Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics

Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics

Roger Berkowitz
Jeffrey Katz
Thomas Keenan
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics
    Book Description:

    Hannah Arendt is one of the most important political theorists of the twentieth century. In her works, she grappled with the dark events of that century, probing the nature of power, authority, and evil, and seeking to confront totalitarian horrors on their own terms. This book focuses on how, against the professionalized discourses of theory, Arendt insists on the greater political importance of the ordinary activity of thinking. Indeed, she argues that the activity of thinking is the only reliable protection against the horrors that buffeted the last century. Its essays explore and enact that activity, which Arendt calls the habit of erecting obstacles to oversimplifications, compromises, and conventions.Most of the essays were written for a conference at Bard College celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arendt's birth. Arendt left her personal library and literary effects to Bard, and she is buried in the Bard College cemetery. Material from the Bard archive-such as a postcard to Arendt from Walter Benjamin or her annotation in her copy of Machiavelli's The Prince-and images from her life are interspersed with the essays in this volume.The volume will offer provocations and insights to Arendt scholars, students discovering Arendt's work, and general readers attracted to Arendt's vision of the importance of thinking in our own dark times.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4953-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    RB, JK and TK
  5. Editors’ note
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Thinking in Dark Times
    (pp. 3-14)

    Brecht’s poem inspires the title of one of Hannah Arendt’s less celebrated books,Men in Dark Times. For Arendt, dark times are not limited to the tragedies of the twentieth century; they are not even a rarity in the history of the world. Darkness, as she would have us understand it, does not name the genocides, purges, and hunger of a specific era. Instead, darkness refers to the way these horrors appear in public discourse and yet remain hidden. As Arendt observes, the tragedies to which Brecht’s poem refers were not shrouded in secrecy and mystery, yet they were darkened...

    • Reflections on Antisemitism
      (pp. 17-27)

      In October 1956, exactly fifty years ago to the month that we celebrate Hannah Arendt’s one-hundredth birthday, the two Cold War colossi were being simultaneously convulsed by the uprising in Budapest and its repression by Soviet tanks. At the same time, the final act of Anglo-French imperialism in the Near East—you might prefer to say Middle East, or Western Asia—was taking place, in collusion with the state of Israel, with the invasion of Suez.

      We know that the events in Hungary had an enormous emotional and intellectual impact on Hannah Arendt. The nature of this effect is somewhat...

    • Fiction as Poison
      (pp. 29-41)

      I translate the question, “What does it mean to think about politics?” into “What does it mean to think about politics today in the spirit of Hannah Arendt?” Thinking in the spirit of Arendt signifies among other things that we should summon up attentive worry about the fate of constitutional government in times of both real and artificial crisis; at the same time, we should expect developments that demonstrate the fragility of constitutional government and that simultaneously increase that fragility because of the establishment of precedents that will further erode constitutional democracy in the future.

      For Arendt, constitutional government is...

    • A Discriminating Politics
      (pp. 43-52)

      Terror and its cognates have come to signify the darkest excesses of contemporary and twentieth-century political life. They include in their fold aggressive claims to purity; murderous manifestations of programmatic and religious self-certainty; paranoid and devastating responses to threats to national security; and more generally, an intensity of instrumental forms of thinking and acting that give to individuals, groups, and states a broad warrant for deploying violence as a means to their purposefulness. Hannah Arendt reflected deeply on the implications of such high-minded and bellicose purposefulness. Understanding terror was a sustaining motif of her political thought from the time she...

    • Hannah Arendt’s Political Engagements
      (pp. 55-61)

      There was a special poignancy to our celebrations of Arendt’s centenary in 2006 through many conferences, since so many of us were and are still gripped by concern with the “crises of our republic,” as one of those conferences was called. Many fear that what Jonathan Schell has aptly named the age of “Arendtian revolutions,”¹ of nonviolent peoples’ movements that brought democracy to power in countless countries, from the Philippines to the Czech Republic, from South Africa to the Ukraine throughout the 1980s and 1990s, is over. In their place have emerged amorphous global jihadist movements, exploiting weak and failed...

