July 17, 2004

Hannah Arendt

My undergraduate thesis was on Hannah Arendt. I don't think it was wholly successful, but in fairness to myself, I can't think of too many people who believe that their thesis was a smashing success. Even when, unlike mine, it really was.

There's one sense in which my thesis did succeed, and that is that it didn't kill my interest in Arendt. When I turned it in, I thought that (a) it was a crappy thesis, but that (b) I'd love to rewrite it. Alas, other priorities: ambulance jobs, medical school... law school. *Sigh* Since I don't like golf on principle, maybe I can come back to it when I retire.

In the meantime, here is one of the pithiest attempts to describe some of what Hannah Arendt was trying to do. The whole article is interesting; here are excerpts.

"Her task was to formulate the morality that kept average people from doing evil in emergency situations. The emergency she had in mind was Nazi Germany. She wished more people had possessed principles that led them to refuse the Nazis. Refusal was exhibited by rare individuals of every social type. Set against them, though, were those "normal" people who couldn't be relied on: Eichmann-types on the one hand, and advanced "intellectuals," her former colleagues, on the other. These two groups loved to judge things by rules-but in the Third Reich all rules had been reversed. "Thou Shalt Kill," she liked to say, became the First Commandment. Therefore, Arendt set herself the difficult task of a morality that would not depend on rules. [Arendt focuses on two faculties that she thought some "banal," average people like Adolf Eichmann had lacked: thinking and judging.]

"Finally, though, it is her idea of judgment that is most alien to us. On Arendt's model, we must judge, and judge, and judge: thoughtfully, implacably, publicly. At both the individual level and the level of the community, people must always be judging the acts and characters of others. If you think of our current world, there may be truth to her charge that we are afraid of judging. We complain about people, we hate them, we love scandals, we opine about what people shouldn't dare say in public. But we would think it arrogant for one person to stand up and coolly say to another-"I, so-and-so, having considered it carefully, judge that what you, Mr. X, did, was morally wrong. I need no more authority to judge you than the fact that I am a fellow human being, and that I have judged by good examples, and asked myself what I, myself, could not live with doing."
Of course, it would be a very curious world in which one constantly dared to judge others, and not so much one's enemies. As Arendt always insisted, the real moral issue was never with one's enemies, who like the Nazis could be so obviously evil) but with one's friends, and those one loved.

More on Arendt here.

Posted by Carey at July 17, 2004 08:06 PM