Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
21Feb/146

The Irony of the Elite

ArendtWeekendReading

Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.

The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.

Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?

“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”

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Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?

““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”

Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:

“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”

It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.

What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony.  The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.

This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:

“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”

Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.

Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.

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There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:

“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”

As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.

The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.

Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.

-RB

14Oct/131

On Facts (for Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)

Arendtquote

This "Quote of the week was originally published on December 19, 2011.

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”

I spent December 2 in Greencastle, Indiana, talking about politics, political theory, and the life and work of Hannah Arendt at DePauw University.  Over dinner, I had sung the praises of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World—a book that needs no publicity from me, but which I’ve come to admire all the more as I’ve learned how much and what kind of effort it takes to recount even a slice of someone’s story, much less a whole life.  When I came back to my hotel room after dinner, I found, online, the news of Elisabeth’s death.  In this terrible retrospect, my comments about the biography felt inadequate.  I’d said something about the care she devoted to the facts of Arendt’s life, which, I worried, might have sounded trivializing, as if a biographer were just an assembler of details, and as if Elisabeth hadn’t also been an interpreter and a thinker in her own right. Not to mention that invoking the facts must have seemed quaint, or naïve: who talks that way anymore?

elisabeth

Arendt, of course, talked that way, and it had always sounded a little jarring to my constructivist ear.  Maybe that’s why, like many other readers, I had usually remembered her essay “Truth and Politics” as a forceful attempt to emancipate politics from the category of philosophical truth, and neglected its other half: a defense of the political relevance of “factual truth,” which Arendt had no trouble characterizing as a matter of respect for the “brutally elementary data” of human events.  (Her preferred example: “On the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium.”)  But I had recently had occasion to come back to “Truth and Politics” and to Arendt’s invocation of factual truth, and—I now realized—the line of thought that had emerged from that reading wasn’t unrelated to my deepening appreciation of For Love of the World.

The real reason Arendt’s appeal to brute facts was so jarring, I think, is that we’re used to hearing such appeals as table-thumping attempts to end a conversation, to put doubt to rest, to anchor a political judgment in something undeniable; and that sounds like the very strategy Arendt criticized in the case of appeals to rational or philosophical truth, which are supposed to have enough “compelling force” to cut through the tangle of competing and conflicting opinions.

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But this wasn’t Arendt’s point.  She conceded that claims to factual truth, like all truth-claims, assert a kind of peremptoriness, and therefore strike us as “despotic” in their “infuriating stubbornness.”  At the same time, though, she insisted on the weakness and fragility of factual truth, not only in the sense that facts are vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of political actors, but also in the sense that the “mere telling of facts,” on its own, “leads to no action whatever.”  The bruteness of facts is extraordinarily limited in its reach: that it was the German army and not the Belgian that crossed the frontier in 1914 may be one of those givens that we “cannot change,” but nothing further follows from the fact itself.

Why, then, are these “brutally elementary data” politically relevant?  Because in an era of “organized lying,” in which political actors and ideologists do not simply deny or falsify particular facts, but struggle to represent factual truth in general as a tightly ordered, internally consistent system, the recounting of inconvenient facts can disrupt such efforts to give factual truth a compulsive power that, Arendt thought, reality itself lacks. In this context, an appeal to the bruteness of facts needn’t obscure plurality or bypass the need for judgment: on the contrary, it can disclose that need, showing an audience its situation in sufficient factual richness that nothing will seem to follow from that situation automatically.  (“The question was never to get away from facts but to get closer to them,” Bruno Latour once wrote; perhaps he and Arendt are not so far apart after all.)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had a brilliant sense for this Arendtian chemistry of facts, for their paradoxical power to serve, precisely in their bruteness, as a kind of leaven, opening up rather than shutting down occasions and spaces for judgment.  Maybe all great biographers do.  Yes, she did much more than recount the facts of Arendt’s life; she was also an interpreter, who transformed the “raw material of sheer happenings” into a meaningful story, one that was informed by her own interest in and knowledge of matters for which her teacher and subject had little patience, like psychoanalysis.

