Heidegger and the Need for Tyranny

By George Anastaplo

As to those philosophical gentleman, those Citizens of the World as they call themselves, he owed he did not wish to see any of them in our public councils. He would not trust them. The men who can shake off their attachments to their own Country can never love any other. These attachments are the wholesome prejudices which uphold all Governments. -Gouverneur Morris


Even more remarkable than the many other wondrous things that technology, which is grounded in the modern natural sciences, has brought us are the habits and expectations that technology has promoted. Not only have wonders become routine, but the anticipation and assimilation of ever more remarkable wonders are taken for granted.   For example, I have been told by an expert that a few seconds delay at one’s computer terminal because of heavy traffic is rather annoying; a ten-second delay is well-nigh intolerable, even though it encompasses computations that would once have taken a mathematician months to do manually. It is, my expert also tells me, like playing a piano:    one wants an immediate response from one’s instrument.

A godlike power is thus assumed by man. Is there not posed here the problem of piety, in that old relations are seriously distorted as unprecedented human control of “the world around us” is acquired? Consider the significance of being able, by manipulating a modest-looking device in one’s house, to make a bell ring almost instantly in any one of hundreds of millions of places across vast oceans and in distant lands. This reminds us of how extensive our power has become. It should remind us as well of how vulnerable we have become:     for a bell in one’s own home, in one’s most private refuge, can similarly be activated by anyone elsewhere. This is a quite benevolent version of what others, tens of thousands of miles away, can quickly do to us here by pressing buttons there.

It is amazing how intricate and ingenious so many of the devices are to which we have become accustomed. But, as I have noticed, perhaps even more amazing is how easily we adapt to new technological marvels. This means, for all too many of us, the dulling of a sense of wonder and of curiosity. An effort must be made to see these things with fresh eyes, even as we recall that many wonders have already been developed and that many more can be expected.


What, in these circumstances, is the status of the miraculous insofar as it can be distinguished from the wondrous? Does not something happen to the status of the miraculous when we can not only perform wonders on demand, but also casually discard the wondrous things of another day? One is struck by the signs of outmoded or used-up technology all around us, from small portable radios and ingenious devices used in the operating room of a hospital to obsolete buildings along miles of abandoned railroad track.

Consider what “instant replay” does to our sports. Does it empower us to see better what we are watching or does it distort games that depend a lot for their appeal on immediate judgments by which one has to stand? Consider also the finely manicured lawns of some fancy homes:     one can see machines at work sucking up the leaves that are shed, robbing the earth of nourishment it might have acquired in the age-old cycle of death and life.

These illustrations suggest problems with the wondrous technology to which we have become accustomed and which, we should acknowledge, few of us would be willing to do completely without. For example, what are we likely to do if the useful life of someone we care for can be prolonged only by an operation that depends on quite sophisticated technology that has been perfected?

One useful way of assessing technology ─of examining the problems it does bring with it─ is to look at some responses to it. The desperation of the cure resorted to can point up the seriousness of the disease. The seriousness of the disease can be usefully illustrated for us by glancing at the experience of Martin Heidegger with the Nazis. It would be difficult to exaggerate the reputation of this thinker in Twentieth-Century philosophical circles. His notorious public collaboration with the Nazis in the early days of Hitler’s power is instructive, especially if we take him at his word in his postwar ratification of his prewar suggestion that “the inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi movement was directed to “the encounter between global technology and man.” (See Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 166; Spiegel Interview, p. 275.)

The disease accompanying technology may be seen not only in what it was that Heidegger was resonding to, but also in the form of his response. His response was peculiarly infected by the disease itself. It was a response by perhaps the greatest European thinker of his time, but it was a response that was not in the best tradition of European thought.

