I Was Politically Correct for 15 Minutes

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Illustration Edward A. Wilson

I Was Politically Correct for 15 Minutes

It happened like this.  I was remembering a case I know of, where a young woman, who had her whole life before her, was being forced into the sealed back of a truck.  Uniformed Nazis were turning a hose filled with carbon monoxide into the space where they had confined the young woman and her family.  This occurred in the late 1930’s, the run-up decade before the Holocaust.

As I recalled the incident, I felt myself entering into the mind of that young woman. Nobody could hear her.  Silently, she seemed to be saying,

“I deserve to be heard!”

Editorially, I added my own comment on the sad scene that I was picturing:

Everybody deserves to be heard!”

Curiously, without linkage or transition, this casual editorial comment suddenly changed everything in my worldview: the scenery, the cast of characters, the proportions.  I became what Goethe called a “Beautiful Soul.”  My whole psyche lifted up with pure motives: peaceful, innocent of envy, without violence, acquisitiveness or worldly ambition.  I was a vessel of peace and love, from top to bottom and from edge to edge.

That afternoon, I happened to be due for a manicure at a local salon where television plays on a large silent screen.  This entertains the bored clientele.  In honor of Veterans Day, the big screen was showing a news program with children inviting veterans to visit their school.  I noticed that I no longer associated these frail oldsters with sacrifice for their country – a sacrifice that tragically included incurring guilt while under arms.  Instead, I now viewed them as eager volunteers for acts of the most sordid violence.  I hated and feared them, separately and together.

“Ugh!  What ugly brutes!” I thought, as I watched the ancient veterans genially greeting the schoolchildren.

Driving home, I turned on Willie Nelson’s “Road House,” which plays country songs from an earlier era, songs that tell local stories about real people and still have simple tunes with fiddle and guitar.

“Ugh!” I thought, as I listened to Hank Williams singing ‘Cold Cold Heart,’  “Rednecks getting set to round up a lynch mob!”

Hmm, I thought.  For Abigail to hate country music is a brand new mindset!  Let me scan the wider landscape and see how the rest of the world looks to me now.

Sure enough, the world’s peoples were differently arranged.  On the one side, I saw the seried ranks of oppressed people, like a single high human cliff, joined in their collective victimization.

On the opposing side, Europe and its heirs: arrogant, stupid, self-deceived and cruel.  Worthless! — they all looked to me now.  I hated them.

Then, as suddenly, it was over.  I flipped back again.  How did that happen?  A memory came to my rescue.  It was years ago.  I was attending a Mozart concert in Salzburg, Austria with Anna, my philosopher friend with whom I’d been hitching through Europe.  At the performance, there were truths we held to be self-evident:

Mozart

deserved to be heard.

The old lady in the seat next to ours,

squeaking her chair to interfere with the concert,

had less right to be heard.

Neither oppressed nor oppressors are a uniform bloc.  It doesn’t line up like that.  How does it line up?  You need to examine the particulars.  The devil and the better angels are in the details.

For the last ten days, Jerry and I have been away, partly to get me another round of neuropathy treatments, partly to attend meetings of religionists where Jerry has had panels to chair.  I supposed that the attendees included some Beautiful Souls as well.  Perhaps their epiphanies might be lasting longer than mine did. Whether or not this was so, the meetings were not about concerns particular and private to me.

However, “Dear Abbie” is a different forum, where my private concerns can be mentioned.  Privately, I imagined that, were the embattled State of Israel to be annihilated, many current religionists would think,

“They had it coming!”

They would not say it, of course.  But they would think it.  The Beautiful Jews, if any were around, would think it.  And the Beautiful Gentiles would think it too.  With the following justification:

“The State of Israel extends over Occupied land.”

As if the nations that the Beautiful People come from aren’t on territory Occupied against the wishes of predecessors who were, at some point, displaced by the regimes currently governing those nations!

As if the West Bank of the Jordan River wasn’t Occupied by the State of Jordan between 1948 and 1967!  As if Great Britain didn’t Occupy the land between the inauguration of its Mandate after World War I and Britain’s transfer of its Mandate to the United Nations in 1947!  As if the Ottoman Turks didn’t Occupy the land for the 300 years previous to World War I!

