Saturday, June 26, 2010

Teaching Heidegger in Athens

Heidegger has a fine sense of aesthetics (see "Wozu Dichter?"- What are poets for?), but his politics were overtly, crushingly, genocidally fascist. Since the standard justification for Heidegger’s Nazism is that he was a philosopher in the clouds (Aristophanes’ comedy lasts even to this day), became a “tool of Nazi ideology” and returned to the clouds – see here – this post will offer two comments which underline his thoroughgoing politics.

In The Essence of Truth: on Plato's cave-metaphor and the Theaetetus (1943 – see here), Heidegger emphasizes a conception of Greek association or the polis to oppose actual Athenian democracy (what one ordianarily today thinks of as a polis). Heidegger rightly identifies the common mistranslation of polis as state (it referred in Athens to the association of citizens, those who rowed and fought and assembled to discuss political issues rather than a modern kind of state, an armed forces and bureaucracy separated from the people), but only to make a bizarre feint. It is an anti-democratic association, the rule of one (technically, a despotism) to which he refers:

“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)

He also uses the term polis to indicate an originary or authochthonos conception of association, one extending before and pitted against the democracy.

In this, he emulates Plato in the Timaeus. There, Critias tells of an ancient powerful Athens, now forgotten as is Atlantis, ruled, "as Socrates told us yesterday" by philosopher-guardians. This story was told by a wise Egyptian to Critias’s grandfather – a tale handed down many times till the report by Critias, head of the Tyranny of the Thirty and Plato’s cousin. Critias here pretty likely speaks for Plato. That forgotten Athenian regime, as lost as Atlantis, and not the democracy, is the Athens Plato subtly recommends to his students to restore. See here. Similarly, in book 1 of the Laws, an Athenian stranger, representing an advanced culture, speaks with a Cretan who will give laws to a new colony and a Spartan about political practices. In contrast to Cretan and Spartan steeling youth against pain (an attempt to provide a fear-drug, a phobon pharmakon), he commends Athenian drinking parties as a pleasure-test. Who keeps his head can be trusted. But he never mentions Athenian democracy.

In par 13, Heidegger emphasizes the rule of such a leader with a coterie of philosopher-guardians who determine all the rules of society. This is a grim picture of a supposedly desirable “polis.” But Heidegger is not untrue to the word. At the new Acropolis Museum, there are friezes from the temples which preceded the Parthenon. At the beginning of the second floor, I stopped, with my students, to discuss one.

It is of two huge lions rending a fallen bull. They are startling. The scene is of a certain political reality. The stronger, as in Thrasymachus and the Athenian ambassadors at Melos in Thucydides, rend the weaker (if not for a prince, the Upanishads also say, the rich will roast the poor like fish on a spit). This is" nothing but the rule of the stronger" (Thrasymachus). At the side of the frieze, Heracles battles a three headed sea-snake. Heracles, the archaelogist Vassilis Chrysikoupoulos told me (see here and here), has the face of the tyrant Peisistratus trying to control the three social classes in Athens (h/t Jonilda Dhamo): force directed, in contrast, at a common good. Governing off and on from 465 to 425, Aristotle named Peisastraus one who ruled “temperately” within the older framework, more like a constitutional king than a tyrant (Constitution of Athens, part. 16). The third figure on the frieze is three smiling guiding spirits with the intertwined tails of a snake rising out of the earth. They hold (no longer visible) symbols of water, fire and air, the four elements, or nature.

What Heidegger (and Plato) set out to do – characteristic of twentieth centry fascism and, in America, a growing tyranny or executive power at the expense of law sharpened by Bush-Cheney – is to overthrow the democracy of the polis, the great development of human freedom. They also ignore any common good, and, in imagination, restore and accentuate the predatory rule of the one. A leader - a Fuehrer or Duce - expands power by rending his enemies.

Now Hegel wisely said that in the Greek polis as opposed to earlier despotisms, some are free. By this he meant that ordinary people get to decide, through deliberation and sometimes badly, on the great questions of peace and war and the distribution of wealth. Those decisions contrast with a putatively divinely inspired authoritarianism. Thus. the democracy contrasts with Plato’s rule of a tyrant advised by a wise man as in book 4 of the Laws (see my Do Philosophers counsel tyrants? here). Hegel sees the extension of freedom, through the unfolding of Christianity, the French Revolution, and the like, to all. More deeply, at the outset of the Philosophy of Right, he traces three moments of the free will (the will of each of us). One may be sunken in political circumstance, i.e. a slave who does not realize she is fully human; one may negate the particular realization abstractly (for instance, revolt imagining the overthrow of the old but without a solution, or take up a distant Christianity - "pie in the sky when you die"), or in the third moment, envision institutions in which one’s own freedom will be consistent with the freedom of everyone else. There is nothing more radical or genuinely freeing than this capacity, the third moment of the will, in each of us. Like Rawls' original position, but not as something different from our ordinary capacities, we can always move beyond the oppressions of seemingly promising regimes or figures. For Hegel, these three moments are available to each of us, through introspection. In this, Hegel’s argument in the Philosophy of Right resembles that of Hobbes, but extends Hobbes to genuine freedom rather than the latter's favored external servility.

