Tag Archives: Martin Heidegger

Love Actually

 

Ann Heberlein, On Love and Tyranny:

The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies (Pushkin Press, 2021)

Before she became a celebrated New York public intellectual, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) lived through some of the 20th century’s darkest moments. She fled her native Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933, living in France for several years.  In 1940, she spent time in two intern camps, then departed for the United States, where she resided for the second half of her life.  In 1950, Arendt became an American citizen, ending nearly two decades of statelessness.  The following year, she established her reputation as a serious thinker with The Origins of Totalitarianism, a trenchant analysis of how oppressive one-party systems came to rule both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century.  As a commentator observed in The Washington Post, Arendt’s work diagnosed brilliantly the “forms of alienation and dispossession that diminished human dignity, threatened freedom and fueled the rise of authoritarianism.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism was one of a handful of older works that experienced a sudden uptick in sales in early 2017, after Donald Trump became president of the United States (George Orwell’s 1984 was another).  The authoritarian impulses that Arendt explained and Trump personified seem likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, both in the United States and other corners of the world.  For that reason alone, a fresh look at Arendt is welcome.  That is the contribution of  Ann Heberlein, a Swedish novelist and non-fiction writer, with On Love and Tyranny: The Life and Politics of Hannah Arendt.  

Heberlein’s work, ably translated from the original Swedish by Alice Menzies, constitutes the first major Arendt biography since 1982, when Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s highly-acclaimed but dense Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World first appeared.  On Love and Tyranny, by contrast, is easy to read yet hits all the highlights of Arendt’s life and work.  Disappointingly, there are no footnotes and little in the way of bibliography. Heberlein makes use of the diaries of a key if problematic figure in Arendt’s life, philosopher Martin Heidegger, which only became public in 2014 and cast additional light on Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies.  But it is difficult to ascertain from the book itself what other new or different sources Heberlein utilized that might have been unavailable to Young-Bruehl.

Although Arendt studied philosophy as a university student, she preferred to describe herself as a political theorist.  But despite the reference to politics in her title, Heberlein’s portrait accents Arendt’s philosophic side.  She emphasizes how the turbulent circumstances that shaped Arendt’s life forced her to apply in the real world many of the abstract philosophical and moral concepts she had wrestled with in the classroom.  As the title suggests, these include love and tyranny,  but also good vs. evil, truth, obligation, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

At Marburg University, where she entered in 1924 as an 18-year-old first year student, Arendt not only studied philosophy under Heidegger, already a rising star in German academic circles, but also began a passionate love affair with the man.  Heidegger was then nearly twice her age and married with two young sons (their affair is detailed in Daniel Maier-Katkin’s astute Stranger from Abroad, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness, reviewed here  in 2013).   Arendt left Heidegger behind when she fled Germany in 1933, but after World War II re-established contact with her former teacher, by then disgraced because of his association with the Nazi regime. A major portion of Heberlein’s work scrutinizes Arendt’s subsequent, post-war relationship with Heidegger.

Heberlein also zeroes in on Arendt’s very different post-war relationship to a seemingly very different man, Adolph Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps.  Arendt’s series of articles for The New Yorker on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, in which she portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology.

The phrase “banality of evil,” now commonplace thanks to Arendt, followed her for the rest of her days. How the phrase applies to Eichmann is of course well-ploughed ground, to which Heberlein adds a few insights.  Less obviously, Heberlein lays the groundwork to apply the phrase to Heidegger.  Her analysis of the banality of evil suggests that the differences between Heidegger and Eichmann were less glaring in the totalitarian Nazi environment, where whole populations risked losing their ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

* * *

Arendt was the only child of Paul and Martha Arendt, prosperous, progressive, and secular German Jews.  Paul died when Hannah (born Johanna) was 7, but she remained close to her mother, who immigrated with her to the United States in 1941. Meeting with Heidegger as a first-year student in 1924 was for Arendt “synonymous with her entry into the world of philosophy,” Heberlein writes.  Heidegger was “The Philosopher personified: brilliant, handsome, poetic, and simply dressed” (p.28).  The Philosopher made clear to the first-year student that he was not prepared to leave his wife and family or the respectability of his academic position for her.  She met him whenever he had time and was able to escape his wife.

The unbalanced Arendt-Heidegger relationship “existed solely in the shadows: never acknowledged, never visible”, (p.40) as Heberlein puts it.  Arendt was never able to call Heidegger her partner because she “possessed him for brief intervals only, and the fear of losing him was ever-present” (p.41).   Borrowing a perspective Heberlein attributes to Kierkegaard and Goethe, she describes Arendt’s love for Heidegger as oscillating “between great joy and deep sorrow—though mostly sorrow” (p.31).  For these writers, whom Arendt knew well, love consisted “largely of suffering, of longing, and of distance” (p.31).  The 18-year-old, Heberlein concludes, was “struck down by a passion, possibly even an obsession, that would never fade” (p.31).

Arendt left Marburg after one year, ending up at Heidelberg University.  She later admitted that she needed to get away from Heidegger.  But she continued to see him while she wrote her dissertation at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s conception of love. Her advisor there was the esteemed theologian and philosopher Karl Jaspers, with whom she remained friends up to his death in 1969.

After university, Arendt worked in Berlin, where she met Gunther Stern, a journalist, poet and former Heidegger student who was closely associated with the communist Berthold Brecht.  Arendt married Stern in 1929 at age 23.  Sometime during her period in Berlin, she cut off all contact with Heidegger.  But after the Nazis came to power, Arendt began hearing alarming rumors about several specific anti-Semitic actions attributed to Heidegger at Fribourg University, where he had been appointed rector.  She asked him in a letter to clarify by responding to the rumors, and received back a self-pitying, aggressive response that she found entirely unconvincing.

1933 was also the year Arendt and her mother left Germany and wound up in Paris. There she met Heinrich Blücher, a self-taught, left wing German Jewish political activist. She and Stern had by then been living apart for several years, and she divorced him to marry Blücher in early 1940. The couple remained together until Blücher’s death in 1970. They were sent to separate intern camps just prior to the fall of France in 1940, but escaped together through Spain to Portugal, where they immigrated to the United States in 1941 and settled in New York.

