“Philosophical Gossip”

"Janus" Tony Grist, 2011

“Janus” Tony Grist, 2011

“Philosophical Gossip”

Not long ago, the writer Cynthia Ozick had a front page piece in the New York Times Book Review about gossip. In her usual talent-laden voice, Ozick wrestles with the double sense of gossip. Could it be deplorable yet necessary? Especially for a writer of fiction? The great novelists can be called gossips — eavesdroppers on the lives of their fictional characters — showing the visible front and the hidden back of them.

Yet the rabbis inveigh against “the evil tongue.” They liken damaging gossip to murder, since it’s almost as hard to get back one’s good name as one’s life. That’s certainly been my experience. I don’t know if I ever posted it, but here’s one of Abigail’s Adages.

Slander is always believed.

And yet, I often say that our real lives are a lot more like novels – I mean full-bodied, 19th-century novels like Jane Austen’s or Tolstoy’s or Henry James’s – than jaded modern sensibility will concede. It’s true of other peoples’ lives and of our own. We’ve been schooled not to notice the plotlines, but they are there, waiting to be noticed.

Lately I’ve been reading a gold mine of philosophical gossip, a memoir by the late Hans Jonas, a philosopher who lived a dramatic, even novelistic life and recorded it in an unpretentious style, like someone confiding in a close friend. Aside from his respected work on ancient gnosticism, I don’t know Jonas’s philosophical writing, but can’t help admiring the honest and sharp mind behind this memoir. He’s not malicious and not trying to curry favor with anyone. If they have passed from the scene, he thinks it is time to tell what he knows. It’s a truthful portrait gallery of his life among friends and acquaintances, who included philosophers and theologians.

My feeling is that “philosophical gossip” of this caliber is a thing of great value. Powerful thinkers have a wide influence. They have a front side, mostly seen in what they write. And then there is the back, sometimes similar to what the public sees – sometimes almost the reverse!

A powerful thinker wrestles with questions that are in the air, arising partly from the cultural or historical circumstances that surround him or her. But philosophers are not just historical characters. They are private persons too, with a front and a back that is unique to themselves.

Take this example. Leo Strauss was a philosopher with a definite influence and legacy of followers. Strauss and his circle bring profound erudition and brilliance to their reading of texts. They are high-minded pessimists, defending the great philosophers of the past who – Strauss held – tried to sound conventionally religious to avoid persecution. Strauss thought modernity was a terrible mistake and that classical philosophers (even if they were secret atheists) were among “the few” capable of recognizing moral excellence and distinguishing the noble from the base. Strauss himself believed that philosophy was a calling incompatible with religion, since philosophy cannot submit to any authority except that of reason.

Hans Jonas knew Strauss when they were both young German-Jewish students of philosophy, in a Zionist fraternity in Berlin. Strauss came from a rigorously orthodox Jewish family and was sincere in his belief that, in order to be philosopher, he had to sever all his ties to religion. “But for Strauss it was a source of torment. ‘I’ve done the equivalent of committing murder or breaking a loyalty oath or a sinning against something.’”

What an interesting fact about Strauss! One of my philosophy professors, Stanley Rosen, had studied with Strauss in Chicago and often spoke of him, but probably had no idea of this fact. And what an obvious misconception in such a talented man! Philosophy is not intrinsically irreligious. A particular thinker may or may not take that turn, but not because he is a philosopher. In Strauss’s case, religion was not, as he thought, the problem. What he had to escape were the excessively narrow emotional and intellectual confines of his early formation.

Jonas had another close friend in his student days: Hannah Arendt. Like Jonas, Arendt was Jewish and, like him, she fled Germany in the early 1930’s. They had both been students of Martin Heidegger. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and never repented of this misadventure. After World War II, Arendt helped to rehabilitate his reputation and philosophical career. Only after her death, and Heidegger’s, did their lifelong love affair come to light.

Jonas fills in the story with a novelist’s eye for the compelling detail. He describes the effect of the young Heidegger’s lectures. Students in his classes felt that philosophy itself was coming-to-be, before their mesmerized eyes and ears. There was nobody like him – nobody with the same room-filling authority.

The young Arendt had many admirers. She was a delectable item with a brilliant mind to boot. She did not seduce her professor. That Heidegger had written Arendt the letter that started the affair — almost commanding her to be his — is known from their posthumously published correspondence . For a bedazzled young woman, such a letter would have been a hard one to resist. But Jonas adds a detail I did not know.

The Heidegger love letter was preceded by his first office hour alone with Arendt, his student. She was about to leave his office when her professor fell to his knees before her, at the same time reaching up his arms to embrace her.

Fell to his knees? Men begin courtship with a certain power edge, compounded of biology, social expectations, history, whatever. When they then profess themselves smitten, the thrill for the girl is that her feminine vulnerability has suddenly become a new-found power, seemingly strong enough to overpower his strength! Wow!

Now add to that generic situation the extraordinary magnetism exercised – not just by a respected male professor – but by the man who seemed to all his acolytes to be philosophy itself on two legs.

It would take a strong-minded woman to resist all that “Me Tarzan, you Jane” dressed up in Full Philosophical Regalia. I would rather not fault Arendt for yielding to such a seducer. Furthermore, having read their correspondence, I would tend to agree with Jonas that they actually did love each other and that their romance was lifelong.

I fault her for adopting as her own Heidegger’s self-serving excuses for his Nazi years. And, when Adolf Eichmann, the arch-slaughterer of her people, was brought before the bar of justice to stand trial in Jerusalem, I fault her for promoting — in her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil — a view of evil as “banal,” rote-like bureaucratic conformism. Her depiction of the trial effectively whitewashed Eichmann. By extension, it whitewashed Heidegger too, which may have been its ulterior motive. As evidenced in the trial transcripts, it was not a reliable report. Her book was extremely influential and deeply misleading.

It is not for me to suppose that she could have helped loving Heidegger. One doesn’t only love those who are worthy.   But she did not have to absolve him and it did neither of them – nor the world of philosophy – any service.

Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt. They were very different people, morally, philosophically and in terms of influence. Yet they had one thing in common.

Each mistook private passion for philosophic necessity.

Private passion can command respect on its own terms, whatever one does or does not do about it. Philosophy commands respect too, on its own terms.

They should not be confused with each other.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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