by Richard Wolin
Princeton University Press, 312 pages, $29.95
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.
by Mark Lilla
New York Review, 216 pages, $24
The tension between philosophy and politics is as old as philosophy itself. The case of Socrates”tried and executed for impiety and corrupting the youth of ancient Athens”might be the most famous example of political-philosophical conflict, but it is hardly the only one. From Anaxagoras, Aristotle, and Cicero to Averroes, Maimonides, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, history is filled with examples of philosophers persecuted at the hands of political authorities. Only recently”and only in liberal democracies founded on universal human rights”have men and women been allowed to philosophize without fear of tyrannical oppression.
But there is another dimension to the problematic relation between politics and philosophy”one that has showed itself more vividly in our time than in any previous era: the enthusiastic embrace of tyranny by philosophers. Throughout much of the twentieth century, and especially in the post-World War II period, intellectuals living in the free societies of the West were faced with a choice. They could offer support”however measured or qualified”for the liberal democratic order and its freedoms. Or they could reject it in favor of one of the various experiments in antiliberal and antidemocratic politics that arose throughout the course of the century. To be sure, some took the former path. But a distressingly large number of the century’s most gifted minds opted, instead, for tyranny”or at least refused to acknowledge that there is a significant qualitative difference between constitutionalism and dictatorship.
What are we to make of this decision for despotism? Why were so many twentieth-century intellectuals led to it? Why are some led to it still? These are the difficult and disturbing questions that Richard Wolin’s Heidegger’s Children and Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics raise and seek to answer. Wolin and Lilla, two of our most learned and perceptive intellectuals, approach their subject in remarkably similar ways. Rather than discussing the relation between politics and philosophy in the abstract, they offer a series of philosophical-biographical sketches of some of the most noteworthy European intellectuals of the past century. Wolin explores the lives and works of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, while Lilla focuses on Heidegger, Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The portraits they draw of these figures are, as one might expect, far from flattering. Yet they go a long way toward helping us make sense of the fateful coincidence of philosophy and tyranny in our time. This is especially true in the case of Heidegger”easily the most troubling case of all.
Heidegger’s pertinence to any account of the intersection of philosophy and tyranny hardly needs to be justified. Not only was he by many accounts the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, as well as a decisive influence on many of its leading thinkers, but his political “fall” was arguably its most dramatic and profound. As is now well known, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and was appointed rector of Freiburg University in 1933, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power and just six years after publishing one of the century’s most acclaimed works of philosophy, Being and Time . From his administrative position, he attempted to “revolutionize” the university by bringing it into conformity with National Socialist aims. He gave propaganda lectures throughout Germany, cut ties with Jewish students and colleagues (including his mentor, Edmund Husserl), denouncing some of them to Nazi officials, and signed petitions in support of Hitler.
While Heidegger later pointed to his resignation as rector in May 1934 as an indication of how quickly he became disillusioned with the regime, numerous actions and statements made public after 1945 reveal a far more ambivalent position. When a 1935 lecture course was published in 1953, Heidegger refrained from excising a notorious passage in which he extolled the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. Neither did he retract or contradict equally infamous passages in which he asserted that Russia and America were “metaphysically the same.” More troubling still, a 1966 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that, despite his eventual dissatisfaction with the Nazis, Heidegger continued to think that National Socialism constituted a more adequate response to what he believed to be the unique challenges of modernity than democracy ever could.
The case of Heidegger’s Nazism has generated considerable scholarship and journalism over the years, some of it thoughtful, much of it dreadful. Most authors who have chosen to tackle the subject succumb to one of two temptations, both of which reflect a failure of moral judgment. Either they are led by indignation to dismiss Heidegger as a demonic charlatan or they arrogantly defend him without stooping to confront the serious moral concerns raised by his actions and ideas. In charting a course between these extremes, Wolin and Lilla manage to combine uncommon moral seriousness with intellectual depth.
Of the two books, Wolin’s is more narrowly focused on Heidegger and his influence. The four “children” he examines, all Jewish, studied with Heidegger in the 1920s and early ’30s, and, in Wolin’s words, would be “faced with the conundrum of how to reconcile their youthful philosophical allegiances with the totalitarian turn’ in Heidegger’s thought circa 1933.” While all of them criticized Heidegger’s behavior to varying degrees and attempted to distance themselves from his philosophical approach, Wolin finds that they each continued to accept one or another of Heidegger’s many questionable assumptions about modernity. And it is these assumptions that, for Wolin, led Heidegger to embrace Hitler. He thus concludes that, “like a Greek tragedy”though on a smaller scale”the sins of the father [were] visited upon the daughters and sons.”
This is not to say that all four figures developed along identical philosophical trajectories. For example, Arendt, with whom Heidegger conducted an extramarital affair when she was his student in the mid-1920s, remained a Heideggerian “political existentialist,” though she came to transpose “the revolutionary energies that Heidegger praised in right-wing revolutionary movements to the ends of the political left.” Löwith, by contrast, adopted an attitude of “Stoic detachment” toward what he considered to be the essentially “destitute” character of modern life, while Jonas and Marcuse endorsed alternative forms of “left-wing dictatorship” as preferable to the prosaic and partial goods of liberal democratic politics. What is crucial for Wolin, however, is that all of them ultimately ” accepted . . . [the] series of deep-seated prejudices concerning the nature of political modernity ” that they acquired largely from Heidegger.
