Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, and the Tenor of Our Time

Yves here. The Hayekian fantasy, and Isaiah Berlin’s closely aligned belief, that the measure of freedom is the ability to take unfettered individual action, shows how Industrial-Revolution created infrastructure and material comforts have made us stupid. One of the most severe punishments in ancient Greece was exile. Citizens knew they could either not live at all outside their city, or would have a life not much living. Hannah Arendt is keenly aware of those realities and hence her notions of freedom explicitly rest on communities and well functioning institutions.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health

When trying to make sense of troubled eras, a perpetual state with ours certainly included, I have found that one way to understand the world is to through collective biographies.  I read my first of these near the beginning of my career as a scientist: The Visible College: A Collective Biography of British Scientists and Socialists of the 1930s (1978), by Gary Werskey.  Of course, that book fit my priors very well since I was already familiar with the work of Joseph Needham, J. D. Bernal, and J.B.S Haldane, and Lancelot Hogben (but not Hyman Levy) from my wanderings in the open stacks of the Science Library at my university. The idea of a “visible college” committed to science in the public interest was one reason I wanted to be a scientist in the first place, instead of the more familiar “invisible college” of academics who above all keep their heads down while tending to their laboratories, grants, and narrowly focused publications, with students as an afterthought.[1]  Joseph Needham et al. made a difference. 

A similar book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003) by Paul Elie, which interleaves the lives and work of four American Catholics of the 20th century: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.  Each of these writers is worthy of as much attention as we can give to them, with the Southerner in me gravitating to the Ms. O’Connor and Mr. Percy.

Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (2018) by Michael Massing illuminates an essential conflict of early modern Europe, one that continues.  Aaron Sachs’s recent Up from the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times (2022) sits on my table staring back at me, half-finished but well worth the time, not least because it rescues Lewis Mumford from, if not oblivion, something of an eclipse.

Technics and Civilization is one of the most important books of the 20th century.  Mumford was still read when I was a student at a university with a bookstore worthy of the name; we would do well to pay him attention again as technics continues to threaten civilization, as described by Justin E.H. Smith in The Internet is Not What You Think It Is, for example; also sitting half-read on my table.  And, well, Melville remains Melville.

Two recent delightful and fascinating collective biographies of four women – Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Phillipa Foot, and Iris Murdoch – who helped rescue moral philosophy from a cul de sac are The Women are Up to Something (2021) by Benjamin J.B Lipscomb and Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life (2022) by Claire Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman.  Prior to reading these books, I was most familiar with the work of Mary Midgley, whose first book Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (1978) was tour de force and an unintentional if much needed though not hostile counterpoint to Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by E.O. Wilson (1975)[2].  Mary Midgley (b. 1919) was 59 when Beast and Man was published and her final book, What is Philosophy For?, (2018) was published when she was 99 years old.  Most of her books are still in print and well repay the effort. The same is true of her other three friends from Oxford of the early 1940s.

These last two collective biographies bring me to the subject for today, a consideration of two essential historians, intellectuals, and philosophers of the 20th century who remain important as we continue to act in and adapt to the world of technics and late capitalist neoliberalism, with civilization thrown somewhere into the mix: Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin through the lens of Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity (2022), by Kei Hiruta of Aarhus University.  The contributions of Berlin and Arendt hold up well against those of our current honking gaggle of “public intellectuals,” whose names – left, right, muddled middle – I shall leave to the imagination.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Hanover to a secular Jewish family and grew up in Königsberg, then the major city of East Prussia and now Kaliningrad.  She earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of Marburg with the title “The Concept of Love in Augustine” in 1929 while still in her early 20’s.  The Reichstag Fire (1933) served as her political awakening.  She was arrested and interrogated for eight days, after which she fled illegally to Paris.  She and her husband Heinrich Blücher were interned as enemy aliens at the start of World War II.  After their release they were reunited by chance and emigrated to New York in 1941.

Arendt established herself as one of the most consequential writers of the mid-20th century with The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), Between Past and Future (1961), the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), which led to a “civil war” among the New York Intellectuals, and Men in Dark Times (1968).  She worked as an editor at Schocken Books and later taught and the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research through the early-1970s.  Her books are still in print, and appreciation of her work is undergoing a renascence.  She died in New York in 1975 at the age of 69.

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was born in Riga, then a provincial capital of the Russian Empire, to a wealthy Russian-speaking Jewish family that maintained their timber business through the October Revolution.  The Berlin family moved to London after the October Revolution.  Young Isaiah attended St. Paul’s School in London (1922-1928) and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he obtained Firsts in Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) and PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) in 1932.