This is illustrated by the report in 1968 by Hans Jonas, a scholar (now living in the United States) who had fled from Germany to Great Britain in the 1930’s. His report contrasts the conduct of Heidegger with that of an undistinguished practitioner of an old school in German philosophy (Journal of Central Conference of American Rabbis, January 1968, p. 27):

To illustrate the plight of ethics in contemporary philosophy, let me open this paper with a personal reminiscence. When in 1945 I re-entered vanquished Germany as a member of the Jewish Brigade in the British army, I had to decide on whom of my former teachers in philosophy I could in good conscience visit, and whom not. It turned out that the “no” fell on my main teacher [he refers here to Heidegger, without naming him], perhaps the most original and profound, certainly one of the most influential among the philosophers of this century, who by the criteria which then had to govern my choice had failed the human test of the time; whereas the “yes” included the much lesser figure of a rather narrow traditionalist of Kantian persuasion, who meant little to me philosophically but of whose record in those dark years I heard admirable things. When I did visit him and congratulated him on the courage of his principled stand, he said a memorable thing: “Jonas,” he said, “I tell you this: Without Kant’s teaching I couldn’t have done it.” Here  was a  limited man, but sustained in an honorable course of action  by the moral face of an outmoded philosophy; and there was the giant of contemporary thought—not hindered, some even say helped, by his philosophy in joining the cause of evil. The point is that this was more than a private feeling, just as the other’s better bearing was, by his own avowal, more than a private virtue. The tragedy was that the truly twentieth-century thinker of the two, he whose word had stirred the youth of a whole generation after the first World War, had not offered in his philosophy a reason for setting conduct in the noble tradition stemming from Socrates and Plato and ending, perhaps, in Kant.

“Thus, there is in this personal experience,” Professor Jonas continued,

 an indication of the plight of modern philosophy when it comes to ethical norms, which are conspicuously absent from its universe of truth. How are we to explain this vacuum? What, with so different a past, has caused the great Nothing with which philosophy today responds to one of the oldest questions—the question of how we ought to live?

Mr. Jonas then suggested an answer to the question of how this had come to be:

 Three interrelated determinants of modern thought have a share in the nihilistic situation, or less dramatically put, in the contemporary impasse of ethical theory—two of them theoretical and the third practical: the modern concept of nature, the modern concept of man, and the fact of modern technology supported by both. All three imply the negation of certain fundamental tenets of the philosophical as well as the religious tradition.

We noted that Mr. Jonas observed that “ethical norms” are “conspicuously absent” from “modern philosophy.” To what extent did technology or the modern natural science on which it depends, replace old-fashioned “ethical norms”? Did Heidegger’s radical approach to philosophical questions help undermine the best of German idealism (seen, perhaps, in thinkers such as Kant)? Or was it that Kant and those immediately influenced by him were themselves decisively affected by modern natural science and other developments and hence contributed to the subversion of the natural basis for “ethical norms”?

Mr. Jonas could himself speak of the principled German professor who resisted the Nazis as having been sustained by “the moral force of an outmoded philosophy.” Such a man might have been one of thousands. I suspect that not enough credit is given to many, albeir a minority of, Germans who had to make very difficult decisions and who did stand for humanity. It should be remembered that the Nazis had to conceal from the German people at large the worst atrocities they committed, which suggests that the Nazis were obliged to recognize that there remained among the German people a residual sense of humanity that it would have been dangerous to offend too much, even in the name of national security in time of war.

This residual sense of humanity, I might add, goes far deeper than even whatever Kant provided. Modern philosophical thought has all too often weakened the effectiveness of this sense, thereby permitting mere technological considerations and the economic and other so-called practical considerations closely allied to technology to dominate communal developments. One consequence of this is the subversion of the status of the natural. I will return to this later. For the moment it suffices to notice further that for Mr. Jonas not only would Kantianism be outmoded, but also perhaps Platonic thought, which does provide the life of Socrates as a model of how the thoughtful man should live, especially in dark times.

Let us return directly to Heidegger, whose scholarly thought, as Mr. Jonas notices, some say even helped Heidegger to ally himself with the cause of evil. That thought, to which some contemporary intellectuals subscribe “in theory” however much they may abhor its practical alliance with Nazism, may be in decisive respects too abstract and metaphysical, with insufficient concern for the ethical and the political. This may be critical Twentieth-Century failing:     ethical questions tend to be regarded as beyond the realm of philosophy or science; rather, the things truly knowable are “questions of fact.”

