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Newsletter Dated: 3/25/2002 5:34:32 PM
Subject: Thirsty For Approval
Charmed by Tyranny
By Steven Menashi
The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.
New York Review of Books. 230 pages. $24.95
Upon his liberation from Auschwitz and Dachau after World War II, the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski set about recording the realities of life in the concentration camp, producing such important works as This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Other Stories and We Were in Auschwitz. His literary ambitions led him back to Poland, where pursuing a literary career meant submission to official communist orthodoxy. Because of his great talent, the party embraced the young writer, who soon became a famous and prolific journalist. But Borowski’s journalistic work increasingly lacked the artistry of his earlier prose. He produced flat propaganda articles for the Communist Party until, at the age of 29, Borowski killed himself in his home. “His mind, like that of so many Eastern intellectuals,” the poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote of Borowski, “was impelled toward self-annihilation.”
Borowski is one of four intellectuals profiled by Milosz in his 1953 work, The Captive Mind, which chronicles the debilitating impact of the official Stalinist doctrines of dialectical materialism and socialist realism on the minds of his countrymen. Mark Lilla offers his latest book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, as “a modest companion” to Milosz’s work. But The Reckless Mind turns out to be not so modest at all, for Lilla takes as his subject a question even more vexing than Milosz’s. We may understand why intellectuals living under tyranny, jaded by the degradations of war and intimidated by a totalitarian state, would submit to regnant orthodoxy. But what accounts for tyranny’s apologists in free societies? Why would an intellectual, unthreatened by censorship or official coercion, seek to justify repressive, dictatorial regimes “or, as was more common,” Lilla writes, “to deny any essential difference between tyranny and the free societies of the West?” Lilla seeks to answer the question, as Milosz did, through a series of profiles of modern intellectuals.
It’s unclear whether Milosz himself would embrace as clear a distinction as Lilla describes. In the midst of the Cold War, he wrote, “The world of today is torn asunder by a great dispute; and not only a dispute, but a ruthless battle for world domination. Many people still refuse to believe that there are only two sides, that the only choice lies between absolute conformity to the one system or absolute conformity to the other. Call such people impractical, if you will; but it would be wrong to treat their hopes as matter for contempt.” Surely, Milosz’s sympathy was with them.
For the philosophically minded, a liberal democracy can in fact be a cruel and desolate place. Democracy not only fails to appreciate, but positively resents, the philosopher’s claim to superior insight. Liberalism reduces political life from broad philosophic debate to the private competition of individual interests. And even this lackluster politics is confined to a “public sphere,” shielding all other fields of human endeavor from philosophical critique. The entire practice of philosophy, the attempt to answer political questions apart from a popular vote, becomes an anachronism. Indeed, the greatest affront to philosophy is liberal democracy’s indifference to ultimate questions of right and wrong.
To be sure, those regimes that profess to answer questions of right and wrong, that claim to know the truth about human morality, have proved the most vicious engines of human suffering in history. Liberal democracies, surely, best promote comity and well-being among their citizens and in the world. But camaraderie has never been the primary concern of philosophers. “Though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honor the truth first,” as Aristotle put it some time ago. Philosophers living under tyranny may sometimes be subject to abuse, but at least they are relevant.
In each of his case studies, Lilla evokes the passion for truth — or, at least, for ideas — that animated each thinker. “Thinking has come to life again” was how Hannah Arendt described her generation’s reaction to the advent of Martin Heidegger, her teacher and lover. For years, a group of gifted intellectuals would gather at the feet of Alexandre Kojčve, the great interpreter of Hegel, as he would expound, line-by-line, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Each encounter with Kojčve, recalled the French philosopher Georges Bataille, would leave the listener “broken, crushed, killed ten times over: suffocated and nailed down.” The same intellectual excitement prompted philosophers from across Europe and America, even after Carl Schmitt had been exposed as a Nazi, to visit Schmitt’s home in Plettenberg, Germany, to discuss politics. “Schmitt is the only man in Germany worth talking to,” Kojčve remarked after making such a pilgrimage.