Immediately after graduation at the age of 23 Berlin became a lecturer in philosophy at New College and shortly thereafter was made a fellow at All Souls College (an academic Olympus).  His colleagues at Oxford included J.L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire, and A.J. Ayer, wrote Language, Truth, and Logic, a founding text of logical positivism, from which philosophy is still trying to recover (see Metaphysical Animals).

Berlin’s first book was Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1938, the final edition of which was the first biography of Marx that I read).  During World War II he was a British diplomat in the US and served for a short time in the British Embassy in Moscow in 1946.  After the war he returned to Oxford, where until his death at age 88 he was a much sought after public intellectual and President of the British Academy, 1974-1978.  His works include “The Hedgehog and the Fox” (1953), “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), The Age of Enlightenment (1958), Four Essays on Liberty (1969), and several collections compiled and edited by Henry Hardy beginning in the 1970s plus a 4-volume collection of letters from 1928-1997 (Cambridge and Chatto & Windus, 2004-2015).  The Proper Study of Mankind, Henry Hardy and Robert Hausheer, eds. (1997) is perhaps the best one-volume collection of Berlin’s essays.  As Stefan Collini has written, Isaiah Berlin was “the equivalent of an academic saint.” (p. 13).

It has been said that Isaiah Berlin did not like Hannah Arendt.  This is certainly true based on his collected letters.  He constantly refers to her as “Miss Arendt” (I have all four volumes and could not resist this rabbit hole).  She has index entries in the final three covering the 1950s through 1997; the index entries in the final volume have a section called “Arendt, Johanna (‘Hannah’): IB’s contempt for.”  Well, OK then.

At first, I gave Berlin the benefit of the doubt because “Ms.” had not appeared yet as a neutral courtesy title for a woman equivalent to “Mr.”  No, actually.  In a list of people, the men are often identified by their last names plus “Miss Arendt.”  Mary McCarthy, who was  Arendt’s friend and defender, especially after Eichmann in Jerusalem was published in 1963, is referred to as “Mary McCarthy.”  From a 1985 letter: “I must admit that Miss Arendt is a bête noire of mine – I see nothing in her writings of the slightest value or interest and never have.”  Uncharitable, but charity from Mt. Olympus has often been in short supply.  In 1986 he refers to her as the “late, sainted Hannah Arendt.”  No matter.  If Hannah Arendt knew of the depth of his antipathy she did not care, much.  And in any case, their work was the important thing, and both are essential to understanding the 20th century and our responses to the most destructive period in our history  Still, he could have called her “Dr. Arendt” because she did have the degree he lacked, and of course did not need in the prewar Oxford in 1932.  But that would probably have had a double meaning, too.  Something about German punctiliousness, perhaps.

The key to Kei Hiruta’s book is the subtitle: Freedom, Politics and Humanity, with emphasis on Freedom here.  Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt necessarily responded to the overwhelming “Inhumanity,” “Evil,” and “Judgment” of the 20th century.  Their different perspectives on these issues are clearly the origin of much of Berlin’s antipathy to Arendt as a writer, scholar, and intellectual.[3]  Nevertheless, they shared their generation’s discontent with the “main rationalist current of Western political thought and its failure to do justice to the complexity of human life.  They further shared deep skepticism about what they both regarded as a recent manifestation of that rationalist tendency…the over-application of scientific methods to the study of human affairs” (p. 47).  Yes, scientism is a bane of our existence and something to return to.  Still, there was a fundamental difference in their concepts of what it means to be free.

“Two Concepts of Liberty” and “The Hedgehog and the Fox” are perhaps Isaiah Berlin’s most well-known essays.[4]  The title of the second is from a surviving fragment of the Greek poet Archilochus, which says: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  The subtitle of the essay is “An Essay of Tolstoy’s View of History,” which perhaps telegraphs the lesson.  In any case, about some things it is better to be a hedgehog and others the fox; the key is to know which at the right time and place.

Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” are negative liberty and positive liberty.[5]  In the first, “One is negatively free if one is not prevented by others from doing what one could otherwise do” (p. 53).  True, and this resonates widely.  But despite what Berlin seems to mean, the conditions of the exercise of any freedom cannot be separated from the “conditions of its exercise.” Nevertheless, this is a default position of classical Liberals (uppercase “L,” valid for current conservatives and liberals, such as they identify themselves). “A sick and starving citizen who has no shoes of clothes to wear is unlikely to go to a voting booth until his or her basic needs are fulfilled.  This, however, does not mean that the citizen does not have the freedom to vote.  What he or she lacks is a set of conditions for exercising that freedom; the citizen…can exercise the freedom to vote that he or she already has…(when) basic needs, such as food, shelter, and security, are fulfilled.” (p. 55).

