Thinking without a Banister

James Miller

  • Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger by Elzbieta Ettinger
    Yale, 139 pp, £10.95, October 1995, ISBN 0 300 06407 1
  • Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Uncollected and Unpublished Works by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn
    Harcourt Brace, 458 pp, $39.95, May 1994, ISBN 0 15 172817 8
  • Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought by Margaret Canovan
    Cambridge, 298 pp, £12.95, September 1995, ISBN 0 521 47773 5
  • Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy edited by Carol Brightman
    Secker, 412 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 436 20251 4
  • Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926-1969 edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber
    Harcourt Brace, 821 pp, $49.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 15 107887 4

Twenty years after her death, and nearly half a century after The Origins of Totalitarianism established her international reputation, Hannah Arendt looms larger than ever – as a philosopher, as a political theorist, as an exemplary analyst of history. Jürgen Habermas has expressed admiration for her, as have avowed Post-Modernists, who share her declared freedom from metaphysical and moral presuppositions. Democratic intellectuals in Eastern Europe – Vaclav Havel, for one – have endorsed a distinction first stressed by Arendt, between the authoritarianism of old-fashioned dictatorships and what she described as the ‘total domination’ practised by modern-day totalitarian regimes. In addition, the anti-Communist uprisings of 1989 seemed to bear out her thesis that revolution in its essence is not social (as Marx thought) but political, and that true political power flows only from below, from a people spontaneously acting in concert.

Apart from her study of totalitarianism, Arendt’s fame rests on three books. In The Human Condition (1958), an account of the differences between instrumental labour, creative work and free action, she lamented our modern inability to emulate the heroics of the classical Greek man of action, a ‘doer of great deeds and speaker of great words’. In On Revolution (1963), she revived the 18th-century dream of creating a new political order, defending the American Revolution against its Marxist detractors, yet also criticising the Founders for needlessly limiting the institutional spaces where citizens could actively participate in politics, and so experience the happiness of a shared freedom. Most notorious of all was Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In this account of his trial, she portrayed Eichmann as a dutiful bureaucrat – and the Jews as implicated in their own annihilation, thanks to the help that some Jewish leaders gave to the Germans in rounding up victims.

Arendt’s life straddled two continents, bringing into contact two quite different intellectual cultures (and producing endless opportunities for misunderstanding). Reared on the existentialism of Karl Jaspers and her other philosophical mentor, Martin Heidegger, she first won renown in the literary salons of Manhattan, where she awed the Partisan Review crowd, became friends with New York intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald, and charmed countless literary lights as the perfect ‘Good European’ (though Delmore Schwartz once dismissed her as ‘that Weimar Republic flapper’). In the last decade of her life, her commentaries on contemporary political issues, uncommonly learned by American standards, appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. She established friendships with Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and W.H. Auden, who went so far as to propose marriage (she declined).

Arendt has never inspired universal admiration, however. ‘She seems to me to be inaccurate in argument and to make a parade of learned allusion without any detailed inquiry into texts,’ Stuart Hampshire declared shortly after her death, expressing sentiments widely shared by analytic philosophers and classicists exasperated by her imperious disregard of conventional scholarship. Trying to explain the outrage felt by many Jewish readers of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Walter Laqueur suggested that it was not so much what she had said, but how she had said it: ‘The Holocaust is a subject that has to be confronted in a spirit of humility; whatever Mrs Arendt’s many virtues, humility was not one of them.’

Born in Königsberg in 1906, she came of age as a member of that city’s assimilated Jewish élite. As she recalled in a 1964 interview reprinted in Essays in Understanding, ‘I did not know from my family that I was Jewish.’ When she became interested in religion as a student, she was drawn not to Judaism but to Pauline Christianity, coming to share Heidegger’s interest in Augustine, Kierkegaard and (in her words) ‘the salvation of the individual’s subjectivity’. From the German idealists as well as Heidegger she inherited the conviction that the central (and redeeming) feature of the human condition was freedom, the enigmatic power of the human being to begin anew, and so (in Kant’s words) ‘to pass beyond any and every specified limit’.

Arendt’s relation to Heidegger marked her for life. Like Heidegger, she treated philosophy as a mode of existential inquiry, to be conducted without presuppositions or fixed goals. Despite her interest in topics traditionally treated by theologians, she, like Heidegger, was committed to methodological atheism, setting aside the question of God’s existence. A life of philosophical conviction would have to be lived, and illuminated, without recourse to any principle of sufficient reason, since (as Heidegger once put it) ‘freedom’ – and not a changeless Godhead – ‘is the reason for reasons.’

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