a great deal of concern for the stagnation of intellectual life in the form of overly specialized scholarship, in the fragmentation of society and culture through what he called “an inordinately stupid ease and comfort doctrine for the benefit of the ego” (Nietzsche 2007a, §6). His critique of contemporary culture based itself on what he saw as the denigration of education, the push toward greater professionalism and specialization and the rising State control over both education and culture. These conditions, largely the result of the Humboldtian reforms in education in the early part of the nineteenth century, led to what he felt was the most damaging result: the democratization of education. As such, Nietzsche’s so-called aristocratism and elitism are usually cited as reason enough to stop looking for a philosophy of education in his thought, since modern sensibilities take the latter to be anathema to the former. And in literal terms, this may be true, but that sentiment betrays a deeper issue first identified by Nietzsche which is the nihilism which results from the continued assertion of a set of values which we know to be baseless. Specialization speaks to exclusivity while democratization to its opposite. Nietzsche felt that this kind of contradictory yet universally accepted attitude was symptomatic of the age: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Underlying his philosophy of education is a conception of “higher” culture and “true” education. The dilettantism and commodified nature of the Philistine culture was something he sneered at on account of its incoherent desire “to create entire philosophies: the sole proviso was that everything must remain as it was before, that nothing should at any price undermine the ‘rational’ and the ‘real,’ that is to say, the philistine” (Nietzsche 2007a, §2). Given the choice between the nihilism and philistinism or the higher culture of true education, he can hardly be blamed for his choice. But we must be careful here because Nietzsche’s elitism has nothing to do with “the people” or “nation,” but with the nobility spirit required for true education and culture. The ultimate objective of Nietzsche’s philosophy of education was the development of true culture through the nurturing of the sovereign individual who is characterized by the three concepts that make up Nietzsche’s pedagogical thought, namely, the pursuit of authenticity, inward directed competition and struggle, and finally sublimation.
The concept of authenticity is an understandably elusive subject. It is nonetheless useful to talk “about” authenticity in the face of the fact that we may not be able to talk about it. The distinction made by the addition of the quotation marks is that an irreducible definition of the word authenticity is impossible but what we can do is develop our understanding of the conditions that make authenticity possible. Nietzsche’s philosophy of education does precisely this. The concept of authenticity does not comprise an objective list of irreducible values or characteristics, but describes one’s comportment and attitude toward life. If the end of education is the nurturing and promotion of Nietzsche’s higher types and free spirits, then authenticity must be understood as the individual’s solicitude for himself or herself rather than the attainment of a set of external qualifications. Nietzsche’s free spirit is the person who understands their perspectival role in the creative production of the conditions for their life. Such an individual recognizes their view as a falsification of the Philistine’s “real” and “rational” world and that the illusions thus created are the necessary fictions fit only for their life. They are able, as he says, to exercise both their pro and con in the service of that creation rather than in the service of unthinking dogma and blind following a tradition for their own sake.
The pursuit of authenticity then means that the individual must question the traditional authority of concepts such as truth, logic and morality, and values such as honesty, sincerity, and humility. Its achievement requires acceptance of the world as the incessant movement of becoming, self-transcendence, and “self”-creation. This is ultimately a question of freedom end of rejecting the current ethic in order to understand it as an external measure that force quantification of what is ultimately only to be defined or understood by its quality, which is to say, life. Authenticity must be descriptive of creating possibility rather than prescriptive of practice.
In Authenticity And Learning, David E Cooper points out that after this rejection Nietzsche wondered “… how the individual shall live in the era of history after the ‘death of God?’” (Cooper 2011, p. 1). His answer, now that the shabby origins of our values have been uncovered, was to question the value of those values in order to understand the function they served in the development of the human type. Their function was to nurture the all too human capacity of solicitude and “self”-concern. This allows us to reflect upon our actions, beliefs, intentions, and values for the purpose of analyzing and, when deemed appropriate, annihilating them in an effort to improve the quality, but not necessarily the comfort, of our lives. Avoiding the responsibility of this capacity for solicitude can only result in nihilism and the leveling of meaning, which results from the loss of the ability to posit value. The incongruity of following policies or asserting values in which we no longer believe, Nietzsche might say, is what has created the modern crisis in education and culture. In order to avoid this, one must “live in the full awareness of the possibilities of action, belief, and purpose that are in fact open to him and which anyone concerned with his existence as an issue must consider” (Cooper 2011, p. 15). For an indication as to how one goes about achieving this, we must look at what Nietzsche offers as the model of a “true educator,” the philosopher/artist and their embrace of agonism and inward directed competition as that applies to the individual.
A scholar can never become a philosopher; for even Kant was unable to do so but, the inborn pressure of his genius notwithstanding, remained to the end as it were in a chrysalis stage. He who thinks that in saying this I am doing Kant an injustice does not know what a philosopher is, namely not merely a great thinker but so a real human being; and when did a scholar ever become a real human being? (Nietzsche 2007b, §7).
To educate means to create meaning, value, and culture, but as with authenticity, this cannot be done for the student. They must be shown how to do it for themselves. Kant, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, is the quintessential systematizer in that he, like many before and after him, attempts to leave no question unanswered or critique unaddressed. And while this may be noble as an objective, we are led to believe, through the quantity of effort, that we have achieved the quality of truth, though all the while the ground under that truth is shifting. Nietzsche sees this as a vice, not a virtue, that “the will to system is a lack of integrity” (Nietzsche 2006, §26). This is because this will to system seeks only to bring struggle to an end, and this, for Nietzsche, is the death of education, of philosophy, and of culture. “The philosopher as we understand him, we free spirits – as the man with the most comprehensive responsibility, whose conscience bears the weight of the overall development of humanity” (Nietzsche 2002, §61). This responsibility and conscience are born in agon or struggle which, for Nietzsche, must be directed toward one’s “self” and is perhaps the most far reaching of the benefits of true education.
