Lessons of the Mastersby George Steiner
When we talk about education today, we tend to avoid the rhetoric of "mastery," with its erotic and inegalitarian overtones. But the charged personal encounter between master and disciple is precisely what interests George Steiner in this book, a sustained reflection on the infinitely complex and subtle interplay of power, trust, and passions in the most profound sorts of pedagogy. Based on Steiner's Norton Lectures on the art and lore of teaching, Lessons of the Masters evokes a host of exemplary figures, including Socrates and Plato, Jesus and his disciples, Virgil and Dante, Heloise and Abelard, Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler, the Baal Shem Tov, Confucian and Buddhist sages, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Nadia Boulanger, and Knute Rockne. Pivotal in the unfolding of Western culture are Socrates and Jesus, charismatic masters who left no written teachings, founded no schools. In the efforts of their disciples, in the passion narratives inspired by their deaths, Steiner sees the beginnings of the inward vocabulary, the encoded recognitions of much of our moral, philosophical, and theological idiom. He goes on to consider a diverse array of traditions and disciplines, recurring throughout to three underlying themes: the master's power to exploit his student's dependence and vulnerability; the complementary threat of subversion and betrayal of the mentor by his pupil; and the reciprocal exchange of trust and love, of learning and instruction between teacher and disciple. Forcefully written, passionately argued, Lessons of the Masters is itself a masterly testament to the high vocation and perilous risks undertaken by true teacher and learner alike.
"Why do we constantly degrade or lampoon teachers? What they do is how civilizations are built - 'no craft more privileged' says George Steiner . . . Perhaps it's because too many teachers, like me, fell ignominiously short of greatness. Steiner is not one of those. In these six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, he brings his formidable charisma, his unrivalled range of reference and powers of rhetoric to bear on the peaks (as well as some troughs) of pedagogy, in history and literature: Socrates and Alcibiades, the parables of Christ, Faust, Virgil and Dante, Abelard and Eloise . . . Like his hero Socrates, Steiner professes to have few answers, but his questions sweep you along."
Steiner's scope of reference is daunting, massive, seemingly pan-textual and perhaps spilling sloppily over the edges of a short book like this one. But one of the pleasures of reading his reticulate, compounded, prodigious and forceful prose style has always been the knowledge that we're getting more than we bargained for, that the exegete's high-octane gloss on seven words from The Inferno might outstrip our urge to reread The Inferno. Fine with me: The man is impassioned. And his goal, what he wants passed on to his readers, seems nothing less than a reminder of what constitutes la société libre, a cultured populace willing to ingest, learn from and, when necessary, refute the Masters.
Steiner's Lessons of the Masters sets forth the disturbing complexity of the relationship between teacher and pupil, master and disciple...Some of the best writing in Steiner's book is scorching characterisationof bad teachers, of the politically correct, and the hypocrites who would deny the erotic element in the teacher-pupil relationship.
Steiner has addressed the whole topic of 'masters'...and their students or disciples, and what the whole vexed process of the passing on of wisdom involves. Lessons of the Masters, based on Steiner's Norton lectures, explores those exceptional souls who attempted to divine, unpick or wrestle with truth and their dramatic and often complicated relationships with their followers...It is the urgent sense of the unquantifiable but irreplaceable value of teaching that gives Lessons of the Masters its force.
Steiner...[explores] the ways in which the evolution of the art of knowledge has been accompanied by an evolved symbiosis of attraction and subversion, a reciprocity of trust and love passing between disciple and provider of knowledge...In this small volume, Steiner provides what must be his most dazzling spectacle of poly-scholarship. Judaism, Confucianism, Zen, Christianity, mathematics, science, the sportsfield, pop music, the classics are all quarried for analogues and examples. In each lecture, he provides wonderful examples of the internal politics of apprenticeship.
The debt owed to [Steiner] by his readers...cannot be acknowledged too often...The rewards and privileges of teaching, as well as the fearsome weight of responsibility that the teacher takes on, is [one] of the themes that recur repeatedly in these pages. Good teachers, [Steiner] speculates, may be rarer than artists or sages...There is, he says, no craft more privileged, or more vital to society's health. This is a book which every person interested in culture should read, but it should act especially as a tonic for teachers in these grey times.
