George Prochnik, “The Philosopher in Dark Times”

George Prochnik has written an affecting and thoughtful review of a collection of essays by Hannah Arendt, Thinking without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975. He does not pull punches about the current situation. His first paragraph quotes Arendt to the effect of saying that totalitarianism takes hold when people are not “informed.” That in itself seems bland and uncontroversial, until Arendt is quoted again: “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” Taken to its full extent, this is not just an indictment of the President and his party, both overindulging delegitimization strategies to absurd extremes—don’t trust the former FBI director; don’t believe women; don’t trust people of other races; domestic politics is an extension of war; don’t trust the media, unless it’s the National Enquirer or Hannity. It’s an indictment of the way many in America engage politics, e.g. putting up Facebook posts with deliberately inflammatory commentary in order to get someone to respond and “own” them; attacking the documented, lived experience of others with innuendo, gossip, and anecdotes based only in bigotry. Forget the government—ours is a sick society with authoritarian desires, a complete lack of respect for the lives of fellow citizens for the sake of feeling empowered. Being “informed” has less to do with having a principle one always regards as true, and more to do with establishing and embracing credibility. Without a real desire to find trust, one can hardly call oneself educated, free, or a lover of freedom.

That’s how I believe this review starts. It continues operation on a plane of thoughtfulness few can appreciate. His second paragraph features Arendt weighing exile—expatriation—as possibly worse than being condemned to death by the state. Expatriation is the ultimate delegitimization strategy: the mere threat of it is prelude not just to violence against individuals, as it leads to sectarian hatred, mass deportation, and genocide. One has to wonder about a political climate where for years one party relentlessly accused the other of being treasonous without any consequence. One has to wonder when that same party commits itself to frequent and arbitrary deportations and building suspicion of anyone who might question that violence.

I don’t just want to lament. I do want to spend a little time outlining the conception of philosophy briefly put forth in “The Philosopher in Dark Times.” I feel it makes muted criticism of those of us who claim to be Straussians, who argue the history of ideas is more or less a debate about “natural right” (i.e. is there anything in the nature of things—perhaps in human nature—which advances a conception of justice?). To be sure, the criticism is thoughtful and worthwhile. The argument for “natural right” as a more or less universal concern entails two far more controversial propositions. First, since not every age had anything resembling our current climate where it seems freedom of expression is valued, some thinkers had to hide their more dangerous thoughts and practice esoteric writing. How one goes about “proving” authors wrote esoterically—if any proof can be had!—creates the second proposition. One typically has to treat an author’s corpus like a coherent, carefully designed whole, one meant to give one set of readers one impression, another a very different impression.

Arendt, in contrast to looking for coherent wholes, used a “technique of dismantling.” According to Prochnik, “she saw her task as plucking the precious bits from time’s waves and subjecting them to her critical thinking, without pretending they could be melded back into any grand, systemic whole.” This approach, this “pearl diving,” makes sense if one holds that the ideas philosophers advance are ultimately meant to impact history. Prochnik: “Arendt remained unabashedly enamored of Marx’s proposition that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world. … The point, however, is to change it.” One has to judge ideas by what actually results from them; one seems to be paying philosophy the highest compliment by holding it accountable. Accountability, however, occurs piecemeal. A debate exclusively focused on what a philosopher really meant tends to make that philosopher an abstraction, a ghost who did not think about the world as much as create another world that resembles the one in which we live.

I do not doubt the value of “pearl diving.” Anyone who has followed my thought over the years knows I eschew terms such as “Aristotleanism” in favor of taking one idea at a time and thinking through it as fully as possible. I hold those with grand, systemic theories are more interested in triumphing against others than seeing the truth, or more precisely, seeing what is most like the truth and understanding it on its own terms. However, there is value in trying to see a philosopher as a lover of wisdom, as someone trying to understand his time and explain himself to us. The imperative of changing the world, invoked too soon, can do injustice to an individual trying to wrestle with what he thinks truth and communicate it. Arendt thinks otherwise. “She relished his [Marx’s] determination to wrest higher thought from the supine realm of the Greek symposium and thrust it into the ring of political activism, challenging, as she wrote, “the philosophers’ resignation to do no more than find a place for themselves in the world, instead of changing the world and making it ‘philosophical.’”