It is not until the final third of the book that Wolin begins to examine those prejudices themselves, and in particular, their place in Heidegger’s thought. Taking his cue from one of Heidegger’s favorite sayings of Friedrich Hölderlin””As you begin, so shall you remain””Wolin looks for clues to Heidegger’s mature political views in the details of his intellectual biography.
Heidegger was born in 1889 into a strict Catholic family in the provincial town of Messkirch, Germany, where his father served as the sexton of the local church. At the age of eighteen, he stumbled upon an obscure work of nineteenth-century philosophy, Franz Brentano’s On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle (1862), which posed a series of questions that would occupy his thinking for the rest of his life. What does it mean “to be”? If particular entities or beings (such as rocks, desks, people, stars, atoms) can each be said “to be,” then what is the meaning of “Being” as such? What do we mean when we attribute “Being” to some entity”when we say, for example, “it is ” or “I am “? At first, the young Heidegger followed Brentano’s suggestion and looked to Aristotle for answers to these ontological questions, though for the precocious young Catholic it was Aristotle as seen through the lens of Thomistic theology.
For a time, Heidegger’s philosophical ambitions meshed quite nicely with the conservative Catholicism in which he was reared. He contemplated becoming a Jesuit, devoted himself to the study of scholasticism, and fell under the influence of the antimodernist theologian Carl Braig. During his mid-twenties, Heidegger even contributed a series of articles to the ultraconservative Catholic journal, Der Akademiker ”a periodical whose first issue contained a Preface by Pope Pius X encouraging a vigilant and uncompromising struggle against modernity. For the young Heidegger, modern culture was characterized by a corrosive individualism and a quasi-pagan “glorification of subjective experience” that could only be overcome by a return to the absolute and eternal truth of Being embodied in the Church. Wolin is thus probably right to claim that “Heidegger’s lifelong ontological quest, centered on the question of Being, was first catalyzed in response to the disorienting pluralism and relativism of cultural modernity.”
But the happy synthesis between philosophy and faith did not last. Shortly after he completed his doctoral education in 1915 with a study of Duns Scotus, Heidegger began to break from the Church. A prolonged and intense study of the writings of Wilhelm Dilthey, the nineteenth-century social theorist who had emphasized the crucial place of “historical knowledge” in the study of mankind, apparently convinced Heidegger of the inadequacy of the atemporal account of Being found in the scholastic tradition. By 1919, he would write to his mentor at Freiburg University, the theology professor and priest Engelbert Krebs, that “the theory of historical knowledge has made the system of Catholicism problematic and unacceptable to me.” In Wolin’s words, scholastic theology’s “aversion to temporality, its inordinate focus on universality’ and eternity’ at the expense of the singularity of the here and now,” separated it, in Heidegger’s mind, from the reality of human existence. Heidegger’s mature philosophy emerged directly from this assumption.
Heidegger’s interest in religion was not yet at an end, however. Following his break with Catholicism, he turned almost immediately to the study of the essential texts of Protestant theology. He did so, not in pursuit of religious truth, but rather as a means to uncovering a central element of human experience that he now believed had been covered over by the institutions and practices of the Catholic Church”namely, the capacity to be fundamentally transformed or “gripped” at the root of one’s existence by a spiritual experience. As Wolin writes, quoting Heidegger, “insofar as scholasticism, following the mistaken lead of Aristotle, attempted to take its bearings from the natural world rather than the domain of inner life, it severely jeopardized the immediacy of religious life and forgot religion for theology and dogmas.’” In the works of Augustine, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Kierkegaard, by contrast, Heidegger believed he had found an account of the divine that would enable him to “dismantle” the tradition of scholastic ontology and, in so doing, gain access to this more “primordial” experience.
For Heidegger, Protestant theology was one of several promising avenues by which to pursue a radically concrete and historical investigation into the question of the “meaning of Being.” Like that of the Catholic Church, Aristotle’s approach to this question”at least as it was traditionally understood”was, in Heidegger’s view, profoundly ill-conceived. Aristotle had famously written in the Metaphysics that “that which is’ primarily is the what,’ which indicates the substance of the thing.” Heidegger had come to believe that this focus on the “whatness” of things deeply distorts the radically temporal nature of human existence. While it might be appropriate to speak of nonhuman entities as kinds of things, to speak of a human being in such a way”as, for example, a “rational animal” or “transcendental ego””is a profound error. The habits of thought inherited from the philosophical tradition were shot through with this error, and in modernity they had come, largely through the influence of modern science, to permeate human self-understanding. Man”but above all, modern man”conceives of himself in terms of the objects that surround him in the world, rather than as who he truly is”namely, the openness in which or through which those entities appear as what they are.
In order to break free from the prejudice in favor of substance that he detected in the Western philosophical tradition, as well as to clarify his inchoate thoughts about the unique openness of human beings to Being itself, Heidegger employed a version of the phenomenological approach to philosophy that he encountered in the work of Edmund Husserl, for whom he worked as an assistant during the early 1920s. In Heidegger’s few autobiographical statements, he invariably emphasized the importance of Husserlian phenomenology on his own philosophical development. But the publication of Heidegger’s many university lectures from the 1920s in the years since his death (in 1976) show that Heideggerian phenomenology bore little resemblance to Husserl’s version of it. Whereas Husserl had hoped to use phenomenology to place philosophy on an objective, scientific basis by exposing timeless “essences” embedded in human experience, Heidegger wanted to do, if anything, the opposite.
