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Whereas links between Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche and revolutionary extremism are debatable, Heidegger’s commitment to National Socialism is unquestionable. He saw Nazism as a revolution of the German people to throw off the alien values of liberalism and embrace their collective destiny in an encounter with global technology, the culmination of modernity. To a more radical degree than Marx and Nietzsche, Heidegger rejected everything that happened in history between the ancient Greeks and Germany’s destiny as valueless and totally alienating. He urged Germany to revive the pre-Socratic account of existence as violent strife and thereby resist the relentless working out of Platonic metaphysics in the form of technology, a dynamic for bringing all of existence under the control of rational efficiency. When Nazism failed, in Heidegger’s view by itself succumbing to the technological imperative, he abandoned hope in any political movement or people, forecasting instead a looming global encounter with technology in which all mankind would either become fodder for efficiency or emerge into a new epoch of closeness to all that is, the Shepherd of Being, an either/or choice or eschatological reversal resembling Marx’s dyad of bourgeoisie versus proletariat and Nietzsche’s dyad of Overman versus herd morality.
What explains this paradox? Behind it was the shift in our view of reality from Nature to History. The modern account of nature as matter in motion shattered the cosmologies of the ancients whereby man could pursue his natural fulfillment within the larger order of nature. Since the modern account of nature could not provide a teaching about the purpose of life beyond the materialistic, Hegel sought to find in the teleological progress of history a new third term that would provide a modern version of the classical cosmologies uniting the individual with the community and with the world. Seeing himself as the modern Plato, he believed that mankind as a whole was reenacting the Platonic ascent of the soul by progressing historically from its primitive origins into (echoing Plato’s Image of the Cave ) “the spiritual daylight of the present.”
The Philosophy of Freedom from Rousseau to Heidegger was not content with modern liberal individualism and materialism, but longed for a noble politics, and this longing for wholeness, while giving rise to brilliant cultural achievements, also fueled the catastrophes of violent revolution, tyranny and genocide on the far Left and Right from the French Revolution down to the present.
The Philosophy of Freedom from Rousseau to Heidegger launched a great protest against modern liberal individualism, inspired by the virtuous political community of the ancient Greeks. Hegel argued that the progress of history was gradually bringing about greater freedom and restoring our lost sense of community. But his successors Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger rejected Hegel's version of the end of history with its legitimization of the bourgeois nation-state. They sought to replace it with ever more utopian, apocalyptic and illiberal visions of the future: Marx's Socialism, Nietzsche's Overman, and Heidegger's commitment to Nazism. This book combines an exceptionally clear and rich study of these thinkers with a deep dive into the extent to which their views fed the political catastrophes of revolution, tyranny and genocide, including the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Nazis, Khmer Rouge, ISIS and populist nationalism, but argues that the Philosophy of Freedom remains indispensable for understanding today's world.
After Hegel the Philosophy of Freedom becomes increasingly illiberal. Whereas for Hegel the nation-state was a middle ground between the extreme Left and Right, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger embraced revolutionary visions of a future transformation of mankind in which the state vanishes. Hegel extolled classical Greece for its balance between democracy, Platonic philosophy and high culture. Nietzsche and Heidegger instead embraced the pre-Socratic view of existence as war – more suited to their revolutionary stances. They still agreed that historicism could provide a unified account of life rivaling Plato in scope. That belief was shattered by the Fact/Value distinction, which restored Rousseau’s dualism between nature and freedom and made it a permanent chasm. Belief in a comprehensive theory of history was further discredited by totalitarian movements like Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism which used it to deify tyranny. Academically, the Philosophy of Freedom fragmented into Critical Theory, Postmodernism and Hermeneutics. Politically, radicals like Lenin, Fanon, Shariati and Dugin adapted it to their extremist purposes. Given its arguably dangerous political implications, I conclude by asking: Was the Philosophy of Freedom a mistaken path that should never have been taken? Or might it still contribute to liberal education today?
The Philosophy of History’s search for a renewed sense wholeness originated in the paradoxes of Rousseau. He detested modern liberalism for producing the materialistic “bourgeois.” He wanted to restore the ancient concern with civic virtue and happiness to counteract this spiritual debasement. But because Rousseau accepted the modern account of nature as matter in motion, yielding appetitive individualism and identifying reason with utility, he could only promote the nobler dimension of human life as the freedom of will to oppose oneself to nature and reason altogether. This created a contradiction between nature and freedom, and undermined political authority by suggesting that no form of government could return us to our original natural happiness in a lost Golden Age, corrupted as we are by the progress of civilization. The Jacobins took this as a call to collectivist revolution and the return to “the Year One.” Alternatively, Rousseau extolled the Romantic notion of the solitary artist who seeks his happiness outside of civil society. These explosive tensions between natural happiness and political authority were grappled with by Rousseau’s successors, who sought ways of healing the division in man between his natural self and his free self.
Hegel’s successors adopt his historicism but they emphatically deny his claim that history has unfolded teleologically and is reaching its fulfillment. Marx launched the first assault on Hegel, from the Left. The next assault came from Nietzsche on the Right. Both rejected Hegel’s view that history’s harmonious and belligerent aspects of history unfolded together, culminating in the bourgeois nation-state. They view history as entirely oppressive to date, but envision a radical future transformation of mankind, abandoning the state. Nietzsche blamed Hegel for exposing the truth that values are historically time-bound and relative, paralyzing our capacity for commitment. He challenges us to draw upon history as inspiration for creating new horizons instead of being paralyzed by the dead hand of the past, guided by his two premises of the Will to Power and Eternal Recurrence. Through his prophet Zarathustra, he summons us to will the Overman into being to replace God, sparking a global war in the twentieth century between the Last Man of democratic herd morality and a new caste of rulers: not Marx’s socialist struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, but an antidemocratic struggle between masters and slaves, seen by some as a precursor to fascism.
Kant and Schiller each take up one side of Rousseau so as to heal the rift between nature and freedom: Kant stressing our capacity to repress our natural passions, Schiller stressing Rousseau’s Romanticism and the harmony of freedom and sentiment in aesthetic education. Yet the free self and the natural self remained divided within each individual. Hegel healed this division through a synthesis of Kantian moral rigor and Schillerian love of beauty in which the concept of human nature was jettisoned altogether in favor of a totally historicized understanding of human existence. Hegel also resolved the Rousseauan conflict between our lost natural happiness and the alienating qualities of civilization by relocating Rousseau’s Golden Age of the remote past to the final outcome of civilizational progress, redeeming its alienating aspects as necessary for our fulfillment today. Hegel’s dialectic of Spirit includes his understanding of the ancient Greek polis, his critique of the Rousseau-inspired Jacobin Terror, his defense of passionate political ambition against Kantian moral purity, and his claim to have reconciled reason and revelation as the “self-actualization of God” as history. Hegel’s account of historical progress ignited an intense debate among his successors.