As if the Bible, drawn on for spiritual nourishment by religionists the world over, doesn’t explicitly state that the Promised Land had previous inhabitants: the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Canaanites, the Amalekites, etc. etc. and the famous Philistines – who had themselves crossed the sea from Greece to Occupy the Mediterranean coast, no doubt at the expense of previous coastal peoples.

Why then this pious readiness to say, “the Jews had it coming”?  Why this purportedly moral outrage, so extreme that it actually is capable of legitimating the next Holocaust?

If I wept all the tears that are in me for a thousand years, believe me, it would not be for me alone.  It would also be for the Beautiful Souls who think this is okay.  Why do they think that?  Because the alternative is, for Beautiful Souls, utterly unthinkable.  What alternative would that be?

Just this: If there ever was a God of Israel … or a covenant between Israel and its God, there is one still!

That’s the one utterance that must never

            never

                        never

                                        never

                                                                  be heard!

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A Rich and Novel Treatment of an All-important Subject!

A Rich and Novel Treatment of an All-important Subject!

Amazon Customer Review of Abigail L Rosenthal’s  A Good Look at Evil. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2018.

By Jonathan Weidenbaum, Ph.D., School of Liberal Arts, Berkeley College, NYC

I first received this book in the expectation of procuring some insight into the nature of evil. What I gained was certainly this, but far more.

A Good Look at Evil begins with a unique take on the ethical life as the realization of one’s ideal story, and evil as the destruction of this process either within oneself or in others. In unpacking these deceptively simple definitions, Rosenthal offers a wealth of ideas which may serve to deepen and transform our grasp of human nature. Here, for instance, one finds keen profiles of unsavory figures like the seducer and the sell-out—depictions on par with the best philosophical novels. Here is also a merciless dissection of Hannah Arendt in light of new evidence concerning the Eichmann trial and her relationship to Martin Heidegger. Here is a penetrating study of the different kinds of personalities and motives behind genocide.

Chapters such as “Thinking like a Nazi” can compete with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew for recognition as among the greatest phenomenologies of self-deception and the genesis of the bigoted mind. All throughout, Rosenthal engages with a host of authors both classic and contemporary. She explores topics which connect philosophy with anthropology, history, and even theology.

Rosenthal’s concept of God as a co-author of our life-narrative merits some future exploration, and may yet have some impact on the philosophy of religion. The sheer originality of this book make it a pleasure to read, and my grasp of the range and phenomena of evil have advanced considerably after having completed it. This is no small claim, given that I have been teaching courses in both theoretical and applied ethics for close to twenty years.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the perennial questions of right and wrong—indeed for any intellectually curious and morally serious person.

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Economic Life

“Landscape with The Fall of Icarus”
Joos de Momper, c 1565

Economic Life 

I suppose that people’s political differences turn on their differing solutions to the problem of economic life.

What problem would that be?

Oh, let’s say the human species has its overall metabolism: its ways of handling the inflow and outgo of whatever sustains us in life.  So of course differences about how to sustain us in our lives would be highly consequential.

About economic theory, I do not pretend to have a clue.  Two stories always come to mind when the talk turns that way.  One is about our family friend Leo Bronstein, celebrated teacher and thinker about art.  The other concerns Soren Kierkegaard, who thought deeply and is considered the 19th-century forerunner of existentialism.

When Leo was a young man in Paris, stranded without a ruble by the Russian Revolution and burdened with the same birth name as that of the communist leader Leon Trotsky, he had enough francs in his pocket either to eat for a week or to purchase a prime seat at a concert.  Of course, to continue being Leo, he chose the latter.  This hungry-looking lad was noticed by a Spanish gentleman in the next seat.  At Intermission, they began to chat.  The Spanish gentleman became his patron, guiding him up the ladder of higher degrees in Paris and taking him home to Catalonia for summer vacations with his family.

About Kierkegaard, the story I read was somewhat similar.  To sustain the inflow and outflow of his remarkable philosophico/theological talent, he kept up a bachelor’s life of fine restaurants and private equipage of horse and carriage, as long as he could.  When he no longer could, he died shortly thereafter.