That is, Heidegger sought to use phenomenological description of our intentional experience of the world to gain access to its primordial grounds. Heidegger would show that, far from being founded in eternal essences or ideas, all human thinking, rational and nonrational alike, is rooted in something prereflective”namely, the brute givenness of human existence. Nothing less than Being itself”and along with it the totality of entities within the world, as well as the categorical relations among them”is revealed to us prior to any act of reasoning we might bring to bear upon them. An entity is (or, what is the same thing for Heidegger, appears as ) what it is by virtue of its disclosure as such in a meaningful human world.
These various strands of thinking finally came to fruition in Heidegger’s early masterwork, Being and Time (1927), which managed to combine ontological reflection, phenomenological description, and cultural critique in a philosophically electrifying way. In this work, Heidegger wanted above all to come to grips with the meaning of Being. But he argued that in order to gain access to that meaning, it was necessary to interrogate the only entity for whom the meaning of Being can be an issue: a human being. Hence the book”which was originally intended to be the first part of a much larger study of Being itself”focused almost exclusively on man, at least insofar as he is open to the question of Being.
The result”which Heidegger named “fundamental ontology””resembled nothing so much as an anthropological investigation, albeit one of an oddly formalistic kind. Man, according to Heidegger, is an entity who tends to understand Being in terms of the meaningful “world” in which he at any given moment “always already” finds himself stuck or enmeshed. Within this world, nonhuman entities show up or reveal themselves as what they are in the act of being used by human beings to realize practical ends, or what Heidegger calls “outstanding possibilities” of existence. Most of the time, individuals allow these possibilities to be determined by the view of Being that prevails among the mass of people who make up the world, which Heidegger dubs the “They.” That is, we tend to take on the reigning interpretation of our world and accept it unthinkingly as an obvious, self-evident truth. And when we do so”when we allow ourselves to be “tranquilized” by the They”we are “inauthentic.”
But there is another, “authentic” possibility of existence, one in which a human being allows himself to be “summoned out of his lostness in the They” to face the arbitrariness of having been “thrown” into a particular world and having accepted its prevailing possibilities and interpretation of Being as his own. The key to attaining this state of authenticity is embracing the “mood” of “anxiety,” which discloses our fundamental finitude to us”the possibility of annihilation in death. For Heidegger, to be authentic is to live life”to choose one’s possibilities”in the light of the nothingness that can envelop us at any moment.
Heidegger’s tendency to write about our “Being-toward-death” in personal terms throughout much of Being and Time has led many to believe, today no less than when it was first published, that its teaching is primarily a radically individualistic one. But the late chapters of the book make clear that this is far from being the case. In these passages, we learn that each individual’s “anticipatory resolution” regarding death must be undertaken as a “struggle” with the other members of his “generation.” Together, they must determine the essence of the contemporary “Situation” that prevails within the historical community, or “people,” to which they belong. In other words, the community”which as the inauthentic They is determined by received norms, practices, beliefs, and traditions”must be transformed into an authentic collectivity that forges a new understanding of existence in what Heidegger calls a “moment of vision.” At this moment, the community chooses its “hero,” who, in turn, leads it on a quest to determine its historical “destiny” by appropriating its past and projecting it onto an indefinite future. Hence, despite the fact that Being and Time comes to a close without returning to an explicit discussion of Being as such, the reader is left with the distinct impression that Heidegger means to indicate that Being is indistinguishable from Time, understood as human history or fate.
Many of Heidegger’s defenders have pointed out that there is nothing overtly Hitlerian about his published work. Yet Wolin contends that, while this is technically true, there is a deeply radical normative component to Heidegger’s philosophy. The fact is that the book’s ideal (a collective act of “anticipatory resoluteness”) can be realized only by a generation that is prepared to make a decision of existential proportions. Although Heidegger certainly did not advocate in Being and Time that his readers join the Nazi Party or any other political movement, he did denigrate as inauthentic all public action that failed to break decisively with received standards regarding every conceivable element of human life and death. In Wolin’s view, Heidegger thus came to embrace”and his thought to embody”the deeply nihilistic conviction that “widespread destruction was required before anything of lasting value could be built.”
According to Wolin, it was above all the breathtakingly radical character of the National Socialist revolution that inspired the philosopher to embrace it so enthusiastically. For Heidegger, as it was for such fellow philosophical supporters of Hitler’s movement as Carl Schmitt and Ernst Jünger, prosaic and pragmatic liberal democracy was beneath contempt. As for Marxism, it merely radicalized certain elements of modernity”its materialism and economistic outlook”while leaving its essential character unchallenged. Only the movement led by Hitler and Mussolini opened up the possibility of (in Heidegger’s words) a “countermovement to nihilism””one in which a concrete, historical people ( Volk ) would seize its possibility for authentic existence.
