Cover image for The reckless mind : intellectuals in politics
The reckless mind : intellectuals in politics
Lilla, Mark.
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New York : New York Review Books, 2001.
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xiii, 216 pages ; 23 cm
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HM728 .L55 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A unique study of how eminent philosophers ventured into political thought and action and ended up supporting fascism and communism

Author Notes

Mark Lilla is Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.



Chapter One WHAT HAS PHILOSOPHY to do with love? If Plato is to be believed, everything. While all lovers are not philosophers, philosophers are the only true lovers, since they alone understand what love blindly seeks. Love evokes in us all an unconscious memory of the beauty of the Ideas, and this memory maddens us; we feel possessed by a frenzied yearning to couple and to "beget in the beautiful," as the Symposium beautifully puts it (209b). Those who possess self-control mate intellectually and commune with the Ideas, which is philosophy's aim, while those who lack it purge their passions in the flesh and remain bound to the world.     It is because erotic desire does not always issue in philosophy that it must be treated with utmost care, Plato teaches. When eros is unleashed in an immoderate person the soul sinks into sensual pleasure, love of money, drunkenness, even madness. So strong is its power that eros can overwhelm our reason and natural instincts, directing them to its own ends and becoming the soul's tyrant. What is political tyranny, Plato has Socrates ask in the Republic , if not the unjust rule of a man who himself is tyrannized by his basest desires? Eros is classified by Plato as a demonic force that floats between the human and the divine, helping us to rise or transporting the soul into a life of baseness and suffering in which others suffer with us. The philosopher and the tyrant, the highest and lowest of human types, are linked through some perverse trick of nature by the power of love.     We are no longer accustomed to thinking of eros in this way. Erotic attachment, the life of the mind, the world of politics--for us these are wholly distinct realms operating independently of one another and governed by different laws. We are unprepared, therefore, to understand one of the most extraordinary episodes in the intellectual life of our time, the love and friendship between Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Karl Jaspers. These three thinkers first met in the 1920s and were immediately attracted to each other because of a common passion for philosophy. But as they found themselves drawn into the political upheaval that shook Europe, and then the entire world, this passion eventually spilled over into every aspect of their personal lives and political commitments. That in their youth Heidegger and Arendt were briefly carnal lovers turns out to be a detail and not terribly revealing. What is important and deserves serious reflection is how all three came to see the place of passion in the life of the mind and in the allure of modern tyranny.     The affair between Heidegger and Arendt was first reported in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's absorbing biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (1984), though it received little popular attention at the time, thanks largely to Young-Bruehl's discretion and sense of proportion. A few years ago, however, the affair became the subject of distasteful polemics following the publication of Elzbieta Ettinger's study Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (1995). Professor Ettinger hoped to create a scandal with her little book and she succeeded. While working on a biography of Arendt she acquired permission to read the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence, which, under the terms set by the literary executors, few had seen and no one had been allowed to quote from. Having read the letters, Ettinger then rushed an account of the love affair into print, paraphrasing Heidegger's letters at length and quoting directly from Arendt's replies.     Ettinger portrayed the Arendt-Heidegger relationship as a deeply pathological one that stretched from their first encounter in 1924 until Arendt's sudden death in 1975. In this account Heidegger was cast as the ruthless predator who bedded a naive and vulnerable young student, dropped her when it suited his purposes, ignored her plight when she fled Germany in 1933, and then cynically exploited her fame as a Jewish thinker after the war in order to rehabilitate himself and his thought, which had been deeply compromised by his Nazism. As for Arendt, Ettinger saw her as a victim who collaborated in her own humiliation, suffering slights and rejection from Heidegger the man and slaving away to promote Heidegger the thinker, despite his intellectual support of Hitler. Whether Arendt did this out of a deep psychological need for affection from a father figure, out of Jewish self-hatred, or out of a foolish wish to ingratiate herself with a charlatan she mistook for a genius, Ettinger could not decide. So she advanced all three hypotheses, on the basis of her private reading of an incomplete correspondence. From any standpoint, the book was irresponsible.     