Technology as well as modern metaphysics can be seen as peculiarly well-qualified to deal with questions of fact. But people cannot help noticing that when technology is in the saddle something vital is missing from human life, and so a political remedy is sought. It is all too often sought by men who have themselves contributed to the problem or who are, in any event, ill-equipped to think politically (that is to say, with prudence, which must be distinguished from the cunning and opportunism to which Heidegger himself all too often resorted).

With these preliminary observations behind us, we can turn to the 1966 Heidegger interview that was published in the May 31, 1976 issue of Der Spiegel, which was shortly after Heidegger’s death. It should be evident not only that my own study of Heidegger’s major works it quite limited, but also that even the Spiegel interview is used by me only for the light it throws upon our immediate inquiry.


  The aspects of the Spiegel interview of interest for us here, in our investigation of the place of technology in modern life, include Heidegger’s explanation of his collaboration with the Nazis and his treatment of certain Jews, especially his teacher Edmund Husserl (who died in 1938). There are evident here the ramifications of his understanding of the Nazis as a response to modern technology, which leads to his conclusion as a patriotic thinker very much concerned for the future of his country if not of mankind: “Only a god can save us.” (Spiegel Interview, p. 277) Thus the problem of his Nazi collaboration is intimately linked by Heidegger himself to the problem of modern technology.

Mrs. Husserl, a mere woman, did not see things the way Heidegger did. She exhibited what one might call a genuinely human response when she announced to Heidegger the breaking of all relations between the Heidegger and Husserl families.

It is apparent from all this and how it is explained (indeed by Heidegger’s need to explain, decades after the event) that his Nazi collaboration was not mere episode nor a stray moment in his career. This support of the Nazis in the early 1930s by a forty-four-year-old professor who was eminent enough to have been able to go anywhere in the world was never publicly repudiated by him. Exculpatory letters and essays may someday turn up among Heidegger’s posthumously published works, but in these matters a contemporary public examination of the facts and issues is almost indispensable. The failure to subject oneself to such scrutiny in one’s lifetime while informed critics are still around is highly suspect.

The most interesting question here may be, as has been suggested, what the relation is between the doctrines of perhaps the most influential Twentieth-Century thinker and his political career, the career of a man who collaborated with the Nazis and never decisively repudiated what he had done. This question, I have suggested, may throw useful light on our inquiry into the relation between technology and society.


How questionable Heidegger’s Nazi collaboration was may be inferred from the evasiveness and quibbling he resorts to whom he tries to explain himself three decades later. Here as elsewhere on this occasion I characterize rather than attempt to summarize the Spiegel interview. Anyone who wants to assess, and indeed understand, what I am saying must read that interview for himself.

Fairness also requires that we notice the dangers that Heidegger was trying to avoid. One can get some idea of how desperate the social and psychic effects of modern life had become for Heidegger from the extreme measures to which he was willing to resort in order to straighten things out. How bad things were is suggested by the very fact that someone such as Heidegger should have seen the Nazis as the only way out, at least for the Germany he cared for.

It should be noticed as well that patriots such as Heidegger consider national disintegration to be at least as threatening and as much a cause for anxiety as others consider persecutions, concentration camps, and even wholesale extermination. Such patriots see in their country the grounding of everything worthwhile and the very possibility of Being itself, either Being as something knowable or Being as something livable. This is what can come of an apocalyptic view of things.

Technology and the relations undermined, as well as the relations promoted, by technology are serious concerns. Years after his Nazi experiment Heidegger could still be disturbed by large-scale movements and their social implications. The fates of individual human beings, even millions of them, evidently did not trouble him, but only his misjudgment.

