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Hitler and Philosophy

Updated on July 17, 2014
Hitler contemplating Nietzsche's bust.
Hitler contemplating Nietzsche's bust. | Source
Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger | Source
Hitler visits Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth Foerster.
Hitler visits Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth Foerster. | Source

Philosophy and Tyranny

The atrocious acceptance of the Nazi system by many respected German philosophers in the 1930s' and 40s' has given rise to endless commentaries. The best known essay may well be Hannah Arendt's New York Review of Books article on Martin Heidegger's 80th birthday. Arendt had engaged in a protracted amorous affair with Heidegger when she was his student but the main claim she makes in this essay is not confined to Heidegger: she claims that all philosophers have always shown a characteristic pathology that tempts them to submit to tyrannical authority. This echoes a point often made, ironically, by Friedrich Nietzsche - a favorite of the Nazi ideologues who may have misunderstood him. To be precise, Niertzsche leveled this charge at certain philosophers, Plato mainly, although the psychological profile of the "philosopher" in Nietzsche may also ground a broader claim. Arendt's claim, thus, echoes a Nietzschean claim. Nietzsche's status as a philosopher - as distinguished from an essayist, aphorist, even aphorist - is controversial. In the Anglo-American recent tradition, Richard Rorty and Alexander Nehamas are among very few trained students of philosophy who have studied Nietzsche's thought as a philosophic compendium. Nietzsche, in turn, could point back to Roman or Hellenistic antiquity to substantiate his claim about philosophers: Diogenes Laertius rehashes all kinds of tales, which may or may not be factually attested, about Socrates and Plato - and about many others besides in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers - and it is in this context that the slur "Dionysiocolax" is said to have been used to charge philosophers with being "flatterers of tyrants."

The slur has a straightforwardly obvious etymology: Dionysius was the tyrant of Syracuse, a Greek colony, whose invitation to set up a utopian political system Plato had accepted with alacrity. Thus, Plato is the flatterer of Dionysius and, broadly, philosophers are such. Clearly, the thinking that generalizes to all philosophers is fallacious; the sample is inadequate and hasty generalization is committed (there is also a fallacy of weak induction called "inadequate sample" but it is not surprising that more than one overlapping fallacies are committed in a piece of argumentation.) It is systematically vague at what point the sample becomes adequate for inductive generalization. Laertius, like Arendt much later, might have thought that the tendency of philosophers to jump to the occasion of serving strong leaders and dictators is all too obvious in example after example. Arendt's painful experience included a wide range of German philosophers who embraced Hitlerite ideology and collaborated with the regime toward removing non-Aryan, mainly Jewish, university colleagues most of whom tragically perished in the ensuing Holocaust.

An inductive generalization or extrapolation is not a good argumentative strategy in this case. The possibility arises that another fallacy - called "accident" - is perpetrated. It might be an inessential feature of the "philosopher" that such a person supports tyranny. The connection, if any, between what "philosophers" do and this apparent trend is not apparent. It may well be, as it was, that majorities sadly collaborate with tyrannies - do not resist and even work toward promoting the regime's ends. Philosophers may be like someone else in this respect. The question, of course, arises as to why philosophers, who know better, do what others, less alert to conceptual and moral subtleties, do. Still, the essential connection between this trend, if there is such a trend, and the vocation of philosophy is missing and there is a burden to produce it.

It is not accidental that the predecessor of Arendt's claim is Nietzsche. One of the teachings Nietzsche advanced is that it is precisely some characteristic pathology that acts when what is on the surface looks like some highfalutin activity - the activity of the "philosopher" or the "artist" or the "scientist" or the "religious teacher." The "digestion" dictates: one whose digestion is weak will surely identify himself with a philosophy that abhors rich nourishment - or strong pleasures for that matter. What seems to be driven by clinical, disinterested reasoning is actually doing the driving; the arguments are the instruments with which the underlying "will to power" hammers its dictates - because this will to power will rather will nothingness than will nothing at all; and this will is exercised even against one's self, causing phenomena like self-discipline and ascetic withdrawls, if it cannot be applied against others.

Nietzsche famously distinguished between two types of character which, between them, bisect, more or less, the whole human population: the Slave Morality and the Master Morality. Although Nietzsche did not count any racial group as presumptively falling under the Master type and he abhorred Anti-Semites, the Nazi ideological machinery, and Hitler himself astutely, borrowed this terminology. It is profoundly ironic that Arendt's reflections on typical pathologies echo a Nietzschean mode.

