Visions and Nightmares: The Visionaries by Wolfram Eilenberger

Reviewed by Jon Elsby

The Visionaries bears the subtitle “Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil and the Salvation of Philosophy”, which suggests a possible kinship with other recent publications – for example, Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up To Something, and Nikhil Krishnan’s A Terribly Serious Adventure. But immediately we note that the first two of these concerned a quartet of formidable female moral philosophers who were friends and contemporaries at Oxford c. 1937–42 (Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch), while the third concerns Oxford philosophy between 1900 and 1960 – a period when linguistic philosophy of various kinds dominated the Oxford scene. In other words the subjects of these books had enough in common to lend a certain coherence and integrity to a project such as telling the story of modern philosophy through biographies of the principal actors.

At first sight, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, and Simone Weil seem to have little or nothing in common except their sex and the accident of contemporaneity. But, as Eilenberger skilfully interweaves their stories, we begin to understand what they shared and why he chose precisely these thinkers as the subjects for his book. In the first place, all four were much occupied with questions of personal identity: Who am I? What am I? What does it mean to be a Jew, or a woman, or a worker, or an embodied human being? What is consciousness? How should I live? How should I relate to others? Is my identity socially constructed or a datum (i.e. a “given”) of nature? Secondly, they were forced to consider these existential questions against a backdrop of political turmoil, violence, persecution, war, and death. Thirdly, they were all outsiders in more than one respect – as women philosophers, at a time when philosophy was an almost exclusively male preserve; as Jews in the cases of Arendt and Weil; as a radical feminist in rebellion against her “bourgeois”, Catholic background and upbringing in the case of Beauvoir; and as a Russian émigrée and self-styled apostle of Friedrich Nietzsche in the case of Rand. Fourthly, all these thinkers, although somewhat influential within the humanities and/or the social sciences, have been largely – and, Eilenberger argues, unjustly – ignored by the mainstream philosophy departments in colleges and universities.

For all these women, precisely because of the time in which they lived, Nietzsche was a key figure, whose bold philosophical challenge – his announcement of “the death of God” – had to be met and reckoned with. As Eilenberger writes—

As with millions of other young people who found their way into philosophy through the champion of the Übermensch, not to mention Nietzsche’s rebellious content and stylistic brilliance, the psychological element had been crucial for Rand. Nietzsche’s writings give young people who are intellectually alert but largely isolated in that critical phase of their development an existential justification for being social outsiders: a kind of matrix of understanding for their own difference, which also has the seductive effect of allowing them to see their experience of exclusion as making them part of an actual elite.

The impulse has its dangers, because it also has a narcissistic after-taste. Even twenty-nine-year-old Ayn, as her philosophical journal proves, was aware of that apparent tendency toward elitism—

“Some day I’ll find out whether I’m an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusual or merely normal and healthy? Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system? Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest? I think this last. Unless – honesty is also a form of superior intelligence.”

Words of astonished self-interrogation, which could fundamentally also have come from the pens of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, or Simone de Beauvoir. All of them were tormented from an early age by the same questions: What could it be that makes me so different? What is it that I clearly can’t understand and experience like all the others? Am I really driving down the freeway of life in the wrong direction – or is it not perhaps the mass of wildly honking people coming toward me flashing their lights? A doubt underlying every life lived philosophically. […]

The philosophizing person seems to be essentially a pariah of deviant insights, the prophet of a life lived rightly, whose traces can be found and deciphered even in the deepest falsity. At least this is one way to understand the role that Ayn Rand as well as her contemporaries Weil, Arendt, and Beauvoir assumed with ever greater confidence. Not that they had expressly made a choice. They simply experienced themselves as having been placed fundamentally differently in the world from how other people had been. And deep inside they remained certain of who or what the problem needing treatment was: not themselves, but the Others. Possibly, in fact – all the Others.

If one were to pursue that view, the actual impulse of astonishment at the beginning of all philosophizing is not the surprise that there is “something and not nothing,” but rather, honest bafflement that other people live as they do. In other words, the decoupling of philosophical thought from its original impulse is not ontological or epistemological, but social. It affects not the relationship of the self with the mute world, but the self with speaking Others.

