Ressentiment, The Teacher, and Marriage in Western Civilization

St. Augustine, Jane Austen, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Thoreau, Kahlil Gibran

Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
William Shakespeare
, “The Ages of Man”

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

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 are in general in the only possible right way: through practice.
“One vanished preparation for art”, #203 in Faber: Human, All Too Human, Nebraska, 1984.

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 for a Latin poem (complete with epanalepse and anantapododon) on an obscure set theme (Jugartha, the Numidian enemy of Rome):

Nascitur Arabiis ingens in collibus infans
Et dixit levis aura: “Nepos est ille Jugarthoe!…..”

Nietszche’s and Rimbaud’s virtuosity as writers made it possible for them to write things tha they could not have said using a more straightforward style. Both had the power to say many things at once, including contrary things, while still maintaining the thread of the writing. 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 rhetorical exercises in finding new ways of putting words together:

Toutes les monstruosités violent les gestes atroces d’Hortense. Sa solitude est la mécanique érotique; sa lassitude, la dynamique amoreuse. Sous la surveillance d’une enfance, elle a été, à des époques nombreuses, l’ardent 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 amoiurs novices sur la sol sanglant et par l’hydrogène clarteux! trouvez Hortense.

Rimbaud, however, whose severe mother strictly monitored his studies and demanded extraordinary effort from her son, 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?…..How does anyone know that the Latins ever existed? Perhaps their Latin is some counterfeit language….What evil have I done that they should put me to the torture?
“Le soleil etait encore chaude….”, tr. Bernard, pp. 45-49; written in 1864 when Rimbaud was ten years old.

Rimbaud had ample precedent for his resentment, which is apparently 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 beseach 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 hime to make light of these tortures, when he loves thoise 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, tr. Pine-Coffin, Book 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 thje 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, at his cost, made the standard-bearer for the worldly ambitions of a pious and respectable, but rather marginal petty-bourgeois family, and Rimbaud’s triumphant set-piece on Jugartha had been preceded a millenium and a half earlier by Augustine’s prize-winning “speech of Juno” .

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 It is generally understood that Augustine’s feelings of personal guilt and doctrine of original sin can be traced back to his loathing of the body and uneasiness with sex. The truth is rather otherwise, however. According to the evidence he gives, young Augustine was affectionate, sexy, 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 those of 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 pasisons 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.

Kenneth Rexroth has argued that it was St. Augustine who invented the Oedipus Complex, and he is responsible for the sexual guilt which Rexroth thought is 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.
Kenneth Rexroth, “Introduction” to D.H. Lawrence’s Selected Poems (New Directions, 1947; Viking, 1959).

However, Augustine only begins to mention sexual temptation (or 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. 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 word), a guilt about his mild and childish slacker disobediences which seems to derive from the shame of physical punishment, and Christian objections to the pagan and worldly content of the teachings. And 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 we have a new theory of cultural history here. Western civilization is based not on sexual repression per se, but on educational practices which, in the interest of their parents’ ambitions, consign small, helpless children from middling families to the hands of brutal teachers, forbidding them to marry or even to have any fun until they have achieved success and can find a properly respectable match, which is rarely before early middle age. Often enough the “family” consists of a strong mother and an absent or ineffectual father—and it was precisely the father’s failure to establish the family properly which imposed the terrible obligation to do so on the hapless child. (In the case of Augustine, as Bartin and Brown show, the context was the deflated state of the decaying Roman Empire, within which almost everyone found it impossible to satisfy the financial obligations of respectability.)

We can also conclude that the resentment felt against ambitious mothers who forced them to study Latin or Greek (instead of marrying) has led to the decadent practices heterodox views, and brilliant writing which have been the driving force of Western history. Augustine was only the beginning of this; as we know. Christianity was not the established church during his lifetime, and before his conversion he had been a Manichaean heretic and even an associate of an decadent avant-garde group called “The Wreckers” (Book 3, #3, p. 58.)

Or on the other hand, if the theory of cultural history strikes us as a little too ambitious, at least we can say that ambitious mothers who force their sons to study rhetoric often find themselves immortalized, but with a posthumous reputation which might not be entirely what they would have wished.


Henry David Thoreau, who has been called the finest American classicist of his century. His ambitious mother, his ineffectual father, and his failed love affair:

Finding that my fellow citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court house, or any curacy or living anywhere else, but I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known.)
The significant sisters of Rimbaud, St. Augustine, Thoreau, and Nietzsche (and also Pascal.)

Pascal’s mother.

The role of the parents in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots. Did Sartre study Latin?

Nietzsche’s lack of expressed resentment of his forced course of studies: was he blocked or in denial?

The classicists of the early modern age (Montaigne, Rabelais, More, Erasmus), who were as subversive as the nineteenth century classicists, but for whom Greek was liberating. The polar opposites of Augustine.

St. Augustine’s early fondness for immoral pagan tales in Latin (his native language).

Alcuin in Charlemagne’s court grumbling about the novice monks continuing to recite pagan sagas.


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, Penguin,, 1982, p. 483.

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, p. 25.

