The recently published correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger clears up many misunderstandings about their relationship as thinkers and as human beings, especially when it is read along with the letters each sent to their mutual friend Karl Jaspers. What brought these three together initially was a shared passion for philosophy, a passion that eventually spilled over into their personal lives and political commitments. But as the “low, dishonest decade” of the Thirties wore on, the bonds of friendship and affection were strained to the breaking point, especially after Heidegger made his decision to support the Nazis and become rector of Freiburg University in 1933. By then Hannah Arendt had already fled to Paris and would presently make her way to the United States; Karl Jaspers was still permitted to teach but soon lost his post and was forced to remain in Germany with his Jewish wife. The friends had no contact with one another until after the war.
Heidegger’s service as Freiburg’s rector lasted barely a year. But his fateful decision in favor of Nazism posed profound problems that would absorb Jaspers and Arendt for the rest of their lives. Jaspers was a friend, Arendt had been a lover, and both admired Heidegger as the thinker who had, so they believed, single-handedly revived genuine philosophizing. Now they had to ask themselves whether his political decision reflected only a weakness of character, or whether it had been prepared for by what Arendt would later call his “passionate thinking.” If the latter, did that mean that their own intellectual/erotic attachment to him as a thinker was tainted? Had they been mistaken only about Heidegger or also about philosophy itself and its relation to political reality?
Whether Heidegger posed these sorts of questions to himself is difficult to know. Apart from his experience as rector, he was not in the habit of taking public positions, and his published writings, including his 1927 masterwork Being and Time, were not transparently political. However, after the war, many of his readers—among them Jaspers and Arendt—began to see that Heidegger’s treatment of fundamental existential themes in Being and Time did point to a way of understanding political matters and even acting upon them, from a new, suprapolitical perspective. And it was from this perspective that Heidegger had seen in Nazism the birth of a new, and better, world.
The term “world” is a central one in the philosophical vocabulary Heidegger began developing in Being and Time. There he portrayed human beings as thrown by historical destiny into a coherent realm of activity, language, and thought he called a “world.” This world is the product of fate, not of nature; it arises out of what Heidegger would later call a mysterious “event” in which Being (Sein) finds a place (a “there,” da) in which to unveil itself, a place inhabited by human beings (Dasein). Being is not a transcendent realm that can be reached only (if at all) by rising above human experience; for Heidegger, whatever Being is, it only comes to light in relation to human “worlds.” Each civilization or culture is a “world” for Heidegger. Thus there is the Western “world,” but also the “world” of the carpenter, or the peasant.
Human beings, however, inhabit their worlds within the horizon of time: they inherit traditions from the past, project themselves into the future, and die. Heidegger’s reasoning is that, if Being only reveals itself in human worlds, and those are shaped by temporality, then Being must be dependent on time, too. And that would mean that Being has no other meaning than temporality—the unfolding of things in time.
Heidegger arrives at this conclusion in Being and Time by means of a subtle and quite powerful analysis of the temporal human condition and how man tries to flee it. In Heidegger’s view, man has a tendency to lose himself in his world and “forget” his mortality, and by extension that of his world. He falls in with the crowd (the “they”), engages in idle chatter, lets himself be absorbed by average everydayness—all in order to avoid the fundamental question of his existence and its responsibility. We are inauthentic creatures: “Everyone is other, and no one is himself.” Authenticity is not easy to recover, however. It requires a new “orientation,” Heidegger claims, a confrontation with our finitude, an “authentic being-toward-death.” It would mean heeding the call of conscience, to exhibit “care” toward the manifestation of Being. And, above all, it would demand a new “resoluteness,” which signifies “letting oneself be summoned out of one’s lostness in the ‘they.”‘
Heidegger’s rhetoric of authenticity and resoluteness has been interpreted in various ways. The canonical interpretation has it that Being and Time is primarily a work of ontology, an inquiry into the nature of existence, and beyond that just a summons to become what we are: to assume without self-deceit the full responsibility of being finite human creatures. Others have seen in this work a profound hostility to the modern world and a yearning for a new historical epoch to be brought about through human resolve, the creation of a more authentic “world” attentive to the call of Being. And if, as Heidegger sometimes implies, “worlds” are cultural or even national wholes, that would make Being and Time a program for national regeneration—which is precisely what Heidegger would see in National Socialism a few years after this work was published.1
There are notorious problems with both these interpretations, and they are compounded by a shift in Heidegger’s thinking and rhetoric that began in the Thirties and continued in his postwar writings. Beginning in this period Heidegger moved from a phenomenological analysis of the link between Sein and Dasein, undertaken from the standpoint of human existence, to a new analysis of it that he claimed took the standpoint of Being itself—whatever that meant. He also began writing, in a self-fashioned mythopoetic language inspired by Hölderlin, about Being as a divinity revealing itself to man. Whether this shift represented a change of Heidegger’s mind or simply a second, complementary part of a lifelong task (as he insisted) is a serious question. And it obscures further what, if any, political teaching Heidegger was trying to deliver through his philosophy, and how he eventually came to view his own resolute leap into contemporary history.
