Saturday, March 07, 2015

Strauss, Jonas, and Heidegger's Nazism

As I have indicated in my posts on Will Altman's German Stranger, I see his claim that Leo Strauss was a Jewish Nazi as wildly implausible.  And yet, Altman does point out the strange and disturbing refusal of Strauss to be clear and emphatic in his rejection of those like Martin Heidegger who embraced Nazism.  Strauss could have followed the example of his friend Hans Jonas, who joined the British army in World War Two to fight the Nazis, and who publicly expressed after the war his disgust with Heidegger's support of Nazism and his refusal to recant his Nazism for the rest of his life.  Strauss chose not to do this.  Why?

This contrast between Strauss and Jonas can be seen by comparing Strauss's "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism," Jonas's "Heidegger and Theology," and Jonas's "Taking Leave of Heidegger" (chapter 11 of his Memoirs).  Both Strauss and Jonas were Jewish students in Germany who came under Heidegger's influence.  Both left Germany in 1933 and ended up teaching in the United States.  Both had to decide how to respond to Heidegger's joining of the Nazi Party in 1933 and what this meant for the relationship between philosophy and Nazi tyranny.

Strauss was remarkably hesitant about saying much about this in public.  His fullest account of Heidegger was in a lecture ("Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism") that was never published in his lifetime.  It was first published in 1989 in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, as edited by Thomas PanglePangle reports that the lecture seemed to have been delivered sometime in the 1950s, and that the text found in Strauss's papers was a transcript of a tape recording done by students, with some hand-written corrections by Strauss.  Altman suggests that Strauss intentionally refused to publish this during his lifetime for fear that it would reveal too much about his affinity for Heidegger's thought.

Strauss observes:
"All rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power.  One may deplore this, but I for one cannot bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate.  I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism.  Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.  But here is the great trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger."
"The only question of importance, of course is the question whether Heidegger's teaching is true or not.  But the very question is deceptive because it is silent about the question of competence--of who is competent to judge.  Perhaps only great thinkers are really competent to judge the thought of great thinkers.  Heidegger made a distinction between philosophers and those for whom philosophy is identical with the history of philosophy.  He made a distinction, in other words, between the thinker and the scholar.  I know that I am only a scholar.  But I know also that most people who call themselves philosophers are mostly, at best, scholars. . . ."
 ". . . A famous psychologist I saw in Europe, an old man, told me that in his view it is not yet possible to form a judgment about the significance as well as the truth of Heidegger's work.  This work changed so radically in its intellectual orientation that a long time will be needed in order to understand with even tolerable adequacy what this work means.  The more I understand what Heidegger is aiming at, the more I see how much escapes me.  The most stupid thing I could do would be to close my eyes or to reject his work."
 "There is a not altogether unrespectable justification for doing so.  Heidegger became a Nazi in 1933.  This was not due to a mere error of judgment on the part of a man who lived on great heights high above the low land of politics.  Everyone who had read his first great book and did not overlook the wood for the trees could see the kinship in temper and direction between Heidegger's thought and the Nazis.  What was the practical, that is to say, serious meaning of the contempt for reasonableness and the praise of resoluteness except to encourage that extremist movement?  When Heidegger was rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, he delivered an official speech in which he identified himself with the movement which then swept Germany.  Heidegger had not yet dared to mention that speech in the otherwise complete lists of his writings which appear from time to time on the book jackets of his recent publications.  In 1953 he published a book, Introduction to Metaphysics, consisting of lectures given in 1935, in which he spoke of the greatness and dignity of the National Socialist movement.  In the preface written in 1953 he said that all mistakes had been corrected. . . ." (29-31)

In his use of the first person singular pronoun--"I"--Strauss is emphatic in declaring that he cannot cling to the rational liberal philosophic position since it has been shown to be inadequate.  Only a great thinker could develop a defense of liberalism, but "the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger," who is a Nazi.  While Strauss confesses that as a mere scholar--and not a true philosopher--he might not fully understand Heidegger, it would be stupid for him to reject Heidegger's work.

Moreover, in contrast to many scholars who claimed that Heidegger's Nazism was a mistake in his political judgment that had no connection to his philosophizing, Strauss insists that anyone who read Being and Time carefully could see "the kinship in temper and direction between Heidegger's thought and the Nazis."  Strauss thus implies that he saw that kinship from the beginning, and that the philosophizing of the "only great thinker of our time" supports Nazism.  Strauss also notes that even with the changes in Heidegger's thinking after World War Two, Heidegger saw no reason to change his mind about the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.