    • What Does It Mean to Think About Politics?
      (pp. 63-70)

      Hannah Arendt was a thinker who concerned herself with, more than anything else, politics. But what does it mean to think about politics? There is a difference in Hannah Arendt’s thought (and on this point she presents herself as a follower of Kant) between, on one hand, thinking, which aims after meaning or sense, and, on the other hand, understanding, which aims after truth or knowledge.¹ Indeed, Arendt insists that knowledge is, in some of its forms, antithetical to thinking. Knowledge—the knowing of things—does not belong integrally to thinking as Arendt grasps it. Accordingly, this essay concerns itself...

      (pp. 73-77)

      I want to address the question whether totalitarianism is a threat today. I think a caveat is in order as I make some remarks about this question; and that is that for Hannah Arendt totalitarianism was the crystallization of several elements that together constituted this event. I say this because I think, first of all, that for Hannah Arendt there is no form of totalitarianism in the way that Montesquieu, for instance, might outline a form of government such as the republic or the monarchy. Second, we should keep in mind that these elements of totalitarianism might themselves change. There...

    • Lying and History
      (pp. 79-92)

      I would like to address the problem of violence in the political realm by focusing on a question that, I believe, emerges out of several late works by the twentieth-century political thinker Hannah Arendt: What is history in the time of what Arendt calls “the modern lie”? In “Truth and Politics” (1967) and “Lying in Politics” (1971), Arendt reflects on what she considers a profound philosophical conundrum at the heart of politics and the political: an intimate and foundational relation between politics and the lie that has momentous implications for the way we think about political history (and, more widely,...

    • The Experience of Action
      (pp. 95-102)

      “What is the activity of democratic citizenship?” That is a provocatively odd question with which to frame a discussion of the legacy of Hannah Arendt’s thought, and particularly a discussion of her thought aboutthinkingand its political significance. From one angle, the question seems straightforward enough: it asks us to identify the activities appropriate to the citizens of democracies as citizens, the practices through which they can most effectively steer their community safely past the hazards endemic to democratic politics. Reasoned deliberation, regular participation in the associational life of civil society, the vigorous questioning of entrenched assumptions and settled...

      (pp. 105-112)

      There has been much talk of late regarding the so-called paradox of democratic constitutionalism in debates surrounding constitutional design, amendment, and interpretation.¹ As Frank Michelman puts it, “constitutional theory is eternally hounded, if not totally consumed, by a search for harmony between what are usually heard as two clashing commitments: one to the ideal of government constrained by law (‘constitutionalism’), the other to the ideal of the search for government by act of the people (‘democracy’).”²

      In this essay, I explore the place of civil disobedience in Hannah Arendt’s work to generate an account of constitutionalism in which the rule...

    • Promising and Civil Disobedience: ARENDT’S POLITICAL MODERNISM
      (pp. 115-128)

      Since this essay offers a dense sliver of a much longer exposition, let me begin by simply stating my conclusion. Premise: when she wroteThe Human Condition, Hannah Arendt did not and could not have truly grasped the meaning of her own basic concepts: beginning, action, founding, principle, promise. Only when, inOn Revolution, Arendt relocates her political theory from Greek antiquity into modernity can these emphatically modernist concepts and their corollaries take on their appropriate shapes: principles and promises are articulated through the idea of a founding constitution, and the notion of action as beginning, as bearer of novelty,...

    • Is Evil Banal? A Misleading Question
      (pp. 131-136)

      I have been asked to address the question “Is evil banal?” I am going to be confrontational because I think that this question is badly formulated. This is the type of question that invites serious misinterpretations of Arendt. I find the question objectionable for three reasons. First, the question suggests that Arendt has a generaltheoryor thesis about the nature of evil. This is absolutely false. Over and over again she insisted that she was not proposing a generaltheorywhen she spoke about the banality of evil. She was calling attention to a factual phenomenon that she observed...

    • Banality and Cleverness: EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM REVISITED
      (pp. 139-142)

      Hannah Arendt’s famous argument inEichmann in Jerusalemwas that Eichmann was not a demon on a mission from Hell, but a crass, ludicrous, pathetic individual.¹ Faced with a media blitz that depicted him as the quintessence of perversion (how could so much evil be concentrated in one person, ran the mantralike refrain), Arendt wished to puncture such verbiage with a formula designed to show that very unremarkable people have often perpetrated the most despicable acts of modern times. Many disagree with Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann, claiming that he was far more of an ideological antisemite than she realized. Others...

    • Judging the Events of Our Time
      (pp. 145-150)

      I begin with a quotation from Hannah Arendt’sThe Origins of Totalitarianism: “An insight into the nature of totalitarian rule . . . might serve . . . to introduce the most essential political criterion for judging the events of our time: will it lead to totalitarian rule or will it not?”¹ I take this quotation as an invitation—an invitation to remind us that what we are called upon to do as we consider questions about the banality of evil and the threat of totalitarianism is tojudge. To judge is not to answer questions as matters of knowledge...

    • Arendt’s Banality of Evil Thesis and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
      (pp. 153-158)

      Following the publication of Arendt’sEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, less than two decades after the Holocaust, the early “career” of her thesis concerning the banality of evil met with intense resistance. For Jews, a belief in the banality of evil of the kind committed by Eichmann could only serve Germans in avoiding responsibility for their hideous crimes against the Jews. Arendt’s thesis seemed to suggest to many Jews and non-Jews an unacceptable basis for rationalizing—it was a license for leveling Nazi crimes with other crimes of war, a license for ignoring the genocidal...

    • Liberating the Pariah: POLITICS, THE JEWS, AND HANNAH ARENDT
      (pp. 161-176)

      The essay that follows is a condensed version of a piece written not long after Hannah Arendt’s death in 1975. The original essay took its impetus from a request from Martin Peretz, editor ofThe New Republic, that I review Ronald H. Feldman’s pioneering collection of Arendt’s writings,The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age(1978), which now exists in an expanded version,The Jewish Writings, edited by Feldman and Jerome Kohn (2007). Peretz published the review as a cover essay inThe New Republicin 1978. I was then encouraged to expand and revise...

    • Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Experience: THINKING, ACTING, JUDGING
      (pp. 179-194)

      The members of this panel have been asked to consider the following question: “What is the importance of Hannah Arendt’s Jewish identity?” Though a response might be fashioned in categories of particularism and universalism, is there not something problematic about the question itself, even aside from Arendt’s understanding of the uniqueness of every human life? What exactly does Jewish identity mean when applied to a nonreligious Jew who in much of her writing criticized the Jewish people, and who, because she dared to judge the behavior of certain Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, was cast out of Jewish communities in...

      (pp. 197-205)

      Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Germany and died in 1975 in New York. Between those bookends, her life played out during what she termed the “dark times” of the twentieth century. She was a political and cultural critic, publishing many essays and books, and she is now considered among the elite of the German Jewish culture that produced so many great literary, scientific, and artistic figures. Arendt’s reputation as one of her generation’s most gifted political thinkers rests on two major books,The Origins of TotalitarianismandThe Human Condition, both published in the 1950s, and a slew...

    • Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Identity
      (pp. 207-210)

      The topic of Hannah Arendt’s Jewish identity can be approached from many directions. In this essay, I am going to consider Arendt in the context of the vision of world history articulated by her teacher and mentor Karl Jaspers, in which her people, the Jews of Palestine, were considered as one of the “Axial Age” peoples.

      In the later years of the Second World War, when Arendt was writingThe Origins of Totalitarianism, Jaspers was writingThe Origin and Goal of History. His book, published in 1949, came into her hands as she was finishing hers. They both knew that...

    • Jewish to the Core
      (pp. 213-218)

      Hannah Arendt was born Jewish and undoubtedly remained Jewish until she died. This fact must be stressed, because as recently as 2001 she was accused by the intellectual historian Richard Wolin of being a “non-Jewish Jew,” an expression he adopted from the Marxist biographer Isaac Deutscher for intellectuals for whom Jewish parentage was nothing more than a biographical accident.¹ Contrary to Wolin, the lifelong continuity and importance of her Jewish identity must be emphasized despite the doubts, fierce criticisms, and uproar against her in the wake of the publication of her bookEichmann in Jerusalem.

      What did Arendt’s Jewish identity...

    • Thinking Big in Dark Times
      (pp. 221-227)

      In dark times we need to resist the temptation to miniaturize the human spirit, to paraphrase Amartya Sen’s telling phrase.¹ We have to think big, even if we often feel overwhelmed and powerless before a world that acts from thoughtless myths and the reputed commands of ruthless gods. Indeed, we need to risk affirmative, moral, and ethical speech, knowing all the while that great ethical and moral ideals have indeed been soiled and profaned and debased, to echo a poem of Auden’s that Arendt so loved.²

      At the heart of Arendt’s work is her conviction that the European tradition of...

      (pp. 229-234)

      In the winter of 1932–1933, correspondence between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt was abruptly terminated. It requires little imagination or speculation to understand the cause of the long and lasting silence between the two. More disquieting for some, above all for Arendt herself, was the revival of this relationship, beginning in February 1950. For Arendt, Heidegger posed a problem bigger than the romantic drama depicted by some of her biographers, and a moral dilemma that went far beyond the failings of one individual. Arendt’s confrontation with Heidegger involved more weighty concerns, and it is these that led her to...

    • Solitude and the Activity of Thinking
      (pp. 237-246)

      “The true predicaments of our time,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “will assume their authentic form only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”¹ The totalitarianisms in Germany and the Soviet Union were only symptoms of these true predicaments, of what Arendt early on calls the mass society characterized by “organized loneliness.”² Later, covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she would come to see that the bond between totalitarianism and loneliness is the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

      I have long been struck by Arendt’s suggestion that totalitarianism depends on thoughtlessness and that thoughtlessness is itself rooted in the experience of loneliness....

    • Exile Readings: HANNAH ARENDT’S LIBRARY
      (pp. 249-259)

      On May 1, 1972, the photographer Jill Krementz took a picture of Hannah Arendt in her library.¹ As Lotte Kohler remembers it, this library was set up partly in the dining room of Arendt’s Riverside Drive apartment and partly in the study of her husband, Heinrich Blücher, who had died in 1970. After Hannah Arendt’s death in December 1975, Lotte Kohler and Mary McCarthy were faced, as executors of her will, with the task of liquidating the New York apartment and with it the library that was located there. While Arendt had already entered into agreements during her lifetime with...

    • Remembering Hannah: AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK BLUM
      (pp. 261-266)

      On the final day of the conference Thinking in Dark Times, celebrating Hannah Arendt’s one-hundredth birthday, a group of attendees gathered by Hannah Arendt’s gravesite to hear Arendt’s friend Jack Blum offer some remembrances of her. Blum’s stories, some humorous, others poignant, offered a glimpse of Arendt’s life in a way that her published writings do not. Blum, a student of Heinrich Blücher, Arendt’s husband, also offered insights into Arendt and Blücher’s loving and intellectually rich relationship. The stories struck those who gathered in a light rain as meaningful and worth preserving for a wider audience. Toward that end I...

    • My Hannah Arendt Project
      (pp. 269-272)

      During my German-language studies at the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv in 2003, I came across Hannah Arendt’sEichmann in Jerusalem, the only one of her books that had been translated into Hebrew at the time. There it was, standing behind a window in the institute’s foyer. On its jacket, Adolf Eichmann wore a white shirt, looking like the most typical and ordinary person in the world. Soon the book was in my hand; the reading experience was thrilling. Sharp, direct, cynical—and yet sensitive and convincing— the book offered a wide perspective on a new form of evil. Hannah...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 273-292)
  15. List of Contributors
    (pp. 293-294)
  16. Index
    (pp. 295-300)