Critical to the threat posed by technology is the cosmopolitanism which technology both depends on and promotes. Gypsies, foreign capitalists, Jews, international socialists and many Christians were condemned by the Nazis as subverting the ultimate sanctity of Germanness. The German patriot could be moved in the 1930s by the plight of many Germans, part of the people, who were not within the German state. The effort to reassert the authority of the nation is presented as an effort by a people to resume control of its glorious destiny. It may even reflect an effort to reassert old virtues related to honor, sacrifice, and dedication to one’s own. It is, in short, an effort to confront the technology that seduces mankind with its offers of unprecedented comfort and universal brotherhood. Socialitsm, we have been reminded by Winston Churchill, boasted before the First World War that “they had no country and that their first act in power would be to make short work of [long-established] “thrones.” (Great Contemporaries, p. 22)

Heidegger, when he assumed under the aegis of the Nazis the post of rector of his university in 1933, proclaimed a need to discipline scholarship. This was an intellectual concern and, as such, legitimate. The concern of Hitler and his followers, however, was more primitive. Churchill found it prudent to say of Hitler’s efforts before 1935, “He, and the ever-increasing legions who worked with him, certainly showed at this time, in their patriotic ardour and love of country, that there was nothing they would not do or dare, no sacrifice of life, limb, or liberty that they would not make themselves or inflict upon their opponents.” (Great Contemporaries, p. 207)

The sentiments of the Nazis in those days drew upon nationalist passions of which Germans hold no monopoly. Thus it could be said recently of certain English conservatives that “they are enraged by the decline of their country and inclined to put the blame on unions, blacks and foreigners.” (Guardian Weekly, October 25, 1981, p. 5) But in Germany such passions, in the service of a demonic leader, were not restrained by established institutions. Churchill pointed out in the mid-1930s, “The victorious democracies in driving out hereditary sovereigns [at the end of the First World War] supposed they were moving on the path of progress. They have in fact gone further and fared worse. A royal dynasty looking back upon the traditions of the past, and looking forward to a continuity in the future, offers an element of security to the liberty and happiness of the nations that can never come from the rule of dictators, however capable they may be.” (Great Contemporaries, p. 29)

Heidegger, it seems, thought otherwise, if only because he might have seen no plausible royal dynasty to be available in Germany. Perhaps he also thought he could provide the doctrinal guidance of which the politically successful Nazis were very much in need in 1933. In any event he gambled and many years later he found himself trying to explain what his single extended public venture into politics had been all about.


  Two concerns are expressed most dramatically by Heidegger in the Spiegel interview. The first is that he has been slandered: that is, he is the true victim, not those who were mistreated by the Nazis to whom he had lent his prestige. I know of no public statement by Heidegger in which he explicitly expressed sympathy for the millions of victims of the Nazis. The most he has said, as in this 1966 interview, is that he was not responsible for any of the terrible things that happened. But even here he does not call them “terrible.”

His second dramatically expressed concern in the Spiegel interview may be seen in his observation that he had found American travel to the moon “frightening.” He saw this (especially the “pictures coming from the moon to the earth”) as confirming and reinforcing the radical uprooting of man from the earth on which he so much depends. (Spiegel Interview, p. 277) Was not this concern about roots related to the earlier attraction for him of Nazism as a radical rootedness? Certainly, Heidegger did not share the opinion of those who saw space trips as exuberant testimony to man’s dedication to adventures in exploration and to the most daring inquiries. In any event, many of us would consider what the Nazis did as far more frightening and sobering than what space programs have meant. Does this merely expose our limitations?

It is important to notice that Heidegger, in making the defense he does, tacitly concedes that there are old-fashioned principles with respect to human decency and political propriety by which even he is obliged to be judged. Whether the facts are as he states them is another matter. For example, he does give the impression in the Spiegel interview that his association with the Nazis ended when he resigned his rectorship in early 1934. But there is evidence that that association lasted at least another two years, with Heidegger making speeches to academic groups extolling the virtues of National Socialism. (I have recently [in the Fall of 1981] talked with a Greek academician from Thessaloniki who said he heard, as a graduate student in Germany, such speeches by Heidegger well after he resigned his rectorship.) The greater Heidegger’s deception now as to what he did and for how long, the more he tacitly recognizes that his position and actions then were indefensible. He concedes, furthermore, that his authority in philosophy does not suffice to justify him. In short, he condemns, by the distortions and misstatements he resorts to, the man he had been, if not also the man he was to remain to the end of his life.


