What is the political responsibility of serious intellectuals? What should those who consider matters not as specialists but broadly or even philosophically attempt to achieve politically through their teachings and actions?
The two books before us, Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind and Richard Wolin’s Heidegger’s Children, are concerned with these problems as they appear to several thinkers affected by Martin Heidegger. Lilla considers Carl Schmitt, Alexandre Kojéve, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and to a lesser extent Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, and Heidegger himself. Lilla’s theme and summary chapter concern intellectuals’ proclivity to tyranny. Wolin looks at Arendt, Karl Löwith, Hans Jonas, Herbert Marcuse and, at some length, Heidegger: his theme is the reaction of Heidegger’s Jewish students to his Nazism, and the continued influence on their own political thinking of the illiberal milieu that he reflected.
Although all these thinkers are gifted, few deserve truly extended study. I say this despite the fact that each is more penetrating than nearly anyone writing today. We are declining from our decline. In a sense both Lilla and Wolin recognize this, precisely because they state the themes I have mentioned rather than claiming to be guided fully by the thinkers’ own purposes.
As it turns out, the themes themselves are pursued fitfully. Each is at best a minimally developed program. Neither is a firmly guiding compositional motif. This surely is connected to the books’ origins, Lilla’s as separate articles in the New York Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement and several of Wolin’s in The New Republic. Other themes—Lilla’s analysis of the theological interest of several of his subjects and Wolin’s of the common intellectual and historical roots of their illiberal political attitudes—are equally interesting and no less (or more) developed. No question, however, is truly pressed: even Lilla’s concluding discussion of tyranny and philosophy makes no reference to the thinkers he discussed earlier.
Although Wolin does not work through his theme, the issues I mentioned do structure his approach. The result is that his discussions of Arendt, Löwith, Jonas, and Marcuse are not complete, nor are they meant to be complete. One cannot read his book to receive a full description of their thought. He writes as an intellectual historian, moreover, so he sometimes verges on reducing his subjects to their origins. That said, his pursuit, however episodic, of the question of Heidegger’s continuing effect on his Jewish students leads him to pay attention to Löwith and Jonas who in this country are too often ignored, and to deal critically and convincingly with Arendt’s work on totalitarianism and the Eichmann trial. These are significant contributions.
Lilla’s theme is less a matter of intellectual history and more an attempt to look at intellectuals through the perspective of a single problem. Although he does not truly pursue the issue of tyranny his approach leads him to consider his authors more completely than Wolin, and often with an eye toward larger concerns. He raises questions, however briefly, about the truth of their positions and not only their origins. His discussions, nonetheless, sometimes betray their own genesis, because their quality is to a degree dependent on the quality of the books that occasioned them. This difficulty is especially prominent when he covers Arendt, Heidegger, and Jaspers in a single chapter, prompted by letters among the three of them. His analysis here stays largely on the surface analytically and in the case of Heidegger is misleading. That said, Lilla’s approach to the affair between Arendt and Heidegger is much more balanced, mature, and free of ideological nonsense than that of most other critics. His other chapters, moreover, are deeper and more acute. All are intelligent, fair-minded, and properly critical, some (for example on Benjamin and Foucault) are nice examples of how to understand sympathetically a thinker with whom one disagrees, and two (the chapters on Schmitt and Foucault) are in my judgment the best comprehensive short discussions that currently exist.
The first and in a sense the final responsibility of intellectuals, qua intellectuals, is to secure and improve as best they can in their own circumstances the conditions that make their enterprise possible. Self-interest fully and properly grasped will lead them to a fundamental moderation, from which, occasionally, an appropriate radical action might follow. Ultimately, this requires that intellectuals need to consider two things, their own enterprise at its peak or in its best light; and the effects on each other of intellectual effort, on the one hand, and a reasonably free and virtuous political life, on the other. The difficulty with all or almost all the thinkers that Wolin and Lilla discuss is their failure properly to consider these two issues.
