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Reviewed by:
  • Why Arendt Matters
  • Cara O'Connor
Why Arendt Matters, by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 232 pp. $22.00.

Last year was the centennial of Hannah Arendt's birth, occasioning dozens of conferences and events, a new Web site (, and even the inauguration of Hannah-Arendt-Strasse in Berlin. In the context of these [End Page 163] celebrations, Yale University Press published Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's heartfelt, Why Arendt Matters. The inaugural book of Yale's series "Why x Matters" (slated to include such other subjects as Dreyfus, Shakespeare, and Reason), Why Arendt Matters is especially suited for those newly interested in Arendt, or, as Young-Bruehl puts it, "students of the age I was when I became Arendt's student in 1968" (pp. 14–15). As one would expect, Why Arendt Matters relinquishes the assumption that Arendt's significance is transparent. Perhaps less predictably, in building her case for Arendt, Young-Bruehl makes little attempt to justify Arendt's arguments and claims. Instead she concentrates on linking Arendt's thought, roughly sketched, to certain crucial problems of our own time.

Young-Bruehl structures Why Arendt Matters around four of Arendt's most important and influential works: Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and the posthumously published The Life of the Mind (1978). Each work is viewed as a discrete center of questioning, intensified from within a particular context, and requiring its own methodology. The Origins of Totalitarianism is a "field manual" for recognizing proto-totalitarian elements (p. 35), The Human Condition is a "primer on how to think about and evaluate the res publica" (p. 80), and The Life of the Mind is a lens through which we can discern "the mental dilemmas of our time" (p. 199).

Known for her outstanding 1982 biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, Young-Bruehl hardly intends this book to be another meditation on Hannah Arendt's life. She does, however, treat Arendt's writings in a biographical manner, combining exegeses, genealogy, and anecdote to depict the life-stories of Arendt's most relevant ideas. For example, the first chapter, "The Origins of Totalitarianism and the Twenty-first Century," draws the reader through the book's transformations and revisions, responses to the revelations of WWII and the post-war years. What began as an historical project aimed at distinguishing modern antisemitism from its predecessors was transformed in 1941, when Arendt learned of the concentration camps, and her method changed from that of "an historian to a political thinker who had to respond to the 'unbelievable fact' of killing factories" (p. 37). Ultimately, thanks to her refusal to resort to ready-made political categories and concepts, Arendt succeeded in describing an entirely new kind of state; her analysis would enable us to recognize dangerous anti-political "tendencies" even in decidedly non-totalitarian states.

Indeed, it is Arendt's talent for identifying the novel and for making distinctions that most consistently renders her thought relevant to our present circumstances. Young-Bruehl attempts to follow Arendt's example (and show [End Page 164] her young readers how it's done) by identifying the uncharted and undigested aspects of our current political landscape. Like Arendt, we must resist the temptation to draw convenient parallels in times of crisis. Young-Bruehl is thinking, of course, of the misguided analogies to Pearl Harbor and the Cold War that have fueled the disastrous War on Terror. Even Arendt's own observations should not be assumed to map neatly onto ours. On the one hand, the form of religious-based terrorism operating in the world today evinces the "supranational" goals that Arendt noticed in proto-totalitarian states (p. 70), but on the other hand, this brand of terror does not resemble anything Arendt witnessed, in that it "does not presume a state administration" (p. 71). This means that rather than looking for solutions to our problems directly in Arendt's writings, we are invited to imagine what Hannah Arendt might have said or written about various developments she did not live to see. Young Bruehl selects events she thinks call attention to Arendt...


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