U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Three Masters

“If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” — Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in The Master (2012)

I.
L. Ron Hubbard (c. 1950)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master has already received an enormous amount of critical attention…and rightly so.  Like all Anderson’s other films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood) it’s a movie that rewards careful thought. A number of his earlier films (most notably Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood), are built on a very careful evocation of a particular time and place.   Most of the action in The Master is very specifically set in 1950..though rather than being set in a particular place, The Master, as its title suggests, revolves around a person: Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), though the film’s protagonist is its other main character, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled navy veteran drawn into Dodd’s circle.

If you know anything about The Master, you probably know that Dodd is an only-slightly-fictionalized version of L. Ron Hubbard, and his movement / cult (called “The Cause” in the movie), is very closely based on Dianetics, the immediate precursor to Scientology.  Although the director–and his stars–have occasionally tried to downplay the connections between Dodd and Hubbard and the Cause and Dianetics / Scientology, Anderson very carefully researched the early days of Dianetics and changed relatively little in his movie, beyond altering some terminology (e.g., in The Cause, recruits undergo “processing”; in Scientology, they undergo “auditing”) and creating some composite characters.*

But like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, The Master is not in any simple sense a historical picture, or even an exposé of Scientology. Instead, Anderson using his very specific historical setting to explore larger themes. And one of these themes is the place of men like Lancaster Dodd in American life.  The quote above comes from what’s in many ways the film’s climactic scene, the final meeting meeting its two main characters.  A number of critics have drawn parallels between it and There Will Be Blood‘s climactic confrontation between Daniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eli (Paul Dano).  But what we are supposed to make of Lancaster Dodd’s final meeting with Freddie Quell is less clear than how we are supposed to view Daniel’s savaging of Eli.  For example, how seriouslyare we supposed to take Dodd’s above-quoted statement about masters…and what does it tell us about Dodd and his world? 

II.

Among the many things that Lancaster Dodd shares with L. Ron Hubbard is a peculiar kind authoritarianism that presents itself as promoting radical individualism.  The Cause is about freeing oneself from the burdens of one’s past lives in order to return one’s mind to its “natural state of perfect.”  And yet, the movement is built around the personal, and rather capricious, authority of Dodd. And the path to liberation is through often humiliating “processing” games, the content of which is tightly controlled by Dodd himself.

One of the many ways in which the film is not a simple exposé of Scientology is the extent to which Dodd is presented as a kind of representative figure.  Anderson is after bigger game than just Scientology. The film does a nice job of suggesting that the promises of the Cause are a more fanciful and extreme variation of the promises of post-War America, which are conveyed, early in the film, by more conventional authority figures, as Freddie recovers from behavioral problems in a naval hospital immediately after the war. 

Ayn Rand

Indeed, I think that Hubbard and Scientology are of interest–or at least ought to be of interest–to historians of mid-to-late twentieth-century U.S. thought and culture precisely because they are not unique.  In ways that I haven’t yet entirely worked out**, Dodd also reminded me of another authoritarian leader of a movement promoting a vision of individualism in the immediate post-War era: Ayn Rand. Rand, of course, has attracted a lot more attention from historians than has Hubbard, in part because her ideas are both slightly more respectable and her impact on arenas of traditional interest to historians–especially politics–is more direct.***

The differences between Rand’s Objectivism and  Hubbard’s Scientology are obvious and numerous. Nonetheless, the similarities between the two “masters” are also clear: Both propounded grand, totalizing philosophies that claimed to be scientific.  Both began their careers writing works of fiction and became public figures through surprise bestsellers. Both wrapped themselves in the mantle of anti-communism. Both simultaneously proclaimed a radical version of individualism while imagining the social sphere in a deeply hierarchical way (Rand’s makers and takers and Hubbard’s tone scale). And each ran his or her movement in often tyrannical ways.