The first consideration requires that the full meaning, significance, and, consequently, the full radicalism of philosophical inquiry come clearly enough into view that one can judge honestly the justification and intention of one’s own lesser efforts. If this does not occur, the characteristic distortions of philosophic inquiry, the characteristic sophistries that Plato explores in his Sophist and Republic, will take root. The difference between intellectualism however impressive and philosophy, which seeks nothing except the truth about what is, will be passed over or denied. Sophistries will not be seen for what they are or will be mistaken for the real thing. The radicalism of unbridled inquiry will congeal into the half-true assertion that categories, distinctions, indeed all important articulations are conventional. The search for what truly is highest will exhaust itself and rest content with bogus theology. The obviously unconventional place of the philosopher, moreover, will transform itself into the fashionable effort to shock. The strange dignity or prominence of the philosopher will become willful peculiarity or isolation. Even the philosophic attempt to find out what is simply natural is prone to distortion when the natural is seen only as unconventional spontaneity, or only as the material or environmental. In one way or the other each of the intellectuals discussed in these books exemplifies these distortions.
The second consideration requires not just that the highest aspiration of the intellectual life be understood but that the elements of good politics be grasped. The connection between the two must then be fully thought through. When this does not happen, the characteristic distortions of political understanding and of the intellectuals’ view of their political place occur that Plato explores in his Statesman and Republic. Thinkers come to believe that their radical schemes for perfection actually can take place in the flesh because they do not face the inevitable limits of political life, a life based not only on the wish to be just but also on opinion, fraud, and force. Or, having discovered politics to be imperfect, they come to believe it to be nothing but force and deceit. At the same time, they tend at least today to assume that the prestige of science and of intellectual life mean that these will go on safely forever. For these reasons, the differences between what intellectuals think and what they should do politically, and the dangers of their extremism to themselves and others often are ignored, just as the difference between how they use their minds and the true goal that justifies the radical intellect is set aside. Ultimately it is only a proper understanding of the true meaning of free thought and its conditions that can enable thinkers to avoid these distortions and to remain both radical in their own domain and appropriately moderate politically.
This sketch of the political-philosophical problem obviously owes much to Leo Strauss’s understanding of Plato. His view in turn owes more than a little to the territory opened by Heidegger, although most of Heidegger’s students and their own students failed to explore it adequately. We will further improve our grasp of the issues that motivated most of the authors about whom Lilla and Wolin write if we recreate for a moment the perspective of a student studying with Heidegger, when he himself was young.
From such a standpoint, several things would have looked remarkable. By the time they came to his courses in their very early 20s or even as with Hannah Arendt in her teens, Heidegger’s students would have read old books seriously and completely, often in the original. What precisely these books had to teach, however, why exactly they were being read beyond the general desire for culture or education, would not have been clear. In Kant’s case it was evident enough that the neo-Kantians—figures such as Cohen, Natorp, Windleband and Cassirer—believed that he had something to say. In other cases this was less obvious. Who, after all, taught Plato and Aristotle, the twin pillars of thinking, as if they pointed to, grappled with, or answered the most vital questions? Heidegger’s most visible initial impact was to make ancient thinkers come alive, to treat them with concentrated passion. It is not that what he said was clear—Löwith and Jonas report that the mystery was part of the attraction—but that he (who so visibly excelled his contemporaries) treated them as indispensable. The so-called history of philosophy was a vital part of philosophy itself. Although Heidegger is now often treated as if he plays with texts willfully, he in fact normally does not. His care should be visible to anyone—at least up through the courses he offered on Nietzsche that lasted well into the 1940s and were published in 1961. His lectures on Plato’s Sophist, with their painstaking analysis both of the Sophist and of the sixth book of Aristotle’s Ethics, are the most obvious example of this care, and they are lectures Löwith would have attended and of which Arendt, Jonas, Marcuse, and Kojéve would have been aware.
