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Kampowski, Stephan. Arendt, Augustine, and the New Beginning: The Action Theory and Moral Thought of Hannah Arendt in the Light of Her Dissertation on St. Augustine.

KAMPOWSKI, Stephan. Arendt, Augustine, and the New Beginning: The Action Theory and Moral Thought of Hannah Arendt in the Light of Her Dissertation on St. Augustine. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. xx + 364 pp. Paper, $50.00--Hannah Arendt wrote her doctoral dissertation, The Concept of Love in Augustine, under Karl Jaspers, who had it published in 1929. In 1996, twenty-one years after her death, an English translation, Love and Saint Augustine, appeared. Kampowski's first two chapters are devoted to a biographical account (with a certain emphasis on her intimacy with Heidegger and her Jewishness) as well as to a survey of her chief works and a review of the textual and translational difficulties, together with her own doubts regarding the dissertation. The reason for that beginning is that Kampowski will interpret this, her first writing, as containing in rudimentary form the theories of action and of morality that preoccupied her subsequent life and work.

The third chapter sets out Arendt's theory of action. In particular, a certain contradiction is pursued: On the one hand, Arendt calls evil, evil; on the other hand, she regards "great" action as an end in itself, which seems to imply "moral aestheticism" (p. 27). Kampowski finds a solution in the fact that deeds done for their own sake are ipso facto, as human action, worth something. This analysis, which is at once subtle and persuasive, is characteristic of Kampowski's other analyses. In a second section, Arendt's inclusion of "human plurality" (p. 61) is opposed to Heidegger's essentially self-enclosed notion of action.

The fourth and longest chapter treats Arendt's theory of morality. The first topic is the relation of thinking to morality, which she regards as indirect, as "conditioning" (p. 91) a person against doing evil in a complexly involved way. The clarification of this complexity brings in considerations of thoughtfulness, conscience, judgment, and imagination. At the center, however, is the will. For Arendt's theory of morality involves making a "new beginning" and "the will is our faculty for new beginnings" (p. 146). Here, then, Arendt's life-long connection to Augustine shows up, especially in her final work, The Life of the Mind. Kampowski's second section of the fourth chapter is central, for it deals with a deep enigma of human temporality: the problem of the New, which Arendt calls the "abyss of pure spontaneity" (p. 152).

According to Arendt, Augustine is "the first philosopher of the will" (p. 146), since the Greeks did not have our notion of this faculty as future-directed spontaneity, that is, as radical origination of action, or more precisely, as change undetermined by prior causes. This terrific problem is one currently fiercely debated: Are we fully determined by our neurological constitution, or ultimately free, or somehow morally free while materially determined? Kampowski's joint consideration of Augustine and Arendt is very helpful to anyone caught up in the conundrum of freedom. His critical exposition of Arendt's treatment of the unresolved difficulty Augustine gets himself into in the Confessions--that of velle and nolle, will and counter-will--clarifies both the problem and Arendt's attempted solution: that the struggle of these two wills is definitively resolved only in action. If, however, action indeed "serves as a heuristic principle to tell the goodness or badness of the will" (p. 161), then Kant's notion that the good will is the ultimate unqualified good is shown to reverse the way morality actually works. This is surely a very interesting critique of Kantian morality. The chapter concludes by tracing Arendt's thinking on Augustine's On the Trinity and The City of God in her Human Condition (1958) and The Life of the Mind (1978). Now the question of Kampowski's book is properly positioned: How many of the 'fundamental motifs" (p. 173) of these later works are found prefigured in the dissertation?

The fifth chapter is devoted to discerning these motifs in the range of her writings, beginning with The Concept of Love in Augustine. To choose just one such theme as an example: "Natality" (p. 201)--this term, which will first appear in later works as the notion that human beings are not (contra Heidegger) their existence but have received it in being born or created, is foreshadowed in the dissertation in the emphasis on human dependence on a Creator, on the fact of human beginning. The chapter as a whole is, thus, an excellent introduction to the thoughts that extended throughout her life.

A lucid conclusion summarizes the book, which is also richly annotated. Kampowski makes no excessive claims for her juvenile work, but by means of his meticulous yet broad study he shows that Hannah Arendt stayed all her life with certain fundamental human questions from which, I think, we should not be diverted by current resistances.--Eva Brann, St. John's College, Annapolis.
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Author:Brann, Eva
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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