Hannah Arendt: Athens or Perhaps Jerusalem?

Thesis Eleven 102 (1):24-38 (2010)


As a political thinker nurtured in early 20th-century German, Hannah Arendt is most often identified with the Greek philosophical tradition. This article argues that the crisis in reality that threw her into politics also, though unacknowledgedly, threw her into ‘Jewish modes of thinking’ as an alternative source where she found the Greek tradition lacking. This claim is controversial, given Arendt’s vehement criticisms of any recourse to the absolute, or metaphysical truths in the realm of politics. Nevertheless, and consistent with a number of early 20th-century Jewish thinkers (Rosenzweig, Levinas, Buber, Shestov) who explicitly identified the Hebrew God not as the metaphysical but as the condition of possibility for authentic freedom under conditions of finitude, one finds in Arendt a move towards an understanding of the seat of human freedom that sits far more comfortably in the Jerusalem than in the Athens tradition. Specifically, in her emphasis on natality and genuine futurity, one senses a strong resonance with the notion of pure creation in the Hebrew Bible, as one does, notably, in her insistence that forgiveness and promises (covenants) form the two pillars for human sociality. Throughout the history of Jewish thought, one consistently finds precisely this Arendtian struggle to represent a model of law that holds the tension between binding fidelity to promises, memory and the past, and an openness to futurity, to the infinity of interpretation that gives meaning to those promises. Closely resembling the midrashic tradition, Arendt’s political community of speech is one in which meaning is open ended and plural, allowing for the binding together that sustains a polity, while also opening up to the radically new of each new birth

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References found in this work

Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.Emmanuel Levinas - 1961 - Distribution for the U.S. And Canada, Kluwer Boston.
I and Thou.Martin Buber - 1958 - New York: Scribner.
The Concept of the Political.Carl Schmitt - 1996 - University of Chicago Press.
The Life of the Mind.Hannah Arendt - 1977 - Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
I and Thou.Martin Buber - 1970 - New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 57.

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