[Expositions 5.2 (2011) 111-125]
Expositions (online) ISSN: 1747-5376
The Mind of Adolf Hitler: A Study in the Unconscious Appeal of Contempt EDWARD GREEN Manhattan School of Music
How did the mind of Adolf Hitler come to be so evil? This is a question which has been asked for decades – a question which millions of people have thought had no clear answer. This has been the case equally with persons who dedicated their lives to scholarship in the field. For example, Alan Bullock, author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, and perhaps the most famous of the biographers of the Nazi leader, is cited in Ron Rosenbaum’s 1998 book, Explaining Hitler, as saying: “The more I learn about Hitler, the harder I find it to explain” (in Rosenbaum 1998, vii). In the same text, philosopher Emil Fackenheim agrees: “The closer one gets to explicability the more one realizes nothing can make Hitler explicable” (in Rosenbaum 1998, vii).1 Even an author as keenly perceptive and ethically bold as the Swiss philosopher Max Picard confesses in his 1947 book, Hitler in Ourselves, that ultimately he is faced with a mystery.2 The very premise of his book is that somehow the mind of Hitler must be like that of ourselves. But just where the kinship lies, precisely how Hitler’s unparalleled evil and the everyday workings of our own minds explain each other – in terms of a central principle – the author does not make clear. Our Deepest Debate I say carefully, as a dispassionate scholar but also as a person of Jewish heritage who certainly would not be alive today had Hitler succeeded in his plan for world conquest, that the answer Bullock, Fackenheim, and Picard were searching for can be found in the work of the great American philosopher Eli Siegel.3 First famed as a poet, Siegel is best known now for his pioneering work in the field of the philosophy of mind.4 He was the founder of Aesthetic Realism.5 In keeping with its name, this philosophy begins with a consideration of strict ontology. It presents reality as having an enduring aesthetic structure: the oneness of opposites. The core concept of Aesthetic Realism is this statement by Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites” (quoted in Kranz, 1969, 1). On first sight, my essay has a very different focus: not ontology, but ethics; not the nature of reality as a whole, but the psychology of a single and very notorious instance of humanity. Yet – and this is an insight of the Aesthetic Realism method – these matters are interdependent. It is how the world is in our minds, Siegel explained, which determines who we are: our very selves. In every person, he stated, there is on-going debate: Do reality and the people in it deserve my respect or my contempt? As Aesthetic Realism sees it, our deepest desire is to find authentic and enduring grounds for respect. For that reason, the “greatest danger or temptation of man is to get
The Mind of Adolf Hitler
a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt” (quoted in Reiss, 1997, 7). His classic text in the field of philosophic psychology is Self and World, written largely in the early 1940s – precisely when Hitler was close to succeeding in his desire to impose his will upon the rest of humanity. In this ground-breaking book, Siegel explains that every human being relies on two sources of pleasure and power (Siegel 1981).6 The first comes from finding meaning, value, and beauty in the world different from oneself. This is the pleasure of respect, and the power arising from it is completely healthy. It is an emotion earned through perception and in keeping with the facts of the world. It is honest. The other source of pleasure is contempt. When we are after contempt, we hope to see the world and other people as beneath us, whatever the facts truly are. People become things to manipulate; they exist nearly as “inanimate” objects we have a right...
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