I don’t have an economic theory, but I think

it’s good to remain yourself,

as long as you can.

Speaking of transformations and staying who one is, from time to time I go back to a book by the historian Norman Stone with the title, Europe Transformed 1878-1919.  It tells the most remarkable story.  Up to the last third of the 19th century, illiteracy and hunger were widespread, almost the norm, in the populations of Europe.  Then, with breathtaking rapidity, railroads and public education changed everything.  Produce could be brought cheaply from far-off places and carried by train.  And the children of the poor learned to read.

Great news, right?  Well, yes and no.  As food prices fell, farmers were undersold and could no longer make ends meet.  So they left their farms on whatever terms they could get and went to the city.  When the farmers left, the blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, shoemakers and owners of general stores folded too.  The countryside was denuded.

The same thing happened here in the USA.  Jerry and I visited Turkey, Texas, the town where he was born.  When Jerry told his father about the visit, L.B. commented:

“Has it blown away yet?”

Yeah.  Pretty much.  Everyone who’s got wheels has moved to Lubbock.  The big city.  We would’ve done it too, had we not started out on higher ground.

Every technological advance raises the question anew: How much real work is to be found in the big city?  And how much make-work?  Jobs created to siphon off discontent and wounded pride?  Fodder for the demagogues in every age and clime.

The solutions that call in the government carry their price in top-down constraints on the normal freedoms of everyday people.  Jerry’s cousin Margaret lives in Lubbock.  She and her husband used to go out on weekends to serve free homemade chili to the homeless.  The city got wind of it and shut them down, of course.

On the other hand, the free market has its own towering costs.  My old neighborhood in Manhattan used to include foreign enclaves with their distinctive restaurants, music and languages: Italian, German, Mexican, Hungarian and the poor of every land.  They were protected by the Third Avenue El that roared through, shaking the tenements and making neighborhood life undesirable for the rich.  Now the El has been torn down, rent-controlled housing is no longer in the landlords’ interest, and foreign wealth is buying the real estate at top dollar.

Nobody who doesn’t already live there can afford to move to the upper east side of Manhattan.  As for the rich who can afford it – and moved there partly to get the urban life we old renters took for granted – all I can say is,

“There goes the neighborhood.”

So what’s it all about, economic life?  People will kill and die for their economic theories, but the theories never quite square with the way things are – behind the theorizing.

You’ve got a theory?  Good for you.  I hope you can find somebody to pay you to expound it safely.

Let me give it a go.

Abbie’s Economic Theory:

The goal of economic life is to make at least possible

a man or a woman who can live out his or her story 

without having to lie too much –

just to survive.  

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The Horse Knows

Photo by Joan Summers

The Horse Knows

As a child, I regarded animals as people. Particularly large animals, like the big dog that followed me around when we were at Hilltop, the bungalow colony in New Jersey where my family spent summers. They looked different from human people, maybe, but children don’t make a federal case out of that.

I didn’t ask myself what a dog’s sensory receptors could take in that mine could not, nor what I could do better than the dog could. I didn’t wonder about the dog’s cognitive abilities. The dog was just one of the people you met when you were out of doors.

There was a cat that sat on the landlady’s porch. I would pet her seemingly without end. I didn’t ask myself whether the cat was bored or how she felt about me.

Animal relations were not problematic.

When I was ten, my illustrated edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was one of my favorite books. Its hero is Mowgli, the boy who was raised by the wolves. Mowgli has good relations with friends of varied species. They teach him many things good to know: to hunt, to deal with enemies, to be a loyal ally.

How to cry is the one thing they did not teach him. When he has to leave the jungle, he asks his animal friends what’s happening to him, what’s wrong? He should not worry, they explain.

“These are only tears, such as men use.”

When you are growing up, you learn more about such tears. You learn that animals talk only in illustrated children’s books, not in real life. I had resolved not to grow up. I thought grownups were oversized and insincere. But sometimes, you don’t get a choice.

Recently, what with Jerry’s weeks of gradual recovery from his all-too-serious surgery, I told one of his nurses about my own caregiver’s symptoms. She thought I should have a stress test and an EKG.

