The Company and The Banisters We Keep

16 July 2019

“Dear Gerhard,

… Your letter contains a number of uncontroversial claims—uncontroversial because they are quite simply wrong. I’ll begin with them so we can move on to the issues worth discussing. …”


Just before the 2016 presidential election I wrote an essay reviewing a handful of books and films about Hannah Arendt. In my closing comments I suggested that it may be tempting to romanticize Arendt as someone who changed the way we think. But the less romantic reality would suggest that her most critical insights—about the dangers of thoughtless technological advance, the pervasiveness of mass society, and the dehumanization of both labor and politics—remain overlooked, underrepresented, or simply ignored. 


Shortly after the essay’s publication, the so-called Age of Trump began. Suddenly Arendt was being invoked with unusual regularity—and without irony—on Facebook and Twitter. Within weeks The Origins of Totalitarianism (otherwise collecting dust, or occasionally assigned in advanced political theory courses) was climbing the charts at That these invocations of Arendt and sudden surges in market share were evident on platforms that have advanced political toxicity and ravaged the vitality of local economies certainly seemed lost in the climb. What also seemed lost on the growing crowd—popularizing the phrase, “now, more than ever, ”and proclamations of our need for Arendt’s voice in this unlikely “political moment”—was the danger of reducing Arendt herself into something she recoiled against: endorsing, succumbing to, or, worse, becoming a slogan, a cliché. 


That there is an emphasis on why we should read Arendt now is not a problem in and of itself. Danielle Allen’s new forward to the sixtieth anniversary printing of The Human Condition successfully voices the contemporary significance of Arendt’s message, openly calling for a revival of a humane approach to civic life and a noble celebration of politics as a robust communal expression, not a necessary evil. But one of the many virtues of Allen’s account is that it captures the prescience of Arendt’s work six decades on without turning her into, as Paul Mason recently described her at NYRB Daily, “the patron saint of liberal angst.” Conversely, contributions like Richard Bernstein’s, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now (Polity, 2018), may offer a sufficient introduction to her career. But they suffer from a rhetorical procedure that yields angsty-liberal commonplaces consistent with what Mason labeled the “cult of Arendt.” The first step is to make an urgent appeal for a new assessment and application of her thought. The next is to confirm Arendt’s compliance with elite cosmopolitan norms, by carefully identifying and eradicating any argument (about race, or feminism, or Heidegger) that operates outside of those norms. The final move is to insist that, if Arendt were alive today, she would be on the right side of history, as defined by the same cosmopolitan elites, and assuredly appalled by the possibility of history renewing itself in the form of twenty-first century technofascism. 


Of the many problems with this procedure, and the Arendt-now movement that goes with it, the most notable is its one-sidedness—as if the dangers of the current moment are exclusively threats from the right. To suggest that Arendt would be appalled by the plausibility of a global fascist movement is hardly a stretch. But little, if any, attention is given to the probability that she would be equally appalled by the violence of anti-fascist protest mobs, the childishness that characterizes so much anti-Trump chatter, or the very present, and far more powerful, reality of surveillance-capitalism: engineered and enforced by elites with perfectly acceptable cosmopolitan and progressive sentiments. 


In this sense, Paul Mason is right that reading Arendt is not enough to overcome the formidable political and economic challenges of the present. But where the “cult of Arendt” has a tendency to sanitize her work to suit its own progressive sensibilities, Mason ultimately falls into a similar trap: arguing that because of her (supposed) adoption of American exceptionalism, her (supposed) Nietzscheanism, or her (supposed) ignorance of class struggle, the progressive sanitation project isn’t even worth the trouble.


Here it’s worth noting that Arendt once said, “I hate the word progress,” particularly to the extent that it was often accompanied by assumptions that clouded our judgments about the true nature of modern crisis. For her that crisis was far less ideological than it was political, in the traditional sense of the word. All of which raises the question: instead of harping on why we need to read Arendt now—or not—why not simply read Arendt?  




If we do read Arendt, we are invited to enter a place of great personal and political risk that neither satisfies an urge for ideological certitude, nor accommodates a path of epistemic convenience. It is one thing—which has become quite fashionable—to fact check the veracity of statements made by prominent public figures. It is another thing all together—and all together less fashionable—to pursue each other patiently, and hold each other accountable to communicable truths that would compel more virtuous action. Both Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975 (Schoken, 2018), and The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem (University of Chicago Press, 2017), provide occasions for that pursuit and invitation. 


