During the past several months I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of reading three books by the intellectual and cultural historian Peter Watson. Those books are The Modern Mind, The Age of Atheists, and The German Genius. Other brilliant modern intellectual historians such as Jacques Barzun, Isaiah Berlin, Walter Benjamin, Terry Eagleton, Roger Scruton and Charles Taylor belong to this erudite association of immanent scholars.
It was most recently in reading The German Genius in particular that I was struck by the concept of “Bildung,” the Classical and Romantic German ideal of self-cultivation of the whole person in all dimensions of life, an ideal that links the process of both personal and cultural maturation. This maturation involves a harmonization of the individual’s heart, mind, imagination and will, a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society of relationship. This quest for wholeness and integration through personal and cultural maturation is reflected in the literary tradition of “Bildungsroman.”
Literary examples of “Bildungsroman” include The History of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, Candide, by Voltaire, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shanty, by Laurence Sterne, Emile, or One Education, by Rousseau, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, by Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, What Maisie Knew, by Henry James, Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Larwence, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, Demian: the Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, and Narcissus and Goldman, by Hermann Hesse, and To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, to name only a few.
The following quote from Peter Watson’s The German Genius gets to the heart of the matter:
“Bildung is in some ways the primary achievement of educated inwardness–indeed, it could be held to be the natural end product. Goethe…said specifically that the purpose of life when there is no God (this was after he lost his faith in the summer of 1788) is to become, to be more than one was. ‘The ultimate meaning of our humanity is that we develop that higher human being within ourselves.’ [Of course it is not strictly speaking necessary for one to lose his faith to arrive at much the same conclusion about the purpose of life]
“Kant thought the difference between animals and man was that man can set himself goals and ‘cultivate the raw potentialities of his nature.’ In creating the very idea of purpose within us, he felt, we ‘enlarge’ ourselves and those around us. This is inwardness, Bildung, and community all in one.
“William Bruford traced the idea of Bildung in novels all the way through the nineteenth century into the twentieth — Alalbert Stifter, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann in the Magic Mountain — and in the middle of the 1900s Karl Mannheim described Bildung as ‘the tendency toward a coherent life-orientation, the development of the individual as a cultural-ethical personality.'”
Fritz Ringer described “Bildung” as “the single most important tenet of the ‘mandarin’ tradition” within Germany and elsewhere. In terms of the schools of modern educational theory, it is a marriage of the radical person-centered tradition, classical canonical tradition and progressive pragmatic tradition, the fusion of soul-care, cultural literary and state-craft.
What “Bildung” resists is a reduction and constriction of the great energies and potentialities of human development and cultural achievement to the limits of trade and commerce, technology and technique, production and consumption, amusement and escape, the very norms that dominate our global capitalist corporate consumer society today. In this sense the ideal of “Bildung” is counter-cultural to the dominant economic and social values of today’s materialist society. It reduces “the leveling of the masses” to acquisitive and mindless consumers. It values the cultivation of knowledge, wisdom, compassion, character and citizenship as essential elements in the development and sustaining of a just, free, noble and humane democratic society.
For many people even today Wolfgang Von Goethe has become the archetypal symbol and exemplary embodiment of these three educational and cultural ideals integrated into a many-sided individual. Often Johann Christoph Friedrick Schiller is mentioned in connection with Goethe since they began as intellectual rivals but became friends. Peter Watson writes, “For Schiller, education was the best–the only way–forward, but it was to be education of a special kind: it was aesthetic culture that produced the “healthiest” relationship between reason and emotion. For him art and literature, images and words, offered the best hope of showing how the imagination and the understanding can work collaboratively together, one limiting the other to help us avoid extremes, which Schiller saw as the main problem underlying barbarity.”
Schiller distinguishes between three epochs of the evolution of civilization. In the natural state the individual is subject to the forces of nature. In the moral state the individual is identified with the rules of nature and uses those rules as a basis for living together. In the aesthetic state the individual is free of these forces, free to chose his own roles. In the aesthetic society “beauty acquaints us with our full potential.”
In terms of a contemporary re-formulation of the idea of Bildung, I would suggest a few of the contours of experience, understanding and development under the three rubrics of self-knowledge, cultural literary and state craft. Self knowledge includes an awareness of and appreciation for the natural, physical, emotional, social, imaginative, rational, volitional, ethical, intuitive and spiritual dimensions of the whole person within the interdependent web of life and interpersonal relationships. Cultural literary includes a general knowledge of philosophy, religion, history, mythology, literature, arts, sciences, technology, psychology and sociality, along with a study of languages and linguistics. State craft includes an appreciation for and understanding of the environment, social, economic and political contexts in which we live our collective lives in a pluralist society and global age, while taking seriously such perennial challenges as totalitarianism, militarism, imperialism, racism, sexism, tribalism, terrorism and anarchism. An education in state craft will go beyond appreciation for and understanding of social, economic and political theory. It will urge and encourage practical opportunities for informed engagement in the democratic process. At the same time, a commitment to state craft will not eclipse the equally important educational values of self knowledge and cultural literacy. All three of these core values need to be re-awakened and cultivated in a contemporary re-birth of the idea of “Bildung.”