Nietzsche points to contest as the central activity in the process of life; all that lives does so because they struggled. The level of the struggle is determined by the degree of will to power possessed by a given individual. The contest is with one’s self and is directed at whatever we feel we “really” are. It is not directed outward, toward some external, alien, and ultimately arbitrary standard, but toward knowledge. In Nietzsche’s pedagogical thought, there are two senses of the word “knowledge” operative which tie into the idea of struggle. The first exhausts itself in the content of knowledge and is subject to the externally directed form of agon. Modern education is essentially a process of indoctrination into particular bodies of facts and accepted ways of presenting such facts. The second sense of the word is knowledge as the process of knowing. In this sense of the word, knowledge is a process of directing the individual’s attention inward at their unique development as a knower. It is integral to the pursuit of authenticity and that very Nietzschean notion of self-overcoming. To make oneself better today than yesterday and still better tomorrow again to borrow a sentiment from Protagoras may be a good way to put this since it is only the individual who can know if this has been achieved or not. Knowledge in the sense facilitates the creation of meaning and value. It creates the truths by which one’s unique existence is possible. But such truths will not be of the objective, disinterested sort. Rather it creates truths that are felt in the blood and bone and are the necessary condition of life.
It follows then that if the internal contest is to be recognized as a fundamental to life, to the process of living, so too it will be a fundamental part of education, true education. This education must focus on method over content, but if the educator is to be an example, they must be actively engaged in their own pursuit of authenticity such that method in this context becomes the creation of “a unity of style” rather than a set of techniques adopted during teachers’ college. Moreover, we can now see how Nietzsche’s self-overcoming will involve not just the individual desire to become better and to reject the dangerously normative influence of the concept of a self-in-itself but also the overcoming of the guide, that is to say, the teacher. One’s true educators can only be chosen from a specifically perspectival awareness of one’s formation as an individual, involving a critical awareness of the decisions one makes because for Nietzsche “the most desirable thing is still under all circumstances a hard discipline at the appropriate time” (Ferrer & Nietzsche 2012, 14 ). There is in all this a certain degree of subordination of the student to both educator and education, but this subordination remains under the control of the individual through the process and practice of sublimation.
In Twilight of the Idols in a section called “My Idea of Freedom,” Nietzsche says that “[sometimes] the value of a thing is not what you get with it but what you pay for it − what it costs” (Nietzsche 2006, §38). A modern audience may be forgiven for wondering what novelty there is in this sentiment, but that is itself an indictment of modern education and culture. What one pays with is the effort one must put in, the blood, sweat, and tears. Indeed there is, where education is concerned, nothing that one can get with it since, contrary to the student handbook from just about every institution of higher learning today. The cant about the relationship between education and jobs, for example, is, well, cant. Education, if it is to be valued at all, must be seen as an end in itself. Nietzsche of course saw education as feeding into the higher culture, but in reality education and culture are hand in glove. This idea has all but been banished from the modern educational institution resulting in the reality that “the better the state is established, the fainter is humanity,” as he says in a note from 1875. The remedy comes in the educational process itself through sublimation which is perhaps the most difficult task since in order to achieve it one must apply on “at least one of these instinct systems with iron pressure so that another could gain force, become strong, take control” (Nietzsche 2006, §41). Sublimation is directed at the instincts in the first instance in order to make room. In its common use, instinct is taken as the set of irreducible inclinations basic to the type, but we do well to remember that not such irreducibility is possible since we are wholly nature and nature is dynamic. Rather, “[the] best we can do is to confront our inherited and hereditary nature with our knowledge, and through a new, stern discipline combat our inborn heritage and implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away” (Nietzsche 2007b, §3). And they do this through sublimation.
As with authenticity and contest, sublimation is directly related to the creative capacity of the human type and the infinite possibilities that life represents for it. This involves the domination and redirection of the instincts in the service of creative potential, which will require a certain degree of “self”-destruction, which does not shy away from the many harsh truths and inherent tragedy of life. “To make the individual uncomfortable, that is my task” (Nietzsche as cited in Kaufmann 1988, p. 50).
If sublimation is to become an effective tool in the educational process, of becoming free and “who we are,” then it must include the highest degree of responsibility. For Nietzsche the normal practice of subordinating one’s will and strength to society or the State is apiece with the ease and comfort attitude of Philistine culture and philosophy. It is the highest degree of abrogation of responsibility, allowing everything, even their own thought to be judged by external metrics with the most damaging consequences. Without taking responsibility for how we create ourselves, we can lay no claim to our own development, expression, or creativity. On the other hand, should we embrace the responsibility brought on by this process of “self”-domination, we at least gain the potential to create the present and author the past and future from a position of life-affirming confidence, joy, and ebullience.
Nietzsche’s philosophy of education is about the creation of an environment wherein the free and sovereign individual is born out of their being guided through the flux of reality not to fit into a predetermined place, but rather to show them the world of infinite perspective, authentic living, self-creation, and self-governance. This means obedience to ones chosen path, the subordination of the instincts and drives that would draw one away from that path, a “hard discipline,” and a willingness to serve the higher goals of true education and culture. In other words, the individual must stand for something or they will fall for anything. And in this falling, there is a great deal at stake because the laisser-aller attitude to self and society precipitates mediocrity, blind conformity, and the leveling of meaning, with the result that “excellence and differentness become non-existent, and the capacity for reform within society disappears” (Sharp 1975, p. 102). In the final analysis education is about, well, education as is Nietzsche’s whole philosophical project.
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