In order to gain insight into Heidegger’s fateful decision for Hitler, as well as to assess the causes of his rapid disillusionment with the reality”if not the ideal potential”of the Nazi regime, Wolin looks to the recently published transcript of a course Heidegger taught in 1934, in the aftermath of his failed rectorship. That the title of the course was “Logic” did not indicate that Heidegger planned to teach his students anything as mundane as the rules of inference or the nuances of Frege’s predicate calculus. Rather, as he announced at the outset of the class, he intended nothing less than to “shake logic to its very foundations .” What modern professors of philosophy call logic is, for Heidegger, merely a superficial technique based on an encrusted metaphysical error that covers over the original and more primordial understanding of “logos” that treated language as a “site” for the revelation of Being. And as Wolin writes, Heidegger maintained that
Being never reveals itself arbitrarily. Thus . . . certain peoples are linguistically and historically privileged. Ultimately, therefore, all linguistic questions turn out to be questions of human existence . . . [and] when posed “essentially,” existential questions also concern the historical self-understanding of a people, or Volk .
It is thus appropriate, and perhaps even essential, that a course on logic focus on “the hidden potentials of Germany’s National Revolution.”
Heidegger is quite clear in his remarks to his class that he believes the Nazis provided the Germans with a historic opportunity to opt for a wholly new understanding of Being”an understanding that, in Wolin’s words, “would be free of the divisiveness and debilities of the liberal era.” By “choosing themselves,” as Heidegger puts it, the German people had adopted a unified will that could overturn the pluralistic differentiation that prevails within liberal societies. No longer would state and society, private and public, religious and secular, stand opposed to one another. Instead, they would combine to form a single entity led by a transformed university on a self-generated “spiritual mission.” Academic freedom would thus become a thing of the past, as merely “scholarly education” made way for what Heidegger calls “knowledge service””a mode of thinking based entirely on “the forces and demands of the National Socialist state.”
It was these hopes that were dashed during the year that Heidegger served as rector. As Wolin points out, Heidegger became deeply disappointed that university reforms “had proved insufficiently radical, and that the dissolution’ of the old university structure had not proceeded fast enough.” While Heidegger appears in the 1934 lecture to maintain hope for future reforms, a year later he would denounce the “works that are peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism” for failing to live up to its “inner truth and greatness.” By the end of the war, he had convinced himself that he was a victim of the Nazis, who had failed to appoint him as their official philosophical spokesman. Hence his remarkable comment to Ernst Jünger that he would apologize for his Nazi engagement only if Hitler could be brought back to apologize to him.
In his later work, Heidegger adopted a far less politically active stance. Calls for collective authenticity and resolution were replaced by an ominous demonization of technology and a quasi-mystical insistence on the necessity of “letting beings be.” What never changed”and, if anything, became even more pronounced in his later work”was Heidegger’s steadfast hostility to the modern age, along with its premier political and social institution, constitutional democracy. According to Wolin, it was an outlook from which “Heidegger’s children” found it equally difficult to extricate themselves. Although, like their teacher, they surely manifested “a capacity for probing philosophical insight that one risks losing sight of today””and while none of them quite matched Heidegger’s breathtaking “incapacity for political judgment””they nevertheless perpetuated many of his “conservative revolutionary” prejudices, and along with them a startling lack of appreciation for “values of public reason.’” Wolin insists that in reading and learning from them today, we must take care not to adopt these supremely questionable and dangerous assumptions as our own.
On this matter, as on much else in his insightful and disturbing book, Wolin is surely right. As an exercise in moral judgment, Heidegger’s Children , like Wolin’s previous work on Heidegger and other twentieth-century intellectuals, is unimpeachable. When it comes to analysis and argument, however, the book offers us far less than we might have hoped for. The problem is not that Wolin lacks the ability to understand and recount the details of the figures he examines. On the contrary, he is supremely fluent in the hyper-abstract idiom of twentieth-century continental philosophy. Rather, the shortcomings of his work arise from his apparent unwillingness to answer the hardest questions raised by his research.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Wolin’s explanation of precisely why Heidegger embraced political tyranny. Wolin tells us that he was “overdetermined” by the antiliberal ” Zeitgeist of the interwar years” and his antimodern Catholic upbringing to support political extremism. Yet one wonders how much we really learn from reducing Heidegger”or, for that matter, any philosopher”so thoroughly to his historical and personal context. When, like Wolin’s, such accounts are taken too far, they border on the tautological, telling us little more than that the figure we wish to understand believed what he did because of who he was”all the while refusing to attend adequately to the ideas that, one would think, made that figure a unique individual. In the case of Wolin’s treatment of Heidegger, we are told what he thought and where many of those ideas originated, but we learn next to nothing about why he held those views”beyond the insinuation that he was simply an unreflective and foolish bastard. Perhaps he was. But anyone who has approached Heidegger’s work with an open mind discovers that his views, however troubling and even outrageous, cannot be waved away quite so easily.
As for Wolin’s treatment of “Heidegger’s children,” the situation is marginally better. Here, at least, he does offer an explanation of their unsavory political opinions, though that explanation is far from persuasive. In Wolin’s view, Arendt, Löwith, Jonas, and Marcuse continued to adhere to Heidegger’s least defensible political presuppositions because of “the delusions of Jewish assimilationism.” Arguing that they were each drawn to Heidegger out of the conviction that he was the twentieth-century embodiment of the German Kultur into which they wished to be assimilated, Wolin implies that they remained in his orbit even after his endorsement of the Nazis out of what can only be described as Jewish self-hatred. Or at least this is what Wolin insinuates in the eight pages of the book’s second chapter. Other than that, the theme of Judaism is all but ignored. One almost wonders if it was a last-minute imposition of an editor in search of a unifying argument for the book. As it is, the explanation is woefully underdeveloped, and the reader is left with the conclusion that Heidegger’s greatest students remained in thrall to their teacher’s views because they, too, were unreflective and foolish bastards.