Turns out it was “only” stress. My heart’s fine. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that my coping stratagems were not fully adequate for the current situation. I would need something more.

Facebook had an advertisement for something called Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. I consider horses to be good for you, with or without the “Gestalt” part. But I hadn’t found any safe way of being around them since I was last in the saddle. I was thrown at a run and really can’t count on falling so well next time. Anyway, the Coach is Joan Summers, so I called her.

Joan said her treatment doesn’t involve riding. You get in an arena with her and the horse. The horse wears no halter. Then something or other happens. I didn’t ask what.

When I arrived, I was introduced to Star, the four-legged coach. With Star looking on, I described, to Joan and the owner of the stable, my previous riding experience, which had ended so woefully. On impulse, I looked suddenly at Star.

“Did she understand what I said?”

“She understood every word.”

There are, the two women explained, energies behind every spoken word. Star was a lead mare, thus responsible for the safety of the herd. So she is precision-tuned to the energies of sound. She might not have gotten the words, but she got the point.

To me, this idea was extremely exciting. This was not just kid stuff. Mowgli was right!

Joan and I entered the arena with Star and began to discuss my sense of who and what I was – who and what I am. Every time I would say something just because I thought I was expected to say it, the horse would knock over chairs, buck or even sit down on the soft turf of the arena. Or she would just trot off by herself till I stopped messing around.

In marked contrast, anything I said that I could entirely vouch for would elicit a relaxed, alert stance. She would come right over to where I was, ears listening, head high, posture elegant and collected.

Well I’ll be!

The horse knows the truth!

Do you know what that means, for a philosophy teacher – or for any of us? It means, there IS truth! And that, deep down, we know it!

So the relativism, the skepticism, the cynicism, the various super-educated, soul-deadening layers of denial … are false. If the horse can tell –

crap from clay —

deception and self-deception from integrity –

so can we all!

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What About the Jews?

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

What About the Jews?

Over yesterday and today has hung the heavy cloud of the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue.

The feelings that settled over me immediately were desolation and isolation.  Plus a welling up of the fright and sense of hopelessness that hovers, always, along the sides of The Well of Time.

Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, his novelization of the Book of Genesis, begins,

Very deep is the well of time.

What does that say to me?  There is expectancy.  A story will unfold in time.  It will, because it already has.  There is no danger that the story can be lost, misremembered, or misunderstood.  It’s the story that discloses itself simultaneously with its divinely shaped meanings.  One is safe.  One is within the Ur Story, the tale of human relations with the God who has person-to-person relationships.  There is no way to fall out of it – this well of time.

So, a deranged shooter comes in from a side door and sprays the still-living players with his loaded weapon and rallying cry, “Death to all Jews!”

Why?  Well, I’m no psychologist but I tend to think we are what we believe.  It seems he shares the basic belief of the anti-semite about “the Jews”: that they are a uniform entity, powered by a single, undivided will, able to reach into every corner of this planet, to help itself at the cost of harming every human being and every good thing.

When you think of it, the anti-semite’s belief pays a sort of inverted tribute to the claim God makes for the descendants of Father Abraham:

In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

It’s God’s very promise to the Jews, only with the word “cursed” put in place of “blessed.”

So the rather special, set-apart status of the Jews is acknowledged by the anti-semite, in a manner of speaking, more than by people who don’t seem to suffer from the morbid syndrome I call “Jews-on-the-brain.”

The Bible records, and everyday experience confirms, that Jews don’t all think alike, don’t all will the same things, and don’t act as a single, united force in the world.  Since not every anti-semite is stupid, surely many of the bright ones would have noticed this fact.  Why then is their hypothesis not refuted by these counter-examples?

You might say, well, that’s the nature of prejudice.  It is resistant to empirical evidence when the evidence does not confirm its outlook.  Yeah but such resistance is not confined to bigots.  We’re all resistant to anomalies that might tend to undermine our worldviews.  If we weren’t, we’d be changing our worldviews twice a day at least.  We give up our beliefs only reluctantly, over time, when reality finally compels us to let go of them.

Yet anti-semitism has a strange, more-than-ordinary resistance to reality.  If one form of it goes out of style, the syndrome reappears, reenergized and decked out in a brand new disguise.