That is certainly one way to understand the origins of philosophical inquiry. But it can hardly escape the reader’s notice that it is a very egocentric, solipsistic, and rather self-congratulatory way. Another way – less introspective, less self-centred, more objective, and more humble – might be to feel, and perhaps even to cultivate, a Chestertonian sense of childlike wonder that anything exists, and a sense of profound gratitude for the gift of being. When reading the brief extract quoted above from Rand’s philosophical journal, we note that, in the questions she poses to herself, the only alternatives she allows are those that admit of only flattering responses. “Am I unusual (i.e. special) or merely normal and healthy?” What about “normal but unhealthy (perhaps neurotic or narcissistic)”? “Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest?” What if the answer is “neither”? Self-absorption easily leads to the conclusion that one is, in some way, special – not one of the herd: a misunderstood genius, an isolated exception to the norms that apply to other, “ordinary” people; and that one’s singularity is a mark of distinction: a cause for self-esteem and contempt for a world that obstinately refuses to take one at one’s own (high) valuation. Eilenberger is surely right to warn of the danger of narcissism in such an approach to philosophy. It is an approach best suited to the chronically immature: that is, to adolescents, and others who vainly and ignorantly suppose that the world revolves – or, at any rate, ought to revolve – around themselves.

An example of the moral quagmire that a self-centred, narcissistic philosophy can lead to, is furnished on page 196 et seq (the subject is Simone de Beauvoir)—

“All that year,” Simone de Beauvoir recalled, “I had gone on trying to live exclusively in the present, to grasp each flying minute.”1 But with the spring of 1939, this attitude had reached its limit. Particularly since Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s emotional life was at this point assuming a form that rivalled the geopolitical situation in complexity. After three shared years in Paris, the triangular arrangement of Sartre-Beauvoir-Olga had turned into a series of overlapping polygons. According to her delicately balanced timetables, Beauvoir was cultivating, alongside her relationship with Sartre, liaisons with Olga (who was, at this time, engaged to “Little Bost”), Little Bost (although Olga was under no circumstances to know about that), and a pupil from her previous year’s baccalauréat class, eighteen-year-old Bianca Bienenfeld (with whom Sartre had also been in a relationship since early 1939). Sartre was also in a serious relationship with Olga’s younger sister Wanda (which Sartre consistently denied in the face of all the other relationships). Beauvoir (and Sartre) were also beginning another relationship with a former pupil named Natalie Sorokin. And those were only their serious liaisons.

Entirely in line with the pact they had made ten years before, in their letters Beauvoir and Sartre spared each other no details, however humiliating, about their love affairs. Beauvoir’s life-defining urge “to enjoy every moment” in the face of a gloomy future, without ever putting herself at risk in any true sense as a human being, had in other words produced an everyday network of asymmetrical relationships and dependencies that eluded any kind of benevolent description.

Perhaps this situation contains what elevates truly literary people above the great mass of scribblers: the will, purged of all ethical dimensions, to place all experiences, all relationships, all adventures at the service of a possible fictionalization. To instrumentalize them into pure devices for one’s actual purpose in life.

This is the great temptation and besetting sin of the artist and intellectual: to see himself (or herself), not as “gifted” (which would imply a giver to whom one owed gratitude) but as privileged, or superior to others, and therefore exempt from, and unconstrained by, the ethical rules, the standards, and the network of reciprocal obligations and mutual acknowledgements which apply to lesser beings, binding “ordinary” people together into communities, and making possible a shared moral life. Those who see themselves as “exceptional” feel at liberty to transgress what they contumeliously call “bourgeois morality” and to invent their own rules and codes, or even to dispense with morality altogether, as they think fit. In keeping with this limitless conception of freedom – an autonomy that recognizes no bounds or external constraints – Sartre and Beauvoir were among the French left-wing intellectuals who signed a January 1977 petition to the French parliament calling for the decriminalization of all “consensual” sexual relations between adults and minors below the age of fifteen (the age of consent in France).