Having made this shift, the later Heidegger speaks less about resoluteness and authenticity, more about learning to “let Being be” and adopting an attitude of Gelassenheit, Meister Eckhart’s term for serene renunciation. As time went on he presented himself not as a proponent of existential decision and self-assertion, but on the contrary as the most profound critic of the Western “nihilism” that had come to sanction such willfulness and had produced fascism, communism, modern democracy, and technology, all of which Heidegger considered nihilistic.
Still, even his Gelassenheit had a passionate, urgent quality to it. Heidegger never ceased to describe modern man as living on a precipice, poised to fall either into complete oblivion of Being or a new “world” where the meaning of Being would again be uncovered; he must move or he will be moved by a historical force stronger than himself. In his manuscripts of the Thirties, which are slowly appearing in his collected works in German, there is much made of “the preparation of the appearance of the last god.” In some of them we do indeed find contemptuous remarks about the Nazis’ blind self-assertion and their feeble attempts to construct a “folk philosophy”—though Heidegger seems intent on going the Nazis one better. It is not just any people that founds a philosophy, he writes at one point, but rather “the philosophy of a people is one that makes the people into a people of a philosophy.” Was his own philosophy aimed at doing just that?
In reading the later Heidegger one cannot escape the impression that, despite his experience, he was never able to confront the issue of philosophy’s relation to politics, of philosophical passion to political passion. For him, this was not the issue; he simply had been fooled into thinking that the Nazis’ resolve to found a new nation was compatible with his private and loftier resolution to refound the en-tire tradition of Western thought, and thereby Western existence. Heidegger considered himself a victim of Nazism—hence his astonishing remark to Ernst Jünger that he would only apologize for his Nazi past if Hitler could be brought back to apologize to him.
Heidegger finally decided that the Nazis themselves had destroyed the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism, and that by not following Heidegger’s path they had kept the Germans from their rendezvous with destiny. Now all was lost; Being had withdrawn and was nowhere to be found. All that remained was the spreading spiritual desert of modern technology and modern politics. In such circumstances the genuine thinker could only flee to his study, get his thinking straight, and wait in serene expectation for a new, messianic epoch of Being. In the famous phrase he uttered during his interview with Der Spiegel in the Sixties, “Only a god can save us now.”
Heidegger emerged from the war a broken man and even spent time in a sanatorium to recover his forces. When the French occupied Freiburg in 1945 they threatened to take his library and called him before a denazification commission, which eventually decided to ban him from teaching and even, temporarily, withdrew his pension. In a vain effort to save himself Heidegger proposed that the commission seek a deposition from his friend Karl Jaspers, who he hoped would still vouch for him.
