One of the great paradoxes in the history of philosophy is the relationship between Socrates and his great student Plato. Almost everything we know of Socrates comes from the writings of Plato, and Plato's admiring picture of his master has inspired subsequent generations. Moreover, even in his later work, Plato puts his main ideas into the mouth of a largely fictionalised Socrates. Yet is difficult to imagine the gadfly of Athens, with his odd behaviour and annoying habit of questioning everything, lasting long in Plato's ideal republic, with its 'Noble Lie' and prohibition of poetry.
The fundamental differences between the two were reflected in deeds as well as words. Whereas Socrates preferred a cup of hemlock to a plea-bargain with the court that had unjustly condemned him, Plato travelled repeatedly to the Greek colony of Syracuse, in the hope of convincing its young ruler Dionysius to adopt, and perhaps to implement, his philsophical and political ideas. As might have been anticipated, and Plato claims to have foreseen, Dionysius wanted little more than the gloss that would come from having such an eminent court philosopher and had no intention of modifying his tyrannical rule.
The story of Plato's travels to Syracuse is the central metaphor for Mark Lilla's study of the political follies and crimes of European intellectuals. The most direct link is to the life and career of Martin Heidegger, who was appointed as rector of Freiburg University under the Nazis, where he took a prominent role in the persecution of Jewish academics, including his own mentor Edmund Husserl. Heidegger resigned this position a year later, prompting one of his colleagues to quip 'back from Syracuse?'.
Despite his resignation, Heidegger remained a committed Nazi -- his main problem was that his metaphysical version of National Socialism was too high-flown to appeal to the jackbooted stormtroopers who were running the show. Only during and after his trial by a denazification tribunal in 1945 did Heidegger and his supporters begin peddling a sanitised version of events in which the Freiburg rectorship was represented as an isolated and short-lived error of judgment.
Lilla presents a fascinating analysis of the relationship between Heidegger's philosophical ideas and his political actions, and of his relationships with his fellow-philosopher Karl Jaspers and his student and lover, Hannah Arendt. Despite being both a Jewish refugee from Nazism and a distinguished writer on totalitarianism, Arendt was eventually reconciled with Heidegger, though she never really resolved the contradictions in her views about him.
Lilla is equally good on another Nazi thinker, Carl Schmitt, who remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world, but is hugely influential in some European circles, both on the right and on the post-Marxist left. Schmitt's ideas themselves do not seem all that interesting - a melange of 'realist' international theory and authoritarian critiques of liberalism, with an underlay of religious irrationalism. What is more interesting is how such ideas have remained influential, and have spread from the right to the academic left, despite their obviously poisonous consequences. Lilla shows how the European New Left found Schmitt's critique of liberalism appealing, paving the way for the subsequent capitulation of postmodernism.
A couple of chapters on the literary critic Walter Benjamin, currently the subject of the kind of fashionable cult status that used to be accorded to Heidegger, and on the Hegelian scholar Alexander Kojeve, raise points of interest but seem like a diversion from the main theme. Benjamin's political views seem to have been in constant flux, and had certainly not been reflected in any active engagement when he committed suicide in 1940, during a failed attempt to flee the Nazis. Kojeve had an active and distinguished career in government after 1945, playing a major role in the establishment of the GATT and the EU, but the link to his prewar role as a philosopher seems tenuous.
Lilla then turns to the fashionable thinkers of the moment (at least as measured by US academic citations) Jacques Derrida and the late Michel Foucault . Foucault, as viewed by Lilla, achieved an almost complete unity of life, philosophical thought and political action, although scarcely one that would have appealed to Plato. Foucault's immersion in promiscuous and sado-masochistic gay sex, which culminated in his death from AIDS in 1984, is presented as the natural counterpart of his radical critique of all forms of authority, and of his attraction to the politics of the extreme action, from 1968 to the Iranian revolution.
Derrida, by contrast, is a counterexample to Lilla's main thesis, though this is not fully recognised. His deconstructionist philosophy appears to lead to radical nihilism, yet Derrida's own political views and actions are those of a typical moderate French leftist. Like other French Leftists, Derrida has a jaundiced view of globalisation, and views on colonialism and postcolonialism that reflect the bitter disputes of the Algerian War. But this is a long way from nihilism. Similarly, as Lilla concedes, Derrida's dominance of the academic humanities scene in the US has produced little more sinister than a verbal attachment to 'political correctness' and an annoyingly smug version of the multiculturalist politics shared by almost all Americans. Even Derrida's defence of the Nazi collaborator Paul de Man seems to reflect little more than the age-old instinct to stick by your mates when they are in trouble.
A fascinating contrast might have been offered at this point by a study of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser who by very different routes became, and remained, orthodox Stalinists. Lilla briefly mentions, but does not illuminate, the paradox that Sartre, the self-conscious heir of the Dreyfusard tradition of resistance to oppression ended up as a servant of one of the most oppressive regimes of all time.