An appropriately serious reckoning with Heidegger and the many other illiberal intellectuals of the past century would have to wrestle more profoundly than Wolin is willing to do with their deepest moral and political concerns. Railing against them for being “elitist” and “aristocratic” simply doesn’t get us very far”however satisfying it might be for a convinced democrat like Wolin”and neither does his desultory praise of Jürgen Habermas’ commitment to egalitarian “discussion” in the public square as an alternative to Heideggerian authenticity. For the fact remains that, however poor their political judgment, Heidegger and his philosophical descendants present a critique of modernity and democratic norms that is deeply powerful. Until we make a greater effort to understand their reasons for rejecting these fundamental elements of our world, their actions will remain utterly mysterious.
In this regard, Lilla does much better in The Reckless Mind . Aside from highly (and justly) critical chapters on Schmitt and Derrida, he exhibits greater sympathy for his subjects than Wolin. His treatment of Walter Benjamin, in particular, is a model of nuance and insight. Benjamin, a hermetic literary critic who flirted with radical politics in the interwar period and died fleeing from the Nazis in 1940, has been transformed over the past two decades into a prophet of postmodernism by a coterie of (mostly American) academics. But Lilla takes a different approach to interpreting his life and writings. Following the pregnant suggestion of Gershom Scholem that Benjamin must be understood as “a theologian marooned in the realm of the profane,” Lilla explores the many half-hidden religious aspects of his work, finally coming to the conclusion that Benjamin was “the modern incarnation of the type of thinker who cannot be understood apart from traditional theological distinctions.” Anyone who has tried to make sense of Benjamin’s idiosyncratic work on its own terms”as opposed to using it as a proof-text for left-wing postmodernist pronouncements”will find this judgment to be exactly right.
But the main purpose of Lilla’s book is, like Wolin’s, to examine and assess the morally dubious actions and ideas of Europe’s leading twentieth-century intellectuals. Lilla treats the topic most explicitly in the book’s lengthy opening chapter and in its concluding Afterword. In these passages, Lilla suggests that the key to understanding the link between philosophy and tyranny in our time is, of all things, love.
“What has philosophy to do with love?” asks Lilla at the beginning of his book, and he answers, “if Plato is to be believed, everything.” What follows is a Platonic account of the role of eros in different kinds of human lives. Some, driven by an “unconscious memory of the beauty of the Ideas,” become philosophers, spending their lives attempting to consummate their love of eternal truth. Others, lacking the metaphysical desires as well as the intelligence and discipline of philosophers, seek erotic satisfaction in physical union with another human being. And then there are those who can accept neither possibility. Combining the philosopher’s “frenzied yearning” for perfection with the immoderation of those who direct their erotic longings toward physical satisfaction, this third type of man allows eros to “overwhelm [his] reason and natural instincts, directing them to its own ends and becoming the soul’s tyrant.”
What is political tyranny, Plato has Socrates ask in the Republic , if not the unjust rule of a man who himself is tyrannized by his basest desires? . . . [For Plato,] the philosopher and the tyrant, the highest and lowest of human types, are linked through some perverse trick of nature by the power of love.
According to Lilla, this psychological account of the perfection and perversion of philosophic eros is the key to understanding the actions of those he dubs “philotyrannical” intellectuals. He sets out to substantiate this bold thesis in his opening chapter by examining the love and friendship that linked Heidegger to Arendt and Karl Jaspers.
That Heidegger and Arendt engaged in a love affair is less relevant for Lilla than the fact that she was initially drawn to him out of a love of philosophical truth. Whatever physical attraction may have existed between them, Arendt’s feelings for her teacher were aroused in large part by what she later described as his “passionate thinking,” as he struggled to wrest a new understanding of Being from the texts of the Western philosophical tradition. As she would later write, Heidegger seemed to engage in “thinking as pure activity” and philosophized with a “passion which not so much rules and oppresses all other capacities and gifts, as it orders them and prevails through them.” Regularly witnessing this display before her in the classroom, Arendt became convinced that “thinking” itself had “come to life again” in the person of Martin Heidegger.
Their affair lasted little more than a year, ending before Heidegger achieved international renown with the publication of Being and Time in 1927, yet she clearly continued to have feelings for him and to think of him as nothing less than the living embodiment of philosophy. She was thus devastated by news of his enthusiastic support for Hitler. How could Heidegger, whom she considered a philosopher par excellence, have directed his extraordinary passions into the Nazi cause? This question haunted Arendt as she fled Germany in 1933, first for France, and then, in 1941, the United States. In fact, Lilla contends that it determined the contours of her own thought long after she established an independent reputation as an intellectual and scholar. Even her reconciliation with Heidegger in 1950 did not diminish her need to make sense of his political actions in her own terms. For despite their renewed closeness”reflected in warm correspondence, occasional friendly visits, and Arendt’s determined efforts to ensure the translations of her teacher’s works into English”a frank and open discussion of the Nazi period seems never to have occurred. Heidegger appeared incapable of understanding the contemporary world in anything other than the bleakest terms”and his own actions as anything other than an understandable, if ultimately futile, response to this situation.