This is a distinction with a difference. Although Berlin is being analytic rather than social or political, the argument falls flat.  The right to vote without the means to exercise that right is no right at all.  This also applies to any other right.  One is reminded of Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”  Actually, where I live and all across the US, the law mostly ignores the first two but will enforce the third with vigor.  That people need to beg for their food or steal it and live under bridges seems to be a given.

In general, Isaiah Berlin has little to say about economic inequality or the destructive forces of Neoliberalism that has developed out of Liberalism, with its attendant austerity[6] as the default response to any and every economic crisis, real or imagined.  Neoliberalism is a protean concept that can nevertheless be summarized as: “The market is the true measure of all things, even those that cannot be measured.”

It is true that during most of Berlin’s professional life, neoliberalism was not yet a pressing concern.  But in 1986 he did lament, “What I’m accused of is always the same, which is some kind of dry, negative individualism.”  Well, if the Liberal shoe fits…

The critical reading of Hiruta shows Berlin to be “marginally left-wing version of Friedrich Hayek of Mont Pèlerin, whose seemingly rigorous analysis of liberty effectively disguises the denial of liberty to the economically disadvantaged.”  Indeed.

Isaiah Berlin’s conception of positive liberty, which he sees as inferior to negative liberty, is characterized by the answer to the question, “By whom and I governed?  The answer from an advocate of positive liberty is, of course, “By myself…through self-mastery.”  All well and good, and this comports with what we all like to think about ourselves and our lives.

But according to Berlin positive liberty can be susceptible to political abuse, by would-be interferers such as tyrants – in the broader sense that includes advertising, propaganda, politicians, and (all) governments that lie – who claim to be helping one realize true freedom but instead coerce one into doing something he or she would not otherwise do.  This also “allows interferers to claim that they are merely blocking the exercise of one’s false liberty when they in fact prevent one from doing what one actually and expressly wants to do…positive liberty can in this way be appropriated by external interferers to deprive one of negative liberty in the name of ‘true freedom’ (as) self-mastery gives way to mastery by others.”

Yes, of course it does, as described in the classic Land of Desire (1994) by William R. Leach.  This dovetails with the Neoliberalism described by many critics, my favorite of which is Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.  As a choice-making creature above all, human beings are said to have the liberty to open the doors they desire: “Positive liberty is one of the many open doors one many walk through if one chooses to, whereas negative liberty is the prior condition of having various open doors in the first place.  The life of a person who does not exercise positive liberty may be impoverished.  But the life of a person who does not have a measure of negative liberty is unbearable – in fact it is inhuman.” (p. 64).  Thus, negative liberty has primacy over positive liberty.

Yes.  But the apparent Liberal belief that these doors will be present, accessible, and unlocked is not supported by the actually existing human condition.  Which brings us to Hannah Arendt on freedom, for which her concept is derived from her philosophical predecessors; of course, the same is true for Isaiah Berlin.  For Arendt, negative liberties are inadequate.  “To be free is to exercise an opportunity for political participation…(in Berlin’s imagery) a free person is not somebody standing in front of numerous open doors (or doors that can be opened by that someone) but somebody actually walking through a door to politics…freedom is a “state of being manifest in action.” (p. 66)  And just as important, for Arendt freedom requires a set of preconditions, including:

  • Biological needs
  • Stable and durable communities and institutions
  • Laws and customs regulating political conduct
  • Means to institute democratically chosen choices

Moreover, men and women must enter into this societal network as citizens who are equal political actors, and laws must be compatible with a matching political culture.  Precisely!  And each of these attributes are sorely lacking under our late capitalist neoliberal dispensation.  Which is why the current hysteria about our “democracy being in mortal danger” from any particular or general threat is absurd.  What democracy would that be, in a world in which the ideal of a “citizen” has been replaced by that other c-word, “consumer”?  One citizen-one vote or one dollar-one vote.  Take your pick.  Only one is compatible with any reasonable concept of democracy.

Citizens who are “free require that ‘in-between,’ or the space that simultaneously relates and separates people…the space where women and men gather together, show the courage to speak and act in public, express the willingness to hear what others have to say and see what others have to do…human beings have the built-in potential to speak and act and in this way meet their potential for “human plurality,” which is the sine qua non of political life (p. 67).  This brings to mind Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam, but the better description of a healthy community may be found in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community[7] by Ray Oldenburg, which is more human, less academic, and well, more earthy.  Unless and until we return to or make anew such places in which the human condition manifests itself, we as a society and a culture will continue on this neoliberal road to perdition.

