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Philology or philosophy

In 1865, Nietzsche found himself directly in the crosshairs of the famous Philologenkrieg between Jahn and Ritschl, which eventually led to Ritschl’s and Nietzsche’s departure from Bonn. Although their academic in-fighting opened up some of the old scars that endured for a generation between the Sach- and Sprachphilologen, their fight was more personal than philological.[1] Nietzsche’s disgust with the entire incident was palpable. “No one can be happy about such things, with the possible exception of those spiteful theologians, for whom a scandal in the field of philosophy [sic], the representatives of humanity, won’t be a terrible displeasure.”[2] Once away from the Bonnerstreit at the more conducive University of Leipzig, Nietzsche’s scholarly star began to rise as the prize student of Ritschl ... until a “daemon” intervened in the fall of 1865.[3]

Nietzsche famously devoured Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, to the point of worrying the aging Ritschl.[4] By 1866, Nietzsche would name Schopenhauer alongside Lange and Kant in the context of “the only books I need”80 - a bold statement for someone studying to be a classical philologist. Thereafter, he would increasingly accentuate the aesthetic and mystical-metaphysical aspects of Schopenhauer’s thought, in keeping with Wagner and in opposition to Ritschl. To ‘guard’ Nietzsche from this influence of Schopenhauer, the old professor now sought surreptitious means to entice Nietzsche back to grounded scholarship: a prize created for a theme which he knew Nietzsche had already completed, indexing projects to keep Nietzsche’s attentions focused, and even invitations to become involved in his family life.81 Although we shall say much more about this in the following chapter, the Romantic-Idealist aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was one major factor that pulled Nietzsche from the anti-Idealist (but not anti-philosophical) Ritschl.

The second factor pulling Nietzsche from his philological career was music. It ranks among the great ironies of Nietzsche’s personal development that the same cluster of events that began to turn Nietzsche away from philology was only brought about through his friendship with Ritschl. In the fall of 1868, Nietzsche was invited to play Wagner’s Meisterlied for Ritschl’s wife, Sophie. Frau Ritschl was an intimate friend of Frau Brockhaus, the sister of Wagner. When the master himself performed the song for the two women while on a visit to Leipzig shortly after, Sophie explained to him that she had already heard it played by, of all things, a certain young philology professor.[5] The philologist and the great man were to meet; Nietzsche famously fell under his spell. There was now no choice between dry and nearly thankless academic prospects and a life at the side of Germany’s cultural icon - its greatest musical genius combined with its most famous admirer of Schopenhauer. Ritschl, and the life he offered, could not compete.[6] In the same month Nietzsche met Wagner, he would label philology the “miscarriage of the Goddess Philosophy.”[7] Of course, nothing here suggests that Nietzsche took sides for or against either brand of philology. It is more accurate to say that his musical and philosophical interests rendered his allegiance to academic philology itself untenable.

Disappointed as Ritschl became, the more dramatic change was in Nietzsche’s attitude toward Jahn.[8] Even though Jahn was a musician, was at least conversant in philosophy, was non-religious, and - at least to Nietzsche - less blameworthy in the affair at Bonn, he never felt much allegiance. In October of 1868, Nietzsche read Jahn’s Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Musik. As this was one month before his personal acquaintance with Wagner, Nietzsche could with some objectivity remark that Jahn made a few valid criticisms - specifically, that Wagner stood as representative of modern Dilettantismus - but noted that Jahn still had an “instinctive aversion” and was listening with “half-plugged ears.”86 Jahn’s critique revolved around Wagner’s flaunting of emotional affects, the overly romantic flights into formlessness, and his general air of disrespect toward musical genius other than his own.