forlove

But For Love of the World is not and does not feel tendentious in its treatment of the facts of Arendt’s life. It is too generous for that, it tells us too much more than it would need to if the facts were only there to prove a point, and, in the disinterested care with which it treats those many factual matters that are not cruxes in her own interpretation—and most of them are not—it invites and enables its readers to tell the story differently.  It is not the authoritativeness of Elisabeth’s account of why Arendt matters, but the firmness of her grasp of small details, and the lightness with which she deploys them, that make her book, for so many readers of Arendt of so many different theoretical persuasions, an indispensible part of “the ground on which we stand, and the sky that stretches above us."

-Patchen Markell

12Apr/132

Is Hannah Arendt a Jewish Thinker?

ArendtWeekendReading
Is Hannah Arendt A Jewish Thinker? On one level, the answer is obvious. Arendt was indeed Jewish, raised in Germany during the first three decades of the 20th century. True, Arendt was non-religious and in much of her writing was deeply critical of Jews and Jewish leaders. Yet she was arrested twice as a Jew, once in Germany and once in France, escaping both times. If one is attacked as a Jew, she said, one must respond as a Jew. That she did. She led Jewish Youth to Palestine and wrote essays during the war calling for a Jewish army. She attended the first meeting of the Jewish World Congress. She worked for years for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her first two books—Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of Jewess, and The Origins of Totalitarianism—are deeply infused by her understanding of the Jewish question. So too is her best known book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. It would be folly to deny that her thinking is influenced by her experience of being a Jew.

But to ask if she was a Jewish thinker is something else. It is to ask whether her political thinking is inspired by or in some way quintessentially Jewish. The question is posed this way often by students hoping to find something in Arendt with which they can identify. Others ask it in the hope of redeeming Arendt from the perceived sins of her book on Adolf Eichmann. And the question of the Jewish influence on Arendt is also a scholarly question.

For some Arendtian scholars, her thinking is a distillation of the work of her first teacher and youthful lover, Martin Heidegger. Others trace the source of her political ideas to her dear friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. She is often said to be an Aristotelian; one super-intelligent recent Ph.D. argued to me last week that the decisive influence on her work was Niccolo Machiavelli. A recent article argues that Arendt’s Denktagebuch proves that her most influential interlocutor was Plato. And then there is of course a Jewish reading of Arendt, one first explored in depth (and in its complexity) by Richard Bernstein in his book Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.

jewishquestion

In all such arguments seeking Arendt’s true source, there is painfully little tolerance for letting Arendt be Arendt, for recognizing her to be the original thinker she is. Contextualizing is the scholarly obsession. At some point, however, we must stop and admit that Arendt represents something new—which means only that any effort to claim one privileged influence upon her work will be incomplete.

The impact of her Jewish experiences on Arendt’s thought is most visible in the distinction she makes between the social and the political realms, which runs through her entire body of thought. As Leon Botstein has written, “Arendt’s basic theoretical claim, the separation of the social form the political, originated in her understanding of the Jewish problem as decisively political rather than social in character.” Arendt sought in her early Jewish writings to make a space for Jews to preserve their social aloofness (their being separate and living according to their own laws) while at the same time engaging in political action.

At the same time, Arendt’s distinction between society and politics is infused by her reading of Carl Schmitt as well as by her rejection of the Western philosophical canon that elevates contemplation over action. In The Human Condition, where Arendt first fully develops her distinction between the social and political, Jewish concerns are absent. And yet, the roots of that distinction are explored in Antisemitism, Book One of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It would be “irresponsible,” as Jerry Kohn has written, to doubt the importance to her thinking of what Arendt experienced as a Jew. Still, it would be saying too much to call her a Jewish thinker. Arendt is, quite simply, an original. She is impossible to compartmentalize or box in. She is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Jewish nor universal. Of course she is a Jewish thinker—and so much more.

