The Good Teacher and The Good Pupil - Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

Hermann Hesse

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludi


In Hermann Hesse's novel Magister Ludi, set in Europe in an unspecified future, we encounter an imaginary elite educational institution called Castalia, a community devoted to the mind, whose carefully selected members are given a unique opportunity to develop their diverse creative and intellectual capacities. Every facility imaginable is placed at the disposal of the budding Castalians, who are protected from all worldly pressures and assured a basic allotment of food, clothing, and shelter. In return for this they sacrifice all desire for material rewards and fame. In Castalia there are no titles or honours, nor is there any possibility for marriage, family life, or proprietary possession. Every Castalian is expected to find his true « place within the hierarchy, a harmony in which each plays his true role. For the true Castalian, each step in the hierarchy is perceived as a deeper opportunity for selfless service to the community.

Meditation plays a key role in the life of Castalia. Elite pupils are individually initiated and guided throughout their lives by meditation instructors. Though the specific technique is not clearly defined, it is presented as a process by which the meditator comes to perceive within himself the oneness of all. This process is accompanied by an intense feeling of bliss and joy. For Castalians, meditation is seen as a necessary balance to a vigorous intellectual life. Only a few seem to realize its spiritual value. Most Castalians graduate and work as teachers or instructors both within Castalia and outside. The most highly gifted individuals, however, either

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

continue their studies in a remarkable atmosphere of disciplined freedom or become part of Castalia's elite: the Glass Bead Game players.

Hesse's protagonist, Joseph Knecht,1 studies and develops under Castalia's guidance, and eventually takes his place in the hierarchy. Throughout his life, Joseph is conscious of an inner sensation which he describes as "awakening". It is his personal way of describing his own growth of consciousness. Probably it is Joseph's awareness of this inner dimension which makes him such a remarkable student. He allows it to influence his life and studies. At particularly significant stages of his life, the feeling of awakening intensifies. Joseph treasures his inner life and follows its indications at every stage, even when it finally calls him to transcend Castalia and its ideals.

Throughout this life-long process of awakening, Joseph comes into contact with many teachers. None influences him so profoundly as his beloved Music Master. The bond between them is formed at their first meeting when the Music Master initiates him into the world of music and shows him the "joy-giving harmony of law and freedom, of service and rule" that lies behind the veil of outer sounds. Joseph happily and reverently surrenders himself to the vision of truth which he feels Castalia represents and to the teacher who so splendidly embodies that ideal.

Closer examination of the Music Master as a teacher reveals some of the qualities that make him such an embodiment of excellence. He never forces his own knowledge or understanding on his students, but tenderly leads them to discover those possibilities within themselves. Once he explains to Joseph: "To be candid, I myself, for example, have never in my life said a word to my pupils about the 'meaning' of music; if there is one, it does not need my explanations. On the other hand, I have always made a great point of having my pupils count their eighths and sixteenths nicely. Whatever you become, teacher, scholar, or musician, have respect for the 'meaning', but do not imagine that it can be taught. "2

Through his contact with the Music Master, Joseph experiences his first awakening and its transforming power in his life. Chosen to be a pupil at Castalia, he joyfully enters the community, eager to serve its ideals. At almost every important stage of his evolution, he again comes into contact with the Music Master who guides and encourages him. As he develops, Joseph finds himself drawn more and more to the Glass Bead Game.

This game lies at the heart of Castalian society. Although never clearly


1. The word "Knecht" in German means "servant".

2. Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Bantam, 1972), p. 107.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

described, the reader comes to understand it as a kind of imaginative intellectual play in which contraries are first explored as contraries, then recognized as integral elements of a greater unity. On a deeper level, the Music Master explains, the game is really a vehicle whereby the individual may discover perfection in himself and out of that discovery lead a more perfect outer life. He says:

Each of us is merely one human being, merely an experiment, a way station. But each of us should be on the way toward perfection, should be striving to reach the center, not the periphery.... The kind of person we want to develop, the kind of person we aim to become, would at any time be able to exchange his discipline or art for any other. He would infuse the Glass Bead Game with crystalline logic, and grammar with .creative imagination..1

 The Glass Bead Game is essentially a kind of mental synthesis of the spiritual values of all ages and cultures. These are experienced as being vividly alive and the players appreciate the mysterious and sacred nature of the world of appearances and take joy in its play of elements.

