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Break Free All You Thinkers in Disguise!

One should not become a university professor at 24.

Virginia Woolf said that only a writer with independent means could have independent views.

Because independence will necessarily mean freedom. But what is the freedom of the writer or the artist for that matter? The only freedom he can have: the freedom of thinking.

When Friedrich Nietzsche was offered the chair of philology in Basel when he was only 24, he accepted the position but with much sadness. Since he knew that he was not going to be a Lutheran pastor like his father, grandfather and the many of his lineage, the excellent student really did not know where else to go or what else to do than to stay in the university and become a teacher.

And like some who find themselves neither prepared for nor excited with the possibility of leaving the leisure of learning, he soon accepted the post and was even rewarded his doctor of philosophy outright by the strength of his previous works in philology. The possibility of being a professor--and with it some (imagined) prestige and a regular salary--was something the young man from an otherwise poor family could not refuse. His mother only depended on her widow's pension and the young Nietzsche, as brilliant as they come, had relied on the state for his education in the famous Pforta school where he excelled in Greek and Roman literature on the way of becoming somewhat of a prodigy of philology. And even if he would then grow to be uninterested with mastering what he called "dead books" upon his discovery of Schopenhauer--who was "a mirror in which [he] beheld the world, life and [his] own nature in a terrifying grandeur"-- Nietzsche accepted the post and then became a university professor at that young age. He would then stay in the university for another 10 years--laboring even with his incessant headaches; but immediately he would also find out that he was a good teacher and--to his surprise--that he actually enjoyed teaching.

But such an enjoyment could only be possible for a man who was not to be contained in one field of study or whose mind knew how to take flight. He did what he had to do even if that was not what he really wanted. And he knew full well that accepting the post meant restraining his powers at that age when young men were bold and courageous and still have not seen their necessary limitations because they have not yet crashed against them. In a word, at such an age, he knew he could--and was supposed to--fly; but he grounded himself, caged himself in what was hitherto home to him, in what he knew would only keep him from becoming who he really was.

In a letter to a friend named Gersdorff on 11 April 1869 before leaving for Basel, he wrote:

The time is up, the last evening at home has arrived: tomorrow morning I must go out into the wide, wide world, into a new unfamiliar profession, into a difficult and oppressive atmosphere of duty and work. Once again I am saying a farewell: the golden age of free, untrammeled activity . . . is irretrievably past: now there reigns the stern goddess Daily-Duties . . . I now have to become a Philistine myself! . . . You cannot accept offices and dignities without paying a price--the only question is whether the bonds are to be of iron or thread. And I still have the courage left to break the bonds now and then . . . I want to be something more than a taskmaster to efficient philologists.

Nietzsche knew what he was doing and going into. And this self-consciousness or even an eerie premonition of what was to come could only have given him the strength necessary in laboring for the "stern goddess Daily-Duties." To be sure, he obeyed her and obeyed her well: he was a good teacher of a subject he had mastered already at such a young age. There can also be happiness in this.

But I venture that such a reflexivity also made those ten years in Basel more excruciating than edifying: he knew that he was meant to soar and there he was tying himself with thread or iron bonds. He knew that he was meant to see the world, to taste its sweet bitterness, to smell the air on the top of icy mountains, to live alone in homelessness, to go where most were afraid to go, and to ultimately think for himself. He knew all of these at 24--at an age when most take the first steps on the ladder of success in industry and economy with much hope and difficulty; when many start a family and live serene lives in small houses with neat porches and gardens full of flowers; or when a few are still figuring out what to do with their hapless lives.

At this age, Nietzsche chose to not choose; that is to say, he contradicted himself by following the footsteps of those in his company in the university, those who could only become professors and would settle for its pay and prestige, those who thought for others and taught others how to think like them, and those who in the end never thought for themselves. In deciding not to decide, Nietzsche decided that he would hide in the guise of thinking and talking like a Philistine that he knew he would never become. Because you see, there is also happiness in this--a happiness that only smart fools know how to enjoy. And if there ever was one, Nietzsche was the smartest fool next to Socrates.

To hide in disguise as a Philistine. This can only teach you what you did not know when you were still taught by Philistines--to see them from the inside, to see their true colors now with neither luminosity nor imagined authority, that is, to see them as real and as real--flawed, faulty--men also in disguise.

Men who know themselves also know others like them. There is profound meaning to the saying that robbers hate robbers--because they rob them of their own robbery.

But to know that one is a robber amongst robbers that have become one's brothers without making one's robbery less than what it really is--still a robbery: this is the only decisive difference a robber can have against other robbers who no longer know what it means to be honest. There can also be joy in this knowledge--the joy that the spies, camouflaged animals and free thinkers in disguise as bureaucrats in a university possess.



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