Still, the scandal was there, and during the months that followed Arendt's critics seized on it as evidence that she was intellectually untrustworthy. Her defenders, who have made her into an object of passionate hagiography in recent years, were not slow to respond but did little to raise the tone. And, most important, few but Professor Ettinger had seen the letters. At this point the executors of the Heidegger and Arendt literary estates stepped in and agreed to publish all the correspondence they possessed in order to put the entire matter before the public. Since Heidegger destroyed all of Arendt's early letters, copies of which she rarely made, this meant that the correspondence would be incomplete and that three quarters of it would come from Heidegger's side. Nonetheless, the decision was made to proceed and we now have the letters in a carefully edited and helpfully annotated German edition. The decision has proved wise, for the published volume does more than set the record straight. It puts the Heidegger-Arendt relationship in a new, and intellectually more significant, setting: the philosophical friendship they developed and shared with their mutual friend the existentialist thinker Karl Jaspers.     Martin Heidegger was born in the small town of Messkirch, Baden-Württemberg, in 1889. As a young boy he seemed destined for the priesthood, and in fact at the age of twenty he decided to become a novice in the Society of Jesus. But Heidegger's career as a budding Jesuit lasted only two weeks before he was sent home complaining of chest pains. His interest in religion remained strong, however, and for the next two years he studied at the theological seminary of Freiburg University and contributed occasional articles to somewhat reactionary Catholic periodicals, attacking the cultural decadence of his time. In 1911 he suffered further heart problems and transferred out of the seminary to study mathematics, while devoting himself privately to philosophy.     Heidegger's leave-taking from the intellectual tradition of the Church was extremely drawn out. As late as 1921 he could still write to his student Karl Löwith that he considered himself to be above all "a Christian theologian." Ostensibly, Heidegger was studying with the great phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, who had arrived in Freiburg in 1916 to fulfill his program of scraping the metaphysical barnacles off the philosophical tradition. Husserl, who wished to bring a new rigor to bear on the philosophical examination of consciousness and return it "to the things themselves," was at first reserved toward Heidegger, whom he considered a Catholic thinker. But he began to enjoy his long philosophical conversations with this student, and was disappointed when Heidegger's war service interrupted them. On Heidegger's return, Husserl made him his private assistant, a position he occupied until 1923. In those years the personal relationship between Husserl and Heidegger was a quasi-parental one, as the older scholar groomed his young disciple to replace him.     When Karl Jaspers first met him in 1920, Heidegger was introduced by Mrs. Husserl as her husband's "phenomenological child." It was an encounter fated to transform the lives of both men. Jaspers was six years Heidegger's senior and already a well-known figure in German intellectual life. He had studied law and medicine as a young man and received his Habilitation in psychology, which he then taught in Freiburg. His fame rested on a book he published in 1919 called Psychology of Worldviews , an idiosyncratic and today virtually unreadable work mired in the technical vocabulary of Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey, but which also managed to address existential themes in the manner of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.     The book eventually earned Jaspers a chair in philosophy, though he, like Heidegger, felt a barely concealed contempt for the university philosophers of his time. The two thinkers soon discovered a common interest in what Jaspers in his book had called "limit situations"--situations in which the cloud of forgetting that normally envelops our Existenz evaporates and we are suddenly confronted with the fundamental questions of life and, especially, death. Jaspers described how these situations evoke in us states of anxiety and guilt, yet also open up the possibility of living authentically by confronting them freely and resolutely. Although he was emerging from the very different intellectual traditions of scholasticism and phenomenology, Heidegger was absorbed with these very same issues, which became central themes in his masterwork, Being and Time (1927).     Over the next few years the two men developed a deep philosophical friendship, as can been seen in their early exchange of letters. It was cemented in 1922 when Jaspers invited Heidegger to stay with him for a week in Heidelberg (where Jaspers now held his chair). It was an unforgettable experience for both, and thereafter they referred to themselves as a Kampfgemeinschaft , comrades in arms. Yet from the start it was also clear that, if the friendship were to survive, it would have to rest on the awkward fact that Heidegger was the superior thinker, and Jaspers, although older and better known than Heidegger, would have to recognize this.     When Heidegger met Jaspers it so happened that he was already drafting a long review of Psychology of Worldviews , which he obligingly sent his new friend in 1921. Outwardly, Jaspers was grateful for Heidegger's attention and suggestions, though he professed not to grasp the position from which his friend leveled his criticisms. Inwardly, Jaspers was devastated. For this "review" was nothing less than a manifesto for a new way of thinking for which Jaspers was ill-prepared, and toward which he felt little inclination. After paying his respects to Jaspers's psychological acuity, Heidegger objected in the strongest terms to his "aesthetic" approach to psychological experience, which treated it as an object that could be observed from without, rather than as something we live within. In order to reach what is "primordial" in human existence, Heidegger wrote, philosophy must begin by recognizing that consciousness necessarily exists in time, that it is "historical." Human existence is a certain kind of "being," different from the "being" of mere objects, Heidegger claimed: to say "I am" is to assert something altogether different from asserting "it is." That is because I "am" through a process of historical self-enactment in which I experience "anxious care" about my existence, which I must take over and possess for myself if I am to live authentically. All these concepts first articulated in the review of Jaspers--"primordiality," "being," "historicity," "anxiety," and "care"--soon found their way into Being and Time .     