Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt

Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt

Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt

Politics, Philosophy, Terror: Essays on the Thought of Hannah Arendt

Synopsis

Hannah Arendt's rich and varied political thought is more influential today than ever before, due in part to the collapse of communism and the need for ideas that move beyond the old ideologies of the Cold War As Dana Villa shows, however, Arendt's thought is often poorly understood, both because of its complexity and because her fame has made it easy for critics to write about what she is reputed to have said rather than what she actually wrote. Villa sets out to change that here, explaining clearly, carefully, and forcefully Arendt's major contributions to our understanding of politics, modernity, and the nature of political evil in our century.

Villa begins by focusing on some of the most controversial aspects of Arendt's political thought. He shows that Arendt's famous idea of the banality of evil -- inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann -- does not, as some have maintained, lessen the guilt of war criminals by suggesting that they are mere cogs in a bureaucratic machine. He examines what she meant when she wrote that terror was the essence of totalitarianism, explaining that she believed Nazi and Soviet terror served above al

Excerpt

In a 1964 interview with the German journalist Gunter Gaus, Hannah Arendt refused the honorific title of “philosopher.” “I do not belong to the circle of philosophers,” she stated, adding “My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher, nor do I believe I have been accepted in the circle of philosophers. …”

Thirty-five years later, it is safe to say that this state of affairs has been transformed. Arendt is now accepted as a full-fledged canonical figure in political philosophy (although her reception by AngloAmerican analytic philosophers remains cool, on the whole). This marks a significant, and not easily explained, change in her status. From the mid-1950s until her death in 1975, Arendt was best known as a public intellectual, one whose work reached an astonishingly wide audience despite its demanding character. Her major works— The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, On Revolution, and the posthumously published two-volume The Life of the Mind— are all difficult texts, dense with arguments, allusions, and complicated narratives. Yet despite their difficulty they found a wide readership both within and outside the academy, something almost unthinkable today (it boggles the mind to recall that the first volume of The Life of the Mind initially appeared in The New Yorker).

Arendt's audience is perhaps numerically smaller today than when she was alive, but it is also more serious and more genuinely international in character. Indeed, one could argue that her influence is greater now than it has ever been, as increasing numbers of scholars and students the world over mine her books for insight into the nature of democratic politics and the dynamics of political evil. The truly remarkable thing about the current Hannah Arendt renaissance is that it knows neither partisan nor disciplinary boundaries, despite the fact that academic discussion has become both more narrowly specialized (and ill-temperedly political) in recent years. In part this has to do with the fact that her work always defied categorization, at least in terms of the usual Left/Right or liberal/conservative labels. But it also has to do with the end of the Cold War, with the fading of clear ideological battle lines and the . . .

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