 I recapitulate some of the things I have noticed about Heidegger’s assessment of the effects of technology, that technology which has seen as one of its most dramatic achievements the journeys of men to the moon and, perhaps even more impressive, their safe return to the earth. We can see in our time the marvels of science and its technological implementations. We can see the worldwide consequences of these manifestations, in which “everyone” is interested. We can see the tendency of such developments to tear men loose from the earth, not only from their particular part of the earth but even from the earth itself. Man has now fallen into a physical abyss, of all of space, to match the spiritual abyss with which he has long had to contend.

We have become rootless or, perhaps worse still, uprooted. Uprootedness leads to desperate measures to reassert ourselves, with that strong emphasis on the will of which German thinkers from Martin Luther to Immanuel Kant have made much. This emphasis is particularly important for someone such as Heidegger who depends so much on country, which is the visible and enduring expression of the collective will, especially through a people’s language.

We must wonder, of course, whether this way, including the tradition in which he worked, contributed to the state of affairs that made sensible politics virtually impossible in Germany in the 1920s. Before we try to deal with this question, however, we should say more about the technology of which Heidegger speaks.


A series of questions suggests something about what technology means, or at least what it means to someone who is driven, as Heidegger seems to be, to proclaim (perhaps not without irony) that only a god can save us. Thus the critical question here may be, “What is God?” This question is perhaps led up to by the following series of questions:

1)     What does technology do to our understanding of God and hence to our idea of man? (Is to speak of God usually to recognize an eternal ordering of things both physical and

moral? In circumstances somewhat reminiscent of Heidegger’s “Only a god” situation, Leo Strauss has suggested, “Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.”)

2)     What does technology do to and with nature?

3)     What guides or drives technology? Does it have a rhythm or momentum of its own, with one thing “naturally” leading to another?

4)     What is the meaning of country? Technology, as we have seen, disregards the traditional and seemingly natural distinctions among peoples of the world.

5)     What is the meaning of history? Is there meaning to all that mankind or at least particular peoples have done and said? Does what has happened make sense? This bears upon the question of what guides or drives technology. Some see economics, not history, as the only human science that matters here.

6)     What, indeed, is the meaning of life? Are there any ruling principles for the universe, for nature, for mankind, for human communities, or for individual human beings?

7)     What does technology do to our ability to understand things? Is this related to the status of nature? If there is no comprehensible nature, there is no philosophy, or metaphysics, but merely “thinking”; process becomes far more important than goals; and in political science, we are told value-free techniques become all that the scholar can offer his fellow-citizens.

These questions, and the answers one might offer to them, suggest what technology is like and the effects it has had. Still, we should not ignore the fascinating aspects of technology, which unfortunately are not unrelated to its pervasive and trivializing aspects. Technology does reflect, after all, something of man’s capacity to discover and to innovate, as well as to persevere.

Does technology mean that chance tends to take over in human affairs, perhaps more than ever before in some respects? (Compare, however, the control of chance epidemics today.) Who knows what unanticipated gimmick will next sweep a people and affect longstanding relations? It can lead—indeed, we can now say from our considerable experience, it is likely to lead—more and more to the promotion and service of desires, desires that are not limited to one people.

At the root of the difficulty with technology, I have suggested, is the suppression of nature as a guide. Nature is there, if it is there at all, only as something to be exploited, not something for man to be restrained by. To proclaim that “only a god can save us” is to point up the absence of the transcendental in contemporary human affairs.

What lies behind Heidegger’s notion that technology is now on its own? Would the intervention of a “god” mean that technology is no longer sovereign? Do not we all have, at least on occasion, the sense that technological developments do have a rationale or at least an impetus of their own? Morality, country, and tradition no longer matter as much as before.

Some are more sensitive than other to these developments. Or, at least, they see them in gloomier terms and hence are open to more desperate measures. Is invoking a god here to look to something deeply rational and truly caring, something with an effective will to back up its concerns? Would a critical zest be thereby added to life? Or is the god that Heidegger invokes here little more than a spiritualized version of the political leadership he looked to in 1933?