Jonas agreed with Strauss's assessment of Heidegger as "the most profound thinker of our time" and "the most important, original philosophical thinker of my era."  But in contrast to Strauss, Jonas stated his deep disappointment that Heidegger's philosophizing did not save him from being taken in by the Nazis:
"Given Heidegger's influence on me, his behavior was a cruel and bitter disappointment, not only in him as a person but also in the power of philosophy to arm people against such folly.  In the originality of his thought, Heidegger remains a powerful figure in intellectual history, a pathbreaker who opened up new territory.  That the most profound thinker of our time fell in with the goose-stepping brown-shirted battalions struck me as a catastrophic failure on the part of philosophy, as a disgraceful moment in world history, as the bankrupting of philosophical thought.  At the time I cherished the notion that philosophy could preserve us from such things, could fortify our minds.  I was even convinced that dealing with the most lofty and important matters ennobled human beings and improved their souls.  And now I realized that philosophy had failed to do this, hadn't protected this mind from the error of paying tribute to Hitler. . . . The behavior of all the fellow travelers, the turncoats, the quislings could be blamed on stupidity, blindness, weakness, cowardice, but that the most important, original philosophical thinker of my era fell into line was an unbelievable blow to me--personally and professionally." (Memoirs, 187)
Why did Strauss refuse to write a statement like that?

In contrast to Strauss who saw an intellectual defense of Nazism in Heidegger's Being and Time Jonas says he was surprised when some of his friends told him that he should have seen the early signs of Nazism in Heidegger's philosophical writing.  But once Heidegger identified himself as a Nazi, Jonas says that he broke with Heidegger's philosophy, and he refused to meet with Heidegger, until there was a brief meeting in 1969.

Jonas's public break with Heidegger came dramatically in 1964.  An international conference on hermeneutics at Drew University was organized to study the influence of Heidegger's philosophizing on the language of Protestant theology.  Heidegger himself was to give the keynote address, but when he had to withdraw because of illness, the conference organizers invited Jonas to take Heidegger's place, with the expectation that Jonas would speak for Heidegger.

Jonas's lecture--"Heidegger and Theology"--caused an uproar at the conference and around the world, because Jonas warned that these Christian theologians were making a big mistake in not recognizing that although Heidegger's language echoed the language of the Bible, Heidegger's thought was pagan in denying divine transcendence of the world and secularizing Christian language.

Jonas also warned that Heidegger's Nazism was necessarily anti-Christian:
"But as to Heidegger's being, it is an occurrence of unveiling, a fate-laden happening upon thought: so was the Fuhrer and the call of German destiny under him: an unveiling of something indeed, a call of being all right, fate-laden in every sense: neither then nor now did Heidegger's thought provide a norm by which to decide how to answer such calls--linguistically or otherwise: no norm except depth, resolution, and the sheer force of being that issues the call.  But to the believer, ever suspicious of this world, depth may mean the abyss, and force, the prince of this world.  As if the devil were not part of the voice of being!  Heidegger's own answer is, to the shame of philosophy, on record and, I hope, not forgotten." (Phenomenon of Life, 247)
In the footnote to this passage, Jonas quoted from one of Heidegger's speeches as rector at the University of Freiburg: "Not doctrines and 'ideas' be the rules of your being.  The Fuhrer himself and alone is the present and future German reality and its law.  Learn ever deeper to know: that from now on each and every thing demands decision, and every action, responsibility. Heil Hitler!"

Jonas also warned about the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian implications of Heidegger's claim that man is "the shepherd of being."  "Apart from the blasphemous ring which this use of the hallowed title must have to Jewish and Christian ears: it is hard to hear man hailed as the shepherd of being when he has just so dismally failed to be his brother's keeper" (Phenomenon of Life, 258). 

Jonas's lecture was the subject of a front-page article in the New York Times, which described the international controversy that Jonas had provoked among Christian theologians who wanted to appropriate Heidegger's philosophizing.  Such publicity brought invitations from German universities for Jonas to speak about this.  So he went on a lecture tour around Germany, and Heidegger told his friends that Jonas had betrayed him.

