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Dead as a scholar

The professional reception of Nietzsche’s philological research in the late 1860s was concerned mainly to evaluate the individual ideas within the [1] [2] [3]

particular articles of a then still mostly unknown scholar. As we saw in the first chapter, some of Nietzsche’s conclusions were praised and some criticized by those in his immediate field, perfectly in keeping with his status as a budding scholar. After the publication of The Birth of Tragedy in 1872, however, the general tenor of the commentary shifts to an evaluation of the author behind the work. The shared and repeated criticism, which provides support for our characterization of it as such, is that Nietzsche’s method is aesthetic rather than historical, that he abandoned critical philology for this foray into Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic intuition.

Although the historical circumstances surrounding the so-called “violent controversy”[4] between the two young philologists are often exaggerated,[5] the most notorious opinion of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, as we saw above, was that of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Published by the firm Gebruder Borntraeger at his own expense, the piece is vitriolic and misquotes (perhaps intentionally) to a severe degree.[6] Its title, Future Philology! A Reply to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”, resounds as an overt criticism of the Wagnerian elements within Birth, a parody of the renowned musician’s Zukunftsmusik! The publication comes on the heels of Rohde’s own review in the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, the only journal of three in which he was successfully published.[7] Also to Nietzsche’s defense jumped Richard Wagner, deriding the “unappointed” Wilamowitz for his audacity in challenging a chaired professor. “We [Wagner and Nietzsche] by ourselves look out from the mountaintop over the wide plain without disturbance from the scuffling peasants in the tavern below us.” Wilamowitz “seems to us an old-fashioned Berlin bum, stumbling from beer to schnapps.”[8] With misplaced indignation, Nietzsche vents to Rohde: “The guild has condemned me to death; but that it is strong enough to kill — of this I have my doubts.”[9] [10] Nietzsche felt himself to be taking the moral high ground in not stooping to defend himself against this silent



Although he would never comment in public, Ritschl was sorely disappointed that the same student on behalf of whose meteoric rise he had staked his professional reputation did nothing to defend himself by means of the Erkenntnis with which he had taken pains to arm him. After all, “It is better to err with method than to find the truth without it, i.e., accidentally” [Besser methodisch irren, als unmethodisch d.h. zufalligdas Wahrefinden].71 It was his “firm opinion that a strict scholarly refutation of the Wilamowitzian pamphlet is the only way.”72 But too much the soldier in “Richard Wagner’s crusade against philology,” Nietzsche’s response never came.73 Noticeably later, Rohde again defended his friend, this time in a pamphlet with a title to parody the original review by Wilamowitz: Afterphilologie.74 And again, Rohde found little interest from scholarly publishers, and reluctantly settled on Nietzsche’s own printer, E. W. Fritzsch - then a known Wagner apologist. Here Rohde drew a line in the sand between the dry scientism of the academy and philology’s true importance for cultural life that he and Nietzsche apprehended, an “enlivening global Anschauung [beseelenden Gesammtanschauung] and an ethical feeling for the whole,”75 in contrast to “the sort of objectivity that pretends to rest on evidence alone [which] is purely illusory.”76 Nietzsche’s Schopenhauerian historiography represents the “unification of our scholarliness with the deepest mysticism; and, just as in myth, the expectation of the identity of the ev with the nav [the one with the all] and of the simultaneous overcoming of [the difference between] mysticism and rationalism in art.”77

Collected correspondence has preserved the opinions of several noteworthy philologists, historians, and philosophers of history. In a private letter from Ribbeck to the once-Baseler philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, who was both the brother of Nietzsche’s philological associate Carl and the brother-in-law of Hermann Usener, we hear a more objective description of the work: “An artistic-philosophical dithyramb in the Schopenhauerian- Wagnerian mode. Something of charming madness and fermentation in its main point (which is of course almost entirely original), striking and interesting throughout.”78 Jacob Bernays, whom we remember as Ritschl’s once-favorite student, complained on the contrary that the Birth had basically co-opted ideas he already published, and did so rather badly; very interestingly, Bernays believed Nietzsche was illicitly borrowing his “Anschauungen.”79 But besides Wilamowitz, the most famous judgment is the alleged opinion of Nietzsche’s acquaintance, Hermann Usener:

