Hannah Arendt -- Among Friends?12-03-2015
By Jerome Kohn
Hannah Arendt died forty years ago today, December 4, 1975.* Recalling her death somehow brings to mind Socrates, who died more than two thousand years before.
Socrates’ friends, some of whom were present at his death, were for the most part worldly, intelligent, and respected citizens of Athens, confident in their ability to define ideas, suprasensory entities, such as knowledge, justice, piety, courage, and friendship. Often Socrates opened their discussions by distinguishing the chosen topic from what it was not, as in separating friendship (?????), for example, from love (????), a distinction that may have been easier for Greeks than barbarians -- then as now -- to overlook. Here we must wonder: if not love, what is friendship? Is it the aid given a friend in need, as the old adage “a friend in need is a friend indeed” may imply? Or as Aristotle more subtly suggests, is friendship the need that calls for aid from a friend? Or does speaking of friendship in terms of needs and aids somehow degrade it? Does not the idea of friendship transcend any and all concerns that might be considered utilitarian?
[caption id="attachment_17028" align="alignright" width="300"] Source: The Imaginative Conservative[/caption]
Failing to agree even on what friendship is good for, on what its purpose or end is, Socrates' friends became aware of a pressing, one might almost say “existential,” need for a "right opinion" (????-?????), that is, an opinion none could dispute. For only then could they hope to go on speaking sensibly about the idea of friendship, a notion which they do not doubt informed them in common.
With Socrates' help--perhaps more nudging than guiding--the friends began to examine what they had been saying, to reflect on the words they had spoken. They ceased to assert their opinions, stepping back, so to speak, from their belief in them, holding them up to the light, turning them this way and that, trying to see them from their friends' points of view. And what if they came to realize that none of their opinions had been wrong but that none of them had successfully defined friendship? The strange fact that their opinions are not false, but don't fit together into a whole, introduces the friends into a state of genuine perplexity (??????), in which Socrates is quick to join them. They must have made a mistake along the way, he suggests, and invites them to start again.
Or might it be that there is no better way of remembering friendship than by not being able to define it? Here the ?????????? and ???????????, the reversal and recognition, of a Greek tragedy or dramatic poem occur in the drama of the life of the mind. For the more perplexed Socrates and his friends become in their search to know what friendship is, the more certain they are of their experience of it. It would be difficult, indeed, to imagine Socrates speaking with his friends as anything other than an act of friendship, as if bringing them to admit "I don't know what friendship is, but I am your friend" were among the most unimpeachable things that can be said in the name of friendship. For after all, who of us knows exactly what goes on when we become somebody’s friend?
“No Platonic dialogue deals with the question of evil,” Hannah Arendt wrote (Arendt, 1978, I) as she went on to poke metaphysical fun at the youthful Socrates who dismissed as “absurd”--“a bottomless pit of nonsense”--the notion of ascribing an idea to “hideous things and ugly deeds.” In the dialogue that bears his name, the older philosopher Parmenides cautions Socrates that he is “still young…and philosophy has not yet taken hold of you so firmly as I believe it will someday” (loc. cit., cf. Plato, Parmenides 130 d,e). In 1963, at the height of l’affaire Eichmann, Hannah Arendt said to the journalist Samuel Grafton that she had "been thinking for many years, or, to be specific, for thirty years, about the nature of evil" (Arendt, 2007). Thirty years before, when Arendt was not yet 27 years old, the Reichstag in Berlin had been set on fire, an event quickly followed by the Nazis' illegal arrest of thousands of communists and others who opposed them. Though innocent of any crime, they were taken to concentration camps or the cellars of the recently organized Gestapo and subjected to what Arendt called "monstrous" treatment. With his political opposition effectively broken, Hitler went on to establish the Jew-hatred that in his case was obvious to any reader of Mein Kampf, the diatribe he dictated in prison and published in 1925. Which is to say that, with the consolidation of Nazi power, antisemitism ceased to be a social prejudice and became a political policy: Hitler Germany was to be made judenrein, "purified" by first demoting Jews to the status of second class citizens, then by ridding them of their citizenship altogether, expropriating their possessions, deporting them, and, finally, killing them.
[caption id="attachment_17029" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Adolph Hitler's rise to power can be traced to the Reichstag fire. (Source: wiseGEEK)[/caption]
It was after that first encounter with evil that Arendt said she "felt responsible." But responsible for what? Certainly not for Hitler, his followers, or supporters. Was she referring, obliquely, to the betrayal of at least some of her non-Jewish friends, their desertion in time of need? She said she could no longer be "simply a bystander." Did she mean that now, in her own voice and person, she would respond to and resist the criminality she saw becoming rampant in her native land? "If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man" (Arendt, 1994).
Her responses to any political inclination or tendency toward totalitarianism, not only as a Jew to Nazi political antisemitism but also as a naturalized U.S. citizen after 1951, were acts of courage. In our time, Edward Snowden may be perceived as a person who acted courageously. (At least, it would be nice to believe that such people still exist.) Arendt knew that no one can act alone, and she did not; her co-actors included Karl Jaspers, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Day, Alfred Kazin, Wystan Auden, Dwight and Nancy McDonald, Albert Camus and his wife Francine Faure, among not too many others.
In 1953, she published an article called “The Ex-Communists” in The Commonweal magazine (reprinted in Arendt, 1994), in which she distinguished sharply between ex-communists, who switched ideologies but not modi operandi, and former communists, who understood that methods and aims were not so easily separated. "The Ex-Communists" was published in 1953 at the height of American rabid anti-communism instigated by Joseph McCarthy in 1950, a period during which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed and Alger Hiss, among others, imprisoned--all on uncertain legal grounds, to say the least. Both Arendt and her husband could have been deported, for it was still several years before the Supreme Court, citing Arendt’s irreproachable arguments in The Origins of Totalitarianism for citizenship as the source of human rights, decided to limit in detail the rules governing denaturalization.
[caption id="attachment_14817" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Source: Die Welt[/caption]
In the 1970s, Hannah Arendt expressed her opposition to capital punishment due mainly to the fallibility of human judgment. In 1963, however, reporting on the banality of evil in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she condemned Eichmann to death in the following words: because “you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish [and other] people…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race can be expected to want to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang” (Arendt, 1963). Some readers have found this if not anti-climactic at least lacking in vigor, possibly because they are not mindful of what Arendt is saying. Eichmann had to be put to death, not because no one, including himself, questioned the fact of his horrific deeds, nor because his intention to do evil had been proved beyond doubt in the trial, but because he had committed the crime against the status of being human. He had transported millions of Jews--men, women, and children--to their deaths and had therefore attacked a fundamental tenet of human being, that mankind includes difference and plurality. He was able to do this not solely because they were Jews but because as Jews they had been stripped of whatever citizenship they may have had and with it any claim to political equality or any other human right. They had no legal, moral, or political status at all. As human beings they were, as Arendt said, “superfluous,” which meant that--as quickly became evident to anyone with eyes to see--the world had no need of them. Eichmann’s crime against humanity had been “perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people,” but there was no reason to believe that this crime against humanity would stop when there were no more Jews left to kill.
The end of Arendt’s Eichmann book, directly before the Epilogue, describes the almost ludicrous nonsense of Eichmann’s last words before he was hanged as “summing up…the lesson of the fearsome, word-and thought-defying banality of evil.” That is the only place in the entire book that the words “banality of evil” appear, and it has been criticized, understandably, as inadequately explaining their meaning. The German text is somewhat clearer. Of Eichmann’s buffoonery Arendt writes, “in the presence of which speech fails and upon which thought founders” (vor der das Wort versagt und an der das Denken scheitert).
"Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?
Au fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!"
"(Plunge into the depths of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?
Into the depths of the Unknown, to find something new!)"
-- Ch. Baudelaire, “Le Voyage”
If Arendt bore witness to something new, the most extreme evil in recorded history, she herself had undergone what many might call “hideous things and ugly deeds.” She suffered a double forced immigration, first from Germany, her native land, and then from France, where she had fled to escape persecution. For eighteen years, from 1933 to 1951, she was stateless, living without the rights of citizenship, and then, to top it off, she was virtually excommunicated by her own people--Jews and Jewish establishments in America, Europe, and Israel--for having revealed the evil they themselves had endured as a “surface phenomenon,” without roots, that is, not radical, as she had previously called it. She wrote to Gershom (Gerhard) Scholem that extreme evil “possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension… It is ‘thought-defying’…because thought tries to reach some depth, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’” (2007, emphasis added). The banality of evil is nothing for thought, and its appearance in the human world is ironic, for had it not been defeated by a huge and disparate alliance of powers ranged against it, it could have destroyed the world.
It has been said that Hannah Arendt had a genius for friendship, but it is also the case that she had many enemies. I don’t mean because she was Jewish, but on the contrary, because she was a Jew who saw in her mind’s eye that the evil Jews had been subjected to in the 20th century was in some measure due to an inability to think. Another way of putting it would be to say that the more extreme the appearance of evil is in the world, as were Eichmann’s deeds, the more adept evil is in eradicating the activity of thinking.
[caption id="attachment_15091" align="alignleft" width="300"] Hannah Arendt's The Life of the Mind (Source: Goodreads)[/caption]
Arendt’s understanding of the pervasiveness of evil and thoughtlessness is the reason, I believe, Arendt wrote her last unfinished work The Life of the Mind, a title she borrowed from Aristotle: ? ??? ??? ???????? ??? (Metaphysica, Lamda). Though the word ???????? may have different meanings, from “actuality” to “operation,” here perhaps the most appropriate is “activity.” Thus Aristotle’s phrase may be translated “for the activity of the mind is also life.” Accordingly, Arendt writes, “Without the breath of life the human body is a corpse; without thinking the human mind is dead” (Arendt, 1978 her italics). In the first volume of The Life of the Mind, Arendt was intent to show that the activity of thinking is by no means limited to philosophers and professional thinkers but is in fact essential to sharing the world with others. One thinks in solitude, withdrawn from the world, but not alone. The activity of thinking is a dialogue with oneself divided in two, the two-in-one, although the phenomenal experience of the division has never been widespread. It is not the truth, but the agreement of the two-in-one to search for hints of truth’s living, changing face that recalls Socrates and his friends.
Endless questions can be raised, from “How could thinking have obstructed the manufacture of corpses in death factories?” to “Was it thinking or force that won World War II?” Arendt’s belief that the past can never be literally revisited or revised is reiterated throughout her work. The epigraph for The Origins of Totalitarianism, for example, is taken from Karl Jaspers: Weder dem Vergangenen anheimfallen noch dem Zukünftigen. Es kommt darauf an, ganz gegenwärtig zu sein, which translates as, "To live at home neither in the past nor the future. All that matters is to be entirely in the present." And a guiding thread through her last completed work, the second volume of The Life of the Mind, is the frustration and rage of the free will’s un-freedom, its powerlessness to change what has been. The split will is opposed to itself (to its selves), whereas being on good terms with itself is the condition sine qua non of the two-in-one of thinking. When the two-in-one stops thinking and reappears in the world, it does so as one person among a plurality of other persons who, insofar as they also have been active thinking, will be conditioned to trust each other as co-inhabitants of a world between them, a world, that is, which connects and separates them.
There were friends of Socrates who attended his death. Two old friends and colleagues, the eminent Jewish historian Salo Baron and his wife Jeanette, were with Arendt in her home when she died after suffering a heart attack. For well over two thousand years, Socrates’ circle of friends has grown immeasurably, a few regarding him as a victim of injustice but most as the wisest of all men. It may even be that Parmenides and Arendt were a bit hasty in their judgment of the young Socrates (see above). Though hideous deeds exist, he may not have been entirely wrong in suggesting they cannot be thought. I suspect Arendt’s circle is likewise widening, mainly among the young, students and their teachers, and not merely because she was a woman. It is more likely that the age-old need to build, preserve, and care for the world as a fit place for their progeny to live has been renewed after the world’s near destruction and continuing insecurity, that Arendt has shown that being on good terms with oneself in the depths of the activity of thinking is not only delightful in itself but also the condition of co-operation, of working together with others to build a world to be shared in common. That would be something entirely new since the dawn of the modern age. These newcomers look upon Arendt as their friend. They call her Hannah.
*These brief remarks were generated from conversations with four exemplary friends of Hannah Arendt--Alexander Bazelow, Matthias Bormuth, Fred Dewey, and Thomas Wild--none of whom, needless to say, is responsible for their content.
References to quotations from Arendt:
Arendt, H., The Human Condition, 1958
________ Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963
________ The Life of the Mind, vol. 1, “Thinking” 1978
________ Essays in Understanding, 1994
________ The Jewish Writings, 2007
(Featured image sourced from Peace Monuments)