Category Archives: Hannah Arendt

“Hannah Arendt and Theology” by John Kiess— Theology and Thought

hannah arend and theology

Kiess, John. “Hannah Arendt and Theology”, (Philosophy and Theology), Bloomsbury, 2016.

Theology and Thought

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt is regarded as one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century and she has kept that standing even with the controversy that came as a result of her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann for “The New Yorker” magazine. She is famous for her work on totalitarianism and her book about it is still required reading in history degree programs on many campuses. However, her real came with her coinage of the term “the banality of evil” and I am sure there are those who are familiar with the concept without knowing that this came from Arendt who is found at number 38 on the list of women read today in academia. She is also noted for her work regarding the Holocaust, statelessness and human rights, revolutions and democratic movements as well as for her studies on the various challenges of modern technological society. She went through a period in which the world seemed to be angry at her but in recent years, we have seen a growing appreciation of her work especially concerning the complex relationship to theological sources, namely Augustine, the subject of her doctoral dissertation and a thinker with whom she contended throughout her life.

This new book explores how Arendt’s critical and constructive engagements with theology inform her broader thought, as well as the on-going debates that her work brings about in contemporary Christian theology on such topics as evil, tradition, love, political action, and the life of the mind. What we see is a very unique interdisciplinary investigation that brings together Arendt studies, political philosophy, and Christian theology. “Hannah Arendt and Theology” looks at how the insights and provocations of this public intellectual aid in setting a constructive theological agenda for the twenty-first century.

Although I have not always agreed with her, I must state that there is no doubt in my mind that Arendt was a brilliant mind that certainly advanced philosophical thought. She was gifted with the ability to be able to reframe questions about how we should live and thus pushed us into rethinking that which we thought we knew. I cannot even begin to think about how many discussions I have had in my life about Arendt and I see her work as essential. One would probably suppose that if her work is so essential, then she must be easy to understand and that is simply not true.
This is where the value of this book comes in. Writer John Kiess gives us clear understandings of Arendt’s theological thought and leads us clearly to understand the interrelation between Arendt and the importance of her work in the fields of religion and theology.

Just a year old ago I taught a course on Arendt and her banality of evil as it affects and effect the Jewish community and had I had this book then, my class preparation would have been so much easier. However, one of the pleasures of dealing with Arendt is the ideological arguments I would have with myself about what she had to say. One thing I learned years ago is that contrary to what some members of the Jewish community have said— that she was an anti-Semitic Jew is most definitely not true. She never left her Judaism and she acknowledged it especially with the brouhaha that came into being with the publications in the New Yorker about the Eichmann and trial and later with the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”. And do not think that I have not been chided by members of my own Jewish community for standing up for Arendt when few others dared to.

In looking at theology, Arendt is difficult to stay away from and it is very easy to distort what she had to say. She was complicated and she was implicit when it came to traditional matters and concerns. A book like this has been needed for a long time and Kiess gives us a comprehensive, well integrated, and dialogical reading of Arendt and theology and I sure that is especially welcome for readers of Christian theology. There is a lot to think about and to me that is what makes a book worthwhile. Below is the table of contents:




Ch. 1 A Public Philosopher: The Life and Thought of Hannah Arendt

Ch. 2 The Problem of Evil Reconsidered

Ch. 3 Amor Mundi: Worldliness, Love, and Citizenship

Ch. 4 “That a Beginning Be Made”: Natality, Action, and the Politics of Gratitude

Ch. 5 In the Region of the Spirit: Thinking Between Past and Future



“VITA ACTIVA: THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT”— One of the Most Influential Thinkers of the 20th Century

vita activa

“Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt”

One of the Most Influential Thinkers of the 20th Century

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher, caused uproar in the 1960s with the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” as she referred to t the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the “New Yorker” magazine. Her private life was also quite controversial due to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This new thought-provoking documentary is an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life. It takes us to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed. Arendt was a great and influential philosopher who wrote as about the open wounds of modern times. Now, probably because of the recent film by Margarethe von Trotta, a biopic, there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever.


 Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times.


We learn of connections between her life and her thought, we get a different look at Arendt.Ada Ushpiz’s documentary is one of the new films that examine Israel from a variety of diverse historical, cultural and political perspectives. Hannah Arendt’s work has brought about growing interest and she is presented as a flawed figure, an intellectual who defended ideas in public that she later disavowed in private. Even though some of her complex views on ideology, totalitarianism, and Jewish refugees left stateless by the Holocaust have been challenged since her death, they continue to be heard and resonate in today’s geopolitical climate.


Arendt’s thoughts on European refugees who were made stateless by the outcome of war and their lack of rights are focused upon. The film looks at Arendt’s accomplishments and failures. Commentators take her to task for her misjudgment of Adolf Eichmann’s character, her apology for Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation, and her tough and inaccurate portrayal of the Judenrat (Jewish councils that were established by the Nazis) and its leaders, which Arendt herself later repudiated. The film implies that her most famous concept, the “banality of evil,” was appropriated from her mentor, Karl Jaspers, who coined the phrase in a letter to her.


Here we see Heidegger, her teacher and one-time lover as a sexist, selfish, vain, and pompous man, whose his love letters to Arendt are full of embarrassing romantic clichés. Heidegger was one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century is seen calling for the “extermination of the enemy” before the Nazi rise to power. This very damning evidence of his inherent anti-Semitism is used against Arendt for her promotion of the Heidegger myth, that claimed that he was a fellow traveler of the Nazis who had been duped by Hitler’s lies. We see Arendt’s not taking Heidegger into account for his crimes is presented as one of her great moral failures.


Arendt was an ardent Zionist in the 1930s and early ’40s but grew disillusioned with Israel and labeled the Eichmann case a “show trial” staged by the Israeli government. The film suggests that this attitude resulted from her preconceived notions about Israel that she brought with her to Jerusalem when sent there to cover the trial for the “New Yorker” and we now know that she begged to have a change to cover the Eichmann trial. The documentary shows Arendt as a philosopher whose prejudices often led her to fail.


Nonetheless, her ideas have lost none of their potency or relevance with the passage of time. Her reflections on subjects such as the totalitarian state and the banality of evil have made her one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The film uses wealth of source material in a detailed examination of her convictions. We hear voiceovers as we see the photographs, home movies and other archive material, and these scenes are intercut with interviews with her contemporaries. What we really see is Arendt’s unremitting sense of displacement. During the Second World War, Arendt fled to the United States, where she felt herself to be living in exile. This is a very important concept, since she belonged to a people dismissed as “superfluous.” This was the wellspring of her theories and views about the establishment of a state of Israel, Zionism and the Holocaust. However looking at these on another level, we see they can easily be understood when used to explain the current refugee situation with millions of displaced people at the borders of Europe. The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler refers to Arendt’s work, saying that a society that tries to do away with plurality becomes genocidal. This documentary warns us that that if we ignore the helpless and reject critical thinking, we are bound for totalitarianism.


“Vita Activa” will open in New York on April 6 and Los Angeles on April 29.

“THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER”— A Historical Thriller

the people poster

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” (“Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer”)

A Historical Thriller

Amos Lassen

.Burghart Klaussner, acclaimed German actor, starsin this riveting historical thriller that chronicles the tremendous efforts of German district attorney Fritz Bauer to bring Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann to justice.

