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(What) might we learn from Adolf Hitler and from Otto Weininger?

January 11, 2012

Is there anything, any way, to learn something, somehow, worthwhile from a racist and from a sexist?  From a Hitler and a Weiniger?  From R. Crumb and Aristotle?

Guest blogging at Rachel Held Evans’s blog, Laura Ziesel got me thinking about these things, again.  She writes:

St. Augustine was a misogynist and Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. It’s true that the errors in those men were serious. They are full-blown sins. But these sins do not single-handedly render all of their teachings irrelevant or incorrect. St. Augustine and Martin Luther were right about many things. Pastors today who are misogynists or racists should absolutely be confronted on those sins. But, as much as it goes against my natural bent, I can still learn from them in some ways.

“I can still learn from them in some ways.” See my questions at the start of this post. Any answers?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2012 8:11 pm

    I have to take exception to lumping all these people together. First, there is absolutely no comparison between the writings of Hitler and the writings attributed to Aristotle. The former is simply nonsense, the latter challenges and informs us even to these days. No one (except nutjobs) writes seriously or admiringly about the philosophy of Hitler, while the general consensus is among philosophers is that Aristotle is a great mind.

    Even the comparison between Augustine and Luther is flawed. First, characterizing Luther as an anti-Semite and Augustine as a misogynist is highly confusing, and not only because there are serious questions about the other combination (Augustine’s attitude towards the Jews and Luther’s attitude towards women). Rather one must look at how their opinions differed from the broad consensus of their culture. Arguably, Augustine’s opinion towards women was not especially innovative and was typical of his period. On the other hand, Luther was innovative in his use of violent language in his rants against the Jews:

    I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed….
    I advise that safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews….
    I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3[:19])….

    I have not encountered a statement of similar violence in Augustine — he clearly felt that women were inferior to men and not the image of God. On the other hand, he did not advocate destroying women’s homes, murder, and labor camps. Luther’s words, of course, became the blueprint for the Final Solution.

    Your making implicit equivalences lacks nuance and sophistication — as if one were to equate a jaywalker and a murderer because both commit crimes. This is the language of countries that use minor incidents as a pretense for invasion. This is the language of those who equate Jewish usury and Holocaust. This is the language of those men who beat women claiming that “she started it.”

    We should strive for proportionality in our comparisons.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 11, 2012 10:46 pm

    Augustine’s writings on women are quite complex, multifaceted, as is his life story.

  3. January 12, 2012 7:58 am

    Theophrastus and Suzanne,

    Thank you very much for your comments. I don’t want to lump your respective points together by replying to you both in this comment of response of mine. But I do want to follow up (even if I’m not able to give as much time to this at the moment as I may have later).

    Without getting into the particulars of the “sins” of each man mentioned in my post, let’s look at the reason for naming these together.

    First, Theophrastus’ “taking exception to the lumping together” begins to show that “comparisons” may not always be equally proportioned, or nuanced, or sophisticated. That unevenness itself, I think, is valuable and is telling. It pushes us to the outer limits of our tolerance and calls on us to speak with finer discrimination, and, I hope ultimately, with self examination and with profound humility. (I’m amused that a way to keep Hitler and Aristotle apart is to focus on their writings. I admit these are different in some absolute ways. I’m not sure I was comparing the two men and am quite sure I was not implying any comparison whatsoever of their writings. On this very blog I’ve shown how horrible in various ways some of the writings of Hitler are. Elsewhere in blogging, I’ve much quoted Aristotle in a much much different way. So this is just a parenthetical note for me now.)