This is not to say that Heidegger usually comments on these books completely from beginning to end or that finding another author’s intention is his final goal. But his teaching always revolved around careful discussions with others. The result was that for his generation Heidegger saved great minds from ossification. Reading texts carefully, taking the ancients seriously, seeing what actually was at stake in Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche became in one way or the other a hallmark of Heidegger’s students. The arbitrariness of Derrida one generation removed can be laid only indirectly at Heidegger’s door. His more immediate students, both those Wolin and Lilla discuss and Hans Gadamer, Jacob Klein, and still others in Heidegger’s orbit, learned to take old books with deep concern. One wonders if Strauss’s exquisite care in reading texts would have occurred when and as it did apart from Heidegger’s teaching.
Today, of course, we face this same question of the purpose of old books, but our circumstances are in some ways more dire. While it was easy then for old books to be read simply as old, as part of a normal tradition of education, few today have read these books to begin with. “Great” books labor under the contempt of Derrida and Heidegger’s other step-grandchildren. Strauss and other counter examples are not sufficiently influential. Whereas Heidegger helped make clear why such books were being read by those already conditioned to read them, it is difficult today to find people who have read very many of these books at all or believe they should. Who can wish to read well who does not first wish to read? This is one of the ways in which the condition of “culture” generally, i.e. the condition not just of the intellect but of politics in the widest sense, must concern those who aspire to philosophy.
A student is interested not only in books but in their ideas, or more precisely he is finally interested in books because he is interested in ideas. Are the ideas vital, central, and urgent or are they the merely inherited topics and conundrums that define an academic field? Is philosophy an activity of immense urgency or merely a set of games at which one is better or worse and from which one can earn a living and live respectably or even outrageously, but in any event securely?
Heidegger did not merely bring the old books alive. He re-energized the meaning of philosophical concepts and the whole point of philosophy. Marcuse wrote to Heidegger that he had taught him what philosophy is. Heidegger freed the traditional topics by seeking to locate them in their ground. He placed words back in the soil from which they grew and were drawn. Philosophy had become academic or scholastic, an ordinary or acknowledged pursuit even if one with special power. Its possibility was taken for granted because its existence was actual in academic life. Heidegger, however, raised the following question: What is the ordinary or basic perspective from which philosophy arises, and how does it originate from this perspective? Philosophy’s radical questioning is most unusual because it questions the ordinary. Yet its very activity must somehow originate in the ordinary. The “everyday” itself, however, is mysterious in the sense that it manifests itself less as a single ordinary perspective or horizon than as a variety of peoples, cultures, histories, and political regimes. One important step that Heidegger took to revitalize philosophy was to attempt to root it again in ordinary existence.
Needless to say, how Heidegger did this is controversial. His understanding of human being as fundamentally open to a Being that is beyond theoretical and practical activity but makes them intelligible, and his articulating the various existential structures that describe this openness, are central to his endeavor. Wolin suggests that Heidegger means to make theoretical activity no longer the central element of human being. This is correct, but Heidegger also intends to find a ground beyond ordinary practice; attention to the ordinary world of tools and work is only a clue to this ground. Wolin also suggests that Heidegger links living one’s own historical existence to our basic existential openness to Being. This too is correct, except that Wolin overly connects historical activity as Heidegger understands it to the immediate facts of Heidegger’s or anyone else’s life. What is central for Heidegger is what makes history possible, not this or that set of facts. This is why Heidegger scorns biography and social milieu in discussing philosophers, a disdain that Wolin finds hard to understand.
