We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience by Lyndsey Stonebridge - review by Stuart Jeffries

Stuart Jeffries

Anatomist of Evil

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


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When Hannah Arendt looked at the man wearing an ill-fitting suit in the bulletproof dock inside a Jerusalem courtroom in 1961, she saw something different from everybody else. The prosecution, writes Lyndsey Stonebridge, ‘saw an ancient crime in modern garb, and portrayed Eichmann as the latest monster in the long history of anti-Semitism who had simply used novel methods to take hatred for Jews to a new level’. Arendt thought otherwise.

Adolf Eichmann was on trial after being captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and brought to Israel to face charges of being a leading organiser of the Holocaust. Arendt was there to report on the trial for the New Yorker. The commission would lead to Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Arendt was the ideal woman for the job: she was not just a Jewish refugee who had fled Hitler in 1933, and a philosopher who had studied with and loved the one-time Nazi Martin Heidegger, but also someone who had reinvented herself in America as a journalist and political theorist, and the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, about the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. She was, if anything, overqualified.

But what did Arendt see in Eichmann? Stonebridge tells us that Arendt put on dark glasses in court to shield her eyes, not from the former SS-Obersturmbannführer’s diabolical aura but rather from the TV lights: this was a media event without precedent, beamed live across the world. Eichmann was a mass murderer deludedly vain enough to boast to a court teeming with Holocaust survivors that he had insisted on limiting the number of persons per cattle truck because the conditions were so inhumane. Arendt, relates Stonebridge, was dumbfounded at Eichmann’s ‘lack of moral, social, historical, of human awareness’. 

Arendt wrote: ‘The longer one listened to him, the more it became obvious that his inability to speak was closely connected to his inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’ When Arendt wrote of the banality of evil, the phrase that of all the millions of words she wrote has survived her death in 1975, it was this deficiency she was indicting. ‘Eichmann was not stupid, but rather intelligent,’ she told the historian Joachim Fest. ‘But it was his thickheadedness that was so outrageous, as if speaking to a brick wall. And that was what I actually meant by banality … There’s simply resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing.’

Stonebridge, professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham, has written a sometimes infuriating yet often scintillating and always bracing book. It is in part a biography and in part a meditation on what, if anything, the long-dead philosopher has to say to us today. Stonebridge takes inspiration from the fact that when Donald Trump became president in 2016, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism got a sales bump. Clearly some thought Arendt’s dissection of Nazism could help us understand 21st-century populism’s leading monster. 

Moreover, this is a book in which Stonebridge conducts a bold literary experiment. When she writes about what Arendt saw in Eichmann, she does something extraordinary – and in keeping with her heroine’s political philosophy. She puts herself in Arendt’s place and imagines how she, Stonebridge, might have regarded that putatively banal devil. Stonebridge claims justification for her method by citing how Arendt was committed to what Immanuel Kant called ‘an enlarged mentality’. Arendt told her students at New York’s New School in 1968 what that meant: ‘You think your own thoughts but in the place of somebody else.’ An enlarged mentality, though, is not the same as empathy, which involves sharing the feelings of another. Arendt didn’t do empathy. Indeed for her, just as for Kant, feelings could get in the way of proper moral judgement. Arendt was raised in the German city of Königsberg (now called Kaliningrad and part of Russia), where Kant had lived and taught. She read his Critique of Pure Reason at sixteen and emerges from Stonebridge’s pages as more marked by Kantian thought on how we should act than by anything she learned in Heidegger’s lectures or bed. 

For me, at least, Stonebridge’s approach produced confusion. Sometimes I couldn’t be certain that I wasn’t reading a novelettish passage of poetic licence rather than about what actually happened. For instance, Stonebridge writes: ‘On 4 October 1957 … Hannah Arendt looked up at the night sky from her window on the Upper West Side and wondered whether she would catch a glimpse of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth.’ Did she? Or is this Stonebridge’s enlarged mentality journeying where other biographers would not dare to go? She describes Kant walking through Königsberg, thinking ‘crossly’ about why it was Vernunft (‘reason’) rather than Verstand (‘understanding’) that conferred freedom on humans. I’m sure Kant was thinking, but did he think crossly? 