The friendship survived Heidegger's crushing review and even deepened over the next few years, despite a few rocky patches. Yet Jaspers was haunted by the sense that Heidegger, and only Heidegger, had seen through him and understood "what I failed to achieve," as he once wrote in a private notebook. From that point on Heidegger served as the standard by which Jaspers judged his own philosophical seriousness, and the stimulus for moody reflections about the advantages and disadvantages of philosophy for life. That we know because we have this notebook, an extraordinary three-hundred-page manuscript of assembled reflections on Heidegger which Jaspers collected from 1928 until at least 1964, and which was found on his desk after his death. These notes oscillate between expressions of wonder ("he seems to notice what no one else saw"), frustration ("communicationless, worldless, godless"), and loyalty ("none of the other living philosophers can interest me"). Jaspers even records a dream in which, during a tense conversation with some of Heidegger's critics, his friend suddenly approached and addressed him for the first time with the familiar du . The two then set off together, alone.     In 1923 Heidegger moved to Marburg to take up his first independent academic position, and there drew a following of students who traveled from the four corners of Europe to study with him. One of those was Hannah Arendt, who years later in her commemorative essay "Martin Heidegger at Eighty" (1969) described in The New York Review of Books the excitement her entire generation felt about him, in sentences that have now become famous: There was hardly more than a name, but the name traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king.... The rumor about Heidegger put it quite simply: Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak, in the course of which it turns out that they propose things altogether different from the familiar, worn-out trivialities they had been presumed to say. There exists a teacher; one can perhaps learn to think.     Hannah Arendt was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, in 1906 and was only eighteen years old when she arrived in Marburg. As a young woman she had read some Kant but much more Kierkegaard, who was the thinker young Germans turned to after the disaster of World War I. What made Kierkegaard so attractive was his passion, which stood in such stark contrast to the bourgeois self-satisfaction of the Wilhelmine era and the and speculations of the philosophical schools then dominant in Germany. It was this passion that Arendt, like Jaspers, immediately remarked in Heidegger, and which she could still recall in 1969: What was experienced was that thinking as pure activity--and this means impelled neither by the thirst for knowledge nor by the drive for cognition--can become a passion which not so much rules and oppresses all other capacities and gifts, as it orders them and prevails through them. We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of a passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback. She then added, in a very Platonic turn of phrase: Also, the passion of thinking, like the other passions, seizes the person--seizes those qualities of the individual of which the sum, when ordered by the will, amounts to what we commonly call "character"--takes possession of him and, as it were, annihilates his "character" which cannot hold its own against this onslaught.     We get a sense of the intellectual passion Heidegger generated by reading the lectures he gave when Arendt first arrived in Marburg. The ostensible aim of the lecture course was to develop a commentary on Plato's dialogue concerning philosophy and pseudophilosophy, the Sophist . In Heidegger's hands, however, the craft of commentary became a means of recovering what he took to be the dialogue's deepest problems and confronting them directly. In the Sophist , Heidegger saw two overriding issues. The first was ontological: the problem of Being--a term sometimes capitalized in English to indicate that Heidegger does not mean the fact that there are particular entities or beings, but rather what might be called their "beingness," or Being. "Why is there beingness/Being rather than nothingness?" is a question the Sophist makes us ask. The second problem in the dialogue was the correct definition of truth, which Heidegger interpreted to be a process of "disclosure" or "uncovering" of what entities are rather than a correspondence between concept and object, as philosophers from Plato onward held. His commentary on the dialogue then turns into a masterful explication of these problems and how a new approach, deriving from phenomenology, might reveal novel answers to them. It was this audacity that made Plato and Aristotle seem suddenly alive and vital to Arendt and her classmates--and, more subtly, also made Heidegger appear as their only legitimate heir.     Heidegger's and Arendt's passion for each other bloomed sometime during the course of this semester, and by the time their published correspondence begins in February 1925 it was clear that some sort of step had been taken: 10.II.25 Dear Miss Arendt,     I must return to you tonight and speak to your heart.     