Before he philosophized with a hammer, Friedrich Nietzsche counted Greek metre. In 1868, the University of Basel appointed, or “called” as German academics put it to this day, the twenty-four-year-old Leipzig student a professor in ancient Greek language and literature. For several years, Nietzsche played the professional philologist, publishing erudite articles, arguing with fellow scholars over minutiae, and introducing students to the discipline of philology. By 1875, he had had enough. In detailed notes for a planned but never completed book titled We Philologists, Nietzsche excoriated his fellow philologists and the system of education that had produced them. He insisted, as he put, that he had nothing “against the science of philology itself.” His concern was tangential to the complaints, already common in the late nineteenth century, about hyper-specialization but also more basic: how had Greek and Roman antiquity come to be the basis for modern, elite German education? “That there are scholars who devote themselves exclusively to researching Greek and Roman antiquity,” he considered fair and even praiseworthy. But why did these same specialized scholars, of whom he was one, teach Germany’s future elite in Gymnasien (secondary schools that served as the primary path to university admission)? And why were these two ancient cultures, separated from the present by millennia, the models for modern Germany? Because, explained Nietzsche, the modern philologist’s indefensible, almost sacred prejudice for Greek and Roman antiquity had led to the conflation of the (Roman and Greek) classical with das Humane. To study these ancient languages and literatures was to study the human.

[From “The Year of Whose Lord?” A review of The Year of Our Lord 1943 by Alan Jacobs]

The problem of philology’s prejudice was not, for Nietzsche, simply anachronism; more and better history would neither diminish the prejudice nor improve the German Gymnasium. The problem was the assumption underlying the entire educational system––the continuity, moral salience, and universality of the human. As a corrective, Nietzsche proposed to distinguish between das Menschliche and das Humane. Whereas the Latinate “the human” (das Humane) referred to a free-floating abstraction, the vernacular das Menschliche referred to concrete forms of life.

The “human,” suggests Nietzsche, does not refer to a universal human solidarity, a sense of human co-belonging, or compassion, but rather to the projection of that vague ideal onto a past in order to legitimate present interests and concerns. The classical human was an invented tradition not a universal insight. The problem with the human, if we think beyond the prejudice of the philologist, is not simply academic. It can be a particularly insidious concept, because it can be (and has been) used to give a moral sheen to abstract assertions, to mask dubious assumptions, and even to distract from the concrete realities of lives led here and now.

Twentieth-Century Humanisms

Nietzsche’s harangue against the human hung over me as I read The Year of Our Lord 1943. In his most recent and characteristically engrossing book, Alan Jacobs focuses on a group of writers, who, in the midst of war, not only believed in the possibility of the human but also thought that the failure of Western cultures to answer the question, what is human? had proved disastrous. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil wanted more humanity. But mostly they sought a sure measure by which to judge right from wrong and true from false, or in Jacobs’s pithy refrain, a “foundation of value” upon which to secure a world out of joint. This desire enveloped Jacobs’s protagonists, shaping how they related to themselves and the wider world.

A key feature of this shared disposition, as Jacobs describes it, was a certainty about the sorry state of the world. The longing for what C.S. Lewis called “Moral Reality” or Jacques Maritain the “integral humanism [of the] new Christendom” was nurtured by a prior moral judgment, namely, that the world teetered on the edge of destruction. The longing for a “foundation of value” went hand in hand with a narrative of abject decline and the presumption of a paradise lost.

[Continue reading at Comment magazine.]


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