Between Freedom, Tyranny, and Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss on Preserving the Moral Difference between East and West

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Nathan Pinkoski is completing his D.Phil at the University of Oxford. He gave the following paper at the DCW London symposium in November 2014.

The split in today’s world is perceptible even to a hasty glance… These deep manifold splits bear the danger of equally manifold disaster for all of us, in accordance with the ancient truth that a kingdom — in this case, our Earth — divided against itself cannot stand.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” 1978

The split between Western democratic regimes and Eastern communist regimes defined the era between 1945 and 1989. To public figures and intellectuals during that time, it presented a political philosophical problem, often with existential bearing on the future of civilisation. Two competing conceptions of the political future of humanity shared an uneasy coexistence. But it also presented a disquieting display of how philosophers and public figures behave in a divided world. Between 1945 and 1989, many philosophers and public intellectuals in the West treated the Western democracies and communist bloc as if they were morally and politically equivalent. As the years exposed the oppression that the communist countries perpetuated, the treatment of the West and East as equivalent marks a great failure for political philosophy. The persistent questions for those who reflect on intellectuals from that period, are who managed to escape that failure, and by what means did they escape?

The study of two German émigrés to the United States, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, helps address those questions. To counter intellectual errors and grasp rightly the divide between East and West, Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss buttress their call for a revival of political thought and political philosophy through their critique of modernity, by a determination to address adequately the moral and political divide between East and West. Arendt escapes the equivocation between East and West in light of her reflections on historically identifiable totalitarian movements. Strauss escapes by recovering a political philosophy that is capable of identifying the social phenomena associated with tyranny.

Public figures equivocating between western democracy and eastern communism did so for various reasons. Strauss and Arendt are concerned with one particular strand of intellectual failure. These are intellectuals who might be called historico-philosophical pessimists. Their philosophical reflections on the course of modern political and intellectual history leave them deeply unhappy about the whole modern human situation, so that they view East and West as each exemplifying the same unhappy situation. For Arendt and Strauss, the figure who expresses this viewpoint most strongly is their former teacher, Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger and the Crisis of Modernity

A recurring concern in the thought of Martin Heidegger is nihilism, which he thinks defines the crisis of the modern age. Agreeing with Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God as the defining event for modernity, Heidegger takes it to indicate radical historicism: that there is no eternally true foundation for justice or morality. The disquieting possibility from radical historicism is that all moral standards are historically relative. If they are impossible to justify because they are only correct for a particular historical moment, nihilism reigns. In this atmosphere, a form of the will to power, scientific and technological thinking, attempts to subdue nature and subjugate all mankind to the technological way of thinking. Through Heidegger’s critique of modernity, this technological will to power dominates because of a theoretical, intellectual failure: the forgetting of the question of the meaning of Being. With the misconception of Being going all the way back to Plato, the story of Western civilisation is the descent into nihilism. This nihilism defines both liberal democracies like America and communist regimes like Russia: “from a metaphysical point of view, Russia and America are the same, with the same dreary technological frenzy and the same unrestricted organization of the average man.”

Heidegger’s conclusions about contemporary Western civilisation led him to look for political alternatives to liberal democracy and communism providing an escape from nihilism. So it was that in 1933, he joined the Nazi party. As rector of the University of Freiburg, Heidegger expressed his hopes for a political transformation of Germany and the German university in cooperation with the Nazi party. Although he rapidly came to see Nazism as a similar expression of nihilism, he never repudiated his comments on Nazism’s positive character. Following the Second World War, in his sparse political remarks, Heidegger continued to view Communism and liberal democracy as equally nihilistic, as two forms of the same philosophical crisis, and concentrated his energies away from political reflections to theoretical philosophy.

Responses to Martin Heidegger’s theoretical philosophy varied immensely, as well as responses to his political Nazi sympathies. Some tried to write off Heidegger’s politics as a further example of a philosopher making bad political decisions, and preferred to focus attention on his un-political theoretical philosophy. But for Arendt and Strauss, Heidegger’s theoretical philosophy was related to and culpable for both ignoring politics and making bad political decisions. Doing philosophy so divorced from the study of politics was the problem. To outmanoeuvre Heidegger’s historico-philosophical pessimism, they would have to engage with Heidegger on his own comprehensive terms, and provide a different account of modernity that revealed the perils of neglecting political philosophy

Paper: Between Freedom, Tyranny, and Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss on Preserving the Moral Difference between East and West


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