Herewith a beguiling column from the recent Chronicle of Higher Education.
It would be nice to think that fields of academic study such as philosophy and political theory are innocent, and that one could teach them without the fear of breeding monstrosities. That comforting thought looks less reliable by the day, which is what prompted me to write a book called Dangerous Minds, about the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger on today’s far right. The very first (uncomfortably positive) review came from someone who is himself a dangerous mind: Greg Johnson, who runs a white-nationalist website called Counter-Currents, where he published the review. Among other repellant views, Johnson has argued that Jews like me should be expelled from the United States to their own ethnostate.
How could someone with these extremist views have anything to do with a humanizing discipline like philosophy? Yet Johnson holds a Ph.D. in philosophy — he wrote his doctoral thesis on Kant and Swedenborg — and has taught at the college level. Evidently, Kant’s moral egalitarianism left little impression on him.
Can one raise the largest questions in political theory and philosophy without opening a door to dangerous extremes? It has been known since Socrates, who practiced philosophy in the company of dubious figures like Critias and Alcibiades, that there is an uneasy relationship between the life of the mind and the potentially violent vortex of the political. Plato, too, played with fire by putting himself in the service of Sicilian tyrants, and he most likely wrote The Republic out of an awareness that potential tyrants are drawn to philosophy’s root-and-branch questioning of established social conventions. To this very day, there are people who read ancient texts not in spite of the fact that the ancient world embodied slavery, imperialism, and ruthless cruelty but on account of a fetishizing fascination with those very things.
To be sure, many of political philosophy’s direst effects are unintended. When he wrote On the Social Contract, Rousseau could not have anticipated that his most enthusiastic political disciples would eventually be guillotining those they considered deficient in Rousseauian virtue. We might say the same of Marx: He surely could not have imagined that murderous regimes from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea would invoke his authority for their own tyrannical purposes.Theory, it is clear, can produce monsters. The problem of the monstrous potential of theory persists when one turns to the 20th-century canon. In The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla judges a broad range of powerful contemporary thinkers — including Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Alexandre Kojève, and Michel Foucault — too easily tempted by hazardous lines of political thought. Schmitt was a Nazi who remains a favorite of the contemporary radical right. Benjamin flirted with notions of revolutionary violence and was attracted to Schmitt, as intellectuals on the left still are. Kojève didn’t think there was any incompatibility in principle between the modern project of universal recognition and Stalinist tyranny. Foucault welcomed revolutionary theocracy in Iran as a way of giving the finger to the liberal West. Nor has the political irresponsibility of some of their ideological entanglements put the slightest dent in the popularity of these thinkers.
One can’t be true to the vocation of political theory without engaging, both intellectually and pedagogically, with the most radical minds, but one must do so always with the vivid awareness that many of these thinkers did contribute to, even if they weren’t directly responsible for, the terror and atrocity committed by those they influenced. Of course, we could solve the problem by resolving only to teach irenic theorists such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Mill. It’s telling that even Mill himself would be mightily unhappy with that “solution.”
Nietzsche is particularly problematic. Undergraduates love him and hence are all too vulnerable to his seductive rhetoric. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche openly confesses his goal of titillating and enticing the young: “What thrills them is the sight of the zeal surrounding a cause and, so to speak, the sight of the burning match — not the cause itself. The subtler seducers therefore know how to create in them the expectation of an explosion …. Reasons are not the way to win over these powder kegs!” For generations, scholars of Nietzsche have tried to minimize or play down his dangerousness, but he remains a potent resource for sinister ideologies that are currently gaining ground.
This, after all, is a thinker who celebrates slavery as a necessary condition of genuine culture, and who regards moralities that privilege dominant castes as decidedly superior to moralities that presume that all members of a society possess an inalienable human dignity. A year ago, in an undergraduate course on politics and religion in the history of political thought, I assigned Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, a rich text with lots of thought-provoking ideas but also lots of truly ugly and offensive rhetoric. Sure enough, one of my students, having picked this text as the topic for his final essay, cited the book directly off a neo-Nazi website. Despite the scholarly efforts to cleanse Nietzsche of all meaningful connections to fascism, it’s no surprise that contemporary Nazis love this text. As Conor Cruise O’Brien put it (writing in the late 1960s), it is not “consoling to think of what some future readers of this master may have in store for us” — as if he could already see today’s alt-right on the horizon.
