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Arendt Chic

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s ‘We Are Free to Change the World’ dumbs down the iconic 20th-century writer.

(Photo courtesy of Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives.)

Hannah Arendt was a titan of political theory, an original thinker who put modern politics in dialogue with the Western philosophical tradition and helped the 20th century understand itself. She was also, as University of Birmingham professor Lyndsey Stonebridge insists repeatedly throughout We Are Free to Change the World, a woman, a refugee, and someone who liked long walks, talking to her friends, and vibing out while thinking about the craziness of life.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in political theory to see the dissonance between these two characterizations of Arendt—nor to surmise that the former is more accurate. Stonebridge’s book fails by attempting to reduce the author of Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin into a lifestyle blogger, inferring too much about her life and flattening most of her work in the process. It’s an unfortunate approach, but it’s hardly a novel one.

For as long as people have been reading Hannah Arendt, they have been misreading her. For years, those misreadings tended to revolve around her book Eichmann In Jerusalem, in which Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” But in the 21st century, Arendt has had a curious second sailing as a pop philosopher for the NPR crowd, her thought boiled down to quotes that can fit on a tea bag, her politics reduced to “prescient warnings” about Donald Trump.

Like most books of this sort, Stonebridge focuses mainly on Arendt’s most famous works—Eichmann, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and the essay “We Refugees”—early writings that, while important, offer a skewed and incomplete picture of Arendt’s work when taken alone. Stonebridge quotes Arendt selectively and sparingly, in italicized interjections that comprise what Stonebridge calls, in the book’s subtitle, “Hannah Arendt’s lessons in love and disobedience.”

It’s hard to offer a capsule review of the book, which is organized thematically rather than chronologically, but Stonebridge does hit all the standard biographical notes. She writes about Arendt’s youth in Germany and her studies with the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, who would become her lover; her flight from the Nazis, internment in France, and escape to America; and finally, her ascent to the top of New York’s intellectual elite, rise to fame with Origins and Eichmann, and her later, politically incorrect essays on race, war, and other hot-button issues.

Had Stonebridge stopped there, the book would have been fine. But she also attempts to condense Arendt’s thought into breezy, digestible chapters with vague, twee titles like “How to Think Like A Refugee,” “How to Love,” and “Who Am I to Judge?” Each chapter follows roughly the same format: Stonebridge opens with an anecdote about some current event—like the war in Ukraine or the coronavirus pandemic—which she links tangentially to an oversimplified reading of something Arendt wrote. These readings are largely crowded out by descriptions of what Arendt was up to around the time she wrote a given text, and quickly jettisoned in favor of Stonebridge’s riffs on otherwise irrelevant subjects, like the Arab Spring or the Little Rock Nine.

Stonebridge buries her readings of Arendt’s work in so much pablum that it’s easy to miss how offensively simplistic they are. Consider how she recounts Arendt’s falling out with Kurt Blumenfeld, a leading German Zionist who objected to Eichmann. Stonebridge writes:

He had heard that her book misrepresented the work of the Jewish councils in the Holocaust. She was devastated, furious at the idea that the man who first taught her how misinformation worked had been misinformed on his deathbed.

It’s been 61 years since the publication of Eichmann In Jerusalem, in which Arendt argued that the Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann was not a Jew-hating monster but a thoughtless functionary. To this day scholars debate the merits of this argument, as well as Arendt’s discussion of the Nazi-appointed Jewish councils who worked with Eichmann to organize the deportations from ghettos to death camps. But in Stonebridge’s hands, it’s all quite simple, really: Arendt is right, Blumenfeld is wrong. He’s been “misinformed” by those pesky Zionists—“colonists,” as Stonebridge calls them elsewhere—and she has every right to be irked by his stubbornness. Thus is a major philosophical fight with devastating personal ramifications dispatched like something churned out by Russian Facebook trolls.

