What would Nietzsche Say? The Love of Wisdom in Academic Culture

I'm continually amazed by the insights of Friedrich Nietzsche. He was a public sage centuries ahead of his own time. He understood what today we might call the shadow of academic and intellectual leftist culture, especially with his notion of ressentiment (which he partly adopted from Kierkegaard).

The meaning of ressentiment can be found in his famous essay, 'On the Genealogy of Morals.' In exquisite golden prose, Nietzsche traces the transition from the Roman polis to the Christian Empire, showing how the weak - the so-called priestly class - used their minds relentlessly to acquire and increase their own power and legacy, at all costs.

Nietzsche's analysis was a fire bomb of honesty, ultimately exposing a shocking degree of hypocrisy among the supposedly noble, altruistic and religious leaders not just of the medieval era and early modern Catholic Church, but even the psychologists, educators and moralists of his own society in the mid-to-late 1800s.

For Nietzsche, ressentiment was even more vile and aggravating than obvious vices and crimes. Why? Because it effectively hides from visible sight and has little to do with the apparent content of one's character and external social status. In fact, ressentiment even hides from those who possess it! This makes it not only politically incorrect to expose, but near impossible to identify in a rational-critical or concretely evident manner. In other words, it eludes what can be objectified (I'll return to Nietzsche in a moment).

In his Repulic, Plato identified three types of citizens that my philosophy mentor Bob Sitleman charted with the image of a pyramid to capture both the ratio and hierarchy of citizens according to Plato's view. FIRST, the majority of citizens pursue a life of simple pleasure, domestic well-being and procreation - that's what their life amounts to. SECOND, we have a smaller (but still significant) percentage of citizens who strive, with all their might, strategy and motivation to live an honorable life and especially to be remembered, to achieve greatness of spirit; in effect, to become like gods (as signified with statues, books and temples dedicated to their commemoration). THIRD, there are those who pursue love of wisdom, realization of the Good, and contact with the eternal beyond the transient world; this is symbolized by the philosopher's eye atop the pyramid (pictured on an American dollar bill).

Now initially Plato founded the Academy - considered the first academic institution of western civilization - a school of learning aimed precisely at gaining wisdom and knowledge of the third kind, the philosopher's wisdom and vision. Here philosophy may be defined as 'love of wisdom', and it was the philosopher whom others consulted in the Ivory Tower, as it were, in order to be guided in political and societal affairs of the State, governed as it mostly was by the second type of citizens seeking greatness and iconic status in human history.

In the spirit of Nietzsche, I'm going to propose a thesis here that many academics have themselves fallen from the worthy and rare commitment to wisdom, excellence, insight and virtue to that of pursuing accolades and glory through publications and administrative influence for the sake of being remembered.

However, one reason (and there are many reasons) this gets complicated is that academics are obviously not obsessively ambitious the way, say, a venture capitalist, stock-broker or old-school politician is. Another reason it's complicated is because academic culture is tremendously diverse, a 'heterogeneous mass,' as one colleague of mine put it. Still, Nietzsche loved to generalize and portray offensively sweeping caricatures. This was part of the power and broad appeal of his style, even as it surely upset many people (who felt 'unseen' by his taunting social psychological portrayals).

When it comes to more subtle ambitions and background tensions, the notion of ressentiment is quite profound and useful. Recall that ressentiment is hidden by its very nature, not just to others but often even to oneself. As I see it, ressentiment is most compellingly investigated where it seems less or even least apparent. The more it appears not to be there, the more likely it's brewing, festering under the surface, leaking out into all sorts of symptoms.

Ressentiment is also not just a secondary emotion fueled by spite and a desire to seek revenge, such as aiming to tarnish another person's reputation; that's a relevant but vulgar meaning of the word. Even intellectuals, for instance, who explicitly steal unpublished ideas from colleagues is not quite what Nietzsche had in mind (not at least according to my creative reading of the word).

To get a bit more technical, in higher education, we might say that ressentiment is concealed through bureauocratic protocols and social buffers (For example: 'it's the system's fault!'). While these regulative protocols and laws are often quite unfair, this can buffer over the fact that various human agents nevertheless feed and deliberately defend these very systems of power, even when at times they are patently unjust, especially to the extent that they serve their own interests. These systems and laws, although rigid and sometimes ossified and thus resistant to change beyond immediate human control, do not exist in a vacuum!

The point is that victims of Nietzschian ressentiment are paradoxically very capable of manipulating such systems and time-tested laws for their own gains. Effecting such changes at an institutional level takes perpetual effort and dogged resilience, along with persuasively giving the appearance of being altruistic and benevolent. In other words, ressentiment is potent fuel for strategies of highly ambitious and tactical people to get what they want in positions of power, sometimes going to ethically nefarious extremes (though, as mentioned, it's usually far more hidden than what is entailed in blatantly repulsive acts), all-the-while wearing a smile and skillfully espousing some liberal or humanistic vision of kindness and compassion.

Now I can't go into detail about how we might avoid being 'capable victims of ressentiment,' if I may put it that way. But let me say a few things in a more affirmative spirit:

First, as scholars I think we would benefit a lot if we learned to own our ambitions more explicitly and claim our sense of integrity and dignity, while also knowing how imperfect and clumsy all human acts and achievements really are. Otherwise, in covering over our passions and motivations - veiling on a day-to-day basis our true colors as the saying goes - we run the risk of fueling the repressed wolf in sheep's clothing, learning to smile and connect with colleagues only at surface or instrumental levels.

Second, let's find ways to bring our passion and desire into closer alignment with our thinking, deepest cares and civic engagement, however small the scale of our concerns and deeds might be. This could mean something as simple as taking the time to respond warmly (or critically for that matter) to an email. Or it could mean having the courage to be an outspoken critic of a certain injustice.

Third, meritocracy is real. Put baldly, not all intellectuals are equally intelligent and worthy of praise. Here an egalitarian attitude, as an uncritical and socially polite default view, can stifle vitality, learning, real trust, and building close friendships. Practically speaking, of course we need holistic rubrics to assess excellence and character formation, and there's a wide range of factors that would need to be considered in each and every situation.

Fourth, when it comes to excelling, it's not just about formality and 'who you know'! Virtues like hard honest work, developing culturally relevant insights that contribute, in whatever way, to the 'good life', and cultivating character formation - these cannot be faked! People feel it, even if they don't have the power or position to say it. One thing I really appreciated about my experience at Harvard was the tendency and willingness to acknowledge and reward distinctions and to expressly value excellence and different kinds of achievement.

In closing, I should say that this view of ressentiment in the context of academic culture is obviously a partial view and there are plenty of exceptions, there are multiple things I could and do extol about it. And I do hold myself accountable to the same tendencies and challenges conveyed above, bearing it in mind as I myself excel in academia (and I consider myself very privileged to be excelling as such).

As for making the 'love of wisdom' and the pursuit of Plato's rarified philosophical knowledge more central to the academic humanities, I wouldn't know where to even begin to answer this question, but I hope that Nietzsche's vision here has helped us trace some preliminary outlines.