The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, by Leonard Peikoff, New York: Stein & Day, 1982, 384 pp., $16.95.
Among those who have an interest in developments in libertarian and objectivist scholarship, Leonard Peikoff's book has been long awaited. The work is finally published, roughly 12 years or so since its publication was announced as imminent.
The Ominous Parallels is a book addressed to the educated layman and is concerned mainly with how philosophical ideas influence human history. In particular, Peikoff sets out to show that certain ideas advanced in German and European intellectual history—some of them with roots in early Greek and Biblical thought—produced the horrors of the Third Reich, that is, National Socialism under Adolf Hitler's leadership. The secondary objective of the work is to warn Americans that intellectual trends afoot in the United States could easily produce results essentially similar to what happened in Nazi Germany, at least unless they are countered in the near future.
The main villain of European intellectual history targeted by Peikoff is Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher whose influence on modern philosophical and related thought is undeniable. Kant's crime is that he knowingly, though perhaps not maliciously, attacked the very capacity of the human mind to have confidence in its efficacy as a faculty by which to obtain knowledge of reality. For Kant, we could never know that we have knowledge of reality.
Furthermore, because of some very peculiar ideas about reality itself, in Kant's moral philosophy, being morally good has nothing to do with acting so as to make one's life better. In fact, if one has even the slightest inclination to do something—that is, if what one does is remotely related to what one likes or desires to do (either because doing it is satisfying or because the consequences are beneficial)—doing it can have no moral significance.
From this philosophical viewpoint, which to Peikoff is the most morally pernicious and antilife philosophy that has been produced in human history, all sorts of horrible results flowed. Various subsequent philosophers, such as Hegel, were influenced by Kant, and eventually the cultural and political life of Europe, especially of Germany, fell under the spell of the Kantian philosophy. In the last analysis, the phenomenon of Nazism, with its total subjugation of the individual human mind to the irrational leadership of a representative of the collective will (Hitler), can be blamed on Kant and his followers. And if America does not change its intellectual climate soon, there are trends that will ultimately lead this society to a similar fate. That is, in its essence, the thesis of The Ominous Parallels.
Now this idea is not ridiculous—quite the contrary. Philosophy has consequences, and philosophers who produce shoddy theories, even if these are ever so dazzling and complicated and impressive in their logical acrobatics, may be taken to shoulder some of the responsibility for those consequences.
Just as in any civilized court of law, the charge of such serious crime must be proven. Peikoff's book, however, does anything but prove the case against Kant and his followers. Instead, the book speaks to the already converted—to people who believe what the author claims to be proving and no longer have any desire to see the ideas tested, debated, argued, defended against serious objections, and otherwise discussed in the style of serious scholarship. In short, one need not deny the Ominous thesis to find significant fault with this book. There is no effort at all to consider reasonable questions about the position advanced. Not one alternative explanation for the phenomenon of Nazism is examined. Even Peikoff's documentation is suspect, since he does not rely on standard translations of the philosophers whom he discusses and does not defend his choice of a private translator, a friend of his whose German may be impeccable but who is not a philosopher but an economist.
Some books written along lines similar to The Ominous Parallels have become famous—for example, Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and Robert Ringer's Restoring the American Dream. But these do not even pretend to deal with complex ideas on the order of Kant's, Hegel's, and Nietzsche's philosophies. Moreover, the phenomenon Peikoff wishes to explain has received the attention of some of the best minds of our century. It is most unfortunate, therefore, that he proceeds as if nothing, or nothing worth consideration, had been said about the topic. (I would have loved to see Peikoff discuss why George Steiner's analysis of the Nazi horrors is supposed to be inferior to Peikoff's own!)
Leonard Peikoff is capable of writing excellent material on the history of ideas—his doctoral dissertation on the development of some crucial ideas in logic and metaphysics was certainly a commendable accomplishment. Unfortunately, he did not choose to handle this subject with the same degree of care and scholarly rigor and thus produced a book that is utterly unsatisfactory, given the importance of the topic with which it deals. Critics and detractors of the philosophy of objectivism, which is in desperate need of serious discussion and defense, will now be able to wince and snicker, instead of being compelled to consider the work of the main spokesman today of the objectivist philosophical movement.
Tibor Machan is a senior editor of REASON, editor of The Libertarian Reader, and author of Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Lines of Thought".