The Jews are the marker left

 by God’s dealings with humanity. 

Nobody knows what to do about that historical fact.  Is the sincere anti-semite trying to erase that marker?

Yes.

He’s a very sincere fellow.

You’ve got to give him that.

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Competitive Friendships

Henry M. Rosenthal in the classroom

Competitive Friendships

When, as a young woman, I returned from a year in Paris with an affair to conceal (because that’s what you did about that sort of thing in those days) my women friends from high school and college were all either married or getting married.  There was only one brass ring for women at that time.  Nothing could be clearer.

With possible suitors, I felt literally unavailable – already spoken for — despite the fact that I hadn’t believed that my first love and I should marry.  This was certainly correct where my future development was concerned, but it put me out of the only game considered worth playing for women in those times.

Meanwhile, not positioned to give an account of my own purposes or pathway in life, instinctively I put distance between myself and my women friends.

The young American men with whom I had enjoyed such easy comradeship on our Fulbright year abroad, now locked themselves into the struggle to succeed at whatever they thought it best to do.  Conversations were no longer about the topic addressed.  The topic was the pretext.  These were not conversations.  They were positionings.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s nineteenth-century sage, wrote,

Social life is war.

I have just been reading the youthful correspondence between my future father, Henry M. Rosenthal, and his best friend in college and for some years thereafter, Lionel Trilling.  Trilling went on to make for himself the most brilliant career of his generation as a public intellectual.  Since they had been so very close, I never knew exactly why my father broke it off with him, but that could well have been the reason.  On the race track of life, it’s hard to eat your friend’s dust.  In his youth, my father wrote a short story, “Inventions,” (The Menorah Journal, January, 1928), where he foresaw the friendship’s demise.

Since the breakup that my father foresaw has some large implications, I will try to describe it.  At that juncture, my father was going to be a rabbi.  It did not turn out the right walk of life for him – he became a philosopher later – but then it seemed the most authentic way to assume and live out his Jewish identity.

Trilling, by contrast, did not think there was a God or that Jewish identity – about which he knew little – was any great shakes.  He was not merely “in favor of assimilation,” he really was assimilated.  He not only wrote about English literature, he sincerely felt more at home in England than anywhere else!  His mother was born there.  He admitted to being Jewish only insofar as it was a poor show to conceal an inconvenient fact for the sake of social advantage.

Young men test themselves by sharpening each one’s life instruments against the other’s.  Young lions do the same, from what we see in the National Geographic films.  So, in my father’s short story, it becomes a kind of trial by ordeal for his character in the story to test his personal truth by trying to “convert” his more assimilated friend.

The effort fails, as his character himself admits in the story.  The would-be missionary cannot attain sufficient inner conviction to convince anybody else.  Irony – the Jew’s classic defense against outside deprecations – has bit too deep into his own soul.  He can’t attain the one-pointedness needed to bring off a conversion.  In exasperation, his not-so-Jewish friend exclaims,

But find your God

 before you try to sell Him to me!”

Many years later, my father met the theologian Thomas Altizer at a social gathering.  I was watching from across the floor as my father walked up to him, draped an arm around his shoulder and said, laughing as if the theological notion for which Altizer was famous struck him as irresistibly funny, “You’re the ‘God is dead’ man!”  Still laughing, he dug an elbow into his ribs.

Some time after my father died, I happened to attend a party for academics which numbered Altizer among the guests.  The theologian told me that there was one thing and only one thing he cared about — “and that’s God.  And your father … was a man of God!”

I doubt my father ever learned how to sell Him to Lionel Trilling or anybody else.  But his transparency to the highest reaches of life was evident to some, including his students.  Over time, my father learned to live — with himself and some few friends — at a memorable depth.

The most crucial time to stand by your friends is when they haven’t found their purpose or their God —

and can’t sell either to anyone.

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Evil Is Understandable

Evil Is Understandable

Amazon Customer Review of Abigail L Rosenthal’s  A Good Look at Evil. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2018.

