The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good review of a new book on Hannah Arendt.
In Why Arendt Matters (Yale University Press, 2006), a staunchly devotional brief for the continuing relevance of political theorist Hannah Arendt, by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Arendt's much-acclaimed biographer, the author complains that despite writing "more than a dozen dense volumes" that include several "masterpieces of political analysis," and posthumously becoming "the subject of hundreds of books and articles," Arendt "lives on in newspeak through just four words."
"The banality of evil."
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters (2006)
I discovered The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt purely by chance when I was a student. In fact it was only because I was aware of Arendt’s famous “sound bite” that I plucked it out from its dusty shelf in the library. But what a clear thinker and beautiful writer I found. There is none of the padding and intellectual somersaults that characterize polical philosphers like Foucault and Durkheim. Instead, Arendt is always straight to the point and her understanding of such concepts as “power” and, yes, “evil” has seldom been bettered.
Why, then, is she almost unknown? I think there are three reasons: Hannah Arendt was a woman, she was Jewish, and she was a critic of Marxism.
Modern political theory is about as male as a football changing room. Those female intellectuals who have managed to penetrate this closed and sweaty world, Sontag and Paglia say, have done so elliptically, through cultural studies. Arendt, on the other hand, was a straight-down-the-line political theorist. I am convinced that one reason she is not as well known as her peers is that she was a woman, unlike the rest of the gang on the reading list.
It might seem odd to cite Arendt’s Jewishness as a barrier to her popularity, given the contribution Jewish thinkers have made to philosophy, but many people think of Arendt primarily as an analyst of Nazism (her aphorism on the banality of evil comes from her book on the Eichmann trial), rather than of authoritarianism in general. That is a shame, because, although her view is coloured by the fact that she was a German Jew who fled from the Nazis, her analysis of the totalitarian state tells us much about Saddam Hussein and Lew Kuan Yew, or even Gloria Arroyo, as it does about Hitler.
Finally, Arendt’s marginalization is partly because she is essentially a humanist, rather than a Marxist, the dominant school in European political thought since the end of the war. She was one of the first writers to recognize the essential similarities between Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism, a minority view for most of her life (1906-1975).
Well done Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, author of Why Arendt Matters (2006) and Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (1982), for keeping her candle burning.