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I raise these reflections in response to Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order, an important new book by Natan Sznaider. Sznaider visited the Arendt Center last week and in two public presentations made his case for two theses: First, that Arendt’s mature political thinking has its roots in her Jewish experience from the 1930s through the 1940s; and second, that she has helped articulate a uniquely Jewish perspective on human rights conveyed and concretized through catastrophe and memory around the holocaust.

The foundation for Sznaider’s argument is an exceptional archival reconstruction of Arendt’s until-now little-known work for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR). Arendt was the research director for JCR in the 1940s, when she was hired by Salo Baron, a specialist in Jewish history at Columbia University. Baron hired Arendt and gave her what was her first paid position in the United States. As research director of JCR Arendt was thrust into post-war Jewish politics. Based on fruitful work in the Salo Baron archives at Stanford, Sznaider develops an account of the close intellectual, personal, and political relationship between Arendt and Baron, based on a shared belief in what he calls a “hidden Jewish tradition.” Against the mainstream Jewish tradition of victimhood and withdrawal, Arendt and Baron shared a belief in a vibrant and glorious tradition of Jewish political activity.

In her work for the JCR, Arendt compiled inventories of Jewish cultural artifacts. Relying on a network of Jewish refugees around the world, she published lists with titles like: “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries.” Sznaider makes the case that these lists “are among her important publications on Jewish matters” and should be considered part of the Arendt canon. Working from these lists, Arendt then traveled to Europe and negotiated with German, Israeli, and U.S. military authorities to determine the fate of Jewish cultural treasures that had been stockpiled by the Nazis or saved by European communities.

Arendt’s work at the JCR was importantly an opportunity to engage in Jewish politics as a representative of world Jewry. She was one of the few unelected Jewish leaders tasked with deciding how the salvaged cultural heritage would be distributed to Jewish communities around the world. A large part of her work was convincing the U.S. military to depart from settled international law, which required that these treasures be returned to the communities from which they came. As there were no Jews left in these ravaged European Jewish communities, Arendt and Baron, along with Gershom Scholem in Israel, argued that the Jewish cultural heritage should be distributed to new Jewish communities in Israel, America, and around the world.

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According to Sznaider, Arendt saw herself as an emissary of the Jewish people. “Arendt believed that the JCR would be the representative of the Jewish people as a collective and not of Jews as citizens of their respective countries.” Through her work for JCR, Arendt came to believe in the possibility of a Jewish politics outside of traditional nation states. It is in this context, he argues, that Arendt distanced herself from Zionist circles. She was, he writes, convinced that “the only viable answer for modern Jews is politics—not necessarily Zionist politics, but collective politics of some kind.” In lieu of the security of a national state, Arendt hoped for a “federal principle of political organization, not only for Jews but for all European peoples.” It is in this sense that Sznaider argues that Arendt’s political thinking as it emerges in her later writing is deeply indebted to her experience of Jewish political action.

Sznaider has many aims in his book and one is to enlist Arendt as the progenitor of what he calls “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a modern politics that is both rooted in particular identity and also open to the modern demand for equality. Another is to argue that there is a particular Jewish perspective on human rights that is rooted in the Jewish experience of catastrophe. Human rights, he argues leaning on Arendt, does not have a philosophical ground. But Jewish history and the memory of the holocaust offer a non-metaphysical ground for human rights in fear itself.

You can watch Sznaider’s  lecture  here. I recommend you do so. Then buy a copy of Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. It is your weekend read.

-RB

1Feb/131

John Adams on Education

One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.

In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?

Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?

The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.

The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.

To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.

John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.

-RB

The HAC blog covers the humanities, politics, and education extensively. For more, click here to read "The Humanities and Common Sense,"  and click here to read "The Progeny of Teachers."

