Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 8/30/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upA Different Cultural Paradigm Is Nowadays Inconceivable

pope francisAs Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States, Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books writes that the Pope's encyclical on the environment is "entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe." The Pope is not simply concerned with the environmental challenges of global warming. His aim is higher, calling for a massive reconsideration of our ethical connection to the natural and technological world. "The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, 'a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.' He is no Luddite ('who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?') but he insists that we have succumbed to a 'technocratic paradigm,' which leads us to believe that 'every increase in power means "an increase of 'progress' itself"...as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.' This paradigm 'exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.' Men and women, he writes, have from the start 'intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.' In our world, however, 'human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.' With the great power that technology has afforded us, it's become 'easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.' The deterioration of the environment, he says, is just one sign of this 'reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.' And though 'the idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm...is nowadays inconceivable,' the pope is determined to try exactly that, going beyond 'urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution' to imagine a world where technology has been liberated to serve the poor, the rest of creation, and indeed the rest of us who pay our own price even amid our temporary prosperity. The present ecological crisis is 'one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,' he says, dangerous to the dignity of us all."

Those Who Forget the Past Are Doomed to Reform It

jamaica high schoolJelani Cobb, writing about the closure of his alma mater, Jamaica High School in Queens, suggests in his conclusion that there are important differences between the school reform of the late 20th century and that of today; Jelani thinks we may have been closer to getting it right before: "In a way, the protests over school closure are a bookend to the riots that broke out over busing four decades ago. Like 'busing' and 'integration,' the language of today's reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education. Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility--of blame, really--run inward. It's not society that has failed, in this perspective. It's the schools. In 1954, Kenneth and Mamie Clark's arguments about the pernicious effects of racism on black children implicated white society. Sixty years later, arguments that black students associated studiousness with 'acting white' were seen not as evidence of the negative effects of internalized racism but as indicators of pathological self-defeat among African-Americans. The onus shifted, and public policy followed. The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial 'achievement gaps' and 'underperforming schools' but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened. Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes. Last year, a study by the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found that New York has the most segregated school system in the country, a reflection of the persistence of the housing patterns that Arthur Levitt talked about in 1954 but also of the failure of the integrationist ideal that was intended to address it. From that vantage point, the closure of Jamaica seemed to be less about the interment of a single school than about the impeachment of a particular brand of idealism regarding race and, by extension, American education. Ninety years ago, the City of New York broke ground on a huge, beautiful building as a symbol of its commitment to public education. Last year, it closed the school that the building housed, purportedly for the same reasons. The people who gathered angrily outside Jamaica High School weren't really protesting its closing; they were protesting the complex of history, policy, poverty, and race that had brought it about." Cobb makes an excellent point. Nevertheless, what are we to make of the failure of the big, beautiful buildings and the big, well-compensated bureaucracies whose mission it is to address the inequalities and inadequacies of education in America?