    When I read David Markson writing, it makes me think. I’m grateful. Markson writes again and again in his histories, his novels, the following line: “____________ is an anti-Semite.” The blank here that Markson fills in includes the following (and more): Henry Ford, Ezra Pound, St. Thomas Aquinas,George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Kant, Frederick Chopin, Alexander Pushkin, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther, Voltaire, G. K. Chesterton, Martin Heidegger, Theodore Dreiser, Cummings, Robert Lowell, Carl Off, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Henry James, Scot Fitzgerald, D. H. Lawrence, Paul de Man, Schopenhauer, H. G. Wells, Pio Baroja, Saint Augustine, Hillaire Belloc, Igor Stravinsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Erasmus, … Jonathan Edwards, … Roald Dahl, … [I’m not finished with this lumping — Markson’s lumping, the brilliant David Markson’s lumping together of anti-Semites without a nuanced sentence about their writings or their lives — but I am running out of time… the list goes on and on and on]. Markson makes me think.

    Note Markson doesn’t say even one sentence about Augustine’s writings, as Suzanne does, and nothing about Augustine’s life. Does Markson have to? We really do need to say more.

    Well, since writing the paragraph above earlier this morning, I’ve found what I can find this morning of Markson on Augustine. He does say these things:

    “Augustine vehemently condemned all study except the Scriptures. Which is to say no natural science, no philosophy, no poetry. /
    But acknowledged weeping at the death of Dido in the Aeneid.”

    “Virgil died in 19 B.C. Augustine is but one of many who appear to have sincerely believed that his fourth eclogue, which talks of the birth of a divine child, prophesied the coming of Christ.”

    “Basically every justification for persecution on the part of the Inquisition was at hand in St. Augustine.”

    “As late as well into the fifth century, Saint Augustine was finding it necessary to rebuke certain Christians for still celebrating December 25 as the winter solstice — ie, the rebirth of the sun — rather than as the Nativity of Christ.”

    “Certain men have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously, at their pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing. /
    Insisted Saint Augustine. /
    Englishwomen have big feet.”

    “Obviously, an ‘abyss’ is sometimes a hole in the ground. (Though there is also St. Agusutine: ‘If by “abyss” we mean a great depth, is not man’s heart an abyss?’)”


    “Petrarch— and the St. Augustine eternally in his pocket. /
    Reading the Confessions at the peak of Mont Ventoux.”

    So if Markson reads and then reminds us of much of Augustine’s ugliness in character, he also reminds us of some of what’s to be learned from Augustine. (Markson doesn’t say, “Petrarch was an anti-Semite” but notes that he keeps Augustine close to his heart, reading in high places, forever.)

    Second, here’s what my post has done, and is still doing. It’s not unlike Allan Bloom’s statement in his Closing of the American Mind that he’d asked his philosophy 101 students through the years, “Who is evil?” The only ones these American undergraduates could or would identify were “Adolf Hitler” and after prompting as late as the late 1970s and into the early and mid 1980s “Richard Nixon.” Bloom only goes on to lament that students don’t know more who’s “evil” and so he starts asking them who their heroes are and what books they’re inspired by. But even Bloom doesn’t take exception to the lumping of Hitler and Nixon together. He doesn’t because he’s interested more in the conversation, in the coming to some agreement that there may be evil and that even philosophy students can identify evil with people.

    Third, this is just a story, maybe an aside, but maybe some relevant to the point of my post. One of my mentors — an openly gay person a persecuted one unfortunately who was very anti-religion and outspokenly atheistic — once chided me for quoting M. Scott Peck on sin. My mentor and I were witnessing a police office break a law: the officer ran a red light while we watched stopped at an intersection. [That’s somewhere between “a jaywalker and a murderer,” let me say now, but I’ll let others infer any equivalences between these as if mentioning these together has to be seen as “lumping them together.” Anyways.] So I said to my mentor, “That reminds me of how Peck defines sin: ‘Sin is laziness’.” And my mentor snapped back, associating every mention of “sin” with religion and with homophobia: “that is soooo Jonathan Edwards of you.” My mentor knew I am neither gay nor a homophobe and can also be a somewhat unreligious agnostic although very open to theism and monotheism and trinitarian theism; he knew my struggles with my own upbringing in a very religious home where “sin” was bandied about as a convenient term for judgment and condemnation and separation and othering and ironic persecution. We talked openly about these things, my mentor and I did, usually. But he shut down conversation when taking exception to my quotation of Peck on sin. We never came back to that, and I regret it to this day. Was Augustine lazy? Was Luther? I’m not sure? Sin? Lumped together? Well, that’s a question. Won’t asking these questions help us, together?

