“AND WHAT ABOUT unbiased research? What about pure knowledge?” bursts out the more idealistic of the two debaters. Before the other, the more cynical one, even has a chance to answer, the idealist ambushes him with even grander questions: “What about the truth, my dear sir, which is so intimately bound up with freedom, and its martyrs?” We can picture the caustic smile on the cynic’s face. “My good friend,” the cynic answers, “there is no such thing as pure knowledge.” His words come out calmly, fully formed, in sharp contrast to the idealist’s passionate, if sometimes logically disjointed pronouncements. The cynic’s rebuttal is merciless:

Faith is the vehicle of understanding, the intellect is secondary. Your unbiased science is a myth. Faith, a world view, an idea — in short, the will — is always present, and it is then reason’s task to examine and prove it. In the end we always come down to “quod erat demonstrandum.” The very notion of proof contains, psychologically speaking, a strong voluntaristic element.

To the idealist, brought up in the grand tradition of the European Enlightenment, this looks like a mockery of all he stands for. He can’t take the cynic’s reasoning other than as a tasteless joke. “No, let’s be serious, professore,” he implores. Whenever his emotions are running too high, he tends to mix in words from his native Italian, evidence not of cosmopolitanism but of insecurity. “Do you believe in truth, in objective, scientific truth?” The idealist thinks that, with such a frontal attack, he has finally cornered the cynic. Whereupon the latter feels obliged to divulge what he makes of truth. “Whatever profits man is true.” Truth does not exist in the abstract, he explains, but only in relation to our concrete position in the world. Truth is “situated,” as we would say today, or it’s worthless. “Theoretical knowledge with no practical application in the realm of man’s salvation is so totally uninteresting that we must deny it any value as truth and exclude it entirely.” The idealist’s grand talk about the search after truth for its own sake and the pursuit of knowledge as a completely disinterested affair was just that — talk. Moreover, such talking was socially dangerous because it bred vanity, delusion, and self-deception:

[T]he task of true science is not the pursuit of worthless information, but rather the elimination on principle of what is pernicious, even of what is merely without significance as an idea, and, in a word, to proclaim instinct, moderation, choice. […] What has led man into darkness, and will continue to lead him ever deeper is “unbiased” — that is, aphilosophical — natural science.

And the argument goes on and on. The two debate like this for hours — page after intense page. For this philosophical argument — one of the most important of the 20th century, according to many — did not happen in real life but in a work of fiction: in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain.

Not that this makes much of a difference: as long as an idea is born and formulated, it matters little whether it comes from the pages of a novel or from the mouth of a flesh-and-blood philosopher. Indeed, some of the boldest ideas of the 19th century likewise came from philosophers who didn’t bother to exist in flesh and blood: Zarathustra, Ivan Karamazov, Kirrilov, Oblomov, the underground man, and others. Given the philosophers’ customary inclination to take leave of mundane reality and live preeminently in an ideal realm, there is something remarkably apposite about this situation. It is as though the superior — at once intense and coherent, if entirely irreal — world made possible by a work of art (novel, poem, movie) were these dreamers’ perfect homeland. (Not to mention that, as far as the rest of us are concerned, a philosopher’s merely literary existence would come with the added benefit that we would not have to put up with his insufferable airs and haughtiness — not a negligible perk, this.)

Be that as it may, the two debaters in Mann’s novel don’t miss anything by having a merely novelistic existence. Lodovico Settembrini, the idealist, is a thoroughly decent fellow, a polyglot and a polymath, as intellectually sophisticated as he is civically minded, and it’s hard not to agree with much of what he says, even though he often comes across as cloud-headed (but who wouldn’t at 10,000 feet?). Leo Naphta, the cynic, is no less fascinating a figure. His interventions are singularly penetrating — not just bold, but iconoclastic — and his philosophical method of going against the grain makes him an unforgettable interlocutor. Jesuitical thinking at its best. True, Mann modeled Naphta on a real philosopher, György Lukács, but only by way of parody, and that doesn’t in the least affect his out-of-this-world brilliance and integrity as a thinker.

The conversations between Settembrini and Naphta in Davos are not just memorable but shattering — apocalyptic in the original sense. Under the guise of an intellectual debate, something profound about Europe — about its past and its future, and quite a bit about its soul — is being revealed and given shape.