This latest book by George Steiner is a series of reflections on 'the charged personal encounter between master and disciple'...If his book is, as he concedes, a mere 'summary introduction,' it is also the most trenchant and moving account we have of a theme few writers have treated with comparable panache and thoughtfulness...What can happen when one human being attempts to teach another? To this question Steiner attends with unapologetic passion and urgency...The theatrical language is a hallmark of Steiner's writing and perfectly conveys his conviction that teaching well is a sacred obligation, and that what sometimes happens to a lucky student is momentous...There are provocative formulations in Steiner, stabs of brilliant color, flarings of metaphor. Nothing lies limp on the page. What might in other hands seem gray or cautionary bristles with implication...The effect of his book is to make us understand that there are many variants of the successful master-disciple relation and that the besetting sin educators must tirelessly address is the tendency to regard teaching as little more than a job and students as those who are merely trained to perform tasks. In his forays into numerous exemplary instances, Steiner demonstrates what it means to think about teaching and learning with all one's heart and with the indispensable assistance of prodigious learning.
[Steiner's] learning is certainly on display in Lessons of the Masters... Some of the finest passages in the book are impassioned definitions of the act of teaching...It seems only appropriate that in this and other recent books, he should turn his attention to his own profession, with something of the spirit of civic responsibility. Yet despite the plaudits and honours, George Steiner cuts a strikingly lonely figure as he champions the life of the mind and its great practitioners. He does so in a world largely given over to a different kind of celebrity.
George Steiner's reflections on the electric relationship between teacher and student takes the reader on a high-speed rollercoaster ride to visit the greatest figures of Western civilization...An impassioned pedagogue himself, Steiner is fascinated by the highly charged dialectic that has existed for time immemorial in the pursuit of meaning and understanding...Relationships of such profound influence can likewise be misunderstood, misused, perverted, and persecuted. Such is the drama that surrounds every great master of Western culture. One need only recall the dreadful end that befell the likes of Socrates, Empedocles, Jesus, and St. Paul. Where there is great mastery, there is likewise great jealousy, treachery, threat, and fear. Steiner passionately throws out a wide and undaunted net of inquiry into this perennially prickly and powerful subject.
This heavily referenced work deserves a place in every serious educator's library...Steiner provides a rich narrative of the lives, historical and literary, of master teachers and their craft...This richly detailed examination of master teachers through the ages offers much to contemporary teachers. It is filled with a deep respect and value of a spirituality that recognizes the worth of individuals who go beyond reasonable expectations to ask more of themselves and their charges as they demonstrate the possibilities of living a life exalted by wisdom. Master teachers do not call for a kind of religious orthodoxy or adherence to any favored dogma, such as religions tend to propagate and require. Instead, Steiner advocates the need for teachers to discover their potential to inspire an awakening among students, similar to the Far East practices of Zen. This new sort of master teacher as spiritual motivator, community builder, and role model is a noble challenge to set before contemporary educators, who could begin to counteract what Steiner refers to as the "emptiness in modernity" that pervades our culture and times...Teachers would be well advised to listen to this advice.
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Lessons of the Masters
The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 2001â?"2002
By George Steiner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
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Instruction, spoken and enacted, by word or exemplary demonstration, is obviously as ancient as mankind. There can be no family or social system, however isolated and rudimentary, without teaching and pupillage, without achieved mastery and apprenticeship. But the western legacy has its specific sources. To a striking degree, the usages, the motifs which continue to implement our schooling, our pedagogic conventions, our image of the Master and his disciples, together with the rivalries among competing schools or doctrines, have preserved their lineaments since the sixth century B.C. The spirit of our lectures and seminars, the charismatic claims of rival gurus and their acolytes, many of the rhetorical techniques of teaching itself, would not surprise the pre-Socratics. It is this millennial continuity which may be our principal inheritance and the axis of what we call, always provisionally, western culture.