Which brings us to Hannah Arendt’s theoretical masterpiece, The Human Condition.  I confess that have not finished my current re-reading, but I did read it along with The Origins of Totalitarianism long ago.  Isaiah Berlin most certainly did not appreciate The Human Condition when it was published: From a footnote to a letter of 6 February 1959: “In 1958 IB had written a relentlessly negative report for Faber and Faber, who were considering publishing the book in the UK…‘I could recommend no publisher to buy the UK rights to this book.  There are two objections to it: it will not sell and it is no good.’ A separate UK edition has never appeared.”  (Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes, eds., p. 676).  Well, we all miss the point sometimes.  The book has been in print since 1958.  It did sell and it is good.

It goes without saying that Arendt has little sympathy for those who refuse to act, in whatever way they can.  “A liberal society must…have many open doors of various kinds, including the bourgeois door to withdrawal from politics and enjoyment of privacy and family life.  However, there is only one door to choose…if a person is to be genuinely free and to lead a fulfilling life.  That is the door to ‘the political way of life.’”(p. 72).  To be politically active can take many forms, including paying close attention to politics, especially when it is not theatre.

This lack of effective political action, among the PMC in particular, is performative in and of itself and describes most of Liberal politics these days among both politicians and their erstwhile constituents.  By not acting as “man or woman, the political animal,” we grant the powers that be their fondest wish and allow them to take care of their true constituents, which are identified here, here, here, and here (apologies for the linkstorm, but this is a target-rich environment).  As I have said on many occasions to my scientific colleagues who dismiss something as “only politics” and therefore obviously beneath them (e.g., the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which has made a few rich but at great cost to science, scientists, and society): You may not be interested in politics but, believe it or not, politics is very interested in you (with apologies to the shade of Pericles).

So, where do we go from here?  Both Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin agree that freedom is essential.  Both are essential to understanding our politics and our history.  However, “they disagree on the most satisfactory meaning of this freedom.  Their views of the human condition differ significantly, and what lies beneath their dispute…is over…what it means to be human.  One proposes the vision of the human being as a political animal conditioned by natality[8] and plurality.  The other proposes an alternative vision of the human being as a choice-making creature” who must enjoy a large measure of negative liberty (p.80)  Both are certainly correct, but it is the actually existing human condition that Classical Liberals, both conservative and liberal, seem conditioned to ignore.  Perhaps because it confounding factor, because life is messy?  Hannah Arendt claimed that her aim in The Human Condition was “very simple: it is nothing more than think what we are doing.” (Hiruta, p. 85; The Human Condition, p. 5)

And on that note, perhaps we can pause to reflect that Liberalism, in the guise of its Neo-successor, is destroying Creation through the actions of Homo economicus, that imaginary cognate species of H. sapiens who nevertheless ignores the true human condition at every opportunity.  H. economicus has been described very well by many, Wendy Brown, for example. It will be our undoing if we let it be.  I wrote last month about Salvador Luria, who died in 1991, as a scientist for our time.  Perhaps another European who fled the European conflagration of the mid-20th century and also made her way to New York can be a political and philosophical guide for our time, one who directs us away from the abyss we have created, an abyss from which the monster stares, whether we have the courage to meet its gaze, or not.


[1] The biologists among us may want to read the somewhat specialist The Life Organic; The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics (2016) by Erik L. Peterson, a history professor at the University of Alabama.  Another treatment of how scientists working together, while sometimes competing with one another at the margin, make progress on the most important subjects.  In this case the concerns of the Theoretical Biology Club led to some of the most important discoveries of biology in the past 90 years, although current “synthetic biologists,” who sometimes reflect the engineering ideal of biology espoused by Jacques Loeb in the early 20th century, would do well to listen to them more closely.  A photograph of Joseph Needham, Dorothy Moyle Needham, and the Belgian molecular biologist Jean Brachet is on the dust jacket.

[2] For those interested in modern sociobiology and its quite interesting history, the sketchiness of E.O. Wilson’s primary argument, protestations to the contrary, during his mid-career interlude as a human sociobiologist may have been confirmed by recent evidence of Wilson’s solicitude for J. Philippe Rushton, who appeared here last month.  This stuff is a perennial, primarily because it reinforces the Liberal/Neoliberal/Professional Managerial Class (PMC) consensus in which a legitimate meritocracy reigns.  No one seems to realize that Michael Young’s novel by that name was dystopian fiction.

[3] The controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem is addressed by Arendt in On Lying and Politics (2022), a “little book” from Library of America, which also contains her essay on The Pentagon Papers.

[4] Both essays are included in The Proper Study of Mankind (1997).

[5] Or freedom; the terms are interchangeable.

[6] I cannot resist noting that the blurb on the cover of my paperback edition of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea is “Blyth writes in the style of Keynes…valid and compelling” from one Lawrence Summers.  Somewhere at OUP works an editor with a sense of humor.

