Ressentiment and Schooling:

a new theory of Western civilization

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  Menschliches Allzumenschliches, vol. I, translation adapted from Faber’s  Human, All Too Human, Nebraska, 1984.)

(See below "Appendix One: More On Nietzsche".)

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):

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


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, 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 simple exercises in a new way of putting words together:


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.


Rimbaud, however, whose severe mother monitored his studies strictly and demanded extraordinary efforts 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 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, 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, to his own detriment, made the standard-bearer for the worldly ambitions of a pious and  respectable, but rather marginal petty-bourgeois family, and Rimbaud’s triumphant rhetorical set-piece on Jugartha had been preceded a millenium and a half earlier by Augustine’s prize-winning but rather meaningless “speech of Juno” (Book I, #17, p. 37).

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 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).


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).



Now, 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.


Kenneth Rexroth, “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).



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 comparison); guilt at his mild and childish slacker disobedences (a guilt 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).


 Perhaps 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 to have fun until they have achieved success and can find a properly respectable match  -- perhaps in  early middle age. Often enough the “family” consists of a strong mother and an absent or ineffectual father—and it is precisely the father’s failure to establish the family properly which imposes the terrible obligation to do so on the poor child. (In the case of Augustine, as Bartin and Brown show, the context was the deflated state of the decaying late Roman Empire, within which almost everyone found it impossible to satisfy the financial obligations of respectability.)

So perhaps we can conclude that it was the resentment felt against ambitious mothers who forced their sons to study Latin or Greek (instead of marrying) which 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 a long tradition. (As we know, Christianity was not the established church during his lifetime, but rather a dissident group, 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 if this theory of cultural history strikes us as a little far-fetched, 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.


Appendix One: More on Nietzsche

Nietzsche is like a point guard or broken-field runner. He can start out in one direction and then, in the course of about 50 words, switch directions twice. It was his extensive training in Latin rhetoric and composition that made it possible for him to be smarter than anyone else: it enabled him to express more ideas quicker, but without turning what he wrote into a jumble of nonsequitur assertions or a long, tedious Kantian paragraph-sentence.

Nietzsche doesn't contradict himself right on the spot. When he switches directions he always puts in enough traffic markers ("even more than that", "but rather", "isn't it really instead", etc.) to produce a meaningful sentence or paragraph. He picks up ideas to toy with them, or to tease the reader, or deliberately for the purpose of flinging them down later, or as mere introductions to better ideas.

Comparing one of his books to another, or comparing different sections from the same or different books, you will find real contradictions too, but every author is like that. Sometimes he's just changed his mind without being able to erase what he'd already published -- Nietzsche wrote several new prefaces to his old books. Other times he, like any author, just hasn't thought everything out, or isn't really terribly interested in a certain topic.

Nietzsche's style and linguistic virtuosity are the key to his work. He could not have said what he said at all if he'd written more straightforwardly or if he'd been a less brilliant writer. If Kant, Hegel, Marx, or Freud had been better writers, they would have been better thinkers. Probably none of them is as bad as they seem in translation, but none could compete with Nietzsche.



Topics for Future Study


A. 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. Thoreau:  “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.” 

B. The significant sisters of Rimbaud, St. Augustine, Thoreau,  Nietzsche and Pascal.  The role of the parents in Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words: did Sartre study Latin? Pascal’s mother. Nietzsche’s apparent lack of early resentment of his forced course of studies: was he blocked or in denial? 

Update:  "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 a landlord reporting what Nietzsche said,  in Sander Gilman, Conversations with Nietzsche, Oxford, 1987, p. 171.)

C. Nietzsche's relationships with women. Gilman's book indicates that Nietzsche was courtly and very correct in his manners, and made a quite a good impression at times, but that he apparently never made advances, formal or otherwise. His known affairs of the heart are infatuations with the wives of friends. His own writings display an extreme fastidiousness about various issues that would have made serious relationships difficult in the best of cases. Seemingly when Nietzsche took medical leave his high standards and his damaged status crossed, so that no woman who would have had him could possibly have been good enough for him (as in the Groucho Marx joke).

D. 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 and not oppressive. The Latin scholastic theology that they had been forced to study. St. Augustine’s early fondness for immoral pagan tales in Latin (his native language, which he preferred to Greek). Alcuin in Charlemagne’s court  grumbling about the novice monks continuing to recite pagan sagas.

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

F. 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,

I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar”.
(Walter Kaufmann, The Portable 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, p. 25).

This  sounds like Derrida, but Derrida might equally well be the new angry God / teacher, as Foucault warned when he spoke of "
a pedagogy that gives  to the master's voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.“.




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).

Kenneth Rexroth, “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.


(P.S. Some textual corrections have been made on the advice of Steve at Language Hat.)


All original material copyright John J. Emerson 

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