This notion of an enlarged mentality is key to how Arendt approached real-life political problems, often with disastrous consequences. Consider Arendt’s take on what happened in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the morning of 3 September 1957. Elizabeth Eckford was surrounded by a mob of white youths screaming that they wanted to lynch her as she walked to school. The fifteen-year-old African-American was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of students fighting for their constitutional rights following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling effectively outlawing racial segregation in schools. Arendt’s perspective on this incident was, to put it mildly, obtuse. ‘Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change the world?’ she asked. ‘And do we intend our political battles to be fought out in the school yards?’ Had Arendt asked the nine, their parents or any of the African-Americans who fought for civil rights, they might have told her the answer to both questions was ‘yes’. Arendt thought otherwise: ‘My first question was, what would you do if you were a Negro mother? … The answer: under no conditions would I expose my child to conditions which made it appear as though it wanted to push its way into a group where it was not wanted.’ 

Her short-sightedness on this undermines Stonebridge’s insistence that Arendt is valuable to us now because she helps us think like a refugee, that her outsider’s queering perspective might yield ethical and political insights. To her credit, Arendt later admitted that she should have known better, writing to the great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison a decade on, ‘It is precisely the “ideal of sacrifice” which I didn’t understand and … this failure to understand caused me indeed to go in an entirely wrong direction.’

But the point for me in this passage is not that it shows how a white German-Jewish refugee couldn’t grasp a black American girl’s struggle (Arendt could have done if she’d tried harder and thought better), but rather how her notion of ‘enlarged mentality’ has its shortcomings. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes but don’t take the extra step of sharing their feelings or comprehending their struggle, then politically your stance risks being not just jejune but counterproductive. 

Are we free to change the world, as the book’s title suggests? To answer the question, we need to go back to that Jerusalem courtroom. At one point during the trial, Eichmann invoked duty, as if to say that mass-murdering Jews was okay because his bosses told him to do it. If Eichmann had read Kant, as he claimed he had, he clearly hadn’t understood him. ‘Kant’s whole ethics amounts to the idea that every person, in every action, must reflect on whether the maxim of his action can become a universal law,’ Arendt wrote in On Humanity in Dark Times. ‘In other words … it really is the complete opposite, so to speak, of obedience … In Kant, nobody has the right to obey.’

Across the decades, that sentence resounds: ‘nobody has the right to obey’. Not Eichmann, not anyone blaming others for their own failings. We are free only to the extent that we are capable of disobeying. Kant discovered, Stonebridge tells us, that it is only because we can think (which seems to boil down to reasoning about what we ought to do) that human freedom and dignity are possible.

Arendt did a lot thinking, some of it solitary, some of it with others, and a great deal of it in writings that, like the Little Rock essay, needed another draft. Her thinking is sometimes exasperatingly mutable. The critic Martin Jay called Arendt’s political theory a ‘force field’ rather than a set of doctrines. But that makes sense if you see philosophy in the way that two of the most important men in her life did. Her friend Karl Jaspers thought that the world’s philosophical systems were mythological structures devised to shelter ourselves from the hard facts of existence. Heidegger, similarly, supposed that philosophy was the ‘narcotization of anxiety’. Arendt emerges from this book as valuable precisely because she stepped away from philosophy’s patriarchal strictures and grand systems: she didn’t shelter from existence or narcotise anxiety. She philosophised not as men had but as a woman could. 

What Arendt wrote about the 18th-century philosopher and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is true of her: ‘Instead of fixing his identity in history with a perfectly consistent system, he scattered into the world, as he himself knew, “nothing but fermenta cognitionis”.’ Stonebridge’s book is essential reading because she hurls us deeper into Arendt’s ferment of thinking than previous interpreters have dared to, taking the risk of showing us that there was muddle rather than method at the heart of it.

I have the sense that this gripping book has emerged from the wreckage of someone else’s conception. Chapters are called things like ‘How to Think’, ‘How to Change the World’ and ‘How to Love’. It’s as if the publisher wanted Stonebridge to write another book in that bastard subgenre that involves violating a philosopher’s reputation by converting their thinking into a self-help manual (you know the drill: how Nietzsche can get you a pay rise; how Judith Butler can help you become your best self; how Iris Murdoch can improve your sex life). If so, happily Stonebridge has gone rogue, disregarding the parameters of marketability and presenting us with a Hannah Arendt who is all too human.

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