Friday, October 27, 2006

The Life of the Mind

"The real reason not to do evil is that it makes it impossible to live with oneself"
-Hannah Arendt

Everyone is talking and writing about Hanna Arendt. October 2006 is the centenary of her birth. Ardent was one of the seminal political thinkers of post war World War II period, and her influence went well beyond the realm of American academia, where she spent the last three decades of her life.

Arendt was quintessentially the enlightened liberal humanist Jewish intellectual refugee from Nazi Germany. The central concerns in Arendt's thought, if I may be so bold as to summarize, were:
  • an astute sense of just how evil modern societies can actually become;
  • an - at the time - groundbreaking insight into the nature of modern totalitarian societies (based on mind control, total loyalty, homogenization of identities and ideas, a disdain for critical thinking, and intolerance for otherness.)
  • a faith in the power of human thinking, when properly applied, to lead people to strive for good. (Or perhaps - and this difference is significant - the power of lack of critical thinking to lead people to do evil.)
  • a belief that politics – as the engaged, enlightened, and empowered discussion of people concerning their common projects – is the highest form of human endeavour.
  • a love of, and faith in, human reason, of trying to understand everything – "The Life of The Mind", also the title of her last book.
"Arendt's work deals with the nature of power and the subjects of politics, authority, and totalitaianism. Much of her work focuses on affirming a conception of freedom which is synonymous with collective political action among equals.

Arendt theorizes freedom as public and associative, drawing on examples from the Greek polis, American townships, the Paris Commune, and the civil rights movements of the 1960's (among others) to illustrate this conception of freedom."(1)

Arendt is not easy to pigeon hole on any simple spectrum. She, who Norman Podhoretz claimed "had perhaps done more than any single writer to establish the moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, thereby supplying the theoretical basis … for hard anti-Communism …", also openly criticized McCarthyism (correctly pointing out that ex-leftists, like Podhoretz himself, were most likely to become "totalitarian like" in their anti-Communism) and later became active in the anti Vietnam War movement. Likewise, Arendt, who described so well the evil nature of Nazism and Stalinism, is considered by many of her detractors to be the mother of "moral relativism". So it should be no surprise that what she stood for, and what significance her ideas have for our times, are the subjects of debate in the numerous recent articles coming out about her.

Some (like her biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her recent book "Why Arendt Matters" ) think Arendt's theories about totalitarianism apply to disturbing trends in America today. Others think this is nonsense, and that Arendt's theories of totalitarianism best apply to "Islamo-fascists", while America was, and mostly remains, an example of Arendt's ideal state.

Amos Oz attacks Arendt for her moral relativism – "for refusing to recognize that real evil exists" (a false charge, in my opinion, based on a misunderstanding of her "banality of evil" argument;) while the neo-conservative New York Sun claims Arendt's ideas while valid 50 years ago are no longer relevant today.

The English language Ha'aretz praises her ideas and claims her as a Zionist (Arendt did work for Youth Aliya in the 1940s, was publicly and proudly Jewish and maintained a strong though extremely critical attachment to Israel her entire adult life;) while the Hebrew language Ha'aretz praises her revolutionary spirit and emphasizes her opposition to an exclusively "Jewish State". (She believed in a Jewish homeland as part of a bi-national state.)

For me, these words of hers, written in a 1948 (as quoted in the Hebrew language Ha'artez and translated back to English by myself,) are sadly prophetic.

"Even if the Jews win the war, in the end we will find the unique possibilities and extraordinary achievements of Zionism in the land of Israel wounded beyond healing …. The 'victorious' Jews will be surrounded by a hostile Arab population, secluded within ever-threatened borders, submerged in physical self defence to a degree that will cast a pall on all other activities and interests. The development of Jewish culture will cease to be the concern of the nation; all social experiments will be jettisoned as they will be considered "impractical"; political thought will be reduced to military strategy."

Likewise her insights regarding the "banality of evil" - how "thoughtlessness" can lead to the greatest of crimes - stands the test of time.

For two short fairly straightforward biographies of Arendt click here and (1)here.


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