Arendt’s first return trip to Europe came in late 1949 and early 1950.  With Blücher’s approval, she sought out her former teacher, then in Fribourg, meeting with Heidegger and his wife Elfried in February 1950.  Understandably suspicious, Elfried seems to have understood that Arendt was in a position to help rehabilitate her husband, besmirched by his association with the Nazi regime, and accepted that he wanted Arendt to again be part of his life.  Arendt maintained a warm relationship with her former professor until her death in 1975 (Heidegger died less than a year later), writing regularly and meeting on several occasions.

In the post-war years, as Arendt’s star was rising, she became Heidegger’s unpaid agent, working to have his writings translated into English and negotiating contracts on his behalf.  She also became an enthusiastic Heidegger defender, going to great lengths to excuse, smooth over, and downplay his association with Nazism.  She once compared Heidegger to Thales, the ancient Greek philosopher who was so busy gazing at the stars that he failed to notice that he had fallen into a well.

On the occasion of Heidegger’s 80th birthday in 1969, she delivered an over-the-top tribute to her former professor, reducing Heidegger’s dalliances with Nazism to a “10-month error,” which in her view he corrected quickly enough, “more quickly and more radically than many of those who later sat in judgment over him” (p.236).  Arendt argued that Heidegger had taken “considerably greater risks than were usual in German literary and university life during that period” (p.237).  As Heberlein points out, Arendt’s tribute was a counter-factual fantasy: there was no empirical support for this whitewashed version of the man.

Heidegger had openly endorsed Nazi “restructuring” of universities to exclude Jews when he became rector at Fribourg in 1933 and his party membership was well known. His diaries, published in 2014, made clear that he was aware of the Holocaust, believed it was at least partly the Jews’ fault and, even though he ceased to be active in party affairs sometime in the mid-1930s, remained until 1945 a “fully paid-up, devoted supporter of Adolph Hitler” (p.238).  Arendt of course didn’t have access to these diaries when she rose to Heidegger’s defense, but it seems unlikely they would have changed her perspective.

Arendt’s 1969 tribute left little doubt she had found her way to forgive Heidegger for his association and support for a regime that had murdered millions of her fellow Jews, wreaked destruction on much of Europe, and forced her to flee her native country to start her life anew an ocean away. But why? Heberlein writes that forgiveness for Arendt was the conjunction of the conflicting powers of love and evil.  “Without evil, without betrayal, insults and lies, forgiveness would be unnecessary; without love, forgiveness would be impossible” (p.225).  Arendt found the strength to forgive Heidegger in the “utterly irrational emotion” that was love. Her love for Heidegger was “strong, overwhelming, and desperate. The power of the passion Hannah felt for Martin was stronger than the sorrow she felt at his betrayal” (p.226).  But whether it was right or wrong for her to forgive Heidegger, Heberlein demurely concludes, is a question only Arendt could have answered.

Did Arendt also forgive Eichmann for his direct role in transporting a staggering number of Jews to death camps? Is forgiveness wrapped within the notion of the banality of evil? Daniel Maier-Katkin suggests in his study of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship that in her experience with Heidegger, Arendt may have come to the notion of the banality of evil “intuitively and without clear articulation.”  That experience may have prepared her to comprehend that each man had been “transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism.”

Heberlein’s analysis of Eichmann leads to the conclusion that the notion of the banality of evil was sufficiently elastic to embrace Heidegger.  Heberlein sees the influence of Kant’s theory of “radical evil” in Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil.  For Arendt, as for Kant, evil is a form of temptation, in which the desires of individuals overrule their “duty to listen to, and act in accordance with, goodwill” (p.198).   The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility.  Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting” (p.138).  Arendt’s sense of evil recognizes an uncomfortable truth that seems as applicable to   Heidegger as to Eichmann, that most people have a tendency to:

follow the path of least resistance, to ignore their conscience and do what everyone else is doing.  As the exclusion, persecution, and ultimately, annihilation of Jews became normalized, there were few who protested, who stood up for their own principles (p.199).

For Arendt, forgiveness of such persons is possible. But not all evil can be explained in terms of obedience, ignorance, or neglect. There is such a thing as evil that is “as incomprehensible as it is unforgiveable” (p.200).   In Heberlein’sinterpretation of Arendt, the genuinely evil person is the one who is “leading the way, someone initiating the evil, someone creating the context, ideology, or prejudices necessary for the obedient masses to blindly adopt” (p.201).  Whether Eichmann falls outside this standard for genuine evil is debatable. But the standard could comfortably exclude Heidegger, as Arendt had in effect argued in her 1969 tribute to her former teacher.

Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils that the Nazis established in occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation.  The “majority of Jews inevitably found themselves confronted with two enemies – the Nazi authorities and the Jewish authorities,” Arendt wrote.  The “pathetic and sordid” behavior of Jewish governing councils was for Arendt the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust – darker than the mass shootings and gas chambers — because it “showed how the Germans could turn victim against victim.”

The notion that Arendt was blaming the Jews for their persecution “quickly took hold,” Heberlein writes, and she was “forced to put up with questions about why she thought the Jews were responsible for their own deaths, in virtually every interview until she herself died” (p.192).  After Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was shunned by many former colleagues and friends, repeatedly accused of being an anti-Israel, self-hating Jew, “heartless and devoid of empathy . . . cold and indifferent” (p.192).  When her husband died in 1970, Arendt’s isolation increased.  She was again in exile, this time existential, which surely enhanced her emotional attachment to Heidegger, the sole remaining link to the world of her youth.

* * *

Arendt’s ardent post-war defense of Heidegger, while generating little of the brouhaha that surrounded Eichmann in Jerusalem, is also a critical if puzzling piece in understanding her legacy.  Should we consider the continuation of her relationship with Heidegger as the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, an enduring schoolgirl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel?  Heberlein’s earnest biography points us inescapably in this direction.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 12, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog  maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

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Filed under History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Deciphering Buber’s Judaism

 

 

Paul Mendes-Flohr, Martin Buber:

A Life of Faith and Dissent

(Yale University Press)

From the late 1890s through the mid-1960s, Martin Buber seemed to be in the middle of every public debate over what it meant to be Jewish and how one could be a good Jew in the modern world.  Although he resisted being labeled either a “theologian” or a “philosopher of religion,” Buber fashioned his own idiosyncratic version of Judaism, a version that rejected most traditional Jewish ritual.  He rarely observed Yom Kippur, and in general disdained the liturgical practices associated with the Jewish faith.  Buber rather spent his adult life searching for what he termed the “primal spirituality” of Judaism, all the while encouraging Jews to embrace people of other faiths.  Buber’s version of Judaism, sometimes referred to as “Jewish humanism,” sometimes more lightheartedly as “religious anarchism,” seemed to some of his critics geared to appeal more to Christians than to his fellow Jews.