Finding a place in the world for yourself is not simply “resignation,” as every persecuted minority, including those in the United States currently, can attest. On my reading, the philosophers, by defending themselves and dedicating themselves to their thought, did change the world and make it more philosophical with or without active political engagement. Underlying philosophy is a great humanism. Not everyone can be a lover of wisdom, but that’s not because of ability. It’s because dedication to wisdom requires an unyielding skepticism about one’s own motives. How does one know one loves wisdom? The only way is to declare that the only thing I know is that I know nothing, and then try to not let my life fall apart doubting the knowledge I do have. The “ability” in question is the desire to love wisdom, a love of love that is perhaps best rendered by the Greek term eros. Anyone can be a philosopher, but few will realize it, and most will fall into dogmatic traps. A very elite few will be recognized for their accomplishment, but it is not clear that accomplishment is the same as trying to live the most fully human life. Still, if you believe, as I do, that in no small part because of Socrates we ask serious questions about science and justice, that because of Machiavelli and Hobbes we wonder about power and the logic of incentives, that because of Bacon and Descartes we are more eager to benefit from medicine, then it would seem the world has changed because of philosophy quite often.

The funny thing about giving an honest account of your own thought, though, is that your honesty needs something to prevent it from being misinterpreted or dismissed outright. It is not enough to be honest—it is only enough to be heard and understood on the grounds upon which one wishes to be understood. Enter esoteric practice, meant to convey a message and prepare its receipt. Arendt is too glib in what I assume to be a dismissal of it: “For Arendt, thinking that helped advance the cause of human freedom entailed a form of relentlessly critical examination that imperiled “all creeds, convictions and opinions.” There could be no dangerous thoughts simply because thinking itself constituted so dangerous an enterprise.” The last sentence is the problem, as there clearly are dangerous thoughts throughout the ages. Try talking about secularism or privacy of conscience as a fundamental human right in the Middle Ages, or democracy in 18th century Russia. Try talking seriously about white nationalism on Fox News—maybe highlight Atomwaffen or that 7 year old girl separated by US authorities for months from her mother. Try talking seriously about whether the concept of freedom has changed because of the dawn of all-too-powerful mass surveillance. The questions that animate esoteric practice are right here, right in front of us. There are powerful entities that cannot be directly spoken against at all times. There are plenty of people who are trying to think for themselves, but haven’t seen everything a potential philosopher sees. There are many who would laugh at one’s attempt to raise critical issues and generate concern. Of course thinking itself is a dangerous enterprise, but some thoughts are more worthwhile than others. Some thoughts advance human freedom, while others destroy it.

I am very grateful to Prochnik’s review for raising the issue of accountability with regard to philosophy. It’s still amazing to me that everything responsible for “The Flight 93 Election” does not receive consistent and persistent shaming. It’s not the essay itself so much, which is batshit. It’s the hysterics from someone we know now to be privileged, who got to taste considerable power because of his raving. There are so many, who have so much less, who are being persecuted at this very moment and are consistently exhorted to quietly bear unjust burdens. Privilege does not begin to describe how despicable misuse of one’s pulpit is in this case. It’s the fact it was published as if it were on par with an analysis inspired by Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime, and received by a considerable number who are in charge of educating the future of America. While I will defend inquiry into the practice of esoteric writing, and while I have sentiments that might be considered conservative, I will not stand for the consistent devaluing of human rights and human life in the name of shameless ideological screeching with the thinnest of scholarly veneers. Right now, I don’t write esoterically—I know what’s right, and I need your help to make things better.

4 Comments

  1. I’m with you, but there’s a tension — not to say a contradiction — between your last sentence and the part about “unyielding skepticism about one’s own motives.” In fact, I’m with you there too — both sides of the tension.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! It’s been a challenge to blog more, but I’m pushing myself to do this more regularly.

  2. Arendt sounds interesting. Dude, I still can’t believe how harsh and misdirected my film allusion was in a previous comment.

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