Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Last Interview and Other Conversations: Hannah Arendt

I think that Watergate has revealed perhaps one of the deepest constitutional crises this country has ever known . . . . And this constitutional crisis consists--for the first time in the United States--in a head-on clash between the legislative and the executive. Now there the Constitution itself is somehow at fault, and I would like to talk about that for a moment. The Founding Fathers never believed that tyranny could arise out of the executive office, because they did not see this office in any different light but as the executor of what the legislation had decreed--in various forms; I leave it at that. We know today that the greatest danger of tyranny is of course from the executive. But what did the Founding Fathers--if we take the spirit of the Constitution--what did they think? They thought they were free from majority rule, and therefore it is a great mistake if you believe what we have here is democracy, a mistake in which many Americans share. What we have here is republican rule, and the Founding Fathers were most concerned about preserving the rights of the minorities, because they believed that in a healthy body politic there must be a plurality of opinions.

Oh, Hannah Arendt, how I love thee so. I picked up this drink after having had a couple of drinks and stumbling into our downtown, locally-owned book store. I did not need to buy any books (the twin, leaning towers of books mirroring each other from my desk and my night stand is, well...embarrassing). But, alcohol emboldens the spirit, and I walked out with this book, part of an entire series of last interviews (all with the same title except the person's name) and an unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo (the latter has been laid down as foundation for what aspires to be my third leaning tower...).

The book contains four transcribed conversations with Arendt, including her last interview before dying. In each of the discussions, she pontificates about all sorts of issues related to political philosophy, language, and international affairs.

Being general in nature, the book provides a decent overview of her philosophy, albeit more superficial. This is both the book's strength and weakness. It is substantially easier to read than her substantive works. This is consistent with my experience reading similar books, like The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature and Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Unlike these two books, however, which encompass longer dialogues focused on a specific topic, this book of Arendt conversations is quite short, and more aimless. The dialogues in this book feel more like the segment at the end of The Daily Show, where some author and Jon Stewart shoot the shit for a couple of minutes. That is, the range of topics is broad; we get a quick sense of Arendt's view on something, and then we move on to a new topic.

Being a big fan of Arendt, this treatment was not substantial enough for me. Nonetheless, I might recommend it to someone who wants an easy primer on her work, while considering diving into her more substantial work. (though, honestly, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is plenty read-able for that purpose).

That said, I think at the end of the day, the point of this book is not really to help anyone understand Arendt better. Rather, it's for the fans out there, like me, who cannot get enough Arendt and are willing to spend a small amount of cash and a small amount of time diving into her brain. In that regard, the book was perfect.

And, don't worry, folks, my next heavy read is going to be a real Arendt book, so this won't be the only Hannah Arendt appearance on Fifty Books. I know you were all worried.

To close, one more Arendt quote, to appeal to the documented pretensions of wannabe philosophers (like myself):
And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. So how I can convince . . . I think nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don't deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking, [not thinking is even more dangerous].

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