So Much in Common, So Little Common Ground

21 December 2022


Review: Kei Hiruta, Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics, and Humanity  (Princeton University Press)


Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), two of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals, had much to say that still resonates today on such big picture subjects as the human condition, the conflict between good and evil, the nature of freedom, and how modern democracy can go off the rails.  Arendt and Berlin’s writings on these and related subjects are “often found close to each other in libraries and bookstores across the world,” observes Kei Hiruta in his erudite dual intellectual biography Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics, and Humanity – one suspects that their proximity is more than a mere quirk of alphabetic organization.


Arendt and Berlin rose to prominence from similar backgrounds. Both were born into Jewish families in the first decade of the 20th century, Arendt in Germany, Berlin in Riga, Latvia, then a part of the Russian Empire. Berlin fled Russia with his family as a boy in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Arendt left Nazi Germany as an adult in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. Both lost family and friends in the Holocaust; both considered themselves Zionists; and both made their professional reputations far from Central and Eastern Europe, Arendt in New York, Berlin at Oxford, where English was an acquired language for each.


Although deeply learned in traditional philosophy, moreover, by mid-career Arendt and Berlin both felt they had left behind the abstract philosophical world. Arendt began to consider herself a political theorist, Berlin an historian of ideas. Hiruta characterizes his two protagonists as “political philosophers” whose common discipline was the history of political thought. In the often-provincial Anglophone academy, he writes, both Arendt and Berlin were “multilingual Europeans” and “cultured cosmopolitans” whose foreign backgrounds “boosted their reputation as intellectuals with broad horizons.”


Despite similarities in background, as people Arendt and Berlin could not have been more different. Arendt was, in Hiruta’s words, “brave, charismatic, upright, assertive, impulsive, tactless and argumentative;” Berlin “skeptical, ironical, humorous, charming, good-mannered and thin skinned.” As far as we know, the two found themselves together in direct face-to-face encounters only twice, even though they had many mutual friends and acquaintances. Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a friend of Berlin and an acquaintance of Arendt, arranged one encounter in 1949, which he later described as a “disaster from the start.”


Schlesinger attributed the disaster to the “sheer difference between the personalities and dispositions” of the two. Arendt was “too solemn, portentous, Teutonic, Hegelian for him,” Schlesinger wrote. She “mistook his wit for frivolousness and thought him inadequately serious.” In the only other recorded meeting, which occurred in 1941, Berlin had found Arendt overly intense in her Zionist commitment – “too much for me,” he said shortly afterwards. He remembered her in the 1949 meeting, by contrast, as seeming to have cast aside her Zionist convictions entirely, attacking the new Israeli state which had come into existence the previous year.


But if the two had few face-to-face encounters, there is no shortage of instances where Berlin expressed hostility toward Arendt in strikingly vitriolic terms. He once wrote that he had an “allergy” to Arendt that was “absolute and her mere presence in a room gives me goose-flesh.” On another occasion, he described himself as a “profound non-admirer of both her work and her personality.” She “produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought,” he wrote. His loathing for Arendt was so great that he was unwilling to “enter into any relations with [her], not even those of hostility.” In 1991, 16 years after Arendt’s passing, Berlin reaffirmed that she remained in death a “real bête noire to me… I really do look upon her as everything that I detest most.”


Arendt for her part never expressed anything remotely as venomous about Berlin. She was probably at least vaguely aware of his hostility through her friend, the American writer Mary McCarthy, but Arendt knew she was a lightning rod for criticism, a role she assumed willingly. Among her many critics, she did not rank Berlin as an “especially important or worthy one,” Hiruta writes. Arendt appears to have considered Berlin a learned scholar, especially in Russian intellectual history, and a moderately important member of what she called the “Jewish establishment.” But for the most part, Arendt reciprocated Berlin’s animosity toward her with indifference to him, “accompanied by occasional skepticism.”


Neither Arendt nor Berlin was an armchair philosopher detached from the world about which they wrote. For both, the personal and the intellectual remained consistently intertwined as they grappled, in their different ways, over how to make sense of the murderous 20th century, and Hiruta deftly links the two in his compact and tightly argued book. On his telling, Arendt and Berlin’s sharp disagreements over the pressing ideological challenges of their time were symptomatic of their fundamental differences of temperament.


In teasing out these differences, Hiruta explores Arendt and Berlin’s divergent interpretations of the nature of freedom (or liberty; the two used the two words interchangeably), totalitarianism, the Holocaust, nationalism, imperialism, the founding of Israel in 1948, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the 1968 student rebellion. But Arendt and Berlin for the most part argued past one another on these issues, approaching them from entirely different perspectives.  Neither engaged the other directly.


To contrast their thinking, therefore, Hiruta constructs a sort of hypothetical dialogue between the two, building, as he puts it, “interpretive bridges” which allow the ideas of the two thinkers to “speak to each other.” The substantive differences between them begin with the different philosophical traditions with which each identified from their university days onward.


