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Being and Naziness

The authentic Heidegger.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By LEE SMITH
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Consider, in contrast, one of Heidegger’s notorious statements, in which he compared industrialized agriculture to the Holocaust. “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry,” Heidegger said in 1949, “the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.” Heidegger’s philosophy apparently led to an incapacity or unwillingness to distinguish the mechanized slaughter of six million Jews from the mechanized harvesting of industrial amounts of food. Heidegger’s philosophy seems to provide no sound basis for distinguishing, as Strauss does, between good regimes and bad ones. And indeed Heidegger saw no difference between Nazism, communism, and what he called Americanism—all of them, from his point of view, were virtually identical forms of nihilism.

Still, Strauss himself thought that Heidegger was perhaps the most important philosopher of the 20th century and a great reader and teacher of philosophical texts—texts that Heidegger taught his students to read as living sources of wisdom.

For Heidegger, to do philosophy is to ask the question, what is Being? Or, why is there something rather than nothing? From his point of view, philosophy took a wrong turn with Plato, who was not merely content to ask the question but attempted an answer, too. For Plato, according to Heidegger’s interpretation, Being is the immutable and eternal presence. This, argues Heidegger, is where metaphysics goes astray, leading Western civilization down a rabbit hole and away from Being, from authenticity. That there is no ground for Plato’s answer, no way to discern such a presence and thus the immutable truth, leads finally to nihilism, or the view, in Nietzsche’s words, that nothing is true and everything is permitted. But Heidegger seems to have thought that nihilism opened up a new horizon, once again offering man the opportunity to ask again authentically, what is Being? Heidegger’s attack on the Socratic philosophical tradition that led man down the wrong path seemed to open the possibility of a necessary and radical restructuring of Western civilization.

Here Heidegger was little different from many of his 20th-century peers in literature and the arts, like the poet Ezra Pound, a supporter of Mussolini who wrote that Western civilization was “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” The problem with modernity as they saw it was that it was nothing but a great leveling. The lawmakers, poets, and artists that any sane society would beg to rule over it were pushed aside in favor of the mobs. To the aristocrats of spirit like Heidegger, liberal democracy was aesthetically offensive and fundamentally corrupt. The only solution was to bring it down and start again, with the philosophers and poets in charge. Thus, for close to a century now, some of the West’s greatest minds have taught that the privilege, and duty, of the Western intellectual is to unmask and unmake the West, even—or especially—through violence.

For Heidegger the necessary agent of apocalypse and rebirth was the Nazis. For one of his French apostles it was Iran’s Islamic Revolution. “Industrial capitalism,” said Michel Foucault, had emerged as “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.” It leveled the playing field with the result that everyone was mediocre. It stripped the world of its primordial magic. The authentic life was to be found in the charisma of the great leader and his stark displays of power, the superman who transcended liberal democratic values.

In 1978 Foucault went to Tehran to cover the revolution for an Italian newspaper. “It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems,” wrote Foucault, who was later disappointed by the Iranian Revolution—as Heidegger eventually was disenchanted with Nazism. But what he found in the bright blood spilled in the streets of Tehran was a fulfillment of the orgiastic violence his work seemed to anticipate and celebrate.

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