I first encountered Buber in an undergraduate comparative religion course, where we were assigned his best-known work, “I-Thou,” generally thought to be the foundational text for what has come to be known as Buber’s “philosophy of dialogue.”  I remember thinking I was in way over my head in trying to decipher what seemed like a deeply serious but altogether inscrutable work.  Now, several decades later, Paul Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has provided me with another chance to get a handle on Buber.  In his recent biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, Mendes-Flohr charts Buber’s multifaceted intellectual journey, emphasizing how Buber’s thinking and writing evolved over the years.

Buber, a quintessential product of what the Germans call Mitteleuropa and its vibrant late 19th century Jewish culture, was born in Vienna in 1878.  He spent most of his youth in the city then known as Lemberg (today Lviv, part of Ukraine), at the time the capital of Galicia, a province within the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a substantial Polish-speaking population.  But it was in Germany where Buber made his professional mark.

Buber lived through Germany’s defeat in World War I and its post-war experiment in democracy, the Weimar Republic.  He survived the early years of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime after it assumed power in Germany in 1933.   Although required as a Jew to cede a university position, Buber continued to write and speak in Germany as a highly visible spokesman for Judaism until 1938, when he fled with his family for Jerusalem, in what was then termed Palestine.  Jerusalem was his home base for the remainder of his life, but he traveled extensively in the post-World War II era, including numerous trips to the United States, up to his death in 1965.  What was arguably the single most consequential event in Buber’s long life occurred in Vienna at age three.

* * *

Buber’s parents separated and his mother eloped with a Russian military officer when he was three years old.  The young Buber witnessed his mother leaving, but she did not bid him farewell and he did not see her again.  Buber never recovered entirely from this early childhood trauma. Images of motherhood appeared in his writings and speeches throughout his adult life, indicating that he was still feeling the “enduring impact” of yearning to be reunited with his “inaccessibly remote mother” (p.3), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.  After his parents’ breakup, young Martin moved to Lemberg, where he lived with his grandparents until his teenage years.

Solomon Buber, Martin’s grandfather, was a successful businessman who was also a recognized Jewish scholar and interpreter of Jewish texts. Solomon taught his grandson Hebrew and the panoply of rules and customs required in an observant Jewish household.  Buber’s subsequent rejection of much of formalized Judaism probably had its roots in a rebellion against his grandfather’s pedagogy.  At age 14, Buber moved back with his father, who by then had remarried and moved to Lemberg.  While the young Buber as an adolescent and young adult remained largely estranged from his grandfather, the two reconciled prior to Solomon’s death in 1906.

Although the emotional scars left from his mother’s early departure never left him, while a university student in Zurich in 1899 Buber fortuitously found the woman who would always be there for him, fellow student Paula Winkler.  One of the few women in the university, Winkler was from a Catholic family and considerably taller than the diminutive Buber.  Their romantic attachment quickly produced two daughters, born in July 1900 and July 1901.  Buber did not inform his father or grandparents of Paula or his daughters until after the couple married in April 1907 and Paula had converted to Judaism.  By then, grandfather Solomon had died.

Despite its unconventional beginnings, Buber’s marriage to Paula endured until her death in 1958, at age 81.  Throughout their years together, Paula served as her husband’s confidante, editor and general sounding board for much of the thinking that he put to paper or delivered to audiences, while doing much writing on her own.   Buber found in Paula, Mendes-Flohr writes, “not only the mother figure he longed for, but also a soul mate; they were bonded by both romantic love and their enduring intellectual and spiritual compatibility” (p.13-14).

When Buber first met Paula, he was already active in Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine, the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people.  His attraction to Zionism was due in no small part to his relationship with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), often considered the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Buber initially saw Zionism as a way to maintain solidarity with his fellow Jews even as he rejected most communal Jewish religious practices.  The young Buber was fascinated with the idea of a Jewish renaissance and saw in Zionism a means to revitalize the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish people.   Zionism provided Buber and many young Jews of his generation with a “revolutionary, secular alternative for maintaining a Jewish national consciousness and solidarity” (p.22).

But Buber and Herzl had a personal falling out, and by 1905 Buber had ceased to be involved in Zionist activities.   He signed onto a letter that denounced the conventional Zionist vision of a future Jewish state arising in the ancient homeland as “aping Euro-Christian culture” while “utterly bereft of Jewish content” (p.38). For Buber, the movement had come to be based on what he termed the “bonds of blood alone” (p.88). Yet he still saw in Zionism a potential to “reintroduce contemporary Jews to the ‘Jewish spirit’” and to Judaism’s “spiritual and cultural resources” (p.32), becoming what Mendes-Flohr terms a “cultural” rather than  “political” Zionist.

The German experience in World War I further shaped Buber’s approach to Zionism. Like many Jews of his generation, Buber saw no conflict between his allegiance to Judaism and his allegiance to Germany.  That young Jews were joining the war ranks on equal terms with other Germans was initially a positive feature of the war effort for Buber, presenting an opportunity to bring about a higher degree of national unity.  But as the conflict endured, Buber came to oppose not only the war itself, but all forms of chauvinistic nationalism.

These views crystallized when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which it asserted its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  Buber’s opposition to the Declaration placed him at odds even with fellow cultural Zionists. If a Jewish state were to materialize in Palestine, he contended, it should be “for humankind . . . for the realization of Judaism” (p.115-16).  For the remainder of his life, Buber continued to criticize Zionism –and the State of Israel when it came into existence in 1948 — for what he  considered its “self-enclosed, parochial nationalism” (p.199).

Buber’s festering doubts over the Zionist project prompted him in 1919 to begin work on a manuscript that aimed to establish what he termed the “general foundations of a philosophical (communal and religio-philosophical) system to which I intend to devote the next several years” (p.131).  He was alluding to I and Thou (Ich-Du in the original German), the work with which Buber would be identified for the rest of his life and thereafter, first appearing in 1923 but not translated and published in English until 1937.

