Cassirer's last major work was The Myth of the State. The book was published posthumously in 1946 after Cassirer's sudden death. Cassirer argues that the idea of a totalitarian state evolved from ideas advanced by Plato, Dante, Machiavelli, Gobineau, Carlyle and Hegel. He concludes that the Fascist regimes of the 20th century were symbolised by a myth of destiny and the promotion of irrationality."-- from the anonymous Wikipedia entry on Ernst Cassirer.
I've used Wikipedia as much as anyone else for quick reference but whenever I see a short writeup on a complex subject (such as neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer) my alarm bells go off. But no bells rang for a certain messboard opponent who quoted the above section of the writeup to me, as proof that Cassirer believed that Plato and the rest were responsible, however indirectly, for the rise of fascism.
To say the least, this is not an accurate reading of THE MYTH OF THE STATE. The book does attempt to portray the historical background against which the ideas of the totalitarian state arose (including not just "right-wing" forms like fascism proper but also "lefty" manifestations like "Bolshevism," as Cassirer calls it.) However, the anonymous author's word "evolved" is extremely misleading, for colloquially it implies a natural progression, when in truth Cassirer's book shows the many ways in which totalitarian states actively distorted even those philosophers from whom they directly borrowed.
In short, MYTH OF THE STATE is first and foremost a history of how said myths come into being. It should be understood that by "myth" Cassirer does not mean something false or illusory, though the ways in which men deal with myth may be misguided. According to Cassirer's system, the very attempt one makes to justify the ways of a given state can be deemed a "myth," albeit not precisely the same sort of myth one encounters in the most primitive societies.
Cassirer devotes his first four chapters to defining myth as compactly as his theme will allow, so it's to be expected that he skips over many of the nuances of myth-definition found in the 1925 book MYTHICAL THOUGHT. Probably the best definition he offers of primitive myth is that "myth is an objectification of man's social experience," but immediately after that definition he labels the constructions of Plato as myths, albeit myths that, unlike their earlier kindred, serve "the purposes of dialectical and ethical thought." Cassirer is a bit vague as to how the earlier type of myths manage to become so encoded in society as to become the Old Order that dialectical thinkers seek to overthrow, but throughout the book this is his basic theme: that the primary type of myth is the first human activity to begin leading man "far from his unconscious and instinctive life," but that afterward new and more rational forms of myth must supersede those that are based largely on "feelings."
Plato, far from being a proponent of fascism, is seen as not only one of the first philosophers to discourse on the subject of the state, but also the first to propose making a choice between "an ethical and a mythical conception of the state. In the Legal State, the state of justice, there is no room left for the conceptions of mythology, for the gods of Homer and Hesiod." Cassirer also notes that Plato is no ally to fascism:
"Justice" and the "will to power" are the opposite poles of Plato's ethical and political philosophy.
Most of the thinkers covered here are given similar readings by Cassirer. With the exception of racial theorist Gobineau, whose real contributions to fascism are obvious, Cassirer shows the thinkers involved in analyzing the nature of the state's power, not stumping for the rise of totalitarianism. The closest Cassirer ever comes to doing what the Wiki essay claims he does is within his chapter on Hegel. I can see why the anonymous writer might have misapprehended Cassirer's theme if all he read was this:
But it was the most tragic fate of Hegel that he unconsciously unchained the most irrational powers that have ever appeared in man's social and political life. No other philosophical system has done so much for the preparation of fascism and imperialism as Hegel's doctine of the state-- this "divine Idea as it exists on earth."
Sounds damning. However, Cassirer points out that Hegel also said:
The highest aim that the state can attain is that art and science are cultivated and come to a height corresponding to the spirit of the people. That is the principal end of the state-- but an end that it must not bring about as an external work but that must arise from itself.
Clearly, neither the Left nor Right versions of totalitarianism had any serious intentions of imitating Hegel's ideal of the "divine Idea." Their political myths are, Cassirer says, "artificial things fabricated by very skillful and cunning artisans." As such, no reasoning being could regard the swastika or the hammer-and-sickle as the natural evolutions from their source material, or think that Cassirer thought so.
However, the idea that the proper response to the Holocaust should be a total refusal of all myths has become itself a myth that has been advocated by others beyond anonymous Wikipedia writers, or even anti-comics pundits like Wertham and Legman. Andrew Von Hendy's MODERN CONSTRUCTION OF MYTH is an academic survey that has some fair criticisms to make of the many scholars who have written on the subject of myth, but von Hendy's chapter on Cassirer subscribes to the "refusal myth" unashamedly.
Without going into all of von Hendy's criticisms of Cassirer here, suffice to say that after the author finishes his pronouncements on Cassirer's philosophical magnum opus, THE PHILOSOPHY OF SYMBOLIC FORMS, von Hendy tells us that MYTH OF THE STATE is "the passionate palinode of a refugee from Hitler's Germany." But any retraction is purely in von Hendy's mind. At no point does Cassirer renounce his belief in the idea that mythical thought remains the foundation for all later developments of human art. philosophy and culture: at most he is more vehement about the necessity for controlling the irrational side of primal myth with its more rational kindred. At the book's conclusion, what I call primal myth-- perhaps comparable to Joseph Henderson's conception of "Moira"-- is made the literal foundation of culture, albeit in the manner that the Sumerian goddess Tiamat's slain body is made the fundament of the Sumerian cosmos.
And yet this is not Cassirer foreswearing the necessity of myth: he merely recognizes, just as he did in pre-fascist Germany, that the symbolic forms often come into conflict. In the aforementioned MYTHICAL THOUGHT, written prior to the rise of Nazi power in Germany, Cassirer again notes how a philosopher like Plato opposed mythical paradigms:
Plato as a dialectician draws the sharp dividing line that can be drawn neither by myth nor mysticism.-- p. 251.
Von Hendy's dividedness of mind is evident. In one sentence alone he praises Cassirer for his "brilliant" defense of the philosophers whom many were then attacking for advocacy of fascism, yet implies that Cassirer "exoneration" is special pleading without citing any of Cassirer's actual defenses. Given that von Hendy shows in the book a marked preference for Paul Ricoeur-- whom I personally tend to consider a second-rate Cassirer-- I suspect von Hendy was not that interested in an honest appraisal of the philosopher. Ironically, von Hendy ends his chapter by remarking on the perils of "romantic affectivity," but I submit that he, like the anonymous Wiki-writer, is guilty of an anti-romantic affectivity, which can be no less deceptive than its opposite.