Prolific Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han offers unexpected insights into technological modernity.
We are living in a time of a political upheaval. The pervasive impact of ideology on our society has resulted in protests, violence, and even death. It feels like we are living in an alternate reality, hoping we will wake up from it. But it’s not that simple. Ronald Beiner’s new book, Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right, examines a collectivism that has captured our current moment. For Beiner, this collectivism has manifested in a form of populism, which is directly connected to Donald Trump and the alt-right movement. He claims that the rise in far-right ideology has drawn direct intellectual inspirations from two German philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).
In his treatment of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Beiner develops his most important theme, namely the appropriation of Nietzsche by the Nazis. As he points out, Hitler was so enamored with Nietzsche that he wished to be photographed in the archives of Nietzsche’s work. There is no doubt that Nazi ideology needed some kind of intellectual foundation in order to prove itself worthy of attention and authenticity. Beiner is correct to note that Nietzsche felt a need to topple over the existing order, to declare the significance of the Übermensch and of “eternal return,” and to proclaim his deep hatred of Christianity. But can we really say that Nietzsche himself gave life to Nazi ideology?
After Nietzsche’s death in 1900, his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche—who would, along with her husband, later become a member of the National Socialist Party—began promoting his work. She was a member of the National Socialist Party, along with her husband. She had taken care of her brother, who by the end of his life was a mute invalid, and took control of his writings as well, extracting from them ideological principles that suited the Nazi mindset. Of course, the question remains to what extent this was done, but it certainly presents a small problem when it comes to the dissemination and interpretation of Nietzsche’s work.
There is also a question of Nietzsche’s health, which Beiner only mentions in passing. How much of Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas can be trusted if they are made by a man whose being and health fluctuated between delirium and lucidity? Does this dialectic of health explain why he wrote so much? Beiner acknowledges a “radical pluralism in Nietzsche’s mode of thought,” and thinks that despite the variety of subjects and styles Nietzsche explored and utilized, there is a clear political perspective running through everything he wrote.
According to Beiner’s interpretation, Nietzsche “believes that the most impressive human culture is a “tragic” culture (a culture committed to a “pessimism of strength,” as he notably puts it).” He perceived that the world around him was falling apart, and that there was a real “crisis of European culture.” Beiner writes that “the idea of horizonlessness and the idea of replacing a banal, Christianity-shaped culture with a tragic and therefore noble culture—are obviously related in some way.” According to Beiner’s interpretation of Nietzsche, particularly in this regard, we see only a dramatic flair of “rhetorical hysteria.” The idea of “tragic” culture as related to “pessimism of strength” asserts that the only way life has any meaning is through drama, as long as it involves the rejection of Christianity and its commitment to meekness. As Beiner states, for Nietzsche, it is important not only to connect the perceived crisis of culture to Christianity but also to affirm a “return to an aristocracy-centered culture.”
He aims to prove (just like in his chapter on Heidegger) that Nietzsche is not a liberal and that his work is more appealing on the Right than on the Left. But if the institutions of higher learning have shown us anything, it is precisely that the academic left has embraced Nietzsche, especially in relation to his godlessness and rejection of Christianity. Beiner writes that “Nietzsche wanted creativity and open horizons for the heroic philosopher and wanted brutally closed and confined horizons for everyone else.” Beiner is correct. However, this is also a hallmark of the academic leftist mindset, which he fails to discuss. Most of our current problems of violence and protests have their origins in the continued propagation by the academy of identity politics and other leftist notions.
Perhaps, in the end, Nietzsche is a spokesman for neither Left nor Right but a philosopher who puts priority on a series of grandiose, aesthetic experiences that are taking place in a Pantheon of his own creation. As such, his ideas can appeal to any narcissistic and elitist group of people that are intent to live a life outside of any conception of morality. Although Nietzsche did not see any philosophical salvation in the form of the German Volk, his thought did have a great impact on Heidegger. Beiner correctly asserts and points out many connections between these two thinkers. They both clearly had great intellectual aspirations fueled by self-centeredness, but most importantly, Beiner writes that “for both, Plato and Socratic-Platonic rationalism are the ultimate culprits behind the movement of banalization and modernity’s relentless tendency to render human existence shallow.” In addition, Beiner notes that for Heidegger, the only and the last remaining culture to be “properly attuned to the question of Being…was the tragic culture of the pre-Socratic, pre-Platonic Greeks.”
