by George Anastaplo
I had occasion, several decades ago, to suggest that Martin Heidegger, as exposed in his deeply troubling collaboration with the Nazis, is “the Macbeth of philosophy.” This characterization was intended as a critique of a scholar who had been repeatedly celebrated as the preeminent Thinker of the Twentieth Century. My observation served also to suggest, in effect, how Macbeth himself should be regarded among Shakespeare’s villains.
Macbeth can be seen as somehow morally superior to other villains of note in Shakespeare, villains such as Claudius, Edmund, Richard III, and Iago. (Indeed, Iago’s wickedness is so thoroughgoing, and apparently so motiveless, that I have wondered whether he himself is humanly possible.) Macbeth, perhaps more than any of the other prominent villains in Shakespeare, does appear to “know better.” It can seem harder in his case, more than it is with any of the other villains of note (except perhaps for Iago), to figure out why he acts as he does, “knowing” what he does.
That Macbeth (a kinsman of King Duncan) aspired to the throne of Scotland before his first encounter with the witches can be suspected. Certainly, what the witches prophesy strikes a responsive chord in his soul and perhaps even more in that of his wife. As he agonizes over what he should do—and, even more, over what he should not do, he can opine,
“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir. [I, iii, 145-46]”
But Macbeth does not seem to have truly believed that chance (or destiny?) was ultimately in charge here—but, rather, that some effort would have to be made by him to secure what seemed to have been offered.
Compare, however, how Macbeth had become Thane of Cawdor (the first of the elevations announced by the witches)–that is, by valiantly doing his duty. Compare, also, what was anticipated for Banquo—and we are given to understand that Banquo secured that (an extended royal heritage) without any effort on his part, aside from his dying exhortation to his son,
“O, treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!
Thou mayst revenge. [III, iii, 22-23]”
Professor Heidegger, too, can be understood to have “known better,” that something deeply questionable in his makeup made him susceptible to the blandishments of the Nazis, including his eagerness to seize the opportunities he evidently believed that they (witches-like?) offered him to redeem his tormented country. The astonishing foolishness he exhibited (dreadfully misled by his wife, perhaps even more than Macbeth had been misled by his wife) as one of the most eminent academics of his day can be said to have followed “naturally” the monumental foolishness, a generation earlier, of talented European politicians who insisted on the catastrophic folly known as the Great War.
Macbeth, when finally confronted by the disasters he had brought upon himself, proclaims that he will not “play the Roman fool and die on [his] own sword.” (V, viii, 1-2) That is, he will not kill himself when things appear hopeless. Heidegger, too, would not “play the Roman fool”—that is, by eventually repenting his unseemly collaboration with the Nazis. His Macbeth-like repudiation of common decency, exhibited to the very end, may even be seen by his critics in the defiant Spiegel interview he gave that was to be published posthumously.
The careers of these two men—the one, political; the other, academic—can remind us of a critical mystery with respect to evil. How can an intelligent, perceptive human being somehow “know” the good and yet choose evil? Is it that some other goal, in the guise of a superior good, comes to dominate his view of things? What element in the soul—what character flaw—contributes to radical misjudgments about the worth of various alternatives?
Was Scotland ultimately better, we can further wonder, for her experience with Macbeth? (We can recall that Abraham Lincoln, a master politician, evidently considered Macbeth the most instructive of Shakespeare’s plays.) Certainly, Malcolm, Duncan’s son (and eventual King of Scottland), is, from the outset of his political career, far more wary—more prudent?—than his always vulnerable father had ever been.
What about the most sophisticated modern philosophy as well? Is it somehow ultimately better for its unfortunate but yet quite instructive experience with Heidegger, an academic who moved in his domineering scholarship from the pre-Socratics to the post-Socratics without being sufficiently touched and hence disciplined by the life of Socrates, a life, grounded in nature, which can usefully call into question misdirected ambition both ancient and modern? Perhaps our inquiry here can be illuminated somewhat by a suggestion which I now venture to offer, that the much-tormented Macbeth is (in Shakespeare’s tragedies) “the Heidegger of villians.”
These remarks, by George Anastaplo, were prepared for a meeting of the Staff of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago, November 6, 2010. There were distributed, on that occasion, the following materials:
1) George Anastaplo, “Law and Literature and Shakespeare: Explorations, “ 26 Oklahoma city University Law Review 143-52 (2001) (“On Macbeth: The Baleful Influence of Tyranny”);
2) George Anastaplo, The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 357-60 (“On Truly Knowing What One Is Trying to Do: The Mystery of Evil (2008).”
3) A summary of the action in Verdi’s Macbeth
These Basic Program remarks were prompted, in part, by the startling tendency of more and more respectable scholars these days to cite and quote Martin Heidegger as if there should be nothing questionable about casually relying upon him as an authority for serious matters.