Jaspers, it turned out, had spent much of the war brooding about the Heidegger case and was now prepared to offer a sober and morally astute judgment on it. In his friend’s defense he claimed that, as far as he knew, Heidegger was never an anti-Semite in the Twenties, and that his behavior thereafter was inconsistent in this respect. (We now know this to be incorrect.2 ) Jaspers also tried to explain that Heidegger’s intellectualized Nazism had little to do with the real thing; he was an unpolitical man, Jaspers wrote, more like a child who got his finger stuck in the wheel of history. Yet although Heidegger was “perhaps unique among contemporary German philosophers” in his seriousness, and therefore should be allowed to write and publish, teaching was another matter. “Heidegger’s manner of thinking,” Jaspers concluded, “which to me seems in its essence unfree, dictatorial, and incapable of communication, would today be in its pedagogical effects disastrous,” especially since “his manner of speaking and his actions have a certain affinity with National Socialist characteristics.” The commission followed Jaspers’s advice and imposed a teaching ban that lasted until 1950.
This did not mean that Jaspers was prepared to wash his hands of his friend. On the contrary, he also expressed to the commission his hope that Heidegger would experience an “authentic rebirth” in the future. At the time Jaspers was convinced that Heidegger’s failings were essentially those of a weak Luftmensch, not of his philosophy, and that if he could be made to understand his responsibilities, Heidegger the philosopher might be saved. This Christian redemption motif also appears in Jaspers’s letters to Arendt, in which he muses on the fact that Heidegger “has knowledge of something that hardly anyone notices these days,” yet his “impure soul” needed to undergo a complete revolution. Arendt was more than a little skeptical about conversion myths but did agree that Heidegger “lives in depths and with a passionateness one does not easily forget.”
In his Philosophical Autobiography and Notes on Martin Heidegger Jaspers speaks of his personal sense of culpability for having failed to warn his friend about the mistake he was making in 1933. After the war, Jaspers hoped to effect a genuine, yet morally defensible, rapprochement that would salvage whatever of philosophical value remained in his friend. But how? The occasion finally presented itself in 1948 when Jaspers moved to Basel, Switzerland, where he was to spend the remainder of his life. He wrote a letter to Heidegger in March of that year but could not bring himself to send it, then wrote another the following February. “I have long waited to write to you,” he begins, “and today, on a Sunday morning, I finally feel the impulse.” Jaspers is brutally direct, confessing that the moment he learned of Heidegger’s secret denunciation of his own student Eduard Baumgarten was “one of the most decisive experiences of my life.” He also reports on his 1945 letter to the denazification commission, making no excuses for what it contained.
None of what has passed can be forgotten, he writes, yet he still wonders if some sort of philosophical and even personal relationship might be possible, since “whatever is philosophy must be bound together in origin and aim.” He concludes, “I greet you out of a distant past, over an abyss of time, holding fast to something that once was and cannot be nothing.” Heidegger responded to this expression of philosophical comradeship with gratitude, and for the next year a flurry of letters passed between them, as did copies of writings that, by that point, reflected utterly different approaches to thinking.
The whole subject of Nazism was avoided until Heidegger finally addressed it himself in March 1950 and tried to explain why he stopped seeing the Jaspers family after 1933. I was not silent because your wife is Jewish, he declares, “but simply because I was ashamed.” Jaspers was touched by this expression of shame, which he took as a promising sign of repentance, telling him that in those dark years Heidegger was a child incapable of understanding what he was doing. The matter might have rested there, had Heidegger not chosen to respond with shameless self-justifications and irresponsible political speculations. He seizes on the image of himself as an innocent child and admits that when the Jews and leftists were threatened in the Thirties they were more clearsighted than he had been. But now it is Germany’s turn to suffer, Heidegger complains, and no one but he seems to care. It is surrounded by enemies on every side and Stalin is on the march, though “people” choose not to notice. Modern man puts his faith in the political realm, which is dead and now occupied by technological and economic calculation. All we can hope, Heidegger concludes, is that a hidden “advent” will burst forth out of the Germans’ new homelessness (Heimatslosigkeit).