Set against the relatively modest liberal politics and bourgeois complacency of interwar Europe, the passionate philosophical thinking appeared all the more vital. “The Europe of the nineteenth century no longer lived with faith in a genuine mission; it simply disseminated its wares and its scientific-technological civilization in every direction,” explained Karl Löwith, another of Heidegger’s students. The traditional religious consensus in Europe had broken down; science had displaced theology as the way to understand the world, but science could not render conclusions as to the meaning of existence. “The aim is lacking,” as Nietszche said, “‘why?’ finds no answer.” Following Nietszche, Heidegger railed against the utter “nihilism” of his age.
At the same time, Heidegger exemplified the skepticism of his times. Freed from superhuman moral rules, Heidegger undertook a radical philosophical questioning that dismantled the universalist pretensions of Western philosophy. For him, the transcendent values of the Western tradition lacked any basis in reality; all such ideas were merely the products of a specific historical period. People may forget the temporality of their consciousness, according to Heidegger, but they thereby lead an inauthentic existence; they lose themselves in “busyness,” “idle talk,” and a stultifying, inhuman social conformity. An authentic human existence requires man to confront his mortality and, with a new “resolve,” assert himself into his time.
In January 1933, history provided the opportunity for decisive resolve, and Heidegger heeded the call. He joined the Nazi Party in May, becoming national socialist rector of Freiburg University. Many of his most talented students, the German-Jewish thinkers Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Löwith, and Hans Jonas, were forced into exile. For his part, Heidegger ended his relationships with Jewish colleagues — including his mentor Edmund Husserl — and set about “revolutionizing” the university in the service of national socialism.
In August 1933, Heidegger urged Carl Schmitt to rally to the Nazi cause. “The gathering of the spiritual forces, which should bring about what is to come, is becoming more urgent everyday,” he insisted. Schmitt not only shared Heidegger’s intellectual renown, but also his philosophical concerns. Schmitt, too, saw in the rise of liberal democracy a certain nihilism that neutralized all forms of political obligation, preferring commerce and security to political conflict and war. Europe, according to Schmitt, in its search for “an absolutely and definitively neutral ground,” had perhaps preserved human life, but surrendered its meaning. Liberal neutrality aimed at perpetual peace, but a world without the possibility of war is a world in which people are no longer willing to die for a higher cause. It is a world of “idle talk” and entertainment, but no seriousness. Thus, Schmitt sought to rescue the political — the confrontation with an enemy — from the frivolity of liberalism, which consigned politics to an ever-smaller domain of social life. In 1933, he too saw human vitality in the promise of the “total state, which is not disinterested regarding any domain and potentially encompasses every domain.”
Schmitt and Heidegger’s turn to Nazism grew from the same passion that drove them to the philosophic life. But the turn itself was manifestly unphilosophic, for it lacked all normative content. Heidegger concluded, in fact, that political philosophy was impossible. The only “values” to which man had access were the transient ideals of his time. And yet, accepting the nineteenth century’s judgment concerning the West’s moral inheritance — that of nihilism — such a passionate thinker could not but celebrate vital human resolve in the face of the spiritual void. Thus Heidegger, the foremost critic of Western metaphysics, was guilty of complete formalism: resolute political action as such became the highest virtue for man. “One must get involved,” as Heidegger would explain his political activity to his friend Karl Jaspers.
Lilla records Jaspers’s bewilderment at his friend’s embrace of Nazism: “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.” But for Heidegger, such an elevated philosophy was not possible. His was a philosophy that explained existence in terms of everyday history; he could not help but embrace the spirit of his time. And Heidegger’s existential philosophy left him unable to distinguish between reasonable involvements and dangerous ones. Any such judgment presupposed an ability to transcend man’s worldly context, to reach some heavenly point of view from which objective reason was possible; but such a point of view is inaccessible to man by his nature. Without reason, all that’s left is some sort of vague spiritual commitment, which perhaps explains Heidegger’s famous comment in the 1960s that “Only a god can save us now.” It makes sense that a thinker who insisted on the radical historical conditioning of human thought would adopt the dominant convictions of his time for moral guidance, that Heidegger would expect “from National Socialism a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety,” as he wrote to his student Marcuse. But historicism also had Heidegger give up on philosophy altogether: “Let not doctrines and ‘Ideas’ be the rules of your Being,” he wrote in 1933. “The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law.”
