One of the most remarkable episodes in the Gospels is John 20.11-16—the climactic and defining event of John’s narrative: 

But Mary was standing without at the tomb weeping: so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she beholdeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and beholdeth Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turneth herself, and saith unto him in Hebrew, Rabboni; which is to say, Teacher.[i] 

“Teacher.” That word, spoken in any language, has a kind of magic, as captured so perfectly in St. John’s Gospel. Used as an appellation, as by Mary Magdalene here, it has the power to define or redefine human relationships instantly. “Teacher”—in John’s Greek, didaskalos—means “master” (which is how the original King James Version translates it). Its use as a form of address expresses a respectful submission to a natural hierarchy in the realm of understanding; a teacher is superior to me, as one who knows.

The standard of rank ordering implied in this hierarchy is knowledge versus ignorance, wisdom versus the desire for wisdom. The world arranged according to this hierarchy is a realm of voluntarism, of spiritual and intellectual self-awareness and seeking. There is a great feat of self-understanding in calling someone “Teacher,” not as a job title, but as an expression of relative rank, just as there is great humility in accepting that title without succumbing to the tyrannical temptations of authority.

Teaching and learning, knowledge and the search for knowledge—in a word, education—is the free, voluntary realm of what people used to call the spiritual aristocracy, which is to say the intellectual meritocracy.

For two thousand years, what we call Western civilization moved in the orbit of two supreme teachers, Socrates and Jesus. In identifying these two as the definitive figures in the specifically Western tradition, I am agreeing (as I usually do not) with Mill and (as I often do) with Nietzsche. A consideration of the West in which these two men are not central is inconceivable. Other peoples have educational hierarchies and wise men of their own, of course, but their definitive men and archetypes, their indispensable figures, are typically emperors and other earthly chieftains, i.e., men of political, and hence coercive, authority. What we call the West, by contrast, is defined by teachers.

Furthermore, real education is more than just a voluntary realm in itself. It also promotes freedom, implicitly, by holding truth higher than political authority, the mind higher than force. The history of Western civilization, seen in a certain light, is a series of confrontations between education and authority, the individual soul and political power. The two archetypal teachers, Jesus and Socrates—both sentenced to death for their teaching—defined for all time the struggle of truth versus earthly power. And their stories define that struggle to the exaltation of truth, and the belittlement of power. This is why we must understand individual liberty as the definitive political goal of the West; Western man’s historical arc, despite his many convulsions and regressive moments, reveals an innate, essential impulse toward freedom. This arc traces the long argument between the teachers and centuries of would-be emperors. For the longest time, the teachers won, even in death.

Now, however, in an alliance that, in light of what we have just seen, must be described as fundamentally anti-West—and, I would argue, anti-civilization simpliciter—our political and educational establishments have been joined as one. Compulsory and universal public schooling violates the principle of true education—voluntarism in the quest for truth—just as it contradicts the spirit of the true teacher, as represented by Jesus and Socrates. Both men were emphatic in expecting to be listened to and followed voluntarily; coerced “students” are antithetical to the teaching they offer, and in fact to teaching per se. To redefine education as primarily a state function is to break human thought to the saddle of political authority, to poison the definitive realm of human freedom—the search for self-knowledge—with the invasive weed of coerced indoctrination, and to make Socrates and Jesus pariahs even among those who nominally share their job title, the so-called professional educators. (Just ask any public school teacher who has tried to teach against the norms and goals of the established curriculum and methods.)

Jesus was a carpenter’s son. This means that he too was by trade a carpenter. Socrates was a stonemason’s son, and hence also a tradesman himself. Childhood education for these men would have consisted of being trained in their fathers’ crafts and family morals, along with basic literacy and numeracy. Socrates, in addition, was certainly introduced to music and poetry, Jesus to the Scriptures. Beyond this, they would have listened to or read what they could, when they could, compelled primarily by their own desire to learn.

And then, most importantly, they took their received notions to the mountains, as it were. They thought over what they had acquired and developed it into a world-changing education through private and solitary reflection. We have specific accounts, for both men, of their having had remarkable capacities for private concentration, for leaving society behind both physically and, more importantly, psychologically, while they contemplated how to proceed with their teaching. Through these sundry means of learning and this private self-examination, they developed the independence of thought and the originality of spirit that has made them the teachers for the ages, fountainheads of a civilization, and living monuments to the dignity of the individual soul.

They had no certification, no teachers college, were not union members, received no state funding, benefitted from no training in “advanced” methods of pedagogy, and worked without teachers’ guides and answer keys. And yet, at his death in prison, Socrates was surrounded by his students, whom he gently chastised for weeping at his loss. And, on John’s account, the resurrected Jesus appeared first to Mary, whose only word upon recognizing his voice was “Teacher,” the ultimate expression of voluntary submission to spiritual, uncoercive authority.

A teacher is a person who places knowledge above power, and upholds the quest for the true and the good in a world forever endangered by coercive schemes that demand deference to the false and evil. In other words, education, in the sense defined for us by Socrates and Jesus, is the spiritual realm in which, in defiance of all demands and dictums of temporal authority, individual men are free to seek truth. The fight to recover this heritage from today’s authoritarian hordes is, at its base, the battle to save education from the clutches of political power. It is the battle to restore a remarkable revolution in human coexistence which made the teacher, rather than the emperor—wisdom rather than power—civilization’s defining idea.

The question is, how has the teacher been usurped so thoroughly by the emperor? That is, how did a civilization grounded in education with its inherent voluntarism transmogrify itself, in such a brief span of time, into one grounded in indoctrination with its inherent coercion? The short answer, perhaps, is that this inclination was always present, but was, until recently, generally understood for what it was—the tyrannical impulse—and hence correctly judged as vice and a political danger, whereas today, the distinction between truth and power having been undone, there is nothing to prevent the displacement of education by propaganda.

We have already seen how the father of today’s compulsory schooling, Fichte, proposed to train government educators to use their authority as an emotional wedge between the child and his parents, the child and the world, and, ultimately, the child and himself. This was a natural extension of the idealist impulse to reject the particularized world of sense in favor of the dream of a national or universal consciousness. Still, German idealism remained nominally within the philosophic tradition that purported to be seeking truth and wisdom. The idealists gradually killed that tradition, however, both through their direct assault on their own intellectual inheritance and through their subsequent critics who, repulsed by idealism’s anti-human tenor, but unable or unwilling to find their way back to the fork in the road, simply took idealism’s implicit authoritarianism—the earthly and practical underside of the project—and ran with it.

This latter anti-idealist move toward a more direct form of human power which systematically dispenses with the pretenses of justifying wisdom altogether may be seen in Marx, of course. However, it is nowhere more profoundly expressed than in the philosophy of Nietzsche, who perhaps deserves the title of “last great philosopher in the Western tradition,” not least because he effectively ended that tradition. It was Nietzsche, more than any other man, who officially—that is, as a matter of philosophical principle—returned civilization to the predominance of the emperor, and the denigration of the teacher. A brief outline of how he achieved this may serve as an autopsy report on the didaskalocracy that was once Western civilization.


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[i] Following the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible (1901).

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