I had occasion, in February 2013, to offer this letter to the Times Literary Supplement (not published there but posted on here):
George Steiner’s instructive review of Yvonne Sherratt’s Hitler’s Philosophers (“How private a Nazi?,” TLS, February 22, 2013, p 5) recalls the dreadful collaboration of distinguished German scholars with Hitler’s madness. I have suggested the troubling character of the never-publicly-repudiated dealings with the Nazis by Martin Heidegger (who is currently “enjoying” a substantial resurgence in scholarly respectability) by identifying him as “the Macbeth of Philosophy” (Macbeth, it should be remembered, may be the least repulsive of Shakespeare’s villains, but a villain nevertheless). I have examined the questionable doings of Martin Heidegger and various of his associates in essays posted on anastaplo.wordpress.com. There may be found there as well the extensive bibliography of those associated with one of my teachers, Leo Strauss, a former student of Heidegger ….
A distinguished British scholar responded thus (in March 2013) to my TLS letter (which I had sent him):
Heidegger’s philosophic and linguistic genius is of the very first order. Alas. As Leo Strauss always conceded.
Our tentative consideration of what “the very first order” can mean here might usefully begin by recalling Isaac Newton, who is generally regarded as the greatest student of the natural sciences since Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler (and on whom I have presumed to comment from time to time in essays posted on my wordpress site).
We can be challenged, in assessing Newton’s overall grasp of things, upon recalling his lifelong devotion to an intensive study of Biblical texts, especially the prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Much of what he wrote (for decades and with considerable confidence) about such subjects can be readily recognized by us as determinedly wrongheaded. Even more disturbing seems to have been the ferocity of some of his official conduct at the Mint (even reminding us of how so talented a humanist as Thomas More, when in power, treated heretics).
How critical to one’s general understanding of things (in the physical sciences as in philosophy) is the soundness of one’s judgment about various vital questions that one presumes to address? Is not a reliable sense of the whole essential to a proper assessment of the particulars that one may have an opportunity to examine with care? That is, does not genuine thoughtfulness depend on a sound awareness of what one does not (perhaps cannot) know?
What I myself certainly do not know is much of Heidegger’s thinking about a variety of subjects to which he devoted decades of intense thought. Indeed, I have found it personally difficult to apply to what he published the effort obviously needed to begin to understand it. I sense, moreover, that one needs to know the German language and heritage far better than I ever will if one is to begin to be reasonably confident that one grasps what he says.
I sense as well that it would help, in grasping not only what Heidegger thinks but also why he thinks as he does, to know well the thinking of Germans such as Kant and Hegel. Instructive here could be a sense of the matters that Heidegger’s contemporary, Carl Schmitt, considered himself obliged to address. Then, of course, there was in the Germany receptive to the Nazis the spiritual as well as the material devastation of the First World War.
One can be reminded of the far-from-evident presuppositions of a system of reflections when one ventures to study any developed tradition of non-Western thought. Thus, it can be difficult for us even to learn what is being sought elsewhere – let alone whether it is attained. Particularly instructive can be the status (including the non-status) of the idea of nature among “others.”
Could not Heidegger see the pervasive ugliness of the Nazis, long before the systematic slaughter of Jews and others began? Why could not Hitler’s madness be recognized for what it was from the outset, a madness intimately related to a grotesque assessment of the supposed diabolic influence for centuries, if not even for millennia, of Judaism in Europe? Did such a determined targeting of the Jews somehow testify to something so noble in them that it called into question the fundamentals not only of Nazism but also even of Germaness?
Indeed, we can wonder what there was in the Nazi soul that could permit, or perhaps even require, a deadly campaign against the Jews. That campaign was far deeper in both its causes and its consequences than the passions that Jews had had to contend with all over Europe for centuries. Indeed, it can be suspected that there may even have been something perversely suicidal in the German campaign against a people who had contributed as much as the Jews had done for generations to the enrichment of German life.
Perhaps we should wonder as well whether there ever were, among the Russians, any thinkers approaching the stature of Heidegger who also dreadfully compromised themselves in seeming to endorse the bestiality of the Stalinist regime. And did any of them emulate Heidegger in never having been “men enough” to repudiate publicly the dreadful regime that they had once presumed to champion? Particularly instructive here could also be any apologists for the determined Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.
A critical concern of ours on this occasion is what the proper relation is between Beauty (including Moral Beauty) and Truth. Was Heidegger distinctive, among German intellectuals of note, not in having been “taken in” by the Nazis but rather in his perverse inability ever to repudiate publicly what he had done? In this he seems to have displayed himself as remarkably egotistical.
How critical was a determined self-centeredness to the systematic thinking for which Heidegger has been celebrated? Did such an orientation make it less likely (if not even virtually impossible) that he would have sound political (that is, not determinedly self-regarding) instincts? Was his political naiveté mistaken by him for a special insight into the nature of the communal?
We should not be surprised if we are led to recognize that moral probity is likely to be essential for a sound study not only of political philosophy but also of philosophy itself. But what about other serious intellectual disciplines? Does the very best work elsewhere depend on a sound moral core?