The Elites and the Masses

trumpPeggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal writes that the Trump phenomenon is manifesting a chasm between elites and the masses that threatens to transform the world of American politics. She reports anecdotal evidence of a non-partisan mass of voters from all over the political and economic spectrum gravitating toward Trump. And the overriding theme she encounters is a disdain for political, economic, and mainstream elites. "On the subject of elites, I spoke to Scott Miller, co-founder of the Sawyer Miller political-consulting firm, who is now a corporate consultant. He worked on the Ross Perot campaign in 1992 and knows something about outside challenges. He views the key political fact of our time as this: 'Over 80% of the American people, across the board, believe an elite group of political incumbents, plus big business, big media, big banks, big unions and big special interests--the whole Washington political class--have rigged the system for the wealthy and connected.' It is 'a remarkable moment,' he said. More than half of the American people believe 'something has changed, our democracy is not like it used to be, people feel they no longer have a voice.' Mr. Miller added: 'People who work for a living are thinking this thing is broken, and that economic inequality is the result of the elite rigging the system for themselves. We're seeing something big.'" The mobilization of the masses outside and beyond traditional class boundaries is, of course, the kindling for all mass movements. And as Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, movements feed on mass appeal founded upon moods and feelings rather than policies or interests: "Long before Nazism proudly pronounced that though it had a program it did not need one, Pan-Germanism discovered how much more important for mass appeal a general mood was than laid-down outlines and platforms. For the only thing that counts in a movement is precisely that it keeps itself in constant movement." The point here is not that Trump is anything like the Nazis; he is not. But he is one of a series of politicians over the last 10-15 years that has fed upon the mobilization of masses in opposition to the perceived corruption and elitism of state and economic forces. Trump is both a symptom and a motor of the massive disillusionment of the American masses, our loss of faith in governmental and mainstream institutions from Congress to town halls, from the police to schools. Trump may be boorish, but he speaks truth to many, truths that elites would rather snicker at than engage. Whatever happens to Donald Trump's candidacy, one wonders when, and if, the elites in this country will wake up and realize his popularity is founded upon a profound and real disdain that many, many Americans have for our advanced, progressive, and technocratic culture. What is more, at the end of her essay, Noonan writes that it is not only the masses but also the elites who think the game is rigged. This new version of what Arendt called the "temporary alliance of the mob and the elite" is worth attending to. For when the elites abandon mainstream institutions and join the mob in tearing down rather than building up, that is when the mobilization of movements threatens to get dangerous.

amor_mundi_sign-upIn Living Color

media deathsJonathan Jones thinks about this week's shootings of a television reporter and her cameraman live on the air in terms of the paradox of reality TV: "The sense that we somehow have a right to see this, the decision of many media outlets to screen it, has a lot to do with the television trappings of this crime. Because part of the attack was seen and heard live on air, because the victims and the perpetrator all worked for the same TV station, there's something stagey about it all. Sadly people so enjoy true life crime stories and this one has a hokey TV setting that recalls many fictional plots of films and TV programs. It exposes the paradox of 'reality television'--that people on television are not real to the audience at all. The death of a presenter is therefore something that can be replayed on screens with impunity. To see how bizarre and improper this is, imagine if anyone broadcast or hosted a serial killer's videos of graphic murders. How is viewing this better?"

Borrowings and Thefts

etgar keretIsraeli author Etgar Keret suggests there are some unique challenges to translating from Hebrew: "I think that the most dominant aspect is the language. When I published my first book, I would say 90 percent of the reviews [in Israel] were simply about the language and the choice of language. And when my books were translated, it was always about the characters, because the unique language aspect was lost in translation. Hebrew is this unique thing that you cannot translate to any other language. It has to do with its history. About 2,000 years ago, people stopped speaking Hebrew because of the diaspora. So people who went to Rome spoke Latin, people who moved to the US spoke English, people spoke Yiddish, but they didn't speak Hebrew. They knew the words, but it was a written language--they read prayers, they knew the language well, but it wasn't spoken. I think the logic behind it would be that you don't need to use the language of God to ask where the restrooms are. Then somebody took this frozen language and defrosted it in the microwave of history, and people spontaneously started speaking it. And the thing that happened when people started speaking this language is it was kind of a miracle. If Shakespeare were to come here and hear us speak, he wouldn't understand a word we were saying, but if Abraham or Isaac took a taxi in Israel, they could communicate with the taxi driver. He'd understand what they are saying because the language didn't organically change. It was frozen, like frozen peas, fresh out of the Bible. We import words from other languages and we put them in Israeli verb form. Like for cocaine, we say in Hebrew, lesniff. We have many words like this from Russian, from Arabic. What happens when you speak colloquial Hebrew is you switch between registers all the time. So in a typical sentence, three words are biblical, one word is Russian, and one word is Yiddish. This kind of connection between very high language and very low language is very natural, people use it all the time. So when my works are being translated, I always get this question from my translators: Up or down? Which means, should it sound biblical and highbrow, or should we take it all down to sound colloquial? In Hebrew, it's both all the time. People in Israel would write in a high register, they wouldn't write colloquial speech. I do a special take on colloquial speech. When I started writing, I thought [the language] was telling the story of this country: old people in a young nation, very religious, very conservative, very tight-assed, but also very anarchistic, very open-minded. It's all in the language, and that's one thing that doesn't translate."

