Tyranny and Revolution:
Rousseau to Heidegger
Waller R. Newell
M. P. Ross 09-15-2022
Two academics met at a deli for lunch. As part of his daily routine, Manny Kant was known for taking long walks, during which he was able to combine exercise and fresh air with the time and space to consider the difficult philosophical concepts that comprised the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of his work. It was lunchtime, and Kant was getting hungry.
Knowing the importance of these walks, his friend, Fred Hegel, suggested that Kant make use of the occasion of their lunch to incorporate a nice walk in getting to the deli. Take 2nd Ave. down to Delancey, go east for several blocks, right there on the south side of the street. What they both knew was that 2nd Ave. qua 2nd Ave. terminated at Houston St. In sending Kant by this route, Hegel was making a point.
Observable phenomenon made plain that one could walk without undue obstacle down 2nd, crossing Houston, all the way to Delancey St. The signs were also clear. From Houston to Canal, one was no longer on 2nd, but on Chrystie St. Strictly speaking, Chrystie taken together with Forsyth–mediated by Sara D. Roosevelt Park, not to mention the use of “y” as a vowel—was a boulevard; but that is another matter distinct from our present discussion.
Chrystie St. comprises the middle term between 2nd and Delancey, in a sense creating a unified concept of the Lower East Side, from the culture of the theaters on 2nd to daily life on Delancey. It’s arguable. Which is to say, it is arguable. It further suggests, given the opportunities for mishap and misadventure, that bridging the gap from the conceptual to the contingent, without something going terribly wrong, may be no easy task.
Lunch was served. For each, a bowl of soup; they split a mountain of a pastrami on rye sandwich. Hegel, looked down at his soup, spoon paused mid cut into a matzo ball, and said to Kant, “The Owl of Minerva? It’s chicken.” They both got a laugh out of this. But enough of the pleasant chit-chat, lunch is on the table, time to get down to business.
Had G. W. F. Hegel spoken that dialect of German common to the environs of 2nd and Delancey, he would have termed this the Tuches afn Tisch Moment. Time to get down to business.
Throughout the entirety of The Phenomenology of Spirit, the closest Hegel gets to telling us what he means by Spirit is that it is the Actuality of the Ethical Substance. Political theory and philosophy, religious texts and scientific discoveries, and no less the Actuality of the Ethical Substance—life as it is lived in society—provide the foundational concepts out of which constitutions and laws are created. How these concepts are understood, and notably how they are misconstrued or misapplied, perhaps with the conscious intent to further contrary aims, has demonstrably affected the lives of millions with devastating consequences. The task of applied political theory, and those who practice it, is to distill pure theory into clearly understood principles and practices not just for those who draft constitutions, laws, and treaties, but for the populations who must live by them and under the leaders and governments who will enforce them.
Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger is Waller R. Newell’s third book of a trilogy addressing tyrants and tyranny. It is not light summer beach reading—unless you take your vacation on the North Sea during a particularly stormy summer, listening playlist heavy on the Wagner. Rather than the more comprehensive scope of the previous two books, Tyranny and Revolution concentrates on the philosophical thought that modern tyranny, from the late 18th through the 20th century, made use of in crafting and justifying their regimes, or at any rate provides the theoretical basis for after the fact analysis.
Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are each the focus of a chapter as the book explores the Philosophy of Freedom, or German Idealism, and its influence on what became tyrannical regimes. At its essence, this involves the development of the concepts of the individual and of the community or state, and their relationship to one another. Related, but nonetheless distinct, are the concepts of individual agency, through which the historical process evolves, against that of eternal truths, such as those of the ancient Greeks or of revealed religion. Making sense of human existence still occupies philosophy, religion, and the social sciences. Outside our own front doors we are confronted with the culture wars and the fate of American democracy.
Tyranny is obviously neither unique to Europe nor the last several centuries, so the role of German Idealism is necessarily limited in scope. Among modern writers, Newell has a strong claim to the territory of tyrants and tyranny. The immense flow of thought and history into and out of it are well known to him. It is curious, then, to note his mention of God in Genesis walking among Man in the Garden of Eden. Maimonides is adamant that God is not only unitary, but completely incorporeal. Any attribute to the contrary is to be understood as a homonym. So the version of God cited in this instance by Newell is most likely both European and Christian, and in the context of religion qua political theory. This raises the question of how, in other times or places, German Idealism or other causes relate to tyranny.
A friend, a PhD. in cultural anthropology, was researching mental health care in Tamil Nadu, India. Their approach to the causes and treatment of schizophrenia puzzled me. Surely, the pathology of the disease must be the same, regardless of the nationality or location of the patient. From what I was told, however, the practitioners in Tamil Nadu who were part of the study not only identified different causes for their patients’ symptoms, but found success using their own methods of treatment.
Are the same or different varieties of tyranny found outside Europe? How would the Chinese or Iranians, with extensive histories of statecraft and governing empire, make sense of German Idealist philosophy? Newell covers this base, reminding us of Mao’s use of Marx, and Khomeini’s of Heidegger (through the writing of Ali Shariati). Whether they were any more faithful to the philosopher’s intent, or successful in implementing it, than the Jacobins with Rousseau or Nazis with Heidegger depends on what side of the stadium you sit or the distance from outside it.
World culture has accumulated a wealth of experience with all manner of government and society. Hegel identified the End of History, the sum of the historical process through which Spirit develops, with his contemporary Prussian state. Later Hegelians would correct this to western liberal democracy. Through the rise and fall of Marxist-Leninist communism, and the re-emergence of both fundamentalist Islamic caliphates and elected authoritarians, while the world might be caught unawares, taken by surprised, the road map may be old, but it is clearly marked. We have long been on well-trod ground, layer upon layer of civilizations, hardly terra incognita.
Tyranny and Revolution maps this territory. It is serious reading, drawn from even more dense and difficult source material. Any ten pages would be sufficient to occupy the earnest reader for a week, working through concepts, implications, and remedies. It would be a tall order to ask the book, which has already done the heavy lifting of creating order and making sense of Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger—along with hefty portions of the political theory canon—in the context of tyranny, to then sum it all up with a general principle that explains the problem, provides the solution, and compels compliance. With a fully satisfactory and reliable answer? No one has yet.