The twentieth century witnesses the sharp extension of freedom (for instance, anti-colonialism, civil rights, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and communist revolution are all attempts, however uneven, to realize a regime of equal freedom). Heidegger is the enemy of this. The development in Heidegger (or Plato) moves backward to an intensified or aggravated rule of the stronger – the rule of one man - from democracy.

The rending in the marble is clear enough. The lions eat the bull. The elite, philosophically inspired by Plato or Heidegger, eats the masses (throws them away in death in war, uses them to sustain itself), though with external talk of philosophical or religious wisdom. Plato, of course, sought to create "lean dogs" - those who would hunt sometimes with the large dogs like Persia, but could also stand aside and would not be worth plundering. Heidegger's madness, though Platonic, is on a far grander scale.

For the masses, appealing to a God as Plato says in book 4 of the Laws is, for a legislator, wisdom. Heidegger’s talk in his "Rektoratsrede" (Rectoral Address) at Freiburg in 1933 about student-workers, soldiers and workers in a common German nation is rapacious. Heidegger envisions the conquest of everyone else by the German “Dasein” and within the German Dasein, everyone obeying, and being sacrificed to the whim of Hitler. Dasein is commonly misinterpreted as an existential condition of an individual (potentially someone who may achieve individuality). One doesn't quite want to take Heidegger in. But Heidegger himself thinks of Dasein as something with historicity, the German people, for whom an individual only has authentic existence in submitting himself. If one wants a seeming image of this process, the reversal of the democratic polis, the lions rending the bull (or in a frieze to the right and behind as one faces this image, another huge lion rends a bull) incarnates it.* But this image is a false, reductionist one. This triumph of fascism is not a natural process, like lions feeding. It is, instead, a social distortion, "nothing but the rule of the stronger," a murderous realization of the darkest human possibilities.

Tracy Strong sent me a useful letter on my first post on Plato, Heidegger, and Strauss called Mirrors here about Heidegger’s worship of Hitler’s beautiful hands. He points out that philosophically, Heidegger had a thing about the hands of Dasein in the world. The world is before the hand – vorhandene (later the nature that might be preserved in the return to the soil and the “planetary confrontation with technology,” an important idea) – and as tools, shaped to the hand (zuhandene). This second point would later be the starting point for his critical analysis of the “standing reserve,” the technology unleashed by liberalism and Marxism which falls into “the one” and leads to the “last men” (Nietzsche). But of course, it is hard, to make the standard harms of technology, beat the technology of the death camps which Heidegger cultivated and then refused to denounce.

Consider this artificial rending. The realm of the “last men,” one which preserves the lives of millions of people and gives each a chance to pursue her wellbeing, looks pretty good by way of contrast. The genocidal elitism in Heidegger’s politics deserves to be seen and attacked; it has little justification - only if one despises other peoples and even lesser people (including the German soldiers sacrificing themselves for the Fatherland, as Heidegger consciously reveres them) and is accompanied by a hypnotic reverence for the Fuehrer – something comic from the outside, though hardly during World War II – which is worth taking in. There, an ugly worship of “the right man” – the title of David Frum’s book on Bush – extends into obsessing even on Hitler's hands. Tracy provides a picture here circulated by the Nazis. In 1936, Heidegger met his student and teaching assistant Karl Loewith in Rome. Loewith was a reactionary Jew who, however, knew the score about both Hitler and Heidegger (see Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, 3:625). Loewith is, for instance, admirably critical of Being and Time compared to Strauss who bowed down before the one “great thinker of our time” * (see L My Life in German before and after 1933, Strauss, "An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism" in Pangle, ed., Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism). Heidegger told him that he admired Hitler's “delicate hands.” If the rending of the world in World War II, and the genocides against Jews, Slavs, Roma, gays and lesbians, and others can be forgotten or avoided by some aesthetic focus, then one might be able to feel one’s way into what Heidegger’s remark to Loewith means. It is easy to prefer the surviving lion’s claw in the body of the prone bull at the new Acropolis Museum. The lion is, after all, just a lion…

Here is Tracy’s note:

"On Hitler's hands: the Loewith quote is of course appalling. I have always wondered what that was MH's response or justification. MH had a thing about hands (Zuhandenheit; Vorhandenheit; etc...) There was, I have found out, a widely distributed picture of Hitler's hands, viz. the attachment. See here."

*The bull may also have some association with the older,matriarchal culture of the Cycladic islands.


Anonymous said...


cantueso said...

Well, I have been reading internet too long this morning and can't read any more. You start out saying that Heidegger had a fine sense for aesthetics. Indeed, he did! That's all there is to it. His texts are sound creations, almost abstract, and can be understood only like a melody or an abstract painting.

That is really awful, if it is not conscious and not generally admitted.
Anyway, in English he is not all sham, because the translators had to work hard for their pay and make sense of whatever there was.

Sorry, this has happened to me before on blogger. This is my Wordpress address

but your template reproduces it and adds an explanation in brackets and then rejects all of it, obliging me to sign in with my Google blog, which is however only a trial blog.

Post a Comment