Illych sounds like Derrida, maybe, but Derrida might equally well be the new angry God/teacher Foucault warned us about when he spoke of the “tyranny of the professor”).


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.
Gilman, Sander, ed., Conversations with Nietzsche, Oxford, 1987.
Illych, Ivan, In the Vineyard of the Text, Chicago, 1993.
Nietszche, Friedrich, Menschliches Allzumenschliches, vol. I, translated by Faber as Human, All Too Human,
Nebraska, 1984.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, tr. Zimmern, Dover, 1997 (1909).
Rexroth, Kenneth, “Introduction” to D.H. Lawrence’s
Selected Poems
(New Directions, 1947; Viking, 1959); reprinted in
Bird in the Bush
(New Directions, 1959) and in
World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth
(New Directions, 1987). Online at
Rimbaud, Arthur, Collected Poems, text and tr., Oliver Bernard, Penguin, 1997 rev. ed.)
Rimbaud, Arthur, Oeuvre-Vie, ed. Borer, Arlea, 1991.
St. Augustine, Confessions, tr. Pine-Coffin, Penguin, 1961.

Could Nietzsche have married Jane Austen?


Awhile back I wrote a piece arguing that the supposed sexual repression of Christendom grew from the financial obstacles standing in the way of respectable marriage, which in turn can be traced to the efforts of ambitious families to maintain or raise their statuses via favorable marriages (i.e., marriages which bring wealth into the family). I gave special attention to St. Augustine, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Rimbaud, all of whom came from marginal families who hoped that their sons’ education in the classics– at the cost of deferring marriage for a decade or more — would allow them to enhance the family status.

These four authors expressed their high degree of alienation with the extraordinary eloquence which they gained from their intensive literary educations, and as a result their dissident points of view were better expressed than the more mainstream points of view of other contemporary authors who were luckier, lazier, and happier. Only St. Augustine seemed fully aware of this problem, though it can easily be seen in the biographies of the others.

Nietzsche was the most brilliant German philologist of his generation and became a full professor younger than anyone ever had before. His family was completely respectable, but his mother was widowed and far from wealthy, and since academics were not well paid he was not marriageable – certainly not after his retirement with a disability. His relationships with women were few and unsuccessful, apparently being limited to infatuations with the wives of friends and perhaps the encounter with a prostitute proposed by some biographers.

On the other hand, women who met him testified that he was courtly and pleasant and by no means unattractive – “not like a professor”, as one explained. Nietzsche is often enough treated as a sexless object of ridicule, but I am willing to argue that his sexual problems were mostly situational.   Nietzsche was always a good boy, and during the bourgeois XIXc, especially in Lutheran Germany, the demands on good boys were enormous: hard work, educational and professional success, good manners, deference to superiors, chaste and decent behavior, and adherence to an ethicized (Kantian) version of Lutheran modernist orthodoxy which emphasized Duty above all. Nietzsche rejected these demands to some degree, but actually lived an essentially conventional life. What he retained from his heritage was an emphasis on distinction, refinement, superiority, and self-improvement: the superman may be regarded as an intensified replacement for the already absurdly high Lutheran standard which had been imposed on him from birth.

Instead of making life easier and more fun, Nietzsche chose to make it more difficult: he was in thrall to The Seriousness.   In theory he rejected the bourgeois work ethic in favor of the more heroic aristocratic ideal and rejected Lutheran moralism for a freer, more aristocratic way of life. The traditional aristocrat was not answerable to anyone, and while moderns tend to misrepresent aristocrats as effete and sissified, the traditional aristocracy consisted of elegant but brutal military specialists with strong hedonistic and erotic tendencies. In theory. But in fact, Nietzsche was still a Protestant: at the end of Zarathustra we read

Trachte ich denn nach Glücke? Ich trachte nach meinem Werke!
(Do I then strive after HAPPINESS? I strive after my work!)

It’s unlikely that Nietzsche’s marital prospects would have been much better in a less bourgeois society. Let us take Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) as a case study in the actual life of an aristocracy. Austen’s book describes the lifeboat ethics of the children of the English gentry, many of whom were doomed by demographics to downward mobility. Elegant, pious propriety masked the use of every means necessary to destroy rivals for favorable marriages and inheritances – rivals who were usually very near kin. In Austen’s book the people tend to be epiphenomenal, with the real players being the titles to parcels of landed property.  The class systems which made culture and refinement possible by concentrating wealth also produced cultured people of uncertain status who had to be ejected and forgotten, and at the same time doomed most of its members to conventional and often unhappy marriages.

The perfect good marriage partner would be of good family and reasonably well-bred, belong to the right sect and political faction and approximately the same social circle (which seemingly required being “cousins or something like it”), and — above all — have an adequate income. Any personal requirements imposed by the individual partners would further restrict the pool of eligibles, and often marriages were arranged in complete disregard for the desires of their nominal principals. And the aristocrats in Austen’s book, as is typical of aristocrats everywhere, were not supermen or anything like supermen. They did not aspire to self-overcoming, but were perfectly happy to occupy themselves with hunting, whist, hot toddies, dances, flirtation, and seduction. While Nietzsche envied the amoral ease and grace of the aristocracy, as a self-confessed decadent (i.e., as a bourgeois Lutheran) he could not hope to attain it, especially insofar as it was linked with stupidity and laziness. Instead, he invented a new rigorous, strenuous, hyper-bourgeois, hyper-Lutheran ideal, even more difficult than the ideal he had been born into.