[7] A heartfelt elegy and call to action from a genuine sociologist.

[8] In response to Heidegger, a contrast of natality with mortality: “Like Heidegger, Arendt considers human beings to be fundamentally conditioned…and she wants them to become appropriately responsive to human finitude.  But the responsiveness she wants them to cultivate is the responsiveness to natality, rather than mortality…though (humans) must die, (they) are not born in order to die but in order to begin.” (p. 74-75).  A good way to live!

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  1. zagonostra

    This is a terrific link with excellent embedded links, I hope to do it justice latter in the day, thanks for posting.

    In your introductory comments you note: Hannah Arendt is keenly aware of those realities and hence her notions of freedom explicitly rest on communities and well functioning institutions.

    I was pondering the use of the word “freedom” the other day and it’s obvious, well maybe not so obvious, that it is meaningless unless it’s contextualized. It’s a word that that is used equivocal as opposed to univocal as Aristotle laid out in his “Organon.” Unfortunately, the trivium and quadrivium are no longer much taught the way they once were and the word is consumed without the proper enzymes, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.


  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    Hannah Arendt makes one change one’s views. Maybe that was Berlin’s “issue.”

    Arendt is remarkable for retaining a certain affection (if that’s the word) for humankind and for human needs. (Albert Camus, another nearly indispensable writer, shows the same affection for this fallen race.)

    The Human Condition is worth reading–at times, it gets complicated. The reason is that she has so many ideas in play: If I recall, there is wealth versus simply being rich, and work as opposed to labor. Among others.

    Eichmann in Jerusalem shows just how flawed humankind is. Eichmann and his expertise in transport. His qualifications, which become murderous almost without him knowing or caring. It is indeed the banality of evil, now being repeated (endlessly) in Ukraine and in the daily banal tweets of the Ukrainian government.

    1. Soredemos

      This is a debate about Eichmann and Arendt’s portrayal of him, and what her thesis was or wasn’t, that goes back to when she first published it. But Eichmann was a committed Nazi ideologue who 100% knew what was going on and what he was doing. If anyone comes away with the impression that Eichmann was just some sort of dumbo bureaucrat who didn’t really understand the ramifications of his pencil pushing, that is a completely false vision engineered by Eichmann himself as part of his defense.

  3. Joe

    Great post Yves! Reminds me that it’s time to visit the tip jar because of all you do to keep us inching towards a more human condition. Thanks so much!

  4. Eric Anderson

    Wow, Yves. Thank you for this.
    Still too early over here on the Left coast to force my brain to formulate any kind of intellectual response. But, I’ll be chewing on this for days, and likely going back and doing some re-reading.

    Excellent stuff.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Thanks for this, This bit, speaking of, I believe, the 50s, struck me:

      The CIA cultural commissar’s criteria for “suitable texts” included “whatever critiques of Soviet foreign policy and Communism as a form of government we find to be objective (sic) and convincingly written and timely.”

      Like everything else in this country, it’s amazing how standards have fallen.

    2. Robaniel

      Reading this I noticed that the effects of capitalism and class seemed to not have been taken into account in Arendt’s and Berlin’s philosophical views of freedom. I may be wrong in that because I have not read either, but after reading the book review in your link Rob I can see that it is possible that this wasn’t an oversite but a feature of their writing.

    3. zagonostra

      Arthur Koestler too! Tell me it ain’t so…

      Among the intellectuals who were funded and promoted by the CIA were Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Dwight MacDonald, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and numerous others in the United States and Europe. In Europe, the CIA was particularly interested in and promoted the “Democratic Left” and ex-leftists, including Ignacio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Anthony Crosland, Michael Josselson, and George Orwell.

      1. digi_owl

        Makes me think of the “new left” that i ran into while looking into Herbert Marcuse.



        Note how Marcuse worked for the OSS, CIA’s forerunner.

        Best i can tell, this “new left” is what is often referred to as 68-ers in Europe, after the 1968 student protests. And you are likely to find people involved in said protests still holding high positions in center-left parties around Europe.

        1. Soredemos

          OSS was a very different beast to the CIA (though no less inept). CIA was created after a great purging of, for instance, types who would have been sympathetic to the communists who made up most of the French Resistance.

      2. Cat Burglar

        It is worth remembering that many of the CIA-adjacent intellectuals were ex-members of Marxist-Leninist groups, and veterans of bitter factional infighting. It was likely that they saw taking the money as a way of continuing that fight. The Communist Party regularly shed members over things like the Purges in the 20s and 30s, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Sino-Soviet Split, and so on — they all had scores to settle. Some might have been shocked at learning about the gulag. And the money must have been good, at a time when they felt few options existed.