Wolin’s confusion about how Heidegger justifies this disdain arises from his understandable difficulty in grasping Heidegger’s discussions of history. This confusion emerges again in what I believe is Wolin’s overemphasis on the immediate historical facts as the cause of Heidegger’s support for the Nazis. After all, there was much in the air and on the ground other than the Nazis and their views. Heidegger chose as he did because of the illiberalism and totalizing perspective inherent in his understanding of the decisive importance of the “people” and of “authentic” existential choice. What the unimpeded intellect and political excellence share, but also how they must differ, could not come properly to light. From this Heideggerian perspective the facts appeared in a certain way: different facts would have appeared differently and did for Heidegger in later times. The issues of the 1920s and 1930s looked to him as they did because of his intellectual standpoint and endeavor that brought them to life. Wolin deserves praise for the serious way he faces the connection between Heidegger’s politics and his thought, but I believe that despite his searching discussion of the “people” (the Volk) and the origins of Being and Time, he makes this connection too historical and not, fundamentally, intellectual.
Heidegger’s seeking to root thought in what is ordinary opened a new view for many of his students. Political philosophy, especially ancient political philosophy, begins with just this question of the link between the theoretical and the everyday. The root of the reasoned life in lives devoted to goods other than understanding, and the place and limits of reason in these lives, come vividly into view. In this way philosophy is justified as it could not be by Heidegger himself, yet in terms he began to clarify. At the least, the question of justification could be raised intelligibly. The discoveries of theory also could be accounted for in a manner similar to Heidegger’s notion that theory does not deal with alien worlds but, rather, makes thematic what comes to light in ordinary action and in the meaning of the things we use. Although Heidegger’s work is not necessary for and, as developed, is in important and obvious respects counter to political philosophy, the questions he addresses helped set the stage for Strauss and Klein.
Lilla’s final chapter, a thoughtful discussion of the lure of tyranny for intellectuals, is a good example of the approach this standpoint opens up. After discussing the possibility of ascribing the tyrannical lure to a surfeit of French intellectual engagement or a surfeit of German intellectual apoliticism, to an excess of reason without judgment or of irrationalism, he looks for a more adequate standpoint. He finds it in Plato’s analysis of the link between tyranny, eros, and philosophy in the Republic and Phaedrus. Common roots of tyranny and philosophy enrich our grasp of their profound difference. I believe Lilla’s own discussion would have been improved had he considered the power and possible madness of spiritedness, anger, and pride as well as of eros, and had he considered more the question of justice and our misunderstandings of it. Nonetheless, it is a fine discussion on its own.
The possibilities for thinking seriously about the connection between theory and practice were pursued less successfully by others in Heidegger’s circle. For several of the authors discussed in these books—Marcuse, Schmitt, Kojéve, and Arendt—politics was a central activity or theme. Wolin believes Arendt to be the foremost political thinker of the 20th century. Yet his cogent attack on her Origins of Totalitarianism and, especially, on her irresponsible Eichmann in Jerusalem belies this general judgment. Lilla describes at length Carl Schmitt’s work, his Nazism, and the current fascination with his claim that the essence of politics is the split between friends and enemies. Still, Lilla concludes, correctly, that Schmitt’s significance is vastly overstated. Wolin ascribes Marcuse’s politics to the Marxism that preexisted whatever existentialism or Freudianism he later added to it, and (to a lesser degree) to the general illiberalism Wolin finds in the thought of Löwith and Jonas as well. Lilla ascribes Kojéve’s attraction to the world state or world bureaucracy to his Hegelianism, and to the lure of the tyrannical generally. We may say that in each case these thinkers misconstrued the link between thought and action.
Wolin and Lilla’s discussions of the political thought of these authors have much to offer. In particular, they display the great virtue of not making excuses for political excess. In the end, however, I believe their analysis is imperfect because, strange as it may seem, they hold their authors to too low a standard. They usually rest content with reporting—and where necessary, criticizing—standpoints and positions but do not consider rigorously enough the arguments and evidence that their authors employ. The ground and reasons for their pretensions or even their integrity can therefore not fully come to life. I have suggested that the chief responsibility of intellectuals is to protect the conditions of their own activity and that this requires them always to have in mind their enterprise at its peak. This means that our understanding of the political actions of intellectuals, for good or ill, will inevitably fall short to the degree we separate it from the question of what is true, and how what is true can best be pursued.