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The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times

Robert Zaretsky at The American Scholar

Photo by Eilis Garvey / Unsplash

We tend to think of philosophers as solitary creatures. Whether it be Diogenes or Socrates, Spinoza or Rousseau, Thoreau or Nietzsche, the philosopher is by necessity a loner. Several recent books, however, remind us that philosophers can also travel in packs. Not the packs that wear lanyards at academic conferences, mind you, but those that form in spite (or defiance) of the academy. David Edmonds’s The Murder of Professor Schlick and Karl Sigmund’s Exact Thinking in Demented Times are sharp accounts of the Vienna Circle, the group of European thinkers who founded the club of logical positivism (one that their idol, Ludwig Wittgenstein, refused to join). Another pair of books—Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman’s Metaphysical Animals and Benjamin J. B. Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something—offer insightful and often moving portraits of Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Elizabeth Anscombe: four equally brilliant friends who, against the relativistic grain of their male Oxbridge colleagues, variously insisted on a universal foundation for morality.

A few years ago, writer and philosopher Wolfram Eilenberger enjoyed commercial and critical success for Time of the Magicians. The time in question was the decade following the end of the First World War; the magicians who dominated it were Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. Ultimately, these four thinkers had little in common apart from the German language and the shared goal of rethinking the purpose of philosophy. Thanks to this foursome, as Eilenberger argued in his vibrant and often gripping account, the 1920s became “philosophy’s great decade.”

With his new book, Eilenberger offers a sequel of sorts, moving from the 1920s to the period between 1933 and 1943, from magicians to visionaries, and from men to women. This time around, the dramatis personae are Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, and Simone Weil. Eilenberger pivots expertly among the four storylines, and his writing shimmers with the same intelligence and insight, sense of drama, and urgency that he brought to Time of the Magicians. His four magi, emerging from the material, moral, social, and political wreckage wrought by the First World War, grasped that philosophy had to be utterly reimagined. Similarly, his four visionaries, pursuing their philosophical studies as the world lurched toward the Second World War, found themselves increasingly preoccupied with, well, the vision thing. As Eilenberger writes, all four women, despite their wildly different backgrounds, shared a common sensibility: “They simply experienced themselves as having been placed fundamentally differently in the world from how other people had been.”

With a deft hand, Eilenberger traces how the two Simones—equally accomplished and ambitious, and recent graduates of France’s elite universities—traveled to Germany to pursue radically different philosophical projects, while Arendt, the gifted student (and lover) of Heidegger, scrambled to flee that same country on the Nazi assumption of power. Meanwhile, Alisa Rosenbaum, following her history degree from Petrograd State University, quit communist Russia for capitalist America, where she took the name Ayn Rand and the bus to Hollywood for fame, fortune, and most important, intellectual influence.

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