THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DIDASKALOCRACY – ii. The Will to Power vs. The Will to Truth


What has first to have itself proved is of little value. Wherever authority is still part of accepted usage and one does not “give reasons” but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon: he is laughed at, he is not taken seriously.—Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously: what was really happening when that happened?[i]

Friedrich Nietzsche


Friedrich Nietzsche, though a great mind, was in some ways a weak man. He teaches us more about the darker reaches of the human spirit than perhaps any other thinker. The reason he is so revelatory on such matters, I suggest, is that his own life was one marked—we might even say marred—by a sense of failure, including, and especially, his failure to disregard failure, as even, or especially, the greatest men must learn to do. This weakness, and the sense of isolation it engendered, may have driven him to his greatest insights, but also, perhaps, to the delusions that increasingly typify his mature thought: that he was unique among Germans, alone among men, and superior as a god is superior to his creations. His feelings of hyperboreanism made him great. They also made him small, more “German” than he wished to be, and as such more destructive than he needed to be.

A chief theme of Nietzsche’s mature thought is his concept of the will to power,[ii] which he casts as the primary drive of man, and depicts as the true meaning—and therefore the refutation—of what he calls the “will to truth,” meaning philosophy in the traditional sense. Though the German idealists had already led modernity’s deliberate turn away from the Socratic philosophical tradition, Nietzsche, idealism’s most profound German critic, was the first important philosopher to go right to the heart of the matter and comprehensively reject Socrates himself. This rejection signaled the demise of Western civilization understood as the evolution of the science of being, eudaimonistic virtue ethics (happiness-based morals), and—most importantly for our purposes—the educational primacy of the Socratic opinion-into-ignorance-into-philosophy dialectic, with its corollary, the elevation of the teacher. In place of these things came a new kind of philosophy deeply rooted in psychology; not in the psyche—the old Greek soul with its natural aims and its struggle for control between reason and the passions—but in the notion of man as essentially a pool of drives without any natural goal other than to spend themselves.

These drives without natural purpose undergird Nietzsche’s conception of man as a “creator of values.” We cannot live without purpose, and yet the “truths” of Western civilization have, according to Nietzsche, played themselves out to the point of dissolution. The extent to which Nietzsche’s view of the collapse of the metaphysical and rationalist tradition is colored by the idealist/Lutheran intellectual and educational context of his upbringing, is an important topic in itself, though one largely outside the scope of this book.[iii] It may be noted, however, that his reinterpretation of all previous devotion to the search for truth as mere manifestations of “will to power” is a perfectly German idea, in the sense that it is absolutely consistent with the core of idealism, which is not really any particular metaphysical view, but rather a psychological-moral state. Santayana, as we have seen, characterized this state as romantic egotism. In effect, German idealism is the desire to remake the universe in one’s own image, to impose upon experience an idiosyncratic interpretation of life that is so systematically self-contained and internally consistent that one can almost believe one has re-created the world, that one has the power to do so. Nietzsche may have simply universalized this romantic egotism, under the name “will to power,” in an attempt to reduce all great thinking, regardless of its claims about itself, to this same motive, perhaps the only motive a nineteenth century German thinker could understand: logical megalomania.

Nietzsche argues, however, that as the supposed truths of past philosophy have dissolved, and we see that nothing underlay them but the will to power—great men’s efforts at civilizational persuasion, energy now spent—humanity is left with two fundamental options: nihilism or value creation. The latter option was Nietzsche’s proposed solution to what he saw, correctly, as modernity’s approaching collapse into nihilism.

However, contra the socialist-egalitarian movement, which Nietzsche despised (but which has since co-opted many of his ideas), his notion of value creation is not the flowery feel-good enterprise the phrase might imply today, after a century of Dewey-inspired schooling and self-esteem psychology. Not everyone, on Nietzsche’s view, is a creator of values. On the contrary, the endeavor of value creation, which Nietzsche regarded as the gravest of concerns for the revitalization of humanity, was properly the project of only the greatest minds, those who have had the courage to shake off the values they inherited, and to stand at the edge of the abyss—that is, to face the truth of life’s nothingness—and then to overcome that profound emptiness through the sheer force of their will to restore meaning to life, by creating it.

Thus human life, for Nietzsche, should not be understood as a quest for the true and the good by means of reason. Rationalism, on his view, was the weaker party’s jape, the attempt of men without creative force to undermine the true creators with the ironic trick of dialectic. Socrates was, in this view, the enemy of man’s genuine “nature,” as his entire method was nothing but a clever scheme to tear down a great and noble world that he himself could never have made, namely the Greek heritage of the warrior-hero, the poet, and the mystery cult—the world of immoderate passions, Dionysian creativity, and uncompromising power. In short, Nietzsche’s opposition to the Socratic tradition lay primarily in his theory that Western rationalism (or Platonism, if you will) is an attempt to short-circuit the fluid power struggle of existence, and the human greatness this struggle encourages, in favor of the constraining lie of divine and eternal truth.

Nietzsche’s famous degradation of Christianity as “Platonism for ‘the people’” carries the all-important implication that Jesus is, in effect, Socrates for the people. This makes Socrates the defining figure of the entire intellectual and political tradition that Nietzsche—the self-proclaimed antichrist—believes must be overturned.