That Mann (1875–1955) performed an exceptional feat with this book was further proven by the fact that soon life itself tried to imitate his novel. In March 1929, just five years after the book’s publication, a much-anticipated debate was organized between two real-life professional philosophers: Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). The announced topic was quite different from what Mann’s characters had debated: freedom and rationality in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. The Magic Mountain, however, was too much on people’s minds to ignore, hard as some of the participants may have tried. As Wolfram Eilenberger observes in his 2018 book Time of the Magicians (recently released by Penguin in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside), “Cassirer and Heidegger mirror with an almost uncanny precision the ideological struggle between Lodovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta.”

Just like Settembrini, Cassirer was a child of the Enlightenment, zealously promoting its heroes, principles, and values. He had always cut a sunny, Olympian figure in German intellectual life, whereas Heidegger, by contrast, was a darker and more unsettling thinker. Lacking independent means, Heidegger, like Naphta, was the beneficiary of generous help from the Catholic Church, which funded his education; he even briefly joined a Jesuit seminary, but health troubles prevented him from pursuing a career in the Church. With all of that came, just as it did for Naphta, a profound familiarity with the thinking of the so-called “dark ages.” Later in life, Heidegger left Catholicism, but it’s not entirely clear that the latter ever left him.

The debate itself, perhaps because of the long shadow cast by The Magic Mountain, fell short of general expectations. “It had not in fact come to a real battle, or even to real combat,” observes Eilenberger. Anticipating another Settembrini-Naphta intellectual duel, correspondents for major European newspapers had gathered in Davos — but only, as it turned out, to record an anti-climax. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung spelled out the disappointment:

Rather than seeing two worlds collide, at best we enjoyed the spectacle of a very nice person and a very violent person, who was still trying terribly hard to be nice, delivering monologues. In spite of this all members of the audience seemed to be very gripped, and congratulated one another for having been there.

But why should we be surprised? When life tries to imitate art, it usually takes a beating. Even the most awe-inspiring starry night fades when compared to Van Gogh’s.

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The Cassirer-Heidegger debate, however, is only an excuse for Eilenberger’s story in Time of the Magicians. He begins his book with it — gives us a description of the glamorous setting, takes us behind the scenes, and introduces the main performers — but that’s pretty much it. Before we come to the debate proper, Eilenberger takes us on a slow journey inside the lives of the two debaters, Cassirer and Heidegger, over the preceding 10 years, adding a couple of other portraits — of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). We soon understand that the real debate Eilenberger’s book is about is not what happened, for two hours, between Heidegger and Cassirer in Davos (that was just a short, concluding episode, meant primarily for public consumption), but something far more consequential: whatever happened — philosophically, but also socially, culturally, and politically — over the previous 10 years across Europe, from Berlin to Napoli, from Paris to Moscow, from Vienna to Cambridge. That larger, 10-year-old debate involved more people, more ideas, and fiercer battles than what the little Swiss town could accommodate. And, unlike the staged show in Davos, that process had real drama. 

The structure of this story shows Eilenberger’s sure instinct and outstanding skill as a philosophical narrator. The Magic Mountain may be barely mentioned in Time of the Magicians, but even at the level of titles, the proximity is unmistakable. Eilenberger has the excellent idea of not even trying to resist Mann’s influence, but to ride on it. In part because of the spell cast by Mann’s novel, what Eilenberger does in his book is primarily storytelling — philosophical storytelling, that is. The smart introduction of the protagonists, the careful laying out of the plot, the dramatic buildup, a change of pace here, an ellipsis there — these and other tricks of the novelistic trade are on full display in Time of the Magicians. Eilenberger has the born storyteller’s gift of placing the meaty detail or the revealing anecdote exactly where it will have the biggest impact. Introducing Wittgenstein, for example, he quotes the remark that John Maynard Keynes made to his wife when the genius from Vienna showed up at Cambridge in January 1929: “Well, God has arrived, I met him on the 5:15 train.” The first years of the Weimar Republic were for most Germans times of unspeakable misery and social degradation, captured poignantly by the citation of a letter from Heidegger to his wife on the important matter of potatoes (“What should I do when the potatoes arrive?”). Or this fragment from Benjamin: “Certainly there are many different ways of going hungry. But none of them is worse than doing it in the midst of a starving people.”

