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.

Heidegger's Nazism, however repulsive, seems a mere flirtation compared to the deep embrace of Hitler by his German contemporary Carl Schmitt. Already a prominent university professor and political and legal theorist when he joined the Nazi Party in 1933, Schmitt was personally mentored by Hermann Goring and eventually became, in Lilla's words, "a committed, official advocate of the Nazi regime." He spoke at a 1936 conference titled "German Jurisprudence in the Struggle Against the Jewish Spirit," calling for a purge of Jewish texts from libraries and encouraging his colleagues not to cite Jewish authors in their own writings. He closed his speech by quoting Hitler himself: "By warding off the Jews, I struggle for the work of the Lord."

After the war, when Schmitt was interrogated by both the Americans and the Russians, he defended himself with characteristic academic smugness: "I drank the Nazi bacillus but was not infected." He was in the end released, but he was never allowed to teach again.

Still, his political theorizing exercised a considerable influence on later European thinkers—especially those contemptuous of modern liberalism. Enmity was Schmitt's key concept. By enmity, he means a relation in which certain persons or groups are recognized as "existentially something different and alien."

"Tell me who your enemy is," Schmitt writes, "and I'll tell you who you are." This is true, according to Schmitt, in every field of engagement; in morals, religion, economics, and art, you eventually encounter an enemy and, through the encounter, find your own true nature. The principal duty of the sovereign is not to keep the peace but to identify the state's enemies and to make war against them, thus solidifying the collective character of the people.

This is the very antithesis of modern liberalism, in which the state functions as a neutral institution whose role is to uphold the rule of law, promote compromise, and resolve differences peacefully. Of course, the fact that Schmitt's conclusions are at odds with liberalism is not necessarily a strike against him. If he's right, he's right.

But as Lilla points out, "Schmitt does not arrive at this view inductively after surveying the bloody record of political history." He is, rather, "making an anthropological assumption about human nature that is meant to reveal the true lessons of history." And he is framing his case in fervent, teleological, even apocalyptic terms: For Schmitt, recovery of the true German character is not only desirable, it is inevitable. It is the national destiny.

It's not difficult to understand why the Nazis would pick up on Schmitt's theories. Hitler's targeting of Jews as the German enemy, and of Jewish Marxists as the enemy par excellence, becomes a necessary step in recovering and then tapping into the inner resources of the national identity. What's harder to understand is the lure of Schmitt for more recent thinkers on the political left.

According to Lilla, it seems a case of my enemy's enemy must be my friend. Schmitt regarded liberalism as deformed because it attempted to reconcile differences rather than cultivate natural enmities. Michel Foucault picked up bits and pieces of this—the notion that liberalism thwarts natural desires, the institutionalized necessity of defining yourself against your enemies—and formulated his own critique of liberalism. Much of the academic left followed.

Liberalism is now viewed, from the Foucauldian perspective, as a mere shell game, a nothing-up-my-sleeves performance in which the pretense of neutrality functions as a necessary distraction while the privileged few ruthlessly consolidate their oppressive power over the masses. This is a bastardization of Schmitt; he wouldn't have taken oppressive tendencies of any sort as an indictment. But Schmitt himself, according to Lilla, is "virtually unknown in America." So who cares—at least on this side of the Atlantic—if Foucault got him wrong?

This is not the case in Europe, where, Lilla writes, even today Schmitt remains "one of the most significant political theorists of the twentieth century." That Schmitt influenced Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish literary critic and crypto-mystic, would be downright farcical if not for the fact that Benjamin wound up committing suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis.

It is likely that he was initially drawn to Schmitt's style as much as to his substance, to the messianic urgency of his tone as much as to the dubious logic of his arguments. The hyperrational modern world, according to Benjamin, had lost touch with its underlying spiritual nature, which could only be glimpsed through spontaneous outbursts of art and language. The natural world will eventually pass away; bringing about that apocalyptic event is "the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism."

Benjamin's apocalyptic obsession soon evolved from theological speculation to Marxist politics—a shift from spiritualism to materialism inexplicable except in light of his love affair with a woman named Asja Lacis, a radical communist associated with Bertolt Brecht's political theater. Benjamin wrote, poignantly, that he felt himself torn between "cultic and Communist activity." As he struggled to embrace both, the man who once dedicated a book to Carl Schmitt now epitomized Schmitt's notion of the necessary enemy of Germany: a Jewish Marxist. That Benjamin lived long enough to witness the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 only compounds tragedy with irony. Few suicides have been as logically defensible as Benjamin's.

