Your Homework Reading Assignment, If You Please

During his final sane months, in a whirlwind of productivity, Nietzsche wrote three important works, the greatest of which was Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with the Hammer, a terse but sweeping synopsis of his entire philosophy. Though in form a small book, in content, implications, and influence, it is enormous as only a handful of works have ever been.

The book is divided into eleven brief, interrelated chapters, the eighth of which, “Things the Germans Lack,” has been drawing me back again and again of late, as it contains some of Nietzsche’s most incisive commentary on matters that, though universally important, have held peculiar personal interest for me in recent years.

Each time I revisit this remarkable six-page thunderbolt — part private lament, part intellectual demolition of his homeland, part rumination on the fundamental vanities, vices, and deficiencies of the modern world — I find myself thinking, “I need to say something about this,” where “this” means any one of a dozen distinct observations particularly relevant to civilization’s current quagmire. Today, it might be his assault on modern democratic education and how it is killing the higher spiritual life. Yesterday, it was his annihilation of late modern man’s, or indeed all men’s, hideous self-diminution through the romantic idealization of alcohol. Tomorrow, it might be his provocative analogy between philosophic thinking and dancing.

What prevented me from commenting on any one of these specific issues, I realized, was the equal attractiveness of all of them. Hence, rather than go ahead with my initial plan of quoting at length from Section 2 of this chapter, on the “German spirit” under the influence of beer, I have decided to reproduce the whole short chapter here today, so that I may use any and all of it as a reference work for further essays in the coming days. 

If you don’t mind, then, I’m afraid I have to assert my teacher’s authority here and ask you to do a little homework to prepare for our future discussions. You need not worry about the burden, however. Not only is it brief, but even in translation, if read carefully (I use Ludovici’s rather than Hollingdale’s now standard version for copyright reasons), this chapter has the overwhelming attraction of being beautiful language, in addition to being profound as only a handful of writers are capable of being profound. This is one of the greatest of great thinkers, writing at the peak of his powers; almost seeming carefree and offhand in his ease and brevity of expression, and yet so precise in his elliptical arguments as to make the poetry of his words feel almost unfair to equally great philosophers who were nevertheless lesser writers.

I shall begin my commentary on these ideas in the very near future.


from Twilight of the Idols, by Friedrich Nietzsche
Translated by Anthony M. Ludovici


Among Germans at the present day it does not suffice to have intellect; one is actually forced to appropriate it, to lay claim to it.

Maybe I know the Germans, perhaps I may tell them a few home-truths. Modern Germany represents such an enormous store of inherited and acquired capacity, that for some time it might spend this accumulated treasure even with some prodigality. It is no superior culture that has ultimately become prevalent with this modern tendency, nor is it by any means delicate taste, or noble beauty of the instincts; but rather a number of virtues more manly than any that other European countries can show. An amount of good spirits and self-respect, plenty of firmness in human relations and in the reciprocity of duties; much industry and much perseverance—and a certain inherited soberness which is much more in need of a spur than of a brake. Let me add that in this country people still obey without feeling that obedience humiliates. And no one despises his opponent.

You observe that it is my desire to be fair to the Germans: and in this respect I should not like to be untrue to myself,—I must therefore also state my objections to them. It costs a good deal to attain to a position of power; for power stultifies. The Germans—they were once called a people of thinkers: do they really think at all at present? Nowadays the Germans are bored by intellect, they mistrust intellect; politics have swallowed up all earnestness for really intellectual things— “Germany, Germany above all” [“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” the national hymn]. I fear this was the death-blow to German philosophy. “Are there any German philosophers? Are there any German poets? Are there any good German books?” people ask me abroad. I blush; but with that pluck which is peculiar to me, even in moments of desperation, I reply: “Yes, Bismarck!”—Could I have dared to confess what books are read to-day? Cursed instinct of mediocrity!—


