WHY READ HANNAH ARENDT NOW?
by Richard J. Bernstein
Polity Publisher, Cambridge
Paperback: 120 pages
LOVE AND SAINT AUGUSTINE
by Hannah Arendt
University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Paperback: 254 pages
Reviewed by Paul Gray
Hannah Arendt is one of the most important thinkers of the late 20th century and, in this century, remains a key influence in con-temporary thought. The recent short volume, Why Read Hannah Arendt now?, by philosopher Richard Bernstein, an admirer of Arendt’s who has done important work of his own in extending understanding of the problem of evil in contemporary times, is an almost too readable account of her thought.
Bernstein’s Radical Evil – a consideration of the problem in light of the Holocaust and the wider totalitarian experiences of the 20th century – built in a timely manner on Arendt’s great work in this vein.
Radical Evil was almost ready to be published on September 11, 2001. Though not explicitly dealing with the emergent 21st-century challenge of violent non-state jihadism, it grappled with the striking ethical and existential challenges arising from modern political mindsets that fundamentally redefine the meaning of the human in ways deeply destructive not only of human dignity, but of reason.
With thinkers such as Margaret Canovan, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Susan Niemann and Jeffrey C. Isaacs, Bernstein is an important “Arendtian” authority who has responded to and developed important insights from Arendt into the main tendencies and problems of modernity. This leaves him a natural authority for writing Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?.
So, why would we read Arendt now? Off the top, one reason for doing so is, as Bernstein argues, the relevance of her interpretation of modernity for understanding the immigration and refugee crises of our times. Quite apart from the moral challenges of modern immigration detention policies – something acknowledged even by the staunchest defenders of mandatory immigration detention, such as Tony Abbott – there is no doubt that Arendt’s analysis speaks directly to this major theme in current world affairs.
Bernstein addresses the “how” of this in the opening two sections of the book, on “Statelessness and Refugees” and “The Right to Have Rights”. These echo strong themes in one of Arendt’s most famous books, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.
In some ways her signature work, The Origins reflected aspects of Arendt’s career and character: her years spent as a stateless person, a Jew forced to flee first Germany and later western Europe; her core philosophical training in 1920s German universities, where she was taught by Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers; and her active engagement (reflecting both these other aspects) with current and recent political events during her lifetime.
In giving a succinct account of her views on statelessness, Bernstein notes that a problem Arendt identifies as originating with the post-World War I collapse and subsequent carve-up of once-dominant imperial states across continental Europe has grown today, 4½ decades after her death, into a far larger and entrenched global problem.
Reared as many contemporary people are on horror stories of World War II and the massive human displacement it provoked, it can come as a shock to realise, as Bernstein points out, that in one (statistical) way at least, the problem of statelessness is far worse today.
He writes: “There are now millions of persons – far more than when Arendt wrote The Origins – living in refugee camps with little hope that they will ever be able to leave them. This is the only ‘country’ that the world has to offer those fleeing from the turmoil of war, persecution and the misery of extreme poverty and famine.
“In short, virtually all the problems that Arendt highlights about statelessness and the refugee crisis continue to plague us – indeed, they have been intensified and exacerbated.”
What lends continuing interest to the analysis of these problems is Arendt’s persistent grappling with root causes. There is little in her core philosophical works (among which should be counted Eichmann in Jerusalem) that is dated (with the possible exception of language modes) even now.
The analysis of statelessness is typical. Statelessness is related, in her thought, to the failure of the nation state – the dominant form of “nation” today – to grapple with the political and moral challenge represented in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. This high-water mark of Enlightenment political thought set a challenge which has never yet been met – to deliver the “rights” that are inherent to the human person simply by virtue of their being a human person and, simultaneously, to deliver the same rights to the individual by virtue of their being a member of the particular national community to which, for one reason or another, they happen to belong.
In practice, nation states in the past and today, deliver human rights only to members of the nation state (the citizen), not to individuals based upon their simply being human. The “universal” rights of men are effectively a dead letter; and, in Arendt’s reckoning, essentially were stillborn at the time of the French Revolution.
Yet they remain a powerful beacon full of relevance in political discourses today, both on the right and on the left. The continuing crisis of the stateless and the displaced, symptomatic of a modern age characterised by “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth”, prompts many, including Bernstein, to consider the thought of Arendt anew.
Bernstein is an authoritative, though, in this volume, too brief, guide to Arendt’s thought. Longer guides are available to her work and life, including an interesting recent graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein. However, and somewhat against a recent publishing trend, it must be said that there is no substitute for reading the woman herself. Arendt is in many respects a charming writer, despite the darkness and depth of her subject matter, and her works already mentioned, along with The Human Condition and On Revolution, and various collections of essays, are well worth the exploration.
A much tougher read is Arendt’s first work, Love and Saint Augustine. In fact this is her doctoral dissertation, written in her 20s, and is often difficult to follow. There is an anecdote that when she returned to it later in life to help prepare this English translation, Arendt was heard to say that even she did not understand what she was trying to say. This can surely be forgiven; many a doctoral thesis written in English in the 20th century (and even the 21st) is likewise virtually incomprehensible to many if not most readers.
In this edition of Arendt’s dissertation, aided by scholarly essays and annotations by editors Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark, we may come as close as is humanly possible to unpacking the depths of Arendt’s political and philosophical thought, informed as it is (and, arguably, anchored) in the thought of Saint Augustine.
