The Enemies of Culture

The Enemies of Culture


An Essay of Culture Criticism Based on Nietzsche’s Early Work


Miguel Matilla

In the sixth section of Schopenhauer as Educator (1874),Nietzsche wrote:

For there is a kind of misused and exploited culture – just take a look around you! And precisely those powers that today most actively promote culture have ulterior motives, and they do not engage in intercourse with it for pure and unselfish reasons. (SE 6, CW 2, p. 218, 16)[1]

These powers are listed in the same section, indicating the reason why they were enemies of a true culture:

I have not yet enumerated all those powers that promote culture without, however, being able to realize its goal, the production of genius. I already named three: the selfishness of the moneymakers <die Selbstsucht der Erwerbenden>, the selfishness of the state, and the selfishness of all those who have reason to disguise and conceal themselves behind form. I cite, fourth, the selfishness of scholarship <Wissenschaft> and the peculiar nature of its servants, the scholars.(SE 6, CW 2, p. 224, 11)[2]

This exploitation of culture, pressed into the service of these four powers, resulted in a kind of deviant culture or pseudoculture (Afterkultur).[3]

Culture is an important subject in Nietzsche’s work, as he himself pointed out in different writings. An example: “My task: to comprehend the inner coherence and the necessity of every true culture <jeder wharen Kultur>.”[4] Even more, the problem of culture has been considered by several scholars the central, the fundamental problem posed by his thought.[5] In this paper, I will limit myself to focus on the goal of a true culture as Nietzsche formulated it at the time of SchopenhauerasEducator. Then, I will outline a proposal based on it. Finally, I will argue that a true culture, in any sense closely related to Nietzsche’s work, is not possible in the present-day western societies: humankind is reduced to sand in the capitalist democracies.

The Production of Genius

In Schopenhauer as Educator, Nietzsche insisted that the goal, the aim, the task of a true, genuine culture was the production of geniuses, great individuals, true, original, independent, free human beings, philosophers, artists and saints, etc.[6] Among the different formulations, here I would like to retain this one:

This is the fundamental idea of Culture, insofar as it is capable of charging each of us with one single task: to foster the production of philosophers, artists, and saints within us and around us, and thereby to work toward the perfection of nature. (SE 5, CW 2, p. 213, 17)[7]

Our life as individuals obtains the highest value and the deepest significance by living for the benefit of the geniuses.[8] A service that is reciprocal to a large extent because the geniuses serve us too: they educate us, that is, they liberate us, because “… education is liberation…” (SE 1, CW 2, p. 174, 36).[9] In other words, we have to work towards the perfection of nature, such as Nietzsche conceived it:

In fact, it is easy to understand that the goal of any species’ evolution is that point at which it reaches its limit and begins the transition to a higher species; its goal is not a large number of specimens and their well-being, nor is it those specimens that are the last to evolve. On the contrary, its goal is precisely those seemingly scattered and random existences that arise here and there under favorable conditions. And it should be just as easy to understand the demand that because humanity is capable of attaining consciousness of its aim, it must search out and produce those favorable conditions in which those great, redeeming human beings can come into being. (SE 6, CW 2, p. 215, 12)[10]

With regard to the existence of an immanent goal for humanity, it seems that it was Nietzsche’s conviction at that time, although he abandoned it subsequently.[11] This is an intricate matter with which I will not deal here. In any case, he insisted on the necessity for humanity to attain consciousness of its goal and to act accordingly. In his view, culture demanded of the individual ultimately and primarily action: “... that is, it demands that he fight for culture and oppose those influences, habits, laws, and institutions in which he does not recognize his goal: the production of genius.” (SE 6, CW 2, p. 217, 23)[12]. To sum up, we have to strive consciously to establish the favorable conditions for the emergence of geniuses.[13]

I will not avoid here the mention of a controversial matter. To whom does the term “us” in the expression “within us and around of us” refer? It seems to me that it refers to all human beings. However, other texts imply a clear restriction, as for example the following one from The Greek State (1872):

So that there is a broad, deep, and fertile soil for the development of art, the monstrous majority, in the service of a minority, must be slavishly subjected to life’s necessities above and beyond their individual requirements. At its expense, through its working more, that favored class is supposed to be whisked away from the struggle for existence, in order now to produce and to satisfy a new world of requirements.

