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Ominous Parallels Reconsidered

Forty years ago, I reviewed Leonard Peikoff’s Ominous Parallels very negatively, and with one exception, of which the less said, the better, this proved to be the most controversial review I have ever written. Perhaps it is time for a second look. In what follows, I’ll discuss some of the book’s main points and then offer a few critical remarks.

The philosopher Leonard Peikoff was a member of Ayn Rand’s inner circle, and she considered him her intellectual heir. He has been the guiding light of the “official” Objectivist organization, the Ayn Rand Institute, since its inception. His aim in Ominous Parallels is to interpret Nazism from the standpoint of Objectivist philosophy and then, as the title suggests, to show that the philosophical errors that led to Nazism threaten America.

Peikoff begins by calling attention to a startling fact. During the years the Nazis held power, a very large number of Germans gave Hitler unquestioned obedience. They put aside their own self-interest because they believed it their moral duty always to obey the state, even if what the state commanded violated ordinary morality, and this led to horrible crimes. Why did they believe this? Peikoff’s answer leads him to a broad survey of Western thought, undertaken in the first part of the book, “Theory”; this is followed by the second part, “Practice,” which gives a detailed account of the decay of the Weimar Republic, the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, and the parallels with developments in America.

Peikoff states the basic premise of his analysis succinctly: “An evil of such magnitude cannot be a product of superficial factors. In order to make it, and its German popularity, intelligible, one must penetrate to its deepest, most hidden roots. One must grasp its nature and its causes in terms of fundamentals” (emphasis in original). Philosophy is the science of fundamentals, and thus the requisite deep understanding of Nazism must be sought in that discipline.

Objectivists believe that the universe consists of “concretes” that we perceive directly and that our concepts come from abstracting from these concretes. There are no innate concepts. Unlike nonhuman animals, who behave instinctively to secure their survival, humans have no instincts. For this reason, each person must choose to live in order to survive, and, if he does choose this, his own survival is his standard of value. This egoistic ethics is antipodal to the altruistic ethics of self-sacrifice to the collective that lies at root of Nazism.

In the ancient world, Aristotle came closest to the correct philosophy, although his account of universals and his ethics and politics contained mistakes, but unfortunately, other philosophers have derailed correct thought. Peikoff says, “If we view the West’s philosophical development in terms of essentials, three fateful turning points stand out, three major philosophers who, above all others, are responsible for generating the disease of collectivism and transmitting it to the dictators of our [twentieth] century. The three are: Plato—Kant—Hegel. (The antidote to them is: Aristotle.)”

The key mistake of these thinkers is that, in different ways, they claimed that a supernatural world, which does not consist of concretes, exists in addition to the ordinary world. We do not have access to this world through reason, but it is more important than the world of concretes. Indeed, compared with this supernatural world, the ordinary world doesn’t exist. Philosophers can gain access to this “higher” world through nonrational means, and people must sacrifice their own well-being to act in accordance with the “higher” world as these philosophers direct.

Peikoff finds the same mindset in religion, and he accordingly takes a dim view of the Middle Ages, in which the church, influenced by Saint Augustine, claimed access to the supernatural world and deprecated reason. Thomas Aquinas, to his credit, took a different view. “Aquinas’s reintroduction of Aristotelianism was the beginning—the beginning of the end of the medieval period, the beginning of the beginning of the era of reason.” (Aquinas is usually thought to be at the center of the High Middle Ages, but Peikoff thinks rigidly within his scheme of things. Since the Middle Ages were “bad” but Aquinas was “good,” Aquinas cannot be medieval in the full sense.)

While the Renaissance and the rise of modern science struck blows at medieval darkness, real liberation was not at hand until the Enlightenment. “The development from Aquinas through Locke and Newton represents more than four hundred years of stumbling, torturous, prodigious efforts to secularize the Western mind, i.e., to liberate man from the medieval shackles. It was the buildup toward a climax: the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. For the first time in modern history, authentic reason became the hallmark of a culture” (emphasis in original).

Unfortunately, in the German-speaking world, the Enlightenment suffered a near-fatal blow. Immanuel Kant was the dominant figure of the German Enlightenment, but ironically so, Peikoff holds, because Kant was in essence an opponent of the Enlightenment, denying reason in order to make room for faith. Kant thought human understanding can lead us only to the world of appearances constructed by our innate concepts; knowledge of the world in itself, the noumenal world, is inaccessible to us. In ethics, Kant held that if we aim for our own happiness, our actions lack moral worth; only if we struggle against our individual desires can we be strengthened for, as Kant said, “whatever sacrifice a man’s respect for his duty may demand of him.”

If one adds to this G. W. F. Hegel’s call for everyone to obey the state unconditionally, Nazism is not far away:

No weird cultural aberration produced Nazism. No intellectual lunatic fringe miraculously overwhelmed a civilized country. It is modern philosophy—not some peripheral aspect of it, but the most central of its mainstreams—which turned the Germans into a nation of killers. The land of poets and philosophers was brought down by its poets and philosophers.

Peikoff acknowledges that “Kant is not a full-fledged statist, . . . Kant accepts certain elements of individualism, not because of his basic approach, but in spite of it, as a legacy of the Enlightened period in which he lived. This merely suggests that Kant did not grasp the political applications of his own metaphysics and epistemology.”

Peikoff maintains that the “heroism of the Founding Fathers was that they recognized an unprecedented opportunity, the chance to create a country of individual liberty for the first time in history,” but although in “the deepest philosophical sense, it is Aristotle who laid the foundation of the United States of America,” the Founding Fathers lacked the philosophical resources for an adequate defense of their achievement. America soon fell prey to misguided Kantian errors, and today “we are drifting as Germany moved, in the same direction, for the same kind of reason.”

I have tried to present Peikoff’s main argument in as neutral a fashion as I can; with what success I leave others to judge. I shall now venture a few critical remarks. Peikoff presents his argument very systematically, and he writes with clarity and force. He is certainly right that the notion that one ought to obey the state unconditionally played an important role in the Nazi state, and, more generally, he is right that philosophical ideas are important. But by no means has he proved that they occupy the central role he assigns to them. He does no more that reiterate, again and again, that because philosophy is the “science of fundamentals,” its causal role in history must be primary. I entirely fail to feel the force of that “must.”

His ungrounded assertion of this doctrine of causal primacy, when combined with another mistake, makes this book a failure. This mistake is that he describes the philosophical views of those he blames for the Nazis in a fashion that makes these views seem ridiculous. Sometimes philosophers do come up with ridiculous ideas, but it is a sound maxim that one should expound major thinkers in a way that makes readers see their rational appeal.

Peikoff asks this question: How can one explain the fact that so many Germans acted against their self-interest by giving the Nazi state unconditional obedience? In asking this question, he ignores the fact that many supporters of the Nazi program thought that they would gain from supporting it. (Peikoff does recognize that the Nazi movement included people who profited from graft, but this he thinks of minor importance.) As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, many Nazis thought that Hitler’s policies would bring prosperity. Their error lay in bad economics rather than bad philosophy. I hope I will not meet with the reply that the ultimate source of the bad economics must be bad philosophy because “philosophy is the science of fundamentals.”

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