This month, the UNESCO marked the 80th birthday of an Iranian philosopher with ceremonies in Paris and Tehran. The honoree was Dr. Reza Davari-Ardakani, who has been a teacher of philosophy at the University of Tehran for decades. Today, Davari is recognized as the Islamic Republic’s top official philosopher.
But is there any space for philosophy in present-day Iran?
The question has intrigued those who try to understand the jumble of contradictions that Iran has been under the mullahrchy. There, we have a regime that claims legitimacy with reference to the messianic arcana of Twelver Shi’ite ideology. And, yet, it parodies aspects of the Western political model, including a constitution and elections, albeit within strict limits. More curiously, it wants to be regarded as part of the modern world, and its propagandists pepper their discourse with references to Western philosophers. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claims that the Khomeinist ideology offers a global alternative to the “corrupt, materialistic model” developed during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That ambition requires a philosophical formulation, and it is Davari’s task to provide it.
For three decades, he has tried to do so along four lines.
The first is to demonstrate that the Western model is not only defective, but also dangerous for mankind. Societies not yet fully Westernized have an opportunity to get off the train “heading for Hell.” A disciple of the late philosopher Ahmad Fardid, Davari insists that the first battle must be fought against Iranian intellectuals who preach secularization. Using the Fardidian term “Westoxication” (Gharbzadegi), Davari argues that Iran’s pro-West intellectuals have minimized the dangers of adopting a model that has led to numerous wars and the depletion of natural resources on unprecedented scale.
The second line is to demonstrate that the alternative to the Western model cannot come from within it, something “proven” by the failure of Communism. Chinese, Japanese and Indian civilizations are also unable to provide alternatives because they have already gone a long way on the path to Westernization, especially by adopting secular political systems and capitalist economies. The only credible challenger left is Islam, both as religion and a model of civilization.
The third line along which Davari works is to demonstrate that of all Muslim nations, only Iran has the cultural resources to develop a global alternative to the Western model.
The fourth line is to demonstrate that the strength of Iran’s Islamic model is based on the system of velayat-e faqih, or the custodianship of the jurist. In that context, Davari has done a great deal to present velayat-e faqih not as an innovation (beda’a) by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, but as a quintessentially Islamic concept.
Not surprisingly, Davari’s critics have branded him an apologist for the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom they regard as a despot.
That philosophers and intellectuals in general may be attracted by those wielding political powers—including despots—is nothing new. Socrates himself was close to the pro-Spartan opportunist Alcibiades, who tried to destroy the Athenian democracy. Plato was seduced by Dionysus, the “tyrant” of Syracuse, and paid the price for it. Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander of Macedonia. Xenophon warned that “philosophers must always remain alert to the threat of tyranny,” yet he was hired as a mercenary by Cyrus the Younger in one of ancient Iran’s many civil wars.
Voltaire and Diderot were on the payroll of Catherine II, the Russian empress who saw herself as the “Teacher of the Universe.” Young Hegel was in rupture when he saw Napoleon on a white horse in a street in Jena. He described the image as heralding the “Reign of Reason.” Saint-Simon, one of the founders of Socialism, saw Egypt’s Muhammad-Ali Pasha as “the ideal ruler.” The list of philosophers who became apologists for more recent tyrants, including Hitler and Stalin, would be longer than the London telephone directory.
In pre-Khomeini Iran, Empress Farah had her own philosophical society headed by Hussein Nasr, which attracted hordes of philosophers from all over the world.
The French Communist philosopher Roger Garaudy became an admirer of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and ended up by converting to Islam.
Davari’s problem goes beyond his position as “official philosopher.” He makes much of his anti-Western theme, but his attack against the Western model is largely based on a partial understanding, not to say misunderstanding, of Martin Heidegger’s critique of the modern world.
Heidegger merely followed the rules developed by German philosophy over a century. Starting with Kant, what has drawn Germans to philosophy has been their quest for order. Leibniz, Schelling, Fichte, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx and Schopenhauer all tried to build systems tantalizingly patterned on theology. Suckers for philosophical posturing, Germans liked to erect metaphorical castles shining on hilltops surrounded by doctrinal fences. In contrast, German literature was all about breaking fences. As it was taking form, High German produced poets such as Oswald von Wolkenstein and Sebastian Brant, fence-breakers who inspired von Kleist and Schiller, among others. Even Goethe, a civil servant by profession, was a romantic rebel in his literary work.
Heidegger’s reputation has been damaged by his flirtations with the Nazis. However, he essentially sullied his person, not his philosophy. To use his work as justification for despotism is unfair, to say the least.
Commenting on Jean-Paul Sartre, Heidegger said in 1967: “The source of Sartre’s originality is his poor knowledge of the German language. He took two words, mistranslated them and built a system.” The same could be said of Davari, with the difference that he has arrived at his misunderstanding of Heidegger via Fardid’s misunderstanding of Heidegger.
Fardid liked to call himself a Heideggerian although, not knowing German, he discovered Heidegger through partial translations in French. However, Fardid was a rhetorician, a wit, and, all in all, a lovable rogue. In pre-Khomeinist Tehran, I enjoyed his company and appreciated his childlike love of philosophical pirouettes. He was master of shathiyat, the paradoxes that play a major role in Persian culture. “Don’t listen to what I say,” he once said, “listen to what I mean.” When I asked what that meant, he said: “Ah, that’s for you to find out!”
Davari is too earnest, not to say too pompous. Despite his militant anti-West language, he seems to suffer from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis Western philosophers. Where Fardid played with philosophy, Davari approaches it with the trepidations of a zealot. Plato had already warned that because it “expresses everything and puts everything in circulation” logos ought to be taken with a pinch of salt as its “duplicate nature” brings forth both true and false at the same time.
Fardid enjoyed doing a pas-de-deux with Heidegger’s shadow while thinking his own thoughts. Davari uses his misunderstanding of Heidegger as a pair of crutches and, instead of thinking his own thoughts, becomes a re-thinker.
Fardid’s Heideggerianism had a tongue-in-cheek flavor. Davari, however, cannot relax. He is surely intelligent enough to know that a system that is without paradoxes is suspicious. Trying to market velayat-e faqih as the way ahead for mankind could be interesting, even entertaining, as an intellectual exercise. After all, philosophy is open to all ideas, including the most absurd. Plato himself is full of such ideas. The trick is to treat them as philosophical speculations. Davari’s approach, however, is theological; he craves not a suntan but sunburn. One might agree that religion is society’s conscious, in which case it ought to reign but not rule. God needs no metaphysical compliments.
Davari’s blog page lists more than 30 of his nomenclatural posts. One wonders how he finds time to do his philosophizing. At times, he gives the impression that he is a theologian marooned in the world of the profane.