Socrates’ teachings (of which, of course, he claimed to have none) are not his primary significance. In this sense he differs greatly from Jesus. Rather, his complete reconfiguration of philosophy to focus on human nature and how to abide in it, along with a reasoning method based on question and doubt rather than dictum and deduction, stirred something in the Western political animal that has had the most profound effects. As Nietzsche teaches, with the special admiration of the archrival, Socrates’ manner and method undermine power. Specifically, Socrates reduces the powerful to the stammering, blushing victims of dialectic, thus subordinating brute force and the persuasive personality to reason. In this way, he is like the Jew, who (Nietzsche contends) foisted Christianity, with its “slave morality,” upon the Gentiles as the ultimate revenge of the weaker man.[iv] Nietzsche goes so far as to blame Socrates for hastening the fall of Greece, and connects that effect to its modern echo in Europe.

In its essence, Nietzsche’s analysis of Socrates is quite persuasive, and, for me, he is more profound in his crystallization of the tradition than either the self-aggrandizing Hegel or the self-serving Marx. Socrates is the anti-tyrant and even anti-aristocrat par excellence. He does something far more subversive than merely speak truth to power. He reveals the ignorance of powerful men. In so doing, he becomes the great leveler. And the mechanism whereby he levels—the definitive example of Socratic irony—is his subtle but radical shift of the societal standard of authority from power to understanding. Powerful men, and even powerful societies, insofar as their power is not identical to knowledge defensible through reason, are reduced by Socrates to shame and self-doubt.

This, for over two thousand years, was Western civilization: the world in which power must justify itself—must, in other words, give reasons for its rule. The simple assertion of power is never enough; a Western leader must prove he deserves to rule, rather than merely that he is stronger than you. The glory of this development in human social relations—which Nietzsche regarded as a curse—is that the imperative of giving reasons carries within it a natural tendency toward political forms of freedom, equality, and earthly justice.

The tacit understanding that a ruler must justify himself has a corollary, namely that his subjects may question him, may demand reasons. This creates an impetus among thinkers to develop the justifying reasons in advance, as it were. That is, the triumph of the wisdom standard over the power standard begat political philosophy itself, and defined its purpose for over two millennia, namely the attempt to work out the truest justifications for the establishment of practical power. The concept of limited government, with its checks and balances and its emphasis on the private citizen’s range of freedom, rather than the government’s range of authority, is a natural outflow from Socrates’ stealth attack on the powerful families of Athens. Socrates’ final words to the jury that convicted him presaged the civilizational trajectory that evolved in the wake of his death:

And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them. For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.[v]

Political power that is infected with the need to “give an account” of itself is doomed, in the long run, to live within the limits of rational self-restraint, or to be judged illegitimate. Athenian philosophy—the culmination of Greek intellectual life, and therefore the defining hypothesis of Western man—infected power with the practical compulsion, if not the inner reservations, of a guilty conscience, an effect that lasted until only yesterday. To summarize the politics of Western civilization elliptically, Socrates died so that the United States of America might live.

The most important work in the history of political philosophy is Plato’s Republic, the great radicalism of which—often overlooked by both liberals and conservatives today—was its proposal to make political power subservient to wisdom by making the teachers, of all people, the rulers. The antithesis of this radical assertion of reason’s rights was defined in its ultimate form by Platonism’s greatest critic, Nietzsche, who reasserted the claims of irrational power against the old Platonic “will to truth.” We are now tabulating the full results of this great emancipation of the passions. The undermining of the Western intellectual tradition—that is, of the Socratic tradition of the teacher as gadfly to the powerful—exhibits its practical effects in every area of human activity, but nowhere as starkly or definitively as in this deliberate reversal of the proper relationship between the teacher and the ruler, reason and authority. When the teacher becomes essentially subservient to the ruler—which I offer as a simple definition of modern compulsory schooling—reason becomes a mere agent of power and handmaiden of the passions, philosophy degenerates into sophistry, and, as a result, education becomes indistinguishable from propaganda.

For more than a century, the world’s personification of this new, anti-Socratic conception of teaching as a process of denaturing the rational animal—of education not as fertile soil, but as a scythe—has been Fichte’s truest heir, John Dewey. German philosophers killed and wrote the obituary of the West understood as a didaskalocracy, the rule of the teachers, with its defining quest for human completion. But it took an American to put a smiley face on the post-Western replacement for genuine education. Fichte invented the first theoretical model of a re-education camp, and hence paved the way for authoritarian subversives of all stripes. Dewey, more than anyone else, made the re-education camp a marketable commodity in the (formerly) non-authoritarian world—and a universal reality.


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[i] TI, “Socrates” 5.

[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kauffmann (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), § 36.

[iii] Cf. Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). The author argues, interestingly: “The Dionysian will to power is thus in fact a further development of the idea of absolute will that first appeared in the nominalist notion of God and became a world-historical force with Fichte’s notion of the absolute I.” (xxi)

[iv] “Dialectics can be only a last-ditch weapon in the hands of those who have no other weapon left. One must have to enforce one’s rights: otherwise one makes no use of it. That is why the Jews were dialecticians; Reynard the Fox was a dialectician: what? and Socrates was a dialectician too?” (TI “Socrates” 6.)

[v] Plato, Apology, Translated by Benjamin Jowett (1891), 39c-d.

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