Stonebridge isn’t always this condescending or anachronistic, but she’s always this superficial, picking poetic sentences out of context and claiming they encapsulate ideas she doesn’t really seem to understand. For instance, Arendt’s On Revolution is a close reading of the American and French Revolutions, in which she convincingly argues that their respective successes and bloody failures were the result of their competing conceptions of freedom. But to Stonebridge, “Arendt’s point is that there is no one form or name for freedom that can easily be passed down through the generations.” In her telling, what American patriots called the “pursuit of happiness” is synonymous with what French revolutionaries called “public freedom.” To Stonebridge, both are merely forebears of the rallying cries of modern-day Lebanese and Ukrainian protesters.

That is, in fact, quite the opposite of Arendt’s point. In On Revolution, she argues that the American Revolution succeeded because the Founding Fathers were statesmen working to secure political freedom for all citizens, a goal that united the country and still guides it to this day. By contrast, the French Revolution was led by classist demagogues whose chief concern was the abolition of material need, a goal that led the revolutionaries and their followers to constantly turn on each other.

The fact that Stonebridge elides this fundamental distinction is emblematic of the problem not just with We Are Free to Change the World, but with the strange and insufferable genre it reflects. Let’s call it—with due respect to the considerably less-terrible genre whose name I’m cribbing—“Arendt Chic.”

Other examples of Arendt Chic include the countless think pieces on Arendt and Trump, Marie Luise Knott’s 2015 book, Unlearning With Hannah Arendt, and Maria Popova’s Gawker-era blog Brain Pickings, which was largely comprised of Popova’s riffs on decontextualized Arendt quotes. (Brain Pickings has since been reborn as The Marginialian, which, incidentally, gave a glowing review to We Are Free to Change the World). In his 1995 book Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political, political scientist Dana Villa notes that writers who have tried to “‘rethink’ Arendt in order to make her more available to current political movements … wound up either domesticating her thought or rejecting its central thematic concerns.” These writers, Villa notes, make Arendt “guilty of holding our prejudices … and then to chastise her for our projection.” (Emphasis in the original).

What explains this obsession with transforming Arendt? It would be one thing if there were a rash of writers simply interested in repackaging her work to a wider audience, a fate that has befallen thinkers from Marcus Aurelius to Michel de Montaigne. But why go through the effort of completely misrepresenting her thought?

It’s partially because Arendt is so cool. The photos of her languidly smoking cigarettes, tales of boozy parties in her Manhattan apartment, her dazzling prose—who wouldn’t want to lay claim to the alluring, cosmopolitan thinker who wrote such quotable lines as “we are free to change the world and to start something new in it”?

But the context of that quote illustrates why Arendt’s admirers can’t simply take her as she is.

It comes from the introduction of a lengthy 1971 essay “Lying In Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers.” Arendt is not simply waxing poetic on the beautiful boundlessness of human possibility. Rather, she is establishing that freedom makes lying possible. She’s urging us to see lying in politics as an act of deliberate deception, not “some accident of human sinfulness.” Because political lies are freely chosen acts by free men, Arendt thinks that “moral outrage … is not likely to make [lying] disappear.”

Add a bit of context and Arendt the radical dreamer becomes Arendt the rational political theorist. And rational political theory is hardly cool—it’s why a vanguardist philosophy undergrad can quote Marx’s Communist Manifesto but not his “Theses On Feuerbach.”

Stonebridge and other practitioners of Arendt Chic aren’t just trying to make their subject accessible. They’re trying to refashion her into some kind of 21st-century, middle-class liberal—which she clearly wasn’t. She may have written beautifully about friendship and being a refugee. But she was, as her friends remembered her, the embodiment of a “deep German conservatism” whose embrace of America “decisively shaped her political thinking.”

In her masterwork of political theory, The Human Condition, Arendt notes that “we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcome and end of any action” because “the process of a single deed”—a category in which Arendt counts written works—“can quite literally endure throughout time until mankind itself has come to an end.” Perhaps, then, we’re doomed to an eternal return of Arendt Chic, books and essays that turn one of history’s most brilliant thinkers into some combination of Hillary Clinton and Rupi Kaur. 

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but I can’t help but feel like Arendt would get a kick out of it. After all, she wrote the book on banality.

Tim Rice is senior editor of the Washington Free Beacon.