But the big question is this: if Nietzsche had been an Austen character, could he have married one of Austen’s Dashwood sisters? I think that the answer is “maybe — but probably not.” In his favor is Jane Austen’s own bias toward reserved, dignified suitors. When she concocted improbably happy endings for her books, Austen made sure that the “nice guy” got the girl and forced the dashing, impulsive seducer to slink offstage in disgrace. As Gilman’s book shows, Nietzsche was tolerably like the characters Austen favored, and during his younger days he probably even had the ardent sincerity Marianne (the “sensibility” sister) demanded. At the same time, however, both sisters hoped for an upper class income (1000 to 2000 pounds), and Nietzsche would have been totally out of luck for that reason.  

It’s wrong, of course, to identify a character in a novel with the novel’s author. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with asking which of the characters in a novel would have been capable of writing it, and of the characters in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is obviously the one (though her sister Marianne might have written something a bit smarmier). Of the two sisters, she is the one who gravitated naturally toward courtly, reserved gentlemen of Nietzsche’s type. Since Jane Austen never married, it’s reasonable to develop the question a bit further. If Nietzsche (with a bit more income) had married Jane Austen, would the marriage have worked out?

Not well, one fears. Austen was hardly the kind of feminist Nietzsche feared so intensely, but one doubts that he could have been a supportive husband for any woman of talent. The marriage probably would have been good for Nietzsche, at Austen’s expense, and perhaps a married Nietzsche would have been little less tightly wound, and might thus have written equally-penetrating, but less intensely alienated works . But as we have seen (Western civilization being what it is) such an outcome was in reality utterly out of the question.


Here are some contemporary descriptions of Nietzsche, more than half by women. Let the reader judge whether he’s a Darcy. I think that these descriptions do lay to rest the common belief that Nietzsche was a pitiful, neurotic bookworm with delusions of grandeur — three of the authors specifically note that he didn’t seem like a typical German professor academic. (From Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander Gilman, Oxford, 1987.)

Sebastian Hausman   (p. 139):
This is absolutely not the impression I had got on meeting Nietzsche; on the contrary, I found him extraordinarily fresh and lively….   (p. 140)  “[he] spoke with me in such a friendly, amiable manner [that] he gave me the impression that at the bottom of his soul he must have been an unusually kind and loving person.

Meta von Salis-Marschlins (p. 159):  
Even the first impression was comparable with no other. The strangeness and un-Germanness of his face matched his anassuming behavior, which gave no clue to his being a German professor. A strong self-confidence made any posturing superfluous.

Helen Zimmern (p. 167):  
[One] immediately became aware of being in the presence of a man who was completely conscious of his value……”   “Not only was there no sign of insanity detectable in him, but he was not even eccentric….”   (p. 168):   “I also know what Nietzsche wrote about women. But according to my experiences I can only say that Nietzsche was always of the most perfect gentilezza.  

Adolf Ruthardt (p. 183):  
Nietzsche’s external appearance made an extremely agreeable impression on me. Above middle height, slender, well-formed, with erect but not stiff stance, his gestures harmonious, calm, and sparing….. [this] allowed him so little to resemble the type of a German scholar that he called to mind a Southern French nobleman or an Italian or Spanish higher officer in civilian clothes

Marie von Bradke (p. 190):  
The man walking there, I noted clearly, had an artist’s eyes and bore high, lonesome, unique thoughts into his experience of nature’s beauty. When one saw the great, strong, well-dressed figure with the full, rosy face and the mustache, hastening along so, one would have taken him for a Junker [landed nobility] rather than a scholar or an artist.    

How much was 2000 pounds a year in 1800 in today’s dollars? Answers vary widely, but the annual subsistence income for a laborer, for example seems to have been in the low double figures. Brad Delong suggests that he had an income of about 6 million a year in 2007 dollars.
How rich is Darcy?
Inflation calculator 


Gilman, Sander Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. , Oxford, 1987.

Hexter, J. H., “The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance,” Journal of Modern History, XXII (1950), 1-20; also in Reappraisals in History, Harper, 1963.

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, 3 vols., Vintage, from 1995.

Shapin, Steve, A Social History of Truth, Chicago, 1994.

Zarathustra and Kahlil Gibran

Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,
but a shapeless pygmy that walks asleep in the mist searching for its own awakening.
And of the man in you would I now speak.
For it is he and not your god-self nor the pygmy in the mist, that knows crime and the punishment of crime.
Ofttimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.
But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.

The transcendentalist kitsch of Nietzsche’s Boston Lebanese disciple Kahlil Gibran makes Nietzsche’s Zarathustra also seem kitschy and hokey to me — a precursor of fin-de-siècle decadence, chic spirituality,and self-help books. Also Sprach Zarathustra was more readable in my (weak) German than it had been in English, however, and because of its very un-German short sentences, I propose that should be adopted as the introductory text for German-reading classes.