Nietzsche himself anticipated this problem when he wrote that “the sort of unqualified and utterly unsuitable people who may one day come to invoke my authority is a thought that fills me with dread. Yet that is the anguish of every great teacher of mankind: he knows that, given the circumstances and the accidents, he can become a disaster as well as a blessing to mankind.”Academics have been too easy on Nietzsche, either ignoring his ultra-reactionary politics or downplaying the relevance of that politics to his real philosophy. This lenient treatment might be related to the fact that Western liberal societies for the past 70 years have enjoyed the luxury (which perhaps we haven’t sufficiently appreciated!) of the far right being utterly discredited. But there are ample indications that this happy respite is over, as Nazis and fascists emerge horror-movie-like from the grave in which we thought they were buried.
Leo Strauss apparently doubted whether it was right for Nietzsche to write down, let alone publish, his dangerous thoughts. Before rushing to assume that Strauss is exaggerating the hazards of exposing the young to Nietzsche’s inflammatory texts, consider Richard B. Spencer, America’s most notorious white nationalist. Spencer attended three great universities, the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Duke University; by his own account the decisive turning-point on the path that led him to celebrity with his “Hail Trump” speech soon after Trump’s election was a grad seminar on Nietzsche that he took at Chicago.
We would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t take with utter seriousness the Spencer trajectory, starting with Nietzsche seminars in grad school and ending with the torchlit white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville. To be sure, not many people taking graduate classes on the thought of Nietzsche will turn into neo-fascists. It doesn’t follow from that fact that there aren’t things in Nietzsche’s work capable of turning people into neo-fascists. When I teach a seminar on Nietzsche, is there any guarantee that a future Richard Spencer won’t be in the room?
If Nietzsche is a problem, Heidegger almost certainly poses an even bigger one, as wave after wave of Heidegger scandal demonstrates beyond question that he was far more compromised, politically and morally, than his apologists would have us believe. The scholar Emmanuel Faye has controversially suggested that the hundred volumes of Heidegger’s philosophy should be moved from the philosophy section in university library stacks to the history of Nazism section.
That would be the wrong response, though much of what Faye writes on the subject of Heidegger is on target. If we’re to teach these thinkers — and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we stop doing so — we must teach them without sanitizing or whitewashing their most illiberal and appalling ideas. Nietzsche and Heidegger are towering thinkers, and we would be failing to educate our students about the summits of Western philosophy if we cut them out of the curriculum. Philosophy, from Plato to Spinoza to Rousseau to Marx, has always exposed the fundamental assumptions of established social and political life to radical questioning, and political theory would cease to be what it is and what it should be if radical thinkers (of both the left and the right) are deemed too dangerous to teach. We are not only citizens who have a duty to exercise prudent judgment about civic life; we are also human beings who have a duty to live fully reflective lives. While our vocation as citizens must make us wary of the dangerous minds in our theory canon, our vocation as reflective human beings requires dialogue with them. We must teach these books — but that doesn’t mean that we should teach them without anxiety.
The liberal arts are upheld by a kind of faith that engaging with ideas will indeed contribute to a more liberal, more generous-minded, moral consciousness. As a scholar and an educator, I’m not ready to surrender that faith. But political theory always has the potential to generate havoc or worse. The stakes are particularly high in a political world as unsettled as ours: where technological change is so rapid; where the boundaries between different societies and cultures are being renegotiated on an epic scale; where the internet unleashes political passions so little inhibited by norms of civility; and where the most powerful man on the planet is someone as volatile as Donald Trump.
Given all this, how can my confidence in the vocation of theory not be shaken a little (or more than a little) when I read the chilling words that conclude Greg Johnson’s review of my book?
[Beiner] did not anticipate what would happen if his book fell into the hands of Rightist readers like me. Dangerous Minds … is a very helpful introduction to Nietzsche and Heidegger as anti-liberal thinkers. Thus I recommend it highly. And if I have anything to say about it, this book will help create a whole lot more dangerous minds, a whole new generation of Right-wing Nietzscheans and Heideggerians.
Commitment to a liberal education doesn’t guarantee a commitment to liberalism. Higher education in a liberal society involves teaching great representatives of the liberal tradition as well as great enemies of liberalism. Is that the glory of liberal pedagogy, or is it its Achilles heel?
Ronald Beiner is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right, published earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press.