What is “The Right Way To Lead Life”?

In a famous passage of Plato’s Republic, Socrates admonishes his young friend Glaucon (who, incidentally, was also Plato’s older brother) that what they are talking about “is no ordinary business, but the right way to lead one’s life.”

Talking about “the right way to lead life”—if not, alas, actually doing it—has always been philosophy’s trump card, its highest purpose, the reason, deep down, we put up with the philosopher’s woolliness, his maddening jargon, his intellectual arrogance. We suspect that he might just have something important to tell us about how to live—or how not to live—our lives.

We’re right about that. But it must also be said that when a philosopher goes wrong, he can go really wrong. Some of the loopiest things ever said about life, the universe, and everything have been said by philosophers.

It is not just intellectually that philosophers can go wrong. There is something about the grandness of the philosophical enterprise—laying down the law about what is and what isn’t wisdom—that gives a certain kind of philosopher a sweet tooth for political tyranny.

Plato himself famously flirted with Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse. And in our own time there is the example of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).

There are two widely divergent opinions about Heidegger.

One camp holds that Heidegger was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, a philosophical giant whose inquiries into the nature of Being made him a worthy heir of Kant.

The other camp holds that Heidegger was one of the greatest philosophical charlatans of the 20th century, a man hopelessly addicted to mystification and obfuscating polysyllabic word-play.

I know it sounds paradoxical (not to say self-contradictory), but I believe that both camps have a point. I believe that Heidegger really was a deep thinker. I also think he was a deliberately mystifying one.

Someday I may come back to that controversy. But today, I want to concentrate on Heidegger’s performance as a public person, a philosopher in the glare of the public realm. Considered from this point of view, as a political figure, Heidegger does not merit very good grades.

At the center of Heidegger’s thought is the issue of “authenticity” [Eigentlichkeit]. But what does acting “authentically” involve? It would take a brave man to summarize what Heidegger thought about that question. But we know from Being and Time (1927), his most famous book, that it involved “resoluteness” [Entschlossenheit] and being able to think for oneself, making hard decisions unswayed by the crowd.

Measured by this criterion, how authentic was Heidegger’s own life? For most of us, thank goodness, momentous moral decisions are few and far between.

But sometimes public events conspire to confront individuals with life-defining decisions. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, many people in Germany found themselves in this position. Heidegger was one of them.

Near the end of April, 1933, Heidegger was elected rector of Freiburg University. In May, he became a member of the Nazi party (a membership he never formally renounced).

Hitler, who had become chancellor in January, was already busily pursuing his program of Gleichschaltung—“unification” or reconstruction—which aimed at bringing all aspects of German life, not least German academic life, into line with the ideals of the National Socialist state.

In March of ’33, a fitting symbol of those ideals appeared near Dachau: the Nazi’s first concentration camp was publicly opened under the direction of “Acting Police-President of the City of Munich,” Heinrich Himmler.

Heidegger’s tenure as rector lasted less than a year. In statements he made after the war, Heidegger presented himself as a brave soul trying to rescue the German university from intellectual mediocrity on the one hand and Nazi ideologues on the other.

It is true that Heidegger did not always behave in a way calculated to please his Nazi masters. He appointed some Jewish deans, for example, and forbade a scheduled book-burning of “decadent” literature.

But such actions cannot exonerate Heidegger from the charge of collaboration with the Nazis. Nor do they excuse his subsequent evasiveness about his statements and behavior as rector. Indeed, Heidegger’s evasiveness and obfuscations, patent throughout his retrospective interpretations of his rectorate, contribute greatly to making the entire episode so repugnant.

Then there is the evidence of the 34 Schwarze Hefte, the notorious “black notebooks” into which he jotted down thoughts on various subjects from the early 1930s through the early 1970s. Among other things, the notebooks are full of reflections about “the role of world Jewry” whose anti-Semitic character is not exonerated by being expressed in the language of capital “B” “Being.”

Germany’s students, Heidegger said in an address he delivered on becoming Rector, are “on the march.” Their “bond” to the new order would henceforth express itself in a threefold service to the community: in labor service, armed service, and “knowledge” service. Some commentators have observed that Heidegger’s notion of the three services here alludes to Plato’s discussion of the three parts of the soul in The Republic.

No doubt this true. But it is also irrelevant. As many have pointed out, what Heidegger was engaged in here was propaganda for Hitler and the Nazi regime. The same holds true for other key terms in the address. When Heidegger used the term “Volk,” he was no doubt drawing on a tradition whose roots run to the philosopher Johann Herder and the poet Hölderlin.