A Different Philosophical Grounding

Arendt and Berlin’s minds were “nurtured in very different cultures and schools of thought,” Hiruta writes, on opposite sides of what is sometimes termed philosophy’s “Analytic-Continental” divide. Arendt came of age intellectually amongst the originary milieu of 20th century continental philosophy: the circle of primarily German philosophers influenced by the Phenomneology of Edmund Husserl and his student Martin Heidegger. Arendt absorbed this tradition first-hand as a student of Heidegger, with whom she also had a romantic relationship,from her first year of university onwards. Berlin was grounded in the analytic side of the divide, a distinctly Anglophone tradition, albeit with Viennese roots. Sometimes termed “empiricism,” this side is associated with Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and A.J. Ayer. Like adolescents from rival schools, each looked down upon the philosophic school on the other side of the divide.


Berlin’s “unwillingness to concede the significance of the phenomenologists’ work was matched by Arendt’s unwillingness to appreciate the Anglophone empiricist tradition,” Hiruta writes. Britain for Arendt was “something of a philosophical desert.” She took for granted the “superiority of German philosophy over its Anglo-American counterpart,” seeing “little merit in the analytic movement inaugurated by Russell, Moore and others.” Berlin for his part was generally unwilling to engage seriously with contemporary European thinkers because he thought they were “bogus, hollow and ‘metaphysical’.” This difference in philosophical grounding looms in the background as Hiruta explores the thought of the two on a host of substantive issues.


Alternative Visions of Freedom

Hiruta considers the alternative visions of freedom which Arendt and Berlin proffered as the “most fundamental” among their substantive differences because, as he puts it, “to be free is to be human in the full sense of the term, and to deprive one of freedom is to deny one’s humanity.” Because Arendt and Berlin disagreed on the “most satisfactory meaning of freedom,” their views of the human condition were bound to differ significantly. Berlin was known for his famous – although not entirely original – distinction between “positive” and “negative” freedom, most notably outlined in his influential 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. For Berlin, it was liberty’s negative form which defined modern freedom, in contrast to its oppressive antique counterpart, the ‘positive liberty’ which undergirded the totalitarian projects of the 20th-century.


Negative freedom for Berlin had different dimensions but can be reduced to the proposition that freedom involves the ability to choose among multiple options without interference – one is free to the extent that one’s ability to act is unimpeded by others.  Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, entailing “self-mastery,” a form of rational control of one’s life, but not including freedom to do “what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong.” Positive freedom was troublesome for Berlin because some of its iterations can be linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, a claim that, for Berlin, reflected utopian thinking which tyrants and dictators could all too easily appropriate.


Berlin traced positive freedom to the 18th century Genevan philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose notion of the General Will encapsulated the “grotesque and hair-raising paradox, whereby a man is told that to be deprived of his liberty is to be given a higher, nobler liberty”– “forcing men to be free,” as Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract. The excesses of the French and Russian Revolutions were for Berlin graphic manifestations of positive freedom at work.


Although negative freedom was less vulnerable to abuse than its positive counterpart, Berlin’s strongest argument in its favor was anchored in “value pluralism,” his “flagship idea.” Berlin argued that the human beings pursue and live according to a plurality of values, neither infinite nor singular, and that these values are often irreconcilable, leading to conflict between competing notions of the good. Human beings must often choose between such conflicting values as liberty and equality, or efficiency and spontaneity.


Arendt also delivered an important statement on freedom in 1958, in a lecture which she later turned into an essay, “What is Freedom,” from which she distilled her guiding principle as: the “raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.” Arendt was no value pluralist in the Berlinian sense. For Arendt, pursuit of political freedom was the only choice that distinguishes the free from the non-free. In other words, one is politically free in Arendt’s sense when one is “acting and interacting, and speaking and deliberating with others about matters of public concern in a formally or informally institutionalized public realm.” This self-consciously antique vision of freedom can quite easily be understood as a subset of what Berlin termed positive liberty.


Political freedom for Arendt began with citizenship, a status which she lacked from the time she left Nazi Germany in 1933 until she became an American citizen in 1951. Citizenship for Arendt “makes people equal for political purposes,” enabling citizens to “construct public personae to appear before and among fellow citizens.” Those who do not have citizenship, for example, slaves, women and manual laborers in the ancient Greek city states, and refugees and the stateless in modern times, are “excluded from an established public realm” and hence lack the bedrock condition for political freedom.


Competing Visions of Totalitarianism

The phenomenon which both Arendt and Berlin termed “totalitarianism” might be considered freedom’s antithesis. In analyzing totalitarianism, Berlin’s starting point and primary frame of reference was Soviet Russia, whereas Arendt’s model was Nazi Germany. Arendt’s seminal 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which established her reputation in the United States, argued that totalitarianism was an unprecedented 20th century phenomenon, unknown prior to the emergence of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and thus something more than an extreme form of authoritarianism or tyranny.


Totalitarianism for Arendt was simultaneously a lawless and lawful form of government: lawless in that it “dismisses the principle of the rule of law and defies all positive laws,” yet lawful in that it “strictly follows a purportedly ‘higher’ law, such as the law of nature in Nazism and the law of history in Stalinism.” Domination achieved through terror exercised over “harmless citizens without political opinions” was the “immoral heart of totalitarianism.” Ideology in a totalitarian system “determines over whom terror will be exercised, paying no attention to victims’ behavior or feelings.” Individuality and spontaneity are to be “destroyed to the extent possible.” Concentration camps, where the objective is to “eradicate the concept of the human being,” represented for Arendt the epitome of total domination and hence of totalitarianism.


Arendt entertained what Hiruta considers an odd view that neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia was totalitarian at the outset but morphed into totalitarian states at some point in their histories, points she never identified. Lenin gets a complete pass in Arendt’s totalitarian analysis and even Stalin was not in her view a full-fledged totalitarian at the outset. As World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Arendt considered the primary totalitarian danger to be over.


For Berlin, by contrast, who traveled to Moscow in 1945-46 on behalf of the British government as the Second World War ended, the menace of totalitarianism was “only beginning to grow.” He considered the totalitarian system that emerged in the Soviet Union to be a manifestation of utopian thinking – and thus positive liberty – taken to its logical end point. Berlin rejected Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism was a unique 20th century phenomenon, categorically different from its tyrannical precursors. He perceived a continuity between the late 19th and early 20th century thinkers frequently termed the Russian “intelligentsia” and the Bolshevik regime that came to power in 1917.


In their “enthusiasm for ideas,” late 19th century Russian thinkers like Alexander Herzen were “prone to an extremism” that in Berlin’s view “gradually undermined their original humanist outlook and paved the way for Bolshevism.” Like the 19th century intelligentsia, the Bolsheviks, Berlin’s “archetypical totalitarians,” were “idea-driven fanatics.” Lenin’s paranoia turned the Russian intelligentsia’s “moral integrity” and “intellectual seriousness” into fanaticism and dogmatism and transformed the intelligentsia’s passion for social reform into an “indifference to the human costs deemed necessary for realizing the communist goal.”


The Eichmann Controversy

Totalitarianism in Germany is inextricably associated with the Holocaust, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. After Israeli operatives captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, Arendt and Berlin came close to a direct clash over the import of the Holocaust. Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps, was brought to trial in Jerusalem, where he was charged with crimes against humanity and the Jewish people, all committed prior to the founding of the Israeli state, and executed in 1961.


The series of articles which Arendt wrote for The New Yorker on the 1961 Eichmann trial became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963. Probing the nature of evil itself, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology. Eichmann demonstrated that one did not need to be extraordinarily evil to commit extraordinarily evil acts and Arendt’s term for this unexceptional exceptional evil, the “banality of evil”, became commonplace after the trial. Many interpreted the phrase as devaluing the seriousness of Eichmann’s crimes, often forgetting, as Hiruta notes, that  Arendt unambiguously supported the execution of the mass murderer, whereas Berlin lobbied Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion against the death penalty for Eichmann.


Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils in occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation. She was vilified for the rest of her days for the notion that she was blaming the Jews for their own persecution. Even if Arendt was blaming only Jewish leadership, not the Jewish people, in the eyes of her critics the tone in which she did so was “utterly inappropriate, showing disrespect for and even cruelty towards the victims of the Holocaust.”


Berlin attended a few trial sessions (even Arendt did not witness them all) where he too was struck by Eichmann’s “ordinariness and mediocrity,” but he was not a central player in the ensuing controversy. Berlin doubted that the trial benefited Israel’s national interests and feared that imposition of the death penalty would worsen Israel’s international standing. He wholeheartedly endorsed the widespread accusation that Arendt, “sitting safely in New York,” as he put it, had “arrogantly and patronizingly blamed the victims of the Holocaust.” In the aftermath of the controversy, Hiruta writes, Berlin “began using ‘Arendt’ as a general noun to refer to something like perversity and deformation.” He suggests that Berlin might not have seen Arendt as his “‘real bête noire’ had she not written Eichmann in Jerusalem.


In the aftermath of the controversy, Arendt felt “gravely misunderstood” and came to be convinced that the “Jewish establishment” had carried out an organized campaign to distort her work. She was particularly suspicious about Berlin’s imagined part in the campaign and suspected him of manipulating public opinion, especially in Britain. But Hiruta notes that Arendt lived under Nazism both in Germany and occupied France, whereas Berlin never set foot on the continent during World War II. Berlin claimed after the war to have been unaware of the Holocaust until late in 1944 or early 1945, for which he said he felt “ashamed.” One does not have to be a psychoanalyst, Hiruta astutely observes, to see that Berlin’s “troubled conscience stiffened his attitude towards the outspoken survivor who wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem.


A Shared Commitment to Intellectual Integrity

If Arendt and Berlin agreed on little substantively, they shared a determination to “face up squarely to the most urgent challenges of their times and think them through, unhindered by intellectual cowardice,” Hiruta concludes. Each produced works that have “immediacy, urgency, integrity and authority” – reason enough for readers of this thoughtful volume to appreciate both figures, even though neither appreciated the other.


Cover image: Princeton University Press, 2022 (Fair Use)

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