III.
Leo Strauss
These figures are of more than casual interest to me because I’m working on a third “master” from this era: Leo Strauss.  Strauss is obviously different from Rand and Hubbard in important ways. He was a more serious thinker than they were (even his fiercest detractors would at least grant that he was more learned).  Just as importantly, he neither attained–nor tried to attain–a mass readership, let alone conventional fame (in his lifetime, at least) or fortune.  He did, however, lead a tight group of extraordinarily devoted students. And, from very early on, critics of Strauss made note of–and criticized–Strauss’s following, arguing that it was a “cult” or a “cabal.”
I’ve always tended to view the circle of students that formed around Strauss as an example of a typical German intellectual formation.  The world of early twentieth-century German thought, in which Leo Strauss came of age, was full of such Kreise (“circles”).  The poet Stefan George had one.  So did Martin Heidegger.****  What was unusual about Strauss is that he (re)produced this very typically German phenomenon in his adoptive country.
But Strauss’s circle was unusual in the American academic context. And his American students came to him in the midst of that American academic context, which viewed–and continues to view–his students’ devotion to him with often quite fierce suspicion.  
Perhaps figures like Hubbard and Rand, and their followings, might provide an alternative context for understanding Strauss’s American circle, though I have not yet worked out the most productive way to map the similarities and differences among them…and I certainly don’t mean to imply that it is helpful to understand “Straussianism” as a “cult,” either literally or metaphorically.

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* Tony Ortega, the former editor-in-chief of The Village Voice, who has written about Scientology for close to two decades, has written about some of these parallels.

** Thank goodness for blogs!

*** The other relevant difference is that Scientology is deeply secretive and rather brutally litigious. Nevertheless, serious historical work about it is beginning to get produced.

**** In the late ’20s and early ’30s, first at Marburg and then in Freiburg, Heidegger led a tight group of students who saw him as, in the words of Hannah Arendt (who was one of their number), “the secret king of philosophy.”  Interestingly, when, in the mid-1960s, a North American organization was formed devoted to Heidegger, it called itself the Heidegger Circle.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Of course, Thomas Carlisle looked for “the king man,” and Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the super man, long before Rand. The belief that one is extraordinary and therefore should lead the ordinary often may have deep narcissistic roots, but it also often has deep Romantic ones. German graduate education, which became the basis of the American system, assumed students were disciples of their professors, whom the Germans elevated much more than the Americans. That is why some argue that the tendency of collegiate education is maturing while that of graduate education is infantalizing. The argument is too simply but makes a point. Naturally, some professors are more magnetic or directive or demanding than others. So are some religious leaders–another group often using authority to color or cloak leadership as somehow extraordinary and personal, not just structural and transactional. Any profession that rewards the investment of passion and commitment can obscure the boundary between the personal and the public, as well as between the requirements of the job and the psyche.

  2. What strikes me, or what interests me the most, about this discussion is *how* these circles come into being. Does the “master” will these circles into being, or does she/he accept them when the come (actively and passively), or are they entirely driven by admiring followers? Also, what are they at the start? Into what do they evolve/devolve? And why do they end? How do they persist after the master’s death?

    The term ‘cult’ is too heavy handed for reasons of connotation. But the term does denote what the these circles/Kreise/communities seem to be: centered on one complex person, supremely devoted in spiritual and materials terms, and long-lasting. But these are as much text as person-centered communities. Excepting perhaps Strauss (who apparently entranced his early followers with his lectures), these master-acolyte communities seem to come into being with a seminal text.

    Anyway, very intriguing stuff. I’ve dealt with this in relation to Adler and Hutchins. Adler has a cult-like following. They see no wrong in his work, or worship only a narrow slice of his work. My work deals with them by granting legitimacy wherever it is reasonable and by avoiding harsh assessments except when necessary. I think cults that surround masters are diffused when the followers began to see true and deep contradictions and ironies in the master. And building that realization in followers takes time. – TL

  3. I’m deeply conflicted about the value of intellectual circles. I’m well aware of the absurdity and destructiveness of movements like Objectivism and Scientology, but there is another side of the story. Established points of view, especially the older ones, have developed a huge armory of rhetorical weapons to beat down new contenders. I’m not sure how a new philosophical system can develop outside of an artificial environment that protects the novel ideas from sarcasm and automatic rejection until they are big enough to stand on their own.

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