Literary Feminism

elena ferrantePseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante considers the influence of feminism on her writing, particularly the idea that the personal is political: "From it I learned that even the most intimate individual concerns, those that are most extraneous to the public sphere, are influenced by politics; that is to say, by that complicated, pervasive, irreducible thing that is power and its uses. It's only a few words, but with their fortunate ability to synthesize they should never be forgotten. They convey what we are made of, the risk of subservience we are exposed to, the kind of deliberately disobedient gaze we must turn on the world and on ourselves. But 'the personal is political' is also an important suggestion for literature. It should be an essential concept for anyone who wants to write...In short, I am a passionate reader of feminist thought. Yet I do not consider myself a militant; I believe I am incapable of militancy. Our heads are crowded with a very heterogeneous mix of material, fragments of time periods, conflicting intentions that cohabit, endlessly clashing with one another. As a writer I would rather confront that overabundance, even if it is risky and confused, than feel that I'm staying safely within a scheme that, precisely because it is a scheme, always ends up leaving out lots of real stuff because it is disturbing. I look around. I compare who I was, what I have become, what my friends have become, the clarity and the confusion, the failures, the leaps forward. Girls like my daughters appear convinced that the freedom they've inherited is part of the natural state of affairs and not the temporary outcome of a long battle that is still being waged, and in which everything could suddenly be lost. As far as the male world is concerned, I have learned, contemplative acquaintances who tend either to ignore or to recast with polite mockery the literary, philosophical, and all other categories of work produced by women. That said, there are also very fierce young women, men who try to be informed, to understand, to sort through the countless contradictions. In short, cultural struggles are long, full of contradictions, and while they are happening it is difficult to say what is useful and what isn't. I prefer to think of myself as being inside a tangled knot; tangled knots fascinate me. It's necessary to recount the tangle of existence, both as it concerns individual lives and the life of generations. Searching to unravel things is useful, but literature is made out of tangles."  

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennie Han discusses how in order to live an authentic public life, one must begin in the sphere of the private where one can confront and take ownership of one's thoughts and principles in the Quote of the Week. Also, we appreciate several annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Hans Jonas's "The Phenomenon of Life"in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Hannah Arendt and The Phenomenon of Life


On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Collection housed in Bard College's Stevenson Library, we came across this copy of The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, a work of phenomenology and existentialism in which Hans Jonas argues that all biological facts support the prefiguring of the human mind throughout all organic existence:

phenomenon of life 1

phenomenon of life 2

phenomenon of life 3Hannah Arendt made a number of annotations to her copy of this classic. For example, on page 148 in the section entitled "The Nobility of the Spirit," Arendt underlined three separate passages. These read as follows:

  1. "thus touch is the sense in which the original encounter with reality as reality takes place."
  2. "touch is the true test of reality..."
  3. "reality is disclosed in the same act and as one with the disclosure of my own reality..."

Off of this third marginalia, she draws a curving line to the top margin of the page, in the space of which she writes:

How about touching myself? Would it [unintelligible] me of the reality of my hands?

phenomenon of life 4

phenomenon of life 5On the opposite page, Hannah Arendt underlines three passages, as well. The first reads as follows:

"Thus essence becomes separable from existence and therewith theory possible. It is but the basic freedom of vision...which are carried further in conceptual thought...."

The second passage observes that "causality is not a visual datum," whereas the final passage underlined on these two pages states,

"Vision, however, is not the primary but the most sublime case of sense perception...."

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we will feature them on our blog!