the people1

Bauer wonderfully encapsulates the conflicted character of postwar Germany as the Attorney General who was instrumental in bringing the elusive Adolph Eichmann to trial in Israel. The film is both a portrait of this complex man and a historical thriller about the tremendous risks undertaken in order to apprehend Eichmann, the chief engineer of the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The setting is the late 1950s when Germany has grown increasingly apathetic about confronting the horrors of its recent past. Nevertheless, Fritz Bauer (Klaussner) tirelessly devotes his energies to bringing the Third Reich to justice. One day Bauer receives a letter from Argentina that was written by a man who is certain that his daughter is dating the son of Adolph Eichmann. The promising lead excites Bauer but he is mistrustful of Germany’s corrupt judiciary system where Nazis still lurk. Bauer goes to Jerusalem to seek an alliance with the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. To do so is treason but he knows that committing treason is the only way Bauer can serve his country.

the people3

We are taken back to a time when much of the world was eager to forget the atrocities of the Second World War even though many of the perpetrators remained at large. Yet this is also a film about the world of today, where justice continues to be undermined by economic interests.

Though relatively conservative in its approach, Lars Krause’s teleplay-style treatment of a still-touchy subject has the nerve to name names and it implicates everyone from former chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Mercedes-Benz. Kraume doesn’t pull punches or shy away from how Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, used Kraume’s homosexuality to muzzle him.

Bauer is a brilliant man who must make himself seem as non-threatening as possible in order to accomplish his political goals. He is a Jewish lawyer who was himself briefly interned in a German concentration camp, he has made it his life’s work to bring Nazism’s worst offenders to trail in German courts. In the opening scene, we see the elderly lawman passed out in his bath at home — an incident his political rivals try to misconstrue as a suicide attempt in hopes that it might force him into retirement. But Bauer isn’t so easily dissuaded and says that if he does commit suicide, he will let everyone know and that there will not be rumors.

the people vs. fritz bauer

Bauer is a short, intense little man with another ten years to go before his retirement. Today he is best remembered today for the leading role he played in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. In 1957, he hoped Adolf Eichmann might be the first and juiciest former SS officer to stand trial, but as we see here, his crusade pitted him against virtually every entity in the country, from right-wing intelligence agencies to the chancellery itself. Notice the film’s title— it suggests that Bauer, who would go on to prosecute some of Nazism’s worst offenders, was himself being tried in the court of public opinion.

Twice, the film shows Bauer (both the real figure and Klaussner in character) appearing on television to implore Germany’s young people to assert their own identity and “confront Germany’s whole history”. What he means by this is to look past the whitewashed version their own political leaders were feeding them. To have said more at that time could have been treason— the very charge that Bauer was already risking when he went around his superiors’ backs and arranged for Mossad to do his dirty work by giving the Israeli intelligence agency the information they needed to find and arrest Eichmann (who was hiding in Argentina) with the understanding that he might be able to extradite him.

the people 4

We see how uncooperative the BND and other entities were in trying to derail Bauer’s efforts. Both Interpol and German intelligence claimed they were “not responsible for political crimes,” but according to the dramatic license Kraume and co-writer Olivier Guez allow themselves here, agents of those groups were actively trying to sabotage his investigation. In a Danish police record in which Bauer was arrested among male prostitutes, the screenplay invents a closeted state attorney named Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), whom Bauer invites into his inner circle and entrusts as his lone confidant.

The film aims to show how the punishingly homophobic Paragraph 175, which sentenced men to harsh prison sentences for any gay behavior, was itself an example of Nazi policy still being practiced in German law, very much like the many politicos who’d shed their swastikas and went right back to work. The recently married Karl, who’s unusually careless in his dealings with a cross-dressing nightclub singer (Lilith Stangenberg), makes a too-easy target, though the blackmail and melodrama that ensues supplies the film its most emotional dimension.

While Bauer was tasked with locating ex-SS officers now in hiding, it proved easier for him to locate Nazi war criminals than to convince his government to act on his information. This is a brilliant film that you do not want to miss.

“Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books” by Rabbi Mark Glickman— Tens of Millions of Books

stolen words

Glickman, Rabbi Mark. “Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books”, University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Tens of Millions of Books

Amos Lassen

If you had to guess who had/has the largest collection of Jewish books in the world would you have guessed that it was the Nazi party who had tens of millions of books that they looted from European Jewish families and institutions. Nazi soldiers and civilians were responsible for the empting of Jewish communal libraries, confiscated volumes from government collections. They also stole from Jewish individuals, schools, and synagogues. In the beginning of the Nazi rise to power they burned books in bonfires but what many do not know is that they saved many books and hid them in castles, abandoned mine shafts, and warehouses throughout Europe. Theirs was the largest and most extensive book-looting campaign in history.

When the war ended, the Allies found that there were many questions to be asked regarding the books. Was there a way to identify who they belonged to and where should they go? Where did one find authority to make these decisions and finally the books were turned over to Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Incorporated, an organization of leading Jewish scholars chaired by the eminent historian, Salo Brown. Philosopher Hannah Arendt who later wrote “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” was given the job of establishing restitution protocols.

What makes this such a fascinating read is that it is the story of a world that was torn apart and what did remain was a connection with those who survived the horror of that time. Here is the history of members of the Jewish community struggling to gain some understanding of the world after the Holocaust, something that today many of us are still unable to do. The Western world gradually was able to understand just to what extent the world had been devastated, The story of the stolen books was also the story of “Nazi leaders, ideologues, and Judaica experts; of Allied soldiers, scholars, and scoundrels; and of Jewish communities, librarians, and readers around the world”. Like so many others, I find myself still longing to hold a book in my hands at a time when the world seems to be moving in the direction of electronic libraries and research.

Author Rabbi Glickman has explained the period during which the Nazis rose to power and what happened as a result in Jewish communities. He shows it to us as it stands among the other events that were going on at that time. It is fascinating and spellbinding to learn how books were returned to their rightful owners and their reactions when they received them.

I was fascinated by the account of how the books were returned to their rightful owners and how those people reacted when they were. I was even more fascinated to learn of Hannah Arendt’s role in this since I have spent many years studying her and somehow missed this. Glickman’s book played with my emotions and moved me several times. Above all else, we see how important the written word is and how much we are influenced by it. We also see the abuse of the written word and feel the impact of cultural genocide.

As Rabbi Glickman “artfully reminds us, books are ultimately the couriers of human civilization. In their redemption we keep faith with our past and sustain hope in our future.” A word of warning—clear your day before you sit down to read it because you will do nothing else but reading it until you close the covers on the last page.

“Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolf Eichmann” by D. Lawrence-Young— A Historical Novel

six million accusers

Lawrence-Young, D. “Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolf Eichmann”, Enigma Press, 2014.

A Historical Novel

Amos Lassen

“Six Million Accusers” is a historical novel about the hunt for and capture of Adolf Eichmann. He disappeared after WWII and members of an Israeli organization search the world for him and hoping to capture one of the men responsible for the brutal massacre of millions of Jews, and others. The team follows any tip they receive. They discover a Jewish father and daughter who swear Eichmann quietly lives in their community, under a new name. The search for Eichmann picks up speed and the agents begin to fervently believe they have found their man. As they get closer and closer, they must also create a plan to capture Eichmann, and secretly transport the villain back to Israel. There is always the question as to whether the suspect is really Eichmann and if so, what complications may arise that might destroy their plans to hold him responsible for his crimes.

Author Lawrence-Young has based his novel on historic details and it brings to life actual people, places and events in the planned extermination of the Jews in Europe and the subsequent worldwide hunt for its mastermind Adolf Eichmann who was living in hiding in South America. He has reconstructed the events and brings the story to life from finding a suspect, establishing his true identity, capturing Adolf Eichmann and bringing him to Israel to stand trial.

What I find fascinating here is that even though we know how the story ends, it is still tense and filled with suspense. While we might thing that Eichmann is the main character here, we see that it is actually those who hunted him and brought him to Israel that the story revolves around. They were the members of The Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Security, commonly known as “The Mossad” who with the help of a German-Jew, Haim, tracked him to South America. The book is also about those who wanted retribution for these heinous crimes of the Third Reich.