 I and Thou probed the ramifications of the German word Begegnung, meeting, which for Buber meant, in Mendes-Flohr’a words, an “interpersonal encounter between individuals that occurs in an atmosphere of mutual trust” (p.3).  Buber himself once wrote that “[a]ll real life is meeting” (p.3).  His call to engage the world in dialogue, our life with others, “also recognized the painful truth of how difficult it is to achieve, how often life’s journey is filled with mismeetings and the failure of I-Thou encounters to take place” (p.3-4).

Buber’s notion of “I-Thou” and his “philosophy of dialogue” can be understood only in relationship to “I-It,” the opposite of “I-Thou.”  These are Buber’s “two fundamental and dichotomous modes of relating to the world” (p.141), Mendes-Flohr explains..  The human person “achieves the fullness of being by experiencing both modes of existence” (p.262-63).  I-It entails the “physical, historical, and sociological factors that structure objective reality,” in other words the “labyrinthine world we often call ‘reality’” (p.262-63).  To attain the fullness of life, our relationships with other human beings cannot be based on an object — It — but on Thou, as an “automatous subject with a distinctive inner reality” (p.263), as Mendes-Flohr puts it.

As if to show the I-Thou principle in action, much of Mendes-Flohr’s narrative involves Buber’s exchanges with thinkers, colleagues and friends over the course of his long life, among them such luminaries as early Zionist visionary Herzl, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and David Ben-Gurion, modern Israel’s founding father who served as its first prime minister.  But his most influential exchanges were with two men whom he also considered  friends, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).  Landauer led Buber away from Judaism and into mysticism, while Rosenzweig took Buber out of mysticism and helped him reach what Mendes-Flohr considers his most mature understanding of the Jewish faith.

A leading early 20th century German anarchist, Landauer knew Buber from 1900 onward, although their friendship deepened as World War I broke out.  Landauer, who had by then withdrawn entirely from formal Judaism, helped steer Buber away from the nationalist sentiments he had entertained at the outbreak of the war.  Landauer imparted to Buber his interest in Christian mysticism and Buddhism, aiding Buber’s search for the “essential spiritual unity of all beings” (p.53).  Landauer was active in Kurt Eisner’s revolutionary coup d’etat in Bavaria in 1919 and was murdered by counter-revolutionaries in that conflict.   Buber was “deeply shaken by the tragic death of his friend; he viewed Landauer as a martyred idealist, a gentle anarchist who had sacrificed his life in a doomed effort to herald an era of politics without violence” (p.127).  Landauer was, in Mendes-Fllohr’s view, Buber’s ”intellectual and political alter ego” (p.51; he was also the paternal grandfather of American film-director Mike Nichols, born several years after his death).

Rosenzweig, eight years Buber’s junior, was already making his mark as an iconoclastic German philosopher when he first met Buber in Berlin in 1914.  Their friendship blossomed after 1920, not coincidentally after Landauer’s death (Rosenzweig had by then famously backed out at the last minute of a conversion to Christianity, discussed in Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, reviewed here in 2017).  Mendes-Flohr credits Rosenzweig with helping Buber get past his infatuation with mysticism.  The pair undertook to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, a project that was both lingual and theological.  Their task was complicated when Rosenzweig contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known to Americans as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), which killed him in 1929.  Buber’s friendship with Rosenzweig led to what Mendes-Flohr considers the maturation of Buber’s understanding of Judaism, in which genuine spiritual renewal lies neither in “culture” nor “religion” but rather in the “lived everyday” (p.164).  The sensibility we sometimes call “faith,” Buber wrote, “cannot be constituted by the inwardness of one’s soul: it must manifest itself in the entire fullness of personal and communal life, in which the individual participates.” (p.209).

Buber also met several times after World War II with Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  Although one of Germany’s most original and complex 20th century philosophers, Heidegger’s professional reputation was permanently tainted by his affinity for Hitler’s Third Reich in the 1930s.  Buber was aware that Heidegger had supported the Nazi regime and studiously avoided the “difficult questions attendant to Heidegger’s Nazi past” (p.281).  Heidegger for his part eagerly engaged with Buber, motivated by his desire to receive at least an implicit exculpation for his Nazi past.  Buber’s meetings with Heidegger tested his vision of reconciliation, “undoubtedly shaped by a Jewish theological sensibility that there can be no divine pardon for offenses against others until one has turned to one’s fellow human beings whom one has offended, and not only asked their forgiveness, but also adequately repented for the wrongs done to them” (p.286).

The Heidegger meetings failed to rise to the level of what Buber considered genuine dialogue, making reconciliation unattainable.  Buber and Heidegger entertained “divergent horizons of expectations” that reflected “very different conceptions of grace and atonement,” (p.285).  In a subsequent lecture, delivered in 1960, Buber argued that through his uncritical embrace of Nazism, Heidegger had neglected the interpersonal responsibility of one individual to the other, “even to a stranger who bears no name, allowing for the excessive celebration of ‘superpersonal’ social and political institutions in our ‘disintegrating human world’” (p.290; Heidegger’s post-World War II attempts at reconciliation with his former girl friend Hannah Arendt are analyzed in a work by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed here in 2013),.

In 1938, when he was 60 years old, Buber and his family immigrated to Palestine, where he began a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Although Jerusalem was  Buber’s home until his death in 1965, he was never fully at ease there.  His appointment at the Hebrew University was in “Philosophy of Society,” in which he was to draw upon the “principles and methods” of sociology.   With no formal training in sociology, Buber used his university position to stress sociology’s ethical dimensions, very much at odds with its general character as a value-free discipline.

When the State of Israel was created ten years later, in May 1948, a civil war broke out between Arab and Jews, leaving Buber aghast.  With his World War I era objections to the Balfour Declaration and political Zionism resurfacing, Buber wrote that when he had first joined the Zionist movement 50 years previously:

[M]y heart was whole. Today it is torn. The war being waged for a political structure might become a war of national survival at any moment. Thus against my will I participate in it with my own being, and my heart trembles like any other Israeli.  I cannot, however, even be joyful in anticipating victory, for I fear that the significance of Jewish victory will be the downfall of Zionism (p.250).

Buber words were directed at least in part to Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), with whom he had developed an odd friendship.  The pair disagreed upon almost every issue that Israel faced in its early days, starting with the fate of displaced Arabs, yet they were bound to one another by a deep reservoir mutual respect.  Buber lobbied Ben-Gurion in 1961 to spare the life of Adolph Eichmann after his capture in Argentina and trial in Jerusalem, to no avail (Deborah Lipstadt’s account of the Eichmann trial was the subject of a review here in 2013).