The Hannah Arendt Collection at Bard College is maintained by staff members at the Bard College Stevenson Library. To peruse the collection's digital entries, please click here.

For more Library photos, please click here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Arendt and the Gnostics


Roger Berkowitz wrote in a Weekend Read two years ago how Hannah Arendt took an interest in the stories told about Pope John XXIII. Perhaps to better understand her subject, Arendt kept a number of Gnostic texts in her library, all of which are now housed in the Hannah Arendt Library at Bard College. Among them are Jean Doresse's The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, today one of the most thorough introductions to the Egyptian Gnostic writings known as the Nag-Hammadi Library; and Hans Jonas' The Gnostic Religion, another authoritative text on the Gnostic worldview and the beginnings of Christianity.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Defending the Humanities While Trashing Them



Leon Wieseltier, the longtime cultural editor of the New Republic, dedicated his commencement address at Brandeis last month to a defense of the humanities. He asks, “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” It was a rhetorical question, and Wieseltier offers a full-throttled defense of teaching and studying the humanities. The culprit, he writes, is technology.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness -- and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

I too value the humanities and have dedicated my life to them. I agree with Wieseltier about the distracting influence of technology and also the danger of scientism.


But I do wonder why it is that Wieseltier did not ask also what the humanities might have contributed to the fact that nationally now only 7% of students choose to study the humanities. Even at Harvard, only 20% of students are majoring in the humanities. Are all these students eschewing the humanities out of evil or ignorance? Or is there something wrong with the way we are teaching the humanities? 

The truth is that too much of what our humanities faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students and even by our colleagues. It is an amazing truth that much of what academics write and publish is rarely, if ever, read. Even by other academics. 

The standard response to such whispered confessions is that scholarship is timeless. Its value may not be discovered for centuries. Or that it is like basic research, useful in itself. The problem with these arguments is that such really original scholarship is rare and getting ever more rare. The increasing specialization of academic life leads to professors knowing more and more about less and less. This is the source of the irrelevance of much of humanities scholarship today.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant.

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. As I have written elsewhere,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

One might think that given his concern with technology changing and threatening our humanity, Wieseltier might find an ally in Hannah Arendt.  Hannah Arendt is one of the most articulate defenders of the connection between humanities learning and political and an engaged political life. For her, politics depends upon the stories and actions that preserve the traditions and the institutions that give meaning and sense to our common lives. The crisis in the humanities is, Arendt understood, deeply connected to our political crisis.


Wieseltier has never been a fan of Arendt’s writing, which of course is fine. But with the opening of the new movie “Hannah Arendt” by Margarethe von Trotta, he seems to have decided to establish the new New Republic as ground zero of irresponsible Arendt bashing. Under his guidance, the New Republic has published not one but two scathingly critical reviews of the film, each riddled with errors. I wrote already about the glaring factual mistakes plaguing Stanley Kaufmann’s review last week, in a post on the Febrile Imagination of Arendt Haters. I only recently became aware of a second attack by Saul Austerlitz.

The Austerlitz review is given the subtle title “A New Movie Perpetuates the Pernicious Myth of Hannah Arendt.” Austerlitz calls Arendt a “threadbare hero,” and complains that the movie eschews “serious consideration of the sustained critical response to Eichmann in Jerusalem.” That is strange given the prominence in the film given to Arendt’s critics, including Kurt Blumenfeld (who also utters damning words written by Gershom Scholem), Charlotte Beradt, Norman Podhoretz, and, most forcefully, Hans Jonas. Undoubtedly the film comes down on Arendt’s side. But when Jonas turns away from Arendt after her lecture, the moral clarity of his accusation of arrogance weighs on through till the credits.

Some of Austerlitz’s criticisms hit home. For example, he worries, as I have, that the encounter between Siegfried Moses and Arendt is too one-sided, even if he does not know that the actual encounter was much different.