The trouble is that we know too much and too little of such figures as Empedocles, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, or Parmenides. Their purported lives have never ceased to fascinate philosophic and poetic sensibility. They quicken not only cosmological, metaphysical, and logical argument throughout western intellectual history, but art, poetry, and, in the case of Pythagoras, conceptions of music. Yet their actual teachings have come down to us, if at all, in fragments, in torn shreds as it were or via the citations, themselves possibly inaccurate and even opportunistic, of such critical voices as those of Plato, of Aristotle, of Byzantine doxographers and the Church Fathers. A mist of legend, although often strangely luminous, surrounds the philosophic-scientific teachings and methods of pre-Socratic Sicily and Asia Minor. Even the rubric "philosophic-scientific" is questionable. The pre-Socratics do not make this distinction. Elements of allegory, of esoteric cults, of magic as we know it from Shamanic practices are inextricably inwoven with propositions of an arduously abstract tenor (Parmenides on "nothingness," Heraclitus on the dialectic). Hegel's image is arresting: it is only with Heraclitus that the history of philosophy, which is itself philosophy, reaches dry land. Heraclitus, the dark and riddling aphorist, as the ancients designated him, is, however, as elusive as his twilit predecessors.
And at once, we come upon one of our major themes: that of orality. Before writing, during the history of writing and in challenge to it, the spoken word is integral to the act of teaching. The Masterspeaks to the disciple. From Plato to Wittgenstein, the ideal of lived truth is one of orality, of face-to-face address and response. To many eminent teachers and thinkers, the setting down of their lessons in the mute immobility of a script is an inevitable falsification and betrayal.
To Heidegger, Anaximander was an immediate presence. But already to classical antiquity such primal Masters, often itinerant, as Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, and Ion of Chios were something of a mystery. How and whom had they taught, what exactly was meant by early references to a "school" of Anaxagoras? Legend and conjecture inclined to relate "Orphism," the teachings and rites which mythography ascribed to the figure of Orpheus, to the dawn of philosophical-cosmological instruction. Orphism remains an almost impenetrable concept and tradition. What is significant are the intimate affinities between philosophic pedagogy on the one hand and the arts of the rhapsode on the other. These arts are oral and, by definition, poetic. The recitation of rhapsodes, of more or less necromantic poet-singers, the treatises of Masters themselves presented in poetic forms (Empedocles, Parmenides but also Platonic mythology), the establishment of initiate communities of adepts and disciples made for a now unrecapturable but seminal brew. Its force can be gauged from the traces it has left in modern practise.
It is in what we know of the teachings and hagiographic narratives which surround Empedocles and Pythagoras that the overarching themes of Mastery and discipleship originate. By the later fifth century, Pythagoras's renown and the enactments of his precepts were widespread. Considered a universal man (Heraclitus will denounce this polymath "charlatanry"), Pythagoras exercised a commanding influence over cosmography, mathematics, the understanding of music and, above all, the conduct of daily lives of an ascetic, purified character. The spell which radiated from his teaching in Crotona must have been mesmeric. In his study of the pre-Socratics, a sceptical Jonathan Barnes tells of "numerous sectarians," of a Pythagorean "Freemasonry—united by prescriptions and taboos—a religious society, not a scientific guild, which dabbled in South Italian politics."
It is this "dabbling" which may have proved fatal. It would appear that Pythagoras gathered around him a coven drawn from the local aristocracy. Tenacious legend evokes years of preparation, of initiatory silences, of strict dietary and hygienic observance before members of this grouping (etaireia) were admitted to the Master's presence and personal teaching. Though ethical and intellectual commitments were undoubtedly paramount, Pythagoras's vision and doctrines had political implications. They aimed at nothing less than the rule of philosophy over the city—the Platonic ideal. The tradition whereby the citizenry rose against Pythagoras compelling him to flee to Metapontum in c. 497–5 B.C. is not implausible. There, reports not untainted by mysticism, have it that the Master passed away after abstaining from nourishment for forty days (those "forty days in the desert"?).
But discipleship did not cease. Pythagorean communities seem to have persisted in cities under Crotona's influence. Attacked in c. 450, later Pythagoreans fled to Greece. "Bound in fellowship by custom and ritual," they can be traced down to c. 340 B.C. A recurrent pattern of conflict between the life of the mind and that of the city had begun. Also Orpheus had been torn to pieces and Hebraic intuition will insist that prophets and teachers of wisdom are slain by their fellow citizens.
