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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


Lessons of the Masters

George Steiner

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To purchase Lessons of the Masters

Title: Lessons of the Masters
Author: George Steiner
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2003)
Length: 185 pages
Availability: Lessons of the Masters - US
Lessons of the Masters - UK
Lessons of the Masters - Canada
Maîtres et disciples - France
Der Meister und seine Schüler - Deutschland
  • The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2001-2

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Our Assessment:

B : anecdotal rather than analytic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 6/10/2004 Jürgen Kaube
The Guardian . 7/2/2004 Stephen Romer
The LA Times . 15/2/2004 Robert Boyers
New Criterion . 1/2004 Paul Dean
New Statesman . 8/12/2003 Edward Skidelsky
The Observer A 21/12/2003 Salley Vickers
TLS . 17/9/2004 Eric Griffiths
Virginia Quarterly Rev. . Spring/2004 Charles T. Mathewes
Weekly Standard . 16/2/2004 Joseph Epstein

  Review Consensus:

  Very mixed reactions

  From the Reviews:
  • "Aber Steiner selbst nimmt sich keine Zeit, um dem allem nachzugehen, behandelt sein Material mehr als Zeugnis der eigenen Belesenheit und des Reichtums der kulturellen Tradition denn als Quelle der Pflicht, sich begrifflich und philologisch anzustrengen. (...) Wie kommt es, daß eine so gute Buchidee von einem klugen Autor hier so sehr unterhalb ihrer und wohl auch seiner Möglichkeiten vorgetragen wird ?" - Jürgen Kaube, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Sometimes, in the almost incontinent welter of names and allusions that has always characterised Steiner's high-mandarin style, it is hard to discern how his theme is developed, beyond an endless and glittering array of exempla. But as a way in to the history of the mind, the relation between master and disciple could scarcely be richer in terms of drama, with its perilous trusts and shattering betrayals. As an anecdotalist of high culture and the battles of the titans, Steiner has few peers, as readers of his copious essays in the TLS will (often grudgingly) acknowledge, and this book is a prolonged indulgence of this particular passion." - Stephen Romer, The Guardian

  • "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." - Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman

  • "The book's tone reflects its theme: Steiner writes as if in a skirmish with some invisible intellectual thug, and is instinctively drawn to the language of extremes (.....) But it is the urgent sense of the unquantifiable but irreplaceable value of teaching that gives The Lessons of the Masters its force." - Salley Vickers, The Observer

  • "Lessons of the Masters does not make uncomfortable reading, though, such is the glamour of its style. (...) He majors in intensity, partly through his highly charged vocabulary" - Eric Griffiths, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His mind is, in a way, too charitable -- or rather, a mind that has confused charity with mere admiration; he thus becomes nothing but a fan of the various thinkers he admires, talking about them in the way that other fans talk about their sports heroes. But to what end ? The announced lessons aside, Steiner's is a lesson of another sort, the lesson of too receptive a mind" - Charles T. Mathewes, Virginia Quarterly Review

  • "Over the course of 185 dense pages George Steiner does not really explain the magic in teaching. Instead he provides partial portraits of some famously great teachers (...) and takes up a number of issues, questions, and problems surrounding teaching." - Joseph Epstein, Weekly Standard

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lessons of the Masters consists of Steiner's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, and so one should hardly expect a closely argued, footnote-laden piece of scholarship. What the lecture-lessons from this particular master add up to is a general introduction to the subject matter, with many examples, a quick (but not rushed) overview exploring the master-disciple (or student) relationship in its myriad forms.
       Steiner approaches masterhood warily, and remains suspicious of masters. The passing on, from one person to the next, of knowledge and wisdom is a complicated affair, and from the personal issues (from the sexual aspect of the teacher-student relationship to the favouring of some over others (and, indeed, the exclusion of many)) to the question of what can and should be transmitted (wisdom isn't always put to best use ...), Steiner sees dangers as well as benefits. His willingness to poke through the romantic-philosophic ideal of the master -- while still always fascinated by the idea of the true master -- is part of the fun of these lectures.
       Steiner offers an overview of the whole gamut of masters, from the early Greeks -- Plato and Socrates, in particular -- through Jesus, to contemporary masters. It's a cascade of examples, interesting titbits and connexions, flung out relentlessly. From Tycho Brahe and Kepler, for example, he makes the leap to Brod and Kafka -- Brod having written "a prolix but moving fiction" on Brahe, making for the bridge between the two.
       The masters -- and master-disciple relationships -- are interesting and varied, ranging from the purely literary (than many faces of Doctor Faustus) to the mix of real and imagined (Virgil and/in Dante) to the very hands-on (Nadia Boulanger as music teacher, Knute Rockne (!) as football coach). Steiner usefully reminds of some examples that have faded from memory: Paul Bourget's novel Le Disciple ("Without Le Disciple we would not have Valéry's Monsieur Teste") or Alain ("virtually unknown in the Anglo-American world"). His focus is idiosyncratic -- more on Popper as master than Wittgenstein, for example -- but with so much packed into a relatively short space always at least interesting.
       Jumping about as the text does, from example to example -- with a bit of circling back and interweaving of examples --, Lessons of the Masters is more starting point than full-fledged study. Steiner offers a lot of ideas and questions, but he's reluctant to propose anything definitive: there's no grand theory of the master here. That's fine, and though one might wish for some ideas to be expanded upon, some examples delved into more deeply, he at least provides a lot of food for thought.
       Entertaining and interesting, these make for good lectures (it must have been quite a show he put on in giving them) and an enjoyable read.

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Lessons of the Masters: Reviews: George Steiner: Other books by George Steiner under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       George Steiner, born in 1929, is one of the foremost intellectuals of our time. A professor at Cambridge and Geneva, he is the author of numerous books.

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