The difficulty for Lilla's theme of 'the reckless mind', when applied to the left, is that two very different types of people have ended up as Communists. First, there are those for whom the central appeal was the cartharsis of a revolutionary smashing of the existing order. This was essentially the same appeal offered by the Nazis, and many of this type changed sides when the mandate of Heaven appeared to shift from one totalitarian party to the other.
On the other hand, there were large numbers of liberals and social democrats who were dissatisfied with the obvious failings of their own countries and accepted, at face value, the claims of the Soviet Union to be a peace-loving, democratic and socially just alternative society. Beatrice and Sydney Webb are prime examples of this sort of 'fellow-traveler'.
The fellow-travelers may fairly be accused of gullibility and wishful thinking in their assessment of the Soviet Union, but this does not imply that their own ideas contained the seeds of totalitarianism. In fact, unlike the Nazi sympathisers discussed by Lilla, the vast majority of fellow-travelers, including those who took the formal step of joining the Communist Party, ultimately realised they had been deceived. Some repudiated their previous views entirely and became, in the American parlance, neoconservatives. Others simply accepted they had made a mistaken judgement, and adopted a more skeptical view of life, while retaining their old ideals.
There is nothing similar among those attracted to fascism and Nazism. Although Nazi propaganda was mendacious in every detail, it never concealed the fundamental nature of Nazism. The closest parallel to the 'fellow traveler' on the right is supplied by the many decent Catholics who supported Franco as a 'soldier for Christ'.
Whatever quibbles one might want to offer about Lilla's discussion of particular cases, he makes a convincing case that the impact of philosophical Platonism on European history has been overwhelmingly negative. Lilla amply confirms the view of Karl Popper that Plato, speaking in the voice of the fictional Socrates of the Republic, was the first and greatest enemy of the open society.
In the English-speaking world, by contrast, it is the (historical?) Socrates of the early dialogues who has been the model for intellectuals. From Hazlitt and Cobbett, through John Stuart Mill and George Orwell to latter-day members of the 'awkward squad' like Christopher Lasch, intellectuals have been irresponsible gadflies rather than propagandists for the ideal of the 'philosopher king'.
Of all the awkward squad, none is more awkward than Christopher Hitchens. His recent Letters to a Young Contrarian sets out his credo. A good sample of his work can be found in Unacknowledged Legislators: Writers in the Public Sphere.
Hitchens reflects both the best and the worst of the Socratic gadfly. On the one hand, there is the temptation to cynical sneering and the desire to epater le bourgeois. It is almost impossible for a contrarian to avoid this temptation completely, particular since it is often necessary to treat the conventional wisdom with derision. Hitchens himself concedes that he is particularly prone to this vice, noting that 'a beloved friend once confided to me that my lip -- I think he said the upper one -- often has a ludicrious and sneering look, and my wife added that it takes on this appearance just when I seem to be least aware of it'. This unattractive tendency also mars the writing of Gore Vidal, whose contribution to the blurb of Unacknowledged Legislators nominates Hitchens as his 'successor, inheritor, dauphin or delfino.'. But anyone who contributes more to the public debate than reiteration of one of other of Orwell's 'smelly orthodoxies' will recognise this fault in themselves to some extent or other.
A more serious version of the same fault is found in the tendency to pursue intellectual vendettas. One does not need to be an admirer of Bill Clinton to feel that Hitchens' attacks on him (and Hillary) went way over the top. Clinton may have been venal and sleazy, but he was far from being America's worst president and he ended up on the right side of most of the issues Hitchens cares about, notably including Bosnia and Kosovo.
On the other hand, the great Socratic virtue is the unwillingness to accept easy answers. Hitchens rightly denounces, for example, the evasions with which many supposed advocates of free speech responded to the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The same insistence on hard truths, is evident in a fascinating essay, originally presented as a Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, defending George Orwell against the attacks made on him Williams. Since Hitchens clearly admires both men, it would have been easy for him, not to mention his audience, to pass over this topic in a few sentences, and devote his time to aspects of Williams' work for which he felt more sympathy.
The popularity in Australia and elsewhere of the term 'pseudo-intellectual' echoes the ancient frustration of the Athenian courts that condemned Socrates. Like the Athenian demos, the talkback commentators of today are aware that intellectuals are important, and are keen to find examples of the genus worthy of their respect. All that they want in return is that they should not be asked to think.
Socrates would have been a pain to live with, and it is difficult not to feel that his allegedly shrewish wife Xantippe had the worst of the bargain. Nevertheless, as these books show, we need Socratic gadflies to protect us both from bourgeois complacency and from the pretensions of Platonic philosopher-kings.
Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, New York Review of Books 2001, pp 216 +xiii.
Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Basic Books 2001, pp141 +xii
Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislators: Writers in the Public Sphere, Verso 2000, pp358+xx