Sometimes my liberal friends are asking me why I study horrible reactionary/ PI thinkers. There are many reasons why they are important. One of them is that by their more or less radical criticism of western liberal democracies, they do raise vital questions about our present (even if we have to disagree with their conclusions). Heidegger’s attempt to find a response to nihilism ended in a political disaster and moral failure of epic magnitude. The question he asked about our technological and globalized world still haunts us nevertheless.
A lighter response to this question is that … well … you never get bored with these thinkers. Seriously … Take Carl Schmitt for instance. An horrific personality by any ethical or religious standard. But the more you dig into his thought, the more you realize that he cannot be understood without his doctrine of the Katechon. To put it simply, in each age comes a savior that prevents the coming of the Anti-Christ and the end of the world (Sic, just reread Saint Paul). Schmitt really believed that the Jesuit order or the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire played this eschatological role … as well as a more sinister German leader of his time (probably he just mixed up the characters in the script).
He was definitively not alone in his apocalyptic dreams. Heidegger waited all his life for a new Parousia (Ereignis), a new coming of Being. With the publication of his Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event), I think it is impossible to deny the messianic and gnostic impulse behind his thought.
Leo Strauss comes from the same intellectual environment but at least he was a much more lucid witness of the ethical bankruptcy of a whole generation of intellectuals, chiefs among them being Schmitt and Heidegger. Still, reading him is like entering a labyrinth, once you realize that the category of “esoteric writing” that he uses to interpret the writings of medieval and early modern thinkers …. does apply to him also. And Leo Strauss is sometimes described (wrongly I think) as the ideologue behind the dumbest Republican administration you had for decades. When you know that Strauss spent most of his academic life writings about Plato or Hobbes, you have a real mystery to solve out!
Take a last of these “conservatives”: Eric Voegelin. He energetically rejected the label of conservative (really got angry about it apparently) but it was applied to him nonetheless. In his youth, he was a member of the neo-Kantian circle of Kelsen (“The Theory of Pure Law”!). Toward the end of his life, he was interested in the experience of the Sacred and its symbolization … in the Paleolithicum. Between, you have a voluminous work (some 30 volumes in the Complete work of Eric Voegelin, if I recall well) treating a vast range of subjects from Ancient Egypt to Gnosticism and modern political ideologies or the philosophy of consciousness. He was such a prolific writer that he was still dictating texts on his deathbed! There is little more rewarding than trying to sort out the secret behind his atypical intellectual trajectory (and possibly the back ground religious experience that made it possible).
In the meantime, I just started Benjamin Lazier’s God interrupted about heresy, Gnosticism and pantheism in the Weimar Republic. He claims that Scholem believed at some point in his life that he was the Messiah … well I have to sort this out too ….