Nietzsche’s proximity to Wagner exacerbated his distance from Jahn. The lesson to be learned from the ancient past was not one of commonality, but one of unbridgeable distance between the ecstatic glory of Greece and our own emasculated bourgeois culture. Should Jahn point with pride to the later Alexandrians as being exceptionally like the moderns, it is only because they were the exception, hardly the rule, of the tragic age.87 There can be no return to this artificial vision of antiquity propounded by the antiquarian Hellenists like Jahn; indeed, our scholars cannot begin to understand the depth of the tragic age because our values are exactly the reverse of theirs. Only through the recognition of the greatness of individuals and the willingness to lay foundations that would allow that greatness new breath in the contemporary world, especially through the art of Wagner, might Germany give a newly refashioned rebirth to a culture on a comparable level of individual flourishing. In the notes to his proposed Wir Philologen, Nietzsche writes, “Concerning talk about philologists, if it comes from philologists one learns nothing; it is purely chatter — for example Jahn (Bedeutung und Stellung der Alterthumsstudien in Deutschland). No feeling for what to defend, what to protect: thus speak people who still haven’t imagined that they can be attacked.”[9] In place of Jahn’s sentimental feeling for the bond with our enlightened liberal ancestors, philology must be a thunderous pronouncement of how superior to us the ancients have been and an exhortation that we might nevertheless yet overcome them if we focus our creative talents toward the production of greatness.

Nietzsche’s defense of Wagner against Jahn is shockingly disrespectful toward his former teacher.[10] Even if he was no great spiritual inspiration to Nietzsche, even if his view of the Greeks was regarded as skewed, Jahn had by all accounts been a very worthy educator. Jahn’s political and aesthetic views ran counter to Wagner, which meant, argumentum adhominem, Jahn himself ran afoul of Nietzsche.[11] “Jahn, and this was the deciding factor, represented the wrong worldview - he was a ‘healthy man,’ an ‘enlightened man,’ a ‘liberal man.’All of this ran counter to his newly won Schopenhauerianism and Wagnerianism.”[12] In sum, Nietzsche’s attitude toward Jahn after 1868 had manifestly little to do with scholarship, more to do with music, but most of all with a ‘world view’ difference that Nietzsche, as the philological apologist for Wagner, took personally. Jahn represented everything that the Nietzsche-Wagner-Schopenhauer front rallied against, but that battle was hardly over particular historical methods.

From Ritschl, whom Nietzsche still addressed with a fatherly Verehrter and to whom he still signed his letters “Ihr ergebenster SchUler,” there was little support to be found after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy. Ritschl’s responses to his former pupil’s various requests are measured, polite but unaffectionate; they lack the intimacy once shared between the master and disciple. Nietzsche would never read it, but Ritschl wrote in his diary that the book was “an inspired waste of energy.”[13] Still trying to guide his former student to a moderate and comfortable professorial career, he writes:

I am a bit sorry that so important a man [Wagner] has expectorated about matters of which he understands nothing; and I am still more sorry for your sake that to this battle against Wilamowitz’s critical pamphlet he brought no better weapons, and that through his arrogance in writing about things outside his competence he has probably harmed you more than helped you. It is my firm opinion that a strict scholarly refutation of the Wilamowitzian pamphlet is the only way. This is not to be published as part of Richard Wagner’s crusade against philology. At the very least, you had better understand, my dear friend, that an old philologist like me - such a “hardboiled sinner” in R. W.’s eyes - cannot fight your battles for you.[14]

This letter replies to one sent by Nietzsche in which he expresses surprise that Ritschl failed to see the book as forwarding their shared aims. “I thought that if you had ever met with anything hopeful in your life, it might be this book, full of hope for our classical studies.”94 We’ve seen that Ritschl was no blind Sprachphilolog, but how could Nietzsche have thought that any academic could have approved the book? Nietzsche was, in fact, half right. As the letter shows, Ritschl did think there was merit in the Birth - only that this value was not to be communicated by the voice of a musician. Ritschl saw the value of speculation when (and, more importantly, only when) it was practiced with the proper critical foundation. Nietzsche may have been half right, but was inexcusably half wrong. He may have anticipated Ritschl’s appreciation of the originality of his sweeping worldview concerning the ‘real’ nature of Greek tragedy, but badly underestimated how his lack of meticulous source criticism or engagement with the original sources would offend Ritschl. For his part, Ritschl never writes anywhere that the Birth was untrue, just that, no matter how grandly

‘inspired,’ the book’s attempt to intuit the ‘real idea’ of tragedy beyond critical analysis was just a ‘waste of energy.’ “What the main thing is,” he wrote to Nietzsche, is that “in my entire nature I follow the historical direction and the historical observation of human things so decisively, that I never seem to have found the solution to the world in one philosophical system or another.”[15] When Nietzsche visited his academic master at Leipzig in December 1873, the two became engaged in an intense argument about Richard Wagner’s Weltanschauung, and bitterly cut off their correspondence for more than two years.

