Sunday, April 15, 2007

Arendt at Bar Ilan University (2)

Hannah Arendt and “The Human Condition”
Note: Some of my friends have expressed concern that I have recently become slightly obsessed with Ms. Arendt. They really have no cause for concern. Arendt is, of course, important for many reasons. However my specific interest in Arendt arose from a desire to research the political category “totalitarianism.” My political and theoretical experience has convinced me that this is a pivotal, litmus sort of category. In most instances, those who subscribe to the need to confront the totalitarianism of both the right and the left, those who equate Fascism and Communism and, of course, Hitler and Stalin, cannot and do not understand the basic principles of progressive politics. This core problem led me to Hannah Arendt’s “classic“, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951, 1954. Arendt was, of course, a brilliant genius. But the question is a brilliant genius for whom and for what.

Hannah Arendt’s contribution to modern political theory is to be celebrated in an upcoming conference at Bar-Ilan University dedicated to one of her central philosophical works, The Human Condition. It is a well known that Arendt’s philosophical texts are complex, and her style rather murky. This might help to understand why it is so unclear whether she belongs to the left or the right, and why despite this lack of clarity, there are many on the left who consider her an exponent of their values. However, with the exception of her important, critical articles on the Eichmann trial, the main thrust of her writings expressed a hesitant kind of liberalism, more amenable to the right than the left.

Those, who reject, with due cause, the idea that Arendt’s political philosophy (as opposed to her outstanding in-depth journalism on the Eichmann trial -1961) is close to the left, can cite two interesting comments connected to “The Human Condtion.” In a letter to Arendt (September 8, 1958), Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary and already one of the leading figures in the formation and the rise of the new right in the US, waxed eloquent over “The “Human Condition,”: “The book is superb, fully equal to the astonishing daring of what it undertakes.” (Library of Congress, Arendt Correspondence # 008982).

In the same context, Professor Russel Jacoby considered it is important to recall that Arendt seriously considered dedicating the work known as The Human Condition to the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was, of course, a well known collaborator with the Nazi regime and a devoted admirer of the Fuhrer. She wrote to Heidegger that she refrained from the dedication “because things had not worked out” between them but she wanted him to know that the book “owes practically everything to you in every respect.” (Russel Jacoby, Professor of History UCLA, Chronicles of Higher Education, December 8, 2006)

Of course there is the objection that Heidegger’s long time, slavish affiliation with National Socialism does not, in itself, disqualify his philosophy. Even so, it is rather unlikely that precisely Heidegger’s philosophy would inspire and sustain a rational, humanistic set of values on the Human Condition. And if we actually want to get to the roots of The Human Condition, wouldn’t it be more logical, following Arendt’s own admission, to devote the conference to Heidegger.