The “decisionism” of Heidegger and Schmitt resembled not so much a philosophical conclusion as a theological commitment, grounded in faith rather than reason. For Schmitt, the conflicts between friend and enemy “are of a spiritual sort, as is all man’s existence.” Politics and theology serve the same function for Schmitt; all modern political ideas, in fact, “are secularized theological concepts.” The confrontation with the enemy, according to Schmitt, occurs on strictly “existential-ontological” grounds, because man becomes authentic only through a confrontation with an enemy — regardless of who the enemy is. The meaning and seriousness of human life emerged from struggle as such. That Schmitt would aid the German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss early in his career, and carry on productive intellectual relationships with the philosopher Raymond Aron and the Jewish theologian Jacob Taubes after the war, seems to indicate that his stance as enemy of the Jews — in fact, his venal and pathological anti-Semitism — was for him less an expression of moral outrage than the identity handed him by fate. Schmitt, too, could not but accept the verdict of history.
Another of Schmitt’s unlikely admirers was the German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin, who also despaired of the triumph of technology over human vitality. But though Benjamin’s central interests were theological — Benjamin advanced a fragmented, apocalyptic conception of history, taken from Jewish messianism, against the rationalist faith in “historical progress” — Schmitt’s equation of politics and theology led Benjamin to imbue the historical materialism of Marxist doctrine with theological significance. “I do not concede that there is a difference between [religious and political] forms of observance in terms of their quintessential being,” he wrote to Gershom Scholem. “The task is not to decide once and for all, but to decide at every moment. But to decide.” For Benjamin, the turn to Marxist politics was an act of decisionism. He saw in the dialectical conception of history something resembling the breakages in history he found in apocalyptic messianism but not in the rationalist conception of continuous historical progress. Marxism, for him, was the theological quest for messianic redemption in other, more practical terms. His faith in that divine mission kept him unwilling to criticize Stalinism in the 1920s, until his faith was finally shattered by Stalin’s pact with Hitler.
In Lilla’s account, Benjamin typifies “the modern incarnation of the type of thinker who cannot be understood apart from traditional religious distinctions,” but who nevertheless attempts to realize his other-worldly theological goals in the crude domain of real-world politics. But in trying to affect a synthesis of two diametrically opposed systems of thought, Benjamin became incomprehensible from the standpoint of either. To the materialist Theodor Adorno, Benjamin remained “under the spell of bourgeois psychology.” To the Jewish historian Gershom Scholem, Benjamin had fallen victim to a heretical temptation, “the confusion of religion and politics.”
The French philosopher Alexandre Kojčve underwent a similar journey from theology to historical materialism. In his early years he studied Christian mysticism and Eastern religion, which he sought to combine with Western philosophy. Kojčve eventually found his mystical yearnings satisfied in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel.
Hegel had adopted the Christian story of man’s fall from paradise and the possibility of recovering it — that is, of establishing a harmonious political order, one that resolves the contradictions of human relations — in history. The Christian Incarnation is transformed by Hegel into the “end of history,” the point at which the vanguard of history realizes the ideal political system, and then sets about spreading it across the globe. For Hegel, history ended at the Battle of Jena in 1806, with Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian aristocracy, the last challenger of liberalism. All that followed was simply the extension of the revealed truth of the French revolutionary system. “The Chinese revolution,” Kojčve once explained, “is nothing but the introduction of the Napoleonic Code into China.” Thus, philosophy had nothing more to offer — not because philosophy was impotent, but because it had been completed: Final wisdom had been achieved.
Kojčve stopped writing books on philosophy and became a bureaucrat in the French government, preparing for the final advent of the “universal and homogeneous state” that Hegel had envisioned. The world government, for Kojčve, could equally be realized through American liberalism or Russian communism, both of which were rational systems based on the Hegelian principle of mutual recognition. Kojčve clearly preferred the communist alternative. But he maintained strict neutrality during the Cold War, which was, for him, a trivial event in human history; it was merely a question of how the final solution would be implemented. If Kojčve could remain indifferent to the moral status of the Soviet system as versus the United States, it was because of his fidelity to an understanding of the universe in which History, in the manner of divine revelation, had already pronounced its ultimate verdict. Philosophers could not change the course of History, only prepare for its realization.