Even though this is fiction, the author has done amazing research to write this story. We get the sense of just how much it took to take this man down. The book attempts to be faithful to the history of the events surrounding the historic capture of who has been called “the father of The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” In my opinion, it does just that. There is a bibliography for further reading.

“Arendt and America” by Richard H. King— Thirty Years in America

arendt and america

King, Richard H. “Arendt and America”, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Thirty Years in America

Amos Lassen

German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–75) came to New York in 1941 after fleeing Nazi Germany and during the next thirty years in America, she wrote her best-known and most influential works, such as “The Human Condition”, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, and “On Revolution”, to name just three. In this new book, author Richard H. King tells us that even though

a substantial portion of her work was written in America and not Europe, no one has directly considered the influence of America on her thought and that is what he does here. King argues that while all of Arendt’s work was haunted by her experience of totalitarianism, it was only in America, her adopted homeland that she was able to formulate the idea of the modern republic as an alternative to totalitarian rule.

By placing Arendt within the context of U.S. intellectual, political, and social history, King shows how Arendt developed a fascination with the political thought of the Founding Fathers. King recreated her exchanges with friends and colleagues, including Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, and shows how her understanding of modern American culture and society comes from her correspondence with sociologist David Riesman.

In the last part of the book, author King looks at the context in which the Eichmann controversy took place and he looks at Arendt’s “banality of evil”. He validates his thesis that Arendt’s work, regardless of focus, was shaped by postwar American thought, culture, and politics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. America was a stimulus to look once again at political, ethical, and historical traditions of human culture. The books combines intellectual history and biography to give us a unique approach for thinking about the influence of America on Arendt’s ideas and also the effect of her ideas on American thought.

Arendt was difficult and uncompromising, but she was also one of the great interpreters of “modernity in all its tragic complexity”. Now some forty years after her death, she continues to enlighten us about the human condition.


“Arendt and America” by Richard King—- More than a Refuge

arendt in America

King, Richard. “Arendt and America”, University of Chicago Press, 2015.

More than a Refuge

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish political philosopher fled from the Nazis to New York in 1941, and during the next thirty years in America she wrote her best-known and most influential works. Her “The Origins of Totalitarianism” is the classic study and is till used today in academia. She also wrote “On Revolution” and “The Human Condition” among others while she lived here. What is interesting is that even though a large part of her writings were done here, her influence on America has not been evaluated until this book.

Historian Richard H. King states all of Arendt’s work was haunted by her experience of totalitarianism but she was only able to formulate the idea of a modern republic here in America. This modern republic was to stand in contrast to the totalitarian state and as an alternative to totalitarian rule.

While in America, Arendt was fascinated by the political thought of the founding father. Arendt had intellectual discussions with American friends and colleagues and by having a look at her correspondence, we see that David Riesman helped her understand modern American culture and society.

When Arendt wrote down her observations of the Eichmann trial, some turned away form her while others discredited her completely. We see in this book the context for her statements , especially her theory of the banality of evil and how she reached the assumptions she held.

There is no doubt that the woman was quite smart and that regardless of focus, her ideas were shaped by postwar American thought, culture, and politics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

She may have come here seeking refuge from the Nazis but she was stimulated to rethink the political, ethical, and historical traditions of human culture and to write those ideas down. This authoritative combination of intellectual history and biography of this book gives a special approach with which to think about the influence of America on Arendt’s ideas and also the effect of her ideas on American thought.

King looks at Arendt in an American context in which she is rarely considered and then combines his ideas with hers that shows us just how Arendt influenced the world and how America influenced her.

Arendt was uncompromising, always thinking and a very difficult person to deal with yet she was one of the great interpreters of modernity. She has been dead for forty years and her influence is still felt here.

