Trying To Update a 20th-Century Master
Trying To Update a 20th-Century Master
New York Sun, Books - BY ADAM KIRSCH, - Oct. 11, 2006
Hannah Arendt, who was born 100 years ago this Saturday, is one of those writers whose names will always be linked with the evils of the 20th century. Like Orwell, Benjamin, or Camus, Arendt had her intellectual gifts commandeered by history, and devoted her life to understanding the new demons she saw loosed upon the world. This was hardly a fate she could have foreseen growing up in Koenigsberg, a conspicuously brilliant daughter of the German Jewish bourgeoisie. Through her mid-20s, Arendt was educated in the unworldly tradition of German academic philosophy, studying with Martin Heidegger and writing her doctoral dissertation on Saint Augustine. That she eventually put her learning at the service of political questions, writing about sovereignty and pluralism and human rights, was a direct result of her biography.

It was politics that turned Arendt into a political philosopher. In 1933, after being jailed briefly by the new Hitler regime, she escaped to Paris, where she spent the rest of the decade working for Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped send German Jewish children to Palestine. After the fall of France she became a refugee once again, ending up in New York, where she would live until her death in 1975. Arendt became a fixture of the New York intellectual world working at Schocken Books, writing for Partisan Review, teaching at the New School. But her intellectual concerns, like her manner and accent, remained unmistakably European. Even when she wrote admiringly about the American Revolution and the Founders, it was in the context of her lifelong attempt to understand the failure of the European political tradition.

Now that Arendt has completed her own century, it is natural to wonder whether her work is as salient now as when it was written. That is the question Elisabeth Young-Bruehl sets out to answer, with a strong affirmative, in Why Arendt Matters (Yale University Press, 232 pages, $22), the first in a new series of books whose titles will all take the form "Why X Matters." Ms. Young-Bruehl is uniquely qualified to write a brief on Arendt's behalf: her 1982 biography Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World is still the standard bearer.

In laying out some of the key concepts of Arendt's thought, Ms. Young-Bruehl does a useful service for a thinker who is known, to most readers, only as the coiner of the much-misunderstood phrase "the banality of evil." Ms. Young-Bruehl begins her book with a complaint about the way this formulation from "Eichmann in Jerusalem," so "full of suggestion and portent," has been turned into an all-purpose journalistic "sound bite," ripped from its intellectual context. "Eichmann in Jerusalem" remains Arendt's most widely read work (a new edition has just appeared in the Penguin Classics series, with an introduction by Amos Elon). But as Ms. Young-Bruehl shows, Arendt's philosophical analysis of concepts like action, thoughtfulness, and forgiveness, expounded in more technical works like The Life of the Mind and The Human Condition, are crucial to her judgments of specific political and historical questions, including her controversial analysis of Nazism.

To explain how evil can become banal for instance, how Adolf Eichmann, an utterly mediocre bureaucrat, could murder millions of people without deliberation or passion Arendt evolved a whole theory of ethics, according to which it is not obeying moral laws but living thoughtfully that protects us from doing evil. This theory depends, as Ms. Young-Bruehl points out, on Arendt's "conversational" vision of the life of the mind, what she called "the soundless dialogue between me and myself." Movingly, Arendt suggests that the real reason not to do evil is that it makes it impossible to live with oneself, and thus puts an end to that dialogue. As Ms. Young-Bruehl writes,"It is better to suffer wrong than to do it and have to live with the wrongdoer." It was only because Eichmann enjoyed no such inner dialogue that his conscience could be drowned out by the voices of hate that surrounded him.

Why Arendt Matters suffers, however, when it stops being an introduction to Arendt's thought and attempts to become an argument for her relevance. For when Ms. Young-Bruehl tries to adapt Arendt's insights to our present-day political quandaries "to put to her imaginatively the questions that come to mind when reading the morning paper," as she writes in her introduction she ends up making this complex, rebarbative thinker sound platitudinously philanthropic. Ms. Young-Bruehl is certain that Arendt would support the European Union ("this astonishing demonstration of the power of promising"), oppose child poverty (a product of what Ms. Young-Bruehl oddly calls "childism," that is, bias against children), and worry about globalization. Surely, there need be no ghost come from the grave to tell us this.

Perhaps Ms. Young-Bruehl's attempt to consult the shade of Hannah Arendt for advice, like the Delphic oracle, is to blame for these disappointments. Happily, the world Arendt set out to explain the world of ideological dictatorships, concentration camps, and gulags has largely disappeared, for now at least. As a result, any attempt to apply her terminology to our post-Cold War world risks turning her historically precise insights into generalized truisms. Worse, it risks moral equivalence, as when Ms. Young-Bruehl seems to suggest that "the destruction of natural human bonds," which Arendt saw as integral to Nazism and Communism, is currently taking place in American public schools, whose "curricula have become a key battleground for Christian proselytizers."

If the quest for relevance leads to such misunderstanding, perhaps it is better to acknowledge that Arendt is not relevant, in the manner of this morning's headlines, but rather, like all original thinkers, timeless.