To some extent, this self-centredness is understandable (although by no means excusable). When the world seems to be engulfed in a suicidal maelstrom, reflective people, always inclined to introversion, naturally turn inwards, both to find a refuge from the madness of events, and to read the signs of the times. Even in Catholic circles, philosophies like existentialism and personalism, which put the acting personthe human subject – at the front and centre of philosophical inquiry, were much in vogue. Philosophically, the temper of the times was individualistic, subjectivist, and personalistic. In part, this was a legacy of the Romantic Age, with its exaltation of the lonely, Byronic hero and its disdain for the mass of humankind; in part, it was a response to a series of seemingly apocalyptic and uncontrollable world events: revolution in Russia, European wars, the rise of fascism and communism, the Holocaust, and the unanticipated and irreversible decline of the great European powers (including Great Britain), whose empires were crumbling, leaving a vacuum where such world powers had formerly held sway. (The rise of the USA to superpower status, although it had already occurred, had not yet been made manifest; nor had the full extent of the political and economic decline of the European powers.)

Our four philosophers tried, each in her own way, to find a path through this chaos, turbulence, and uncertainty, but their solutions were strikingly different from each other. Arendt achieved cult status as a moral and political philosopher and a secular commentator on Jewish affairs. Beauvoir achieved prominence as an atheist, feminist, and existentialist, and, together with her life-partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, was active in left-wing politics. Rand, though her literary and intellectual reputation stands far below that of Arendt, Beauvoir, and Weil,2 is well regarded and enduringly influential in conservative libertarian circles, especially in the USA. Weil is widely considered to be one of the greatest Christian mystics, writers, and philosophers of the twentieth century, and is still read and studied, by Catholics especially.

The polarities between these four thinkers can be most clearly seen in the cases of Rand and Weil. Here, first, is Rand. She was working on her novel The Fountainhead (1943) when she went to hear the English Marxist intellectual, Harold Laski, speak. He proved to be the ideal model for the anti-hero in her novel3 – the counterbalance to her Nietzschean hero, Howard Roark. Eilenberg takes up the story—

Rand could hardly grasp her luck. There he was – the anti-Roark par excellence! In return for their applause, the rhetorically skilful Laski, with the obvious arrogance of his performance always slightly muted by a hint of irony, and using all the right words and all the right theories, gave an enthusiastic New York cultural set exactly what they had decided they thought was correct, as the result of long years of quiet subversive propaganda. All she had to do was observe him, listen to what he said, and write it down.

A suitable name for Laski was also quickly found. As always in Rand’s novelistic universe, it was a suggestive one: Ellsworth M. Toohey. A great and diabolically devious adversary of Roark’s, Toohey was the subject of the whole of the second of four parts of the novel. In spring 1940, Rand definitively captured him as a fictional character. As the most influential art critic of the most influential newspaper in the country, Toohey would pursue his levelling mischief from New York—

“Toohey’s [purpose is] to ruin the strong, the single, the original, the healthy, the joyous – with the weapon of ‘other people,’ of humanitarianism.

“Toohey has risen to a position of great power in society. He is the undeclared dictator of the intellectual and cultural life of the country. He has ‘collectivized’ all the arts with his various ‘organizations,’ and he allows no prominence to anyone save to mediocrities of his choice, such as Keating, Lois Cook, and others of the same quality.

“Toohey destroys all independence in people and all great achievement … To discredit great achievement, he sets up standards which are easy for the phonies.”

As far as Rand understood, the actual cultural precondition for the totalitarian advance lay in the complete and deliberate fogging by the media of the judgment of each individual. And this was nowhere more apparent than in the sphere of aesthetic judgment: in the judgment of works of art.

In his role as master of the levelling process, the art critic Toohey, for Rand, embodies a banality of the supposedly “good” (as the “humanitarian,” the “social” …). In fact, however, this is directed at the very ability that marks an individual as an individual and enables the individual to act as such – a sense of what is truly beautiful, and of how human existence should and could actually be. In Rand’s vision, the hero Roark pursues consistently and with an almost superhuman refusal to compromise that “sense of life.” The target of Toohey’s journalism in the novel is the courage embodied by Roark as well as the ability to make independent judgments and create new things. Or in other words: to think, invent, and act without relying on the support of others.