But mostly Austerlitz just follows the herd by attacking Arendt not by engaging her work (he never once cites Arendt), but by quoting from others. Mostly Austerlitz chooses to cite Deborah Lipstadt, author of a revisionist account of the Eichmann trial in which suggests without any reason or supporting evidence that Arendt defended Eichmann (something she certainly did not do) in order to excuse or please her former lover Martin Heidegger. Such contentions would be laughable if they weren’t then adopted uncritically by others as fact. In any case, here is what Austerlitz writes about Eichmann in Jerusalem (giving no indication whatsoever whether he has read it):

The book makes for good philosophy, but shoddy history, as many have asserted in the decades since its publication. As historian Deborah Lipstadt observes of Arendt in The Eichmann Trial (2011), “The only way she could have concluded that Eichmann was unaware was to give more credence to his demeanor and testimony at the trial than to what he actually did during the war.” 

One wonders, upon reading such a paragraph, what Lipstadt was saying Arendt was unaware of? Since Austerlitz’s preceding sentence accuses Arendt of believing that Eichmann, “bore the Jews no special animus, intent merely on carrying out his duties to the utmost,” it suggests that Lipstadt is arguing that Arendt is unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. But if one goes back to Lipstadt’s book itself, she is in fact arguing that Arendt said that Eichmann was unaware that he had committed crimes.


Whether or not Eichmann was aware that he committed crimes is an important question. It certainly cannot be decided as Lipstadt does by appealing to but never citing the memoir Eichmann wrote while in Argentina. Over and over in that memoir, Eichmann asserts his belief that he was justified in doing what he did and that he violated no laws in doing so. Indeed, Arendt herself argued that Eichmann’s pleas of having a “clear conscience” were made questionable by “the fact that the Nazis, and especially the criminal organizations to which Eichmann belonged, had been so very busy destroying evidence of their crimes during the last months of the war.” And yet Arendt, trying to take Eichmann’s statements in Argentina seriously, recognized also that the destruction of evidence 

proved no more than recognition that the law of mass murder, because of its novelty, was not yet accepted by other nations; or, in the language of the Nazis, that they had lost their fight to “liberate” mankind from the “rule of subhumans,” especially from the dominion of the Elders of Zion; or, in ordinary language, it proved no more than the admission of defeat. Would any one of them have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? 

Whether or not Eichmann was or was not possessed of a guilty conscience may be open for debate, but the claim that Arendt was unaware of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is folly.  As is Austerlitz’s also unsupported claim that “Eichmann bore the Jews no special animus.”  I realize others have pedaled such trash before, but repeating falsities does not make them true.

There is irony in Wieseltier’s condemning the decline of the humanities even as he oversees publication of two irresponsible reviews about a movie that, whatever its failings, is the most significant attempt to bring a major humanist to the screen in a thoughtful and respectful way. I am not asking for cheerleading, but serious engagement would be welcomed.   

Ignore the reviews and instead read Wieseltier’s commencement speech celebrating the humanities. It is your weekend read.  And then review my own defense of the humanities here.


Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Here’s How to Demonize Thinking



Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls  “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.

movie poster

He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.

What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt.  The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.

The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy:  "Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of."


To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.

Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think.  On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.

That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.

We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.

We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.


Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual.  So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”

At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.

Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.

You can read Brody’s review here.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Hannah Arendt – a film by Margarethe von Trotta.


The new Hannah Arendt bio picture by Margarethe von Trotta has been released in Europe. It will hit theatres in the US in May, although it is making the rounds of festivals now. The good news: “Hannah Arendt” the film is really wonderful. I’ll have more to say about the film at some point soon, but until then we’ll be passing along the most interesting reviews. To get us started, here is a write up by David Owen, who teaches political theory at the University of Southampton. If you see the film and have some thoughts, pass them our way and we’ll post them on the blog. 