As Scott and Stark demonstrate, Augustine’s thought was extra-ordinarily important in the shaping of Arendt’s mind. Other more contemporary thinkers likewise helped shape her distinctive brand of “passionate thinking”: notably Heidegger, with whom she had a brief, intense, and ultimately unhappy love affair; and Jaspers, who supervised her Augustinian dissertation, and remained a life-long mentor, interlocutor and friend.
Yet Augustine surfaces again and again at key moments in her political and philosophical writings (including, memorably, the final lines of The Origins of Totalitarianism), and it is hard to avoid a suspicion that in some respects at least, Arendt’s entire oeuvre is a kind of Augustinian project – one devoted to mapping the contemporary world, both in the “radical evil” of its violence and the extraordinary “productivity” of capitalism, to the philosophical framework of the one key thinker who, more than any other, stands at the bridge between the thought and culture of the classical Mediterranean world and the later, wider worlds of medievalism and early modernity.
To take one example, we may look at Arendt’s emblematic idea of “natality”, which we can render as the insight that the human condition is defined not by mortality, or the fact that we are going to die, but rather by natality, or the fact that being born, we constantly have the capacity to make new beginnings, and that these beginnings are themselves unpredictable, spontaneous and, not infrequently, “miraculous” (a term Arendt uses often, though there seems to be no attempt in her writings to give it a religious connotation). This seems to be entirely an Arendtian development of the Augustinian idea, “that there might be a beginning, man was created”.
Another theme in Augustine’s thought that emerges prominently in Arendt’s also is in the response to the problem of evil. Grapplings with “evil” or “contingency” as realities in the world (or as inherent in “being”) predate Augustine; they are indeed a perennial theme in Western (and other) philosophy, which contemporary thinkers neglect at their peril.
Following Augustine and other major thinkers, including Kant, Arendt grapples openly with the problem of evil as it emerges decisively into modern history with the Holocaust (or, Slightly more broadly, “totalitarianism”, as she calls it).
For Arendt the unprecedented violent iniquities practised by Nazis like Heydrich and Höss and many others in the forests and death camps of World War II represented “radical evil”, a term she develops from Kant.
In dialogue with Jaspers, she continues to interrogate the concept in later years, famously coining the term “the banality of evil” after the Eichmann trial of 1961. Whether “radical” or ‘banal’, it is the problem of evil itself that lies continually before politics in the modern world, for Arendt.
Arendt’s early engagement with Augustine on the problem of evil and the nature of the world, through the cities of God and men, represents, biographically at least, the substructure of her later theory. Though it is difficult to trace this engagement through the explicit text of her dissertation – simply because of the difficulties in the text – the interpretive essay from editors Scott and Stark is immensely helpful.
The editors follow Arendt’s mind as she responds to Augustine, and foreground for us obvious contemporary influences (like Heidegger, on the nature of being) as well as identifying other thoughts that represent Arendt’s own innovations, as distinct from mere interpretation of her sources. This exercise is helpful for the growing number of people who want to understand the breadth and depth of Arendt’s thought.
For example, to those interested in another of Arendt’s feted concepts, “plurality”, it is fascinating to observe the connection of the term with Augustine’s understanding of love of neighbour, which is a key focus of Arendt’s dissertation.
Augustine’s individualistic focus, exploring the individual soul in its passionate pursuit of God, sits in interesting tension with his sense of the imperative to love other human beings (which might be seen as some sort of a distraction). Arendt seems to resolve the tension, or attempts to, by recognising and emphasising the individuality in every human soul, constituting the “city of God” (in contrast with the “city of man”) as both a community, in the corporate sense, and an expression of individuality.
Scott and Stark suggest that this leads us to the origins of the term “plurality”, which is essential in all of Arendt’s thought and looms large in her characterisation of totalitarian evil as not only violence but also denial of the plurality (or diversity) of man.
Arendt is an interesting philosopher for today for two main reasons. One is her deep immersion in the thought of the past; in Augustine certainly, but also with an extraordinary litany of modern philosophers and makers of intellectual culture over two millennia. The other is her critical engagement with events and thought of the present, or at least the present of her day, the 20th century. Few significant political events even of the 21st century cannot be given some version of an Arendtian interpretation, from electoral anger in liberal democracies to the developmental aspirations of post-colonial populations.
A final aspect of her thought that draws attention (and this from all sides of politics) is her analysis of ideology. Arendt develops a structural argument about the role of ideology in the growth and practice of totalitarianism, which she saw expressed in Hitlerism and Stalinism.
Ideology is a ubiquitous feature of modern politics, and perhaps plays a particular role today, when parties, movements and “tribes” of various sorts seem ready and willing to cast others as motivated entirely by ideology while they themselves are rational, humane and normal. In such a climate people may seek out Arendt on ideology hoping better to understand and more easily vanquish their enemy of the moment.
Many who do will be disappointed in Arendt, because it is clear (fortunately) that the ideologies she analyses in her major works have nothing in common with most so-called ideologies in liberal democracies today, which are often little more than convenient thought bubbles bringing the like-minded together, rather than serious mobilisation tools that threaten the fabric of the world itself. Both Hitlerism and Stalinism were different in this respect.
What those who do venture into Arendt will find is a mind that seeks with great success to reorient the modern world to the serious thought of the past.
Paul Gray is a journalist and speechwriter. He is completing a Masters by Research on Hannah Arendt’s political theory.