All posts filed under: The Totalitarian Philosophers

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 …