Buber subjected himself to searing criticism in Israel in 1951 when he accepted, in abstentia, the Goethe Prize from the University of Hamburg for his “promotion of supranational thinking and humanitarian endeavors in the spirit of Goethe” (p.270).  Many in Israel considered Buber’s acceptance of the prize as exonerating Germany for its extermination of six million Jews, contending that he should have ostentatiously refused the prize.  Buber responded that by rejecting the prize, he would “undercut the commendable efforts of those Germans ‘fighting for humanism’ and thereby play into the hands of their enemies, even to those guilty of mass murder” (p.271-72).  As a Jew and an Israeli citizen, Buber considered it his duty to “acknowledge (and thus encourage) the German advocates of a rededication to the humanistic tradition associated with Goethe” (p.272).

Then, in 1953, Buber came under further fire when he accepted a prize and gave a lecture in what had once been St. Paul’s church in Frankfurt, destroyed in the war and the city’s first public building to be rebuilt afterwards.   The building had not been used for religious purposes since 1848, a fact that was “ignored by or unknown to some of Buber’s Israeli critics, who excoriated him for speaking in a church” (p.276).  In his lecture, which was attended by the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Theodor Huess, Buber acknowledged the vast pain and immeasurable suffering which the Nazi regime had inflicted upon his people.  Yet, he recognized that not all Germans had acquiesced in the Nazi horrors.  Some had resisted, others had assisted and protected endangered Jews. “Reverence and love for these Germans now fills my heart” (p.278), Buber told the audience.

Buber’s wife Paula, who never felt accepted in Jerusalem as a Jew despite her conversion, died unexpectedly in 1958 in Venice, where the couple had stopped en route back to Jerusalem after a tour in the United States that had included a stint for Buber at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  Paula was buried in the 13th century Jewish cemetery on the Lido.   Buber had a  difficult time resuming his work in the aftermath of his wife’s death.  In his twilight years, he “increasingly cherished friendships and visits, particularly by youth from abroad and Israel” (p.304).  On the occasion of his 85th birthday in 1963, Buber indicated to well wishers that he wanted to be remembered as a “naturally studying person,” someone  for whom “learning and study are an expression of human freedom” (p.320).  Two years later, at age 87, Buber died in his sleep in his Jerusalem home.

* * *

Throughout his long career, Martin Buber’s idiosyncratic version of Judaism sought to sharpen the spiritual sensibilities of his fellow Jews while urging their expanded commitment to the larger family of humankind.  But with his  complex and often portentous thinking, Buber’s writings and lectures were never easy to grasp.  Paul Mendes-Flohr is therefore to be lauded for ably distilling Buber’s thought in this penetrating biography, a work that should appeal even to readers not schooled in Jewish history and culture.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 20, 2020

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, Intellectual History, Religion

Living Philosophy

 

 

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café:

Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails 

            Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails takes a deep but refreshingly casual look at the philosophical way of thinking termed existentialism, giving the term an historical treatment grounded in the actual lives of existentilist philosophers.  Part philosophy, part history, part biography, her  work is also part autobiographical.  Bakewell, a British writer and teacher who is the author of a highlyacclaimed book on Montaigne, endearingly details her own journey in learning about existentialism and explains how major existential writings influenced her personally.  Philosophy, she contends,  “becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a life.” Likewise, “personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically” (p.32).  Quite so.

More than just about any other form of philosophy, existentialism cannot really be understood without digging into the day-to-day lives of existential philosophers themselves. The existentialist, Bakewell emphasizes, seeks to capture the “quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other –isms and disciplines that explain our lives away” (p.325). Bakewell acknowledges that existentialism is difficult to define more precisely, with no consensus definition. For some, it is “more of a mood than a philosophy” (p.1). Her definition is itself a page long, and she invites her readers to skip over it.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and elusive term, existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation might best be thought of as a way of thinking about existence for human beings. It focuses upon how humans  live the moments large and small in the time allotted to them, i.e., how they exist. Humans are unique beings in that they are free to choose how they live and are responsible for their choices, but only within what Bakewell describes as a “situation,” which includes a person’s own biology and psychology as well as the “physical, historical and social variables” of each human being’s situation.  The existentialist therefore sees human existence,  Bakewell emphasizes, as  “ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating” (p.34).

Bakewell’s hardcopy cover features sketches of four individuals: Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the center, flanked by Albert Camus on their left and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to their right. Sartre and Beauvoir are not only at the center of the cover: they are also the center of Bakewell’s story, occupying the main table at her Existentialist Café, a “big, busy café of the mind” (p.33). Existentialism is above all the story of Sartre and Beauvoir, philosophy’s ultimate power couple, defined by their writings and their lives. Because Sartre and Beauvoir famously lived those lives in Paris, the story’s main setting is France and the Parisian intellectual milieu from the late 1920s until Sartre’s death in 1980 and Beauvoir’s six years later (almost to the day), in 1986.

The Existentialist Café is thus a Parisian café, probably located somewhere on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, much like the actual cafés where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote, drank, met friends and acquaintances, and thrashed out their existential ideas over the course of a half-century. Sartre and Beauvoir became a couple in 1929, when they were 23 and 21 respectively. From the beginning, their relationship was explicitly open-ended, allowing both partners to pursue amorous digressions. But their relationship was also what Bakewell terms a “philosophical demonstration of existentialism in practice, defined by the two principles of freedom and companionship” (p120). Although the bourgeois ideal of marriage held no appeal for either, their “shared memories, observations and jokes bound them together just as in any long marriage” (p.120).

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, not quite existentialists in the sense that Bakewell uses the term, were Sartre and Beauvoir’s contemporaries who drank frequently with them and thought, wrote and argued – often vehemently — about many of the ideas that animated Sartre and Beauvoir.  Merleau-Ponty, far less well known than Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, merits a full chapter in Bakewell’s work, part of her effort to introduce him to English language readers. Camus and Merleau-Ponty both had fallings out with Sartre and Beauvoir, partially over Cold War political differences and partially because Sartre’s outsized personality led naturally to fallings out with just about everyone he befriended, save Beauvoir. Camus and Merleau-Ponty’s fluctuating relationships with Sartre and Beauvoir constitute one of the book’s two main threads.

