Henry Adams was a historian of 12th century France, the last of the Adams political dynasty. There is a section on him in Russel Kirk’s book “The Conservative Mind”. According to Kirk, Adams thought that state socialism was nearly inevitable in the West “and wholly odious; it would triumph over capitalism because it is cheaper, and modern life always rewards cheapness.” That prediction has turned out to be true (if “state capitalism” = “state socialism”) but I wonder how he came to that conclusion? He was writing long before Walmart, McDonald’s, and Levittown came on the scene. Why does modern life reward cheapness?
For centuries Protestant children have been taught that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” and Catholic children that “man was created for God,” but in Europe, in the 19th century, educators began to tell their students that “the true aim of our life here on earth… is the cultivation to the full of the talents with which we have been endowed.”1 This view of education can be traced to Rousseau’s Emile, where the philosopher summarizes his view of childhood development as follows: “Plants are formed by cultivation, human beings by education.”2
The skeptical philosopher, David Hume, a friend of Rousseau’s (for a time), likewise states his conviction that the cultivation and nurturing of one’s natural inclinations is necessary to find happiness. In a short, autobiographical note he explains that “his whole life was lived in accordance with sentiments that he felt naturally springing up within himself – ‘and shou’d I endeavor to banish them, by attaching myself to any other business or diversion, I feel I shou’d be a loser in point of pleasure; and this is the origin of my philosophy.”3 Here are the twin creeds of modern western society. Pursue your bliss! Express yourself!
In Germany, philosophers like Kant and Fichte went on to build massive philosophical systems around the Ego – the ‘I’ – which replaced God as the source of truth and certainty. Their ideas went mainstream in Prussia in 1809 when Napoleon gave Wilhelm von Humboldt charge of the German education system. Humboldt developed a curriculum that emphasized “individual efflorescence” as the essence of Bildung [Education]. Humboldt believed that early education should stress general principles which would favor “the all-around development of the free individual personality”. 4 For this reason, Humboldt did not focus on teaching the boy’s specific skills but required them to study the Greek language and Classics in depth. Through the study of Greek, he hoped, students would become Greeks themselves. 5 Biographer Daniel Blue observes that this Humboldtian idea was “essentially secular and, while not inimical to religion, did not demand any specific reference to God. The allure of this crypto-pagan vision would have been the more insidious because it was internalized almost subconsciously.” 6 Humboldt expresses this “crypto-pagan vision” clearly in the following creed: “The first law of true morality is therefore: Develop yourself.” 7 Like the Greeks who engraved the epigram “Know thyself” above the door of the temple to Apollo in Delphi, Humboldt believed that knowledge and wisdom begin with Man instead of God.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man. Alexander Pope
Is it any wonder, then, that the young Friedrich Nietzsche quickly abandoned his faith at Pforta, a Prussian boarding school for boys? Nietzsche’s friend Duseen recalls how their “faith began to weaken” due to their academic studies. He writes, “[Our fervor] was undermined unnoticeably by the excellent historical-critical method in which the older students were trained in Pforta, and which quite spontaneously was applied to the biblical field, for example when Steinhart in the Hebrew class at sixth-year level explained the Forty-Fifth Psalm completely as a secular wedding song.” 8
Nietzsche imbibed the ideal of self cultivation from his days at Pforta. He regularly wrote long reports on his life assessing his performance. In the ideal of Bildung [Education], “he found a metaphysic of self, the belief in an autonomous and guiding individuality that must find expression or die. If religion stood in the way, it must go.” 9 And where did this metaphysic of self take the young Nietzsche? Into the arms of Emerson, Feurbach, and Schopenhauer. Nietzsche was particularly enthralled by Manfred, a poem written by Byron, in which the hero defies God to the end and ultimately commits suicide. Inspired by these and other stories, Nietzsche wrote a musical composition entitled “Satan rises out of Hell” but abandoned it because he found it difficult “to strike the exact Satanic note.” 10
Let us jump forward to today. Why are students so quick to take offense at anything that threatens their own particular sense of identity or individuality? Are they not products of an education system that has taught them that they are “free individual personalities” that must find expression or die; or to put it more succinctly, that the chief end of man is to express himself?
- Blue, D. The making of Friedrich Nietzsche : the quest for identity, 1844-1869. pg 102 ↩
- On a side note, it is somewhat ironic that Rousseau should write a book on education. He fathered up to four children with a seamstress and then colluded with her mother to force the poor girl to give them up to a foundling house. ↩
- Harris, J. A. Hume : an intellectual biography. Cambridge University Press. 2015. 120-121 ↩
- Blue, D. The making of Friedrich Nietzsche : the quest for identity, 1844-1869. pg 104 ↩
- ibid. pg 104 ↩
- ibid. pg 102 ↩
- ibid. pg 120 ↩
- ibid. pg’s 120-121 ↩
- ibid. pg 191 ↩
- ibid. pg 157 ↩