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Review: "Lessons in Love and Disobedience" from Hannah Arendt's "We Are Free to Change the World"

Review: “Lessons in Love and Disobedience” from Hannah Arendt’s “We Are Free to Change the World”


In his book Minima Moralia, published in 1951, German philosopher TW Adorno ponders the possibility of living a good life in a world that is fragmented and difficult. He argues that rejecting the current state of culture requires both understanding and active involvement, but also the strength to distance oneself from it. Adorno grapples with the dilemma faced by intellectuals, who must strike a balance between being disconnected from their surroundings and being consumed by them. How can a politically engaged thinker maintain just the right amount of closeness and distance?

There was animosity between Adorno and Hannah Arendt, who is the focus of Lyndsey Stonebridge’s intriguing and unique new book. Arendt unfairly held Adorno responsible for failing to assist their mutual friend Walter Benjamin in escaping the Nazis, leading to his tragic suicide. She even once declared, when her husband suggested inviting Adorno for dinner, “Der kommt uns nicht ins Haus!” – “That one’s not coming into our house!” However, Adorno’s brilliant articulation of the dilemma was also one that Arendt faced. As German Jews of the same generation, both were deeply immersed in their homeland’s philosophical and cultural traditions. When the Nazis came to power and it became evident that this society could produce not only Kant and Beethoven, but also Himmler and Kristallnacht, both fled to the United States. They both questioned whether the traditions they had absorbed, not just from Germany but from European thought dating back to ancient Greece, could help them comprehend the atrocities they were witnessing, or if they were insufficient – even complicit – in them.

Stonebridge demonstrates that what set Arendt apart was her determination to collect the pieces of various political and philosophical traditions and reconstruct them. Despite being educated in philosophy by Husserl, Heidegger, and Jaspers, it was her own extensive reading and personal intellectual pursuits that truly shaped her perspective. Arendt applied this knowledge and rigorous approach to the political upheaval of the mid-20th century. Her primary interests revolved around the beginnings of humanity – the potential for innovation and surprises, the diverse nature of our fragile lives that allows for genuine thought, and the concept of love as an invaluable understanding and appreciation of human differences. As Stonebridge eloquently states, “Love is the pre-political foundation of our existence in this world.” Arendt held tightly to these core beliefs with a realistic outlook, using them to guide her exploration of the ways in which Nazism and totalitarianism corrupt and suppress these essential abilities. Despite facing challenges, she remained steadfast in her pursuit of revolutionary possibilities. Her unique and original way of being reflected these ideals, while also acknowledging the interconnectedness of our shared world.

The importance of Arendt’s work became evident when her extensive book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, gained popularity after Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Stonebridge’s book is a unique blend that reflects the current climate: it includes a biography, evaluation of Arendt’s impact, practical advice for taking action (six of the ten chapters begin with “How to…”), and thoughts on the current global situation. Stonebridge acknowledges both the strengths and limitations of Arendt’s ideas, addressing the aspects that have puzzled or angered recent readers. She also recognizes Arendt’s failure to fully consider race in her adopted country, particularly her shocking criticisms of the parents of Elizabeth Eckford – one of the Little Rock Nine – who faced violence and discrimination for attending an integrated school.

The threats of resurgent totalitarianism are largely restricted to references to Trump and PutinView image in fullscreen

Stonebridge views Arendt’s ongoing relationship with her philosophical mentor and former lover Heidegger, even after his involvement with Nazism became public knowledge, with equal importance but also more understanding. She defends Arendt against criticism for her famous account of Adolf Eichmann’s trial and his evil being portrayed as banal. Stonebridge explains that Arendt never claimed Eichmann was unaware of his actions, but instead highlighted the limitations of thought and imagination that allowed him to carry out such atrocities. While Stonebridge does not explicitly state it, the book’s blend of genres was partly inspired by Arendt herself, known for her skill in literary biographies from her early work on Rahel Varnhagen to her study of Eichmann. This talent was in line with Arendt’s core principles of being able to empathize with others, which she saw as a lifelong ethical, intellectual, and political commitment.

Stonebridge’s ability to analyze Arendt’s complexities is a strength, but it also limits the book’s relevance to our current times. While there are powerful allusions to our present issues, they are often vague. The threats of totalitarianism are mainly tied to Trump and Putin, who are seen as excessively terrible figures, making it easy for readers to agree on the danger they pose. However, a more diverse perspective would have enhanced the book’s scope and prevented it from becoming outdated quickly. It is notable that neither Bolsonaro nor Orbán, who are recent and prominent examples, are mentioned. Additionally, as Stonebridge is British and UK-based, I expected a more localized perspective, especially considering the current state of British politics and its potential for an Arendtian interpretation. Reading Arendt’s defense of politics as a space for meaningful thought with others only emphasizes the disappointment in the way the upcoming general election is being contested. It is difficult not to lament the terms on which it is being fought while reading about Arendt’s ideas. How would she have reacted to a government determined to deport refugees and an opposition that only criticizes the cost of the scheme instead of its underlying malice? Although these events may be too recent for the book to directly address, it raises the question of how we can prevent “a fatal collapse into cynicism” when neither major party can even call for an end to hostilities in Gaza.

Joe Moshenska holds the position of English literature professor at Oxford University.

  • Hannah Arendt’s “We Are Free to Change the World” discusses the power of love and disobedience. The book, written by Lyndsey Stonebridge and published by Jonathan Cape, is available for purchase at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Additional charges may apply for delivery.

Source: theguardian.com