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Love and Saint Augustine
By Hannah Arendt.
Edited by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark.
University of Chicago Press, 233 pages, $22.50.

I first met Hannah Arendt in 1964, while I was writing my dissertation on her political thought. I called her up and asked if I could interview her, and she invited me to her apartment on Riverside Drive. She was fifty-eight, a year younger than I am now, which seemed old at the time. I was twenty-seven.

I was stiff with fear as I rang the bell. I was afraid of her formidable erudition, her stately prose, and of the scratchy, masculine voice I heard on the phone––a voice that sounded as though its owner had limited patience with fools. (“You had trouble reaching me, Mr. McKenna? Did you try the Manhattan phone book?”) These fears turned out to be unfounded. She took my coat, poured me a drink, and cut up pieces of an apple. We talked for an hour or so, and when I left I felt like dancing.

Hannah Arendt was old enough to be my mother in 1964. Now, thanks to the labors of Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark, we have the publication in English of a work Arendt wrote in 1929, when she was younger than my daughter. The youthfulness of the author of Love and Saint Augustine, a partially rewritten version of her Ph.D. dissertation, must be kept in mind when weighing its importance. In a wide-ranging essay at the end of the book, Scott and Stark argue that it is a seminal work, a key to understanding virtually all of her subsequent writings. The truth, however, is almost the reverse: her later work actually influenced it, or at least a large piece of it.

How could an earlier work be influenced by a later work? Here is what happened. Not long after publishing the dissertation Arendt was caught up in the maelstrom of European history: she fled Nazi Germany in 1933, worked in France resettling Jews in Palestine, got married, divorced, remarried, and slipped out of France just as the Vichy regime took over. In her luggage when she arrived in New York in 1941 was a battered copy of the dissertation, but there is no evidence that she had given it much thought during those years. In 1965 she mentioned in a letter to Mary McCarthy that she hadn’t “read the thing for nearly forty years.”

Not until 1958 does Augustine start reappearing in her writings in any significant way, and then it is a very different Augustine than the one she wrote about in 1929. In a chapter added to the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism , Arendt concludes her account of the debacle of European civilization on a surprisingly hopeful note. “Beginning,” she writes, “is the supreme capacity of man... initium ut esset homo creatus est” ‘that a beginning be made man was created,’ said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.” Inspiring as it is, Arendt’s quotation from Augustine’s City of God (Book XII, Ch. 20) is taken out of context. In that section Augustine was not talking about any “capacity of man” but the capacity of God to start something new in the universe; he was refuting the Platonic theory of souls eternally coming in and going out of the world. To find in his remark a celebration of man’s capacities or even a glimmer of hope for some sort of secular renewal is to find something that is not there.

The initium quotation from Augustine is found in several other places in writings after 1958, but it does not appear in the original dissertation. She inserted it some time after 1963 while revising the work for publication. E. P. Ashton had done an English translation, and Arendt was under contract to produce a final version––despite which, after some tinkering, she gave up on it.

But she did start, at any rate, and Scott and Stark give us an idea of which parts were substantially changed by affixing the label “A” to the sections left unretouched (except for marginal notes), and the label “B” to the sections rewritten. The introduction (five pages in this edition) Arendt left alone, while Part I and a portion of Part II (fifty-five pages) were rewritten; the rest (forty-seven pages) was largely unchanged.

The plan of the dissertation was to present three parallel concepts of love in Augustine. The first is “love as craving.” Christian love, caritas, is a craving for God, unlike secular love, cupiditas, which craves for worldly fulfillment. Still, both kinds of love represent longing for what is beyond man’s power and are thus forms of “unfreedom.” Only by transcending “love as craving”––we’ll call it Caritas I––is man able to find true freedom. This is done by reflecting on our metaphysical “whence,” our origin in the eternal will of the Creator. This second form of caritas enables us to reach a state of self-forgetfulness, a serene “objectivity” and detachment. The price paid for Caritas II, however, is a kind of isolation from the rest of humanity. This becomes clear in exploring the social dimension of this concept of love. Christianity teaches that we should “love our neighbor as ourselves,” but this “metaphysical” love empties our egos so completely that neighborly love lacks the warmth of a human encounter. It is detached, abstract, and conditional: I love my neighbor, but only “for the sake of” my relationship with God.