Left to make sense of Heidegger’s actions on her own, Arendt came to interpret them as a particularly vivid example of the perennial conflict between philosophy and political power. “When philosophers try to become kings,” writes Lilla, summarizing Arendt’s position, “either philosophy is corrupted, politics is corrupted, or both are.” The best course of action is therefore to separate the two spheres, “leaving philosophers to cultivate their gardens with all the passion they have, but keeping them quarantined there so they can cause no harm.” It was this stance that enabled Arendt, in Lilla’s words, “to remain, in her own eyes, a genuine friend both of Heidegger’s philosophy and of political decency.”
Heidegger’s relationship with Jaspers developed along somewhat different, although, for Lilla, more revealing lines. The two men met in 1920 and quickly began an intense friendship based on what Jaspers called “a foundation of philosophizing.” In his work, Jaspers was concerned with what he described as “limit situations””situations in which, as Lilla writes, “the cloud of forgetting that normally envelops our Existenz evaporates and we are suddenly confronted with the fundamental questions of life and, especially, death.” This was, of course, the same theme that preoccupied Heidegger at this time, and each man immediately recognized in the other a kindred spirit. Jaspers, in particular, understood that in Heidegger he had encountered an extraordinarily rare human being. As he wrote in his Philosophical Autobiography , “Through Heidegger I saw in a contemporary that something’ that normally can be found only in the past, and that is essential to philosophizing.” That “something” was, as Arendt likewise noted, philosophical passion”a lust for truth that yielded breathtaking flights of speculation and questioning. But Heidegger’s depth also had a more ominous side. “It could sometimes seem,” Jaspers wrote, “that a demon had crept into him.”
Lilla describes how Jaspers, despite his awareness of Heidegger’s dark side, was shocked to see his friend leap so decisively into the world of politics in 1933. Shortly after Heidegger rose to the leadership of Freiburg University, their friendship fell apart. Although the two men exchanged pleasantries for the next four years, they lost contact after 1937, when Jaspers was removed from his university post and (in Lilla’s words) “forced into the terrifying position of surviving until the war’s end as an anti-Nazi married to a Jewish woman and barred from leaving the country.”
It wasn’t until 1949 that the two friends reestablished contact, and even then, it took a year of correspondence until Jaspers broached the subject of Heidegger’s Nazism. When he did, he was deeply disappointed to discover that, although Heidegger was willing to acknowledge that his decision for Hitler had been a mistake, he did so entirely in nonmoral terms, describing it as little more than a tactical error on his part. The real victim of the war was, he argued, Germany, which was surrounded by enemies on all sides and forced to put its hopes in a new “advent” that would rescue it from oblivion. For Jaspers, this was definitive proof that his friend had been lost. As he later wrote, Heidegger “really doesn’t know and is hardly in a position to find out what devil drove him to do what he did.”
But while his friendship with Heidegger had ended, Jaspers found it impossible to forget him. In 1928 he began to keep a private notebook devoted to his observations and thoughts about Heidegger, and he continued to contribute to it until at least 1964. Lilla concludes his chapter on these figures by quoting from a passage in which Jaspers addresses Heidegger in anguish: “I beseech you! If ever we shared anything that can be called philosophical impulses, take responsibility for your own gift! Place it in the service of reason, of the reality of human worth and possibilities, instead of in the service of magic!” Lilla glosses this moving passage as follows:
[Jaspers] felt betrayed by Heidegger as a human being, as a German, and as a friend, but especially as a philosopher. What he thought they shared in the early years of their friendship was the conviction that philosophy was a means of wresting one’s existence from the grip of the commonplace and assuming responsibility for it. Then he saw a new tyrant enter his friend’s soul, a wild passion that misled him into supporting the worst of political dictators and then enticed him to intellectual sorcery.
For Lilla, Heidegger’s actions can best be understood as a result of philosophical passion run amok.
This psychological interpretation returns in the book’s Afterword, where Lilla expands on these insights and applies them much more broadly. Its title””The Lure of Syracuse””is a reference to Plato’s journey to the Sicilian city in 368 b.c. in the hopes of educating its ruler, Dionysius, in philosophy. These hopes were dashed, however, as Dionysius became a brutal tyrant, and Plato was lucky to escape with his life. Legend has it that it was from this experience that Plato learned that it would take either a miracle or an extraordinary coincidence for philosophy and political power to coincide.
In seeking to understand why so many twentieth-century intellectuals came to the opposite conclusion”how, in Lilla’s words, it “became respectable to argue that tyranny was good, even beautiful””Lilla considers, and rejects, a number of different theories that have been proposed as explanations over the years. The philosophical choice for tyranny cannot be traced solely to an overabundance of “rationalism,” as Isaiah Berlin and the members of the Frankfurt School have claimed. But neither can simple-minded “irrationalism” of the kind emphasized by Jacob Talmon be blamed. And while Raymond Aron was right to point out the dangers of an excess of “commitment” on the part of French intellectuals, such German scholars as Fritz Stern and Jürgen Habermas have been correct to identify the opposite tendency (“disengagement”) as the crucial defect in many others.