      3. Roland

        Orwell was not an ex-leftist. He never stopped being a leftist.

        The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia were written years before the CIA or OSS even began.

        Orwell’s gut-hatred of the Comintern dates from his experience of being a member of the suppressed POUM during the Spanish Civil War, the experience of a civil war within the civil war, fought between factions on the Republican side. For Orwell, it was personal, because some of his Spanish friends got disappeared, after they had just returned on leave from the front.

        Meanwhile, Orwell had made some enemies at home with his withering critique of the British left in the second half of Wigan Pier. Orwell’s 1937 criticism has aged very well, and with little effort, can be transposed for use today.

        As for Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing is a great achievement in autobiography. If you want to know the meaning of the phrase, “political journey,” read that book. If you hate Koestler, read that book still more, since nobody accuses Koestler better than Koestler. Besides, Darkness at Noon is a classic work of literature, since it offers for Stalinism both a critique and an apology. Along with Conrad’s Nostromo, it is one of the most mature and sophisticated political novels ever written in English (although both books were by continentals, each composing in his fourth language.)

        1. Roland

          Correction: Darkness at Noon was first composed in German. I had mistakenly believed that it was Koestler’s first major work to be written in English. However, the German original manuscript was lost during the author’s imprisonment by the French authorities in 1940, so Daphne Hardy’s translation is the text of reference.

      4. Questa Nota

        That roster of talent hypocrites available flacks might as well be one of the domestic thrusts of Operation Gladio. Stay-behind, launch on command, stir up stuff, typewriters at the ready. One of many weapons in the gray arsenal.

    4. LifelongLib

      “paid by the CIA to create their views”

      Or to write what they were going to write anyway. If they did know who was paying them they were probably laughing all the way to the bank.

      1. digi_owl

        I suspect that paid also included promotion of their writing, when deemed favorable, through various channels.

        As in CIA perhaps made their writing a big deal, rather than languish in obscurity in a philosophy department nobody has heard about.

        1. JBird4049

          Do not forget that the CIA did not advertise their support. Some people like Gloria Steinem knew who they were working for while others were paid using front organizations.

          Anyways, as much as one should not accept payment from the enemy, small things like food, clothing, and shelter especially for one’s family can be very persuasive counterarguments.

          1. digi_owl

            Yeah, the US policy during much of the cold war was “the enemy of my enemy is an asset”. Much of the mess after the USSR dissolved has been USA discarding said “assets” as they became liabilities.

      2. Cat Burglar

        Sometimes the fix does not hold. Some of the people that took the money came out against the Vietnam War, for example.

    5. Detroit Dan

      It’s almost impossible to avoid being a part of the military-financial-information complex in one’s daily life. Those of us who are retired or have inherited wealth can do this to some extent.

      So I’m open to ideas even if potentially tainted in this manner.

      I’d be interested in how these two might have been used for nefarious purposes.

    6. Acacia

      The first sentence of the chapter on “Labor” in Arendt’s The Human Condition reads:

      In the following chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized.

      That could have been good enough for the CIA to cut her a cheque.

  5. Carolinian

    Thanks, and this non philosophy major will be looking up some of these books.

    Anecdotally I’ll just say that I grew up in a time when “freedom” was a word constantly heard and now almost never, or now depicted in the general culture as something menacing to the more desirable safety and security. And even though a lot of this was Cold War propaganda against the Soviets, I believe that Boomer zeal for liberty got it right and the Millennial love for silos and safe spaces gets it wrong. Of course for those in power the 60s were a nightmare that had to be suppressed or diverted and so it happened.

    Indeed they are still doing it and if history does in fact move in circles it may be time for a change. Our decadent elites are arranging the disasters that would finally inspire a new love for freedom and the courage to demand it.

    1. Cat Burglar

      In the 60s, in the US, the elites assumed they could trumpet the idea of nominal freedom, but as I noticed as a kid, nobody ever seemed to really use it! Social conformism as a path to security was promoted among the middle class, but the fix didn’t hold. It was decided to use austerity and debt as hard limits on positive freedom. You could be right about the Millenials, but right now the only revolutionary left in the US are the anarchists, and they are about anything but safe spaces. We’ll see how the attempts to co-opt them, under the guise of Antifa, IP, and Freedom For Ukraine work out.

  6. John

    Wow…you are on fire with recent links…KLG is definitely burning thru the screen here. Phone to hot to hold. Headed for tip jar.

    1. Detroit Dan

      Yeah, I loved this guest post! The subject is abstract, but the relevance of these two famous thinkers in today’s neoliberal environment is easy to grasp.

