In Leo Tolstoy’s great Christian novel Anna Karenina, an after-dinner conversation turns to the subject of which European civilization is more developed—the English, the French, or the German. Karenin, Anna’s husband, argues that that civilization is most influential which is the most “truly educated.” However, the argumentative Pestsov, another guest, asks Karenin, “But what should we consider to be the signs of ‘true education’?”
It is 1870, or thereabouts, and the phenomenon of “modern education” has only just dawned on the consciousness of the class of people that tend to populate Tolstoy’s novels—the ruling aristocratic upper class.
“I see no clear proofs that a classical education should be preferred to a modern education,” says Pestsov. He argues that a purely scientific education [modern education] has just as great an “educational and mind-developing influence” as a classical one.
“I can’t quite agree with you,” answers Karenin:
It seems to me that we must admit that the process of studying the forms of a language has in itself a beneficial effect on spiritual development. Besides it is impossible to deny that the influence of the classics is in the highest degree a moral one, whereas unfortunately with instruction in natural science are connected those dangerous and false teachings which are the bane of the present times.
At this, another dinner guest, Koznyshev, intervenes. The question of what “true education” is would be a difficult question, he suggests, “had there not been on the side of classical education that advantage which you [Karenin] have just mentioned: the moral advantage, … the anti-nihilistic influence.”
The “anti-nihilistic influence.” What does this mean? In what way is classical education’s emphasis on grammar spiritual and moral? In what way is it “anti-nihilistic”?
When Karenin refers to “studying the forms of language,” he is clearly referring to grammar. Grammar is the formal study of language. What is interesting is that some eighteen years later, the philosopher whose name is associated most closely with nihilism, the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, adds his own spin on this conversation about this formal aspect of language.
“I am afraid we have not gotten rid of God,” says the great nihilist philosopher, “because we still have faith in grammar.”
In other words, even the modern era’s most prominent atheist, like the Christian characters in Tolstoy’s after-dinner conversation, recognized that the very foundations of grammar were spiritual and moral, and that, if grammar is anti-nihilistic by nature, then the rejection of it is inherently nihilistic.
Why should this be?
Nietzsche makes his remark about grammar in the context of his indictment of Western philosophy in general. He believed that Western philosophers since Socrates had been taken captive by what he calls the “prejudice of reason”—the idea that there is an objective and rational metaphysical order that underlies reality. It was the idea that underlay the traditional belief that things in this world had meaning and purpose and that we ignored this order at our cultural peril.
“Where God clings to our culture,” says literary critic, George Steiner, summarizing Nietzsche’s point, “he is a phantom of grammar, a fossil embedded in the childhood of rational speech.” Our faith in grammar is the shadow of belief still cast on language by a dead God. And Nietzsche, who famously declared that God was dead, believed that we must destroy "even God’s shadow."
Nietzsche wasn't against grammar per se; he was against it because of what belief in grammar implied. It implied, he thought, that there was a rational order behind it—a rational order that was appealed to in Christianity. John’s Gospel identifies this order with God himself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The word used for “Word” by John in this passage is the Greek word Logos, a term replete with philosophical implications, among the chief of which is the rational order underlying reality.
What Nietzsche was most fundamentally against was not grammar itself; what he was against was the Logos.
The Western view of language does indeed betray this prejudice. It is the assumption that behind our speech and our writing is an underlying order, an order that, being universal, is the foundation and operative principle of every human language—the assumption that the universe at bottom is fundamentally rational because it was authored—and is ruled—by a rational God.
“[A]ny coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs,” says Steiner, “… any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.”
Nietzsche saw that the intellectuals of his time (the late nineteenth century), while they rejected the Christian God in their rhetoric, clung to the underlying linguistic assumptions of theism. The continuing confidence in grammar, he believed, was symptomatic of the failure of modern thinkers to take their atheistic notions to their logical conclusion.
In other words, if atheist intellectuals were consistent, they would not only reject God, but the grammar that assumes his existence.
But Nietzsche’s ideological descendants have been much more faithful to their master. As Alan Bloom pointed out in his book The Closing of the American Mind, the origins of the postmodern regime that now jealously rule our educational establishment are fundamentally Nietzschean. The hostility to the teaching of grammar is a consequence of this. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as well as almost every university department of education are, officially or unofficially, opposed to the formal teaching of grammar.
Many of our educational elites cannot tell you precisely why they have such a dim view of what used to be a fundamental part of learning. They will cite various bogus studies, and appeal to questionable “research.” They may even believe the evidence they cite. But their ideology is fundamentally nihilistic.
There are Nietzschean underpinnings to their anti-grammar ideology that most of them don’t even know they have.
Nietzsche, the atheist, is in fundamental agreement with the Christian aristocrats at Tolstoy’s dinner party on the underlying assumptions of grammar. The difference between the two is that, while Nietzsche’s atheism drives him ineluctably away from a belief in grammar, Karenin and Koznyshev believe in God, and therefore they cling to grammar all the more, realizing that it is the working out of that belief in language.