Perhaps fundamental to the political appeal of the Nazis was the promise they held out to serve the desire of their country and its people for self-preservation. This included the need for self-assertion, the assertion of a collective self that can be not only glorified by can be preserved indefinitely, perhaps even for a millennium.

That the appeal of self-preservation is a strong one we all know. We can all remember threats to our own personal existence that we have made desperate efforts to counter. Many are responsive to the insistence not only of authorities such as Thomas Hobbes but also of authorities close to home, such as the United States Supreme Court, that the right of self-preservation is “the ultimate value of any society.” (360 U.S. 128 [1959]; 341 U.S. 509 [1951]) Thus one’s very existence is made one’s greatest good; it is not merely a condition for one’s good.

But the right of self-preservation cannot truly be the “ultimate value of any society.” Few of us would deny if pressed that there are things worth dying for, or at least that there are things one would rather die than do. There are some things, then, of even greater “value” than one’s own life, however difficult we may usually find it to live up to our true “ultimate value.”

If self-preservation is made too much of we are bound to be deeply frustrated in our lives. After all, we are mortal. Overemphasis upon survival is likely to lead either to desperation, including mad adventures, or to apathy. It is also likely to lead to an undue emphasis upon the community and upon that which the community can do so much better than individuals:     preserve people from death, at least for awhile. The community of which we are a part can try to live forever.

The proclamation by Heidegger that only a god can save us seems to have been adapted from the sixth book of Plato’s Republic. (492-93) Socrates uses this kind of talk to explain how someone who is philosophically inclined by nature can be saved for philosophy. He has to be saved from, among other things, the voracious demands upon him of his city. Heidegger would use the rescuing god not to save the would-be philosopher from the community, but rather to save the community from the ravages of the technology that modern science (itself derivative from philosophy) makes possible. The community takes the place for him of philosophy, reflecting perhaps the replacement of nature by history. But then, does he not consider old-fashioned philosophy to be no longer possible in the modern world?

This substitution by Heidegger of the community for philosophy seems consistent with what he did in 1933 when he put his great talents at the service of the Nazis.


Do both ambition and resentment move men such as Heidegger? One does see both grandiosity and baseness in his actions and perhaps even more in his recent efforts to explain them away. One cannot help comparing his approach to the Socratic, of which one is reminded by various (perhaps not altogether conscious) allusions in the Spiegel interview. The Socrates of Plato is intrigued by novelty, but he can easily keep his curiosity within limits. He is not ambitious, as ambition is commonly understood, nor does he make much of his personal salvation. Heidegger complains about having had to work on border fortifications toward the end of the war. This shows, he suggest, how much he had fallen from grace. But Karl Barth had had to do the same kind of work in Switzerland. Such service can become routine in extreme situations for even the most eminent. There is, by way of contrast, the military and other civic service by Socrates, service that put his life in jeopardy on more than one occasion.

Whatever moves mean such as Heidegger and his sometime master Nietzsche, much is made by them of will. This may be seen in the emphasis upon the will and history of the German people in Heidegger’s rector’s speech in 1933. If will is made so much of, rather than nature or philosophy simply, then one is “naturally” inclined (if of a secular bent) to defer to the most authoritative will, that of the State. Indeed, the State can be considered to be that aspect or version of Country or People which is peculiarly devoted to expressing a will. The concept of “State” almost seems, at times, to emphasize ruling for its own sake.

What came first for Heidegger, the devotion to country or the devotion to wilfulness? Both country and wilfulness make much of one’s own. It is will, much more than reasoning with its dependence on a truth independent of one’s self, that may be treasured as most one’s own.

Is it not the very technology that Heidegger attempts to counteract itself built upon or in the service of wilfulness or desire, rather than being in the service of nature and understanding or thoughtfulness? Technology empowers the will and perhaps reinforces it, licensing and inducing it to assert itself more and more. We have returned to the question of the extent of ambition or self-assertion in men like Heidegger.


Critical to Heidegger’s troubles, I suspect, is amour proper. This suspicion is reflected in my characterization of him a decade ago as the Macbeth of philosophy. (See The Constitutionalist, pp. 738-39.)

