Only the Doer Learns – A Little Context

A short while ago, I tracked down the source of a quotation that had been wrongly attributed to Kant and widely circulated online: “A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting.” I found the sentence a pretty long way from any work by Immanuel Kant, in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, and after reading the passage in question I remarked offhand that Castaneda seemed to channeling not Kant, but some mix of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Now my pursuit of another widely-circulated quotation — this one attributed correctly, it turns out, to Nietzsche — has brought me back to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Reading my old beat up paperback edition of Zarathustra again today only strengthened my conviction that Castaneda drew freely on Nietzsche as he created Don Juan; and it’s also brought me back to some consideration of how much gets lost when we allow philosophical quotations to stand for philosophy. That, as I noted in a previous post, is a growing tendency, driven by the boom in career, motivational and leadership literature and by social media.

“Only the doer learns” is how R.J. Hollingdale neatly renders Nietzche’s nur der Thäter lernt. The translation I’ve seen most widely circulated lately has a deliberately antiquated flavor: “the doer alone learneth.” Maybe that looks better as a tattoo, or a gamer’s motto. [Update 22 Feb 2015: since writing this post I have discovered that the brutal death metal band Emeth has a 2008 song called ‘The Doer Alone Learneth.’] I cannot even begin to imagine the various uses to which Nietzsche might be put nowadays. I can imagine, based on other forays I have made into the world of popular quotations, that “only the doer learns” is being traded as advice that one ought to learn by doing, jump right in, be a self-starter, take some measured risks. That, regrettably, is what the literature of success reduces philosophy to — formulas for jumpstarting your career and getting ahead. Let’s see if in the present case we can arrive at something a little more intelligent and nuanced than that.

Context helps. The line in question is from the chapter on “The Ugliest Man” in Book 3 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s been yanked completely out of context — as most of these popular and familiar quotations are — and I wonder how and why it ended up getting yanked.

Here, Zarathustra is passing through the valley the shepherds call Serpent’s Death, where he comes upon “something sitting on the pathway, shaped like a man and yet hardly like a man, something unutterable” and he is overcome by “the great shame of having beheld such a thing.” He blushes and turns away, but just as he attempts to leave a human voice rises up and puts a riddle to him: “What is the revenge on the witness?” And a few minutes later: “who am I”? At first so overcome by pity that he sinks to the ground, Zarathustra raises himself up and, standing again, replies: you are the murderer of God.

So here we have Zarathustra, face to face with the ugliest man, who could not tolerate God’s witness: God pitied him. “His pity knew no shame: he crept into my dirtiest corners. This most curious, most over-importunate, over-compassionate god had to die….Man could not endure that such a witness should live.” Zarathustra replies:

“You unutterable creature,” he said, “you warned me against your road. As thanks for that, I recommend you mine. Behold, up yonder lies Zarathustra’s cave.”
“My cave is big and deep and possesses many corners; there the best hidden man can find his hiding place. And close by it are a hundred secret and slippery ways for creeping, fluttering, and jumping beasts.”
“You outcast who cast yourself out, do you not wish to live among men and the pity of men? Very well, do as I do. Thus you also learn from me; only the doer learns.
And first of all and above all speak with my animals! The proudest animal and the wisest animal — they may well be the proper counsellors for both of us!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra, and went on his way, even more thoughtfully and slowly than before: for he asked himself many things and did not easily know what to answer.
How poor is man! (he thought in his heart) how ugly, how croaking, how full of secret shame!
They tell me that man loves himself: ah, how great must this self-love be! How much contempt is opposed to it!
Even this man has loved himself as he has despised himself — he seems to me a great lover and a great despiser.
I have yet found no one who has despised himself more deeply: even that is height. Alas, was he perhaps the Higher Man whose cry I heard?
I love the great despisers. Man, however, is something that must be overcome.

To learn from Zarathustra, the Ugliest Man will do as he has done: he will live in his cave, far from the sight of men, beyond pity and morality, and beyond human language itself. He will live among the beasts and speak with the animals. That is the where Zarathustra’s steep mountain road leads.

I suspect that we are to hear some mockery in the maxim “only the doer learns.” So lernst du auch von mir; nur der Thäter lernt might be Nietzche’s aphoristic and bitterly ironic rendering of a passage in Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1103A) on the habit of virtue: “the virtues,” runs this famous passage from Book II of the Ethics, “we acquire by first having put them into action, and the same is also true of the arts. For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing” [emphasis mine]. It wouldn’t surprise me to find Nietzsche roasting this old chestnut of moral philosophy even as Zarathustra turns morality and philosophy itself on its head.

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