In place of these explanations, Lilla proposes that we look within the souls of the philotyrannical intellectuals themselves. When we do, we find that they have succumbed to the “blissful kind of madness” that love can induce, whether its object is “another human being or . . . an idea . . . [of] eternal truth, justice, beauty, [and] wisdom.” When such passions refuse the discipline that “the philosophical life aims to provide,” they come to dominate the soul. And when that love is inspired by ideas, the results can be disastrous, especially when the love-struck intellectual attempts to realize his ambitions in politics.
For Lilla, it was Plato’s awareness of our potentially “tyrannical inclinations” that saved him from the fate of so many philotyrannical intellectuals in the twentieth century. And we would be well-advised to recognize that there is a “connection in the human mind between the yearning for truth and the desire to contribute to [what Plato described as] the right ordering of cities and households.’” It was by manipulating this “urge””by appealing, “slyly and dishonestly, to the sense of justice and hatred of despotism that thinking seems to instill in us, and which, unmastered, can literally possess us””that the ideologies of the twentieth century were able to convince so many philosophers to provide them with enthusiastic legitimation.
Lilla’s psychological argument”that the human mind becomes “reckless” when it fails to discipline its own erotic desire for truth and justice”has much to recommend it. It has the advantage of offering both a compelling explanation of the actions and ideas of the twentieth century’s philotyrannical intellectuals, as well as a prescription for avoiding their errors in the present and future. If Lilla is right, the need to “master the tyrant within” will not “disappear in less extreme circumstances,” for its sources lie in the very “makeup of our souls.” We need above all to practice self-control and to embrace the virtue of moderation if we hope to master the madness that lurks within us. Only if we do so will we be ensured of remaining tethered to moral decency and capable of distinguishing between a beautiful mirage of the good and the good as it truly is.
While The Reckless Mind is elegantly argued, beautifully written, and exhibits a fluency and confidence with both philosophy and history that is exceedingly rare, Lilla’s central argument is, like Wolin’s, ultimately less than fully convincing. The problem lies primarily in Lilla’s decision to rely so heavily on psychology to understand his subjects. Doing so is certainly suggestive, but it is hardly sufficient. By placing so much emphasis on the importance of psychological moderation in theoretical inquiry, Lilla makes it seem as if the primary difference between, say, Heidegger on the one hand and Aristotle or David Hume on the other is the extent of their philosophical sobriety. There is undoubtedly something to this interpretation, as anyone who compares the tone and tenor of these philosophers’ writings will instantly note, but it can hardly be said to capture the full extent of the difference between them.
While a person’s disposition has significant influence on how he approaches the truth, we have reason to suspect that it exercises far less of one than Lilla would have us believe. As with all choices, a person makes political decisions on the basis of opinions about which ends are choiceworthy”that is, on the basis of opinions about the good and the true. Whether or not that person has a moderate or immoderate temperament is of secondary importance. (While all Nazis were evil, they were not all equally fanatical; some were even sober.) Moderation alone cannot generate opinions about goodness and truth, just as we cannot know whether sobriety or radicalism are called for until those ends have been discovered or revealed.
Understanding the actions of illiberal intellectuals thus requires that we examine and assess what they held to be good and true. In Heidegger’s case, this means confronting assumptions that Heidegger himself never appears to have subjected to scrutiny. The first of these has to do with philosophical method. For all of Heidegger’s hostility to various aspects of modern life”and despite his claim to have turned toward phenomenology in order to reveal the contours of primordial human experience”he was very much a member of the modern stream of thought that begins philosophical inquiry with a radical break from common opinions about the good, the just, the beautiful, and the holy. This current arose in explicit opposition to an older and more circumspect approach to reflection”one that sought knowledge through the dialectical examination and rational refinement of these opinions. For such figures as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, thinking not only begins from common moral opinions, it also has to refer constantly back to them as a necessary touchstone along the way to theoretical knowledge.
But for the modern tradition to which Heidegger belongs, philosophy begins with a contrary impulse”the drive to indeterminate liberation from all received views. Following a path staked out by Descartes, Locke, Kant, and many others, the members of this tradition put their trust in the autonomous human mind and reject a gradual ascent from common opinions in favor of a radical rupture from them. It should thus come as no surprise that, having decided to cut themselves off from the moral contents of life, they then go on to portray the world as a moral and theological void. For them, philosophy discloses a world that is (in Max Weber’s famous phrase) “disenchanted.”
This is not to say that Heidegger and his many predecessors and successors ever fully succeed in making a complete break from moral opinion. On the contrary, their very quest for liberation (like all human goals) presupposes some notion of”some opinion about”the good. In fact, it is these moral assumptions, more than their shared methodological presupposition, that determine the unique character of their various philosophical positions. The contrasting examples of Richard Rorty and Heidegger illustrate the point particularly well. In his endorsement of the disenchantment thesis, in his denial of metaphysical truth or higher principles of any kind, and in his wholesale dismissal of “Platonism” for its attempt to acquire such truth, Rorty’s thought is indistinguishable from Heidegger’s. And yet, as anyone who has spent time with the work of the two authors is well aware, Rorty and Heidegger are worlds apart.
