Dangerous Thinkers

20th-century philosophers' love affair with totalitarianism

The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, by Mark Lilla, New York: New York Review of Books, 216 pages, $24.95

If philosophers were ranked like baseball players, you'd wind up with three generally agreed-upon Hall of Famers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The major leagues would consist of the great synthesizers and systematizers, figures like Augustine and Aquinas, Avicenna and Maimonides, Kant and Hegel. Dispersed throughout the minor leagues -- you can decide the level case by case -- you'd find a ragtag collection of pre-Socratics, skeptics, and Stoics, churchmen, rabbis, and Muslims, along with a handful of later Europeans such as Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau, Mill, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche.

Saying that, the first thing to note about Mark Lilla's incisive new book, The Reckless Mind, is that only one of the minds he profiles, Martin Heidegger, rises even to the level of a single-A farm team. Most of the rest -- including Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojeve, and Michel Foucault -- are wobbly Little Leaguers. And one, Jacques Derrida, has made a career out of playing whiffle ball in his own backyard, with half the humanities professors in the United States watching and doing color commentary.

Lilla's book reminds us that some of the most renowned European thinkers of the 20th century were high-octane sons of bitches. Drawing his inspiration from Czeslaw Milosz's 1953 classic, The Captive Mind, in which the future Nobel Prize winner examined how leading intellectuals in postwar Poland became apologists for Stalinism, Lilla gives us a rogues' gallery that spans 75 years of European thought.

He grants that "history dealt a bad hand" to Milosz's bunch. To speak out against the horrors of communism would have been to risk their lives. "But how are we to explain the fact," Lilla asks, "that a chorus for tyranny also existed in countries where intellectuals faced no danger and were free to write as they pleased?"

Rather than stare down the reality that the extremes of Nazism and communism were flip sides of a single debased coin, the thinkers in Lilla's book were drawn to one or the other by virtue of its very extremity.

Indeed, they came to regard moderation as the overriding threat to humanity and thus turned against the great moderating force of the last 200 years, Western liberal democracy. With the stench of death camps and gulags hovering over Europe, they honed in on such abstruse, rarefied bogeymen as "capital," "bourgeois conformity," "metaphysics," "power," and "language." If political philosophy begins, as Lilla says, "with Plato's critique of tyranny in the Republic," how in the last century did it degenerate to the point that "it became respectable to argue that tyranny was good, even beautiful"?

The answer Lilla proposes is both ingenious and cautionary, and serves as the unifying principle for his book. Each thinker Lilla discusses attempted to reason his way out of rationality, to wriggle free from the straitjacket of common sense, to think beyond the strictures of logical thought in the belief that something truer than truth could be had. The elusive thing that is the proper object of philosophy is never quite definable, but the passionate (or reckless) pursuit of it is the driving force in the philosophical lives Lilla sketches. These are clever people. But the deification and pursuit of the irrational made fools of each of them.

The juiciest tale Lilla tells is that of Heidegger, Jaspers, and Arendt -- a bizarre triangle of misplaced loyalty, romantic delusion, and philosophical penis envy whose closest political cognate would be Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Monica Lewinsky. The fact that Jaspers and Arendt were, respectively, cowed and seduced by Heidegger's imposing but only intermittently coherent disquisitions on "being" and "authenticity" says as much about their powers of perception as it does about Heidegger's true stature. "Everyone is other," Heidegger once declared, "and no one is himself."

Jaspers, who began their relationship as Heidegger's mentor, took such pronouncements as the gold standard of European thought. He wrote to Heidegger in 1931 that "in the long run, the philosophy of the German universities is in your hands." (More about hands in a moment.) Arendt, who began as Heidegger's student, was also daunted by their early encounters, recalling, decades after she first turned up in his classroom, her professor's "passion of thinking," which "takes possession of him and, as it were, annihilates his 'character' which cannot hold its own against this onslaught." She apparently couldn't hold her own against it either. Despite the inconvenient fact that Heidegger was married, the two of them quickly became lovers.

The shock for both Jaspers and Arendt came when Heidegger's "passion" turned from speculative pursuits to Nazism. Lilla effectively draws out the connections between Heidegger's philosophy and his political drift. Authenticity, again, is Heidegger's prime value. People become absorbed in their everyday existences, distracted by trivial concerns that threaten the status quo, and thus fail to confront the principal truth of life, which is the certainty of death. Losing sight of this certainty, we lose ourselves.

Authenticity, in the Heideggerian view, is achieved on an individual level by a resolve to be who we are without apologies or mediation; on a social level, authenticity is achieved by a collective resoluteness of purpose and agency that expresses itself in something like a national character. Heidegger thought he'd found that resoluteness in the Nazis. By 1933, he'd joined the party and was ending his university lectures with "Heil Hitler!" When Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, belatedly confronts Heidegger on the matter, their exchange is tragicomic: "Jaspers: 'How can such an uncultivated man like Adolf Hitler govern Germany?' Heidegger: 'Culture doesn't matter. Just look at his marvelous hands.'"

After the war, Heidegger, quite naturally, sought to rewrite his Nazi past. He portrayed himself, in a 1950 letter to Jaspers, as an innocent who succumbed to the lure of the party due to his unwavering love for Germany. But Heidegger also held out hope that an unforeseen "advent" might yet be on the horizon to resurrect the defeated German spirit.

The intimations of a Fourth Reich were clear enough to Jaspers. The letter effectively dissolved their friendship. Not so for Arendt. Though in 1946 she dismissed Heidegger's philosophy as "superstition," the two were reconciled personally in 1950 and remained lifelong friends. In 1969 she even wrote a lengthy tribute essay, "Martin Heidegger at Eighty," in which she downplayed his Nazi affiliation, mentioning it only in a footnote at the end. According to Lilla, Arendt had come to pity Heidegger for having "seized upon untruth with the passion for truth."

Slippery comfort to the victims of Hitler's holocaust.

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