The other is the influence exerted upon the couple  by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Germans of an older generation associated with an approach to philosophy termed phenomenology, existentialism’s direct antecedent. Heidegger, infamous for embracing Nazism in the 1930s and remaining steadfastly unrepentant thereafter, is a brooding, almost villainous presence throughout Bakewell’s study — a scary guy when he drops in at the Existentialist Café, unlikely to be telling many jokes. Some of the 20th century’s foremost thinkers, writers and intellectuals also make short appearances at Bakewell’s café, including Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

* * *

            Existentialism may be a difficult term to define, but its origins are easy to pinpoint in Bakewell’s account: a conversation during the 1932-33 Christmas holiday season, involving Sartre, Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, Sartre’s classmate at France’s renowned Ecole Normale Superièure.  The conversation  took place at Paris’ Bac-de-Gaz café on Boulevard Montparnasse, about a mile from the Boulevard St. Germain cafés Beauvoir and Sartre later made famous.  Sartre, 27, and Beauvoir, 25, were then teaching high school in separate locations in Normandy and were back home in Paris enjoying the holiday break. Aron had just returned from studying philosophy in Berlin, a city then on edge, with Adolph Hitler’s unruly National Socialist party enjoying a surge in representation in Weimar Germany’s Parliament. The three 20 somethings exchanged banter and the latest gossip as they drank apricot cocktails, the Bac-de-Gaz’s specialty.

Aron recounted to his friends his discovery in Berlin of phenomenology, then considered a new approach to philosophy.  He explained how eminent philosophers  Husserl and  Heidegger were turning away from the often-contorted abstractions of traditional philosophy to concentrate on things as they are – being was the key word. Husserl and Heidegger were asking questions such as: what is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say you are? Looking at the apricot cocktails on the table, Aron told his friends, “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p.3). Although Sartre and Beauvoir were familiar with the works of Husserl and Heidegger, in Bakewell’s account this moment at the Montparnasse café was an epiphany for both, the moment when the approach to the philosophy hat we now call existentialism came into being.  Together, over the course of nearly a half-century, Sartre and Beauvoir went  on to transform some of the basic ideas of phenomenology into their own distinct way of thinking.

Sartre subsequently studied  in Germany under Husserl. But the roots of existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation may be found even further back than Heidegger and Husserl, in the work of 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. The “heralds of modern existentialism,” Nietzsche and Kierkegaard “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself – the life of an individual” (p.20).

20th century phenomenology built upon and systematized Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s iconoclastic way of thinking. It sought, as Bakewell puts it, to give a “formal mode of access to human experience,” allowing philosophers to “talk about life more or less as non-philosophers do, while still being able to tell themselves they are being methodological and rigorous” (p.43). This mode of access to human experience flourished amidst the turmoil of post-World War I Germany under Hussserl,  considered to be the “father” of phenomenology, and Heidegger, Husserl’s student and subsequently his colleague at the University of Freiburg.  For Husserl, phenomenology meant “stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return to what he called the ‘things themselves’” (p.40). As Hitler’s virulent form of xenophobic nationalism took hold in Germany, Husserl, born into a Jewish family, sought to retain the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry (p.132). He died in 1938 at age 79.

Heidegger took phenomenology in a different direction in the 1930s. His appeal to students was that he sought nothing less than to “overturn human thinking, destroy the history of metaphysics, and start philosophy all over again” (p.62). His writings revealed a yearning to go back “into the deep forest, into childhood innocence and into the dark waters from which the first swirling chords of thought had stirred. Back . . . to a time when societies were simple, profound and poetic” (p.131). Heidegger urged his students to exercise   “vigilance,” to transcend the human tendency to become stuck in habits, received ideas, and a narrow-minded attachment to possessions.

But vigilance for Heidegger in Hitler’s Germany “did not mean calling attention to Nazi violence, to the intrusion of state surveillance, or to the physical threats to his fellow humans. It meant being decisive and resolute in carrying through the demands history was making upon Germany, with its distinctive Being and destiny. It meant getting in step with the chosen hero” (p.87). Heidegger “set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behavior” (p.320), Bakewell contends. She notes an instance where Heidegger went out of his way late in life to welcome the Jewish poet and concentration camp survivor Paul Celan to Freiburg. Bakewell terms this the “single documented example” she found in her research of Heidegger “actually doing something nice” (p.304-05).

Sartre was hardly more likeable — “monstrous . . . self-indulgent, demanding [and] bad tempered” (p.321-22). But behind these less commendable qualities, Bakewell finds an endearing man with powerful ideas bursting out “on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness” (p.322). Unlike Heidegger, Sartre “moved ever forwards, always working out new (often bizarre) responses to things, or finding ways of reconciling old ideas with fresh input. . .  He was always thinking ‘against himself,’” and he “followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at each moment” (p.322). Freedom became the great subject of Sartre’s philosophy during the Nazi occupation, central to almost everything he wrote from that point onward.

The connection between description and freedom  fascinated Sartre. “A writer is a person who describes, and thus a person who is free – for a person who can exactly describe what he or she experiences can also exert some control over those events. Sartre explored this link between writing and freedom again and again in his work” (p.104).   Bakewell is impressed by Sartre’s radical atheism, so different from that professed by Heidegger, who “abandoned his faith only in order to pursue a more intense form of mysticism.  Sartre was a profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones. He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensations will ever make up for anything on this earth.” For Sartre, Bakewell writes with emphasis, “this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can” (p.323).

Beauvoir in Bakewell’s view was a better fiction writer than Sartre, exploring in her writings how the forces of constraint and freedom play themselves out in everyday lives. One of the 20th century’s “greatest intellectual chroniclers” (p.326), with a “genius for being amazed by the world” (p.109), Beauvoir is best known today for her landmark 1949 feminist tract, The Second Sex, a work “revolutionary in every sense”(p.208) which addressed the “complex territory where free choice, biology and social and cultural factors meet and mingle” (p.226).

How to be a woman was for Beauvoir the “existentialist problem par excellence” (p.215).  Bakewell terms The Second Sex a “confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism,’” in which Beauvoir “used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity – which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy – and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age” (p.208). The Second Sex in Bakewell’s view is the “single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement” (p.210).

