The lost disciples. The position of the teacher has become awkward and anomalous. The title "master", with its reactionary and illiberal connotations, seems at odds with modern ideals of education. Yet the desire for intellectual submission remains

Lessons of the Masters

George Steiner <em>Harvard University Press, 198pp, £12.95</em>

ISBN 0674

George Steiner has chosen a deliberately unfashionable subject. The position of the teacher in the modern world is an awkward, anomalous one. Institutes of education avoid the term, preferring to talk about "facilitators" or "learning partners". "Teacher", they claim, sounds stuffy and authoritarian. (What would they make of "master"?) Yet the desire for discipleship, for intellectual submission, remains as powerful as ever. As undergraduates, I and many of my friends felt like disciples in search of a master. Our tutors remained frustratingly aloof, their advice restrained and professional. Doubtless they were wise to act in this way; they had their careers to manage, their privacy to protect. Acolytes can be a nuisance. But reading about masters and disciples in Steiner's book left me feeling strangely envious, as though I had missed one of the great experiences of youth. It is perhaps only by surrendering to a master and then rebelling that one attains to full intellectual autonomy. Of all religious themes, that of losing one's life in order to save it comes closest to the heart of this peculiar relationship.

Unfortunately, Lessons of the Masters far from fulfils the promise of its subject. It displays all of Steiner's well-known intellectual vices and few of his virtues. Mystagogy has all but replaced thought; the profound depths of the master-disciple relationship are endlessly insinuated but never explained. This cultivation of mystery lies at the centre of Steiner's religion of art; one does not, as Bagehot said, let daylight in on magic. Like a temple priest, Steiner officiates before a sanctum that remains for ever closed. All that is visible from the outside is the mummery of learning and wordplay. "Valid teaching is ostensible. It shows. This 'ostentation', so intriguing to Wittgenstein, is embedded in etymology: Latin dicere 'to show' and, only later, 'to show by saying'; Middle English token and techen with its implicit connotations of 'that which shows'. (Is the teacher, finally, a showman?)" And so on. Such passages evade refutation; there is nothing there to refute. Like the Cheshire cat disappearing behind his smile, Steiner has disappeared behind his own manner.

The book is full of intriguing questions. Why is the theme of mastery and discipleship absent from Shakespeare? Why does it suddenly revive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the George circle and in the cults surrounding Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky? There are interesting passages on the French educational tradition, on the affinities of Hassidism and Zen and on Henry Adams. But because nothing is pursued for more than a few pages, the overall impression is one of shallow eclecticism. Steiner would have done better to concentrate on three or four central figures. As it is, we are left with nothing but generalities. Steiner's summary of his findings is banal: sometimes masters destroy their disciples; sometimes disciples destroy their masters; sometimes masters and disciples get on. One could have guessed as much.

But this thin, abstract quality stems above all from the almost complete lack of social or historical background. Apart from the occasional allusion to the effects of mass consumption and the internet, there is hardly any sense that the relationship between master and disciple might change significantly from one age to another. This is why Steiner can leap directly from Abelard to Heidegger, from Tycho Brahe to Franz Kafka. There is no intermediary level between the eternal and the personal. Steiner's perspective is similar to that which Augustine ascribes to God; he sees the entirety of human history spread out before him in a line, even and undifferentiated. He ignores the one crucial insight of Marxist aesthetics, that - as he himself once quipped - there is no chamber music without chambers.

Steiner's lack of historical sense is most evident in his outbursts against the "two movements or pathologies" that have "eroded trust between Master and disciple". These turn out, unsurprisingly, to be radical feminism and political correctness. Many of Steiner's charges are accurate; his concern for the disappearance of irony is particularly welcome. But jeremiads are no substitute for understanding. Steiner dismisses the movements in question as mere "witch-hunts" or "treason". He is unwilling to acknowledge that the entire bent of European civilisation since the Enlightenment has been hostile to the master-disciple relationship. The title "master" implies personal, charismatic authority. Its connotations are religious and hierarchical; it tallies uncomfortably with the liberal ideal of symmetrical relations between free and equal citizens. It is also at variance with the modern ideal of Wissenschaft, or organised knowledge. "Wisdom" is what a master traditionally imparts; the techniques of modern science and scholarship call for a less personal, more transparent form of instruction. The very word "master" carries a distinctly reactionary charge. It is no accident that Steiner's one example of the 20th-century use of the term is taken from a letter by the philosopher and writer Pierre Boutang to Charles Maurras, then incarcerated for collaboration with Vichy.

But even if the word has all but disappeared, the phenomenon has not. Behind many a modern university lecturer lurks a master. Much of the furore over "sexual harassment" can be traced to this disjuncture between our official ideals and our historical inheritance. In the past, the sexual charisma of the master was understood as an aspect of his authority, the disciple's desire for him as part of his desire for wisdom. The master's responsibility was to direct this desire away from his own person towards its true object. Hence Socrates, at the climax of the Symposium, refuses to sleep with Alcibiades. But the modern liberal professor has no authority to transmit, no wisdom to impart. His charisma, if he has any, is shorn of its pedagogic alibi. He no longer has any overriding reason not to use it for purposes of seduction, nor have his students any overriding reason not to assist him in so doing. A relationship of reciprocal eros has become one of mutual exploitation.

It was along these lines that the late Bernard Williams interpreted David Mamet's play Oleanna, in which a student falsely accuses her professor of sexual abuse. The play was commonly understood - and is understood by Steiner - as a straightforward denunciation of the "mendacious hysteria" of campus sexual politics. But its message, Williams argued, is rather more complex. The student comes to the professor looking for authority, but is told that all authority is a mask for power. She infers, logically, that the professor's own authority over her is also a mask for power, and specifically sexual power. Her accusations, although literally false, express what can plausibly be seen as the essential truth of their relationship. (Besides, the professor has also taught her that truth and falsehood are nothing but social constructs.) The professor, in short, is not merely a victim; he is the unsuspecting agent of his own ruin. He cannot justify or even acknowledge his own charisma; he is undone by his unwitting "mastery".

Mamet biases the issue by making his professor an ultra-trendy postmodernist and relativist, thereby shifting the blame on to these particular fashions. Steiner does much the same. But the problem they confront is far more general. The disappearance of the masters is not the work of an intellectual fad. It has deep causes; it is bound up with many of the things we value most in liberal civilisation. Would Steiner, for all his magisterial affectations, feel entirely comfortable, I wonder, hearing the title "master" applied to himself?

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out