On its face, Nietzsche's approach is logically flawed. A common fallacy known as ad hominem (the variety called "circumstantial") seems to be at work here. This is a fallacy of (ir)relevance: at least one premise in an argument lacks a relevance-connection with the conclusion that is presumably established. Whether David Hume was a gluttonous overweight creepy-looking fellow (Rousseau thought so) is irrelevant to evaluating his arguments against religion. Even if it is true that the thinker is also drawn imperceptibly but irresistibly toward underlying instinctive urges, the work of philosophic analysis is to evaluate the logical structure of claims, to check theories for coherence and other features, and to assess arguments - not an easy matter. Let someone long after defending tyranny, for instance: this is irrelevant to how good or bad the theoretical defense is. If we end up with a successful defense of tyranny - not likely! - this would not be philosophy's problem, by the way. We may agree to suppress the theory, for a higher purpose, but this does not make the theory bad. And, incidentally, is our decision to suppress the theory for a higher good itself justified? Assessing such justifications, once again, IS a matter of philosophic claim. And so on - if we continue with assessing what is to be done if justification of suppression fails... On this view, philosophy is more like a diagnostic tool - not to be confused with the illness or with the misuses to which it may be subjected. If the diagnostician turns the instrument into a blunt weapon, he is not at that point acting AS a (or, in Latin, qua)) diagnostician. If the user of the diagnostic instrument is acting out, in the process of diagnosing, any kind of personal perversion - this is surely irrelevant to evaluating what the instrument itself is all about.

The word "philosopher" is used broadly sometimes. We ought to be clear about this. Nietzsche himself, by virtue of his good old-fashioned education, is not guilty of equivocating on this. He takes for "philosophers" those the tradition presented as such. Nietzsche has a separate category for other types he attacks - religious figures, for instance - and rightly so. Jesus, or Buddha for that matter, are not philosophers but Socrates is. This is because Socrates, based on what we are told about him, was engaged in the kind of analysis of claims and theories, which constitutes philosophical analysis. Socrates was notorious, for instance, for the skillful readiness with which he could construct a counterargument to a given view - showing that mutually contradictory propositions can be correctly inferred from the given theory: if a conjunction of statements (a theory) entails "absurdity" then it cannot be true (on the classical or standard logic.) So, the conjunction (the theory) must be false: this means that at least one of the conjuncts must be false (by a logical rule of inference usually called "DeMorgan's law.") The other party, however, may not be able to give up ANY one of the propositions that conjunctively constitute the theory. This is it! Defeat is declared. Whether Socrates is an idle malingerer of a frog-looking bufoon, followed by a horde of gaping and ambitious youths, is irrelevant to what just happened. If Plato was attracted to Socrates on account of the old Satyr's appearance, this makes no difference: Plato would be a fool to think that DeMorgan's law (he didn't call it so, of course) is a valid rule of inference because the handsome Socrates thought so!

And yet, we do experience a profound sense of distress when we find in history so many instances of the brightest minds that are drawn to provide cover for tyrannical systems and for the atrocities such systems perpetrate. Even more alarmingly, the philosophic theory itself may bear affinities with - and, so, can be used by - the ideology of the tyrannical system. This has been said of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who had been Arendt's amorous teacher in Freiburg.

Philosophic Thought and Political Ideology

Is Political Ideology, deep down, the same as Philosophic Analysis?

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Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt
Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt | Source
Hitler's philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg.
Hitler's philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. | Source

Philosophy and Tyranny

Why was Plato "attracted" to tyranny? If the text titled "Seventh Epistle" is authentic, Plato himself went over the story of his ill-fated trip to Syracuse on the avid expectation that the tyrant Dionysius would implement a utopian political system. This is the system advocated and defended in Plato's long dialogue, The Republic. In that dialogue, Plato's Socrates audibly despairs of meeting the preconditions for implementing the utopia, unless "philosophers become kings" or those now in power embrace the philosophic way. It is understood that the tyrant gives up his tyrannical ways in this process of conversion. (We are using the word "tyrant" and its derivatives negatively throughout, as the case is in English. In Plato's language, the word actually had positive connotations when referring to benevelont sages-rulers of the past but it had negative connotations when referring to rulers in certain others, more current, historical contexts.) Plato's utopia requires rather a ruler, or rather group of rulers, who are "benevolent" in the sense that they do not place their own interests above the common good but work for the common good instead. The system is paternalistic and Enlightenment Liberalism abhors that. All this means that Plato's affair is actually a bad example: when Dionysius did not actually give up his "tyrannical" ways, Plato quit and, legend has it, he was kidnapped by pirates on the voyage back to Athens - and had to be ransomed. Notice also that it is not relevant if Plato is lying about what happened, etc: it is the theory we are evaluating. If Plato had become corrupted by the entourage of power he found and ended up as a flatterer of the tyrant, he would NOT be implementing the theory! The hypocrite is, by definition, a bad case for evaluating what this same hypocrite professes. In my experience, this point is usually missed - there may be evolutionary reasons that precipitate us headlong into attacking something here without thinking carefully.