Left-wing politics were a huge part of the existentialist agenda for both Sartre and Beauvoir, with Sartre the more overtly political.  Sartre was never a Communist party member, and his relationship to communism is not the mirror image of Heidegger and Nazism. But Sartre adopted some outlandish left-wing ideas.  He embraced anti-colonialist Franz Fanon’s rejection of Gandhi’s notion of non-violent change, considering violence essential to political progress.  His embrace,  Bakewell writes, was so enthusiastic that he “outdid the original, shifting the emphasis so as to prize violence for its own sake. Sartre seemed to see the violence of the oppressed as a Nietzchean act of self-creation. Like Fanon, he also contrasted it with the hidden brutality of colonialism” (p.274).

Sartre was the direct target of Raymond Aron’s classic 1955 work, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which his Ecole Normale classmate accused Sartre of being “merciless towards the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worse crimes as long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines” (p. 266).   Sartre was troubled by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary but it was not until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the “Prague Spring” that he definitively rejected the Soviet model, “only to praise people like Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot instead” (p.293).

Cold War differences also upended Sartre and Beauvoir’s friendship with their contemporaries and formerly close companions Merleau-Ponty and Camus. Bakewell describes Merleau Ponty as the “happy philosopher of things as they are” (p.326), the sole thinker at Bakewell’s Existentialist Café who seemed to have had a happy childhood. Beauvoir once considered Merleau-Ponty, born months before her in 1908, potential boyfriend material before concluding that his sunny bourgeois outlook was a poor fit with her more combative disposition. On the cover, Merleau-Ponty is the only one of the three men dressed in a suit and tie, and he seems in this account a little out of place at the Existentialist café — the fellow who joins the gang for a few drinks after a day’s work, then catches the train back to a suburban home to spend the rest of the evening with the wife and kids.

But if the non-Bohemian Merleau-Ponty was out of place at the Existentialist Café, Bakewell considers him the “intellectual hero” of her story for providing the fullest description of “how we live from moment to moment, and thus of what we are” (p.325). Merleau-Ponty brought the insights of psychology and cognitive science to the study of philosophy, and in particular elevated child psychology as an essential component of philosophy, an “extraordinary insight.” Apart from Rousseau, Bakewell notes,  few philosophers before Merleau-Ponty had taken childhood seriously.  Most “wrote as though all human experience were that of a fully conscious, rational, verbal adult who has been dropped into this world from the sky – perhaps by a stork” (p.231).  Very favorable to Communism in the 1940s, Merleau-Ponty became disaffected with its ideological rigidity in the 1950s, at  the time of the Korean War. He laid out his case against Communism in a 1955 book, Adventures of the Dialectic, which included a chapter entitled “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism” that criticized Sartre’s political writings for their inconsistencies and lack of practicality. The work prompted a rift between the two men that healed only upon Merleau-Ponty’s death in 1961 from a heart attack at age 53, when Sartre wrote a glowing obituary about his one-time friend.

Camus is the “new kid on the block” at Bakewell’s Existential Café, a brash outsider from Algeria unwilling to be intimidated by Sartre (although quite willing to be charmed by Beauvoir). Camus’ vision was embodied in his 1942 piece, The Myth of Sisyphus where he argued, as Bakewell puts it, that we must “decide whether to give up or keep going. If we keep going, it must be on the basis of accepting that there is no ultimate meaning to what we do” (p.150). Sartre and Beauvoir rejected Camus’ vision. For them, Bakewell emphasizes, “life is not absurd . . . Life for them is full of real meaning, although that meaning emerges differently for each of us” (p.151).  Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that Sartre viewed as an attack upon Soviet Communism and its fellow travelers, notably himself. Dismissing The Rebel as an apology for capitalism, Sartre never forgave Camus for “playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment” (p.257). But when Camus died tragically in an automobile accident in 1960 at age 43, Sartre wrote a glowing obituary, as he did the following year for Merleau-Ponty.

* * *

            Throughout much of history, Bakewell notes, philosophy has been primarily the purview of scholars who “prided themselves on their discipline’s exquisite uselessness” (p.17). Bakewell demonstrates how Sartre, Beauvoir and the other thinkers at her Existentialist Café broke that mold, shaping what she terms “philosophy as a way of life” (p.17).  She further demonstrates how a skillful writer can bring philosophy as a way of life to life through a narrative exquisitely engaging for general readers and specialists alike.

     Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 20, 2017

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under Biography, France, French History, Intellectual History

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

MK

Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad,

Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness

            Daniel Maier-Katkin’s “Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness” explores the life-time relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.  When Arendt was a precocious 18 year old, in her first year at Marburg University in 1924 Weimar Germany, philosopher Martin Heidegger was one of her teachers.  Married with a son and twice Arendt’s age at 36, Professor Heidegger took a shine to the young student and – violà — a campus romance ensued.  Although few self respecting parents would be comfortable with their daughter in such a relationship, campus liaisons between starry eyed undergraduates and older teachers are probably more commonplace than parents of college-aged daughters would care to admit — I’m willing to bet that there might even be a present-day example at one of our institutions of higher learning here in the United States.  But the Heidegger-Arendt relationship has historical interest for two reasons: both Heidegger and Arendt would go on to become formidable 20th century intellectuals  — Heidegger was already a rising star in 1924 in the world of academic philosophy; and Heidegger would enthusiastically embrace the Nazi party when it came to power in 1933, while the Jewish Arendt was forced to flee the Nazis and Germany later that year, and would never again live in the country of her birth. 

            Arendt’s flight took her first to France, then to New York in 1941, where her professional career flourished.  Her first major work was “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, an analysis of Communism and Nazism that found parallels in the way the two systems exerted control over their populations.  But Arendt is probably best known for her writings on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker magazine, a series of articles that evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt found the mass killer Eichmann to be distinguished only by his ordinariness and stunning mediocrity, far more a proficient bureaucrat than a cold-blooded killer.  Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” has itself become commonplace in our language.  Maier-Katkin suggests that Arendt’s conclusions about the ordinariness of Eichmann may have been consistent with inchoate views she had already formed of Heidegger, and help explain a subsequent reconciliation with her former teacher, notwithstanding his embrace of Nazism.   

            Arendt’s university affair with Heidegegger began shortly after her arrival at Marburg University.  For Arendt, the air around her brilliant professor “seemed to crackle with ideas and questions” (p.29). Arendt “seems to have loved him from the very first day, and he seems to have been drawn to her immediately” (p.29).  Although Heidegger made clear at the outset of their affair that he would never leave his wife, his family, or the respectability of his university position, Arendt was “confident that the love between them deserved to be preserved and nurtured independently of any social convention or competing obligation” (p.36).  Heidegger’s personal life was already awash in prevarication and deceit, but these characteristics did little to lessen Arendt’s admiration and love for the man.  “Even after Hannah began to understand that he [Heidegger] was a liar who said whatever was necessary to manage a moment, she always believed that Martin loved her more than he loved anyone else” (p.44-45).   