Yet the spell of Mann’s novel, however strong, is not enough to explain the prevailing narrativity we come across in Eilenberger’s book. Something deeper seems to be at work here. The history of philosophy in the West has been a notoriously riotous affair: the most common way for Western philosophers to assert themselves has been by putting down those who came before them. “They’ve all been wrong, but I’ve come to put things in order at last,” that’s what every major thinker seems to have said, if not in so many words. The spirit of this tradition is agonistic above all: it’s through challenge and contestation, refutation and criticism that philosophy has evolved in the West, if that’s what it has done. This is what Socrates did with the pre-Socratic, “naturalist” philosophers, whom he sought to displace, and also what today’s philosophers do all the time. That’s why, even as a particular philosophy may make sense in its own terms, the history of Western philosophy as such does not — it often looks like a 25-centuries-long dialogue among the deaf. Hegel for one tried to make some philosophical sense of the cacophony, and we still can’t forgive him for that. Not that we have a better solution, but we find his schemata a bit too oppressive for our tastes.

Yet the history of philosophy, even though it may not make sense philosophically, can, at least at the local level, make a different kind of sense — narrative sense. If we pay closer attention, we will realize that what a group of philosophers think and say often makes sense as a story. A narrative necessity compels them to proceed in a certain matter, to do some things rather than others, to take a certain position and not another. And for this narrative sense to be retrieved and formulated, one needs the storyteller’s methods and tools. This is what Sarah Bakewell did in her 2016 book At the Existentialist Café: once she stumbled upon a promising thread, she pursued it doggedly and did not let it go until she had narrated the whole saga of European existentialism and phenomenology. Stuart Jeffries followed pretty much the same method in Grand Hotel Abyss (2016), in which he gave us the Bildungsroman of the Frankfurt School. And that’s exactly what Eilenberger does now in Time of the Magicians: he pursues a particular cluster of thinkers because they reveal themselves to be part of the same philosophical plot. The plot is not Eilenberger’s, it is the tale Heidegger, Cassirer, Benjamin, and Wittgenstein wove together — sometimes wittingly, but mostly not — as they asserted themselves on the German philosophical stage of the 1920s. Like any great story, Eilenberger’s is not made up, but retrieved. Events have a way of narrating themselves when they encounter a gifted storyteller.

What makes these philosophers part of the same plot is not just the handful of common topics (the issue of language, for example) haunting their respective works but also, and equally importantly, the human predicament they shared as German-language thinkers in the aftermath of World War I. The experience of the war itself, the collapse of the old European order, the Weimar Republic and its crises, the Bolshevik Revolution with its promises and failures, the rise of Stalinism and Nazism, all these developments called for a new kind of philosophizing. And Eilenberger’s four philosophers heard that call. With these thinkers, as he shows persuasively in his book, philosophy was no longer merely an affair of the mind but demanded a complete existential involvement: the philosopher’s biography became part and parcel of his philosophical project. Who you are cannot be separated from what you think and say because you are what you think and say. You don’t do philosophy for just a few hours in the morning and then turn into an ordinary citizen. You do it all the time, when you work and when you don’t, while you are awake and while you dream — especially while you dream. Philosophy for these thinkers was not a job or field of study, it was a commitment to a certain type of existence: a way of seeing and feeling and listening to the world.

Philosophy, then, is nothing if not embodied. And that’s precisely what makes these four figures such excellent storytelling material. They are all characters in search of an author. For to embody philosophy is to enact a drama. A major source of dramatic tension, for virtually every one of Eilenberger’s quartet of thinkers, was their relationship with the academic milieu. To understand and practice philosophy as a way of life in the modern world is to place yourself on a collision course with the university. Such an attitude, Eilenberger observes, “exists in perceptible tension with the objectives of a purely academic subject, with its institutionally defined goals, performance appraisals, and career paths.” As such, an “open rebellion against and contempt for” academic philosophy was “one of the few historical fundamental constants of the discipline.” Some of the most important figures of modern European thought, from Descartes and Spinoza to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, did not hold academic positions in the field of philosophy. Or, if they did, they “generally cultivated the greatest possible distance from the academy.” It’s in large part because of their complicated academic lives that Eilenberger’s four characters generate such a compelling plot.