19Dec/110

On Facts (For Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)-Patchen Markell

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”

I spent December 2 in Greencastle, Indiana, talking about politics, political theory, and the life and work of Hannah Arendt at DePauw University.  Over dinner, I had sung the praises of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World—a book that needs no publicity from me, but which I’ve come to admire all the more as I’ve learned how much and what kind of effort it takes to recount even a slice of someone’s story, much less a whole life.  When I came back to my hotel room after dinner, I found, online, the news of Elisabeth’s death.  In this terrible retrospect, my comments about the biography felt inadequate.  I’d said something about the care she devoted to the facts of Arendt’s life, which, I worried, might have sounded trivializing, as if a biographer were just an assembler of details, and as if Elisabeth hadn’t also been an interpreter and a thinker in her own right. Not to mention that invoking the facts must have seemed quaint, or naïve: who talks that way anymore?

Arendt, of course, talked that way, and it had always sounded a little jarring to my constructivist ear.  Maybe that’s why, like many other readers, I had usually remembered her essay “Truth and Politics” as a forceful attempt to emancipate politics from the category of philosophical truth, and neglected its other half: a defense of the political relevance of “factual truth,” which Arendt had no trouble characterizing as a matter of respect for the “brutally elementary data” of human events.  (Her preferred example: “On the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium.”)  But I had recently had occasion to come back to “Truth and Politics” and to Arendt’s invocation of factual truth, and—I now realized—the line of thought that had emerged from that reading wasn’t unrelated to my deepening appreciation of For Love of the World.

The real reason Arendt’s appeal to brute facts was so jarring, I think, is that we’re used to hearing such appeals as table-thumping attempts to end a conversation, to put doubt to rest, to anchor a political judgment in something undeniable; and that sounds like the very strategy Arendt criticized in the case of appeals to rational or philosophical truth, which are supposed to have enough “compelling force” to cut through the tangle of competing and conflicting opinions.

But this wasn’t Arendt’s point.  She conceded that claims to factual truth, like all truth-claims, assert a kind of peremptoriness, and therefore strike us as “despotic” in their “infuriating stubbornness.”  At the same time, though, she insisted on the weakness and fragility of factual truth, not only in the sense that facts are vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of political actors, but also in the sense that the “mere telling of facts,” on its own, “leads to no action whatever.”  The bruteness of facts is extraordinarily limited in its reach: that it was the German army and not the Belgian that crossed the frontier in 1914 may be one of those givens that we “cannot change,” but nothing further follows from the fact itself.

Why, then, are these “brutally elementary data” politically relevant?  Because in an era of “organized lying,” in which political actors and ideologists do not simply deny or falsify particular facts, but struggle to represent factual truth in general as a tightly ordered, internally consistent system, the recounting of inconvenient facts can disrupt such efforts to give factual truth a compulsive power that, Arendt thought, reality itself lacks. In this context, an appeal to the bruteness of facts needn’t obscure plurality or bypass the need for judgment: on the contrary, it can disclose that need, showing an audience its situation in sufficient factual richness that nothing will seem to follow from that situation automatically.  (“The question was never to get away from facts but to get closer to them,” Bruno Latour once wrote; perhaps he and Arendt are not so far apart after all.)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had a brilliant sense for this Arendtian chemistry of facts, for their paradoxical power to serve, precisely in their bruteness, as a kind of leaven, opening up rather than shutting down occasions and spaces for judgment.  Maybe all great biographers do.  Yes, she did much more than recount the facts of Arendt’s life; she was also an interpreter, who transformed the “raw material of sheer happenings” into a meaningful story, one that was informed by her own interest in and knowledge of matters for which her teacher and subject had little patience, like psychoanalysis.

But For Love of the World is not and does not feel tendentious in its treatment of the facts of Arendt’s life. It is too generous for that, it tells us too much more than it would need to if the facts were only there to prove a point, and, in the disinterested care with which it treats those many factual matters that are not cruxes in her own interpretation—and most of them are not—it invites and enables its readers to tell the story differently.  It is not the authoritativeness of Elisabeth’s account of why Arendt matters, but the firmness of her grasp of small details, and the lightness with which she deploys them, that make her book, for so many readers of Arendt of so many different theoretical persuasions, an indispensible part of “the ground on which we stand, and the sky that stretches above us."