In 1955, twenty-nine year old Michel Foucault accepted a teaching post in Uppsala, Sweden. Isolated for three years, he began gathering strands of medical texts, seventeenth-century philosophy, intellectual history, and Nietzsche into what would become his first major work, Madness and Civilization. Sixteen years later, now a famous professor, Foucault joined Noam Chomsky in a French television studio for a debate on the upheavals of the day. There, he stated:

When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection could possibly be made to this.


This kind of thing happened all too often in the twentieth century, argues Mark Lilla in his sober profile of six philosophers and their dabblings in politics. Each chapter...


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