While later in life Wittgenstein would get to teach philosophy at Cambridge, during the period that concerns Eilenberger he tried, for the most part, to lead “a life of honest toil” and to achieve “lasting poverty.” Which was not exactly easy considering that he came from one of Europe’s wealthiest families. Having signed over his whole fortune to his siblings, Wittgenstein embarked on a career as a primary school teacher in the Austrian countryside. The novelist Thomas Bernhard, who wrote a book about the philosopher, could hardly conceal his amusement: “[T]he multi-millionaire as a village schoolmaster is surely a piece of perversity.” The perversity came to a halt, however, when Wittgenstein, having repeatedly hit a certain pupil on the head, sending him into a faint, abruptly quit his teaching job and made himself scarce. Subsequently, his relationship with the Vienna Circle, which was based at the University of Vienna and which his 1921 Tractatus so inspired, was one long misunderstanding punctuated by a series of humorous episodes, which Eilenberger recounts to great comic effect.

Benjamin’s failure to join the German academic system has become the stuff of legend. The most famous episode involves the rejection of his Habilitation thesis by the University of Frankfurt, but we would do injustice to Benjamin’s zealous pursuit of academic failure should we focus on this one act only. By 1929, Benjamin had “tried to find employment at many different universities (Bern, Heidelberg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Göttingen, Hamburg, and Jerusalem) […] and had failed each and every time.” Sometimes that happened because of antisemitic prejudices, but “mostly because of his own chronic indecisiveness.” Similarly, we would be unfair to Benjamin’s unique talent of messing things up if we limited ourselves to his academic life. For he always sought to practice failure on a grand, holistic scale. By the age of 37, writes Eilenberger, Benjamin

could look back on dozens of large-scale failures. Over the previous decades spent juggling different roles — freelance philosopher, journalist, and critic — he had above all been an inexhaustible source of abortive projects. Whether attempts to found journals for publishing companies, academic papers or monumental translation commissions (the complete works of Proust and Baudelaire), series of thrillers or ambitious stage plays, they went no further than initial announcements and first outlines.

Just how does one manage to do that? It’s not easy, but it can be done if you put your mind to it. We find something like a recipe in one of Benjamin’s letters to Gershom Scholem, detailing a new magazine he was planning: “The plan, which is entirely my own, is to found a journal which does not have the slightest concern for the paying public, so that it can serve the intellectual public all the more resolutely.” How, one wonders, could he not fail?

Heidegger’s relationship with the university was more complicated. (But, then again, what’s not complicated when it comes to Heidegger?) He ended up a rather strange animal: at once a consummate academic insider and someone who constantly rebelled against and made copious fun of “academic philosophizing.” To Karl Jaspers, he wrote: “I don’t long for the company of professors. The farmers are much more pleasant and even more interesting.” In the 1920s, Jaspers (who was himself a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg) was Heidegger’s close friend, and together they plotted to dismantle the German university from within. However, Eilenberger drily observes, even as “they conspired to join forces in an anti-academic resistance cell, Heidegger’s dearest hope was to be elevated, somewhere in the great expanses of the collapsing Republic, to a lifetime post as a state-sponsored intellectual.” To that end, Heidegger counted on Jaspers’s invaluable help.

But Heidegger was a very charismatic professor of philosophy, as attested by so many of his students, first at Marburg and then at Freiburg. It was not for nothing that Hannah Arendt thought of him as the “secret king” of German philosophy. Heidegger’s unique brand of philosophizing came with an equally unique teaching style, one that shifted the emphasis from “from instruction to performance, from tutoring to proselytizing.” As Eilenberger puts it, the “academic teacher had to become a master, the seminar leader an existential guide — and one capable of dragging others with him into the void.” Heidegger’s teaching career reached a climax of sorts in 1933 when, soon after Hitler’s rise to power, he became the new rector of Freiburg University. The philosopher of the abyss now had the chance to formulate a new vision for the German university: “Let not theoretical principles and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being. The Führer himself and he alone is the German reality and its law today and in the future.” Sometimes, when you gaze into the abyss long enough, you may spot there, at its bottom, a hideous caricature of yourself, pointing at you and laughing like a madman.