Jaspers waited two years to respond to this bizarre diatribe, which finally drove him to the conclusion that Heidegger was irredeemable—as a man and as a thinker. Heidegger was no longer for him the model of what a philosopher could be, but rather a demonic antiphilosopher consumed by dangerous fantasies. And so he lashed out with passion at the man he once loved:
A philosophy that speculates and speaks in sentences like those in your letter, that evokes the vision of something monstrous, isn’t it in fact another preparation of the victory of totalitarianism, in that it separates itself from reality? Just as the philosophy circulating before 1933 helped prepare the acceptance of Hitler? Is something similar going on here?…
Can the political, which you consider played out, ever disappear? Hasn’t it only changed its forms and means? And mustn’t one actually recognize them?
He then turned to Heidegger’s hope for an “advent”:
My horror grew when I read that. As far as I can see that is utter dreaming, like so much dreaming that—always at the “right” historical moment—has fooled us over the last fifty years. Do you really intend to step out as a prophet revealing the supernatural from hidden sources, as a philosopher seduced away from reality?
Heidegger never responded to a single one of these questions. Occasional notes bearing birthday greetings would pass between them for another decade, but the friendship was over.
As Heidegger’s friendship with Jaspers dissolved, a new one began to develop with Hannah Arendt, much to Jaspers’s surprise. In 1946 Arendt published an article titled “What Is Existential Philosophy?” in Partisan Review, and there she pronounced Heidegger’s philosophy to be an unintelligible form of “superstition.” As for his Nazism, she refused to attribute it to a mere lack of character, preferring instead to blame his incorrigible romanticism, “a spiritual playfulness that stems in part from delusions of grandeur and in part from despair.” When told by Jaspers that Heidegger as rector had not banned his teacher Husserl from the university, as Arendt had reported, she still maintained (again mistakenly) that Heidegger had signed an official circular to that effect. And since “this signature almost killed [Husserl], I cannot but regard Heidegger as a potential murderer.”3 For her, it seemed, Heidegger was a closed book.
Yet just before her monumental Origins of Totalitarianism appeared in 1951, Arendt made an extended trip to Europe, including Germany, on a mission for the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction agency. During these many months she visited her beloved teacher Karl Jaspers, whom she had not seen in seventeen years. There in Basel he showed her his correspondence with Heidegger, and she finally confessed her youthful affair with him. Jaspers responded to this news with a droll, “Ach, but that is very interesting,” much to Arendt’s relief. Then it became possible for the two of them to discuss the man they once loved, each in his own way.
As chance would have it, Arendt’s mission took her to Freiburg in Feb-ruary 1950. She arrived at her hotel, unpacked her suitcase—and promptly sent a note to Heidegger’s house announcing her arrival. Heidegger, stunned, wrote an immediate reply inviting her to visit, then set out on foot to deliver it himself. On arriving at the hotel and discovering that Arendt was in, he asked to be announced. This was her reaction, recorded in a letter she sent him two days later:
This evening and morning are the confirmation of an entire life…. When the waiter announced your name…it was as if suddenly time stood still…. The force of my impulse, after [Hugo] Friedrich gave me your address, mercifully saved me from committing the only truly unforgivable disloyalty and mishandling of my life…. Had I done so, it would only have been out of pride, that is, out of a pure, plain, crazy stupidity. Not for any reason.
How could their first meeting in seventeen years be the confirmation of a life? What kind of life? Elzåábieta Ettinger, in her scandal-seeking book on their youthful affair,4 would have us believe that Arendt was bewitched by the man who once deflowered her and felt confirmed merely in her youthful romantic attachment. But to her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, Arendt wrote that “we really spoke to one another, it seemed to me, for the first time in our lives”—confirming the existence of a deeper bond in thought and conversation.
The first meetings were by no means easy, not least because of Heidegger’s wife, Elfride, who by then was au courant and bore Arendt an understandably intense grudge. But soon letters, gifts, and poems began to crisscross the Atlantic as the former lovers tried to establish a friendship on a new basis, and in the presence of an unwilling and suspicious third party. Over the next year Heidegger became uncharacteristically prolix, sending Arendt seventeen letters and thirty-two poems, with titles such as “You,” “The Woman from Afar,” “Death,” “November 1924” (the date of their first meeting), and “Twenty-five Years” (the period since). He also freely expressed the apocalyptic views about the postwar world that led to the break with Jaspers. He claimed to have discovered the source of the German catastrophe by the mid-Thirties, and to have incorporated his findings into his work—on Heraclitus and Parmenides. Now he expected a civil war to bring Germany and Europe to an end. “The world is becoming bleaker,” he wrote in 1952, “…and the essence of history ever more mysterious…. Only resignation remains. Still, despite growing external threats in everything, I see the arrival of new—or, better yet, old—secrets.”