            Through Heidegger, Arendt “began a lifetime of thinking, including a persistent line of thought about thinking, about what we are doing when we are thinking” (p.28).  For Heidegger “meditative thinking,” the term he used to describe thinking about thinking, had the “potential to lead us toward an understanding of the significance or meaning of existence” and “nothing was more powerful than questions about the meaning of existence . . . why should anything exists, why should there not be just nothing” (p.29).  Meditative thinking is surely a fine exercise for philosophers seeking to understand the meaning of existence.  But if one were to judge by Heidegger, such thinking does not necessarily lead to sound political choices. 

            Although Heidegger’s political views prior to the Nazi era are difficult to pin down, he was “no democrat,” plainly anti-Communist, and was drawn to German “’ways of being,’ often thought to contain a degree of authoritarianism” (p.76).  When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger collaborated with party officials in order to be named Rector at Freiberg University, where the incumbent refused to fire Jewish faculty members.  Once Heidegger obtained the post at Freiburg, he signed off on the dismissal of all Jewish faculty members, including his former mentor and world famous philosophy professor Edmund Husserl. If not an anti-Semite,” Maier-Katkin contends, Heidegger was “certainly an opportunist” (p.94).   “Grandiosity, arrogance, pride, provincialism, and ambition” all contributed to Heidegger’s readiness to embrace the Nazi cause (p.80).  But Heidegger’s embrace went beyond “foolish grandiosity.”  His intellectual stature “helped to legitimize the Nazi seizure of power at a time when ordinary Germans were still wondering whether the Nazis had the sophistication and intelligence to govern Germany.  It was no small thing that Martin Heidegger had confidence in them” (p.100).    

            By 1936, Heidegger had fallen out of favor with the Nazis, in part because he was deemed insufficiently dedicated to the cause.  He nonetheless continued to pay party dues for several years thereafter.  After the war, Heidegger minimized his involvement with the Nazi regime and academically was entirely rehabilitated, “without apologia or mea culpa” (p.244).  In seeking reinstatement at Freiburg University,  Heidegger argued that he had joined the Nazi party because it “facilitated his efforts to protect the university” and because he “hoped that the participation of intellectuals would deepen and transform National Socialism” (p.171).  He had dismissed Jews from the university “reluctantly and passively only to keep the university from being closed” (p.171).  He too had been a victim of Nazism, “spied upon, marginalized in academic and intellectual circles, his work denied the national and international visibility it deserved” (p.172).  In 1950, the Freiburg University Senate reinstated Heidegger’s right to teach. 

            Arendt followed Heidegger’s career while she was forging her own outside Germany, a “stranger from abroad.” After an unsuccessful marriage in 1929, Arendt married Heinrich Blücher in 1940, and the couple remained married until Blücher died in 1970.  Arendt and Heidegger corresponded after Arendt fled the Nazis and Germany in late 1933.  Maier-Kotkin documents several instances after the war when they met.  The first, in 1952, was a “joyous moment of reconciliation, an instant recognition of continuity of interest, affection, and attraction in a shattered world” (p.183).  Heidegger and Arendt met on several occasions in the 1960s and, for the last time, in August 1975, a few months prior to Arendt’s death and less than a year before that of Heidegger.   

             Arendt appears to have forgiven Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism.  In a speech she delivered in 1968, in honor of Heidegger’s 80th birthday, Arendt came closely to saying so publicly.  Here, she termed Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation an “escapade” which she ascribed to a need to avoid the “reality of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture cells of the concentration camps” (p.304-05).   Seeking to understand why Arendt seemed so untroubled by Heidegger’s “escapde” with the Nazis, Maier-Katkin suggests that the views Arendt expressed in her Eichmann writings may afford a clue.  

             Arendt’s experience with Heidegger may have “prepared her to comprehend, when she saw Adolf Eichmann, that a ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ man – or even a man of extraordinary intelligence like Martin Heidegger – might be transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism” (p.286).  While the notion of the “banality of evil” seemed to be a shocking epiphany which came to Arendt while covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Maier-Katkin surmises that Arendt may have developed the notion “intuitively and without clear articulation in [her] relation to Heidegger” – he too was “at the epicenter of evil” but was motivated “less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities” (p.286).  Arendt’s observation that Eichmann was human and not a devil, Maier-Katkin argues, could be seen as a

 logical corollary of her earlier understanding of totalitarian systems: that they secure the complicity of whole populations – the Eichmanns and the Heideggers – through the use of terror, propaganda, and largesse to undermine any moral compass and to manipulate culture, language, and all the affiliative herd impulses so that average, normal citizens and even truly exceptional people become confused about right and wrong (p.286-87).

           After her husband’s death in 1970 and that of another key mentor, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger became Arendt’s “only remaining link to the world she had known in her youth” (p.314).  In her solitude, Arendt became “increasingly absorbed in her effort to comprehend the relationship between thinking and moral judgment; and she was never far from her gratitude to Martin Heidegger, the ‘hidden king of thinking’ with whom she had first been introduced to the life of the mind” (p.314-15). 

            For Maier-Katkin, the central question in assessing Arendt’s reconciliation with Heidegger ought to be “whether Heidegger was so deeply associated with the Nazis as to be among the Germans with whom reconciliation was inappropriate, or whether Arendt was correct to judge him as a flawed human being with redeeming virtues” (p.346).  Unfortunately, I found this important question for the most part unanswered in this otherwise well-written and easy-to-read work, part of my disappointment that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into Arendt’s psyche to explain adequately her continued affinity for the “hidden king of thinking.” 

            Maier-Katkin’s supposition that Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil could be applied to Heidegger in the manner she had applied it to Eichmann is intriguing but not demonstrated here, notwithstanding an extensive written record left by a woman who wrote prolifically and candidly.  Absent the probing analysis into Arendt’s psyche, I couldn’t put aside the naïve suspicion when I finished the book that her reconciliation with Heidegger might represent the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, the continuation of a school-girl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel.   

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 8, 2013

 

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized