When it comes to Hannah Arendt, it seems you either love her work or hate it. It has been noted that her corpus has attained an academic cult status over the last 15 to 20 years, but many people do not understand why. Many dislike Arendt's condescending, almost imperial, tone, her idiosyncratic definitions of ordinary terms, and even what some perceive as a shallowness of thought. As Isiah Berlin once remarked:
She produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought. It is all a stream of metaphysical free association. She moves from one sentence to another, without logical connection, without either rational or imaginative links between them.
I should be clear that I do not accept this view. In fact I am firmly in the "love her work" camp. But I understand this sort of reaction because much of her writing, taken in isolation from her larger project, does leave the impression of randomness, or even a certain lack of rigor.
Attempting to untangle some of the latest efforts of "Hannah Worship," Jeremy Waldron addresses the question of "What would Hannah Say?" In a recent edition of the New York Review of Books, Waldron discusses several recent attempts to hypothesize how Arendt would react to our current situation: The so called "War on Terror," the suspension of Habeas Corpus, Guantanamo Bay, the "Palestinian Question." He ultimately believes this is a misguided task, not because Arendt's work is not rich with insight, but because it attempts to make her thinking iconic. Instead of worshiping in the museum of all that is Hannah, we should follow her example:
The worst thing about the question "What would Hannah do?" is the likelihood that it—or the cult that generates it—becomes a substitute for thinking for ourselves. The nature of thinking is one of the most important concerns of Arendt's social and political theory. Thinking is the "habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention" in inner dialogue, in a sort of conversation with oneself, where every mental reaction is subject to criticism and in which the inner critic is also held to answer back and forth...
...[But] thinking is also one of the most fragile features of human consciousness. Part of what Arendt meant by the banality of evil is the possibility of wrongdoing that opens up when this inner dialogue is no longer an important feature of people's lives, so that the prospect of who I would have to live with in myself is no longer a concern.
But thinking will atrophy in an environment that lacks the stillness that allows us to concentrate in inner dialogue or, more ominously, in a social environment where distrust among people makes first outer conversation, then inner conversation impossible. We know that in totalitarian societies, distrust is fostered deliberately to this end. It is a question for us whether something less malign but equally consequential may be happening in the noise and superficiality of modern consumer society.
The tribute that is owed to the particularity of Arendt's work is not imitation and it is not the application of some lessons we are supposed to have learned; it is our own resolve to think things through here and now, as she thought about them there and then.