In Her Mind's Eye | The Nation


In Her Mind's Eye

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Arendt's early articles are translated in Jerome Kohn's indispensable anthology Essays in Understanding, which fills in the background of Origins and explains much of its apparent eccentricity. The astonishing confidence with which Arendt moved between philosophy and history while denouncing the entire philosophical canon was not the whim of a lonely maverick but a commonplace of the German tradition in which she had been trained. Her fundamental idea of "human plurality" was not so much a recapitulation of classical individualism as a reworking of the existentialist doctrine that the self is no more than a collection of points of view, and that any unity we attribute to it is a matter not of experiential fact but of wild and impossible yearning. Her conviction that the "whole structure of Western culture" had been called into question by totalitarianism was a deliberate and disturbing echo of the transvaluation of values Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were supposed to have accomplished a century before: The philosophers, you might say, had imagined a world beyond good and evil, but the Nazis--by practicing a "wickedness beyond vice," which condemned their victims to "innocence beyond virtue"--had actually created one. Arendt's theory that the politics of citizenship was the repressed underside of the entire philosophical tradition was simply an imaginative reapplication of the negative approach to the history of philosophy pioneered by Nietzsche, Jaspers and Heidegger. Indeed, her refreshingly elevated notion of politics was not so much an account of actual political phenomena as a reinterpretation of what the existentialists meant by the open-ended prephilosophical activity of thinking.

About the Author

Jonathan Rée
Jonathan Rée is the author of, most recently, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses--A Philosophical...

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The other thing that shines out from Essays in Understanding is Arendt's passion for the country where she had chosen to live. European intellectuals had always despised the United States as a mass society in thrall to public relations, and in the early 1950s Arendt was alarmed to see their languorous snobbishness turning into virulent anti-Americanism--an ideology that, according to her, threatened to become "the content of a European movement" while offering cheap and painless ways to "prove oneself a liberal." But Europe's poor had always known better: They realized that the citizens of the United States were members of a mature political community unparalleled in the rest of the world, and they yearned to move to America because they could see that its egalitarianism contained "a promise of freedom" rather than "a threat to culture."

Arendt counted herself lucky to have made a home in America, and even luckier to have been granted membership in a political community subject to the "government of law and not of men." The American Republic was "utterly unlike the European nation-states with their homogeneous populations, their organic sense of history," she said, and it was the only place where someone like her could enjoy "the freedom of becoming a citizen without having to pay the price of assimilation." As far as she was concerned, the United States was the sole inheritor of the revolutionary principles of eighteenth-century Europe, and in spite of the Vietnam War, which she condemned as a disastrous miscalculation, she was never prepared to participate in popular protests or do anything else that might be construed as anti-American.

By the time of her death in 1975, at the age of 69, Arendt had become a celebrated American author, with dozens of scholarly articles to her name, reams of journalism and a sequence of extraordinary books, including The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem (originally a series of reports in The New Yorker), On Revolution and Men in Dark Times. However, her pro-Americanism, together with her coolness toward Israel and "the Jews" (she often complained about their "insufferable tone of self-righteousness"), had won her many enemies. It did not help that she was a woman, and a childless woman at that, and one who took no particular interest in feminism. For a while it seemed that the public had had enough of her.

But the decline of the classical left in the 1980s and '90s created a surge of sympathy for her doctrine of republican citizenship, and the appearance of several volumes of her correspondence--with Heidegger and Jaspers as well as with her husband, Heinrich Blücher, and her friend Mary McCarthy--rekindled curiosity about her life and personality. Attention has now turned to her large legacy of unpublished and uncollected writings, which Kohn, an excellent scholar, has started preparing for publication. It is an ambitious undertaking, and in due course we can expect, among other things, an anthology of Arendt's reflections on Jewish questions, a new collection of letters and selections from her "thought-journals." Most of the doubts that might be entertained about the value of delving into Arendt's archives should be dispelled by the first two volumes in the series.

Responsibility and Judgment consists mainly of lectures on practical philosophy delivered in the 1960s, concentrating on the relationship between the world of public politics and that of personal morality. Arendt argued that the two worlds had a lot in common, in that neither political issues nor moral ones could ever be settled definitively, or by the mechanical application of ready-made categories: The truths of morality and politics were to be brought into being by a process of deliberation rather than discovered by acts of reasoning or observation. Moral and political dilemmas were like artistic ones; they both called for what Kant called "judgment," or the kind of infinite thoughtfulness that is willing to expose its own standards of assessment to the challenge of the issues it encounters. On the other hand, there was also a fundamental difference in that moral judgments are concerned with the self, or the kind of person one wishes to be, whereas political judgments are concerned with the world, and the kind of society one wants to live in. Having established an analytical distinction between public and private life, Arendt went on to warn of the dangers of blurring it in social action. Most of the evils of our time, she thought, arise from misguided attempts to moralize politics or politicize morality. She was on a mission to keep politics pure.

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