I first heard about this controversy in 1973, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  I audited a course in the Divinity School on Being and Time taught by a Lutheran theologian, who spent most the semester criticizing Jonas's lecture and trying to persuade us that Heidegger's philosophizing should be adopted by Christian theologians.

Strauss could have done something like this.  He could have given public lectures warning people against Heidegger's mistakes.  But he chose not to do this.

Although Jonas offered no assessment of Strauss's response to Heidegger's Nazism, Jonas did claim in his Memoirs that "Strauss had been an early supporter of Mussolini, before he turned anti-Semitic" (161). 

In 1969, Jonas decided that, with Heidegger approaching his 80th birthday, he needed to finally have a personal encounter with Heidegger to try to achieve some reconciliation.  They met for a brief conversation in Zurich.
"Actually our meeting consisted for the most part of a brief exchange of memories from our time in Marburg, while the matters that were of decisive significance to me weren't mentioned.  If I'd hoped that anything would be said about the events after 1933, about the fate of the Jews in Germany, about my mother's death, I was bitterly disappointed again.  With this meeting I put to rest my inner struggle over my relationship to Heidegger, but any clarification on his part, let alone a world of regret, was not to be.  What had come between us for good would remain shrouded in silence." (Memoirs, 193)
Later, George Anastaplo told the story of trying to arrange a meeting between Jonas and Strauss in Annapolis, Maryland, sometime after 1969.  He reported that Strauss refused to meet with Jonas because he had met with Heidegger.  Anastaplo often told this story to indicate how adamant Strauss was that no one should have any contact with Heidegger because of his Nazism.  But it seems to me that Jonas's repudiation of Heidegger's Nazism was much clearer and emphatic than Strauss's.

Moreover, unlike Strauss, in turning away from Heidegger's existentialism as a Gnostic dualism and nihilism, Jonas turned toward an alternative--an evolutionary biological naturalism in which an understanding of the psychophysical unity of human biological nature constituted a middle ground between materialism and idealism.  Jonas elaborated his philosophical biology in The Phenomenon of Life, which included his "Heidegger and Theology" essay.  In the Foreword to that book, he explained the main theme of his biological naturalism:
"Accordingly, the following investigations seek to break through the anthropocentric confines of idealist and existentialist philosophy as well as through the materialist confines of natural science.  In the mystery of the living body both poles are in fact integrated.  The great contradictions which man discovers in himself--freedom and necessity, autonomy and dependence, self and world, relation and isolation, creativity and morality--have their rudimentary traces in even the most primitive forms of life, each precariously balanced between being and not-being, and each already endowed with an internal horizon of 'transcendence.'  We shall pursue this underlying theme of all life in its development through the ascending order of organic powers and functions: metabolism, moving and desiring, sensing and perceiving, imagination, art, and mind--a progressive scale of freedom and peril, culminating in man, who may understand his uniqueness anew when he no longer sees himself in metaphysical isolation." (ix)
According to Jonas, "Heidegger never brings this question about Being--how it is, namely, that Being contains and maintains the human and what it thereby reveals about itself--into correlation with the testimony of our physical and biological evolution" (Mortality and Morality, 48).

Jonas's evolutionary biological naturalism has stimulated much of my thinking as expressed in the last paragraph of Darwinian Natural Right:  
"The idea of Darwinian natural right offers us one way of understanding our human place in nature.  We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits.  We are animals.  As animals, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness.  We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world.  We are a unique species of animal, but our distinctively human traits--such as symbolic speech, practical habituation, and conceptual thought--are elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals.  Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals.  So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it.  We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away.  We come from nature.  It is our home." (275)
Strauss comes close to this thought in this sentence from "What is Political Philosophy?":  "By becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith of the goodness of the world, whether we understand it as created or uncreated, which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind" (54).

The New York Times articles on Jonas and Heidegger can be found here and here.

Some of my previous posts on Strauss and Jonas can be found here, here, and here.

Posts on Heidegger's Nazism can be found here and here.


clifford said...

Isn't Strauss's refusal to attack Heidegger as openly as Jonas does is that Strauss still credits Heidegger's destruction as the means to recover what was lost regarding Ancient thought.

Xenophon said...

In Strauss's correspondence with Gershom Scholem he makes a nasty but amusing remark about Jonas. I'm quoting from memory but something like this: "Jonas is going around telling the world he's a philosopher. If he's a philosopher I'm going to take up making pants."