Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hannah Arendt, Jewish Philosopher

Hannah Arendt was a 20th century German-Jewish philosopher who managed to escape from the Nazis and immigrate to the United States, where she became famous for, among other things, her writing about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi in charge of the concentration camps and one of the principle individuals who organized the Holocaust (the trial was held in Jerusalem, and remains the only exception to Israel's ban on the death penalty in the history of the Jewish state).  

Arendt's famous phrase for describing Eichmann, whose defense was that he was only following orders, is the banality of evil.  It serves as a chilling reminder of the ease with which ordinary people can slip into a situation where they freely engage in acts of cruelty and violence, acts that they would otherwise condemn as immoral, and evil.

Of course, there is much more to Hannah Arendt's life and work than this, and there is a center devoted to her thought located at the institution where she taught for many years (and where she bequeathed her papers), Bard College in nearby Annandale-on-the Hudson, New York.  The Hannah Arendt Center there hosts their own blog, and I was honored to be asked to be a guest blogger for them last month.

The title of the post I produced for them is Violence, Power, Technology, and Identity, and it being a somewhat lengthy essay, as blog posts go, I won't reproduce it here.  But I will share the first few paragraphs of the post, as they include some items of Jewish interest:

Last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being "Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence" and the sponsor being Fordham's Philosophy Department. 
The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil (which sums up my own previous encounter with Arendt's thought).  Of course, that's just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life. 
I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral. 
Admittedly, it's not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect.  But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer.  No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of her significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.

The remainder of my post is a discussion of Arendt's essay, Reflections on Violence, written for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, and which can be found online in case you'd like to read it.  And if you'd like to read my commentary on her essay, Violence, Power, Technology, and Identity, you have the link to that as well.

And let me end this post with a quote from one of Hannah Arendt's major work, The Human Condition:  

"What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing."

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