Ressentiment and Schooling

When the whining schoolboy with his
satchel and shining morning face,
creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.

William Shakespeare
“The Ages of Man”

It may seem that it is original sin that teaches us that
there are no innocents and that we must painfully expiate
our guilt  in the schools, but schooling came first, and original
sin was one of the lessons Augustine drew from it. And behind
schooling were deflation, debt, and social climbing.

(Attn. David Graeber).
The Fundamental Turtle of Western Civilization

Of all the things the German academic high school did, the most valuable was its training in Latin style, for this was an artistic exercise, while all the other activities were aimed solely at knowledge. To put the German essay first is barbarism, for we have no classical German style developed by a tradition of public eloquence; but if one wants to use the German essay to further the practice of thinking, it is certainly better if one ignores the style entirely for the time being, thus distinguishing exercise in thinking and in describing. The latter should be concerned with multiple versions of a single content, and not with independent invention of content. Description only, with the content given, was the assignment of Latin style, for which the old teachers possessed a long-since-lost refinement of hearing. Anyone who in the past learned to write well in a modern language owed it to this exercise, (now one is obliged to go to school under the older French teachers); and still further: he gained a concept of the majesty and difficulty of form, and was prepared for this in the only possible right way: through practice.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, a philologist by trade, testified to the importance of the study of Latin and of Latin rhetoric:

“One vanished preparation for art”,
#203 in Menschliches Allzumenschliches, vol. I.

I think that extensive drill in the imitation of the virtuoso Latin authors probably does account for the extraordinary subtlety, quickness and vigor of Nietzsche’s writing. Another nineteenth-century author of similar education was the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Nietzsche’s younger French contemporary, who was a student of one of those “older French teachers” and won a prize when he was twelve for a Latin poem (complete with epanalepsis and anantapodoton) on an obscure set theme (Jugartha, the Numidian enemy of Rome):

….ascitur Arabiis ingens in collibus infans
Et dixit levis aura: “Nepos est ille Jugartha!

Nietszche’s and Rimbaud’s virtuosity as writers made it possible for them to write things that they could not have said using a more straightforward style. Both had the power to say many things at once, including contrary things, without losing the thread. Indeed, Rimbaud’s derèglement de tous les sens, whatever else it may have been, was a new rhetoric, and some of the Illuminations can be seen as simple exercises in a new way of putting words together — as if the nominally meaningful content in a virtuoso piece on some Jugartha had been replaced with words more associable with Rimbaud’s actual obsessions:


Toutes les monstruosités violent les gestes atroces d’Hortense. Sa solitude est la mécanique érotique, sa lassitude, la dynamique amoureuse. Sous la surveillance d’une enfance elle a été, à des époques nombreuses, l’ardente hygiène des races. Sa porte est ouverte à la misère. Là: la moralité des êtres actuels se décorpore en sa passion ou en son action. – Ô terrible frisson des amours novices sur le sol sanglant et par l’hydrogène clarteux ! trouvez Hortense.1

A(ll the monstrosities invade the horrible movements of Hortense. Her solitude is a erotic mechanics; her weariness, an amorous dynamic. Under the watch of childhood she has been, at various times, the blazing hygiene of the races. Her door opens on squalor. There the morality of present beings disembodies into her passion or her action. – Oh terrible shudder of novice love, against a bloody ground and hydrogen-illumined! — find Hortense).

Rimbaud, whose harsh mother monitored his studies closely and demanded extraordinary efforts, hated Latin from the first:

“In spite of all this, my father sent me to school when I was ten. “Why”, I would say to myself, “learn Greek and Latin? I don’t know! There’s no need of it, anyway! What does it matter to me if I pass my exams? What’s the use of passing one’s exams? It is of no use at all, is it? Yes it is, though: they say there is no employment without a pass….Then take history: learning the lives of Chinaldon, and Nabopolassar, of Darius, of Cyrus, and of Alexander, and of their cronies, outstanding for their diabolical names (remarquables par leurs noms diaboliques) is a torture. What does it matter to me that Alexander was famous? What does it matter?…..What evil have I done that they should put me to the torture?”

“Le soleil etait encore chaude….”,  
Collected Poems, tr. Bernard;
written in 1864, when
Rimbaud was ten years old.

Sometimes [Rimbaud’s mother] would send them to bed supperless because they had been unable to recite, without a slip, the hundreds of Latin verses she had set them to learn from memory).

Bernard, “Introduction”, p. xxix.

Rimbaud had ample precedent for his resentment, which is intrinsic to schooling itself. The great church father St. Augustine, for example, had been forced into the study of rhetoric by his ambitious parents:

I was too small to understand what purpose it might serve and yet, if I was idle at my studies, I was beaten for it, because beating was favored by tradition. Countless boys long forgotten had built up this stony path for us to tread and we were made to pass along it, adding to the toil and sorrow of the sons of Adam….. I was still a boy when I began to pray to you, my Help and Refuge. I used to prattle away to you, and though I was small, my devotion was great when I begged you not to let me be beaten at school. …. Oh Lord….O Lord, throughout the world men beseech you to preserve them from the rack and the hook and various similar torture which terrify them. Some people are merely callous, but if a man clings to you with great devotion, how can his piety to inspire him to make light of these tortures, when he loves those who dread them so fearfully? And yet this is how our parents scoffed at the torments which we boys suffered at the hands of our masters. For we feared the whip just as much as other feared the rack, and we, no less than they, begged you to preserve us from it. But we sinned by reading and writing less than was expected of us.

St. Augustine, Confessions, I, #9, p. 30.

If this was so, why did I dislike Greek literature, which tells us these tales, as much as the Greek language itself?…. I suppose that Greek boys think the same about Virgil when they are forced to study him as I felt about Homer…. For I understood not a single word and I was constantly subjected to violent threats and cruel punishments to make me learn….. This clearly shows that we learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion. But your law, O God, permits the free flow of curiosity to be stemmed by force. From the schoolmaster’s cane to the ordeal of martyrdom, your law prescribes bitter medicine to retrieve us from the noxious pleasures which cause us to desert you.

Book I, #9, p. 35.

In Augustine’s case, as in Nietzsche’s and Rimbaud’s, the child was, to his own detriment, made the standard-bearer for the worldly ambitions of a pious and respectable, but marginal and (roughly) petty-bourgeois family, and Rimbaud’s triumphant rhetorical set-piece on Jugartha had been preceded a millennium and a half earlier by Augustine’s prize-winning but meaningless “speech of Juno” (Book I, #17, p. 37). Even as a Saint, Augustine remained bitter:

And yet human children are pitched into this hellish torrent, together with the fees that are paid to have them taught lessons like these. Much business is at stake, too, when these matters are publicly debated, because the law decrees that teachers should be paid a salary in addition to the fees paid by their pupils. And the roar of the torrent beating upon its boulders seems to say: This is the school where men are made masters of words. This is where they learn the art of persuasion, so necessary in business and debate….

Book I, #16, p.36.

Kenneth Rexroth has argued that St. Augustine invented the Oedipus Complex and was responsible for the sexual guilt which he thought characteristic of Western civilization:

There is ample evidence that Western European civilization is specifically the culture of the Oedipus Complex. Before Augustine there was nothing really like it. There were forerunners and prototypes and intimations, but there wasn’t the real thing. The Confessions introduce a new sickness of the human mind, the most horrible pandemic, and the most lethal, ever to afflict man. Augustine did what silly literary boys in our day boast of doing. He invented a new derangement.

“Introduction” to D.H. Lawrence’s Selected Poems

The truth seems to be otherwise, however. According to the evidence he gives, during his serious relationship young Augustine was enthusiastic, affectionate, and faithful. His guilt was due to the fact that his long-term relationship was an unmarried one, and this was because a marriage would have interfered with the worldly ambitions of his parents — including his pious mother:

My family made no effort to save me from my fall by marriage. Their only concern was that I should learn how to make a good speech and how to persuade others by my words…..For even my mother, who by now had escaped from the center of Babylon, though she still loitered in its outskirts, did not act upon what she had heard from her husband with the same earnestness as she had advised me about chastity. She saw that I was already infected with a disease that would become dangerous later on, but if the growth of my passions could not be cut back to the quick, she did not think it right to restrict it to the bonds of married love. This was because she was afraid that the bonds of marriage might be a hindrance to my hopes for the future – not of course the hope of the life to come, but my hopes of success at my studies. Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn, my father because he gave no thought to you and only shallow thought to me, and my mother because she thought that the usual course of study would certainly not hinder me, but even would help me, in my approach to you.

Book II, #3, pp. 42-46).

Augustine only begins to mention sexual temptation and his rather minor Oedipal problems in Book II. Book I is dominated by his resentment of his teacher, who sometimes resembles an angry God and sometimes a cruel demon (as in Manichaeanism). Augustine’s feelings in Book I are a confused mess: resentment of the punitive teacher; partly-sublimated resentment at his parents for having forced him into this “martyrdom” (his comparison); guilt at his mild and childish disobedience (a guilt which seems to derive from the shame of physical punishment); and Christian objections to the pagan and worldly content of the teachings in the school. In the end his renunciation liberates him, not really from The Father, but from the teachers:

The schoolteachers need not exclaim at my words, for I no longer go in fear of them now that I confess my soul’s desires to you, my lord.

Book I, #13, p. 34.

So here we have a new theory of Western Civilization, which is based not on sexual repression per se, but on educational practices which, in the interest of their parents’ family ambitions, consign small, helpless children from middling families to the hands of brutal teachers, forbidding them to have fun or even to marry until they have achieved success and can find a properly respectable match — at best, in early middle age. In the cases here the “family” consists of a strong mother and an absent or ineffectual father — and it is precisely the father’s failure to properly establish the family that imposes this terrible obligation on the poor child. (In Augustine’s case, as Bartin and Brown show, in the decaying and deflated Roman Empire almost no one could afford a respectable marriage, with the result that “lewdness” was rife.)