According to this we must therefore understand, as a cruel-sounding truth to be put down, that slavery belongs to the essence of a culture: a truth, of course, which leaves over no doubt about the absolute worth of existence.[14]

This is not the place to analyze the different uses of the terms “slavery” (Sklaverei) and “slave” (Sklave) in Nietzsche’s work. Among them, here I would like to retain this one:

Principal deficiency of active men. – Active men are generally wanting in the higher activity: I mean that of the individual. They are active as officials, businessmen, scholars, that is to say as generic creatures, but not as distinct individual and unique human beings; in this regard they are lazy. – It is the misfortune of the active that their activity is always a little irrational. One ought not to ask the cash-amassing banker, for example, what the purpose of his restless activity is: it is irrational. The active roll as the stone rolls, in obedience to the stupidity of the laws of mechanics. – As at all times, so now too, men are divided into the slaves and the free; for he who does not have two-thirds of his day to himself is a slave, let him be what he may otherwise: statesman, businessman, official, scholar.[15]

Genius as productive uniqueness
In spite of these and other more or less controversial texts about slavery, aristocracy, hierarchy, etc, there exist in Nietzsche’s work a quite different vain which I would like to explore here. Like the quotation above concerning the philosophers, the artists and the saints, the following texts belong to it:

There is no more desolate or repulsive creature in nature that the human being who has evaded his genius and who then casts furtive glances left and right, behind himself, and all about. (SE 1, CW 2, p. 172, 18)[16]

Rescue your genius! One must come to shout to people, let it free! Do everything so as to provoke it![17]
Everyone is basically a genius insofar as he is unique and has an entirely new perspective on things. He increases nature, he creates with this new perspective. (Spring – Summer 1874, 34 [8], CW 11, p. 349, 29)[18]

Each of us bears within himself a productive uniqueness <productive Einzigkeit> as the kernel of his being, and when he becomes conscious of this uniqueness, a strange aura – the aura of the unusual – surrounds him. For most people this is something unbearable, because, as observed earlier, they are lazy, and because a chain of efforts and burdens is attached to that uniqueness. (SE 3, CW 2, p. 192, 4)[19]

It seems that these texts refer to the human being in general, not to a particular class of human beings. Starting from them, I propose to name “genius” the productive uniqueness that every human being bears. Although the term “creative” is more usually associated with Nietzsche’s work, specially with the early one, I will retain the term “productive”. In some way, both terms are quite worn by use, the first one having to do with religion and the second one with economics. In any case, I prefer the term “productive” because it is the term used by Nietzsche in the quotation above. Also, it is in tune with the metaphor of the plant man, which plays an important role in Nietzsche’s early work.[20] One never says of a plant which is giving its fruits that it is creative!

Therefore, the cultivation of genius instead of the cult of genius. With regard to this proposal, the main problem was suggested already by Nietzsche in a posthumous note on Wagner: “Problem: should art forever go on living in a sectarian and isolate way? Is it possible to put it in control?”[21] In other terms, is it possible an artistic culture, that is, the life of a people under the regimen of art?[22] In my view, the term “art” must be understood in its widest sense of “creativity”, or rather “productivity”. The main work of art of the human beings is their own life, not only as individuals but as members of a community too. In consequence, a second formulation of the problem could be this: should philosophy, art and sainthood forever go on living in a sectarian and isolated way?

A negative answer, more or less direct or partial, to this question has been given by a variety of thinkers. Here I will briefly mention some of them. The view that entrepreneurial ability is practically universal is defended nowadays by Muhammad Yunus (1940-), founder of the Grameen Bank and the Nobel Peace Prize 2006. Since 1980 this “bank of people” successfully gives the poorest peasant women microcredit, at the beginning in Bangladesh and then all over the world including the G-8 countries. And this happens in a world where 3.000 millions of human beings, near the half of the planet population, do not have any access to bank services. The view that all human beings are naturally philosophers was expressed by Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) in his 11th prison notebook. The view that every human being bears an artistic potential is reflected into the slogan “All we are artists” from de present-day Caracoles Zapatistas (Chiapas, Mexico). With regard to this point, the documentary “Born into Brothels” (2004) shows the result of giving cameras to several of the more abandoned children in Calcutta.[23] The view that every human being, even the most alienated one, bears a creative capacity was affirmed by Paulo Freire (1921-1997), the promoter of the “culture circles” in Brazil. The view that every human being can be, if he or she intends to do it, the sculptor of his or her own brain, was expressed by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), the Nobel Medicine Prize 1906.[24] In some way, all these views express the belief that culture could be other thing that the exclusive attribute of a privileged class.