This conflict features in what we know of Empedocles. Here the aura of the supernatural is even more pronounced than in respect of Pythagoras. Empedocles surrounds his august, inspired person with hetairoi, pupils, companions, women among them. His didactic practices with their Orphic-Pythagorean or Parmenidian precedent point to a fundamental orality, though in this instance a philosophic-poetic text has come down to us. The issue of political ambition is unmistakable. Empedocles's philosophical-magical doxa, whose inner and esoteric precepts are offered only to a chosen elite, entails the possibility of political rule over Syracuse or Agrigento. The motif whereby Empedocles refuses the crown urged upon him by the people is an ancient one. As is the tradition whereby he exercised some form of despotic rule, including the execution of his enemies. Hence, according to one biographical tradition, a popular uprising and the sage's banishment to the Peloponnesus. The other version will become immensely celebrated. Shattered by the hatred of the priestly caste and the mob, bidding farewell to Pausanias, his elect disciple who will become an eminent physician, Empedocles ascends the lone wilderness of Mount Etna and leaps into its fiery crater. A sandal, found on the glowing rim, tells of his suicide.
Yet his doctrinal, stylistic influence carries on. An Empedoclean school of medicine flourishes in Syracuse in the fourth century B.C. As late as the sixth century A.D., the Neoplatonist Simplicius reads Empedocles in the format of a scroll. Above all, it is the high drama of Empedocles's legendary death, and of its philosophic-social implications which will continue to exercise their fascination. We see this clearly in Friedrich Hölderlin's Tod des Empedokles in its threefold versions. Novalis projects an Empedocles drama. So does Nietzsche when he plans a tragedy in prose. Only one scene survives, but the material is rich with self-portrayal. Nietzsche's Empedocles will turn knowledge against himself; he wills the ruin of his people because their sloth and mediocrity are incurable. He "hardens himself more and more." These themes, and the "Empedocles landscape," are closely reflected in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Indeed, the imago of the Master's ascent and death in the high places becomes archetypal. It inspires Ibsen and provides a telling contrast to Socrates's urbanity. Gerhart Hauptmann's "Indiphodi" dramatizes the volcanic suicide. Other poets and dramatists dwell on Empedocles's erotic relations with one or more of his entranced pupils.
Matthew Arnold's Empedocles on Etna is an interminable, leaden exercise. But it contains an important pointer. Broils "tear us in twain, since this new swarm / Of sophists has got empire in our schools." The "sophist brood hath overlaid / The last spark of man's consciousness with words." Who, then, were these destructive sophists?
The name has been pejorative throughout our history. It connotes mendacious argument, the ability to take either side of a case with equal and factitious rhetorical brio, logical virtuosity without substance or moral reference. Sophistry designates verbal ostentation and the self-serving play of rehearsed eloquence. It is only in recent decades that this traditional and proverbial indictment has been reconsidered, that the two major schools of sophistry in the ancient world—first Greek, then Roman—have been revalued. The revision proposed is nothing less than revolutionary. The principal Sophists and their disciples are now seen as begetters of textual criticism (cf. Protagoras's explication of a lyric by Simonides). Their audacious speculations on "nothingness," on the paradoxical status of existential propositions, notably by Gorgias, are held to contain in nuce Heidegger's experience of the Nichts and consequential aspects of Lacanian-Derridean deconstructive wordplay. Isocrates, Alcidamas, then Hippias of Elis seem to share a fascination with language, with "grammatology" which radically anticipates on our most recent philosophic-semiotic interests. So eminent a scholar as Jacqueline de Romilly perceives in the Sophists indispensable agents of what we call Athenian democracy.
Most pertinent to my context is their role in the development of teaching, of the academic and the book world as we know them. The Sophists read out to their students, in what we can justly envision as lectures and seminars, both the classical authors whom they were expounding and their own writings (paradeigmata). If the tradition whereby Protagoras's works were burnt on grounds of atheism (416–415 B.C.?) is reliable, it provides evidence of the dissemination of written scrolls and of their sale to private owners. Polemic evidence is contained as well in the Socratic-Platonic critiques of sophistic bookishness, of the Sophists' reliance on the inert authority of the script, in Protagoras, in Phaedrus, in Plato's Letters II and VII. Somehow, the Sophists were able to overcome what Rudolf Pfeiffer has termed "the deep-rooted Greek aversion for the written word." Our conventions of systematic pedagogy, of hermeneutic and grammatical analysis, of textual citation are put in place. Techniques are evolved to train the student (paideuein) in rigorous thought and attention to detail. These are intended to form the basis, technical and thus teachable, for rhetoric and rhetorical skills. For despite their cultivated literacy and "modernity," the Sophists claimed the divinely inspired rhapsodes, the singers of truth as their predecessors.
