The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peokoff is a forceful book on the topic of the conflict between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the counter-Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment ideas have challenged the age-old foundations of statism and led to reason, freedom, and production replacing faith, force, and poverty in the Western countries. But the tragedy is that the Enlightenment ideas were not adequately defended, and this has paved way for the resurgence of counter-Enlightenment ideas in the form of Platonism and Kantian theories which inspire nihilistic culture and totalitarian politics.
Peikoff identifies Immanuel Kant as the main culprit for putting an end to the Enlightenment and opening the door to its opposite. “[Kant’s] system represents a massive effort to raise the principles of Platonism, in a somewhat altered form, once again to a position of commanding authority over Western culture.”
The Nazi Germany was a concrete manifestation of the Kantian counter-Enlightenment ideas. To explain how Kant destroyed the last remnants of the Enlightenment in Germany and paved way for Hitler’s Nazi barbarians to takeover, Peikoff takes the reader on a journey through the country’s literary and artistic landscape.
Piekoff draws a convincing connection between the work being done by the German writers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and academic intellectuals, and the Nazi political movement. The Germans did not accept Nazism because of any lack of education, rather it is their high level of education that made Hitler’s rise to power possible.
The infamous Nazi concentration camps like the one at Auschwitz were conceived, built and often administered by the Ph.D.’s. “What had those Ph.D.’s been taught to think in their schools and universities—and where did such ideas come from?”
The German universities were implanting in their students Kantian ideas which reject intellect and reason, and accept the epistemology that proclaims a defiance of reason. These students became the earliest groups to back Hitler.
“The intellectuals were among his regime’s most ardent supporters. Professors with distinguished academic credentials, eager to pronounce their benediction on the Fuhrer’s cause, put their scholarship to work full time; they turned out a library of admiring volumes, adorned with obscure allusions and learned references.”
By themselves, the Nazis could not have created the widespread anti-reason attitude that was prevalent in Germany of that era. The Nazis were cashing in on the slogans of a highly influential nineteenth-century anti-Enlightenment intellectual movement called Romanticism.
Along with Kant, philosophers like David Hume, Rousseau, and Hegel were the ideological drivers of Romanticism’s rejection of the Aristotelian heritage of the Enlightenment and acceptance of nihilism. The Romanticists were against modern science and its outcome—the Industrial Revolution. They asserted that technological and industrial progress thwarts emotional development, and that the life of a primitive peasant is the most suited for mankind.
In the chapter, “The Ethics of Evil,” Peikoff describes that the ethics of self-sacrifice proposed by the likes of Kant and August Comte that corrupted the German sense of morality and paved way for totalitarianism. The Nazis believed that the common good comes before the private good but this view is in line with Auguste Comte’s creed of altruism. Comte’s ideas were based on the ethical theories of Kant. “Kant put an end to the Enlightenment in ethics as he had done in epistemology.”
The counter-Enlightenment philosophers had done so much work that the educated class in Germany were no longer able to think coherently—they had discarded reason and logic. The Nazis, who were the philosophically produced criminals, found a country that was ripe for them.
The Nazi totalitarianism was not an aberration of history—it is possible for such a regime to gain power in America. Peikoff points out that there are ominous similarities in the intellectual environment of Nazi Germany and contemporary America. America is a nation of the Enlightenment and its philosophical foundation has been laid down by Aristotle. But the country suffers from a profound anomaly: “a solid political structure erected on a tottering base.”
The symptoms of barbarism that American politics has been progressively displaying is the result of the invasion of Kantian ideas. The Kantian invasion, led by the intellectuals like Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, has been successful in subverting the Declaration of Independence which was based on John Locke’s ideas, and promoting the Kantian Critique.
The Ominous Parallels is divided into two parts—part one is “Theory,” and part two is “Practice.” In part two Peikoff dwells on the impact that abstract philosophical ideas have when they get translated into concrete political reality. The madness in the realm of philosophy must have political consequence in the form of an equally mad political system. “The intellectuals wanted to destroy values; the public shaped by this trend ended up wanting to destroy men.” The bad philosophy of Germany spawned the culture of hatred and was responsible for the rise of the Nazi concentration camps in which millions were slaughtered.
Drawing a parallel with Nazi Germany, Peikoff points out that philosophy is in a dismal state in contemporary America. There has been a massive importation of German philosophy in the period after the Civil War. This has resulted in a rise of collectivist ideas and a leftist takeover of the nation’s academia, media, and politics. Nihilism is the new standard for the leftists who dominate the intellectual discourse and are hurtling the country in the direction of totalitarianism.
In the chapter, “Convulsion and Paralysis,” Peikoff says that the “American people may oppose the nation’s present course, but by themselves the people cannot change it.” To change a nation’s basic course requires more than a mood of popular discontent. There has to be a definition of the new direction that the country must take—a course correction can only be made only when there is a “theoretical justification for this direction, one which would convince people that the proposed course is practical and moral.”
Here’s how Ayn Rand describes the book in the introduction: “The Ominous Parallels offers a truly revolutionary idea in the field of the philosophy of history. The book is clear, tight, disciplined, beautifully structured, and brilliantly reasoned. Its style is clear and hard as crystal-and as sparkling. If you like my works, you will like this book.” There is no doubt that Peikoff deserves praise for identifying the philosophical roots of totalitarianism.
Latest posts by Anoop Verma (see all)
- The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal For America - 2017.02.21
- A Philosopher’s Intellectual Biography: Letters of Ayn Rand - 2017.01.29
- The Philosophical Roots of Totalitarianism: The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff - 2016.11.24
- Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries: A Hippie Discovers Communism and Becomes a Monster - 2016.10.12
- Jean-Paul Sartre: The Intellectual Henchman of Tyrants - 2016.10.02