Of Eilenberger’s four thinkers, Cassirer cuts the finest, most appealing figure as an academic philosopher. For a long time, because of his Jewish background, he was passed over for a tenured professorship, despite his enormous intellectual stature. Yet all Cassirer could say of his colleagues’ behavior was: “I can’t force them to love me.” During World War I, he kept teaching even under the most difficult of circumstances; nothing — not even a catastrophic war — could stop this ideal German citizen from doing his duty. Eventually, the academic establishment underwent a change of heart and accepted him, and Cassirer went on to have a brilliant academic career, first in Germany and then abroad. The university life fit him like a glove. Unlike the other three heroes of Eilenberger’s book, Cassirer never saw “his rootedness in the culture of university philosophy as a problem.” If anything, it stimulated and energized him, and gave meaning to his life. In everything he did, Cassirer was balance embodied. Those who knew him never failed to be impressed by his serenity and sense of moderation. “Cassirer’s only truly radical trait was his will to equilibrium,” Eilenberger quips.

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“But how unfair! How awfully unfair!” As you dive into Eilenberger’s book, sooner or later, that’s what you will come to say to yourself. For, of the four philosophers, Cassirer is the least known today, his work studied only by a handful of specialists, his name buried in obscurity. And yet he was the finest scholar of all, the most learned, the best behaved, and a very decent person to boot. Indeed, he was the most psychologically stable of the four. “How unjust history can be sometimes!” you keep telling yourself.

No doubt, Cassirer was eminently sane. In Eilenberger’s story he comes across, conspicuously, as “the only one who never suffered a nervous breakdown. Nor do we know of his suffering any major creative blocks or depressive episodes.” But maybe that was his problem. The others had their issues, some of them serious. Benjamin could be a very difficult, overbearing person. He was prone to dissolute episodes, spent much time and money in brothels, and eventually abandoned his family. He had his mental breakdowns and suicidal moments (he eventually died by his own hand). Not to be outdone, Wittgenstein was a depressive and a connoisseur in all matters suicidal (“I know that suicide is always a dirty business”). When he was not beating his pupils blue, the genius from Vienna was “prone to sudden outbursts of fury, and could be extremely unforgiving.” Sometimes a “single word out of place or jocular observation could lead to years of rancor, indeed to a breakdown in relations.” You wouldn’t want to mess, or even socialize, with Wittgenstein. As for Heidegger, if joining the Nazis was not madness enough, at the end of the war, he got himself sent to a mental clinic, having suffered a nervous collapse. How is it, then, that thinkers with serious mental problems and behavioral issues come to leave such a deep mark on history, and their work passes the test of time, whereas such a finely balanced scholar as Cassirer is so cruelly forgotten?

Mann’s Leo Naphta may have the answer. In one of his debates with Settembrini, the Jesuit praises the benefits of illness, arguing that suffering, affliction, disorder of some kind or another are fundamental to what we are. “To be human” is simply “to be ill.” Man is “ill by nature,” and it is his illness that makes him properly human. Whoever seeks “to make him healthy and attempt[s] to get him to make peace with nature” wants nothing more than to “dehumanize man and turn him into an animal.” And that’s not all. It’s not just that we are sick creatures, Naphta believes; illness is a key to human greatness. All human accomplishments have been made possible by illness; creativity is a function of it. The “dignity and nobility of man” is based “in the Spirit, in illness.” Therefore, he concludes, “the more ill” a man is “the more highly human” he is. The “genius of illness” is “more human than that of health.” If humans have evolved, that has happened only because they have suffered. Progress is “due solely to illness, or better, to creative genius,” which is “one and the same thing as illness.”

In a 1927 letter to his wife, Cassirer wrote: “I can express everything I need without difficulty.” The statement is of course admirable, but it can only come from someone who has never ventured toward the outer margins of his being — into those dark, dizzy regions where things lose their names and illness irrupts, where nothingness is felt as stabbing pain or else madness begins. When you come back from there, if you ever do, what you bring with you affects profoundly those who happen to witness your return. They too will be badly shattered and properly unsettled, and will never forgive you for that. But it will be too late for them: they have already seen the ghost. That’s how marks are left. Apparently, Cassirer never went there, and so never came back.

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Did I mention that Naphta ended up in Davos because he was seriously ill? He had come there in search of a cure, like most of those who populate The Magic Mountain. Eventually, he found a cure: his suicide put an end to all his troubles. Wittgenstein might have approved of the solution. Benjamin followed it. And so did Heidegger, even though, always the odd one out, he slightly altered it, turning it into moral suicide.

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Costica Bradatan is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers. He serves as the religion and comparative studies editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.