At a certain point Joseph begins to have doubts about the Glass Bead Game. These he confesses to his teacher who cautions him about the limits of the human consciousness:

There is truth, my boy. But the doctrine you desire, absolute, perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught.2

It is this central educational principle which the Music Master sincerely embodies.

As his life unfolds, Joseph is revealed as a rare combination of intellectual adeptness and secure inner balance and modesty. Growing steadily within him has been a capacity for lucid inner discernment. The Castalian hierarchy recognizes his capacities and he is selected as Magister Ludi, Master of the Glass Bead Game. Now Joseph becomes the perfect instrument, the humble servant of the organization, the jewel in Castalia s crown.

For a while the challenges of his new office are sufficient to absorb all his


1. Ibid, p. 68.

2. Ibid, p. 69.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

energy. Gradually, however, the feeling of awakening quickens in him again. Some of his experiences have led him to question the relationship between Castalia and the world. He appreciates the dangers of an excessive aestheticism which severs itself from life. Aware of the potential catastrophe inherent in the situation, he seeks to warn his colleagues of the jeopardy to Castalia which he intuitively feels. He petitions the Castalian hierarchy to be relieved of his responsibilities. Their denial of his petition triggers off another critical inner awakening:

... he felt a faint shiver, a matutinal coolness and sobriety which told him that the hour had come, that from now on there could be no more hesitating or lingering. This peculiar feeling, which he was wont to call "awakening", was familiar to him from other decisive moments of his life. It was both vitalizing and painful, mingling a sense of farewell and of setting out on new adventures, shaking him deep down in his * unconscious mind like a spring storm.1

He gathers his courage, quietly leaves Castalia and takes up a position as tutor to Tito, the unruly yet talented son of an old friend. A true servant of truth, Joseph has the necessary sincerity to follow its guidance even when it calls him to transcend the world he knows and loves.

Hesse's work stands as a luminous testimony to the essence of the true educational process as it is experienced by both teacher and pupil. As a novelist Hesse often postulated the possibility of a spiritual kingdom towards which his heroes strive. In several essays he sought a new morality that would transcend the traditional dichotomy between good and evil and embrace all extremes of life in one unified vision. In Magister Ludi, the hero struggles to be true to his inner guide and is assisted by a teacher who is centred in his inner self. Both teacher and pupil (who ' later becomes a teacher) aspire to live and express their joy fid experience of inner perfection. The example they set before us is an inspiration that will hearten us all on our own educational journeys.


1. Ibid., pp. 342-43.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

Joseph's first meeting with the Music Master.


Knecht turned pale with fright. He stumbled from the classroom, ran to the dormitory, put down his books, washed and combed his hair. Trembling, he book his violin case and his book of exercises. With a lump in his throat, he made his way to the music rooms in the annex. An excited schoolmate met him on the stairs, pointed to a practice room, and told him: "You're supposed to wait here till they call you."

The wait was short, but seemed to him an eternity. No one called him, but a man entered the room. A very old man, it seemed to him at first, not very tall, white- haired, with a fine, clear face and penetrating, light-blue eyes. The gaze of those eyes might have been frightening, but they were serenely cheerful as well as penetrating, neither laughing nor smiling, but filled with a calm, quietly radiant cheerfulness. He shook hands with the boy, nodded, and sat down with deliberation on the stool in front of the old practice piano. "You are Joseph Knecht?" he said. "Your teacher seems content with you. I think he is fond of you. Come, let's make a little music together."

Knecht had already taken out his violin. The old man struck the A, and the boy tuned. Then he looked inquiringly, anxiously, at the Music Master. "What would you like to play?" the Master asked.

