One of the most quoted lines from Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is his description of the global triumphs of Rousseau’s intellectual children: “Men are set free from family, church, town, class, guild; yet, they wear, instead, the chains of the state and they expire of ennui or stifling loneliness.” The ennui and chains of which Kirk wrote are ever present in Wolfram Eilenberger’s excellent new biography and intellectual history of four of the twentieth century’s most famous philosophers: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, and Martin Heidegger.

Eilenberger focuses on the lives and works of this quartet during the 1920s, as each man crafted a philosophical response to the changing political, cultural, and spiritual sensibilities of the years that followed World War I. The author finds in their respective work common concerns about the nature of language and questions about the nature of what it means to be a human in the modern age. But beyond a shared mother tongue (German), these thinkers agreed on relatively little.

While the ascetic Wittgenstein described the analytical limitations of language, the careerist Heidegger writhed around in search of liberation from the anxieties of existence, all the while making the most of the pleasures available in this apparently contemptible world. While Benjamin deployed mysticism and Marxism against the artifices he saw in the semiotics of language, Cassirer pursued the categorical imperative and defended Weimar democracy as it faced opposition from all sides. One thing the four men did hold in common was a thoroughgoing Weltschmerz, or world weariness, which appears to have been the intellectual posture of the European smart set during the 1920s. Regrettably, such Weltschmerz has become the stock and trade of both highbrow and lowbrow, Left and Right, in our own age.

As far as rooting interests go, Eilenberger keeps his cards close to his vest, but Time of the Magicians is illustrative of the psychological toll that trying to reimagine the world takes on the mind, especially a highly sophisticated one. The Great War may have unmoored European civilization from all that came before. It provided countless reasons for young men of the “Lost Generation” to find meaning in new ideas and institutions. Nevertheless, the distinct struggles faced by each member of the quartet demonstrate the difficulties that men face when they try to invent rather than innovate, or try to reform without reference to form.

With the exception of Cassirer, they seem to have been deeply unhappy men, both personally and professionally. Cassirer embraced his position as a university professor and department chair at the University of Hamburg. Moreover, he had, by all accounts, a fulfilling family life. Cassirer, though, may have experienced the greatest political disappointments, as the rise of Naziism in Germany brought his hopes for a democratic future for the snake-bitten Weimar regime to an end. While Heidegger struck the pose of world-weariness as well as any of them, he was the only one who ended up in something other than exile from his homeland. Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Cassirer, all of whom were of Jewish ancestry, fled Nazi Germany and Nazi-dominated Austria. Heidegger, quite infamously, became Rector of Freiburg University, a member of the National Socialist Party, and a shill for the regime.

First published in German in 2018, Eilenberger’s book has been rendered in highly readable prose by his English language translator, Shaun Whiteside. Eilenberger, a philosophy professor turned bestselling author turned Swiss-German public television host, has succeeded at humanizing the heady figures he covers in Time of the Magicians. He relies frequently on the often gossipy, often catty personal correspondence of Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, and Heidegger with others to render each man in full. By making this book as much a biography of the four philosophers as an analysis of their work, Eilenberger has done the rare work of public history for philosophy and intellectual history. This entertaining and learned account will appeal to a broad educated readership and also serve as an introduction to analytic and continental philosophy for undergraduate courses

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