“EXPERIMENTER”— Stanley Milgrim andThe Experiments that Sparked Public Outcry



Stanley Milgrim and The Experiments that Sparked Public Outcry

Amos Lassen

In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested ordinary humans willingness to obey by using electric shock. “Experimental” follows Milgram, from meeting his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) through his controversial experiments that sparked public outcry.


Milgram as inspired by the atrocities committed during World War II and conducted experiments into the dangerous power of blind obedience in 1961. Unwitting participants were given the task of administering a series of increasingly dangerous electric shocks to a stranger under the instruction of an authoritative force.

Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter” looks at Milgram’s life from 1961 onwards and explores the process behind these tests, the public backlash to them, and Milgram’s relationship with his wife Sasha. The film is filled with a self-aware imagery as it relates Milgram’s life and experiments with a sense of surrealism.


Much of the film is devoted to the initial 1961 Milgram Experiment which is recounted with tense dramatics and an unsettled focus. We see participants gleefully electrocute another man (or so they think). The results of the test continue to be shocking and deeply relevant to today’s society and Almereyda asks us to think about what we would do in this situation. I believe that most of would refuse to harm the other participant, but Milgram will raise some doubts about it. What he tries to show is that we are all capable of cruelty.


Sarsgaard brings a cold and clinical professionalism to the role of Stanley. He is convincing as an overly composed man secretly irritated by the nearsighted colleagues and culture that reigned in the greatness he could have received during his lifetime. The ramifications of his findings related directly to what was being said during the Eichmann trial and which led to another controversial hypothesis of the period from political theorist Hannah Arendt and her theory of the banality of evil. She comes up more than once in discussion here and Milgram’s absent commentary on her theory speaks volumes about, perhaps, his own secret, bitter thoughts about despicable humans that allow atrocities to happen in the name of following orders. The film finely uses Sarsgaard’s perfection of barely contained judgment during the experiments and we also see that Milgrim did have his own secret agenda or motivation. Winona Ryder is excellent as the strong-willed Sasha and the film immediately pulls us in.


Milgrim conducted these experiments at Yale in 1961 and he was fascinated by how Hitler’s Nazi Party was able to exact such terrible depravity upon the Jews during the Holocaust. The results he got were disturbing Milgram’s results are rather disturbing. Participants were asked to pose as a ‘teacher,’ charged to read groups of words to a ‘learner,’ who sat on the other side of a two-way mirror. The teacher was then charged with administering an electric shock each time the learner answered a question incorrectly. With the help of his staff (Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan), their results were unprecedented— 65% of the teachers administering the full shock treatment as directed, though many would engage in weak resistance, each time remitting to the excuse that they were following instructions. But the world at large was not quite ready for Milgram’s findings, which shocked and disturbed his colleagues and it cost Milgrim his academic tenure.


The screenplay is excellent and well performed. Milgram’s results are chilling to comprehend, and Almereyda’s closing about the puppets that human beings tend to be raises awareness of our flawed natures.

The film begins with Milgram’s most incendiary experiments into the human condition, wherein he managed to put two subjects, a teacher and a pupil, into a room and made them administer shocks to a stranger. This was influenced by Milgram’s childhood growing up as a Jew and being influenced by events in the Holocaust, Milgram’s reasoning for his trial appears sound – what could provoke any right minded person into such horrific action? The Milgram experiments clearly had consequences and Almereyda’s exploration and presentation of them is nothing short of a shock to the system.


The film skirts around some issues and some of the ramifications of the experiments but Almereyda’s is not interested in anything more than using the style and the effortless ease of his leading man to present a fascinating take on his subject. Despite the alarming questions the study raised about human nature, the film is relaxed and a humorous and upbeat account of a fascinating phenomenon.

“Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times” by Anne C. Heller— A Woman of Contradictions

Hannah arendt a life

Heller, Anne C. “Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times”, (Icons), 2015.

A Woman of Contradictions

Amos Lassen

Hannah Arendt was one an intellectual and one of “the most gifted and provocative voices of her era” but she was also “a polarizing cultural theorist”. Many saw her as a visionary while other saw her as a poseur and a fraud. Arendt was born in Prussia to assimilated Jewish parents. She escaped from Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and is now perhaps best remembered for the controversy after the publication of her 1963 New Yorker series on the trial of the kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Nonetheless, her seminal “The Origins of Totalitarianism” remains one of the most influential texts that is still used on college campuses today.

She was a woman of many contradictions. She was brilliant, beautiful when young, and men found her irresistible. She began writing in English at the age of thirty-six, and yet her first book on totalitarianism changed the way generations of Americans and Europeans viewed fascism and genocide. Her most famous and most divisive work, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” caused controversy that continues to do so even today and the fact that it was discovered after she died that

she had been the lover of the great romantic philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger provided even more controversy. Anne C. Heller, in this new biography, looks at the source of Arendt’s apparent contradictions and her greatest achievements and follows the thought of the time to see why she was considered by some to be, what she called, a “conscious pariah”. She did not “lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us” and will not “pay any price” to gain the acceptance of others. She will always be remembered as an individual who marched to her own drummer.

 This is an excellent introduction to her writings; as well as an extremely readable description of her lifetime. The book begins with an introduction to her writings about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. She saw Eichmann as a normal person who was basically stupid, and who never had a thought of his own.

Thinking in Public: 
Strauss, Levinas, Arendt” by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft— Arendt, Levinas and Strauss

thnking in public

Wurgaft, Benjamin Aldes. “Thinking in Public: 
Strauss, Levinas, Arendt”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Arendt, Levinas and Strauss

Amos Lassen

I just received word of a new book to be published in 2016—a comparative study of the Jewish philosophers Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and Leo Strauss. The focus is on their responses to the idea of the public intellectual as it came to be in the early to mid-twentieth century. Here we read “Levinas’s views on ethics, Strauss’s work on the conflicts between philosophy and society and Arendt’s attempt to revitalize political thought all reoriented philosophy from the standpoint of political responsibility.” What is new here is the observation that all three were ambivalent about “playing the role of the public intellectual themselves”. The author argues that “their understandings of social responsibility, on the one hand, and their ambivalence regarding the proper place of intellectuals in society, on the other, were rooted in Jewish political and intellectual experience. For Arendt, Levinas and Strauss, the concepts of universality and publicity, which underwrote the idea of the “public intellectual” in Western Europe”. This differs from non-Jewish thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. There is a shared matrix of experience and influences that Arendt, Levinas and Strauss articulated models of social responsibility very different from Sartrean engagement. While their attitudes towards Jewish politics and organized Jewish religion differed, their political experiences as Jews was what informed their understanding of social responsibility Arendt, Levinas and Strauss were three Jewish philosophers of the same generation who studied with many of the same teachers but later chose radically different intellectual paths. walked radically different intellectual paths. In order to get the full significance of Arendt, Levinas and Strauss’s thought. They must be compared and in this way restore their shared framework of Jewish political concerns.

What was considered to be the “intellectual” raised questions and consternation among many European philosophers and political theorists. Here the writer examines the ambivalence these linked ideas provoked in the generation of European Jewish thinkers born around 1900. In doing so, the works of Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, and Leo Strauss, who grew up in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and studied with the philosopher—and sometime National Socialist—Martin Heidegger, we are given “a strikingly new perspective on the relationship between philosophers and politics”.

Wurgaft argues that the stories we tell about intellectuals and their publics are a useful way to measure political hopes and fears. The differences between the three were great, but Wurgaft shows that all three “came to believe that the question of the social role of the philosopher was the question of their century. The figure of the intellectual was not an ideal to be emulated but rather a provocation inviting these three thinkers to ask whether truth and politics could ever be harmonized, whether philosophy was a fundamentally worldly or unworldly practice”.

Wurgaft a profound tension in their thought their belief in the philosophic responsibility to engage political and moral life and their deep distrust of public intellectuals.