By Barry Cooper, Professor of Political Science, University of Calvary

Abigail Rosenthal is a professor (emerita) of philosophy, which is not the same thing as being a real philosopher. Indeed, there are few enough books written today by genuine philosophers. This is one. Like Socrates, she also conducts conversations with the many non-philosophers, but unlike him, she does so over the Internet in an online column, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Any book with the title, A Good Look at Evil looks to be heavy going, but Rosenthal’s treatment of an undoubtedly important philosophical problem is remarkably accessible to anyone who still retains a hold on commonsense.

To begin with, she takes the view that “good” is the ability to work out one’s own story, the story of one’s own life, what she calls a corrigible nonfiction narrative. And evildoing is the deliberate prevention or interruption of working out your own life-story, whether you do it to yourself or to somebody else. Stories, literally, reveal who I am –as when, having been offered a bribe of some kind –money, a promotion for considerations, a #MeToo opportunity– one says: “that’s not who I am.” This is, then, a genuine and practical philosophy of existence, a recovery of the understanding of philosophy as a way of living. Moreover it is devoid of the high sounding and usually empty words we often associate with philosophy, words that properly speaking are the verbal coin of the realm for intellectuals, sophists, PR flacks and similar frauds.

Rosenthal relies on Aristotle, Kant, and other great predecessors for what we now call a philosophical anthropology, that is, a philosophical understanding of human being, as well as upon more lightweight contemporary moral philosophy. She draws some delightful portraits of contemporary miscreants –the gambler, the rake, the seducer. She tells us a good deal about why politicians, as distinct from statesmen, are rightly held in contempt, and not just in America, but in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Russia, Africa, Asia. Everywhere! Why? Because, she explains in detail, they are invariably sell-outs. One way or another they betray the trust that reposes in their office and do so for unworthy motives. And everyone, including them, knows it. It happens on the grand stage of world politics and the petty stage of academic politics. Political correctness is just a recent instantiation.

Hard cases may make for bad laws but also for very interesting philosophical problems. For example, evildoers do bad things by spoiling life-stories but some are worse than others. Deliberate evildoers are worse than impulsive ones, for example. Moreover, when one moves from doing bad things to individuals to doing bad things to populations, the latter is worse than the former…

The paradigm case where genocide is linked to mass murder is the Holocaust. Inter-tribal destruction, even the example where Western cultures extinguished aboriginal cultures by killing the aboriginal population, as in Tasmania and Newfoundland, do not compare to the Holocaust because the numbers of human beings murdered is not comparable. Moreover, butchery motivated by desire for loot and power or by cultural contempt is (or seems to be) less malevolent than the meticulously planned and executed Nazi murder of so many millions of Jews. Here we have a genocidal holocaust, not mere mass murder or cultural genocide. That is about as evil as it gets. Worst of all, it took the teamwork of the Germans, either active or passive, to get the job done. Under such circumstances, Rosenthal argued, the only appropriate response is to do whatever one can to survive.

The last chapter of the original (1987) edition described what it would be like to think (if that is the right word) like a Nazi. Obviously, it is not acceptable to take Nazi words at face value and entertain some allegedly “higher” notion of good and evil. We, like Rosenthal, suppose that all along the Nazi knew he (or she) was in the wrong. To the claim that they were entirely ordinary, Rosenthal agreed. She adds that they were also quite determined not to know what was going on, which is another way of saying that they knew perfectly well what was going on. Their unctuous evasion was contradicted by their cooperation with the German government and churches to ensure the Holocaust went smoothly. The notion that the Holocaust was entirely the responsibility of the Leader is likewise evil nonsense because everybody (including Nazis) knows that human beings simply cannot sign over their liberty to another. The Nazis were never victims. So far as the very boring Eichmann was concerned, “being that boring is the symptom a persistent and thickly insulated untruth.”

For many readers, the most interesting part of Rosenthal’s book will likely be her discussion of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. I will not go into details because Rosenthal’s discussion deserves to be studied on its own. All I will say is that Arendt was not “taken in” by Heidegger. Nor was she just a young woman in love with her prof, and Heidegger was not simply an opportunist with a roving eye. Arendt’s amply documented life, with which Rosenthal is entirely familiar, details a life story that began exceptionally and wonderfully, and “regrettably she spoiled it.”

 

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