Saturday, May 1, 2010

Breaking news: the cave, Heidegger's national socialism and Leo Strauss

       I will publish several posts on Heidegger’s 1943 The Essence of Truth: Plato’s cave Metaphor and the Theatetus.  The central citation from this essay, indicating the core of Heidegger’s vision of the “inner truth and greatness of national socialism” is:

“We must now see if what has been said can be verified from Plato’s own presentation.  With this intention we turn to the final section of book VI of the Republic.  In regard to the ‘state’ (as we somewhat inappropriately translate polis) and its inner possibility, Plato maintains as his first principle that the authentic guardians of human association in the unity of the polis must be those who philosophize.  He does not mean that philosophy professors are to become chancellors of the state, but that philosophers are to become phylaches, guardians. Control and organization of the state is to be undertaken by philosophers, who set standards and rules in accordance with their widest and deepest, freely inquiring knowledge, thus determining the general course society should follow.(paragraph 13, p. 73) (h/t Tracy Strong)

       Heideggerian existentialism is often thought to be a novel 20th century view.  Few speak of Heidegger in relation to Plato, let alone as a Platonist.  But Plato’s Republic was widely and unsurprisingly discussed by reactionary  philosophers as the Nazis approached power in Germany and became central, as in Heidegger, to a philosophical understanding of the National Revolution.  The French Heideggerians have barely caught up to Being and Time which was translated but a few years ago; American students of Heidegger, often shying away from Heidegger’s Nazism or burying it like Strauss himself – see his  "An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism" published by Thomas Pangle in The Restoration of Classical Rationalism only after Strauss had died – do not talk of any connection.  But the theme of Heidegger's Essence of Truth is that Plato's notion of aletheia is actually, in Heidegger’s particular philosophical translation, revealedness or unconcealedness (Verborgenheit).  One starts out with the flickering variety of beings in the cave and ascends through five stages to a grasp of Being.  In the last stage, the philosopher, ominously, returns to “liberate” the cave. 

         Heidegger’s account is unique (the subtlest commentary on the cave metaphor and what Socrates drastically modified by Plato – envisioning a hierarchy ruled by guardians - means about the idea of the good - to agathon - that anyone has given). Further, Heidegger continually speaks in this text of Dasein, of Being there, thrown in history, as the situation of the cave.  The cave in 1931 – four years after the publication of Heidegger's famous Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) , two years before Hitler’s Machtergreifung, was the name that Heidegger gave to what he had earlier called “falling into the one” (das Man).  This is the central metaphor of his decisive contribution about mortality.  Mortality, he says in Sein und Zeit, is everyone’s else’s, a statistic.  It is only when each of us recognizes her personal mortality – her being toward death – that an authentic life become possible. 

          In 1927, he identified ontological care and the call of historical destiny with this taking in of one’s own mortality.  One could then – and here is his already existing fascist activism, displayed in a demonstration he spoke at about Schlageter, a German soldier killed by the French occupiers of the Ruhr in 1923 – rise to this call, give one’s life for the Fatherland.  It is not far from this to his Rectoral address at Freiburg in 1933, his suggestion that the authentic being of every German is realized in the command of Adolf Hitler (to withdraw from the League of Nations, for example).  In America, to be authentically one’s own person is often identified with Emersonian or Thoreauvian individuality.  I am a great admirer of Thoreau’s determination to say “No” to injustice, to bondage and the American seizing of Mexico (the war of 1846-48). Nothing could be further from individuality  – including personal authenticity – than Heidegger’s peasant garb-rigged-up Nazism (he affected woodsiness and rural qualities). Nonetheless, Heidegger offers a brilliant philosophical account of what he is doing – including striking (when non-nationalist) aspects of poetry.  Heidegger deserves to be studied seriously and the insights differentiated from a nonetheless consistent national socialist activism.

        For instance, in his metaphor of a way though the woods (when one is making one’s way, philosophically, out of the cave), one reaches a “clearing.”  That is a counterpart in Heidegger to Plato’s ascent to the light.  The structure of Being and Time is, self-consciously and surprisingly, a precise parallel to or mirror of the cave and the turning toward the light of the Republic.

       Contrary to those defenders who argue that Strauss “became Strauss” though the study of the Greeks, his central idea about Plato – cultivating philosopher-tyranny or a philosopher-king who rules without laws as in the Republic – is strikingly, as these posts will show in detail, Heidegger.  See my “Do Philosophers counsel tyrants?,” Constellations, March 2009 here.


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