The boy could not say a word. He was filled to the brim with awe of the old man. Never had he seen a person like this. Hesitantly, he picked up his exercise book and held it out to the Master.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

"No," the Master said. "I want you to play from memory, and not an exercise but something easy that you know by heart. Perhaps a song you like."

Knecht was confused, and so enchanted by this face and those eyes that he could not answer. He was deeply ashamed of his confusion, but unable to speak. The Master did not insist. With one finger, he struck the first notes of a melody, and looked questioningly at the boy. Joseph nodded and at once played the melody with pleasure. It was one of the old songs which were often sung in school.

"Once more," the Master said.

Knecht repeated the melody, and the old man now played a second voice to go with it. Now the old song rang through the small practice room in two parts.

"Once more."

Knecht played, and the Master played the second part, and a third part also. Now the beautiful old song rang through the room in three parts.

"Once more." And the Master played three voices along with the melody.

"A lovely song," the Master said softly. "Play it again, in the alto this time."

The Master gave him the first note, and Knecht played, the Master accompanying with the other three voices. Again and again the Master said, "Once more," and each time he sounded merrier. Knecht played the melody in the tenor, each time accompanied by two or three parts. They played the song many times, and with every repetition the song was involuntarily enriched with embellishments and variations. The bare little room resounded festively in the cheerful light of the forenoon.

After a while the old man stopped. "Is that enough?" he asked. Knecht shook his head and began again. The Master chimed in gaily with his three voices, and the four parts drew their thin, lucid lines, spoke to one another, mutually supported, crossed, and wove around one another in delightful windings and figurations. The boy and the old man ceased to think of anything else; they surrendered themselves to the lovely, congenial lines and figurations they formed as their parts crisscrossed. Caught in the network their music was creating, they swayed gently along with it, obeying an unseen conductor. Finally, when the melody had come to an end once more, the Master turned his head and asked: "Did you like that, Joseph?"

Gratefully, his face glowing, Knecht looked at him. He was radiant, but still speechless.

"Do you happen to know what a fugue 1 is?" the Master now asked.

Knecht looked dubious. He had already heard fugues, but had not yet studied them in class.

"Very well," the Master said, "then I'll show you. You'll grasp it quicker if we

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

Painting by Lea, Auroville

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

make a fugue ourselves. Now then, the first thing we need for a fugue is a theme, and we don't have to look far for the theme. We'll take it from our song."

He played a brief phrase, a fragment of the song's melody. It sounded strange, cut out in that way, without head or tail. He played the theme once more...

The boy looked at the player's clever white fingers, saw the course of the development faintly mirrored in his concentrated expression, while his eyes remained quiet under half-closed lids. Joseph's heart swelled with veneration, with love for the Master. His ear drank in the fugue; it seemed to him that he was hearing music for the first time in his life. Behind the music being created in his presence he sensed the world of Mind, the joy-giving harmony of law and freedom, of service and rule. He surrendered himself, and vowed to serve that world and this Master. In those few minutes he saw himself and his life, saw the whole cosmos guided, ordered, and interpreted by the spirit of music. And when the playing had come to an end, he saw this magician and king for whom he felt so intense a reverence pause for a little while longer, slightly bowed over the keys, with half-closed eyes, his face softly glowing from within. Joseph did not know whether he ought to rejoice at the bliss of this moment, or weep because it was over.

The old man slowly raised himself from the piano stool, fixed those cheerful blue eyes piercingly and at the same time with unimaginable friendliness upon him, and said: "Making music together is the best way for two people to become friends. There is none easier. That is a fine thing. I hope you and I shall remain friends. Perhaps you too will learn how to make fugues, Joseph."

He shook hands with Joseph and took his leave. But in the doorway he turned once more and gave Joseph a parting greeting, with a look and a ceremonious little inclination of his head.

