October 11, 2006


Trying To Update a 20th-Century Master (ADAM KIRSCH, October 11, 2006, NY Sun)

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", 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.

The problem with Arendtism (as with all Rationalism) is that Eichmann and other evldoers conduct exactly the same sort of inner dialogue as Ms Arendt, they just come to different conclusion, and, having denied the existence of external rules and elevated the self, one has no basis for valuing one's own conclusion over theirs. Evil becomes banal not because perpetrated by gray men but because it is just one legitimate choice among many equal ones.

The current panic in Europe over the blowback from "tolerance" is really nothing more than a recognition that Arendt and her ilk were disastrously wrong, though some on the Left are slow on the uptake, What it means to be a liberal (Geoffrey R. Stone, October 10, 2006, Chicago Tribune)

[I] thought it might be interesting to try to articulate 10 propositions that seem to me to define "liberal" today. Undoubtedly, not all liberals embrace all of these propositions, and many conservatives embrace at least some of them.

Moreover, because 10 is a small number, the list is not exhaustive. And because these propositions will in some instances conflict, the "liberal" position on a specific issue may not always be predictable. My goal, however, is not to end discussion, but to invite debate.

1. Liberals believe individuals should doubt their own truths and consider fairly and open-mindedly the truths of others. This is at the very heart of liberalism. Liberals understand, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, that "time has upset many fighting faiths." Liberals are skeptical of censorship and celebrate free and open debate.

2. Liberals believe individuals should be tolerant and respectful of difference. It is liberals who have supported and continue to support the civil rights movement, affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment and the rights of gays and lesbians.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2006 12:00 AM

I haven't read her since I was forced to read her "Eichmann" in college, but she sounds like the poor sister of Kant. Libs have been trying and failing miserably since Kant to create a moral universe absent God.

How did Arendt's inner dialogue proceed, I wonder, when she was cosying up to Herr Heidegger?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at October 11, 2006 11:27 PM