The Thrill of Admiration
These days I’m reading Jacob Howland’s wonderful book about Plato’s Republic, the great dialogue that shows how hard it is to teach virtue in the political arena.
At the same time, I’m mentally settling down after last week’s column about my grandfather. Known by his pen name, Rav Tsair, ”the Young Rabbi,” he now stands out to me as a figure in Jewish history.
Meanwhile, I’ve just composed a cover letter, to go to editors of magazines, reviews and journals, along with chapter eight of A Good Look at Evil. That’s the one about Hannah Arendt, a political thinker who is today widely respected. My chapter makes the case that Arendt distorted the twentieth century events she wrote about and did so for unworthy reasons.
In the first two cases, there is this thrill of admiration for actors on the big stage of history who played their parts well. In the third case, well, regret would be the kindest thing I feel. Arendt is best known for Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It’s a book whose gist is that the guy who implemented the Holocaust was a robotic bureaucrat acting mindlessly inside a machine-like Nazi bureaucracy. This is not true.
About fame and fortune, Solon, lawgiver to Athens in the 6th century BCE, said,
“Call no man happy until he is dead.”
The point was that you never know what reversals fortune may bring. Aristotle added that the risk to happiness doesn’t end even with death, for reputations can also be lost post-mortem.
Plato’s high place in human memory seems pretty well secured by now. Thanks to him, the name of Socrates, his revered teacher, will likely shine forever. “Forever” meaning as long any hero is still remembered.
At present, my grandfather’s stature seems planted solidly in the Jewish state for whose existence he supplied far-sighted justifications: historical, intellectual, moral and spiritual.
As for Hannah Arendt’s posthumous reputation, right now it’s stupendous. She has practically become an industry! A film was made casting her as the heroine who defies popular opinion to uncover the suppressed truth. (To discover that she did no such thing, see A Good Look at Evil.) Professorships have been named after her – and you can bet that anyone holding such a named professorship will look unfavorably on my chapter eight. Books and articles still appear, solemnly preoccupied with her false claims about Eichmann and his victims.
To get to a juster view — of the perpetrators she wrongly exonerates and the victims she wrongly defames — I have worked, as a writer and philosopher, to dim Arendt’s posthumous reputation! If she died “happy,” at the top of the ladder of public esteem, my chapter could posthumously diminish that happiness.
If I’m right, recalibrations of that reputation would be overdue and proper. However, even if my revisiting of Arendt should turn out persuasive to opinion-shapers, it may get oversimplified in the retelling, so that her real story ends up distorted in some other way.
What do people mean when they speak of the “verdict of history”? Is history right? W. H. Auden has a line about the death of his fellow poet, W. B. Yeats:
He became his admirers.
If one has ascended to history’s big stage, I suppose there is an equal chance of becoming one’s detractors.
One of the themes of Plato’s Republic is that the just man or woman is happier than the unjust, even if – in the eyes of contemporaries and later posterity – the just person is subjected to the worst tortures and vilified ever after.
Is the just man or woman happier than the unjust, even if history’s verdict is unfairly weighted in the negative? Who can say?
Given all these uncertainties, there is a particular joy – a thrill – in appreciating a great figure whose fame has justly and rightly survived the buffetings of time, chance and mass opinion. It’s as if one is saying – where death has not diminished the runner’s well-deserved honor –
Good show, lass or laddie!
You pulled it off! You did it –
for the rest of us who run and may not finish!
What is it to survive and shine deservedly in the human story writ large? To occasion, for strangers generations hence, that thrill of admiration?
If human history is something like a long romance, I guess it’s like …
being lucky in love.