What might not German intellect have been!—who has not thought sadly upon this question! But this nation has deliberately stultified itself for almost a thousand years: nowhere else have the two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity, been so viciously abused as in Germany. Recently a third opiate was added to the list, one which in itself alone would have sufficed to complete the ruin of all subtle and daring intellectual animation, I speak of music, our costive and constipating German music. How much peevish ponderousness, paralysis, dampness, dressing-gown languor, and beer is there not in German intelligence! How is it really possible that young men who consecrate their whole lives to the pursuit of intellectual ends, should not feel within them the first instinct of intellectuality, the self-preservative instinct of the intellect—and should drink beer? The alcoholism of learned youths does not incapacitate them for becoming scholars—a man quite devoid of intellect may be a great scholar,—but it is a problem in every other respect. Where can that soft degeneracy not be found, which is produced in the intellect by beer! I once laid my finger upon a case of this sort, which became almost famous,—the degeneration of our leading German free-spirit, the clever David Strauss, into the author of a suburban gospel and New Faith. Not in vain had he sung the praises of “the dear old brown liquor” in verse—true unto death.


I have spoken of German intellect. I have said that it is becoming coarser and shallower. Is that enough?—In reality something very different frightens me, and that is the ever steady decline of German earnestness, German profundity, and German passion in things intellectual. Not only intellectuality, but also pathos has altered. From time to time I come in touch with German universities; what an extraordinary atmosphere prevails among their scholars! what barrenness! and what self-satisfied and lukewarm intellectuality! For any one to point to German science as an argument against me would show that he grossly misunderstood my meaning, while it would also prove that he had not read a word of my writings. For seventeen years I have done little else than expose the de-intellectualising influence of our modern scientific studies. The severe slavery to which every individual nowadays is condemned by the enormous range covered by the sciences, is the chief reason why fuller, richer and profounder natures can find no education or educators that are fit for them. Nothing is more deleterious to this age than the superfluity of pretentious loafers and fragmentary human beings; our universities are really the involuntary forcing houses for this kind of withering-up of the instincts of intellectuality. And the whole of Europe is beginning to know this—politics on a large scale deceive no one. Germany is becoming ever more and more the Flat-land of Europe. I am still in search of a German with whom I could be serious after my own fashion. And how much more am I in search of one with whom I could be cheerful The Twilight of the Idols: ah! what man to-day would be capable of understanding the kind of seriousness from which a philosopher is recovering in this work! It is our cheerfulness that people understand least.


Let us examine another aspect of the question: it is not only obvious that German culture is declining, but adequate reasons for this decline are not lacking. After all, nobody can spend more than he has:—this is true of individuals, it is also true of nations. If you spend your strength in acquiring power, or in politics on a large scale, or in economy, or in universal commerce, or in parliamentarism, or in military interests—if you dissipate the modicum of reason, of earnestness, of will, and of self-control that constitutes your nature in one particular fashion, you cannot dissipate it in another. Culture and the state—let no one be deceived on this point—are antagonists: A “culture-state” [Kultur-Staat] is merely a modern idea. The one lives upon the other, the one flourishes at the expense of the other. All great periods of culture have been periods of political decline; that which is great from the standpoint of culture, was always unpolitical—even anti-political. Goethe’s heart opened at the coming of Napoleon—it closed at the thought of the “Wars of Liberation.” At the very moment when Germany arose as a great power in the world of politics, France won new importance as a force in the world of culture. Even at this moment a large amount of fresh intellectual earnestness and passion has emigrated to Paris; the question of pessimism, for instance, and the question of Wagner; in France almost all psychological and artistic questions are considered with incomparably more subtlety and thoroughness than they are in Germany,—the Germans are even incapable of this kind of earnestness. In the history of European culture the rise of the Empire signifies, above all, a displacement of the centre of gravity. Everywhere people are already aware of this: in things that really matter—and these after all constitute culture,—the Germans are no longer worth considering. I ask you, can you show me one single man of brains who could be mentioned in the same breath with other European thinkers, like your Goethe, your Hegel, your Heinrich Heine, and your Schopenhauer?—The fact that there is no longer a single German philosopher worth mentioning is an increasing wonder.