But, what if the theory itself blesses tyranny? Even if the Third Reich lacked legitimate philosophic support (ideology and rhetoric are not to be confused with philosophic analysis), it cannot be ruled out a priori that such support might have been forthcoming. Some think that Heidegger's philosophy actually fits the bill. Now, it would be emotionally satisfactory to think that any such philosophic theory has to be a bad theory. (Incidentally, we are placing our hopes, again, in philosophy to show this.) Nevertheless, we have no proof that this must be the case - that, of necessity, any "evil" theory would have to be a "bad" theory. Is this philosophy's fault? I cannot see why this is the case but many outraged authors - including some who have studied philosophy - take this view.

Would the alternative be to eschew philosophy as such? Of course, this would not make the problem go away: why are there good theories available (if they are) to support evil? This would be the problem - which we can push under the rug but without making it really disappear. Oddly, one teaching attributed to Socrates (echoing throughout many Platonic dialogues) denies that this can happen: Goodness and Knowledge are identical deep down, according to this view, which is, interestingly, known as the Socratic Paradox of Knowledge. It is presumed a paradox inssofar as empirical reality seems to refute it even if we cannot find flaws in the overall argument. A problem here is that we could be tempted to keep begging the question: any theory that supports evil must be a "bad" theory - it cannot be otherwise since all theories that are known to be "good" are also good morally. (No equivocation here - we have separate standards for assessing moral good and theoretical good as an attribute of theories.)

A related problem is that we are assuming that we have pre-theoretical notions about what is "evil." We reject and denounce "evil" systems and we then turn against the theories that support them. Of course, a good moral theory could not be supporting an evil system. Bingo! Maybe we can avoid circularity here; what makes any MORAL theory that support evil bad is that it fails AS a moral theory. There is a problem with this, however. When we denounce the evil the theory supports, we are not taking our bearings from this theory itself. Clearly, to be passable, this theory cannot be supporting what IT assesses as evil. Then, the theory would be both supporting the system, as we assume, but also it could not possibly support it if it assessed as "evil" under its own lights. In that case, we really dealing with a theory that is bad - AS theory. Nevertheless, as we saw, two different notions of "evil" are involved. We attack the theory because it fails under the light of a view of evil that is independent of this theory. I am not hinting that we should go relativistic -I am only pointing out how this is a difficult issue and it remains such under scrutiny.

What does it mean to entrust a pre-theoretic notion of good and evil? Perhaps no such notions are conceivable - perhaps nothing can be grasped by language unless it is already theoretically inflected in the broad sense of "theoretic." Often, it is said that the moral agent should rather trust his or her "heart" or sentiments like empathy or sympathy, love, and so on... It is not clear how this view is not itself a theoretical view - such views have been abundant. Alternatively, such a view could be originating in prescriptions that are not themselves open to scrutiny or the prospect of rejection: this is the Divine Command Theory. "Love thy meighbor as you love thyself" might be such a command. What makes this approach different is that it is systematically cut off from philosophy - on at least one view of what is happening in this case. This type of theory might have prevented Heidegger from committing evil but it would not have saved his son if a verifiable divine source had commanded him to sacrifice that son - as the case is reported to have been with Abraham and Isaac. To be sure, Isaac's sacrifice is not let go through but as Kierkagaard, another philosopher, argued extensively, and rather successfully I think, this is not relevant. And it was Plato who penned that short dialogue about piety in which the eponymous problem known as the "Euthyphro dilemma" is presented.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has, at least in many cultural sub-groups, a type of the "Holy Fool" or "God's Fool." Catholocism, on account of its comprehensive institutional embrace of Reason through the Thomistic Synthesis, is rather cold to this type - with the celebrated exception of St Francis of Assizi. The Holy Fool, who often speaks truth to power, is morally insightful in direct proportion as he is emptied of the prideful pretenses of Reason. This view finds additional cover under the assumption that revealed religions present truths that are to be asserted as such although they are incomprehensible to human reason - but not to the divine mind, of course. I am not sure if the "Holy Fool" paradigm can work without this further assumption about more than one "kinds" of truth. The point then beecomes that this personage cannot possibly err in moral judgment - though this too might be understandable more readily as a matter of "God speaking through him." Cultivation of character traits or excellences, like unconditional love, culminates in this oracular agency. So, this is akin to what is referred to as Virtue Ethics.

The problem we saw earlier might kick back, though, once we move to the metaethical plateau and assess this theory too - even if we find good reason to reach an approving evaluation. Unless this move toward the metaethical is to be blocked too - or, better, if it is to be assimilated to what happens below: the right emotional cultivation, the right character traits through and through. How do we know that these ARE the right character traits? This is genuinely a faith view.

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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