In Leipzig, there reigns one opinion about my book: according to this the great Usener, whom I so much respect in Bonn, upon questioning from his students, has let slip, “It is mere nonsense, of which nothing can be made: anybody who has written such a thing is dead as a scholar [sei wissenschaftlich Todt].” It is as though I had committed a crime; there has been ten months of silence now, because everybody believes himself to be so far beyond my book that there is not a word to be wasted on it. Thus, [Franz] Overbeck represents to me the situation in Leipzig.80

This letter, and its often parroted ‘ wissenschaftlich Todt,’ are interesting for several reasons. To start with, the account is reported at least third-hand: this is Nietzsche reporting to Rohde what Overbeck claims to have heard from a student of Usener’s. Second, Overbeck notes that Usener had only ‘let slip’ [verrathen] the famous quip when asked by his students about the book. Usener chose never to publish his opinion, and perhaps did not want his once cordial acquaintance to know how he viewed its lack of scholarship. Moreover, even if the condemnatory phrase is his, Usener does not lambast the work as a whole or any of the actual theses contained therein, but stresses its ineligibility to qualify as scholarship. Usener, who had read

Otto Ribbeck dating from November 5, 1872 to March 1, 1873, preserved in Calder 111 (1983), 242— 244. Shortly before Rohde died, he labeled the entire affair “a difficult and sad tragedy.” Calder ill

  • (1983), 247.
  • 78 The letter is preserved in Calder iii (1983), 247—248. I have altered the phrasing slightly to change what I believe is a printing error.
  • 79 A later chronicler, Ernst Howald, labeled the profession’s response, “an icy silence.” Howald (1920), 20. Silk and Stern cite a “silent disfavour.” Silk and Stern (1983), 91. Lloyd-Jones (1976), 7 goes too far to claim the “work was greeted with derision by most of his professional colleagues.”
  • 80 Nietzsche to Rohde, October 25, 1872; KSB 4, 7off

Nietzsche’s philological publications with interest, was keen to see the same sort of skeptical realism and naturalism in this book. But he would only find a transformed Nietzsche who had evidently grown discontent with the phenomenal descriptions of events through their evidential transmissions in an effort to intuit the ‘real essence’ of tragic antiquity. And Usener, like Wilamowitz, was right.

Nietzsche did not advertise any regret at the prospect of having his scholarship disliked by professional academics.[11] Since the truth of a position rested not on evidence but upon the aesthetic state of the historian who wrote it, those mere scholars were not only unjustified in their critiques but were incapable of understanding the ideas Nietzsche was in privileged position to expound:

The philologists of the present age have proven themselves unworthy of being permitted to consider me and my book as one of their own. It is hardly necessary to affirm that, in this case as well, I leave it up to them whether they want to learn anything or not. But I still do not feel in the least inclined to meet them half way. May that which now calls itself ‘philology’ (and which I designate only neutrally on purpose) ignore my book this time as well. For this book has a manly temperament and is of no value for castrati.[12]

Yet on a personal level, Nietzsche did feel stung by the guarded remark made by Usener and probably even worse about the lack of support from Ritschl.[13] His mentor never addressed particular theses in the work, but in a personal letter to him worried “whether your Anschauung can serve as a new foundation for education — whether the great majority of our youth would only be subjected to an immature hatred of science, without substituting a developed sensitivity for art - whether we bear thereby a greater danger of opening the door to dilettantism on all sides instead of widening the reach of poetry.”84 Characteristically concerned with historiography’s role in education, Ritschl was rightly worried that such far-flung mysticism masquerading as history would only corrupt Nietzsche's few remaining students. “But our Nietzsche!” Ritschl would also write to Wilhelm Vischer, the man who a few years before hired Nietzsche at Basel. “It’s remarkable how in one person two souls live next to each other. On the one side, the strictest method of academic scientific research ... on the other this fantastically overreaching, over-enthusiastic, beat-you-senseless,