Everything that matters has been lost sight of by the whole of the higher educational system of Germany: the end quite as much as the means to that end. People forget that education, the process of cultivation itself, is the end—and not “the Empire”—they forget that the educator is required for this end—and not the public-school teacher and university scholar. Educators are needed who are themselves educated, superior and noble intellects, who can prove that they are thus qualified, that they are ripe and mellow products of culture at every moment of their lives, in word and in gesture;—not the learned louts who, like “superior wet-nurses,” are now thrust upon the youth of the land by public schools and universities. With but rare exceptions, that which is lacking in Germany is the first prerequisite of education—that is to say, the educators; hence the decline of German culture. One of those rarest exceptions is my highly respected friend Jacob Burckhardt of Basel: to him above all is Basel indebted for its foremost position in human culture. What the higher schools of Germany really do accomplish is this, they brutally train a vast crowd of young men, in the smallest amount of time possible, to become useful and exploitable servants of the state. “Higher education” and a vast crowd—these terms contradict each other from the start. All superior education can only concern the exception: a man must be privileged in order to have a right to such a great privilege. All great and beautiful things cannot be a common possession: pulchrum est paucorum hominum.—What is it that brings about the decline of German culture? The fact that “higher education” is no longer a special privilege—the democracy of a process of cultivation that has become “general,” common. Nor must it be forgotten that the privileges of the military profession by urging many too many to attend the higher schools, involve the downfall of the latter. In modern Germany nobody is at liberty to give his children a noble education: in regard to their teachers, their curricula, and their educational aims, our higher schools are one and all established upon a fundamentally doubtful mediocre basis. Everywhere, too, a hastiness which is unbecoming rules supreme; just as if something would be forfeited if the young man were not “finished” at the age of twenty-three, or did not know how to reply to the most essential question, “which calling to choose?”—The superior kind of man, if you please, does not like “callings,” precisely because he knows himself to be called. He has time, he takes time, he cannot possibly think of becoming “finished,”—in the matter of higher culture, a man of thirty years is a beginner, a child. Our overcrowded public-schools, our accumulation of foolishly manufactured public-school masters, are a scandal: maybe there are very serious motives for defending this state of affairs, as was shown quite recently by the professors of Heidelberg; but there can be no reasons for doing so.


In order to be true to my nature, which is affirmative and which concerns itself with contradictions and criticism only indirectly and with reluctance, let me state at once what the three objects are for which we need educators. People must learn to see; they must learn to think, and they must learn to speak and to write: the object of all three of these pursuits is a noble culture. To learn to see—to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts. To learn to see, as I understand this matter, amounts almost to that which in popular language is called “strength of will”: its essential feature is precisely not to wish to see, to be able to postpone one’s decision. All lack of intellectuality, all vulgarity, arises out of the inability to resist a stimulus:—one must respond or react, every impulse is indulged. In many cases such necessary action is already a sign of morbidity, of decline, and a symptom of exhaustion. Almost everything that coarse popular language characterises as vicious, is merely that physiological inability to refrain from reacting.—As an instance of what it means to have learnt to see, let me state that a man thus trained will as a learner have become generally slow, suspicious, and refractory. With hostile calm he will first allow every kind of strange and new thing to come right up to him,—he will draw back his hand at its approach. To stand with all the doors of one’s soul wide open, to be slavishly in the dust before every trivial fact, at all times of the day to be strained ready for the leap, in order to deposit one’s self, to plunge one’s self, into other souls and other things, in short, the famous “objectivity” of modern times, is bad taste, it is essentially vulgar and cheap.


As to learning how to think—our schools no longer have any notion of such a thing. Even at the universities, among the actual scholars in philosophy, logic as a theory, as a practical pursuit, and as a business, is beginning to die out. Turn to any German book: you will not find the remotest trace of a realisation that there is such a thing as a technique, a plan of study, a will to mastery, in the matter of thinking,—that thinking insists upon being learnt, just as dancing insists upon being learnt, and that thinking insists upon being learnt as a form of dancing. What single German can still say he knows from experience that delicate shudder which light footfalls in matters intellectual cause to pervade his whole body and limbs! Stiff awkwardness in intellectual attitudes, and the clumsy fist in grasping—these things are so essentially German, that outside Germany they are absolutely confounded with the German spirit. The German has no fingers for delicate nuances. The fact that the people of Germany have actually tolerated their philosophers, more particularly that most deformed cripple of ideas that has ever existed—the great Kant, gives one no inadequate notion of their native elegance. For, truth to tell, dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen—that one must learn how to write?—But at this stage I should become utterly enigmatical to German readers.

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