Heidegger’s Dark Legacy
It is common knowledge that Martin Heidegger was a member of the National Socialist Party and that, most significantly, he refused to atone for those sins. As Beiner shows, he repeatedly evaded the questions of the Holocaust, whether he was misguided by Nazi ideology, and whether he truly believed that Germany needed a “spiritual renewal.” For Heidegger, this destiny of spiritual renewal is closely connected to a technological progress. In a clearly megalomaniacal way, Heidegger constantly wished to assert that the German People were part of a greater progress that moved far beyond any nation. This ideological fixation on progress is perhaps one of the reasons why he thought that Nazi ideology failed in this experiment.
No matter what means Heidegger wished to employ for the achievement of the grand enlightenment, one thing was clear: morality and ethics were not to play a big part (if any) in the scheme of Being. If the ethical act of human responsibility vanishes, so does the finiteness of man, who can then justify acts of evil, such as genocide.
When Heidegger’s friend, Rudolf Bultmann (a philosopher and theologian) said that he must write some kind of retractions of what he thought in the past, Heidegger only offered silence. When Stanley Rosen “informed his teacher Leo Strauss that he planned to go meet Heidegger…Strauss said words along the following lines: Fine, go have an intellectual discussion with him. But don’t shake his hand.”
Beiner’s aim in the section on Heidegger is to once and for all cement the fact that Heidegger, even if he was not a bad philosopher, was a terrible human being. This isn’t as much an argument against Heidegger (although, Beiner certainly does not shy away from deconstructing and attacking his philosophy) as it is against Heideggerians who continue to make excuses for him and who refuse to see the immorality of his actions. Most Heidegger scholars have developed an obsession and a fetish with their “Master” and have been subservient to his pagan royal stature. Although this is true of most academics who are experts on one philosopher, what makes the case of Heidegger-worship uniquely immoral is that the Heideggerians repeatedly choose philosophy over human dignity and the protection of human life. They are inebriated by Heidegger’s ideological potion and have chosen to envelop themselves with Dionysian power that Heidegger supposedly exudes.
Although Beiner doesn’t delve into Heidegger’s relationship to philosophy in terms of language, it’s important to single out that Heidegger’s metaphysics are based on language (which is also where Derrida gets his cue). According to Beiner, Heidegger is a “postmetaphysical thinker”—beyond traditional philosophical categories—because of his insistence that “different cultures or different civilizations” are measured not by any moral standard but according to “the question of Being.” Beiner continues, “On Heidegger’s view, we are today living in a civilization – liberal modernity – that represents the most woeful abyss with respect to the question of what it means for beings to be…one can imagine eternal nothingness.” Beiner counters that the world consists of “a plenitude of being,” which is something we can embrace.
Beiner doesn’t fault Heidegger for his emphasis on Being, but rather because he believes that Heidegger has misunderstood the concept. On this view, Heidegger fails as a philosopher (or a metaphysician) because he inextricably links Being with destiny. In other words, according to Beiner, there is nothing wrong with “plenitude of being” as long as it is not linked to Heidegger’s grand delusions of destiny rooted in pagan godliness.
But is this correct? In a similar vein as Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), Heidegger’s fiercest critic, I would argue that it is precisely his excessive emphasis on Being that makes Heidegger wrong. The notion that being begins in an inward anxiety which never sees the face or the dignity of the other is the pinnacle of his philosophy. But the more inward the turn away from the other person, the less the possibility of morality. For Levinas, the priority is always on the other person, and metaphysics derives its meaning not in Being itself but in the relations amongst and between beings. Such relations, by virtue of their other-direction, are grounded in a recognition of the inherent dignity of other persons. Heidegger’s focus on the “plenitude of being” prioritizes thinking, so it is hardly surprising that he invested himself in a denial of human life. Instead of connection and community, he chose fantastical and pagan notions of destiny and rootedness. On this warped view, the death of millions of Jews was merely “unfortunate” collateral damage in an otherwise “philosophically sound” search for German identity.
