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Amor Mundi: Good and Evil

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.


Good and Evil Run Through Every Heart

Is Brett Kavanaugh a brilliant legal scholar or a crazed pervert and rapist? Is Jain Ghomeshi so evil that to read him is an affront to our human dignity or is he someone who, as he argues in a recent essay,  has come to the “somber realization” that he once could condone “the bullish way a successful single guy might act.” Must we choose one answer? Andrew Sullivan argues that the tragedy of our present moment is that we have split into warring tribes of in-groups and out-groups; we have divided the world into the “unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.” And Sullivan adds, “It is much harder to see, as Solzhenitsyn did, even after he had been sent to the gulag by his ideological enemies, that good and evil run through every human heart.”

The New York Review of Books published three essays on gender politics in its recent issue. One was by Ghomeshi, who had been accused of a truly disturbing variety of sexual harassments by 23 different women. Six years later, he has written about his experiences. There was a time when essays by criminals were in vogue for what they revealed about the criminal mind as well as what lessons of remorse. Ghomeshi was actually acquitted, but he admitted in his essay serious shortcomings and owned awful behavior. At the same time, he insisted that much of what he was accused of in the world of social media was wrong or unfair or both. He offered an account of his experiences, at times painfully self-justificatory, and at times illuminating.

For the act of publishing his essay and then defending that judgment in public, the editor of the New York Review of Books Ian Buruma was forced to resign. According to Buruma, Rea S. Hederman,  the publisher of the distinguished journal, was worried about the potential loss of advertising by academic presses. Such is the cowardice of our times.

People are scared, not because they have done things that are criminal, but that if they utter the wrong opinion or tweet the wrong tweet, they will be ostracized, fired, and ruined. We are, Sullivan argues, living through a moment of social terror in which the punishment is not the guillotine, but branding via hashtags.

-Roger Berkowitz

“This is what a cultural revolution feels like. It is given legitimacy by the top, but it is enforced horizontally from below. You are encouraged to denounce and expose your friends, your co-workers, and your bosses for the harm they inflict. Colleagues vie to signal that they are not guilty of being an oppressor, partly because they are not, and partly to avoid being the next scalp. Soon, silence is not enough – in fact, it’s suspicious. And so it becomes necessary to endorse the revolution, celebrate it, and enforce it, prove that you are in good standing. Examples are made of slackers – the more arbitrary the better – to keep fear alive in the minds of everyone. If you so much as quibble, you’ll be the next head on the chopping block. When the very existence of people is at stake – and it always is for the catastrophists – there is no limiting principle.

We live then in a paradox. Our society has less crime and less danger than ever, and yet we see threats everywhere. It has become more racially and culturally diverse than any society in the history of humankind, but it is plagued by “white supremacists” or “hordes of illegals.” And you cannot question these feelings because subjectivity is more important than objectivity, and sensitivity trumps reality. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people live in a world unimaginable to the overwhelming majority of humankind, and to our predecessors of only five years ago, and yet we are told by our leaders that we are “under siege.” As women kick ass in our economy and culture, as they achieve success that previous generations would have thought extraordinary, what is the response? Rage, of course! Furious rage!”

Back to the Soul

The liberal world order is wobbling. While liberalism brought the benefits of democracy and economic growth to millions, it also left many millions behind. In the 2000s, twin financial crises in Europe and the U.S. made the bifurcated and highly unequal nature of liberal globalism painfully apparent. The illiberalism of the present, however, is not simply a response to the economic inequality of liberal globalism. Francis Fukuyama sees that the transformation of politics roiling the globe is at least as much based on resentment.

-Roger Berkowitz

“But as important as material self-interest is, human beings are motivated by other things as well, motives that better explain the disparate events of the present. This might be called the politics of resentment. In a wide variety of cases, a political leader has mobilized followers around the perception that the group’s dignity had been affronted, disparaged, or otherwise disregarded. This resentment engenders demands for public recognition of the dignity of the group in question. A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity carries far more emotional weight than people simply pursuing their economic advantage.”
“While the economic inequalities arising from the last 50 or so years of globalization are a major factor explaining contemporary politics, economic grievances become much more acute when they are attached to feelings of indignity and disrespect. Indeed, much of what we understand to be economic motivation actually reflects not a straightforward desire for wealth and resources, but the fact that money is perceived to be a marker of status and buys respect. Modern economic theory is built around the assumption that human beings are rational individuals who all want to maximize their “utility”-that is, their material well-being-and that politics is simply an extension of that maximizing behavior. However, if we are ever to properly interpret the behavior of real human beings in the contemporary world, we have to expand our understanding of human motivation beyond this simple economic model that so dominates much of our discourse. No one contests that human beings are capable of rational behavior, or that they are self-interested individuals who seek greater wealth and resources. But human psychology is much more complex than the rather simpleminded economic model suggests. Before we can understand contemporary identity politics, we need to step back and develop a deeper and richer understanding of human motivation and behavior. We need, in other words, a better theory of the human soul.”

Antisemitism and Racism

Jonathan Judaken has published a chapter looking at how Karl Löwith and Hannah Arendt, two students of Martin Heidegger, each sought to critique and overcome Heidegger’s legacy in thinking about antisemitism and racism.
Save the Date: The 2019 Hannah Arendt Center Conference will be on Racism and Antisemitism, on October 10-11, 2019.


“Ultimately, the critical philosophy of race must interrogate the intersections within Western civilization that link together the cultural histories of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Levinas and Arendt each took us down this path, following a trail indicated by Heidegger in his effort to reevaluate Western metaphysics. Levinas and Arendt each sought to move beyond Heidegger’s shadow by reconsidering the dead ends of his intellectual legacy. While all three left us at a crossroads along the way, failing to interrogate persisting racial tropes in their own work, they also each offered methodological and conceptual resources that remain invaluable for undoing racism. Heidegger’s Destruktion of Western metaphysics opened the tradition of deconstructive critique, which in the critical philosophy of race has targeted “metaphysical racism” and the semiotics of racial stereotyping. Levinas sought to step beyond Heidegger’s shadow by radicalizing the immanent critique of Western thought and culture, often from the vantage of Jews as Europe’s primary internal Other. His insistence on “ethics as first philosophy” perpetually demands our responsibility to respond to all Others in their fragility and vulnerability as the basis of every philosophy worthy of the name, since the discipline claims the love of wisdom and justice but can only fulfill its mission if it embraces the wisdom of love. And Arendt’s historical genealogy of the effects of Western civilization on the cultures it sought to colonize, to appropriate, expropriate, enslave, and exploit helps to connect critical approaches often treated disparately, showing how racial logics join Judeophobia and Negrophobia with other forms of racism and subjugation. These connections are key if we are ever to correct the harms of racial injustice.”

Post-Liberal Faiths

Aaron Sibarium reviews Jonathan Haidt’s and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure for The American Interest. Sibarium’s thorough review offers critical insight into the new work which so far has been widely praised. Drawing attention to the major weakness of Haidt and Lukianoff’s argument, Sibarium argues that they overlook and end up reinforcing the underlying cause of the very problem they seek to diagnose and cure: the hyper liberal individual. It is this atomized and lonely individual who, Sibarium suggests, is uniquely susceptible to the kinds of social movements that Lukianoff and Haidt worry about.
“Haidt and Lukianoff are both liberals of the Santosian variety, their approach to problem-solving is thoroughly individualistic. The book’s title is quite suggestive in this regard: We do not speak of coddled communities or families or nations but coddled persons, so marked because they receive more pampering, more indulgence, than typical social norms supply. The coddling construction therefore assumes (a) that the problem revolves around and is experienced by individuals, and (b) that it does not revolve around the basic structure of American society. Haidt and Lukianoff all but assert (b) in disclaiming that helicopter parents are much more common among the upper-middle class than everyone else, whereas (a) comes across in their relentlessly pragmatist framing: “If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.” The words surrounding “virtuous” give us some idea what Haidt and Lukianoff mean by the term: not the virtue of the ancients, who stressed knowing one’s proper place in the collective, but the virtue of the moderns, who stress the ability to pursue one’s ends without interference.
This then causes Haidt and Lukianoff to overlook the ways liberal individualism has itself fueled identity politics by undermining traditional sources of meaning and community. “Wokeness” is sometimes analogized to a religion, with “privilege” playing the role of original sin, privilege-checking the role of confession, and cultural groups the role of the clerisy, bringing congregants together around shared values and experience. Those interventions, however, only emerged in a secularized context where few theological competitors existed to challenge them. And they followed a decades-long campaign to liberate the individual from all such moralizing constraints, first initiated in the 1960s when college students attacked the then-regnant model of in loco parentis for being too uptight, too heavy-handed and overbearing. As a result, society became more free and, some would say, more fun-but also much more atomized, which in turn made it more susceptible to totalizing, postliberal faiths.”

Public School Inequality

“This paper argues that rising institutional inequality is a component of individual-level inequality in the United States because U.S. higher education provides a diverse group of students with unequal access to different kinds of institutions. Using latent profile analysis, we classified all public and private nonprofit higher education institutions in the U.S. from 2005 to 2013 into seven categories. We held these categories stable over time and allowed institutions to move between them. “Good value” institutions were scarce and tended to limit access through selective admission. Only Subsidy Reliant institutions that were directly supported by government appropriations regularly provided good value seats to a racially diverse group of students. Yet the number of institutions in the Subsidy Reliant category declined markedly over time. The resulting system offered access to many students but provided limited opportunity to secure a good value seat.”

Quote of the Week


Retrieving Chance: Neo-liberalism, Finance Capitalism, and the Antinomies of Governmental Reason

Neo-liberalism assumes a world governed by complexity, contingency, and chaos, retaining from classical liberalism the conviction that competition is the ideal instrument by which order can be given to the disorder of human behavior.[i] But if Adam Smith sought to animate the moral sentiments against the antisocial vices of the modern commercial spirit (greed and luxury, for instance), the chief menace to the neo-liberal capitalist economy is not greed but chance. The entwinement of neo-liberalism with statistics and probabilistic reasoning, expertise and technical knowledge, and the powers of government (not quite reducible to the powers of the State) points to both the disruptive force of chance and to the forces deployed tame it. Neo-liberal government trades in calculable risks, and mobilizes powers and technologies of risk-management through its dispersal across populations. My sense is that a critique of neo-liberalism, as an apparatus of government, a rationality of conduct, and a complex of powers and material interests, might well begin with chance.


From an essay first given as a lecture at the conference “The Burden of Our Times: The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis” at Bard College in 2009. It was later published in The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis, ed. by Roger Berkowitz and Taun Toay (2012). Read the rest of this journal feature here on Medium.

Video Feature

This week we take a look back to ask what lies ahead with this lecture from the 2017 Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”

Is Liberal Democracy Our Future: Melvin Rogers, Yascha Mounk, and Samantha Hill

Is Liberal Democracy Our Future: Melvin Rogers, Yascha Mounk, and Samantha Hill

Posted on 24 September 2018 | 10:07 am

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