The difference between them lies primarily in the realm of moral principle, which neither thinker deigns to discuss explicitly. Rorty’s work, on the one hand, is clearly suffused with a love for the good of secular, radical egalitarianism, and it is for the sake of this good that he seeks to dissolve every competing moral claim with the acid of philosophical criticism. This is why Rorty comes off as so amiable and amusing to American liberal intellectuals, despite his manifest radicalism”because he employs his anti-philosophical arguments to further a good that is extremely congenial to them. Heidegger, on the other hand, employs similarly corrosive arguments for the sake of a very different good”one that contemporary American intellectuals find considerably more sinister. That is, Heidegger is primarily concerned with the collapse of the hierarchical dimension of life”and above all, the experience of the noble-in the modern world.
In a recently published 1941 lecture on “German Nihilism,” Leo Strauss explains how this concern with nobility”when combined with the conviction that the modern world is incompatible with the experience of the high or exalted”contributed in a decisive way to the enthusiasm for militarism and, in turn, National Socialism among Germans of the interwar period. Strauss points out that many members of Heidegger’s generation became convinced that nobility in the modern period was endangered by “the identification of the morally good with the object of enlightened self-interest.” In a world in which the useful is equated with the good, the noble”which comes to sight as disinterestedly beautiful or good in itself, regardless of its usefulness”would simply disappear.
It was thought that one could most effectively combat this trend by positing the opposite of the prevailing modern view”namely, the absolute ” difference between the moral good and self-interest.” In other words, Heidegger and his peers “insisted on self-sacrifice and self-denial” and therefore found themselves attracted to the one virtue that calls us to complete sacrifice of one’s own good: courage. Strauss explains why:
. . . the difference between the noble and the useful, between duty and self-interest, is most visible in the case of . . . courage, military virtue. The consummation of the actions of every other virtue is, or may be, rewarded: it actually pays to be just, temperate, urbane, munificent, etc.; the consummation of the actions of courage, i.e., death on the field of honor, death for one’s country, is never rewarded: it is the flower of self-sacrifice . . . . [T]he German philosophers were [thus] tempted to overstress the dignity of military virtue, and in very important cases . . . they succumbed to that temptation.
Heidegger’s embrace of Hitler must be understood as the decision of a man who was convinced that the highest good consists in noble sacrifice”and that only the Führer could call it forth under modern conditions.
Heidegger eventually came to see that there was something deeply problematic”though not immoral”about his hope that Hitler could usher in a modern rebirth of nobility. Is it not the height of foolishness to believe that a people, or even its leader, can will its own self-sacrifice? Isn’t it rather the case that one is inspired to sacrifice by an experience of something external”an ideal, a principle, a deity”calling on one to do so? There seems, in other words, to be a necessary element of passivity, responsiveness, and gratitude in every experience of the noble. Hence the late Heidegger’s talk of the “call” of thinking. Hence also his notorious oracular assertion (in his 1966 Der Spiegel interview) that “only a god can save us now.” Heidegger came to recognize the indispensability of the divine as the source or ground of any and all enchantment, even as he persisted in rejecting every god in which mankind has heretofore believed. All he could do was “prepare to be prepared” for a new revelation whose content, as always, remained wholly indeterminate.
Wolin would have us believe that Heidegger’s concern with “suffering and nobility of character” was merely an expression of an outmoded “romantic sensibility.” But it can’t be dismissed so easily. Without something to look up to”without something to call on man to sacrifice his own personal good for something higher than himself”he loses his moral compass. Without a higher principle, he loses his ability to make judgments about good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly. His life is impoverished. Habermas might convince certain naive secularists that intersubjective consensus is sufficient to guarantee a good political order. But Augustine was more persuasive when he pointed out that a group of individuals without a transcendent good”that is, God”to guide them is indistinguishable from a thuggish gang of robbers.
No, Heidegger wasn’t wrong to worry about such matters. Contrary to Lilla’s account, his at times immoderate and undisciplined concern with them”along with his fixation on the only question that really matters, the question of the meaning of existence”is what makes him, for all his manifest flaws, a great philosopher. What is truly remarkable about Heidegger is not so much his unceasing, even manic desire to secure the conditions of the experience of nobility under modern circumstances, or his endless quest to understand the meaning of Being, or even his belief that the Nazis represented an historic opportunity to re-enchant the modern world. All of these traits are understandable, given his deepest and most questionable assumption”namely, that the world, in its “essence,” has been disenchanted in modernity. What is truly remarkable is that he appears never, even for a moment, to have entertained the possibility that it was he, and not the world, who had been disenchanted.
In this, he is hardly alone. In fact, it is above all this assumption”and not merely an antimodern ideology or an immoderate psychological disposition”that binds together the myriad intellectuals examined by Wolin and Lilla. To reject the truth of this assumption”to say that Heidegger’s writings, as well as those of so many others in our time, reflect or express a deeply personal experience of godlessness”is not to deny that we can learn quite a lot from studying them. But it is to diminish their usefulness for understanding our shared public world. Instead of standing as an authoritative description of the essence of modernity”let alone of “Being” as such”the work of these tortured figures must be understood primarily as a testament to what existence looks like to the most profound of atheists”and to what kind of actions such men might be tempted to undertake.
Damon Linker is associate editor of First Things .