Written by Friedrich Nietzsche
(Henry Regnery Company, 1965)
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
Sometimes we have to go far away in order to better appreciate home.
No one was a harsher critic of Christianity than Nietzsche, and, therefore, I argue, none is so great an asset to us. There are perennial truths in life and in education. When we are so deeply immersed in something, we can lose sight of these; the very peace that we find in our quotidian existence can keep us from recognizing the ‘pearls of great price’ we have. How can we really have something when we don’t recall that we have it? And who will be able to wake us from our slumber, short of the man who shouts? In some sense, Nietzsche is the son in the parable who said he would not do it but then did it anyway, despite himself. (Mt 21:28-32) As a critic of Christianity Nietzsche was no worse, but, in fact, even better than the avowed Christian, Kierkegaard, for pointing out our short-comings. (Kierkegaard would have to be a third brother in the parable: the son who said he would, sort of, and did it very much, although not as well as the son who said he would not. Maybe Kierkegaard fits in better as the person with the five talents? (Mt 25:14-30))
These analogies are starting to distract me. Schopenhauer as Educator is not one of Nietzsche’s better known books. It is a production of the author’s youth. But it is a work of genius, even if not of the calibre of Twilight of the Idols. A genius can do nothing inanely. This was a work of love and passion. Ostensibly, he sets out to praise the benefit that this other great German philosopher bestowed upon him. So this work is personal, but this is not to say it is warm: Nietzsche was incapable of warmth. It is vintage Nietzsche in the sense that it is choke-full of enchanting aphorisms – so easy would it be to write a book of the sayings of Nietzsche; perhaps exceeded in cleverness only by Voltaire. No matter what ideological angle you come from, Nietzsche’s books are delights to read. He invigorates. His nihilistic spirit is refreshing, and quite necessary, I think, for us timid Christians, many of whom have failed to realize that we have outlived our welcome in the world. So we better start doing some explaining of ourselves…
According to Eliseo Vivas who writes the introduction included in this edition, this is not an essay on Schopenhauer. (p. vii) It is not about Schopenhauer as an educator per se, but about the debt that Nietzsche felt he owed him. It is more creative than it is expository. We can gauge something of what Nietzsche had in mind for the work when he says that Schopenhauer can educate us against our times. (p. 34) I know what he means; Plato’s Crito did this for me. It is spiritually dangerous for a Christian to take things simply as they are. All of Nietzsche’s works promote this kind healthy critical mindset.
It is interesting to say that in this work the author wants to take us right back to the original problem of philosophy, that is to say, to the problem of happiness. Reality is a problem to be solved, “the problem of existence,” as he refers to it. (p. 36) We will never be happy unless we first understand how unhappy we really are. It’s hard to name two people who exemplify unhappiness better than Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and so we can credit them with a certain degree of expertise on this subject.
If one might think that this work lacks as pedagogy, we should direct the doubter to one of Nietzsche’s key points: “When we think of the general bustle, the increasing tempo of life and the lack of all leisurely contemplation, it almost seems to [Schopenhauer] as though he detected the signs of the complete uprooting and destruction of culture.” What the world needs, he says, is a return to real philosophy, not enervated university philosophy, but one that engages a man in his entirety, not just his mind and his will to obey. I couldn’t agree more!
Nor does the future author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra blame Christianity. He repeatedly refers to the decline of religion in a negative light. (Evidently, he has not yet come up with his mature view of Christianity.) His doctrine of religion is far more insightful than most Christians give him credit for – but that is a matter for discussion at another time.
It is not sufficient to question the way we do things, but it is a beginning. No one can create something truly good who has not first questioned. However, most of us don’t have the courage to throw off convention. In the case of education, we don’t have the courage to question, really question, our government-mandated system. This book might inspire you to look again at what you are too willing to accept and too willing to frame as a matter of “not so bad, all in all.”
Nevertheless, Nietzsche is not as fruitful a creator as he is critic. We should be stirred up by his criticism, but we will have to look elsewhere for solutions. He is right to link education to the problem of happiness. We have forgotten this. Happiness is not gainfulness or the nullification of the passions. In this book, then, Nietzsche makes a modest contribution to the great subject of education.