The (Meta)politics of Thinking: On Arendt and the Greeks

In Kristian Larsen & Pål Rykkja Gilbert (eds.), Phenomenological Interpretations of Ancient Philosophy. Brill. pp. 260-282 (2021)
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In this chapter, Jussi Backman approaches Hannah Arendt’s readings of ancient philosophy by setting out from her perspective on the intellectual, political, and moral crisis characterizing Western societies in the twentieth century, a crisis to which the rise of totalitarianism bears witness. To Arendt, the political catastrophes haunting the twentieth century have roots in a tradition of political philosophy reaching back to the Greek beginnings of philosophy. Two principal features of Arendt’s exchange with the ancients are highlighted. The first is her account, in The Human Condition (1958), of the profound transformation of the Greek perceptions of political life initiated by Plato, the founder of the Western tradition of political philosophy; this transformation, according to Arendt, leads to an instrumentalization of politics as a means toward a higher end. The second feature is Arendt’s distinction, in her unfinished Life of the Mind (1977–8), between three different points of departure for thinking discovered by ancient philosophy—wonder, fear, and conscience—and three different outcomes of thinking—contemplation, willing, and judging. Backman argues that what connects these two interpretations of ancient philosophy is an attempt to rethink and rearticulate the complex relationship between thinking and action, between the reflective vita contemplativa and the world-oriented vita activa.
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