In The Correspondence we gain fresh perspective on the risks Arendt was willing to take, both publicly and privately, to challenge the clichés she observed governing mid-twentieth-century discourse on the nature of politics, war, rights, statehood, race, and ethnicity. While the letters, written from 1939-1964, cover a wide range of issues—the tragic death of their mutual friend, Walter Benjamin (“Benji”), and attempts to secure his literary estate; debates about Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel; a mutual distaste for the Frankfurt School; Arendt’s life in New York and prolific literary efforts; Scholem’s continental travels; their books—more than anything they bear witness to a kind of friendship that is increasingly hard to come by. 


In lengthy exchanges shipped back and forth across the Atlantic, we see two intellectual titans grappling with timeless questions, often in combative and accusatory voices that today would most likely lead to immediate “blocks,” “mutes,” and “unfollows.” But deep affection initially prevails. As does a shared sense of purpose in working to evaluate contemporary Judaism, workshopping each other’s writing, and patiently working to ensure that Walter Benjamin’s collected works would achieve publication. Where her published correspondence with Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Mary McCarthy are respectively characterized by intellectual romance, mentorship, and abiding friendship, her correspondence with Scholem is mostly characterized by their work—especially the work that was required to understand the world after the Holocaust. Scholem’s efforts were anchored to the study of Jewish history, theology, and mysticism. Arendt’s—especially in the 1940s—were anchored to the concrete cultural and political conditions of the Jewish people, and the stunning power of totalitarian dictatorships unleashed in the twentieth century. In many ways their respective strengths were well positioned to challenge and support their mutual interests over time.  


But eventually friendly affection and allegiance take a backseat. Stark challenges and rebukes move to the front, and an enduring friendship meets its demise. Not surprisingly, Arendt’s 1963 report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann was the catalyst for relational crisis. In Eichmann, Arendt found a more horrific phenomenon at work than the “radical evil” she described in Origins. Where Eichmann’s marshalling of the “final solution” was horrific, the form of evil she perceived motivating his work was perfectly ordinary, welded into the girders of a modern bureaucratic machine, and reinforced by a legal and military infrastructure that invited thoughtless conformity. The banality of evil became, and still is, a divisive characterization of a mass murderer. According to Scholem it revealed Arendt’s “heartlessness,” and an insufficient “love for the Jewish people,” perfectly commensurate with “so many intellectuals coming from the German left.” According to Arendt, she had no affiliation with Horkheimer, Marcuse, or Adorno’s German left, and whether or not she loved the Jewish people had no bearing on her Jewishness being “one of the unquestioned facts of [her] life.” Nor did it have any sentimental bearing on the phenomena she perceived in Eichmann’s person. Scholem, like most, saw a perfect monster. Arendt saw a dull man perfectly suited to enact monstrosity.


There were a few attempts to clarify an outstanding dispute. But in 1964 their correspondence comes to an abrupt end. Thankfully, Jerome Kohn’s remarkable introduction to Thinking Without a Banister, offers one of the fairest accounts to date of the Eichmann narrative. What Arendt took to be a “marginal” characterization about the banality of evil in Eichmann and Jerusalem for Kohn has proved over time to be an “exemplary” insight into the growing challenges of the twenty-first century. Ultimately, he suggests, Eichmann’s banality was manifest in the fact that “he could not see the world from anyone else’s point of view,” and he was willing to engineer, at a considerable bureaucratic distance, the horrors of mass genocide on the basis of such blunt ignorance. “Arendt’s judgment about Eichmann is that there is no place for such a man in the human world,” if the human world is, in its essential qualities, characterized by plurality. In this sense, her sharp recognition of Eichmann’s cognitive and cultural dissonance could be enlisted to challenge how we partner with banal evils in everything from the clothes we wear, to the online shopping we do, to the social media shaming we enact as a replacement for political engagement. 


The absence of ideological preference or assumption is evident throughout Thinking Without a Banister; it is a stunning volume, masterfully edited by Kohn, showcasing Arendt at the peak of her intellectual powers. The collection spans the years she would have been working on the contents of, or have published (in addition to Eichmann in Jerusalem), The Human Condition, On Revolution, Between Past and Future, Men in Dark Times, her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, and the first two volumes of The Life of the Mind (she died before completing the third). It also illustrates her growing capacity to absorb criticism in the public realm. Of the many ways her open expressions could be twisted and turned against her, Arendt was buoyant in response: “each time you write something and you send it out to the world . . . everybody is free to do with it what [they please], and this is as it should be.” In an address to the Society of Christian Ethics she said, “you should not try to control whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.” In the same address—speaking to the Society of Christian Ethics, whom she found too willing to trade their core theological convictions, and even their belief in God, for more palatable epistemic and social platforms—she implored her audience to “remember not to make life too easy for yourself!” 

Arendt had no desire to make life too easy for herself, or for her friends. This was because life, in her estimation, was anchored to the terrifying question of our own freedom; she asked, “do I like being alive, and being a person, so much that I am willing to pay that price?” The payment of that price was having the courage to think. As unpopular as it may be, she could neither suffer the thoughtlessness of a mass murderer like Eichmann any more than she could accommodate the sentimentality she perceived in an accomplished intellectual and friend like Scholem. Arendt made no apology for championing the task of thinking as the foundational act in forming judgments. It was an act she ultimately viewed as a form of sacrifice, an emptying of self, to the extent that clarity could emerge and one could say with confidence, “‘This is good,’ ‘This is bad,’ ‘This is right,’ ‘This is wrong,’ ‘This is beautiful,’ ‘This is ugly.’” 


In 1946, long before her report on Eichmann, Scholem accused Arendt of voicing a “Trotskyite … anti-Zionist” position in “Zionism Reconsidered,” written for the Menorah Journal. In response, she asked:


How is it possible that someone can spend his life in the serious study of philosophy and theology and, ignoring all possible insights that can arise from these fields, can present himself as a believer in an ‘ism’? I don’t want to squabble with you over nuances, over whether nationalism is better than socialism, Zionism better than communism, Stalinism better than Trotskyism, or Marxism better than whatever. I don’t really care. What matters to me is that they all share a common fanaticism, a shared screen against reality.


Refusing such screens, she worried that Zionists were positioning themselves to establish a state in Palestine on nationalist (that is, ethnic) grounds, instead of constituting a state that could manage the complexity of human plurality, while appealing to the universal and political aspiration for freedom. The point for Arendt was not to idealize the possible formation of a Jewish state as something beyond ethnic consideration—such consideration was essential to the project in every way. Nor was she caricaturing Scholem as being numb to “the political reality of Palestine,” of which she found his nuanced position admirable. Instead, she challenged Zionist leaders to not fall prey to the very same ethnic platitudes and strategies that inspired the slaughter of European Jews in the first place; including, for her, “Herzl’s insane notion that anti-Semitism can be a positive force for us all.” 


According to Arendt, such a notion was not only false, it manifested an acceptance of anarchic opportunism that could only result in violent tribalism. In her estimation, “there is a very real danger that a consistent nationalist has no other choice but to become a racist.” This was a danger that, for Arendt, was not unique to Germany in the early twentieth century, or Poland, Brazil, Hungary, and the United States of America in the twenty-first. “The metamorphosis of a people into a racial horde is an ever present danger in our times,” she wrote, and, “a racial horde has precious little to do with renewal, but it has a lot to do with ruin and destruction.” In other words, a racial horde—no matter the color, creed, or status—was ugly and wrong, challenging the very possibility of plurality within a nation.


To say that the world today is pervasively and persistently animated by the possibility of destruction is hardly breaking news. To say that it is equally animated by what is ugly and wrong is like saying there is still water in the ocean. The more challenging issue to address is how we can discern, and critique, the ugly and wrong banisters we proudly confuse with what is beautiful and good. Like the problem of human freedom, this is a more terrifying prospect, especially when hasty judgment is confused with insight, and thoughtlessness confused with courage. Where there may be a temptation to insist that Arendt’s thinking conforms to the norms of a particular group or movement, even when it does it does not abdicate anyone from thinking responsibly or courageously about sustainable solutions to contemporary problems, or failing to anticipate that our opinions could be met by resistance from friends or enemies. 


In the company of both friends and enemies, it was love of the world that motivated Arendt’s life and work, and for which she admonished her readers to aspire. There may be no more pressing question today than whether or not we can love the world enough to think about it. Arendt’s invitation to us is to consider doing so in a way that dispenses with our banisters. If we do we should not be surprised when our friendships, or assumptions, or use of the slogans of the day, suddenly feel less stable, more at risk, more unpredictable. This openness to risk is the promise of freedom and politics that Arendt tirelessly worked to describe, over and against an increased desire to rebuild the web of human relations on a fixed grid of increasingly predictable outcomes. For Danielle Allen, this is the technocratic dream to, as some would have it, build a smarter planet. But toward that end, today “technocrats find themselves surprised by politics,” as do the violent mobs, and online herds, on the left and the right whose presumptuous postures and mutual hostility only masks a deeper insecurity—that they no longer can think about or love the world, because they have lost the will and the habits of mind to think, and act, together. 


Photo Credit: Ryohei Noda, Hannah Arendt, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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