Author: Matt McManus

Michael Oakeshott and the Intellectual Roots of Postmodern Conservatism

To be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. ~Michael Oakeshott, On Being Conservative. In his seminal essay “The Intransigent Right at the End of the Century” in the London Review of Books, the historian Perry Anderson listed Michael Oakeshott as one of the four great right-wing thinkers of the twentieth century. Anderson acknowledges that while the other three—F.A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt—remain well known amongst the literate public across the Western world, Oakeshott remains a somewhat elusive figure. That is unfortunate. Not only was his thinking highly interesting on its own merits, it was also ahead of its time in anticipating the emergence of postmodern conservatism. Oakeshott’s Life and Thinking On the surface, it might appear odd to characterize Oakeshott as a predecessor to postmodern conservatism. While the polemical …

Why We Should Read Heidegger

This the final instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. I must make a confession here: Martin Heidegger was one of the first philosophers I really and truly loved. When I was around 19 years old, one of the summer jobs I worked was as a traffic counter. We were responsible for counting the number of cars that went through street lights, which needless to say was a profoundly boring task. I often passed the time by reading, and began delving into philosophy for the first time—there is something about sitting by the side of the road for 11 hours that enables speculation. Heidegger’s dense and strange books were often infuriatingly opaque, but once I began to understand them I was thrilled. Here was someone who thought and wrote in a way that no one else seemed to, and who was emphatically unafraid of tackling the biggest and most novel philosophical questions. As a critical young man, I was also enraptured with his damning …

Why We Should Read Nietzsche

This the fourth instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. In Ecce Homo, the autobiographical self-examination written shortly before his descent into madness on the streets of Turin in 1889, Nietzsche cheekily opined that he was a “destiny.” It must have seemed like an almost tragic act of self-aggrandizement at the time. When he collapsed near the height of intellectual powers, Nietzsche was a sick and lonely man. His books, many of them self-published at Nietzsche’s expense, were barely selling and he often depended on charity from his friends. A few years earlier Nietzsche’s one firm romantic attachment, Lou-Salome, had rejected his proposal of marriage and rebounded on vacation with the philosopher’s friend Paul Ree. His sister Elizabeth and her husband were increasingly flirting with forms of nationalism and anti-Semitism that the cosmopolitan Nietzsche found extremely vulgar. Ironically, she would assume responsibility for Nietzsche’s care throughout his illness, editing many of his books and falsely presenting her brother as a proto-Nazi icon. It must …

Why We Should Read Marx

This the third instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. If Plato was a philosopher who wanted to use his ideas to change the world in practical ways, but had to settle for a towering intellectual legacy instead, then Marx’s writing had the opposite effect. In his youthful “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While he had to settle for a posthumous influence, it was fewer than 40 years after his death that the Marxist-inspired Bolshevik party seized power in Russia during the October Revolution and inaugurated a sequence of Communist revolutions and takeovers which swept the world for decades. At its peak, billions lived under often brutal governments which professed allegiance to Marx’s ideas.  Although many of these regimes began to collapse in 1989, leading some to assume Marx was finished as an intellectual influence, his specter never went away. And in the decade following the 2008 Recession, his reputation …

Why We Should Read Rousseau

This the second instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. At the end of January I wrote an article entitled “How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers” for Quillette. I argued that liberals, whether classical or egalitarian, can find insights in the work of authors who—rightly or wrongly—have come to be associated with illiberal and even totalitarian movements. The four authors I examined were Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Although the general point that these authors contribute ideas of value was well received, the article was justifiably criticized for summarizing each individual’s positions too quickly. This resulted in a loss of depth and left some readers wanting a more thorough account of what was valuable in each author.  Over the next few months I will be publishing an article on each thinker, presenting an argument for their enduring contribution. Since even a few thousand words is hardly sufficient to scratch the surface of each thinker’s complex positions, the interpretation I will be presenting will be highly qualified. I will begin …

How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers?

This the first instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers. How should one read and interpret authors whose work has clearly become associated—justly or not—with totalitarianism? In recent years, this debate has included figures like the Marxist historian Erik Hobsbawm, who has received scathing criticism for his soft approach to various communist regimes, and the literary theorist Paul de Man. However, here I will focus on the work of four philosophers whose work provided inspiration to totalitarianism and terror—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. It might seem disconcerting to imply there is a problem with reading such authors. After all, an intellectual work isn’t especially interesting unless it forces us to look critically at sides of ourselves and our societies we have been unwilling to examine—the darker undercurrents of politics and the human psyche. This may be especially true if we wish to combat totalitarian and authoritarian impulses successfully. Looking at those who inspired or supported these movements can give us …

On the Value of Truth

Many claim that we live in a “post-truth” era. Trust in major civic and political institutions is rapidly declining. People on all sides of the political spectrum dismiss the media as biased at best and little more than “fake news” at worst. The postmodern President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, and according to Politifact makes statements that range from “half true” to outright lies 83 per cent of the time. In an earlier article for Canada’s The Hill Times, I invoked the philosopher Harry Frankfurt and summarized these developments as a rising “Age of Bullshit.” Concurrently, our post-truth era has been marked with lamentations across the ideological spectrum by those who provide a variety of explanations for our climate of untruth. Many progressives and liberals pin the blame on manipulative conservative politicians such as Trump and Boris Johnson, interference by foreign governments and cyber-attacks, and politically biased media. Many conservatives, meanwhile, pin the blame on progressive activists, the rise of PC culture and oversensitivity, and…politically biased media. I have already …

The Frankfurt School and Postmodern Philosophy

There has been a tremendous pushback in recent years against what are broadly known as “grievance studies”; a loose collection of academic disciplines characterized by their emphasis on oppressive social and political institutions and the marginalized identities they victimize. The philosophical outlook underpinning these disciplines tend to be portrayed in a less ambiguous manner: it is typically described as some combination of Marxist politics with postmodern skepticism, and has been variously termed “cultural Marxism,” postmodern neo-Marxism, the New Left, and so on. In his book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism From Rousseau to Foucault, the philosopher Stephen Hicks argues that post-Kantian thinking gradually led to the adoption of ever more skeptical epistemologies. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals came to align with Marxist and socialist political perspectives. This leads Hicks to the claim that postmodern philosophy is the perpetuation of Marxist politics through other philosophical means. He argues that there is a clear through line where the scientific pretensions of classical Marxism gradually gave way to the irrationalist critiques of the cultural …

On God and Politics: Comparing Žižek and Peterson

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? ~Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science Religion has long played …

The Virtue of Nationalism—An Internationalist’s Critique

A review of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony. Basic Books (September 2017) 304 pages.  The last 30 years have witnessed many arguments about the end of nationalism and the nation state, ranging from Fukuyama’s end of history thesis to Thomas Friedman’s claim that globalization was making the world “flat.” But, as they say, reports of the nation’s death now appear to be exaggerated. Over the past few years, from Brexit in the United Kingdom, to the rise of right wing nationalists such as Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the specter of nationalism looms once again. Yoram Hazony’s welcome new book The Virtue of Nationalism analyzes this political shift and offers a defense of its value. Hazony’s book is by far the most interesting and compelling articulation of the nationalist case put forward thus far. This makes The Virtue of Nationalism an important book, since those looking to defend the nationalist cause will surely want to arm themselves with its formidable intellectual resources, while …