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Lessons of the Masters
by George Steiner
Harvard University Press, 2003
Cloth: 978-0-674-01207-3
Library of Congress Classification LB2331.S74 2003
Dewey Decimal Classification 378.12


When we talk about education today, we tend to avoid the rhetoric of "mastery," with its erotic and inegalitarian overtones. But the charged personal encounter between master and disciple is precisely what interests George Steiner in this book, a sustained reflection on the infinitely complex and subtle interplay of power, trust, and passions in the most profound sorts of pedagogy. Based on Steiner's Norton Lectures on the art and lore of teaching, Lessons of the Masters evokes a host of exemplary figures, including Socrates and Plato, Jesus and his disciples, Virgil and Dante, Heloise and Abelard, Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler, the Baal Shem Tov, Confucian and Buddhist sages, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Nadia Boulanger, and Knute Rockne.

Pivotal in the unfolding of Western culture are Socrates and Jesus, charismatic masters who left no written teachings, founded no schools. In the efforts of their disciples, in the passion narratives inspired by their deaths, Steiner sees the beginnings of the inward vocabulary, the encoded recognitions of much of our moral, philosophical, and theological idiom. He goes on to consider a diverse array of traditions and disciplines, recurring throughout to three underlying themes: the master's power to exploit his student's dependence and vulnerability; the complementary threat of subversion and betrayal of the mentor by his pupil; and the reciprocal exchange of trust and love, of learning and instruction between master and disciple.

Forcefully written, passionately argued, Lessons of the Masters is itself a masterly testament to the high vocation and perilous risks undertaken by true teacher and learner alike.

Table of Contents:


1. Lasting Origins
2. Rain of Fire
3. Magnificus
4. Maîtres à Penser
5. On Native Ground
6. Unaging Intellect



Reviews of this book:
"Why do we constantly degrade or lampoon teachers? What they do is how civilizations are built - 'no craft more privileged' says George Steiner . . . Perhaps it's because too many teachers, like me, fell ignominiously short of greatness. Steiner is not one of those. In these six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, he brings his formidable charisma, his unrivalled range of reference and powers of rhetoric to bear on the peaks (as well as some troughs) of pedagogy, in history and literature: Socrates and Alcibiades, the parables of Christ, Faust, Virgil and Dante, Abelard and Eloise . . . Like his hero Socrates, Steiner professes to have few answers, but his questions sweep you along."
--Robin Blake, Financial Times

Reviews of this book:
Steiner's scope of reference is daunting, massive, seemingly pan-textual and perhaps spilling sloppily over the edges of a short book like this one. But one of the pleasures of reading his reticulate, compounded, prodigious and forceful prose style has always been the knowledge that we're getting more than we bargained for, that the exegete's high-octane gloss on seven words from The Inferno might outstrip our urge to reread The Inferno. Fine with me: The man is impassioned. And his goal, what he wants passed on to his readers, seems nothing less than a reminder of what constitutes la soci't' libre, a cultured populace willing to ingest, learn from and, when necessary, refute the Masters.
--Ken Babstock, Globe and Mail

Reviews of this book:
Steiner's Lessons of the Masters sets forth the disturbing complexity of the relationship between teacher and pupil, master and disciple...Some of the best writing in Steiner's book is scorching characterisation--of bad teachers, of the politically correct, and the hypocrites who would deny the erotic element in the teacher-pupil relationship.
--Germaine Greer, The Times

Reviews of this book:
Steiner has addressed the whole topic of 'masters'...and their students or disciples, and what the whole vexed process of the passing on of wisdom involves. Lessons of the Masters, based on Steiner's Norton lectures, explores those exceptional souls who attempted to divine, unpick or wrestle with truth and their dramatic and often complicated relationships with their followers...It is the urgent sense of the unquantifiable but irreplaceable value of teaching that gives Lessons of the Masters its force.
--Salley Vickers, The Observer

Reviews of this book:
Steiner...[explores] the ways in which the evolution of the art of knowledge has been accompanied by an evolved symbiosis of attraction and subversion, a reciprocity of trust and love passing between disciple and provider of knowledge...In this small volume, Steiner provides what must be his most dazzling spectacle of poly-scholarship. Judaism, Confucianism, Zen, Christianity, mathematics, science, the sportsfield, pop music, the classics are all quarried for analogues and examples. In each lecture, he provides wonderful examples of the internal politics of apprenticeship.
--Anthony Smith, Times Higher Education Supplement

Reviews of this book:
The debt owed to [Steiner] by his readers...cannot be acknowledged too often...The rewards and privileges of teaching, as well as the fearsome weight of responsibility that the teacher takes on, is [one] of the themes that recur repeatedly in these pages. Good teachers, [Steiner] speculates, may be rarer than artists or sages...There is, he says, no craft more privileged, or more vital to society's health. This is a book which every person interested in culture should read, but it should act especially as a tonic for teachers in these grey times.
--John Banville, Irish Times

Reviews of this book:
This latest book by George Steiner is a series of reflections on 'the charged personal encounter between master and disciple'...If his book is, as he concedes, a mere 'summary introduction,' it is also the most trenchant and moving account we have of a theme few writers have treated with comparable panache and thoughtfulness...What can happen when one human being attempts to teach another? To this question Steiner attends with unapologetic passion and urgency...The theatrical language is a hallmark of Steiner's writing and perfectly conveys his conviction that teaching well is a sacred obligation, and that what sometimes happens to a lucky student is momentous...There are provocative formulations in Steiner, stabs of brilliant color, flarings of metaphor. Nothing lies limp on the page. What might in other hands seem gray or cautionary bristles with implication...The effect of his book is to make us understand that there are many variants of the successful master-disciple relation and that the besetting sin educators must tirelessly address is the tendency to regard teaching as little more than a job and students as those who are merely trained to perform tasks. In his forays into numerous exemplary instances, Steiner demonstrates what it means to think about teaching and learning with all one's heart and with the indispensable assistance of prodigious learning.
--Robert Boyers, Los Angeles Times

Reviews of this book:
[Steiner's] learning is certainly on display in Lessons of the Masters... Some of the finest passages in the book are impassioned definitions of the act of teaching...It seems only appropriate that in this and other recent books, he should turn his attention to his own profession, with something of the spirit of civic responsibility. Yet despite the plaudits and honours, George Steiner cuts a strikingly lonely figure as he champions the life of the mind and its great practitioners. He does so in a world largely given over to a different kind of celebrity.
--Stephen Romer, The Guardian

Reviews of this book:
George Steiner's reflections on the electric relationship between teacher and student takes the reader on a high-speed rollercoaster ride to visit the greatest figures of Western civilization...An impassioned pedagogue himself, Steiner is fascinated by the highly charged dialectic that has existed for time immemorial in the pursuit of meaning and understanding...Relationships of such profound influence can likewise be misunderstood, misused, perverted, and persecuted. Such is the drama that surrounds every great master of Western culture. One need only recall the dreadful end that befell the likes of Socrates, Empedocles, Jesus, and St. Paul. Where there is great mastery, there is likewise great jealousy, treachery, threat, and fear. Steiner passionately throws out a wide and undaunted net of inquiry into this perennially prickly and powerful subject.
--Patty Podhaisky, Bloomsbury Review
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