This essay speaks of the political scientist and philosopher Hannah Arendt.
All quotes are from Elisabeth Young-Bruel’s wonderful biography of Arendt, For Love of the World.
And my method in writing on this difficult (at least to me!) subject are taken from Arendt’s own hard won sensibility about philosophy — that after two World Wars, so much of the theories and philosophies that were given such respect showed their own inability to reach the people, to prevent war, and so the question arose, what use were they?
For a Jew who was brought up in Germany and studied philosophy at the finest universities in Marburg and Heidelburg, and who after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 spent years as a stateless person in Paris and the United States, her “ivory tower” learning left her with a far different view of the value of the learning of the past.
She stopped looking for either categories of thinkers or historical influences, thought genealogies, and she developed a method as informal as the title she gave it, “Perlenfischerei,” pearl fishing. The pearls that were full fathom five beneath the historical surface were the sea-changed, rich and strange jewels she sought.
I think we are at a similar time in history now, and I find Arendt’s words resonate with me.
This essay is a work in progress. If it seems unintelligible, the fault is entirely mine. I am no scholar, nor do I have academic credentials.
I’m heartened a bit, though, that Arendt’s second husband, Berliner Heinrich Blucher, had no academic credentials either (though plenty of political experience), and yet they made quite a team when it came to Arendt’s books.
Hannah Arendt’s university years, from 1924 to 1929, were exactly the years of greatest stability for the troubled Weimar Republic. By the summer of 1924, the government’s program of economic stabilization had brought to a temporary end the worst period of inflation, and a change of government in financially troubled France had reduced the Germans’ feeling of being surrounded by vindictive extortionists.
German academic philosophy in the 1920s was dominated by individuals and groups who were looking for a way to stabilize philosophy’s currency, to replace a motley collection of inflated isms with a grand and certain Ganzes, a whole, an embracing ism.
Looking back over twenty years to the factions that flourished during her university years, Hannah Arendt put the matter succinctly: “Philosophy was either derivative or it was a rebellion of the philosophers against philosophy in general, rebellion against, or doubt of its identity.” She rejected both the derivative metaphysicians and thoses who renounced philosophy in favor of a vague and misty irrationalism, and she went the way of the rebels who doubted philosophy’s traditional identity.
It was an exciting time at the universities in Marburg, Germany as well as Heidelburg, Germany, where Arendt studied.
But then Hitler came to power, and in 1933 she and her second husband, Heinrich Blucher, fled to Paris and then, later, to the United States.
You probably know of Hannah Arendt by the famous expression “the banality of evil.”
But what I want to write about is her notion of “parvenus” and “pariahs.”
Hannah Arendt is no easy read. The only book of hers I ever read was “The Life of the Mind,” her one book, written shortly before her death and never completely finished, on philosophy. The rest of her books were of political science, informed by her years as a stateless person (refugee) and as a Jew.
It was in her years in Paris, after having fled Germany, a stateless refugee, with no citizenship, that we see the evolution of this notion of parvenus and pariahs:
Arendt saw the prominent Jews of France take a posture of quiet maneuvering behind the scenes to accomplish political ends. Anti-semitism was strong in France and it was not uncommon throughout Europe for leaders in the Jewish community to advocate “inconspicuous, behind-the scenes diplomacy.”
During Hitler’s rise, immigrants who had fled other countries felt such diplomacy “sounded like a call for tactics already shown to be hopelessly inadequate in their home countries. The Consistoire [the “major religious association of native — and often upper-class — Parisian Jews”] opposed all the actions Hannah Arendt supported — attempts to boycott German goods, efforts by the Ligue Internationale contre l’Antisemitisme to publicize anti-Semitic laws and activites in Germany, and the demonstrations (in 1936) in support of David Frankfurter, a young Jew who assassinated the head of a Swiss branch of the Nazi party.”
…the Rothschilds — regardless of their personal qualities and good intentions — were of the type she called “the parvenus.” In her terms, a Jew could be either a parvenu or a pariah, and she made it very clear in discussions and later in her writings that she thought only a pariah could develop a truly political consciousness … After the war (WWII), she distinguished the “social realm” (home of parvenus) and the “political realm” (home of pariahs) and looked only to the latter for any truly revolutionary renewal.
One thing Arendt said that, to me, expresses this notion of parvenus and pariahs is in speaking of the rights of man, which we always refer to as “inalienable” and “endowed by our Creator,” etc. She had a different and very political view:
“The Rights of Man,” she argued, “had been defined as ‘inalienable,’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.”
I think of undocumented workers here in America, whose human rights are disregarded, as in Postville Iowa, of the ravages of genocide in Darfur, of minorities in nations where civil rights are not guaranteed by law.
So I am pearl fishing.
What I find compelling about Arendt’s work, that transcends the history of her life, of being a Jew in Europe during the World Wars, is her meticulous description of the differences between the social and the political.
As we speak of unity, of coming together, Arend puts forth a different view. In speaking of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing a philosopher who lived in the 16th Century, and whose insights she had previously rejected, Arendt says (in a speech accepting the Lessing Prize in 1959):
Because Lessing was a completely political person, he insisted that truth can exist only where it is humanized by discourse … Every truth outside of this area [of discourses], no matter whether it brings men good or ill, is inhuman in the literal sense of the word: but not because it might arouse men against one another and separate them. Quite the contrary, it is because it might have the result that all men would suddenly unite in a single opinion, so that out of many opinions one would emerge, as though not men in their infinite plurality but man in the singular, one species and its exemplars, were to inhabit the earth.
Should that happen, the world, which can form only in the interspaces between men in all their variety would vanish altogether. For that reason the most profound thing that has been said about the relation between truth and humanity is to be found in a sentence of Lessing’s which seems to draw from all his works wisdom’s last word. The sentence is:
Jeder sage, was ihm Wahrheit dunkt,
und die Wahrheit selbst sei Gott empfohlen!
Let each man say what he deems truth
and let truth itself be commended unto God!
In reading the above quote, it’s important to realize that Arendt wrote much about totalitarianism, and she wrote this in that context.
Yet for some reason the quote resonates for me in today’s world.
Yeah, pearl fishing. We’ve seen since World War II that all our institutions and ways of thinking have not prevented the mess we are in today, environmentally, politically, socially. Yet there are clues in the past — not authorities, but strange treasures in the detrius of our culture — that give glimpses of where to go from here.
I also believe there are equally luminous pearls to be found in the traditions of Asia, Africa, Latin America, of Native Americans, of all cultures.
So pearl fishing … and, as always, prowling.
If you have made it to the end of this essay, I congratulate you! And I also wish everyone a happy Friday and a good weekend.