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by Hannah Arendt

Pub Date: Dec. 4th, 1995
ISBN: 0-226-02596-9
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Now published in English for the first time, Arendt's 1929 doctoral dissertation offers insights into her later political and philosophical constructions. A German-Jewish refugee from Hitler's Europe, Arendt wrote Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), an instrumental text in framing political discourse during the Cold War over the nature of totalitarian regimes. She is also best known for her New Yorker article that was eventually published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1961). Her doctoral dissertation was a three-part examination of St. Augustine's conception of caritas: the first analysis seeks to define it as "craving," or appetitus. The second analysis focuses on the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Arendt then turns to the question of the relation between Creator and Creature, and how neighborly love is possible in the face of the overwhelming presence of the Creator. The work stands in the tradition of German doctoral dissertations; i.e., it is dense and difficult terrain. Throughout, there is the overshadowing figure of Martin Heidegger, arguably the most important philosopher of the 20th century. Under his influence, Arendt utilized the concepts of natality, memory, and phenomenology. Yet her focus on Augustine's self-reflective imperative ("I have become a question to myself") reflects her debt to another teacher, Karl Jaspers, the director of her dissertation. In Arendt's treatment of Augustinian concepts such as memory, caritas, cupiditas, and especially the civitas terrena, or "the earthly city," we realize that these are perennial philosophical concerns. Scott (Political Science/Eastern Michigan Univ.) and Stark (Philosophy/Seton Hall) provide two interpretive essays arguing that the dissertation is the "missing link" in Arendt scholarship and that none of the later works can be understood apart from it. In all her later writing, they argue, Arendt, following Augustine, addressed the problem of social and political action in an imperfect world. A revelation that may force us to reconsider the traditional interpretation of Arendt's work.