Since we do not have Arendt’s letters to Heidegger from the Fifties we do not know how she responded to this torrent. She seems to have complained to Jaspers that she found it difficult to be entirely open in her letters to Heidegger and that no general understanding of the essential matter—the Nazi period—would be possible. Jaspers agreed, explaining that Heidegger “really doesn’t know and is hardly in a position to find out what devil drove him to do what he did.” Heidegger clearly hoped Arendt would effect a reunion between him and Jaspers—“you are the real ‘and’ between Jaspers and Heidegger”—but that proved impossible. (Indeed, Arendt wrote to her husband that in 1956 Jaspers had delivered an “ultimatum” demanding that she break off contact with Heidegger, but she refused.)
As the Fifties progressed Heidegger’s philosophical reputation began to rise again, especially as new works reflecting his philosophical shift began to emerge. Until the mid-Fifties Arendt continued to visit the Heideggers whenever she was in Europe, sent them gifts, and even began arranging for the English translation of Being and Time. But the intensity of their reunion began to diminish, whether because Heidegger no longer needed her, or because she felt too inhibited by what remained unspoken. Yet she never lost sight of her intellectual debt to Heidegger, which became increasingly evident in her mature works. When her philosophically most ambitious book, The Human Condition, appeared in German as Vita Activa in 1960, she had it sent to Heidegger with the following note:
You will see that this book bears no dedication. Had things between us turned out right—I mean between us, not with me or you—I would have asked if I might dedicate it to you. It grew directly out of the first Freiburg [sic] days and, in that respect, owes everything to you. The way things stand, this seems to me impossible; yet in some way I wanted to tell you at least how things really stand.
She then drafted the following dedication on a separate page and placed it in her files.
Re Vita Activa
This book’s dedication has been left out.
How should I dedicate it to you,
To the most trusted one,
To whom I remained true
And both in love.
Heidegger never responded to The Human Condition, and this wounded Arendt deeply. As she later wrote to Jaspers, it was as if he were punishing her for having asserted herself as a thinker, and she was probably right about this. But his silence is more comprehensible if we take into account what she was trying to achieve in that work. It was, in ways he must have understood, a declaration of independence from central aspects of his philosophy, especially his silence about the relation between politics and philosophy. By defending the dignity of the public vita activa against the overweening claims of the private vita contemplativa, Arendt was trying to plant a hedge between pure philosophy and thinking about politics, which demanded its own vocabulary and obeyed its own rules.
When Arendt was introduced as a “philosopher” in a 1964 interview for German television she interrupted the interviewer to say, “I’m afraid I have to protest. I do not belong to the circle of philosophers. My profession, if one can speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher, nor do I believe that I have been accepted into the circle of philosophers.” This was not false modesty on her part; she had come to the conclusion that there is an inescapable tension between the lives of philosophy and politics, and she wished to examine the latter, as she put it, “with eyes unclouded by philosophy.”
When pressed on this point she explained that intellectuals generally have trouble thinking clearly about politics, in large part because they see ideas at work in everything. German intellectuals in the Thirties, she told the interviewer, “made up ideas about Hitler, in part terrifically interesting things! Completely interesting and fascinating things! Things far above the ordinary level! I find that grotesque.” And when she added that such thinkers inevitably become “trapped in their own ideas,” she was obviously thinking about Heidegger. In fact, in her private notebooks she once wrote a short fable, called “Heidegger the Fox,” in which she described him as a pitiful creature trapped in the lair of his ideas, convinced it was the entire world.
Once upon a time there was a fox who was so lacking in slyness that he not only kept getting caught in traps but couldn’t even tell the difference between a trap and a non-trap…. He built a trap as his burrow…. “So many are visiting me in my trap that I have become the best of all foxes.” And there is some truth in that, too: nobody knows the nature of traps better than one who sits in a trap his whole life long.