In the last section of the dissertation, “Social Life,” Arendt extracts from Augustine a more concrete basis for love of neighbor. Moving from the metaphysical to the historical “whence,” Caritas III grounds human love on our common descent from Adam and our common inheritance of Adam’s sin. We are “a community-in-sinfulness.” Somber as it is, this vision of humanity permits the Christian to overcome his isolation from the world by reflecting on the “fellowship of the race.” Human estrangement gives rise to a new togetherness in struggle against the world. “The reason one should love one’s neighbor is that the neighbor is fundamentally one’s equal and both share the same sinful past.”

This was the basic outline of the 1929 dissertation. At its end, Arendt makes it clear that the “isolated” and the “social” dimensions of love are not really opposed to one another. While she seems to prefer the “social” version, she allows that the “isolated” form helps us to appreciate the individuality of human beings. More important, as she notes in several places, both the second and third versions are grounded on the proposition that the “world,” the human artifice, is a dark and perilous place. Whether we isolate ourselves from the world or struggle against it, to be “in the world,” for the Augustine of her dissertation, means “to be in danger.”

It was a very different Hannah Arendt who returned to the dissertation after nearly forty eventful years. The main change she had undergone was political. The Arendt of 1929 had no interest in politics, while the Arendt of the 1960s was nothing if not political. Not only were most of her writings on politics, her whole outlook was now shaped by the model of man as a zooan politikon. If any of Arendt’s books is seminal, it is The Human Condition, written during the 1950s, a critique of what she regarded as modern “world-alienation.”

The heart of the problem, she thought, was the loss of the ancient Greek spirit of political activism. It was in the course of explaining this that she first used the Augustine quotation, “That a beginning be made...” Her point was that action is intimately tied to “beginning,” starting something new in the world, and that this is “man’s supreme capacity.” The Human Condition is premised on a fierce love of “the world,” the realm of existence that the Augustine of her dissertation repeatedly characterizes as a “desert,” an “alien” place from which the Christian can only seek deliverance. To the Augustine of her dissertation, The Human Condition would seem to be flirting with blasphemy.

Yet it was The Human Condition ‘s argument for love of the world, or at least some savor of it, that Arendt apparently tried to work into her dissertation when she started reworking it in the early 1960s. Augustine’s “that a beginning be made” now became “natality,” an antidote to “world-alienation.” The fact that “we have entered the world through birth” determines our nature as conscious “remembering” beings, and through this remembrance man is able to preserve traces of the human artifice. But what about Caritas II, Augustine’s concept of love as “self-forgetful” removal from man’s world? That, she declares in the rewritten section, “is actually pseudo-Christian.” She promises to elaborate on this charge in a later section, but the promise is never kept. The later section”one of those sections not rewritten ”presents Augustine’s concept of love as “estrangement from the world,” but nowhere in that section does she call it “pseudo-Christian.” On the contrary, she leaves the impression that world-estrangement is authentically Christian because it breaks man from his comfortable habit of depending upon the world’s judgments, thus permitting the formation of an interior, if often nagging, Christian conscience. “There is no fleeing from conscience. There is no togetherness and no being at home in the world that can lessen the burdens of conscience.”

This “interior” or “metaphysical” concept in Caritas II is presented in the original dissertation as a “train of thought” running parallel to the “worldly” vision of love in Caritas III and contributing in its own way to man’s self-understanding. But when she returned to the dissertation in the 1960s she began sharpening the differences between “metaphysical” and “social” love, hinting that she was about to treat the latter as the more authentically Christian version. But she never reached that point, and about halfway through, she gave up. Scott and Stark suggest that it was because she was so busy during the 1960s that she didn’t have the time to finish it, but that doesn’t explain why she never returned to the project. The more likely explanation, which I think is supported by the evidence in this half-completed revision, is that Arendt saw that it wasn’t working.

One of the most original thinkers of this century, Hannah Arendt was also one of its most self-effacing. She was always attributing to others, “finding” in their thought, ideas that were actually hers. This is what Arendt did with Augustine during the writing of The Human Condition . Pulling from its context one of Augustine’s polemical jabs at the Platonists, Arendt teased out of it her own highly original concept of world-renewing “natality.” But the Augustine of her dissertation did not think that way at all, so when Arendt met up with him again, her first impulse may have been to touch him up a bit, make him more world-friendly. She soon must have realized that the Augustine of her dissertation required more than that. She started rewriting the dissertation, only to discover, about midway through, that it was impossible to make her scholarly debut bear the weight of her mature thought, and that the attempt to do so was politicizing and coarsening it. Scott and Stark are to be commended for their painstaking reconstruction of a work that was never brought to completion because its author, very sensibly, decided to leave well enough alone.

George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy, the third edition of which will be published in August by McGraw-Hill.