But in the context of his rectoral address, the term recalls not the nationalism of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German romanticism but the virulent racial fantasies of twentieth-century Nazism. To pretend otherwise is mendacious pedantry. The point is that our words and actions acquire meaning not in a vacuum but in a particular social and historical context. To bracket that context is to miss the truth of the words and actions. The word “bourgeois,” for example, meant one thing in nineteenth-century France, quite another in Stalin’s Russia.

In the address, Heidegger tells us that his three services will “coalesce” and become one force.  Students and teachers, he writes, “confront one another, ready for battle [Kampf].”  He later noted the influence of Ernst Junger, author of the notorious Der Arbeiter with its glorification of war, on this passage. But in an interview he gave after the war, Heidegger claims to have mentioned armed service “neither in a militaristic, nor in an aggressive sense. . . I understood defense as self-defense.” The attitude of the address is “oriented towards ’battle’,” he admits, but “’Battle’ is thought in the sense of Heraclitus, fragment 53.”

It is worth dwelling on this suggestion if only to appreciate the full force of Heidegger’s breathtaking evasiveness. A literal translation of the Heraclitus fragment is “War [πόλεμος] is father of all things, king of all things, and reveals some to be gods, others men, makes some slaves, others free.”

Heidegger tells us that “πόλεμος” really means “ἔρις”, a term that can mean “war” but is more usually translated as “conflict” or “strife.” Further, he says, “πόλεμος” is not to be understood in the sense of real conflict, but as “confrontation-that-sets-those- who-confront-one-another-apart, so that in such setting apart the essential being of those who confront one another exposes itself. . . [and] enters into what is unconcealed and true.”

Really? Heidegger’s idiosyncratic translation of Heraclitus may give us insight into the mysteries of pre-Socratic thought; then again it may not. But the point here is that, pace Heidegger, πόλεμος means “war,” as in the Trojan War, the Thirty Years War, the Second World War. It is not a “setting apart” that lets Being appear but an activity in which large numbers of real people systematically kill and maim each other.

But more important is Heidegger’s complete unwillingness to take responsibility for his statements. To speak of “battle” in Freiburg in 1933 is not to conjure up Heraclitus, fragment 53, but legions of goose-stepping men in brown shirts.

There is no doubt that Heidegger soon realized that his adventure in public life had gone disastrously awry. But in some ways, his subsequent withdrawal from political activity was even more questionable than his brief period of political engagement.

For Heidegger, mirabile dictu, the problem was that the Nazis had betrayed the promise that was inherent in the ideals of National Socialism. In his view, National Socialism itself, which he saw as a force that challenged the uprooting progress of technology, articulated a noble, if unworkable, ideal. Thus in the 1953 edition of An Introduction to Metaphysics, he retained his remark from the original 1935 edition about the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism consisting in “the encounter between global technology and modern man.” Heidegger point is that the dominance of technology in modern life is so complete that neither philosophy nor “any human contemplation and striving”—least of all the modern, democratic state—can direct or curtail its depredations.

The authentic response to technology, he thought, is no longer Entschlossenheit, “resolve” that expresses itself in particular choices and actions, but Gelassenheit, “letting be,” an attitude of waiting and listening in which one does nothing, but remains open to the fugitive voice of Being. The task of thought may be to limit the dominance of technology, but Heidegger, for one, despaired of thought’s power to help: “Only a god can save us now,” he lamented.

Yet once again, there is an exasperating evasiveness about Heidegger’s posture. For while he admitted making “mistakes” during his rectorate, he never once publicly acknowledged the enormity of the evil he was party to. Nor did he ever repudiate his involvement as rector of Freiburg University. To adduce “the planetary movement of modern technology” does nothing to absolve him of this responsibility.

Whatever the merits of Heidegger’s analysis of modern technology, there is something repulsive—as well as deeply unphilosophical—about his use of high-minded philosophical language in the face of the most brutal reality of our time. Far from revealing the underlying truth of the situation, Heidegger’s language occludes it. And just as Heidegger escaped from confronting the reality of Nazism by filtering it through the transformative syllables of his philosophy, so he sought to escape from the reality of the modern world, essentially shaped as it is by science and technology, by placing it beyond the competence of thought.

It is a sad irony that Heidegger, a philosopher who began by speaking eloquently about authenticity and the importance of attending to the elusive whisperings of reality, should have proven to be so deaf when reality burst in upon him with the harsh and agonizingly real strains of tyranny.


Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.