  • [1] See the detailed histories by Paul Egon Hubinger (1964), 162—216, and C. W. Muller (1990),230ff.
  • [2] Nietzsche to Franziska and Elisabeth, May 3, 1865; KSB 2, 49. Nietzsche did not follow Ritschl toLeipzig due to any perceived ‘victory.’ Because ofRitschl’s behavior in the quarrel, Nietzsche actuallyfavored Jahn. “Here in Bonn the biggest flap, the worst cattiness about the Jahn-Ritschlstreit stilldominates. Ich gebe Jahn unbedingt Recht [I think Jahn is entirely in the right].” Nietzsche toGersdorff, May 25, 1865; KSB 2, 56.
  • [3] BAW3, 298. 4 Nietzsche to Rohde, February 1868; KSB 2, 248ff. 80 KGB 1/2, 184.
  • [4] 81 SeeJanz (1978) 1, 280—311.
  • [5] Nietzsche to Rohde, November 9, 1868; KSB 2, 337ft. 2 Janz (1978) 1, 192.
  • [6] 84 Nietzsche to Deussen, October 1868; KSB 2, 329. Cf. Schmidt (1989), 38.
  • [7] 85 For an exemplary account of Nietzsche’s later attitude toward Jahn, see Reibnitz (1991), 204—233.
  • [8] 86 Nietzsche to Rohde, October 8, 1868; KSB 2, 322. 87 Compare Burckhardt (1999), 6.
  • [9] NFspring-summer 1875, 5[125]; KSA 8, 73.
  • [10] Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, whose criticisms ofNietzsche we will say more about in the next chapter,took the attacks against Jahn personally. When Wilamowitz had studied at Bonn, he developed asclose a relationship with Jahn as Nietzsche ever had with Ritschl. In his dissertation, under Jahn’sclose friend Haupt in Berlin, Wilamowitz writes, “At Bonn I became a disciple of Otto Jahn, a manwith whom I can compare no one else. It will always be my greatest glory that he looked on me withfavor. Would that I might learn not only to admire his august example, but to imitate it as well.”Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1870), 59.
  • [11] F. A. Wolf, despite Nietzsche’s deep respect, was another target of critique on this score. “Ourterminology already indicates our tendency to misrepresent the ancients. For example, the exaggerated taste for literature — or Wolf, who, speaking of the ‘inner history of classical erudition,’ calls it‘the history of the learned enlightenment.’” NF March 1875, з[5]; KSA 8, I5ff Nietzsche’s quotationhere is of Wolf (1869), 844.
  • [12] Reibnitz (I99I), 2I5. Nietzsche nevertheless retained his meticulous notes from Jahn’s I865 lecture“Grundzuge derArchaologie,” and mined these for details in his 1871 “Einleitung in das Studium derklassischen Philologie.” Cancik’s judgment that Nietzsche’s encyclopedia lectures are “unqualifiedlycentered on Jahn’s 1865 lectures,” is, however, too strong. Cancik (1999), 14. Portions of that lectureare taken from various sources, including Jahn (I868), I-50. See also Brobjer (2005), 339.
  • [13] Cited in Silk and Stern (1983), 92. For more on Ritschl’s guarded opinion, see KGB 11/1, 281-282; 11/2,541-543; 11/1, 295.
  • [14] KGB 11/3, 15-16. 94 Nietzsche to Ritschl, January 30, 1872; KSB 3, 281-282.
  • [15] Ritschl to Nietzsche, February 14, 1872; KGB 11/2, 541.
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