ojčve’s friend, the philosopher Leo Strauss, found Kojčve’s messianism profoundly inhuman — and told him so. “The state in which man is said to be rationally satisfied,” argued Strauss, “is the state in which man withers away, or in which man loses his humanity.” If philosophy is the quest for understanding, the end of philosophy represents a state in which man no longer seeks understanding, but merely exists. But Kojčve countered that Strauss was possessed by an ancient prejudice: that there is, in fact, some eternal truth about human relations that is accessible to man through philosophy. Modern philosophers, however, realized that no such eternal ideas exist; all ideas arise out of the historical process. “Philosophers and tyrants therefore need each other to complete the work of history: tyrants need to be told what potential lies dormant in the present; philosophers need those bold enough to bring that potential out,” Lilla writes, explaining Kojčve’s position.
Today, Strauss is known primarily as an opponent of historicism under the banner of “classical political rationalism,” a Socratic conception of philosophy in which contemplation of nature can yield true answers to political questions. The mere possibility of discovering a true natural right serves as a clear counterweight to the temptation, engendered by historicism and exemplified by Heidegger, to identify the moral with the conventional, the opinions particular to a given society or time.
But there emerges in Lilla’s account a Strauss for whom “Philosophy as such is nothing but genuine awareness of the problems, i.e., of the fundamental and comprehensive problems.” For Strauss, philosophy must always remain aware of the dangers of tyranny. As Lilla writes, “It must understand enough about politics to defend its own autonomy, without falling into the error of thinking that philosophy can shape the political world according to its own lights. The tension between philosophy and politics, even politics in its worst tyrannical forms, can be managed but never abolished, and therefore must remain a primary concern of all philosophers.” The problem with Kojčve’s system was that it engendered a sort of mental laziness in which he lost sight of a fundamental problem, the problem of tyranny. “Kojčve’s or Hegel’s synthesis of classical and Biblical morality effects the miracle of producing an amazingly lax morality out of two moralities both of which made very strict demands on self-restraint,” Strauss wrote in response to his friend’s criticisms.
At the close of his book, Lilla argues, with Plato, that the same psychological force that drives men to tyranny also leads them to philosophy: love. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates explains that the philosopher is driven by love, the love of wisdom, but maintains control of his passions. Those who lack self-control, who are governed by their passions, become tyrants. The twentieth century provided the consummate backdrop for these passions to emerge in sharp relief. Europe’s intellectuals, passionate for the life of the mind, thrust themselves — recklessly and impulsively — into public life, to remake it in their own image.
As it happens, during his lifetime Strauss produced studies of only three living thinkers: Heidegger, Schmitt, and Kojčve — three theorists who had put their formidable talents in the service of tyrants, the first two to Hitler and the last to Stalin. In contrast to their zealotry, Strauss appears (contrary to his popular reputation) resolutely anti-dogmatic. “Philosophy is essentially not possession of the truth, but quest for the truth,” according to Strauss; he exhorts impulsive thinkers not to philosophical certainty, but to the philosopher’s moderate self-control. Against the religious dogmatism of these intellectuals, he juxtaposed the uncertain wisdom of Socrates: The true philosopher knows that he knows nothing.
To understand the irresponsible political activity of modern intellectuals, Lilla writes, one must “confront the deeper internal forces at work in the philotyrannical mind.” His analysis goes a long way toward understanding the intellectual servants of the master ideologies of the twentieth century. The ultimate lesson, however, is that the problem of philotyranny is always with us, for tyranny does not reside in our familiar ideologies, but in the composition of the human soul.
ur current intellectual culture, surely, exhibits the passionate allure of ideas. Today’s thinkers aim above all at final answers, and so trendy ideologies and “isms” dominate the landscape of contemporary thought. But intellectuals content to rest on the shallow but dependable ground of multiculturalism, nationalism, relativism, or some other key to eternal happiness and justice — who work only to incite moral fervor in the public mind — are more interested in preaching than understanding. Such thinkers, as Lilla writes of the European intellectuals, “consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.”
Intellectuals who disseminate political ideas as religious answers, in a sort of modern prophecy, incite passion rather than thought. It’s not philosophy; it is hubris.