Thursday, December 7, 2006

Berlin and Arendt: in the News! (Alas) (Josh)

Funnily enough, a week after I presented a paper on Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt at our political theory workshop, the Chronicle of Higher Ed publishes a piece on Arendt by Russell Jacoby which includes a brief comparison of the two. It's not to Berlin's advantage; and so (despite my attempts to defend Arendt from liberal detractors last week), I bristle. I'll try to get to a larger point by and by -- I hope; but first -- I vent. (I'll leave responding to the sneering at Rawls to others)
Jacoby's an old hand at anti-Berlin polemics -- he published one in Salmagundi over two decades ago, accusing Berlin of going along with the powers that be and the dominant currents in Western society (back when being a liberal, as Berlin was, was [highly] arguably compatible with the dominant currents in America and Britain). Here the objection seems to be partly that Berlin chose less sexy titles for his works than did Arendt (The Human Condition vs. "Alleged Relativism in 18th Century Thought'? Yeah, ok. Never mind that one was an academic article, the other a mass-market book; or that, while many of us doubt that Arendt really captured the whole of the human condition, Berlin managed to say some trenchant things about the history of relativism, and the difference between relativism and pluralism -- matters which some of us think sort of significant). So -- Berlin wasn't as good at advertising. Is this really a point that a more or less left-wing critic of modern commercial culture wants to be pushing? (One isn't reassured by Jacoby's citing of Arendt's use of Greek and Roman words as a point in her favour. It all depends on how one uses them; wearing one's classical education heavily is not in itself a sign of intellectual excellence.) Jacoby also charges that Berlin 'never really' wrote a book; the 'really' here leaves a bit of wiggle-room, perhaps -- which is useful, since the statement is false, as readers of Berlin's biography of Marx know. It may be true that Berlin's description of Arendt as 'the most overrated philosopher of the century' did not appear in print in his lifetime; but he did, rather bluntly, call her over-rated in print -- so Jacoby's charge of 'caution' seems misplaced here. (Indeed, Berlin would agree with Jacoby that he [Berlin] and Arendt were both over-rated). And he repeats the well-worn charge that Berlin 'waffled', and suggests that his 'unwavering moderation' makes him uninspiring. Berlin did waffle about some things; but he was consistent, and adamant, about others, some of them rather important, such as opposition to Soviet Communism. And I, at least, find him inspiring precisely for his unwavering moderation -- of which we could use more.
As I've suggested, Jacoby stresses the 'celebrity' aspects of Arendt; when it comes to her serious philosophical works, he notes that her writing became 'opaque' and 'cloudy', and notes that she benefitted from "the widespread belief that philosophical murkiness signals philosophical profundity" (widespead among whom?) While he's dismissive of Berlin, he hardly goes easy on Arendt; he admires her intellectual style, but not, ultimately, the content of her thought -- and, to his credit, he does ultimately focus on the latter, and makes some valid points (I found his noting of the "semireligious Heideggerian idiom of angst, loneliness, and rootlessness" that informs Arendt's work congenial, though also one-sided and perhaps overly ungenerous; there's also both a political hard-headedness, and an affirmation of worldliness, in Arendt's work which partly balance out the more 'Heideggerian' elements). But here, too, he's not entirely fair or entirely accurate -- or, if literally accurate, some of his claims are misleading. Eichmann in Jerusalem may have been the only work that Arendt wrote 'on assignment' for the New Yorker; but others of her books were also culled from essays that appeared in that journal, and so presumably benefitted, as EinJ did, from the editorship of William Shawn (at least some portions of On Violence and Crises of the Republic -- and perhaps also Men in Dark Times, but I now forget, and don't have the book at hand). And the conclusion that Arendt's reflections on evil in EinJ were simply correct, and the Origins of Totalitarianism, containing arguments in tension with the later book, simply wrong, seems -- well, simplistic. Things are less cut and dried, all around (but then this is no doubt a very Berlinian, waffly, uninspiringly moderate point): for one thing, many have contested the idea of the banality of evil (even those who actually understand it); for another, as Jacoby earlier notes, there's an awful lot going on in Origins of Totalitarianism, aside from the notion of 'radical evil'. But Jacoby's impatient treatment of philosophers who have commented on Arendt, with their addiction to nuance in reading and creativity in conceptual argument, suggests that he wouldn't have much time for such quibbles.
Overall, it's a partly astute, partly ham-fisted, account of Arendt and of intellectual life more generally; whenever Jacoby does show appreciation for any thinker or intellectual milieu, it seems purely for the sake of using him, her or it to bash someone or something else. Jacoby is a past master of the intellectual jeremiad; and there is much to sympathise with -- and many harsh truths to face -- in his lamentations about the state of cultural and intellectual (and political) life in our society. But, for all the intellectual sharpness that he can, and sometimes does, display, pieces like this -- ill-tempered, simplifying, and ultimately un-edifying -- are not the stuff of which a vibrant intellectual life is made. For that we'd do better to turn to Berlin and Arendt, for all their faults.


sexyurdu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gerald Meaders said...


Finally reading there's some meat.