George Steiner's tumultuous life spans several countries and continents. As he notes, "in the life of the mind, the English Channel looks oceanic". If Great Britain and the continent are separated by an ocean, France and the United States are worlds apart. Nowhere is this distance more apparent than in the way these two nations honor and celebrate "Masters of thought", the literal translation of the French "maîtres à penser". Ingrained in French self-representation is a bias to the monumental, to the hierarchical, to the prescriptive which legitimizes the figure and function of the Maître. To a degree unusual in Europe, French civilitas preserves its commitment to rhetoric, to forensic eloquence, to the cultivation of the oratorical. This "inebriation with the spoken word" links France with ancient Greece, and this direct connection is acted out on a daily basis in the philosophy classes that remain part of compulsory secondary education.
One figure epitomizes the Socratic figure of the French high school professor of philosophy: the philosopher Alain, who served as professor of rhetoric at the LycÃ©e Henri-IV from 1909 until 1933 and who had a profound influence on the thinking of a generation of French intellectuals. As Steiner notes, the very name of Alain is virtually unknown in the Anglo-American world, and hardly any of his writings has been translated. By contrast, they are constantly reedited in France, and generations of lycéens and lycéennes regularly use them in conjunction with Plato's dialogues as their first exposure to philosophy.
Convinced that secondary education matters more than any other, Alain refused both the Sorbonne and the laurels of the French Academy. His last class was so crowded with illustrious officialdom that Alain returned once more to teach "seriously" two days later. In his collection of personal observations, short texts published as Propos but which resonate with the echoes of his teaching voice, he expresses the view that it is the shaping of the young, indeed of the child, which will determine the health of the body politic of a nation. True to his rural Normandy origins, he believed that the supreme moral rule is "ne pas réussir", to abstain from success in a world in which "success" ineluctably entails compromise and an exaggeration of one's own achievements.
By contrast, the idea of a "master in thinking matters" goes against the American grain, where the freedom of the individual stands supreme. The context of formalities, the explicit clerisy and magisterium inherent in European culture, the social prestige of the intellect outside any economic reward are, at best, marginal to the American enterprise. The figure that comes closest to that of the Socratic pedagogue is the sports coach, and in the hall of fame of American football, that discipline which is so dependent on the coach, Knute Rockne, director of athletics at Notre Dame during the first decades of the twentieth century, established a peerless record. Another iconic figure that Steiner adds to his eclectic record is the French music educator Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the most important composers and conductors of the 20th century and whose imprint on American students was so great that she may be credited with the invention of American classical music as a genre.
In his writings, George Steiner dismisses popular interpretations of Freud, where the son wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother. But he is convinced that the relationship between Master and disciples, between teachers and pupils, is erotic by nature or, to be more precise, homoerotic. This is a theme he revisits constantly in his Lessons of the Masters: "Eroticism, covert or declared, fantasized or enacted, is inwoven in teaching, in the phenomenology of mastery and discipleship...Teaching and learning are informed by an otherwise inexpressible sexuality in the human soul...The erotic sway available for the magister, the sexual temptations exhibited, consciously or not, by the pupil, polarize the pedagogic relation."
The idea of a "pedagogic eros", of a homoerotic bond between Masters and disciples, is a well-known ploy in the intellectual trick bag of philosophy professors. Generations of students have smiled knowingly to the doubles ententes, the allusive references and learned clichés of manipulative professors, who use feelings and emotions as a substitute to reason and argumentation. For the allusion to the homoerotic practices of ancient Greece and classical Rome is, of course, never direct and plays with the connivance that abusive masters try to establish with their complacent public. The aim of sexually-laden references to Socratic pedagogy is not to understand the cultural differences between Plato's time and our own, or to investigate the multiple dimensions of sexual identity, but to unite the speaker and his audience in their shared adoration of common literary tropes.
George Steiner, otherwise independently minded, falls into this trap when he emphasizes the erotic dimension of the teacher/pupil relation. He resorts to emotions and sublimity to characterize the pedagogic relation: "Even consummate bodily possession is a small thing compared with the fearsome laying of hands on the quick of another human being, on its unfolding, implicit in teaching." Instead of explaining what he means by this reference to the most personal and sensitive aspect of our emotions, or how to defuse the charge inherent in such a relationship, he repeats the formula, which manifestly pleases himself: "To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. It is to seek access to the quick and the innermost of a child's or an adult's integrity." According to Steiner, the teaching relationship is always threatened by the twin risk of the Master's destruction of his disciple, or of the disciple's betrayal and usurpation of the Master. He dismisses attempts to expurge the classroom from abusive power struggles as "strains of Puritanism, of legalism, endemic in American history". And he uses the reference to Antinous in contemporary poetry as a "cipher" for all but the highly literate.
Alain, for one, would have disagreed. He was convinced that the relation between a Master and his disciple does not always end in betrayal or destruction. He believed that reason, rather than emotions, was to preside over the transmission of knowledge, and that a democratic society was based on pedagogical foundations and that schools were the cornerstone of the republican pact. This lesson from one particular master failed to be heard.