The test case here may be with respect to the discipline of mathematics. Are there apt to be instances of public displays of questions-and-answers which depend on the integrity of the mathematician? Must first-rate work depend at times, if not even ultimately, on the reliability of what the most gifted mathematician chooses to acknowledge both about the difficulties he has encountered and about how he has chosen to deal with them?
It can even be wondered whether intense mathematical calculations tend to purge one’s soul. Furthermore, what does an intense concern with the workings and implications of infinity do to one’s self-discipline? Do the peculiarities (or limitations) of individual souls tend to be suppressed (if not ever decisively superseded) upon confronting such mysteries?
Still, we do inherit significant discoveries across millennia in mathematics and elsewhere from thinkers we cannot know. Even so, is there a mind of the first rank and in the best condition reflected in any corpus of exceptional work developed across millennia? Have attempts ever been made, for example, to determine the characteristics of the mind that is evident in the body of work attributed to Euclid (just as might well be done with Newton’s complete work)?
Thoughtful observers, familiar with Heidegger’s career, can see in him personality traits that they identify as “peasant cunning.” A low level of calculation is identified thus, not genuine understanding. Such cunning can be said to have been identified and tracked by, say, Adam Smith in his analyses of economic calculations, but a Smith remarkably sensitive as well to the workings of “moral sentiments.”
It would be prudent moreover to be aware of the humane streak to be expected in the typical peasant, especially when he is not immediately endangered. Even the Nazis can be understood to have been aware of this. Thus, they could never dare to publicize the systematic massacres of Jews of all ages and others that they were determined to pursue at all costs.
The human limitations of Heidegger, I have suggested, are reflected in (and reinforced by) the movement in his remarkable studies of the Greek Classics from the Pre-Socratics to the Post-Socratics. He somehow seemed to sense (I also venture to suggest) that he could not develop his thinking the way he wanted to if he faced up to the challenge posed by the Life, as well as by the Thought, of Socrates. Did that Life make more of the Erotic than a rigorously-“programmed” Heidegger could be “comfortable” with?
We are all familiar, of course, with the temporary aberrations in one’s judgment that may chance to grip us from time to time. Indeed, it may even be wondered at times whether the typical rules here are unrealistic. Instructive challenges can be posed here by the careers of, say, Don Giovanni and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The effects on us of the erotic are likely to depend somewhat on whom one encounters and in what circumstances. And, of course, one’s very existence is apt to depend on the workings of the erotic. A natural corrective here can be said to have been dramatically recalled in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despiséd straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
The demands of the erotic (however much they may usually be due to happenstance) can even seem to be due to Destiny. It could be instructive, in assessing Heidegger’s deepest yearnings and hence his general understanding of things, to consider judiciously his career as a would-be-lover. Here, as elsewhere, the guidance provided by Delphi should be useful, that institution which Socrates tended to treat with respect.
Particularly challenging here, of course, are the two maxims traditionally associated with Delphi: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” May there even be, we can wonder, excessive thinking about some subjects? Indeed, may “complete” devotion to “the Life of the Mind” itself be excessive, at least for human beings?
The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is someone who finds himself at times engaged – indeed, dangerously engaged—in the political as well as in the military life of his City. It is hard to imagine him as insulated from (if not even apparently unconcerned about) critical (even grotesque) public developments as Heidegger allowed himself to be once he had presumed to gamble as he did on the Nazis that brought out the worst in his “City.” Indeed, it can again be wondered whether it was some kind of critical deficiency that kept Heidegger from ever truly seeing the Nazis for what they were.
On the other hand, it can also be wondered whether there is something determinedly excessive in how some among us (often the most gifted) have come to regard the Life of the Mind. Organized inquiries (as in impressive scientific projects) can all too often seem not to have any objective that can be identified when it is achieved. It may even seem that there is, on principle, no excess here in how ingenious (and, of course, well-financed) investigators conduct themselves.
Then, of course, there is the timeless demand that one should know oneself. Unless one truly knows oneself, one cannot reliably assess the matters one investigates. On the other hand, we again notice, must not one be careful lest one become “obsessed” with knowing oneself, especially if that should suppress one’s natural sense of humanity.
Indeed, it can be suspected that an excessive concern with oneself can keep one from truly knowing oneself. After all, much of who one is does depend on associations that extend far (if not infinitely) into both space and time. Indeed, can there not even be something crippling in a determined self-centeredness?
Our overriding concern here is not with the remarkably self-centered Heidegger who somehow or other was able to disregard the salutary promptings of humanity. Rather, we should be concerned about intellectual developments that can keep the brightest (and most ambitious?) among us from assessing the perversities of the most celebrated among us. We should be troubled, that is, by the obvious inability of all too many distinguished scholars to begin to know themselves.
These remarks were prepared for an adult education seminar at the University of Chicago, April 29, 2013. Drawn on here are discussions, during April 2013, in George Anastaplo’s seminars both at the Loyola University of Chicago School of Law and at the University of Chicago.