Heidegger remained in his lair another five years before deigning to communicate with Arendt, sending her a short note of thanks for her greetings on his seventy-fifth birthday. In it he paid her a backhanded compliment, declaring that “despite all her recent publications” he still considered her to be true to philosophy’s calling. But the ice was definitively broken in 1967, when she went to Freiburg to deliver a lecture and discovered, to her surprise, that Heidegger was standing in the back of the room. She then began her remarks by welcoming him before the large (and presumably hostile) audience, and he was touched. From that moment until Arendt’s sudden death in 1975 they remained close. She once again made annual pilgrimages to Freiburg, took long walks with her former teacher and discussed the nature of language with him, and worked intensively on the English translation of his writings. In these last eight years the letters become more philosophical and tender, and reflect a new sense of mutual respect.
Unlike Jaspers, Arendt never confronted Heidegger directly about political questions and passed over his occasional remarks about politics without comment. She concentrated instead on Heidegger the philosopher, praising his interpretative genius (“no one reads or has ever read as you do”) and his philosophical ambition (“by thinking the end of metaphysics and of philosophy you have made real room for thinking”). Professor Ettinger’s reading of the late correspondence portrays Arendt as a slavish fool wasting her valuable time on the translation of his works and helping him to sell his manuscripts. Ettinger also mentions Arendt’s 1969 tribute, “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” published in these pages,5 as proof that she was still so besotted that “she went to extraordinary pains to minimize and justify Heidegger’s contribution to and support of the Third Reich.” The notion that Hannah Arendt would justify anyone’s Nazism is absurd. But it is true that she withheld reference to Heidegger’s rectorship and later self-justifications until the end of her essay and placed it in a footnote. Which raises the legitimate question: Why?
Hannah Arendt often quoted an epigram of Rahel Varnhagen’s, who once said of the conservative historian Friedrich von Gentz that “he seized upon untruth with the passion for truth.” This is exactly how she had come to see Heidegger, whose intellectual passion she loved, but whose inability to distinguish obvious truth from obvious untruth she recognized only too well. She knew that Heidegger was politically dangerous but seemed to believe that his dangerousness was fueled by a passion that also inspired his philosophical thought. The problem of Heidegger was the problem of all great philosophers, nothing more, nothing less. Their thinking had to be cultivated and protected from the world, but they also must be kept from worldly political affairs, which are properly the concern of others—of citizens, of statesmen, of men of action.
Writing in 1969, forty-five years after first walking into his course on the Sophist, Arendt chose to remember above all what it was like to encounter a human being who lived for “passionate thinking,” someone whose single-mindedness of purpose had left behind “something perfect.” Without minimizing the significance of Heidegger’s ghastly decision, she had come to see it as the result of a déformation professionnelle, an “attraction to the tyrannical” that has attended philosophy since its inception. In her unfinished study The Life of the Mind she was still meditating on this problem, trying to see if it might be solved by reestablishing distinctions between thinking, willing, and judging. Hannah Arendt was grappling with the problem of Heidegger until her dying day.
When Heidegger returned to teaching after his escapade as Nazi rector, one of his colleagues famously quipped, “Back from Syracuse?” The reference, of course, is to the three expeditions Plato made to Sicily in hopes of training young prince Dionysius as a philosopher-king. The education failed, Dionysius became a tyrant, and Plato barely escaped with his life. The parallel has been invoked more than once in discussions of Heidegger, the implication being that his tragicomic error was to have momentarily believed that philosophy could guide politics, especially the gutter politics of National Socialism. This possibility, too, Plato appears to have foreseen in his dialogues. When eros is unleashed in an immoderate soul, he warns us, it can overwhelm reason and natural instinct, becoming the soul’s tyrant. What is political tyranny, Socrates asks in the Republic, if not the unjust rule of a man who himself is tyrannized by his lowest desires? Eros is classified by Plato as a demonic force that can lift the soul into divine spheres but is equally capable of delivering it into a life of baseness and suffering in which others are made to suffer, too. The philosopher and the tyrant, the highest and lowest of human types, are linked through some perverse trick of nature by the power of love.