Aesthetic intuition and the history of tragedy


Wagnerian-Schopenhauerian art-mystery-religion-crap [Kunstmysterienreli- gionsschwarmerei]! [...] What really makes me mad is his impiety against his true mother, philology, who had suckled him at her breast.”85

Nietzsche never stopped thinking about history, nor certainly about the ancients; but he had effectively abandoned philological science for his aesthetic intuition into the ‘real’ nature of tragedy, as everyone near him understood. Wilamowitz, and with him both sides of the philological guild, maintained the former as the only genuine path to historical truth. And curiously, though he would never hold anything resembling the Schopenhauerian conception of Anschauung, in a later pronouncement Wilamowitz would, indeed, admit the value of a more intuitional approach to philology:

The historical method and that of Anschauung,’ however, are two different approaches; and to justify something in a scholarly way naturally always presupposes that you have no presuppositions. But I am far from denying that an approach from the purely artistic, abstract side is unfruitful. Quite the contrary, because it is just this approach that comprehends the essence of the thing and - if it is successful - brings out from within through Anschauung far more perfect results than we, who only believe what we know, can bring into it from without.86

But Wilamowitz-Moellendorff wasn’t the only one who shifted his views. Nietzsche himself was by then already experimenting with a newfound epistemology. In place of the Birth’s attempt to abandon the subjective affects and ‘merge’ into the ‘ Ur-eine’ in a purely contemplative aesthetic moment for the sake of trying to re-present reality free from the prejudiced colorations of the will, Nietzsche would begin to see affects, drives, and prejudicial perspectives as both essential constituents of subjectivity, and, by extension, the conditions for the possibility of constructing an historical account.

  • 8s KSA 15, 46ff.
  • 86 This is stated in a reaction to a copy of his dissertation. Cited in Calder ill (1983), 231.

  • [1] See, for example, Dummett (1978), 333—350; 358—374.
  • [2] See Porter (2011), 89. Porter takes this intuitionism as a mere “posture” and not Nietzsche’s actualposition, as I do.
  • [3] GT“Versuch,” 2; KSA 1, 14. 62 GT“Versuch,” 6; KSA 1, 19. 63 GT“Versuch,” 3; KSA 1,14.
  • [4] The phrase belongs to Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1983), xii.
  • [5] Such interpretations include Hayman (1982), 150; Kaufmann (1950), 27; Hollingdale (1965), 213.More developed accounts include: Ernst Howald (1920); Silk and Stern (1983); Lloyd-Jones (1976);Porter (2011). See also Krummel (1998—2006) 1, 1—17.
  • [6] See the appendices of miscitations provided by Porter (2011), 90—94.
  • [7] See Nietzsche to Rhode, February 1872; KSB 3, 293. See generally Crusius (1902) and Whitman(1986). Cf. also Grunder (1969), 114.
  • [8] Preserved in Grunder (1969), 57—65. 6 Nietzsche to Rohde, July 7, 1872; KSB 4, 19.
  • [9] 70 Letters to various friends from June 5 to 26 indicate that Nietzsche felt himself engaged against “das
  • [10] Echo seiner inspirirenden ‘Hoheren.’” That this was paranoaia, see Calder ill (1983); Whitman(1986); Mansfeld (1986).
  • [11] One even-tempered review appeared two years after the Birth, Guhrauer (1874). Nietzsche nowhererecords whether he read it. Richard Falkenberg, who was later one of the first historians of philosophyto mention Nietzsche, also reviewed the Birth in 1876. For a history, see Krummel (1998—2006) 1, 32.
  • [12] KGW111/4, 25ff. 3 See, for example, Nietzsche to Rohde, January 28, 1872; KSB 3, 279.
  • [13] 84 Ritschl to Nietzsche, February 14, 1872; KGB 11/2, 541.
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