The opening scene of the film shows the organised abduction of an ordinary-looking older man on a country road before cutting to a woman, obviously European in her movements, listening to classical music in a room whose decor is clearly American. These people are, of course, Adolf Eichmann and Hannah Arendt – and thus the film signals its central focus, namely, Arendt’s relationship to the event of Eichmann’s Trial in Jerusalem and the questions that Arendt’s report and the reactions to it raise concerning the relations of the private and the public, the personal and the political, and, more specifically, the conditions (and wisdom) of a philosopher speaking philosophically about politics in public.

The film’s portrayal of Arendt is unfolded through her relationships, most notably with her husband Heinrich Blücher, her friend Mary McCarthy, her once class-mate and now friend and colleague Hans Jonas, her old political mentor and friend the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, the editor of the New Yorker William Shawn, and her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger. All except the last of these are played out within a linear dramatic narrative that tracks Arendt’s circle from the capture of Eichmann through the trail in Jerusalem to the composition and publication of, and reaction to, Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The relationship to Heidegger is interspersed into the narrative through flashback’s that are Arendt’s memories of her relationship with Heidegger and his disastrous foray into public political speech in the Rectoral Address of May 27th 1933, a public act which he later spoke of privately as ‘die größte Dummheit seines Lebens’ but which he never publically renounced. This figuring of her relationship to Heidegger within the dramatic structure of the film is unfortunate in a number of ways, not least the portrayal of Heidegger as a clownish naïf, but primarily because through the use and positioning of these flashbacks within the film, von Trotta offers an open-ended analogy between Heidegger’s and Arendt’s acts of public speech. Even if von Trotta means only to raise the suggestion, since these flashbacks are Arendt’s, that Arendt reflects on her Report on the Eichmann Trial through the prism of her personal relationship to Heidegger and his own abrogated stress on the necessity of thinking, it gets in the way of the rest of the film which is a beautifully shot and compelling piece of narrative drama with a strong ensemble cast, not least in the sensitive use of documentary footage in the reconstruction of the Eichmann trial.

In different respects, Blücher and McCarthy are presented as Arendt’s supports. Blücher’s wandering eye and philandering (which Arendt is portrayed as accepting as a fact about which it would be hopeless to rail) are offset by his role as loving companion and sounding board for her thoughts. McCarthy is the female confidant, a blousy American whose insecurity in her personal life and work contrasts with and highlights Arendt’s European roots and location in an older tradition.

By contrast, the relationships with Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld are offered as both deep but also, finally broken, by Arendt’s writing on Eichmann. This is given early expression in, first, an argument between Jonas and Blücher about Eichmann’s  abduction to be placed on trial in Israel which foreshadows the more dramatic rupture between Jonas and Arendt – and, second, Arendt’s visit to Blumenfeld’s family in Jerusalem (on her way to cover the Eichmann trial) in awkwardness and already emerging disagreement are covered over by the depth of their friendship. Later, after the report is published, Arendt will dash to Jerusalem to visit a seriously ill Blumenfeld in his sickbed only for him to turn his back to her. The issue von Trotta raises here concerns not so much whether Arendt’s arguments are right or wrong but rather how much one can reasonably ask one’s friends to bear in respect of one’s own commitment to intellectual integrity. For Blumenfeld, Arendt’s remarks on the role of the Jewish leaders in co-operating with the Nazi organization run by Eichmann and hence facilitating the Shoah are a betrayal of the Jewish people. Arendt’s response — that she does not think of herself as having such an obligation — adds only insult to injury. For Jonas, Arendt’s fault is arrogance — and certainly the portrayal of her relationship to William Shawn, an editor overwhelmed by awe at Arendt which she shows no compunction in exploiting, is given as testimony to this side of her character. This issue is raised for us acutely by the climax of the film to which I’ll come shortly but there are two other features that deserve comment first.