One practical lesson that is often drawn from the Republic is that when philosophers try to become kings either their philosophy is corrupted, politics is corrupted, or both are. Therefore the only sensible thing is to separate them, leaving philosophers to cultivate their gardens with all the passion they have, but keeping them quarantined there so they can cause no harm. This is a political solution to the problem of philosophy and politics, and it is one Hannah Arendt advanced with some success in her American writings. This position permitted her to remain, in her own eyes, a genuine friend both of Heidegger’s philosophy and of political decency.
Whether it is a defensible position is another matter. Traditionally, two sorts of objections, also inspired by Plato, have been made to the idea that philosophy and politics can be separated, one in the name of politics, the other in the name of philosophy. For those who care about political decency, the banishment of the tyrannically inclined is an attractive idea. But if philosophers take the rule of reason with them, what other standard will replace it? Who or what will stand against tyranny? This notorious question has been with us ever since the Republic, which documents the decline and fall of an imaginary city that has turned its back on philosophy. Hannah Arendt tried to address this danger in her own way, not altogether convincingly, by appealing at different times to tradition, statesmanship, civic virtue, and finally the faculty of “judgment” as hedges against tyranny.
A second objection has to do with the calling of philosophy itself. Plato’s images of the love-mad philosopher seeking the beauty of Ideas, or of philosophical education as a painful climb out of a dark cave and into the sunlight, capture something of what drives the philosophical life but not necessarily how it is to be lived. As Plato describes him in the Phaedrus and the Symposium, the philosophical lover must be chaste and moderate if he is to sublimate his erotic drive and profit from it. Similarly, the myth of the cave in the Republic only ends once the philosopher is compelled to leave the sunlight and return to the cave to aid his fellows. Plato’s lesson seems to be that, to be complete, philosophy must supplement its knowledge of Ideas with knowledge of the shadow realm of public life, where the passions and ignorance of human beings obscure the Ideas. And if philosophy is to illuminate that darkness, not add to it, it must begin by taming its own passions.
The most touching page in Karl Jaspers’s Notes on Martin Heidegger is addressed to Heidegger directly. “I beseech you!” Jasper writes, “if ever we shared anything that can be called philosophical impulses, take responsibility for your own gift! Place it in the service of reason, of the reality of human worth and possibilities, instead of in the service of magic!” He felt betrayed by Heidegger as a human being, as a German, and as a friend, but especially as a philosopher. What he thought they shared in the early years of their friendship was the conviction that philosophy was a means of wresting one’s existence from the grip of the commonplace and assuming responsibility for it. Then he saw a new tyrant enter his friend’s soul, a wild passion that misled him into supporting the worst of political dictators and then enticed him into intellectual sorcery. In his unwillingness to leave Heidegger to his garden, Jaspers displayed more care for his former friend than Hannah Arendt did, and deeper love for the calling of philosophy. If nothing else, the Heidegger case had taught him a very Platonic lesson: in eros begin responsibilities.
—This is the second of two articles.
December 2, 1999
The most recent in this line of interpretation is Johannes Fritsche’s Historical Destiny and National Socialism in Heidegger’s Being and Time (University of California Press, 1999). ↩
Ten years ago a recommendation letter from 1929 surfaced, in which Heidegger stated that Germany needed more scholars rooted in its “soil” and complained of the “Judaization” of intellectual life. This letter was in support of the unfortunate Eduard Baumgarten, whom Heidegger would later turn against. See Ulrich Sieg, “Die Verjudung des deutschen Geistes,” Die Zeit, December 22, 1989, p. 50. ↩
As it happened, Heidegger’s predecessor signed the decree, which was subsequently rescinded by the government during Heidegger’s tenure. See Hugo Ott, Martin Heidegger: A Political Life (Basic Books, 1993), pp. 176-177. ↩
Hannah Arendt-Martin Heidegger (Yale University Press, 1995). ↩