Heidegger could never face up publicly to the fact that he had misjudged “those people,” having allowed himself to be used by gangsters, and that he, by doing so, had compromised himself in the eyes of those whom he had once cared most for.

The kind of defense he made, with its quibbles, evasions and half-truths, exposes him as a curiously small man, whatever his intellectual prowess. He was always explaining away what could only be repented. Do his spiritual limitations instinctively guide him to dependence on a country or a people? It is only thus that he can assert or “find” himself.

One is reminded of Critias’ refusal in Plato’s Charmides to face up to difficulties in the opinion he had been defending. This refusal, Socrates observes, leads Critias into unintelligibility. (169C) In some respects, Heidegger’s account in the Spiegel interview resembles Critias’ in the Charmides:     it is on a very high, even abstract, level and thus avoids having to face up to whatever defect there may be in the soul.

All this raises serious questions about the relation of knowledge to virtue. Or, rather, all this compels us to wonder about not only what virtue is, but also what knowledge is, at least for the purpose of virtue. It would seem that the knowledge of knowledge for which Heidegger is celebrated does not require knowledge of justice as well.


Is knowledge of justice, which necessarily includes a respect for justice, required in some measure even for those who devote themselves primarily to the knowledge of knowledge?

Heidegger told us many times during his long career that he was concerned to grasp Being itself. Did this concern serve to conceal from him the limits both of politics and of “one’s own”? Socrates often asked the “What is” question, such as, “What is virtue?” “What is justice?” “What is man?” But Heidegger asked, “What is it, to be?” He asked, that is, “What is Being itself?” Should not what Being is be apparent to us for most important practical purposes? (I am told that Heidegger addresses this point in Being and Time.) To probe Being the way Heidegger evidently does may be to risk undermining common sense, promoting an undue abstractness. Perhaps it also serves to disparage nature, or at least to expose all inquiry to an infinite regress and hence no starting point, thereby leaving human thought to cope with an unsettling nothingness at its foundations. Does not this in turn incline men, by way of compensation, to an emphasis upon will as an expression of Being, as an effort to assert the self that threatens to be cut loose from its moorings by the radical pursuit of Being itself?

To emphasize the will (an emphasis especially to be found in the tradition that Heidegger immediately comes out of but which he perhaps pushed to its “logical” extreme) is almost naturally, in the circumstances of the early 1930s, to expose a politically naïve man to the attractions of the Nazi movement. The urbane Socrates, also interested of course in Being, provides a salutary contrast, as do the Socratics Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle. Nietzsche, too, would have recognized the Nazi movement for what it was, an abomination in the sight of the Lord. (For this purpose God would have been, to Nietzsche, still as much alive as He had ever been.)

This devastations of technology (that is, of all that modernity has meant) might well have seemed to Heidegger to require extraordinary political efforts. But that those efforts should have taken the form they did for him may testify to a poverty of soul. This may be seen, I have suggested, in the shallowness of his 1966 defense for Spiegel of his Nazi years, a defense that is in its mechanical character itself a product of the technological age.

An even more serious question awaits us, which we can do little more than notice here. What do Heidegger’s conduct of the 1930s and his evasions of the 1960s reveal about his conception of Being itself or about the character of the Being he does grasp? Is not one moved to suspect that that grasp is indeed compromised, that it is not reliable? His approach may tend to undermine general reliance upon that grasp of Being that men have “always,” or innately, had by nature. (Does not the “What is” question itself presuppose an intuitive grasp of “is,” or Being? Do I, in these remarks, mistakenly treat Being more as a thing than Heidegger does? See, on Being, Plato, Republic 509B sq.)

Technology does have a reliable grasp of Being, to a degree. But it seems to grasp only so much of Being as can be transformed into a certain kind of power. This approach to knowledge provides considerable leverage for certain purposes. But Heidegger and others before him have warned us that this approach is not ultimately conductive to genuine, wide-ranging understanding, however useful it may be for making our lives comfortable. Certainly, if power (that is, harnessable Being) and self-preservation become dominant, then not the good or the truth, but rather will (or self-assertion) will become authoritative in our lives. If that should happen, we would have cheapened our lives immeasurably and gained in the bargain neither genuine power nor any life truly worth preserving.