Each of these elements is mirrored in Socrates, whose stance towards Protagoras and Gorgias is a very complicated hybrid of irony and respect, of rebuttal and mimesis. To contemporaries, Socrates was himself an eminent Sophist. His arguments are not always superior to those of his adversarial kindred (notably in Protagoras). His sense of similitude betrays itself and, at certain points, disturbs him. Insight into this ambiguity fuels Aristophanes's mockery in Clouds.
Aristophanes's satire touches on a vital if intractable concern (strangely, Leo Strauss all but elides it in his Socrates and Aristophanes). Proceeding from town to town, lecturing in private houses and public spaces, the Sophists ask for and receive payment. It is reported that Prodicus charges fifty drachmae—a considerable sum—for his lessons on the proper usage of words and syntax.
The philosophic, moral, and epistemological implications are nothing short of boundless. They engage every aspect of our theme. How is it possible to pay for the transmission of wisdom, of knowledge, of ethical doctrine or logical insights? What monetary equivalence or rate of exchange can be calculated as between human sagacity and the bestowal of truth on the one hand and an honorarium in cash on the other? If the Master is truly a bearer and communicator of life-enhancing truths, a being inspired by vision and vocation of no ordinary sort, how is it possible for him to present a bill? Is there not something at once demeaning and risible about the entire situation (cf. Clouds, 11. 658ff., or Rabelais on the Sorbonne)?
Nuances, discriminations are, to be sure, necessary. Technical skills, the teaching of crafts, even, perhaps, of the higher reaches of technology as these impinge on the sciences, may have their fiscal rationale. The motions of carpentry and those of electronic or quantum computation do not only-modulate palpably into the "professional"; the time and operative disciplines involved in them can reasonably be held to be calculable and susceptible of monetary reward. It may well be, though in a simplified sense, that the distinction to be argued is that between the teaching of applied mathematics and pure mathematics, between the geometries required by the surveyor or hydraulic engineer and the addictions of the number theorist (the borderline being always contingent and open to revision). Music affords a peculiarly challenging problem. Is there any partition possible between, say, the training of a voice, the teaching of counterpoint and that of composition itself? Or is music, even at its loftiest, a techn? whose values can, in the last analyses, be matched and reimbursed monetarily?
But what of philosophic, ethical, cognitive material, what of poetics? The rhapsode, Plato's omniscient Ion, the Orpheus who sings for the Argonauts can be fairly rewarded for his performance, for that which in ancient times often associates his art with that of the prize-winning athlete. But how can we evaluate and pay for Parmenides on "the one," Socrates on virtue, Kant on the synthetic a priori? Do inadequately paid metaphysicians go on strike, do they withhold their labour from those unable to pay for their magisterium? Do differing price tags attach, say, to Heidegger's ontology and the merry liberalities and relativism of Richard Rorty? This absolutely fundamental query is masked by the fact of the academic. Because, precisely since the Sophists, so very much of philosophy "gets done" in universities and by men and women with public, professional qualifications, just because the participants in this enterprise expect and receive salaries, we tend to overlook the problematic strangeness of their trade. Because so many of the Masters from Aristotle to Bergson or Quine have been "professors," titled members of a mandarin guild, with its mechanics of appointment, promotion and financial reward, the condition seems "normal." There have been impressive dissenters, men or women whom private income dispensed from the academy: Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for example. There have been thinkers of the stature of Sartre who found academic pedagogy unacceptable and earned their livelihood "outside." Wittgenstein occupied a university chair, though he regarded this condition as radically false. Today, the "poet in residence," the teacher of "creative writing" may be regarded, may consider himself as in a false situation. And Freud himself betrayed unease at the code of monetary remuneration for the offer of therapeutic perception. The abstentions of Spinoza have lost nothing of their exemplary radiance.
To ask whether teachers of philosophy, of literature, and poetics—what the Sophists called "rhetoric"—should expect and accept payment is to tread on unnerving ground. It is to invite, from a university audience, many of whose younger members are under more or less severe economic stress, a charge of provocative sophistry (here, the pejorative usage is exactly right). But the issue is genuine.
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George Steiner's books have served many a learner over the years. His After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation and In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture have attained the status of classics.
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