Many years later Knecht told his pupil that when he stepped out of the building, he found the town and the world far more transformed and enchanted than if there had been flags, garlands, and streamers, or displays of fireworks. He had experienced his vocation, which may surely be spoken of as a sacrament. The ideal world, which hitherto his young soul had known only by hearsay and in wild dreams, had suddenly taken on visible lineaments for him. Its gates had opened invitingly. This world, he now saw, did not exist only in some vague, remote past or future; it was here and was active; it glowed, sent messengers, apostles, ambassadors, men like this old Magister (who by the way was not nearly so old as he then seemed to Joseph). And through this venerable messenger an admonition and a call had come from that world even to him, the insignificant Latin school pupil.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

Some words of the Music Master to Joseph —


"... Each of us is merely one human being, merely an experiment, a way station. But each of us should be on the way toward perfection, should be striving to reach the center, not the periphery. Remember this: one can be a strict logician or grammarian, and at the same time full of imagination and music. One can be a musician or Glass Bead Game player and at the same time wholly devoted to rule and order. The kind of person we want to develop, the kind of person we aim to become, would at any time be able to exchange his discipline or art for any other. He would infuse the Glass Bead Game with crystalline logic, and grammar with creative imagination. That is how we ought to be. We should be so constituted that we can at any time be placed in a different position without offering resistance or losing our heads."

"I think I understand," Joseph said. "But are not those who have such strong preferences and aversions simply more passionate natures, others just more sober and temperate?"

"That seems to be true and yet it is not," the Master replied, laughing. 'To be capable of everything and do justice to everything, one certainly does not need less spiritual force and elan and warmth, but more. What you call passion is not spiritual force, but friction between the soul and the outside world. Where passion dominates, that does not signify the presence of greater desire and ambition, but rather the misdirection of these qualities toward an isolated and false goal, with a consequent tension and sultriness in the atmosphere. Those who direct the maximum force of their desires toward the center, toward true being, toward perfection, seem quieter than the passionate souls because the flame of their fervor cannot always be seen. In argument, for example, they will not shout and wave their arms. But I assure you, they are nevertheless burning with subdued fires."

"Oh, if only it were possible to find understanding," Joseph exclaimed. "If only there were a dogma to believe in. Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anywhere. Everything can be interpreted one way and then again interpreted in the opposite sense. The whole of world history can be explained as development and progress and can also be seen as nothing but decadence and meaninglessness. Isn't there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine?"

The Master had never heard him speak so fervently. He walked on in silence for a little, then said: "There is truth, my boy. But the doctrine you desire, absolute, perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist. Nor should you long for

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

a perfect doctrine, my friend. Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself. The deity is within you, not in ideas and books. Truth is lived, not taught. Be prepared for conflicts, Joseph Knecht — I can see they have already begun."


"... To be candid, I myself, for example, have never in my life said a word to my pupils about the 'meaning' of music; if there is one, it does not need my explanations. On the other hand, I have always made a great point of having my pupils count their eighths and sixteenths nicely. Whatever you become, teacher, scholar, or musician, have respect for the 'meaning', but do not imagine that it can be taught. Once upon a time the philosophers of history ruined half of world history with their efforts to teach such 'meaning'; they inaugurated the Age of the Feuilleton and are partly to blame for quantities of spilled blood. If I were introducing pupils to Homer or Greek tragedy, say, I would also not try to tell them that the poetry is one of the manifestations of the divine, but would endeavor to make the poetry accessible to them by imparting a precise knowledge of its linguistic and metrical strategies. The task of the teacher and scholar is to study means, cultivate tradition, and preserve the purity of methods, not to deal in incommunicable experiences which are reserved to the elect — who often enough pay a high price for this privilege."

Joseph the pupil becomes Joseph the teacher.