The Return of Fascism
Beiner wrote his book before the violent actions of Antifa and Black Lives Matter factions expanded and made rioting in many cities part of the American landscape. Antifa has been active for years now (as the journalist Andy Ngo has been reporting), but Beiner doesn’t spend any time discussing this form of fascism. Rather, he writes about far-right groups led by Richard Spencer and similarly conflicted personae. He puts Donald Trump in the same category because Spencer, at some point, expressed his support for Trump. Things change quickly in this superficial media world, and these days, Spencer is apparently endorsing Joe Biden. None of this truly matters though because Spencer and the relatively small number of those like him do not have the influence that they, and apparently Beiner, think they do.
According to Beiner, Trump is a demagogue. However, like many liberals today, he doesn’t actually give the reader solid examples as to why. In related territory, he claims that Brexit only seems to be a “reassertion of national sovereignty in a world that has globalized a bit too quickly for modern societies to cope with.” In reality, he claims, “there are signs that something much darker and more ominous is unfolding.” He uses the example of Steve Bannon’s appointment to the Trump administration. Of course, as we know now, this too has changed and Bannon is long gone.
There is no doubt that Trump has brought the notion of populism into the foreground of the American political landscape. But is populism bad? This is the question that Beiner doesn’t really answer. Like many before him (most notably Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, and Martha Nussbaum in The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis), Beiner incorrectly connects National Socialist populism to the desire of American people to assert their own identity and sovereignty. Those who support Trump are exhausted by the constant unfriendly criticism and deconstruction of the United States coming from people such as Rep. Ilhan Omar and Nikole Hannah-Jones, and wish to assert the notion that there is nothing wrong with patriotism and a country acting in its own interest.
People who support Trump and Brexit are not ignoring fast-paced globalization but are rejecting the globalist ideology, which aims to suppress the singular and unique identities of nations, and to economically destabilize powerful nations, such as the United States. The idea that anti-globalists are invariably crypto-Nazis is uninformed and wrong. What Trump has repeatedly done is assert the notion of Americanism. Beiner, like anyone else, is free to disagree with that, but jumping into the usual left-liberal trope and argument of reductio ad Hitlerum is tedious, especially given the fact that his careful analysis of Nietzsche and Heidegger is superb.
Without a doubt, we are experiencing a cultural crisis, but Beiner doesn’t offer deeper analysis of either the alt-right or several -isms that he views as highly problematic: “Brexit in England, Trumpism in the US, Putinism in Russian, Orbánism in Hungary, Erdoğanism in Turkey…” Of course, since this book is clearly more oriented toward a philosophical exploration of western liberalism, it would be too much to expect Beiner to cover every detail of our current crisis. However, since one of the primary thrusts of the argument is that we are falling into an ideological abyss akin to National Socialism, one cannot but wonder why did Beiner not engage further into the current problems. For example, making a claim that Trump is a demagogue and dangerous without engaging even slightly into Trump’s policy decisions renders Beiner’s argument weak.
Despite this, Beiner’s book does serve as an excellent starting point to discuss the place of Heidegger in the philosophical Pantheon. He calls for scholars and philosophers to evaluate whether worshipping Heidegger is more important than affirming the life and dignity of our fellow human beings. Beiner also invites us to contemplate the relationship between a philosopher’s moral character (or lack thereof) and his work, and whether the work is rendered useless in the face of personal immorality. In this sense, this is a unique and important book from a scholar who is clearly concerned with philosophy’s impact on our culture, even if the work is ultimately unable to convincingly connect those insights to contemporary politics.