Friedrich Nietzsche, The Ronin Scholar

ronin (noun) In feudal Japan, a lordless wandering samurai; an outlaw. Origin: Japanese, lit. ‘drifting people’.

Nietzsche, though himself sickly, of poor constitution and poorer eyesight, saw beyond what others could see, and had the power to ignite and explode all he came in contact with.

Nietzsche’s chosen field was Altphilogie, or the study of the ancient languages and literature (i.e. Greek and Latin). It was the late 1800s, the days when Otto von Bismarck was unifying Germany and when philology was still unified, the days before the awful schism that separated Altphilologie into the branches of linguistics and classics. His teacher was none other than the great Plautus scholar Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who himself traced a line back to Richard Bentley. Not only did Nietzsche have great teachers, he had the best of classmates too, chief among them Erwin Rohde, the author of Psyche, a monumental study of the idea of the soul and ancient Greek cult. They would be friends, on and off, until Nietzsche’s demise.

In his youth, Nietzsche went from peak to peak. As an undergraduate, he published an article in one of the leading journals. That was unheard of. What is more, he was granted a professorship at the University of Basel prior to receiving his doctorate. This was simply unprecedented. His good fortune was likely due to Ritschl’s glowing letter of recommendation, which closed with these words: “He will simply be able to do anything he wants to do.”

Nietzsche’s undoing after being appointed to Basel quickly followed. The “publish or perish” credo prevalent today was equally prevalent then. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music was an imaginative work weaving together many themes of the day: the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Wagner, Dostoyevsky’s forays into the world of the subconscious, the mysteries of Greek tragedy, and the meaning of German culture. It was a timely book. But with its unsubstantiated musings on the Apollonian and the Dionysian, it was also a wild book. It wasn’t philological. It was, instead, speculative, and speculative to an extreme. Ritschl, in horror, panned it. Rohde tried defending it at first, but realized, on further examination, that to distance himself would be professionally astute. Nietzsche’s adversaries, chief among them the celebrated Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, pounced. Overnight, Nietzsche went from star to persona non grata. He had been cancelled.

The students taking his classes dropped precipitously. After an extended leave of absence, he was forced to resign, in 1879, his professorship at Basel altogether. But now something strange happens. Not only did his production increase following his resignation, with each publication (and in many cases self-publication), the scope of his intellectual freedom also expands. In the years that followed his resignation, he is writing quickly, purposefully, and becoming more himself. His greatest works all follow: Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, The Wagner Case, and The Antichrist (1888). Here’s the question: if he had stayed within academia, would we still remember him today? By the time he started writing Daybreak (a fitting title, if any), he had already become a ronin scholar, a scholar without a university, an outlaw. But perhaps it is because he was a ronin that he was able to do what he did? Has anyone considered this possibility?

Today, these ronin scholars still exist. While “ronin scholar” is a cool, badass term, they are not so-called by academia. Instead, these scholars are pooh-poohed by academia as “cottage scholars” (a quaint and pastoral image) or “independent scholars.”  Both terms, while ostensibly neutral, are somewhat derogatory, a reminder that this person hasn’t quite made it.

In this blog, I’d like to celebrate these “ronin scholars” by drawing attention to how Nietzsche wouldn’t have been able to do the things he did unless he was a “cottage scholar” or “independent scholar.” As those within academia–at that time–pointed out, Nietzsche had to go because he was simply saying things that could not be said. Many of the things he said were, gasp, unsubstantiated by their sound “scientific” and “philological” approach. But, you know, when we look back now on what the other “scientific” and “philological” scholars were publishing, a lot of it looks pretty dated and just plain wrong to us today, easily as “speculative” as Nietzsche himself. Could history repeat itself? How will the scholarship of today be viewed in a hundred years?

This brings me to my point: how much freedom is there in academia today to truly express oneself? How much of academia is an echo chamber that talks of “method,” “science,” and “progress,” but is merely repeating the myths of what it needs to believe to perpetuate not knowledge, but the power structures and the institution of knowledge? Was Nietzsche critiquing academia by calling his first post-resignation book, of all things, Daybreak?

Was Daybreak so-called because it was a daybreak from having to hold back, having to self-censure any thoughts that went against the political ideologies of the academy? Consider his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, written while he was still in academia. Though scandalous, it is quite conservative when compared to his later works. In The Birth of Tragedy, he says the right things: he is pro-Wagner, the consummate German; Germany is leading the way by returning to the ancient past with Wagnerian music-drama; German philosophy is also leading the charge with the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and so on. Now, compare The Birth of Tragedy to his later writings when he was free from academia. In his later works, he rails against Wagner, Schopenhauer, and all the glories of Bismarck and German culture which he values at the worth of German beer: intoxicating but hangover inducing. The question is simple: could he have written these later works if he were still Professor of Altphilologie at Basel University? Or, are there freedoms one only enjoys when one is a ronin scholar, an outlaw, a drifter without allegiances.

The received wisdom is that if one is a cottage, independent, or ronin scholar, one cannot make it all the way. The cross-pollination with colleagues is insufficient. One is not inspired by students. One may lack access to libraries. Conferencing, done on one’s own dime, is more difficult. It is harder to come by ideas. But the received wisdom can be flipped around as well. What if all the cross-pollination, inspiration, books, and conferences condition participants into a sort of groupthink? Classics in the 1800s was part of the gentleman’s education, almost an extension of the state. If you had asked classicists in the 1800s whether this was true, they would have said: “No, that is ridiculous. We are advancing the field. In fact, with our philological science, we are even more Greek than the ancient Greeks were. With philology, we will bring back the glory days of the past.” Now, the conventional story with Nietzsche is that he left academia because of failing health and declining enrollment in his classes (because of the scandal of his first book). This story safeguards the legitimacy of academia: Nietzsche left due to health reasons and because he couldn’t make it as a teacher. But is it true? Perhaps he left because the atmosphere stifled what he had to say. Sure, Nietzsche complains about his health, but, if he was in such poor health, how did he travel so extensively and average over a book a year in the 1880s? And really, was the attendance in his classes dropping that much? Daybreak doesn’t much sound like the title of a book of an author is dire health and spurned by students. It sounds like the title of a work of someone who has found freedom of expression: it is the dawn of a new day. He had become a ronin scholar. Today, I’d like to raise a glass to toast these ronin scholars. They deserve a salute. They have paid a price.

In the late 1800s, nationalism was in the air. Academia never questioned it. Consider what is in the air today. Does academia call the dominant trends into question? And does academia ever call itself into question? Does academia argue for and against, or does it argue for the received wisdom in its halls? Who are the dominant voices in academia, and who are the intellectual ronin of our day and age? Are there, gasp, advantages of being a ronin scholar? These are all worthwhile questions.

In his youth, Nietzsche shone like a star. Then, like a Homeric hero, he paid the price for his aristeia, his finest moment. But, in paying the price, he discovered freedom. He became a ronin scholar, an outlaw working on the peripheries, a writer without allegiances. Though free, he was scorned. His books were self-published, and in small runs of a few hundred copies. Today, he is remembered as someone who saw through the veil. He was the original ronin.

If Nietzsche could make it, why couldn’t I?

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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

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