 The Faustian bargain that Heidegger can be said to have made should put us on our guard, especially against presumptuous apocalyptic visions that call into question old-fashioned morality and long-established institutions.

Heidegger never seems to appreciate the merits of constitutional government, especially when it is compared with the alternatives available in the world today, and so he repeatedly disparages “negative liberty.” (See, e.g., Spiegel Interview, p. 269.) It is liberal democracy, with its defense of property and liberty, that makes it possible for us to diagnose the ills of technology and, if we are prudent, to take command of our lives and to do so long before we are left only with desperate measures to resort to.

Socrates, we should remember, did seem to have some respect for the democracy of his day, as seen in the Athens that he found so congenial for so much of his life. But along with Socrates’ patriotism, there was his disdain for an undue emphasis upon self-preservation and prosperity. This is a healthy corrective among any self-governing people that is tempted to make too much of its own.

No doubt Socrates would have had much to say about modern technology and the many blessings it offers us. Perhaps he would have been tempted to add, along with Henry Thoreau, that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can live without.” (See Roy Larson’s column, Chicago Sun-Times, October 24, 1981, p. 14. See, also, Plato, Laws 736E.)


In whatever Socrates would have said and done in assessing our technology, our political life and our knowledge of Being, would he not have insisted upon the sovereignty of nature, that very nature which modern philosophical thought, modern science and its technology have seriously called into question? We saw at the outset of this essay that Kant provided to a German disciple the moral stamina needed for proper conduct in the face of the Nazis. But even Kant can be understood to have undermined that traditional understanding of nature which contributes to a reliable sense of what is prudent and right by nature. Certainly, he called into question the necessary illusions or “wholesome prejudices” by which communities must often take their bearings if they are to act decently in times of adversity or, better still, if they are to head off the worse adversities.

If we do not retain a lively awareness of nature, vital distinctions are apt to be lost sight of, not only those between life and death and between male and female, but also those in ethical and political matters between right and wrong and between the healthy and the unhealthy. In short, without a sound awareness of nature, philosophy (including political philosophy) becomes impossible.

This is not the occasion for an extended inquiry into the nature of nature. It suffices for our immediate purposes to say that if one’s thought, or the tradition one draws upon, is properly grounded in nature, one is more apt to exhibit sound judgment in the affairs of one’s day. Martin Heidegger, one remembers from the Spiegel interview, saw in the Nazi movement a “new dawn.” (See Spiegel Interview, pp. 269, 270, 275.) What did he mistakenly believe that led him astray? Or was it something he did not believe, which he should have believed, that left him susceptible to the demands of his will?

Caution about what is and what is not a new dawn is one mark of the political man who is sensible about the nature of things and about the limits of political action. One such politician, who was himself a great scientist very much interested in technology, was Benjamin Franklin. While the just-drafted Constitution was being signed on September 17th by members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, James Madison tells us,

Doctor Franklin looking towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of [this convention, with] the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at [the sun] behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.

This should serve to remind us at a time when technology can be so intimidating, when its misuse can evidently destroy all life on this planet, that some who are careless believers in technology can be quite sensible as political leaders, even while others who are remarkably sensitive to the perils of technology can be in their political judgment monumentally foolish.

This talk was given at the Basic Program Weekend, The University of Chicago, East Troy, Wisconsin, November 8, 1981 (original title: “Martin Heidegger—On the Perils of Technology and Nazism”).

Martin Heidegger’s 1966 Der Speigel Interview, published May 31, 1976, is available in Philosophy Today, Winter 1976, pp. 269-84. See, for further discussion of Martin Heidegger and the Nazis, my examination of the 1945-1946 Nuremberg Trial in On Trial: From Adam & Eve to O.J. Simpson (Lexington Books 2004), pp. 297-312.

The epigraph is taken from a statement in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Gouverneur Morris, August 9, 1787. See Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (Ohio University Press, 1960), p. 421.

These materials are copied from George Anastaplo, The American Moralist: On Law, Ethics, and Government (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1992), pp. 144-60.



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