Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Rise of the Far Right
Philosophers have long been seen as politically useless. Socrates conveys the situation in an image. A city is like a ship upon which sailors are fighting to seize control, some throwing overboard or killing others who have managed to take the helm.
Every sailor wants to pilot the ship, though none has learned the art of navigation. In the midst of this chaos, in it but not of it, one sailor alone studies the heavens, the winds, the seasons, and the stars, learning what properly belongs to the art of navigation. How must such a one appear to the others, who cannot fathom the knowledge required by the role they seek?
But philosophers have also been regarded as downright dangerous. Ronald Beiner calls two of the most prominent philosophers of recent centuries, Nietzsche and Heidegger, “dangerous minds.” Nietzsche’s writings helped bolster the Nazi’s view of themselves as men and women of valor and will, opposed to both the superficiality of American consumerism and the ignoble egalitarianism of Bolshevism. Heidegger, too, opposed Americanism and Bolshevism, preferring to speak instead in terms of authentic dwelling, heritage, and the destiny of the Volk. During his lifetime he was a member of the Nazi party, for which he never apologized. Many of his detractors believe that the basic elements of his thought are conducive to fascistic politics.
It has thus happened today that those who read Nietzsche and Heidegger without an initial prejudice against them risk being called fascist sympathizers. An unwritten rule shared by liberals and leftists is that we should either not read them at all or else read them in such a way as always to be cautioning against their reactionary politics or appropriating them for a more acceptable political project, as happened in the case of what Allan Bloom called the “Nietzscheanization of the Left,” and in the subsequent Heideggerianization of the Left.
In general, either reading of Nietzsche and Heidegger is welcome in academic circles. Largely forbidden, however, is a serious reading of these authors that does not serve an orthodox political commitment at the outset. Forbidden, in other words, is a serious philosophical reading of these serious philosophers. That is a problem, one to which Beiner’s book, an example of liberal scaremonging, contributes.
Beiner’s basic claim is as follows. There is a rise of the far right going on. You can see it in the increased media profile of so-called alt-right figures after Trump’s election. This group of people, which includes Richard Spencer, Jason Jorjani, Alexander Dugin, and others, poses a threat to liberal democratic principles. The group is largely inspired by Nietzsche and Heidegger. We can therefore no longer read Nietzsche and Heidegger in a politically naïve way. We must recognize them as politically illiberal thinkers. We must be on guard against them. We must resist their influence even on the left, since their influence on the left legitimizes them for the right.
Beiner’s book is right to argue that Nietzsche and Heidegger are political philosophers, i.e. that their philosophy has a political dimension, whether implicitly or explicitly. But his one-sided political response, which assumes from the outset that there is no merit to rightist critiques of liberal democracy, betrays his stated commitment to the calling of political philosophy, advanced in both this book and in his previous book. Political philosophy must not be all politics lest it become what it despises: ideology. “Dangerous minds” may be “dangerous,” but if those “minds” are philosophical minds, we owe it to them, and to ourselves, not to close the book on them prematurely. Beiner admits that he once was more sympathetic to these dangerous minds than he is now. His judgment is perhaps not premature, then. But the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. Strauss once wrote that “It would be unworthy of us as thinking beings not to listen to the critics of democracy – even if they are enemies of democracy – provided they are thinking men (and especially great thinkers) and not blustering fools.” Judging by his book, Beiner can only hear the enmity. He can no longer hear the greatness of thought and is no longer challenged by it.
Strauss also cautioned in his lecture on German nihilism that when teachers fail to take seriously the legitimate intellectual concerns of their students, they often inadvertently turn those students towards more harmful avenues of activity and expression, thereby confirming them in their beliefs. There is something to his warning that readers of Beiner’s book should keep in mind while reading it.
Strauss writes as follows about the mid-century mood in Germany: “The prospect of a pacified planet without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only, to the production and consumption of spiritual as well as material merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and very decent, if very young, Germans.” These young, intelligent, and – note well – decent Germans (i.e. not every illiberal urge is indecent) saw both the liberal and the communist dream as “the greatest debasement of humanity.” Strauss did think that these Germans were mistaken in their argumentation. Yet his greatest criticisms are not of their errors, but of the errors of their teachers: “the most dangerous thing for these young men was precisely what is called progressive education: they rather needed old-fashioned teachers, such old-fashioned teachers of course as would be undogmatic enough to understand the aspirations of their pupils.” “The adolescents I am speaking of,” Strauss continues, “were in need of teachers who could explain to them in articulate language the positive, and not merely destructive, meaning of their aspirations.” But many of the teachers who opposed the students “did not even try to understand the ardent passion underlying the negation of the present world and its potentialities. As a consequence, the very refutations confirmed the nihilists in their belief.” For the old-fashioned Strauss, it can be taken for granted “that not everything to which the young nihilists objected, was unobjectionable, and that not every writer or speaker whom they despised, was respectable.” On the basis of that observation he offers counsel no less relevant now than then: “Let us beware of a sense of solidarity which is not limited by discretion. And let us not forget that the highest duty of the scholar, truthfulness or justice, acknowledges no limits.”
Strauss was precisely the sort of critic of liberal democracy needed in today’s universities, one “undogmatic enough to understand the aspirations” of students with an interest in Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others; someone able to “explain to them in articulate language the positive…. meaning of their aspirations,” someone whose “sense of solidarity,” including liberal solidarity, does not outweigh “the highest duty of the scholar.” Such professors as Strauss described are increasingly harder to find today in our top departments of political science, often even among Strauss’s disciples. As a result, if concerns about the relationship between “dangerous minds” and “the rise of the far right” are to receive the treatment they rightly deserve, not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the thinkers themselves or their acolytes. Teachers who “expel nature with a pitchfork” share the blame, as do others who respond to the heterodox aspirations of the young with “progressive” accusations of fascism, or worse.
Ironically, despite calling Strauss’s essay mandatory reading in his book, Beiner has missed Strauss’s point entirely. He acts like the sort of teacher Strauss warned against. Whereas Strauss’s willingness to consider the positive meaning of anti-liberal aspirations is a vital part of his ultimate friendliness toward liberal democracy, Beiner’s incapacity to do so adequately threatens to undermine his support for liberal democracy, giving ammunition to the other side and confirming it in its beliefs, as Strauss said poor pedagogy would do. One need only compare Beiner on Russian Heideggerianism with the relevant texts to see that liberal solidarity has indeed outweighed scholarly duties.
Beiner’s book is a reminder that there is a political dimension to the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger. It offers evidence that contemporary critics of liberal democracy on the right draw on those two thinkers even now. And it defends a view of political theory that is sensitive to the political implications of dangerous minds. Its primary shortcoming is that it insufficiently theorizes the relationship between philosophy and the political, giving the political – a commitment to liberal-democracy, in this case – the upper hand over philosophy without further ado. It thus falls into the general category of liberal scaremongering against fascist philosophers, like Popper on Plato.
While one may be glad to be in these holy waters of political philosophy, one may nonetheless experience disappointment at never leaving the shallow end.