Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Political Consequences of Destruction of Language

Eric Voegelin blames the intellectuals and their destruction of language for the rise of National Socialism. Here’s an excerpt from his Autobiographical Reflections:

"It is extremely difficult to engage in a critical discussion of National Socialist ideas, as I found out when I gave my semester course on “Hitler and the Germans” in 1964 in Munich, because in National Socialist and related documents we are still further below the level on which rational argument is possible than in the case of Hegel and Marx. In order to deal with rhetoric of this type, one must first develop a philosophy of language, going into the problems of symbolization on the basis of the philosophers’ experience of humanity and of the perversion of such symbols on the vulgarian level by people who are utterly unable to read a philosopher’s work. A person on this level—which I characterize as the vulgarian and, so far as it becomes socially relevant, as the ochlocratic level—again, is not admissible to the position of a partner in discussion but can only be an object of scientific research. These vulgarian and ochlocratic problems must not be taken lightly; one cannot simply not take notice of them. They are serious problems of life and death because the vulgarians create and dominate the intellectual climate in which the rise to power of figures like Hitler is possible. I would say, therefore, that in the German case the destroyers of the German language on the literary and journalistic level, characterized and analyzed over more than thirty years by Karl Kraus in the volumes of Die Fackel, were the true criminals who were guilty of the National Socialist atrocities, which were possible only when the social environment had been so destroyed by the vulgarians that a person who was truly representative of this vulgarian spirit could rise to power."

He notes that Hitler could come to power because society was intellectually and morally ruined:

"The phenomenon of Hitler is not exhausted by his person. His success must be understood in the context of an intellectually or morally ruined society in which personalities who otherwise would be grotesque, marginal figures can come to public power because they superbly represent the people who admire them. This internal destruction of a society was not finished with the Allied victory over the German armies in World War II but still goes on. I should say that the contemporary destruction of German intellectual life, and especially the destruction of the universities, is the aftermath of the destruction that brought Hitler to power and of the destruction worked under his regime. There is yet no end in sight so far as the disintegration of society is concerned, and consequences that may surprise are possible. The study of this period by Karl Kraus, and especially his astute analysis of the dirty detail (that part of it that Hannah Arendt has called the “banality of evil”), is still of the greatest importance because the parallel phenomena are to be found in our Western society, though fortunately not yet with the destructive effect that led to the German catastrophe."

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