“I’m not a character, I’m nothing like the author,
I haven’t had the experiences she writes about.
But even so, this is what I feel like, inside.
This is what I would sound like,
if ever I were to find a voice.”
As a middle aged man I sometimes wonder in amusement at the continuous philosophical crushes of our students; at the possibility of a young student to be entirely captivated by the thought, personality and mannerisms of some famous author.
I still remember with a blush how my first philosophical love was. It was, of course, a crush with the thought of Hannah Arendt. I came across her work on a seminar on democracy. I don’t remember which text it was. I only remember my feelings while reading it: I found it simultaneously illuminating and hard to understand.
With my first paycheck, I ran to the nearest bookstore and bought all the books by her that I could find. Expensive books that I ended up giving away as it turned out that the translations were extremely deficient and in a poor writing style.
The long, brilliant, but complicated essay The Human Condition may well be the first book in English that I read cover to cover… several times. I can only marvel at the oddity of that: a young Mexican student learning English by reading a German philosopher that didn’t write the first version of her opus magnum in her mother tongue. The book itself was something precious: a gift from my advisor that he bought and brought all the way from Chicago, there was no Amazon in those days.
I fell for Arendt and I remained trapped by her thought for four or five years. I thought she was a consummated genius (which she is) and that she was right on every inch of the immense territory that she covers (which she obviously is not). As our students today do, I also thought that the world would be a much better place if only people would read The Human Condition, The Origins of Totalitarianism and On Revolution; most of our intractable political problems would be solved with a single stroke: no more political parties, no more professional politicians, no more Nation States, no more inane consumerism and meaningless jobs. No more boredom in politics or the professional world.
I became a convert, an unpaid arendtian acolyte knocking door to door to try to gain souls for my new creed. The common use of turning a family name into an adjective, signaling that one belongs to a philosophical group is very telling. And I was not the only one absorbed by this peculiar sort of philosophical frenzy:
We had a soccer team at the time, and we printed the name of our respective philosophical patron saint at the back of our T-shirts. We put together an impressive philosophical roster: Aristotle, Foucault, Nietzsche, Ricoeur, and Arendt, of course, a natural number six, a shield middle fielder.
At that time we wouldn’t tolerate any questions or any irony directed at our beloved and revered philosophers. We would feel hurt if someone, young or old, philosopher or layman, dared to joke about our loved one and our romance. In retrospect, I was fortunate that it was Arendt.
At some point I decided not to follow her, not to become a professional Arendtian scholar; but to try —within my very modest means — to emulate her: to walk the paths she walked; to learn the language she knew and to read the authors she read. With the significant exception of Heidegger, whose person I find repulsive and whose philosophy I find abstruse and megalomaniac (and whose mustache I can’t stand).
It has been a long and difficult but also beautiful journey. A journey that took me to Germany and to Konstanz, where Heidegger studied the Gymnasium, or so the legend goes. It took me to a Doktorvater who himself was a disciple of the last Heidegger’s Doktorand. So in a cosmic (and comical) sense, Arendt would be my great-aunt.
Twenty years after my first crush and coming into middle age, I can say that I’m not in love with Arendt’s thought anymore. Now and again I come back to her books and essays and I can understand what got me hooked at that time. I still find her thought extremely sexy and it definitely still turns me on… if only occasionally, but that again may have to do with my age and not with her philosophy.
Her erudition is indeed impressive; her sense of the past and of the philosophical tradition and the relevance of philosophy for politics, economics included. I still find her basic intuitions very powerful and compelling, above all her uncompromising love for freedom; her hatred for tyranny, repression, and cowardice; and her proud disdain of a life that contents itself with being comfortable instead of being great. Above all, I admire her for her fierce independence of mind. For her contempt for the philosophical fashions of her day, and her genuine carelessness for establishing a school of thought to promote the devotion to her.
I rejoice in the fact that, although she respected Marx, she never quoted Adorno or Horkheimer; and although she loved freedom and dialogue she didn’t have the need of quoting Popper. She didn’t care about being leftist, progressive, liberal or conservative. Labels, like many other academic forms of nobility, meant nothing to her.
Independence of mind; engagement with the political reality; courage, even bravery of thought; passion in writing as if the future of politics and therefore civilization were at the stake on every page; if that doesn’t turn a young student of philosophy on, I don’t know what will.
With the passing years her several shortcomings have also gained contour in my eyes: her tendency to exaggerate; her sometimes manipulative translations of Aristotle; her (again, to my ignorant view) unfair critique of Plato; her original but very weird vocabulary (maybe permanent damage from the liaison with Heidegger). A vocabulary that could be very off-putting because of its apparent lack of connection with the more common philosophical vocabulary. I do notice all that.
I also find it ironic that it was precisely through Arendt that I first got interested in Plato and Aristotle. I realize now that it is very unlikely to fall for Plato at a young age. Plato, like whisky, does not compel the mind or the tongue by the first taste. The Platonic dialogues — arguably the prime literary philosophical expressions of all times — seem dry, artificial, and boring to young eyes. The translation is surely a factor, but it goes beyond that; it has to do with the lack of experience and the self-confidence of the novice.
In Plato is indeed all at stake at once: the meaning of justice and freedom; the meaning of life; the harmony and order of the soul and the city, as opposed to chaos and violence. But to young eyes, everything appears a little too iterative and as a concealed flattery to Socrates: “Oh Socrates, how right you are!”.
Sometimes I’m tempted to whisper to my students the sad reality: the first philosophical crush, just as the first crush, will come to pass; the passion and the pleasure will wither away and leave their place to a more mature but less intense philosophical view. And no, it is not true that if only we all would read the beloved author, would we be able to solve all our political problems.
Sometimes I want to whisper to them that, eventually, they will have to break up, they will have to let it go. That they will have to find their own way, their own call, and their own voice. Or otherwise, risk joining the ranks of those who act as pathetic mouthpieces of dead philosophers. Those who can only speak in quotes and who assume that every relevant and pertinent idea is already trademarked under the name of their revered author.
I feel the urge to warn them about the risk of becoming philosophical zombies —still alive but dead in their philosophical life without even noticing it.
But I also want to encourage them to undertake the task of thinking everything anew; of assuming the responsibility to think without banisters as Arendt would say. For the time being, though, I’ll let them be. Because the philosophical crush is the second-best state for a philosopher, only surpassed by that other experience that is almost like being in love.
Dedicated to Majo G., since once we shared the same philosophical crus