At the time, his greatest ambition had been to be a good pupil, to learn, receive, form himself. Now the pupil had become a teacher, and as such he had mastered the major task of his first period in office: the struggle to win authority and forge an identity of person and office. In the course of this he made two discoveries. The first was the pleasure it gives to transplant the achievements of the mind into other minds and see them being transformed into entirely new shapes and emanations — in other words, the joy of teaching. The second was grappling with the personalities of the students, the attainment and practice of authority and leadership — in other words, the joy of educating. He never separated the two, and during his magistracy he not only trained a large number of good and some superb Glass Bead Game players, but also by example, by admonition, by his austere sort of patience, and by the force of his personality and character, elicited from a great many of his students the very best they were capable of.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

In the course of this work he had made a characteristic discovery — if we may be permitted to anticipate our story. At the beginning of his magistracy he dealt  exclusively with the elite, with the most advanced students and the tutors. Many of the latter were his own age, and every one was already a thoroughly trained player. But gradually, once he was sure of the elite, he slowly and cautiously, from year to year, began withdrawing from it an ever-larger portion of his time and energy, until at the end he sometimes could leave it almost entirely to his close associates and assistants. This process took years, and each succeeding year Knecht, in the lectures, courses, and exercises he conducted, reached further and further back to ever- younger students. In the end he went so far that he several times personally conducted beginners' courses for youngsters — something rarely done by a Magister Ludi. He found, moreover, that the younger and more ignorant his pupils were, the more pleasure he took in teaching. Sometimes in the course of these years it actually made him uneasy, and cost him tangible effort, to return from these groups of boys to the advanced students, let alone to the elite. Occasionally, in fact, he felt the desire to reach even further back and to attempt to deal with even younger pupils, those who had never yet had courses of any kind and knew nothing of the Glass Bead Game. He found himself sometimes wishing to spend a while in Eschholz or one of the other preparatory schools instructing small boys in Latin, singing, or algebra, where the atmosphere was far less intellectual than it was even in the most elementary course in the Glass Bead Game, but where he would be dealing with still more receptive, plastic, educable pupils, where teaching and educating were more, and more deeply, a unity. In the last two years of his magistracy he twice referred to himself in letters as "Schoolmaster", reminding his correspondent that the expression Magister Ludi — which for generations had meant only "Master of the Game" in Castalia — had originally been simply the name for the schoolmaster.

Joseph comes to understand the greatness of his Master.

I stayed about an hour or an hour and a half with the old man, and I cannot communicate to you what went on between us or what was exchanged; certainly no words were spoken. I felt, after my resistance was broken, only that he received me into his peace and his brightness; cheerful serenity and a wonderful peace enclosed the two of us. Without my having deliberately and consciously meditated, it somewhat resembled an unusually successful and gladdening meditation whose

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

subject might have been the Magister's life. I saw or felt him and the course of his growth from the time he first entered my life, when I was a boy, up to this present moment. His was a life of devotion and work, but free of obstructions, free of ambition, and full of music. It was as if by becoming a musician and Music Master he had chosen music as one of the ways toward man's highest goal, inner freedom, purity, perfection, and as though ever since making that choice he had done nothing but let himself be more and more permeated, transformed, purified by music — his entire self from his nimble, clever pianist's hands and his vast, well-stocked musician's memory to all the parts and organs of body and soul, to his pulses and breathing, to his sleep and dreaming — so that he was now only a symbol, or rather a manifestation, a personification of music. At any rate, I experienced what radiated from him, or what surged back and forth between him and me like rhythmic breathing, entirely as music, as an altogether immaterial esoteric music which absorbs everyone who enters its magic circle as a song for many voices absorbs an entering voice. Perhaps a non-musician would have perceived this grace in different images: an astronomer might have seen it as a moon circling around a planet, or a philologist heard it as some magical primal language containing all meanings.

Every so often Knecht found time for a brief visit to the aged former Music Master. The venerable old man, whose strength was now visibly ebbing and who had long since completely lost the habit of speech, persisted in his state of serene composure to the last. He was not sick, and his death was not so much a matter of dying as a form of progressive dematerialization, a dwindling of bodily substance and the bodily functions, while his life more and more gathered in his eyes and in the gentle radiance of his withering old man's face. To most of the inhabitants of Monteport this was a familiar sight, accepted with due respect. Only a few persons . . . were privileged to share after a fashion in this sunset glow, this fading out of a pure and selfless life. These few, when they had put themselves into the proper frame of mind before stepping into the little room in which the Master sat in his armchair, succeeded in entering into this soft iridescence of disembodiment, in sharing in the old man's silent movement toward perfection. They stayed for rapt moments in the crystal sphere of this soul, as if in a realm of invisible radiation, listening to unearthly music, and then returned to their daily lives with hearts cleansed and strengthened, as if descending from a high mountain peak.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie

Joseph' s pupil Tito reflects on his teacher...

By the time they bade each other good night, Tito was in excellent spirits and had made some good resolutions. Once again he had found this Magister Knecht very much to his liking. Without using fancy language and going on about scholarship, virtue, the aristocracy of intellect, and so on, as his schoolteachers were prone to do, this serene, friendly man had something in his manner and his speech that imposed an obligation and brought out your good, chivalric, higher aspirations and forces. It could be fun, and sometimes you felt it as a badge of honor, to deceive and outwit the ordinary schoolmaster, but in the presence of this man such notions never even occurred to you. He was — why, what exactly was he like? Tito reflected on this, trying to determine what it was about this stranger that was so likeable and at the same time so impressive. He decided that it was the man's nobility, his innate aristocratic quality. This was what drew him to Knecht, this above all. He was a nobleman, although no one knew his family and his father might have been a shoemaker. He was nobler and more aristocratic than most of the people Tito knew, more aristocratic than Tito's own father. The boy, who highly prized the patrician instincts and traditions of his house and could not forgive his father for having broken with them, was for the first time encountering intellectual aristocracy, cultivated nobility. Knecht was an example of that power which under favorable conditions can sometimes work miracles, overleaping a long succession of ancestors and within a single human life transforming a plebeian child into a member of the highest nobility. In the proud and fiery boy's heart there stirred an inkling that to belong to this kind of nobility, and to serve it, might be a duty and honor for him...

From Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi, trans. Richard and Clara Winston

(New York: Bantam, 1972), (pp. 41-44, 68-69, 107-08, 218-19, 238-39, 256-57 and 387)



1. Fugue', a polyphonic composition in which a short melodic theme is introduced by one voice or part, and then successively taken up by the other voices or parts in a continuous interweaving.

Magister Ludie

Magister Ludie


Born in 1877 in Calw, on the edge of the Black Forest, Hermann Hesse was brought up in a missionary household where it was assumed that he would study for the ministry. Hesse's religious crisis (which is often recorded in his novels) led to his fleeing from the Maulbronn seminary in 1891. After being expelled from high school, he worked in bookshops for several years — a usual occupation for budding German authors. His first novel, Peter Camenzind (1904), describes a youth who leaves his Swiss mountain village to become a poet. This was followed by Beneath the Wheel (1906), the tale of a schoolboy totally out of touch with his contemporaries, who flees through different cities after his escape from school.

World War I came as a terrific shock, and Hesse joined the pacifist Romain Rolland in antiwar activities — not only writing antiwar tracts and novels, but editing two newspapers for German prisoners of war. During this period, Hesse's first marriage broke up (reflected or discussed outright in Knulp and Rosshalde), he studied the works of Freud, eventually underwent analysis with Jung, and was for a time a patient in a sanatorium. In 1919 he moved permanently to Switzerland, and brought out Demian, which reflects his preoccupation with the workings of the subconscious and with psychoanalysis. The book was an enormous success, and made Hesse famous throughout Europe.

In 1922 he turned his attention to the East, which he had visited several times before the war, and wrote a novel about the Buddha titled Siddhartha. In 1927 he wrote Steppenwolf, the account of a man torn between animal instincts and bourgeois respectability, and in 1930 he published Narziss and Goldmund, a story dealing with the friendship between two medieval priests, one contented with his religion, the other a wanderer endlessly in search of peace and salvation.

Journey to the East appeared in 1932, and there was no major work until 1943, when he brought out Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), which won him the Nobel Prize in 1946. Until his death in 1962 he lived in seclusion in Montagnola, Switzerland.

Magister Ludie

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