  4. January 12, 2012 1:03 pm

    Kurk: is it really so surprising that Augustine, arguably one of the most human of all the philosophers, (which is why students still read The Confessions) was inconsistent? Why would this bother you about Augustine, but not about, for example Nietzsche?

    I’m amused that a way to keep Hitler and Aristotle apart is to focus on their writings.

    It is pretty much the only way to compare them. We know so little about Aristotle’s actual personal history.

    On the other hand, Hitler tends to be identified with all of the evils of the Nazi empire. As you may know this has been a topic of extraordinary debate among historians. Clearly Hitler did not personally invade Poland and France; clearly Hitler did not personally execute the “Final solution”; etc. There were many people who need to share responsibility for those horrors, and some claim that there was even something about German society that made it ripe for the Nazi evils.

    But Mein Kampf was not the work of any other person. It was completely written by Hitler, and we can take it as his personal statement.

  5. January 12, 2012 4:44 pm

    It’s regretable that we know more about Aristotle’s ideas and methods (yes from his writings) than we do about his life. Any good biography of him — and would somebody please write this — must include Phaestis (Aristotle’s mother), Erpyllida (the foster mother), Arimneste (the older sister), Pythias (the first wife who bore their daughter), Pythias (the daughter), and Herpyllis (the concubine who bore their son), Nichomachus (that son to whom Aristotle dedicated one of his treatises on Ethics presumably) and Nichomachus (Aristotle’s father, after whom the same treatise might have been entitled). I’m bringing up the women in his life because one wonders – reading all of his writings about females – whether he consistently mistreated them the way his writings suggest he, a male, would.

    Please know that I’m not bothered by inconsistencies (and am more suspicious when there’s the veneer of consistency). Much of my sociolinguistic research is to get at human inconsistencies in their stated (written or spoken) beliefs.

    Speaking of inconsistencies in Augustine, I think there’s another way to look at that. And I sometime imagine this for Aristotle too — maybe they were evolving, were actually on the cusp of abandoning their gynophobia, as they wrote. People do change. And learning is a part of that. This is some the hope I was wanting to get at with my post. There can be difference made in a positive way through encounters with the not so positive.

    Augustine’s Confessions is still being read. But not always in the way he may have wanted, not only because he’s a “human” philosopher. You may have read Felecia McDuffie’s brilliant, insightful, and astute essay, “Augustine’s Rhetoric of the Feminine in the Confessions: Woman as Mother, Woman as Other” (in Feminist Interpretations of Augustine). McDuffie attends to Augustine’s language, his appropriations of the feminine and his tropes for the masculine; he’s trying to cull out the positive of feminity from what he can only mostly see as negative. With an approach like that, which is progress depending on who’s reading, how can he be consistent? If you’re a man, then do you follow that, swallow it, easier than if you’re a woman?

    (I’m always up for talking about Nietzsche or Hitler, and what they wrote and how they lived and who they were, but for now I’m not sure what to add here.)

  6. January 12, 2012 5:28 pm

    I am afraid I have not read McDuffie. In fact, there is so much secondary literature on Augustine, but I have not even yet read all of the primary literature. What can I say in excuse — a day is finite.

    But my connection with Nietzsche and Augustine was meant to suggest a different point — that to me, both Nietzsche and Augustine are in part interesting because they deal with human interests. There concern is ultimately with the question: how should one live one’s life, and we do not see some sort of abstracted ideal philosopher-king who perfectly controls his passions: we see real people, people that are easier for us to identify with. In contrast, when one reads a philosopher like Kant, for example, one see both rigor (something that Augustine and Nietzsche have much less of) and also a sort of nearly inhuman requirement that one apply precepts perfectly. When i think of those ideals, I only think of how far short I fall.


  1. (What) might we learn from R Crumb and from Charlie Hebdo? | BLT

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