The first is the presentation of the charge made against Arendt by her public critics that she is cold, without feeling, and McCarthy’s defense of her as simply having a courage that her critics lack, in the context of a portrayal of Arendt among students and friends as a caring and humorous person who, at one point, privately breaks down in the face of the reaction to her report. The second is the portrayal of the process of composing her writing of Eichmann which combines two elements: the engagement with a vast mass of empirical material, piles of folders of paper (court transcripts, etc.) are arranged around the study and apartment, and the difficulty of writing: Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear. In this sense, the film suggests that the critics (who remind me of Martha Nussbaum on tragedy) are right to see her writing as cold and without feeling but quite wrong in their judgment of the significance of this fact and the courage that the writing required of her. At the same time, her response to William Shawn that her writing about the Jewish leaders was purely factual raises for the viewer the question of whether she has lost the ability to discriminate between her judgment and facts in this process. In making this point, the film does not attempt to adjudicate the question of whether Arendt was right or wrong to write the report that she composed, rather it tries, I think compellingly, to make intelligible how she could come to speak in the way that she did (it may also explain why she was entirely unconcerned that Eichmann was hanged).

Let me now turn to the climax. As the drama following the publication of her report unfolds, Arendt is presented as treating from public space and, against McCarthy’s advice, refusing to engage publically with the criticisms directed at her work by critics for whom she has no intellectual respect (echoes of Heidegger’s postwar silence are raised here). When she returns to The New School, at that time almost entirely a Jewish institution, her colleagues shun her and she is asked to resign from teaching her classes which she refuses to do — but she does acknowledge an obligation to the students, who have supported her (and whom the film portrays her as feeling responsible to, for example, in the scene where McCarthy arrives at her class to tell her that Blücher has had a heart attack and is in hospital, and her first shocked reaction is to return to finish her class). When she has offered her explanation to a lecture hall packed with students and the three staff before whom she was hauled for dressing down and discipline, she rebuts – albeit not wholly convincingly — the charge by a staff member that she is blaming the victims for their own victimhood and is given rapturous applause by the students. As they leave, she sees that Hans Jonas is also in the audience. His face, in a bravura piece of acting by Ulrich Noethen, gives us no clue as to what is to come next but seems to express a process of internal struggle. Arendt goes to him, hopeful that her explanation will have healed the rupture of their friendship, but far from it — Jonas rejects her account, she has gone too far, and, in a bitter expression of the end of their friendship, refers to her as “Heidegger’s little darling”.

The question raised by this film is that of ‘thoughtlessness’. Arendt presents Eichmann as a creature who cannot think, for has abdicated the realm of thinking, and at the same time she sees Heidegger as a philosopher whose movement into the public realm is marked by a shift to thoughtlessness (a view that allows her to continue to engage Heidegger’s philosophical work after 1933 in contrast to Jonas). Is Arendt similarly ‘thoughtless’ is her reflections on the Jewish leaders? The film asks us to consider this question but not, I think, quite in Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness but in the broader sense that underlies it. Her commitment to understanding, to making intelligible, to truthfulness is given clear expression as too are the demands this makes on her — but what about the demands that this makes on her friends, is there not a kind of thoughtlessness here? Is there not a kind of thoughtlessness in her failure to anticipate the entirely predictable response to her moralized interpretation of the role of the Jewish leaders, whose cooperation with the Nazis, she writes, should strike Jews as the darkest episode of a dark chapter of human action?

I don’t think that the film ultimately takes a stance on this issue – rather it raises for us the question of the relationship of Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness to our ordinary sense of that word. And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews. The film is composed in a context in which we, and von Trotta, know this — and I think the film’s refusal to resolve the issues that it raises is precisely an acknowledgement of this context. In this respect, Thomas Assheuer’s review in Die Zeit which suggests that Arendt’s reading of Eichmann was directed against that of the Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion who represented him as a monster of evil for ideological purposes may have some force but not against the film. Rather the film leaves us with questions concerning the relationship between friendship and the service of truth, of emotional life and the conditions of writing truthfully, and of the conditions and costs of public speech.

—David Owen


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.