Utopian hope
M. L. Raina

Lessons of the Masters
by George Steiner. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Pages 198. $ 19.95

Lessons of the MastersIn spite of his neglect of our literature and philosophy, George Steiner’s book about the relationship of masters and disciples should resonate with Indian readers. Brought up as we are on the rich heritage of the guru-shishya bond, Steiner’s argument echoes our own where it concerns the nature and reach of this relationship. We need only recall the scriptural invocation of the guru as Brahma and Vishnu, Kabir’s paen to "guru-govind" or the murshid-murid connection in our Sufi thought–to respond positively to the author of the latest Charles Eliot Norton lectures.

Gifted with an enviable range of reference and commanding a highly persuasive lecturing style, Steiner provides a hawk’s eye-view of both the Jewish and Christian traditions of masters and disciples, and asserts their superiority over the politically correct, but philosophically effete rejection of the teacher, the mentor in contemporary postmodern culture.

Too often the teacher represented some higher spiritual truths in the manner of Hebraic prophets, Christian divines or Hindu seers. But mentors like Socrates and later Voltaire discoursed on pressing ethical issues and were reviled for their views. They attracted disciples who stayed loyal throughout. Plato is the best example. The discipleship was a voluntary surrender to the teacher’s superior intellectual powers and a guarantee of the continuation of his teachings.

Even when the master was challenged, as he was by the Sophists in Greece or the various Buddhist schools in India, the challengers themselves became the new disseminators of the basic creeds associated with the original teacher or the founding Book: "The master helps his disciples towards that light which is barred to him."

Steiner writes as appreciatively about the relationship of Dante and Virgil, of St Augustine and his mentor, as of the near erotic conjunction of Eloise and her teacher Abelard and, in our time, of Hannah Arndt and Heidegger. The unquestioned devotion shown by the disciple towards the mentor results in "the education of the human spirit towards aesthetic, philosophic and intellectual pursuits… fortunate the disciple whose Master has given to mortality its sense." Steiner’s reserves the highest praise for teachers who provide immediacy of contact through oral expositions and who impress with their verbal skills. He has no use for stodgy researchers whose voluminous tomes gather dust in libraries. As an eloquent teacher himself, he feels classrooms are better suited for creating a genuine scholarly community than are tracts of arid prose. What worries the author most is the disappearance of teachers with passion and the ambience of close encounters triggered by their authoritative presence among students.

Foreseeing the "Americanisation" of our universities, following the postmodernist rejection of all authority, he ruefully asks, "Would it be possible to restore the calling of the scholar, the teacher?" Like many of us who helplessly witness the fading away of the savant and the slow death of the academy, Steiner expresses a utopian hope that somehow "intellectual aristocracy" may be back in our seats of learning. Not, at least, in India, where even the UGC, ostensibly the guardian of intellectual standards, has chosen to swim with the populist tide and succumb to the onslaught of academic realpolitik.