Archive   |   Biography   |   RSS Feed   |   Opinions Home

The banality of love

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Around 1924, the professor seduced his student. He was 35 and married; she was 18 and single. He was an important philosopher, and she was a precocious kid, destined for great things herself. He was to become a Nazi and she was a Jew -- Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. If you could understand them both, as a couple and individually, you would understand the world and all its mysteries. You might also never sleep again.

The Heidegger-Arendt affair is a much-told tale that never loses its attraction for writers. Yet another book has appeared, "Stranger From Abroad" by Daniel Maier-Katkin, which was reviewed, along with a separate book on Heidegger, on the front of Sunday's New York Times Book Review -- a place of honor befitting these two intellectual giants, not to mention their very strange, and in terms of affection, enduring affair. After World War II, Arendt defended Heidegger and resumed the friendship.

The affair is easy enough to understand. She was a fetching young woman, and he was a robust man of great intellectual achievement, a celebrity of sorts before that entailed dancing or self-abasement on TV. It is harder, much harder, to either understand or excuse Arendt's determination -- or was it need? -- to continue the relationship after the war. After all, Heidegger was not a Nazi in some sort of passive sense. He heaped praise on Hitler and, as rector of Freiburg University, he helped purge the faculty of Jews -- his very colleagues.

As for Arendt, in the postwar years, she became downright famous. Her accounts of the Adolf Eichmann trial for the New Yorker -- and later in the book "Eichmann in Jerusalem" -- became both a sensation and a cause celebre. She formulated the phrase "the banality of evil," so apt that it has suffered the fate of all truisms, becoming a cliche. She was also celebrated and loathed for indicting some of her fellow Jews for alleged complicity in the Holocaust -- a harsh and malicious judgment.

Hannah Arendt was no mere "girl" who could not get over her first love -- unless, of course, she was. Whatever the case, her emotional makeup interests me less than Heidegger's. His was a unique brilliance, a philosopher whose works are still being discussed. And yet his Nazism was not a product of mere opportunism -- as was, say, that of Wernher von Braun, who needed a boost from Hitler to propel his rockets, or that of Herbert von Karajan, who would not permit mere morality to stand between him and an illustrious career. Heidegger's career was already established. He didn't have to be a Nazi; he wanted to be a Nazi.

Taken together, this is a thoroughly frightening couple -- two of the 20th century's great philosophers, their genius contradicted by their inexplicably appalling lives: One embraced Nazism, the other excused him for doing so. In one critical area, they were no different than a goon and his gal. By way of caution, there ought to be statues of them in every city square, and billboards of them looking down on the naive who think, as Alan Greenspan once romantically did of financial markets, that man is rational.

There was a time when I fought against the concept of evil. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the "evil empire," I winced. "Evil" suggested no motive, a force that could not be understood. This, in turn, ruled out accommodation, and that was just plain scary. Yet, Reagan was right about the Soviet system, while George W. Bush, some years later, was both wrong and opportunistic when he abused Reagan to label three disparate and unconnected regimes the "axis of evil" -- a mechanical absurdity, a grammatical abomination. Beware those who tell you not to think.

Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger represent the intellectual speed of light, the absolute limit of what reason can do, and the plodding, insidious nature of evil. The sheer banality of loyalty, of past affection or maybe of the inability to admit a mistake blinded Arendt to Heidegger's evil and his evil blinded him to its consequences. He managed to detach intellect from morality, and she could not detach who she had become from who she had been. Right after the war, she wrote that "the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe" -- and then, some years later, she went off to Germany and called her old lover. It turns out it is not evil that's banal. It's love.

--

In my May 4 column, I wrote that Newt Gingrich "has never worked for a profit-making organization." I was mistaken. He has various ventures that make a profit.

cohenr@washpost.com


More Washington Post Opinions

PostPartisan

Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity