The modern European philosophers of the period between the First and Second World Wars have always interested me. But I have always felt that their works were so inaccessible to ordinary mortals. So the fascination has never led to actually reading any of them.
This, in itself, has not changed. But in 2018, Wolfram Eilenberger, a German writer for Die Zeit, published the book Zeit der Zauberer – Das Große Jahrzehnt der Philosophie 1919-1929, in which he interweaves four biographies of Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) with a solid dose of professional philosophical theory and an apt diagnosis of the times in 1920s Germany.
It’s incredibly well done, and a bone-chilling subject ends up being at once both exciting and entertaining, and genuinely insightful into the thoughts of the four philosophers. I read the book – or rather heard it – in 2021.
I have been looking forward to the sequel Feuer der Freiheit – Die Rettung der Philosophie in finsterer Zeit 1933-1943, published in German in 2020, being translated into Danish. It was last year, but it is only recently that I have read it. And the pleasure and yield have been equally great this time.
The Fire of Freedom follows the time of the Sorcerers both chronologically – it covers the years 1933 to 1943 – and on a personal level, two of the main characters are also tied to two of the Sorcerers through friendships. The four women whose lives and thoughts the book describes in parallel are Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil and Ayn Rand.
The four may not be philosophical beacons like Cassirer, Benjamin, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, but their intellectual significance for posterity seems beyond debate. I’m generally not that fond of left-wing French intellectuals, so Beauvoir is not my favourite here. Hannah Arendt is very interesting, and Ayn Rand is an outsider who is hard to rate.
I have, however, become deeply fascinated by the person and thoughts of Simone Weil, and following this book I have plunged into some of her works (all of which, fortunately, are concise and not difficult to read).