Thinkers who are original and profound often mask their ideas in a style, not so much of prose as of thought, that is opaque to all but the most determined reader. This is obvious in the work of, say, Kant; and opacity of style may produce those long-lasting ambiguities that provide rich material for the work of the commentator. If Miss Arendt’s work survives—and it is surely more likely to survive than that of most other contemporary writers on politics—we may well find that the darkness of her thought attracts a multitude of commentators.
It is not even clear that the most polemical of her works, Eichmann in Jerusalem, has a central and controlling argument. What were execrated by the work’s enemies were not what may be its central theses, for these they did not understand nor try to understand. (One thesis was, I believe, that thinking one is in the right entails that there is such a thing as being in the right; and that men who think they are in the right in killing the innocent are not thereby exculpated; on the contrary, a man who believes in his heart that he acts rightly in killing a man because he is a Jew or a bourgeois or a Communist is much worse than a man who acts out of fear or sloth, knowing in his heart that what he does is monstrously wicked. Sincerity is not a virtue and is not even admirable as such.) They raised questions about the nature and truth of the illustrative material, a diversion that could not have been indulged so easily had the central arguments been clearer.
But could they have been clearer? My own formulation of one of them could easily be challenged; and even if I am roughly right, this one is hard for contemporary men to take. Out of the mouths of our babes and sucklings come the notions that moral judgments express features of dispensable culture patterns, that what all men do is what they must do, that the category of punishment is a relic of barbarism. If the children are corrupt, it is we who are the sophistical agents of corruption.
When, therefore, a notable scourge of sophistry, or one who would be this, to wit, Miss Arendt, arises, we are tempted to think she too is a sophist or to talk about something else. But there she is, blocking the road, stubborn, Gothic, simple where we look to find the complexity, complex where we expect platitudes, an admirer of many styles of thought and life and yet, surely, in the end a pessimist, a defender of reaction, one who aches with nostalgia for a dead political order. These are immediate possible responses to Miss Arendt’s work. Certainly, it is work to which no one can remain indifferent. What gives it its power and its measure of truth is a question worth asking, for if we can go some distance toward answering …
Distinctions January 1, 1970