April 13, 2018
The Philosopher in Dark Times
THINKING WITHOUT A BANISTER
Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975
By Hannah Arendt
Edited by Jerome Kohn
569 pp. Schocken Books. $40.
What is the relationship between thinking, acting and historical consciousness? How do we preserve a spirited intellectual autonomy that yet includes enough sense of the past to contextualize and resist those power-grabbers who would bamboozle the public with their own fun house versions of truth? Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and political theorist, was always acutely concerned with questions of how to make thought and knowledge matter in the struggle against injustice, never more so than in the last two decades of her life, when the rich medley of the material collected in “Thinking Without a Banister” was created. “What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed,” she remarked in a 1973 interview. “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” A lying government pursuing shifting goals has to ceaselessly rewrite its own history, leaving people not only dispossessed of their ability to act, “but also of their capacity to think and to judge,” she declared. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
She’d seen this process firsthand. Born in Germany in 1906, a Jew by birth and an iconoclast by temperament, she fled her native country after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, first for Czechoslovakia, then Switzerland, then Paris, where she was living in 1937 when the Nazis officially eradicated her citizenship so that she became stateless. Some of her most potent work reflects on the consequences of eliminating people’s national identity. Deprivation of citizenship should be classified as a crime against humanity, Arendt argued, because most legal protections are now conferred through functioning state governments. “Some of the worst recognized crimes in this category have … not incidentally, been preceded by mass expatriations,” she wrote, adding that the state’s ability to sentence someone to death was minor compared with its right to denaturalization, since the second could put the subject entirely beyond the pale of the law. Such passages make for particularly chilling reading at a moment when America has begun rescinding the temporary protected status of thousands of longtime residents, threatening to deport them to their countries of origin, some of which labor under severe economic disadvantages and sociopolitical strains, where their rights and safety cannot be assured.
A year after the fall of France, in the spring of 1941, Arendt emigrated to the United States. Through her prolific essays, she began building a reputation as a penetrating thinker with an urbane and unceremonious style that she would attribute to her zest for “pearl diving” in history. Tradition having been shattered by the calamitous events of the 20th century, she saw her task as plucking the precious bits from time’s waves and subjecting them to her critical thinking, without pretending they could be melded back into any grand, systemic whole. She warned her audience that if they attempted to practice her “technique of dismantling,” they had to be “careful not to destroy the ‘rich and strange,’ the ‘coral’ and the ‘pearls,’ which can probably be saved only as fragments.”
In New York, Arendt’s intellectual acuity and conversational punch swiftly translated into social cachet. After meeting her at a dinner party in the mid-1940s, the literary critic Alfred Kazin was smitten: “Darkly handsome, bountifully interested in everything, this 40-year-old German refugee with a strong accent and such intelligence — thinking positively cascades out of her in waves,” he wrote in his diary.
Arendt’s sheer delight in intellectual speculation counterpoints her intense ethical commitment to thinking as a form of political engagement.
Though she would only fully embrace the principle of amor mundi, love of the world, after contending philosophically with the cataclysm of World War II, the insatiable curiosity was there early on. “I believe it is very likely that men, if they ever should lose their ability to wonder and thus cease to ask unanswerable questions, also will lose the faculty of asking the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded,” she declared in one address. Arendt’s sheer delight in intellectual speculation counterpoints her intense ethical commitment to thinking as a form of political engagement.
The relationship was sometimes uneasy and often controversial, most famously in the case of her account of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, in which she coined the term “the banality of evil.” Watching Eichmann testify in his glass booth, Arendt became convinced that he was, above all, an inarticulate buffoon whose wicked deeds resulted from his participation in a bureaucratic structure that dissipated the sense of personal responsibility, and deadened the capacity for cognition. Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of kabbalah, was one of many public intellectuals who felt that Arendt had lost track of the human reality of the Holocaust amid the scintillating twists of her argument. She had failed to reckon with the raw pleasure that playing God over others could afford, and so had overemphasized the role of systemically enforced thoughtlessness in preparing individuals to execute enormous crimes. Recent historical scholarship suggests that Arendt did, indeed, underestimate Eichmann’s ideological passion for National Socialism: Much of his clownish bumbling in Jerusalem may have been a conscious, self-exculpating performance. But her core insight into how even mediocrities can be institutionally benumbed and conscripted into heinous projects remains fertile.
Some of the work anthologized in this volume, edited by Jerome Kohn, comprises Arendt’s responses to current events, like her analysis of the televised 1960 national conventions, in which Kennedy and Nixon were the principal rivals, offering a rather surprising defense of the onscreen experience as a revealing format for viewing those “imponderables of character and personality which make us decide, not whether we agree or disagree with somebody, but whether we can trust him.” Other essays provide deep conceptual etymologies of historical events, key figures and schools of thought. These include her profoundly enlightening study of how Karl Marx fits into the long Western political tradition and her detailed analysis of the challenge that the 1956 Hungarian revolution posed to the Russian military and propagandistic juggernaut. The most dynamic pieces here are Arendt’s interviews, in which the sweep and depth of her ruminations are layered with the caustic wit and engagé appeal of her voice. For all Arendt’s opposition to totalitarianism — and her willingness to implicate Marx in the development of certain totalitarian movements — Arendt remained unabashedly enamored of Marx’s proposition that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world. … The point, however, is to change it.” She relished his determination to wrest higher thought from the supine realm of the Greek symposium and thrust it into the ring of political activism, challenging, as she wrote, “the philosophers’ resignation to do no more than find a place for themselves in the world, instead of changing the world and making it ‘philosophical.’” For Arendt, thinking that helped advance the cause of human freedom entailed a form of relentlessly critical examination that imperiled “all creeds, convictions and opinions.” There could be no dangerous thoughts simply because thinking itself constituted so dangerous an enterprise.
Almost every essay in this book contains “pearls” of Arendt’s tonically subversive thinking, and many of her observations push readers to think harder about the language in which political activity is conducted. Reflecting on the numerous allusions to “reason of state” that crept into White House discourse after Watergate, she notes how the term became synonymous with national security. “National security now covers everything,” she commented, including “all kinds of crime. For instance, ‘the president has a right’ is now read in the light of ‘the king can do no wrong.’” This is no longer a matter of justifying particular crimes, she warns, but rather concerns “a style of politics which in itself is criminal.” The indictment chimes with her taxonomy of the tyrant in an essay titled “The Great Tradition”: “He pretends to be able to act completely alone; he isolates men from each other by sowing fear and mistrust between them, thereby destroying equality together with man’s capacity to act; and he cannot permit anybody to distinguish himself, and therefore starts his rule with the establishment of uniformity, which is the perversion of equality.”