In the summer of 1940, in a new outline of the novel, Rand developed the social and political aspects of the “Toohey Principle” in a narrower sense, and aligned them with the threatening global triumph of European totalitarianism—

“[Toohey] is basically sterile; he has no great passion for anything and no great interest in anything save other men. Thus he decides not to attempt to seek superiority, but to do better: to destroy its very conception. He cannot rise. He can pull others down. He cannot reach the heights. He can raze them. Equality becomes his greatest passion.

“He understands fully the basic antithesis, the two principles fighting within human consciousness – the individual and the collective, the one and the many the ‘I’ and the ‘They.’ … He knows that the source of all evil and all sorrow, of all frustration and all lies is the collective sense, the intrusion of others into the basic motives of a man. And since he is dedicated to the destruction of greatness, he becomes the enemy of the individual and the great champion of collectivism.

“His life program is simple: to destroy men by tying them to one another; to preach self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-abasement; to preach the spiritual slavery of each man to all other men; to fight the great creator and liberator – Man’s Ego. Toohey is famous as ‘The Humanitarian’. … Universal – without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to slavery. A great circle and an utter equality. Such is Ellsworth M. Toohey.”

Thus Rand, like Nietzsche, sees herself as the foe, not only of socialism and egalitarianism, but also of Christianity. The superman has no need of, or use for, pity, sympathy, altruism, love of neighbour, or any other civilizing qualities which might mitigate his narcissism, his egoistical obsession with his own greatness. The contrast with Simone Weil, a Jewish convert from secularism to Catholic Christianity, could hardly be greater, as Eilenberger makes clear when he writes of Weil that—

Just as a clear vision of the suffering of others does not require norms or even ethical imperatives, it does not need or tolerate explicit encouragement or requirements. The tendency toward the active acceptance of the Other as a suffering being may be different in individual cases, but, in a state of what Weil called “superior indifference,” those individual differences are clearly to be taken as given just as much as the reality of suffering itself—

“We must not augment the inclination to relieve distress – it matters little whether it be strong or weak, for it is natural, and is neither good nor bad – but do away with what prevents it from being exercised.”

As regards the existence of Simone Weil, this inclination was clearly quite extreme, indeed almost pathological in the eyes of her fellows. Her ego was weakened and thus made porous to the suffering of others to an unheard-of degree. The supreme good for her would have been to be allowed to pass through the last door with the greatest possible attention and immersion – the ego weakened to an extreme degree – and abolish the boundary between her own being and that of others. It would be the highest good. It would mean becoming very light. It would mean becoming absolutely free at last, even if there was no choice—

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Another form of freedom than that of choice is bound up with it, which is on the level of the will – namely, grace. We should pay attention to the point where we no longer have a choice. We then know our dharma.

“The real aim is not see God in all things; it is that God through us should see the things that we see.

“I have got to withdraw in order that he may be able to see it.

“To love all facts means nothing but to read God in them.”

Weil’s ethic, based on a “superior indifference” and purged of any purpose, approaches positions represented in the Western context by Baruch Spinoza or, in Simone Weil’s lifetime, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. But in the Eastern cultural sphere, this also appears in Buddhism and Hinduism – correspondences to which Weil makes explicit reference and explores in her Notebooks. What particularly reduces and impedes the inclination among people to act in the right way is, she argues, the insistence on the “I,” or indeed on the “We,” as the supposed source of all aims and values.

Existentialist commitment is an arrogant crime against the goodness of being – that was Simone Weil’s ruthlessly consistent verdict in the winter of 1941–42. The alternative that she suggested was an ascetic path of salvation free of any form of earthly will. “Certainly, that is not for everyone,” Weil stated laconically in her Notebooks, “but, then, neither is loving God for everyone.” Yet like everything in this world that has weight and value – the beautiful, the good, the just – the origin of his love also lies in another world—

“Supernatural love alone creates reality. In this way we become co-creators. We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.”

Obviously, both Rand and Weil were temperamentally inclined to extremism. But, equally obviously, Rand’s Nietzscheanism, her uncritical admiration for the Übermensch (superman) and her boundless contempt for those whom Nietzsche called “the bungled and botched,” issue in a form of extremism which, if it were adopted as the basis for a party political programme, would do great harm, especially to the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Weil’s Christian extremism is altogether saner and healthier. It is precisely the same extremism that we encounter in the words and acts of Jesus Christ reported in the Gospels, in the epistles of the New Testament, and in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. It is an authentically Christian radicalism.

Rand’s philosophy is the apotheosis of egoism; Weil’s is its negation. They are polar opposites. Arendt and Beauvoir would have found Rand’s politics hard to stomach but, morally and philosophically, they are closer to Rand than to Weil. Neither would have practised or advocated the negation of the ego. Neither would have acknowledged an objective moral law, uncreated by man, to which all men are answerable. Both would have repudiated Weil’s Christian mysticism without really understanding it. In order to grasp Weil’s thought, it helps to have some acquaintance with the mystical tradition, both in Christianity and in the Eastern religions. Readers of the Bhagavad Gita, the Sufi mystics of Islam, or the Christian mystics of Spain, Germany, and England – Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Walter Hilton, and Dame Julian of Norwich,4 – will be better able to comprehend the totality of Weil’s thought than those who are unacquainted with the literature of mysticism.

It is certainly true that the four women who are the subjects of Eilenberger’s book were remarkable original thinkers, fully equal to any of their male contemporaries. It is not clear, however, why they should be credited with having effected “the salvation of philosophy”. Salvation from what, exactly? Irrelevance? Meaninglessness? Sterility? Male dominance? Extinction at the hands of one or other of the totalitarian ideologies (fascism, Nazism, or communism) that were then re-drawing the map of Europe and re-shaping European culture? Disappearance from the cultural horizon? None of these seems at all likely. Many other philosophers, including some women, were active in the period when Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, and Weil were writing, and some of them arguably made more significant contributions to philosophy than they did. Husserl’s student, Edith Stein (now Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – 1891–1942), is an example. Various schools of analytical philosophy (such as linguistic analysis, logical positivism, and analytical Thomism) were then being practised in the Anglosphere, and movements such as phenomenology, neo-Thomism, and, as mentioned before, personalism and existentialism were flourishing in Continental Europe. In the USA, the pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, and C. S. Peirce was still influential. Globally, the state of philosophy was (or, at any rate, seemed to be) healthy enough – or so one would have thought. Certainly, it did not appear to require anything so radical and dramatic as “salvation”.

That said, Eilenberger’s narrative explains how four highly intelligent women navigated a way through the intellectual cross-currents of an exceptionally challenging period. It notes their commonalities and their differences. They started from very different places, and their paths, though they intersected at certain points, eventually diverged. The fact that they are still read, and their ideas remain relevant in the modern era, with its own, peculiarly distinctive properties and problems, shows that, whether one agrees with any of them or not, they do have to be taken seriously. In bringing them to our notice in a new way by juxtaposing their stories in this very readable, absorbing, and often illuminating narrative, Eilenberger has rendered a valuable service.


1 Why would anyone try to live exclusively in the present? Did Beauvoir think that the human faculties of memory of the past and anticipation of the future, had neither use nor purpose?

2 Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism” and claimed that its central tenet was that all knowledge is based on sense perception, the validity of which she considered axiomatic, and reason, which she defined as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses”. Epistemologically, this is very simplistic, denying, as it does, any valid role for personal testimony as a source and guarantee of knowledge. Yet, much of what we ordinarily – and rightly – claim to know (e.g. what our friends did on their holidays, or that Mozart was born in 1756) is based upon such testimony. And there are many other sources of knowledge: for example, memory, sympathy, induction, a priori intuition, divine revelation, and conscience. And, as the Calvinist philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, has said, “There is also the whole process of theory building, which may or may not be reducible to the previous abilities.”

3 However, Laski was an economist and political theorist, whereas Rand’s anti-hero, Ellsworth M. Toohey, is an art critic.

4 Readers of Thomas Merton may also find Weil easier to grasp than those with no previous knowledge of mysticism.

Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture, an issue addressed by several American apologists, though very few on the UK side of the Atlantic have taken it up. Seeing is Believing is available on Amazon Kindle.

The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil and the Salvation of Philosophy, by Wolfram Eilenberger, is published by Allen Lane, 2023, hbk, 400 pp, ISBN ‎ 978-0241537374.

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