There were a number of representational talents who, with a gentle brush, depicted the happiness, the cosiness, the prosaicness, the bucolic health, the ease and contentment to be found in the nursery, the scholar’s study and the farmhouse. With such picture-books of reality in their hands, these self-satisfied people then sought to come to terms once and for all with the classics they found unsettling and with the demand for further seeking which proceeded from them…
— Nietzsche, “David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer,” Untimely Meditations
As Daniel Breazeale explains in the editor’s introduction, this essay, written in 1873, was an attack on the philistine arrogance of the German bourgeoisie, those who took the military victory over France in 1871 as proof of the superiority of their culture and received ideas. David Strauss just happened to be whom Nietzsche chose as the symbolic representation of that class, probably as a concession to Wagner. Untimely Meditations was Nietzsche’s second book, written while he was still somewhat in the intellectual shadow of Wagner and Schopenhauer, before his break with their influence and his turn toward more interesting, aphoristic thoughts. Some parts of it don’t translate well — there are references to contemporary names and disputes which mean nothing to us now, and some of the arguments seem completely abstract from our vantage point a century and a half later. Nietzsche’s aristocratic disdain for the small world of shopkeepers, farmers and other laborers is almost shocking to a modern American. As he would later write in Thus Spake Zarathustra, describing the “last men,” an enfeebled human race devoted to nothing but entertainment, painless comfort, and security, “‘We have invented happiness,’ say the Last Men, and they blink.” I myself am undoubtedly bourgeois, both by circumstance and temperament. America itself is a bourgeois nation, a point Eric Hoffer pridefully made many times — proof of what the common man could do when freed from the yoke of the aristocracy. It’s difficult not to read passages like these and think indignantly, Hey, wait a minute, I resemble that remark!
But then he also jabs at “the cultural philistine who also loves arabesque flourishes but above all conceives himself alone to be real and treats his reality as the standard of reason in the world,” which strikes me as a succinct way to describe two prominent aspects of our culture today — spiritual-not-religiousness and the multiculti mania for “diversity.” As with Nietzsche’s philistines and their response to the classics, the spiritual-not-religious types curate a Whitman’s sampler of what they like about the world’s varied religious traditions while ignoring or disposing of the rest; whatever “arabesque flourishes” their spirituality happens to display is still only a cosmetic decoration for the “moralistic therapeutic Deism” underneath. The multiculturalists, of course, love superficial differences between people as long as there’s a shared bedrock of ideological uniformity. (In the cultural status game of rock-paper-scissors, privileged white progressives will still always assert themselves over conservative Catholic Latinos, homophobic black Baptists, or patriarchal Asians, who will suddenly find that they are no longer covered under intersectionality insurance once they dare deviate from their benefactors.) A modern-day polemicist looking for an avatar to symbolize this strange phenomenon of religion and politics as a form of self-aggrandizing therapy probably couldn’t do better than Oprah.
“Upon these self-satisfied newspaper readers and consumers of culture Nietzsche bestowed the fitting name Bildungsphilister or ‘cultivated philistines’,” Breazeale tells us. Nietzsche bemoans “the slime of this newspaper language,” the platitudes and feeble ideas that pass for current events, the sort that “informed” citizens pride themselves on being conversant with (“engaged with their newspapers and commonplace chatter about politics”). He scorns the type of writer who tries to provoke thought in uninformative ways — “but to the poor writer’s brain new and modern are the same thing, and it now torments itself to draw metaphors from the railway, the telegraph, the steam-engine, the stock exchange, and feels proud of the fact that these similes must be new because they are modern.” I can only imagine the perverse delight he would derive from reading most articles on neuroscience today.
The Lady of the House was telling me about a podcast she heard with an author named Kim Scott, a CEO coach in Silicon Valley, promoting her new book, in which “constructive criticism” has been replaced by the shiny, new, up-to-date term “radical candor.” Apparently, her marketable idea involves placing “radical candor” on an Eisenhower matrix along with “ruinous empathy,” “manipulative sincerity,” and “obnoxious aggression.” You see, there are ways to balance honesty with empathy without becoming either overly empathetic (safe-space coddling, etc.) or abrasive (brutally honest). You can tell people hard truths without crushing their spirit. “But…we used to just call that common sense!” I said. “Aristotle and the golden mean! Who doesn’t know this? Why is this a new idea just because someone uses new terminology?”
It reminded me that so much of what we hear from social science is little more than old truths run through a jargonizer — “writing that wears a white coat,” as one friend of mine put it. And yet, that kind of stilted jargon is the default among the cultural clerisy. Speak their dialect or be unheard. “A study has shown…” Maybe I can take heart after all — I might be as ordinary as can be, but I think I know who the modern-day equivalent of Nietzsche’s cultivated philistines are. “We have invented knowledge,” say the Voxplainers and the TedTalkers, and they blink.