It was the resentment felt against being forced to study Latin or Greek instead of marrying which led to the resentment, decadent practices, heterodox views, and brilliant writing which have been the driving force of Western history. Augustine was only the beginning of a long tradition. During his Manichaean period before he reconverted to Christianity, he had in fact been a member of a decadent avant-garde group called “The Wreckers” (ēvērsōres, more like “The Overturners” Book 3, #3, p. 58), and this move from decadence to piety was later matched by Dante, Verlaine, Huysmans, and many others.


In the history of civilization Rimbaud and Nietzsche are counted among the rebels, naysayers, and immoralists, whereas Augustine was a founder of Christian orthodoxy. But they are all men of the same type, angry men who, for reasons of family ambition, had been forced against their will into intense programs of study which, in return, allowed them to express their resentment with supreme eloquence and persuasiveness. Augustine seems different because over the course of the centuries, his eloquence persuaded almost everyone (notably the mothers of Nietzsche and Rimbaud). But prophets are always fated to have their words misinterpreted, and a key part of his message has been forgotten: his hatred of his teachers.


Hortense in Rimbaud’s “H” is presumably Hortense de Beauharnais: Napoleon III’s mother, Napoleon I’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law, Morny’s mother, and Queen of Holland. The Communard Rimbaud hated Napoleon III, and here he is ever so eloquently casting shade on his mom. The one-letter title is probably a parody of the contemporary practice of avoiding the use of full names for fear of a lawsuit or duel — a practice which Rimbaud cheerfully violates at the end of the poem.

The Bonapartes made a joke of the ideologies of hereditary rule. Descended from an uncultivated commoner family in the most backward and least French province of France, they inherited no ancient lands or titles, and in 1815 they lost everything that Napoleon had gained for them. But most of the second generation of Bonapartes were cousins of the crowned heads of Europe, and Napoleon I’s own prestige still lingered, so the Bonapartes couldn’t just be ignored.

Princess Mathilde reports on her Murat cousins (Bonapartes on their mother’s side): She went on to talk about the Murats, the whole family sleeping together pell-mell. “They were just like rabbits”, she said. “Anna [Duchesse de Mouchy], at the age of ten, was always in her nightdress. I had all the trouble in the world to keep her from kissing one of the valets….. As for the other girl, Caroline, Madame de Chassiron, it was impossible to wash her feet.”

Goncourt Diaries, pp. 139-140.

Topics for Future Study


Henry David Thoreau, “the finest American classicist of his century”. His ambitious mother, his ineffectual father, and his failed love affair.


The significant sisters of Rimbaud, St. Augustine, Thoreau, Nietzsche and Pascal. The role of the parents in Sartre’s Les Mots: did Sartre study Latin? Pascal’s mother. Nietzsche’s relative lack of resentment of his forced studies: was he in denial or repressed ?

“I did far too much when I was young” he sometimes said to me. “As a student I sometimes studied all night, I always had a bucket of cold water under the table; if I noticed that I wanted to fall asleep, I put my feet in it, and then I felt fresh again….”

Eugenie Gallie, quoting one
of Nietzsche’s landlords, in Sander Gilman,
Conversations with Nietzsche, p. 171.


The classicists of the early modern age (Montaigne, Rabelais, More, Erasmus). Their attitudes toward Latin and Greek respectively — the reverse of Augustine’s. They hated Latin scholastic theology but loved Greek, whereas in his youth St. Augustine had delighted in immoral pagan tales in Latin, his native language, but hated Homeric Greek. (In Charlemagne’s court Alcuin grumbled about the novice monks continuing to recite pagan Germanic sagas).


Classicist education was forced on helpless boys in traditional China too. Why did China not also become a culture of ressentiment?


God and grammar:

O Lord my God, be patient, as you always are, with the men of this world as you watch them and see how strictly they obey the rules of grammar which have been handed down to them, and yet ignore the eternal rules of everlasting salvation which they have received from you.

Augustine, Book I, #18, p. 39

I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
(Kaufman’s translation).

What I want to stress here is a special correspondence between the emergence of selfhood understood as a person and the emergence of “the” text from the page.

Ivan Illych
In the Vineyard of the Text


We like to attribute shameful deaths to grudgingly-admired authors who were too weird for us, and cliodiagnosis is perhaps the evilest area of literary studies. We know now that Nietzsche did not die of syphilis and was probably not syphilitic at all, that Poe died of rabies from a dog bite and may not have been an alcoholic at all, and that whether or not he had syphilis, Baudelaire died of the hereditary disease that killed his mother a few years later. More examples could easily be found.

Further reading: Bartin, Carlin, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, Princeton, 1993; Brown, Peter, The World of Late Antiquity, Norton, 1971; Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Vintage, 1980.