In the Heart of the Dons Print
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil struck Leo Strauss as Nietzsche’s “most beautiful book.” This impression need not mean that it was his most “profound” book. Can something be beautiful on the outside but corrupting on the inside? By any standard, Beyond Good and Evil, which Nietzsche published himself, selling only 118 copies, is a remarkable book, and one of Nietzsche’s last.

The book famously affirms that Christianity, the “Platonism of the masses,” is hopeless, the cause of profound weakness in society. Likewise incoherent, in his view, is the philosophic endeavor of modernity to replace Christianity with some rational explanation not rooted in Plato, Aristotle, and the books of revelation. But none of these rational sources is true either.

Christians, moreover, do not live as if what they publicly profess is true. Why bother with them? “In truth, there was only one Christian,” Nietzsche wrote in his Anti-Christ, “and he died on the Cross.” Nietzsche’s philosophy seems to originate as much in disappointment as in intelligence. Ultimately, he replaces reality with his own will. He calls the rest of us cowards for not going along with him.

From Nietzsche’s death in 1900, to our own day, as Allan Bloom remarked, the culture has been largely ruled by Nietzsche. Power and will have replaced reason and virtue as the heart of civil life. “The philosophers of the future must become the invisible spiritual rulers of a united Europe without ever becoming its servant,” as Strauss summed up Nietzsche’s admonition. The invisible rulers of modern Europe, and not a few visible ones, do not want to acknowledge any Christian roots to Europe.

On reading that sentence of Strauss, we note its final phrase, “without ever becoming its (Europe’s) servant.” In the New Testament, when Christ spoke of authority, He warned that it should not be exercised as “lording it” over people. In anticipation, He reversed what Nietzsche would reverse. Those who are in authority, Christ tells us, should rule as servants, not masters. The notion of rulers seeking to remain invisible but still being masters, not “servants,” is frightening.

And yet, an impersonal, invisible spiritual leader who rules seems close to what is actually happening in modern democratic states. The more the people legally govern, the less they seem to be served by legal authority. Increasingly, government and its employees serve themselves, as if the end of government is the well-being of the rulers who have their own privileges by “right.”

Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Maddox Brown (c. 1855)

What is the origin of our disorders? Since at least Plato, it is a well-known idea that great crimes are not committed by those with IQ’s low on candle-power. Hannah Arendt argued that great crimes were also committed by banal men who had nothing much to show for themselves but a kind of dogged stupidity and lethal competence.

If there is any truth in “social justice,” and I think there is very little, it is that ordinary people can be blinded by lofty sounding systems of rule and eloquent demagogues. But the real problem is not usually with ordinary people. It is with what I call the “dons,” clerical and academic.

The situation is paradoxical. My brother lived in a large-university town for many decades. He used to say to me after each election: “Tell me, why students in this elite university vote 95 percent the same way?” Generally speaking, the same way is the ideological way.

The initial answer, it seems to me, is this: “Which way do the clerical and academic dons vote?” More often than not, the one will reflect the same proportions as the other, whereas one would think, were there genuine freedom and intelligence (and “diversity”), the results would be closer to fifty-fifty.

In Hebrews 13, we read: “Be not carried about by divers and strange doctrines.” Who is most likely to be so carried about? It is ironically the “dons,” intellectual and clerical, as I like to call them. It may not be an accident that a tutor at Oxford, Italian priests, and heads of the mafia are all called “dons”!

The heart of all human disorder does not first lie in systems and organizations. It lies in the souls of men. No illusion in modern times has been more damaging than mis-locating the cause of soul-disorders into one or other aspect of societal structure.

Plato had it right from the beginning. Christianity was also correct in admonishing us first to look to our own souls. We do not like to hear this order of priorities, I know. It seems much nobler to go forth to help others with great plans and aims that do not involve how we live and what we believe. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven,” in the end, not only remains the best personal advice, but the best political advice. 

James V. Schall, S.J.
, a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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