Michel Foucault's debt to Schmitt, unlike Benjamin's, is evident at first glance. Schmitt had argued that a society must define itself against its enemies to prosper. Foucault concerns himself, according to Lilla's neat summary, with the question of "how the distinctions that exist in modern society—between law and crime, sanity and insanity, order and disorder, natural and perverse—came to develop." Inherent in Foucault's project is the belief that such distinctions are made to consolidate power, to define the dominant group in a hierarchical relation with the marginalized group.

Also inherent is the belief that such distinctions are ultimately arbitrary. All prisoners, if you follow Foucault's reasoning, are political prisoners; indeed, they are even heroes for their transgressions. Though Foucault was homosexual, and certainly tormented by that fact in his early life, Lilla is right to point out that "it was the idea of social boundaries and their transgression, not homoeroticism as such, that dominated his mature outlook." He pursued "limit-experiences" in drug use, communal living, and sexual experimentation, and he was drawn, erotically, to extreme violence.

In a 1971 debate with Noam Chomsky, Foucault's agenda became clear: "When the proletariat takes power, it may…exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can't see what objection could possibly be made to this."

Revolution itself held little interest for Foucault aside from its concurrent "limit-experience"—that is, bloodletting. He publicly applauded the Iranian revolution, visiting the country twice under the Ayatollah. In the late 1970s, he immersed himself in the sado-masochistic gay subculture of California and contracted AIDS—and continued to engage in unprotected sex. Toward the end of his life, he remarked, "To die for the love of boys: What could be more beautiful?" He succumbed to the disease in 1984.

With more than a touch of irony, Lilla notes, "For the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s [Foucault] served as an exemplar of what it is to lead an intellectually and politically serious life." In retrospect, however, perhaps the kindest thing you can say about Foucault is that if he'd truly had the courage of his convictions, he could have been the Marquis de Sade.

The last "reckless mind" Lilla portrays is Jacques Derrida, who describes himself as "a man of the left" but whose theoretical stance effectively negates the possibility of political allegiance. The fact that Derrida is even classified as a philosopher—rather than, as Lilla suggests, a performance artist—tells you more about the state of the humanities in the West, and especially in America, over the last quarter century than it does about Derrida's own work.

Following the then-fashionable habit among late 1960s French intellectuals to regard "universal ideas" such as "reason, science, progress and liberal democracy" as "culturally specific weapons fashioned to rob the non-European Other of his difference," Derrida early on posited that "man" himself was a cultural construct; there was no essential human nature, no ideal against which to judge human behavior or compare cultures. "Man" was a product of language, and language in every case could be taken apart to expose its internal contradictions. Philosophical texts could likewise be "deconstructed"; indeed, the process of deconstruction could be substituted for philosophy.

This early Derrida, observes Lilla, is wholly irreconcilable with the Derrida of recent years, who has turned to lengthy disquisitions on the necessity for, and universality of, justice. Such irreconcilability would be fine if Derrida had renounced the premises of his earlier work. He hasn't. But of course Derrida's response would be that pointing out his own contradictions amounts to a logical critique, and the thrust of his thought has always been to subvert logic itself. Thus, his inconsistency is perfectly consistent.

It's an invincible position. And it is the antithesis of a rational enterprise. If contradicting yourself does not undermine what you're arguing, you're not arguing anything. The only way to read Derrida on his own terms is mentally to insert the words "or not" after each of his statements. Derrida, indeed, represents the logical endpoint of the desire to work free of logic. Though by no means the most reckless of the reckless minds Lilla profiles, he is without question the most pointless—as evidenced by the fact that he has spawned a cottage industry of jargon-spewing academics struggling to explain why he isn't really as pointless as he seems.

Lilla's brief but sobering book should remind us that the denial of reason as the final arbiter of ideas leads, in the most benign cases, to texts so masturbatory that their pages virtually stick together. In the most malignant cases, it leads to the rhetoric of genocide.