  7. Roland

    The most important book by Lewis Mumford is his early work, The Culture of Cities. Published in the 1930’s, the chapters on megalopolis and necropolis were prophetic then, and remain eerily topical. What makes the book fresh is its basis in Mumford’s travels–his theory is derived from his own observations, literally footwork (dare one say “fieldwork” ?) The annotated bibliography by itself makes good reading. Unfortunately this book may prove difficult to obtain, since it retitled and considerably altered in later editions.

    Tecnics and Civilization once enjoyed some academic vogue, probably because it’s mostly theoretical, and it makes large claims. In my opinion, Mumford cut too big for his cloth, and this work has aged badly, valuable now mostly as an illustration of how anthropology seldom fails to go wrong.

    Mumford’s writing is strongest and most enduring wherever it is founded on direct encounter with cities and people. His revision of The Culture of Cities, entitled The City in History, shows Mumford both at his best and at his worst. The early chapters on prehistoric cities are merely tendentious, but the later chapters on the American city are very striking, especially when you consider the book was written in the 1950’s.

  8. Fischer's Fritz

    Quite a few of those forced into exile from their polis later returned at the head of an invading army, having gone over to their home city’s foreign enemies with a lot of insider knowledge that said enemies gladly received.

  9. begob

    Thanks for the overview. Peter Thiel raised his hand a while ago to join your linkblitz, but was passed over for Plato:

    “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible … the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called “social democracy.”


    On the issue of measurement, a matter for aesthetics, William Blake held a similar view of Isaac Newton’s space travels.

  10. Cat Burglar

    Berlin’s negative freedom has many uses, including crime.

    Remember the argument in Phishing for Phools, that returns to fraud are so high that all the opportunities for it are already taken up? That would suggest that the state of unrestrained ability to do your will must already have produced both a class of dispossessed suckers, and a class of savvy insider possessors — not for nothing did Fourier define capitalism as ” the system of organized swindling.”

    Typically, the foundational texts of Liberalism pose the problem of property protection, and need for a state, from the standpoint of a possessor who is a potential victim, without considering the original act of dispossession in theory or in history.

    1. eg

      Your last sentence reminds me of Blyth’s pithy description of liberal neuralgia in relation to the state — can’t live without it; don’t want to pay for it

  11. Susan the other

    Thank you KLG and Yves. The Life Organic sounds like my next read. Also maybe another book or two by Carlo Rovelli. Just reading his The Order of Time and it has already turned my brain to mush. Like a cleanse. I realize how much language puts me into auto drive without even thinking about the meaning of words. Maybe that partially explains how our politics is such a big blur. And our political economics. My two cents.

  12. Anonymous 2

    Great post.

    Currently reading ‘The Infidel and the Professor’ (David Hume and Adam Smith), which I can recommend. Two thinkers who can be argued to have done much to create the modern world. In Smith’s case, to some degree because people have read his ‘Wealth of Nations’ but not his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’.

    1. JBird4049

      Very often people have not read any of Adam Smith’s work. They just very selectively quote small bits to justify unrestrained free markets. It’s like the Prosperity Gospel con-artists who manipulate the Bible into something that I have not read to justify selfishness.

      Actually, I have not really read, aside from those small bits, of Theory of Moral Sentiments either. Whoops. Maybe I should add it to my to-read pile that is on my bed.

      1. Anonymous 2

        Ironically, Smith himself (TMS IV.1.10) indicates that the pursuit of wealth is not the path to happiness but a deception.

  13. Gulag

    Hannah Arendt’s entire political, philosophical and academic career was obsessed with the question of what are we to do if commonsense morality has turned out to be a very weak barrier against totalitarianism and religion is of no real help.

    A part of her solution was an attempt to ground moral judgment in an internal faculty that appears to swing free of culture and ideology–this was the ability to think–which became for her the key to saving the possibility of individual freedom and moral conduct in dark times.

    This assumption required her to postulate a self and a will that supposedly comes with an inner moral compass that keeps true regardless of the exigencies of culture, economics or history.

    Yet there was also another part of her philosophical thinking that seemed to align her more with Nietzsche and Heidegger’s (her former philosophy teacher and lover) more post-metaphysical arguments where reality was viewed as something that is largely constructed rather than discovered.

    These two quite different philosophical assumptions were in continual tension in all of her writings.

  14. Kouros

    This is a link that is going to the Culture folder bookmark…

    It is all very important and very interesting.

    And here are the building blocks of life:
    All by Nick Lane
    Oxygen: The molecule that made the world
    Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
    The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

  15. David in Santa Cruz

    Thought-provoking, although I’m more interested in do-ers than I am in thinkers.

    Reading the post led me to read more about Arendt’s work in France after she wriggled herself out of the clutches of the Gestapo in Berlin. She spent quite a few years prying teenagers from their disbelieving parents and smuggling them into Palestine (we’ll leave alone the import of being orphaned to a kibbutz on the Israeli psyche) until the Reich marched into France and she again became hunted by the Gestapo.

    Which led me to download the autobiography of Varian Fry, the American who smuggled Arendt and hundreds of others out of Vichy France, often over the objection of the U.S. State Department. I’m fascinated by the memoirs of those who survived the living nightmare of persecution in Vichy France. It’s interesting how many of these “thinkers” were refugees making their way in alien cultures.

    Arendt and Fry took action.

  16. KLG

    Thank you very much to all who enjoyed the post, flaws and all!

    The original outline had me continuing with A Good and Dignified Life: The Political Advice of Hannah Arendt & Rosa Luxemburg (2022) by Joke J. Hermsen. But that would have been too long. Still, it is a very good follow-up to some of the critiques of Arendt in the thread above. I highly recommend it. Red Rosa thought Arendt should have been more like Rosa, while Hannah thought Rosa perhaps went too far at times. I don’t think Arendt was Red Rosa-Light; she just led a different life and had a different perspective. They were on the same side of the fence, though, and the world would be a better place if the Freikorps had been less effective in 1919. Chapter 8, “The Prospect of Revolution: A Fictitious Dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg” ends thus:

    R: “But Frau Arendt…All our fates will be connected, and we’ll have to try to find a way together. On second thoughts, I’ll take you up on that glass of bourbon.

    H: Cheers!

    “Both Arendt and Berlin were paid by the CIA to create their views.”
    Rob Urie @ 8:49 am

    I cannot defend either Arendt or Berlin or the others listed in this thread. One can say they were paid by the CIA. And one can say they were paid by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was funded by the CIA. Did all of the authors who took money from CCF know the money was tainted? This could be another distinction with a difference. Hook, Lasky, Kristol? Easy to believe they knew from the beginning. Easier to believe Kristol fils is continuing his father’s work.

    I don’t know, and I have not read Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books), £20. But it is not accurate to say that all these writers did what their “CIA paymasters” told them to do, as the author of the review in MR states (MR still important with John Bellamy Foster as editor). Still, it is old news that Encounter and other magazines were supported by CCF or some other appurtenance of the Deep State.

    If I had to guess, I would say it is possible Berlin knew where the money was coming from. He lived his thoroughly connected life as a wit: As host of a philosophy salon before the war, while working in Washington during the war, and after the war for 40+ years ensconced in the comfort of All Souls with virtually unlimited resources. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, lived by her wits as a sometime professor in US universities and on royalties. A grant from CCF was not something to be refused.

    In any case, Arendt made a thoroughly convincing case against Classical Liberalism, in my view, while Berlin mostly accepted it from the beginning of his career in the early 1930s.

    Another example of serendipity: The cover of the Harper’s in my mail slot today asks “Is Liberalism Worth Saving? A Forum Featuring Patrick Deneen, Francis Fukuyama, Deirdre McCloskey, and Cornel West.” I don’t have the energy to read it tonight, but I’ll go out on a short limb and say that McCloskey (Champion of the bourgeois world and holder of the Isaiah Berlin Chair in Liberal Thought at the Cato Institute) and Fukuyama say “Yes, but Liberalism has been failed,” while West says, “No, period.” (I finally heard Brother West in person in November and got to meet him. Worth the wait, but too long in coming). Don’t know enough about Deneen to decide, but Notre Dame, while surprising in many ways, is not the University of Massachusetts – Amherst of Richard Wolff, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.

    Cheers! Here’s to the best commentariat on the Interwebs!

    1. BillC

      KLG, often in dealing with real people in the real world, one needs a nugget of truth, not careful and comprehensive discourse. You have here provided something I’ve been frustratedly incapable of formulating for years: the answer to the question, what is and what is wrong with neoliberalism. Your statement (whether original or quoted, I can’t tell) is exactly what I’ve long sought:

      The market is the true measure of all things, even those that cannot be measured.

      I can think of no more truthful and yet implicitly devastating assertion. Thank you.

      1. KLG

        Thank you and you’re welcome. Those are my words so far as I know, but they are implicit in most treatments of Neoliberalism.

  17. eg

    Wonderful stuff, thanks. At the very end you touch upon what I have concluded is at the root of neoclassical/orthodox economics’ utter disconnect from empirical reality — a terribly flawed understanding of human biology and anthropology.

  18. Phichibe

    A really superb essay. Thanks for sharing this with us, Yves and Lambert. I love all the citations of books and essays to read. Pieces like this I save as HTML so I can preserve all the links. More proof that we don’t live by bread alone ;-).




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