Everything should be simple, clear, and pure between us. Only then will we be worthy of an encounter. That you were my student and I your teacher only provided the occasion for what happened between us.     I will never be able to possess you, but from now on you will belong to my life, which shall increase through you....     The path your young life will take is hidden. We will submit to it. And my faithfulness should only help you be true to yourself....     The gift of our friendship becomes a duty, through which we will grow. A duty that permits me to ask forgiveness for having forgotten myself for a moment during our walk.     Still, I must thank you and, in a kiss on your pure forehead, take the integrity of your essence into my work.     Be happy, good one!     Your              M.H. Within the month another threshold had been passed: 27.II.25 Dear Hannah,     The demonic has seized me. The still, prayer-like folding of your loving hands and your gleaming forehead guarded it through womanly transfiguration.     The like has never happened to me before.     In the rainstorm on the way home you were even more beautiful and great. And I would have liked to walk with you for nights on end.     As a symbol of my thanks, take this little book. It will also serve as a symbol of this semester.     Please, Hannah, give me just a few words. I can't just let you leave like that.     You must be in a rush before your trip, but just a few words, not "beautifully" written.     Just as you write. Only that you have written them.     Your                 M.     The correspondence continues in this vein for many passion-filled months. Heidegger's letters to Arendt are filled with romantic commonplaces--fields of flowers, ruined towers, professions of guilt and self-renunciation --mixed with philosophical ruminations and sensible professional advice. Although we have none of her earliest letters, we have a copy of a short, and very melancholy, autobiographical text called "Shadows," which she sent to him that April. It describes a young woman who had already suffered through many unsatisfactory moods in her short life, passing from the conviction that Sehnsucht --yearning--could be an end in itself to a growing anxiety about the meaning of life. Now she had finally arrived at the stage where she could offer "unbending devotion" to one person alone--a bittersweet devotion, however, fully aware that "all things come to an end." Heidegger responded to this cri de cœur like the mature lover he was, assuring Arendt that "from now on you live wrapped up in my work," and reminding her that "there are only 'shadows' where there is sun."     Was Heidegger the predator and Arendt the victim in this romance, as Professor Ettinger would have us believe? Was this high-minded philosophical cooing merely a cover for sexual domination? On the contrary, the mature reader of these letters will be struck by the touching authenticity they express, in what was, after all, a rather conventional drama heading for its predictable end. The married older professor and his younger student write to each other about the nature of love and about what she should study. They exchange poems and pictures, listen to music when they are alone, and even decide to read The Magic Mountain together, speculating about the doomed love of Madame Chauchat and Hans Castorp. Heidegger also writes touchingly of his love of nature and how it merges with his love for Arendt: Todtnauberg, 21.III.25 Dear Hannah,     It is a marvelous winter up here, so I've had some wonderful, refreshing trips....     I often hope that you are doing as well as I am here. The solitude of the mountains, the quiet life of the mountain people, the elemental nearness of sun, storm, and heavens, the simplicity of an abandoned trail on a wide and deeply snow-covered slope--all this keeps the soul far, far removed from all unfocused and moody existence....     When the storm is howling outside the cabin, then I remember "our storm," or I take a quiet walk along the Lahn River, or I dream about a young girl in a raincoat, her hat pulled down over her large, quiet eyes, who entered my office for the first time, shy and reserved, giving every question a short reply--and then I transpose the picture to the last day of the semester--and then I know for sure, that life is history.        I hold you dear,        Your Martin     Inevitably, Arendt rebels against the constraints of their forbidden love and complains that she is being ignored; Heidegger pleads guilty but tries to make her understand his need for isolation to work on the project that eventually became Being and Time . Then, in a coup de force, Arendt announces in early 1926 her decision to leave Marburg for Heidelberg, where she will finish her studies with none other than Karl Jaspers, a decision Heidegger approves of. Yet six months later Arendt's will breaks and she writes to him again, and he responds by suggesting another meeting. For the next two years they stage rendezvous in hotels or small towns whenever he is traveling, thereby avoiding detection. More letters, pictures, and poems pass between them, along with suggestion from Heidegger for further reading (especially Knut Hamsun). (Continues...) Excerpted from The Reckless Mind by Mark Lilla. Copyright (c) 2001 by NYREV, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Chapter I Martin Heidegger Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspersp. 1
Chapter II Carl Schmittp. 47
Chapter III Walter Benjaminp. 77
Chapter IV Alexandre Kojevep. 113
Chapter V Michel Foucaultp. 137
Chapter VI Jacques Derridap. 159
Afterword: The Lure of Syracusep. 191
Acknowledgmentsp. 217