Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hannah Arendt: The Conscious Pariah by Anne Heller

Product Details
"Conscious pariah" is an apt title

Of late I've been thinking a great deal about Hannah Arendt. I recall first reading her work Between Past and Future in the fall of 1974. I was fascinated and baffled. But the fascination overcame my bafflement to prompt me to go on to read all of her major works, and some lesser known works as well. I even sat in on an undergraduate class when I was in law school that was all about her work. Now, all these years later, I find it necessary to think once again about her powerful legacy. 

Heller's work is a short biography of Arendt. It does an admirable job of packing in a good deal about Arendt's life as well as providing some insight into her project. The book opens with the extremely controversial reports that she published of the Eichmann trial. In her New Yorker articles and the later book, she labeled Eichmann as "banal" and coined the term "the banality of evil." Some thought that she was in some way excusing Eichmann; she was not, and she concurred with the death penalty imposed upon him. The other great controversy in the book was her contention that Jewish councils in Eastern European ghettos aided the Nazis in organizing and executing the Holocaust. Arendt argued that a firmer, more principled resistance would have been more efficient. Her contention led some in the Jewish community to vilify her. The fact that she, too, was Jewish and that she'd worked in Zionist organizations before the war gave her no shelter. The idea that some Jewish leaders were in any way complicit in the Holocaust was too much for many. Arendt's point is one that must be considered by any person or organization that deals with an evil sovereign authority: to collaborate and thereby hope to ameliorate, or to resist and risk a higher, quicker body count. 

But while the Eichmann trial is the most famous instance in her career, I don't' believe it the most important. Her works The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future, On Revolution, and On Violence are all among the outstanding and exemplary works of political thought in the post-war era. Heller's biography is too light on these matters (and thus not a very helpful  consideration of her thought). Instead, Heller focuses a good deal on Arendt's relationship with Martin Heidegger, her teacher and, for a time in her youth, her lover. While not inconsequential, I'm not sure that a lot of attention to this relationship pays much in the way of dividends in coming to grips with Arendt's legacy. 

Heller's book provides a satisfactory introduction to Arendt's work, but don't be satisfied just to read this short biography. Read Arendt's works and experience a public display of a mind immersed deeply in thought and concern.