At this point, I would like to introduce some nuances. I am making the claim that the goal of a true culture is the cultivation of genius, the liberation of the productive uniqueness that every human being bears. More specifically, the cultivation of the philosophical genius, the artistic genius and the ethical genius. With regard to this last expression, I prefer it to the term “saint” according to a suggestion of Nietzsche himself:

At the proper height everything comes together and harmonizes – the philosopher’s thoughts, the artist’s works, and good deeds. [...] The ethical strengths of a nation, as well, are exhibited in its geniuses. (Summer 1872 – Early 1873, 19 [1], CW 11, p. 3, 1)[25]

However, the human being is a unity with no separable parts, which requires well-proportioned developments.[26] On the one hand, Nietzsche considered the division of labor as a barbarian principle that leads to slavery, in the sense of the quotation about the principal deficiency of active man[27]. On the other hand, he formulated, in a posthumous note from 1883, his personal longing of implementation of the goal of a true culture: “To become an artist (one who creates <Schaffender>), a saint (one who loves <Liebender>) and a philosopher (one who diagnoses <Erkennender>), in a single person: – my practical goal!”[28] Perhaps the higher activity of the human beings, that is, their activity as original beings not as generic ones, could be classified for the sake of simplicity into three spheres: philosophy, art, ethics. More generally, the results of the productive uniqueness that every human being bears could be classified into thoughts, works and deeds.

To sum up, I propose in Nietzsche’s wake to put a goal for humanity and to fight for it. Certainly, a goal that is a human creation, or rather a human production, beyond any reference to a conception of the perfection of nature, to immanent goals, etc. The goal of a true culture is to foster the production of thinking, artistic and honest human beings within us and around of us. Or rather, to foster the cultivation of genius within us and around us. And I would like to insist on this point: not only within us but around us too. Therefore, the fight for a true culture not only has an individual dimension but a collective one too. That means that one must combat against all kind of ideas (economical, political, religious, educational, etc), habits, laws, institutions, etc, that impede the liberation of the productive uniqueness that every human being bears. That is, one must combat against all powers that reduce humankind to sand.

The Atoms of the Bourgeois Society

According to Nietzsche, as it is apparent in the two quotations at the beginning of this paper, four powers pressed culture into their service in his time: the greed of the moneymakers, the greed of the state, the greed of those in need of a belle forme and the greed of science. The result of this exploitation of culture was an aberrant culture or pseudoculture. In my view, these powers continue exploiting culture in our present-day developed societies, to a greater extent and in a more sophisticated way. I have dealt with each of them in four separated papers.[29] Also, I have made the claim in another paper that the greed of the media could be added to these four powers.[30] Certainly, these powers that misused and exploited culture collaborated in doing so:

What we call culture consists of the influence and collaboration of the state, the moneymakers, those in need of form, and the scholars. They have learned to get along with one another and no longer are feuding among themselves. A great clamor and apparent success.

Except that the true test never has been faced: the great geniuses usually stand in a feud against it. Just think of Goethe and the scholars, Wagner and the state theaters. Schopenhauer and the universities: people obviously refuse to admit that the great human beings are the apex for whom everything else exists. – The conditions for the development of genius in no way have improved, but have grown worse. Universal loathing for original human beings. Among us Socrates would not have been able to reach the age of 70. (Spring – Summer 1874, 34 [15], CW 11, p. 351, 10)[31]

Among these four powers which misused and exploited culture, in spite of actively promoting it, the moneymakers and the state were the more relevant ones:

That is why I tend to see and distinguish two things as the roots of this entire contemporary culture that is deferential to the age and to becoming: first, the opulent gravitation of this society toward moneymaking <Erwerb> and possessions; and second, the clever selfishness of the modern state. (Spring – Summer 1874, 35 [14], CW 11, p. 372, 24)[32]

It seems to me that this kind of culture that was coming into the existence in Nietzsche’s time was the modern bourgeois culture. The Great World Fair, celebrated in 1851 at the Crystal Palace (London), is usually considered the coming-out of the modern capitalist industrial society, which has consolidated, evolved and extended practically over the world since then. In some way, it is the kind of society in which we live yet, more than 150 years later, with all the necessary nuances. Therefore, in the last analysis, the two fundamental powers which were enemies of a true culture in the modern society were, and they continue being nowadays, the greed of the moneymakers and the greed of the state. In other terms, the capitalists and the state, or rather, the alliance between the capital and the state. In some way, the other three powers, including the media, could be seen as instruments into the service of this alliance. Certainly, in Nietzsche’s work there is no critique of the bourgeois society from the point of view of economics, like there is in Marx’s work. However, there is a radical critique of the bourgeois society from the point of view of culture. In my view, this fact gets Nietzsche closer to the anarchism.[33]

In any case, there is no place here to analyze the complex alliance between the capital and the modern state. Perhaps the modern state, the new form of state that emerged in Europe, on the model of the Prussian state, in the second half of the 19th century, could be seen as the state into the service of the capital in the last analysis: the capitalist or bourgeois state. Sometimes the evidence of this alliance is very clear, specially for the common people. I am referring for example to the under way crisis of the financial world. Here, I will limit myself to focus on a central element of this alliance, a field where according to Nietzsche both powers converged: education. To do so, I will quote entirely, owing to its relevance, a long paragraph: