Politics, Philosophy, Terror

Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt

Dana R. Villa
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 269
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    Politics, Philosophy, Terror
    Book Description:

    Hannah Arendt's rich and varied political thought is more influential today than ever before, due in part to the collapse of communism and the need for ideas that move beyond the old ideologies of the Cold War. As Dana Villa shows, however, Arendt's thought is often poorly understood, both because of its complexity and because her fame has made it easy for critics to write about what she is reputed to have said rather than what she actually wrote. Villa sets out to change that here, explaining clearly, carefully, and forcefully Arendt's major contributions to our understanding of politics, modernity, and the nature of political evil in our century.

    Villa begins by focusing on some of the most controversial aspects of Arendt's political thought. He shows that Arendt's famous idea of the banality of evil--inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann--does not, as some have maintained, lessen the guilt of war criminals by suggesting that they are mere cogs in a bureaucratic machine. He examines what she meant when she wrote that terror was the essence of totalitarianism, explaining that she believed Nazi and Soviet terror served above all to reinforce the totalitarian idea that humans are expendable units, subordinate to the all-determining laws of Nature or History. Villa clarifies the personal and philosophical relationship between Arendt and Heidegger, showing how her work drew on his thought while providing a firm repudiation of Heidegger's political idiocy under the Nazis. Less controversially, but as importantly, Villa also engages with Arendt's ideas about the relationship between political thought and political action. He explores her views about the roles of theatricality, philosophical reflection, and public-spiritedness in political life. And he explores what relationship, if any, Arendt saw between totalitarianism and the "great tradition" of Western political thought. Throughout, Villa shows how Arendt's ideas illuminate contemporary debates about the nature of modernity and democracy and how they deepen our understanding of philosophers ranging from Socrates and Plato to Habermas and Leo Strauss.

    Direct, lucid, and powerfully argued, this is a much-needed analysis of the central ideas of one of the most influential political theorists of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2316-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-10)

    In a 1964 interview with the German journalist Gunter Gaus, Hannah Arendt refused the honorific title of “philosopher.” “I do not belong to the circle of philosophers,” she stated, adding “My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher, nor do I believe I have been accepted in the circle of philosophers. …”

    Thirty-five years later, it is safe to say that this state of affairs has been transformed. Arendt is now accepted as a full-fledged canonical figure in political philosophy (although her reception by Anglo-American analytic philosophers remains...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Terror and Radical Evil
    (pp. 11-38)

    As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is difficult to avoid being overwhelmed by moral nausea. There are the well-known numbers: ten million dead in the First World War, a war fought over virtually nothing; roughly forty million in the Second World War, including the six million Jews killed in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps; twenty million or more in the Soviet gulag; thirty million dead as the result of the debacle of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”; plus the millions from a host of less spectacular but no less horrific massacres. Any conception of human dignity that...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Conscience, the Banality of Evil, and the Idea of a Representative Perpetrator
    (pp. 39-60)

    InHitler’s Willing ExecutionersDaniel Goldhagen sets out to debunk several “conventional explanations” of the motives behind the actions of those he calls the “foot soldiers” of the Holocaust. Goldhagen writes that “the notions that the perpetrators contributed to genocide because they were coerced, because they were unthinking, obedient executioners of state orders, because of social psychological pressure, because of prospects of personal advancement, or because they did not comprehend or feel responsible for what they were doing” are “untenable.”¹ His lengthy analysis of the individuals involved in killing Jews in the Police Battalions, the work camps, and the death...

    (pp. 61-86)

    The fact that Hannah Arendt was Martin Heidegger’s student was never a secret. Nor was his philosophy’s influence upon her analysis of totalitarianism and her thinking about politics. Whatwasa secret, at least until the publication of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography in 1982, was that she and Heidegger were lovers while Arendt was his student in Marburg during the period 1924–29 (she moved to Heidelberg to work with Karl Jaspers in 1926).¹

    Young-Bruehl’s revelations raised some eyebrows, but they were set in the context of a remarkable life story, together with an account of Arendt’s intellectual development and her...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Thinking and Judging
    (pp. 87-106)

    Few issues in the thought of Hannah Arendt have drawn as much criticism as her strict distinction between thinking and acting. Many political theorists, anxious to link theory and practice, have been frustrated by her insistence that “thinking and acting are not the same,” that “they occupy two entirely different existential positions.”² To Arendt’s critics, this insistence reflects a misplaced classicism, one inscribed in her fundamental distinction between thevita activaand thevita contemplativa. This distinction underlies her phenomenology of human activities, providing the basic architecture for her consideration of the active life inThe Human Conditionand mental...

    (pp. 107-127)

    To speak of an agonistic politics in a liberal democratic context invites skepticism, given the traditional liberal fear of stirring up the moral passions and conflicting visions of the good that divide citizens of a pluralist society. To speak of a “democratic agonism” is, perhaps, to push this skepticism to outright disbelief, given the heroic/aristocratic virtues associated with the agonal ideal articulated by both Friedrich Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt. Yet many contemporary political theorists (Sheldon Wolin, William Connolly, Chantal Mouffe, and Bonnie Honig among them) have turned to a broadly agonistic model of politics astheway of advancing a...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Theatricality and the Public Realm
    (pp. 128-154)

    What is the role of theatricality in the political theory of Hannah Arendt? Why does she persistently refer to the public space as a kind of “stage” upon which politicalactorsdisclose themselves “in word and deed”? Why does she rely so heavily upon the metaphors of performance and virtuosity in articulating her concepts of political action and freedom? More to the point: does Arendt’s recourse to a theatrical metaphorics illuminate the nature of the public space and its problems in the modern age, or does it merely serve to obscure these by making the Greek polis the normative model...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The Philosopher versus the Citizen: ARENDT, STRAUSS, AND SOCRATES
    (pp. 155-179)

    Viewed from the standpoint of liberal political theory, Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss have much, perhaps too much, in common. There are, of course, the obvious similarities in background. Both were German-Jewish intellectuals who came of age during Weimar; both studied with Heidegger; both were refugees from Nazi terror; and both were intensely involved with Jewish thought and politics prior to their becoming celebrated political theorists in their new American home.

    What stands out for the liberal theorist, though, is not biography, but the fundamental intellectual presuppositions shared by Arendt and Strauss. Indeed, one can persuasively argue, as John Gunnell...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Totalitarianism, Modernity, and the Tradition
    (pp. 180-203)

    To what extent does Hannah Arendt view totalitarianism as a distinctivelymodernphenomenon, one that reveals essential aspects of our time? What is the connection between her conception of totalitarianism and the phenomenology of human activities laid out inThe Human Condition?Finally, what is the link between the critique of the Western tradition of political philosophy she mounts in that book and her view of the “essence” of totalitarianism? Does Arendt believe that totalitarianism, most often regarded as the nihilistic negation of our tradition, is, in fact, a partial product of that tradition?¹ If so, what possible (and plausible)...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Arendt and Socrates
    (pp. 204-218)

    There can (alas) be little doubt that Hannah Arendt largely shared the judgment of Callicles on the dangers of philosophy.The Human Condition, Arendt’s greatest statement on the nature and existential significance of political action, is framed in terms of an exclusive and highly partisan contrast between thebios theoretikosand thebios politikos. Rightly understood, the political life aims at earthly immortality through the performance of great deeds in the public realm, while the philosophical life is founded upon the motionless contemplation of the eternal, which transcends the fleeting realm of human affairs. From the point of view of...

  14. Abbreviations
    (pp. 219-220)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 221-260)
  16. Index
    (pp. 261-266)