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The Life of the Mind

Written by: Hannah Arendt
Narrated by: Laural Merlington
Length: 20 hrs and 45 mins

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Publisher's Summary

Considered by many to be Hannah Arendt's greatest work, published as she neared the end of her life, The Life of the Mind investigates thought itself, as it exists in contemplative life. In a shift from her previous writings, most of which focus on the world outside the mind, this work was planned as three volumes that would explore the activities of the mind considered by Arendt to be fundamental. What emerged is a rich, challenging analysis of human mental activity, considered in terms of thinking, willing, and judging.   

This final achievement, presented here in a complete one-volume edition, may be seen as a legacy to our own and future generations.

©1971 Hannah Arendt; copyright 1977, 1978 by Harcourt, Inc. (P)2018 Tantor

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  • Gary
  • 2018-11-08

Being is more interesting than Nothing

I love an author who assumes the reader really wants to understand. In the end there is no more interesting topic than 'Being'. There's been a 2500 year conversation going on among incredibly smart people concerning Being, and Hannah Arendt summarizes and amplifies that conversation and this book allows people like me to peek in on what really smart people think about the topic.

Parmenides starts the conversation when he rejects 'nothing', makes the all the 'one', and equates Being as thinking. Heraclitus makes Being as becoming (he's the one who says you never cross the same river once). Arendt leans towards Being as thinking and even states that she is not interested in Being as knowledge in the style of Titus Lucretius (he wrote my favorite book, 'On the Nature of Things').

Arendt will say she is not a philosopher. She does not want to interpret the world by thinking about it; she wants to experience the world and shape it. Overall, this book read like a series of Great Courses on Western Philosophy throughout the ages, but with a tight narrative provided by a brilliant explicator.

Most of my favorite authors are mentioned in this book: Kant, Wittgenstein, Plato, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hegel, Aquinas, Augustine, Spinoza, Plotinus, Lucretius, Thucydides, Herodotus, Bergson (she really likes Bergson and his 'lived time', I haven't actually read Bergson, but I have read 'The Physicist and the Philosopher' available on Audible), Husserl and so on. For each of the authors mentioned Arendt provides the context, the relevance and the connections necessary for her explications. One does not need to have had read those authors in order to follow what she is saying because she always seems to respect the intelligence of her reader and gives them just enough for them to follow the discourse.

Her second volume in this set is on Will. What does 'Will' even mean? She'll tell you. She'll make all the connections. She'll show how Schopenhauer makes Being as Will; after all, his book is titled 'Will and Representation as Idea' for a reason and Nietzsche will tweak it into 'will to power' and relate the last man standing and 'the eternal recurrence of the same' into Being as Will too. She does mention Spinoza in the story but doesn't explicitly state his 'conatus' (striving) as the Will immanent within everything as the 'one' substance of the universe making everything in the universe necessary but I think most readers will get the connection on their own.

She definitely favors the 'faculty of choice' for Will in the manner of Duns Scotus even at the price of contingency. A contingent world is not a necessary world; a necessary world is a world where time and chance determine ones fate through Grace alone. Gratitude and Socratic wonder give us our Will, at least Arendt says Scotus argues that contra Aquinas.

Augustine reworks St. Paul's 'salvation through faith not works' and brings in the Pagan metaphysics of Plotinus and defines the middle ages until St. Thomas Aquinas comes along and gets enshrined within Dante's 'Divine Comedy' while both leverage off of Aristotle who makes contemplation (thinking) of the divine the ultimate good and our ultimate purpose. Duns Scotus will politely disagree.

Arendt pointed out something to me that I had never connected previously by her quoting Jesus saying that we are not to be good since God is good alone, but rather we should think well ('if you so much as look at a woman with lust in your heart you have committed adultery') and behave properly ('do unto others'). All of this stuff is laid out in this book so that anyone can follow the multiple trains of thought as she lays them out.

She captures the essence of Nietzsche and Heidegger in relatively long sections of the book in such a way that any reader of this book who hasn't read them will want to read them. She said that Heidegger did not mention Nietzsche in 'Being and Time' by name. As Arendt says, in B and T Heidegger makes 'care' (German: Sorge) and its reliance on the future as filtered through our understanding of the past through our now the ontological foundation for Being (btw, Arendt explains Nietzsche and his 'Eternal Recurrence of the same' with the same temporal formulation; after Heidegger makes his 'turn' between his volume I and II of 'Nietzsche' as Arendt correctly points out he'll change 'care' to 'will' for the ontological foundation for Being, also his 'turn' involved changing the presumption inherent in the very fact that we are asking about the meaning of Being from Being as meaning since the posing of the question gives Being a foundation within itself ('a hermeneutical circle' of sorts).

At times, I felt that this book was as if I were listening to a great college professor who was giving a series of lectures that would stay with the student for life but all the while knowing I didn't have to take a test, and besides who among us don't love detailed explications of Kant's 'Critique of Pure Reason' or Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Mind'? I know I do, and if you do too you'll find this book as extraordinary as I did, and I would recommend you listen to 'The Bernstein Tapes' of each book freely available off the net.

The best way to see this book is as a review and explication of a 2500 year old conversation that has been going in the background of most peoples' lives involving some great thinkers and Arendt wants her readers to understanding why it is just as relevant today has it always has been. Our meaning and purpose are determined by what we believe to be true (Being=thinking) and how we believe we should act (Being=will), and this book will put each into understandable terms.


A bracketed aside: [I thought she was wrong when she said that Nietzsche's inversion of Plato was a return to Plato. She says that because she really doesn't like what she labels as nihilism and any part of Nietzsche or Heidegger that flirted with that she was going to be negative towards for obvious reasons (see her book 'The Origins of Totalitarianism' for clarification). I've been concurrently reading 'Heidegger: Thought and Historicity' by Christopher Fynsk and he seemed to think similarly as I did regarding Nietzsche's inversion of Plato. He actually also footnoted this book and cited Arendt to be the first to notice the tonal difference between Vol I and II of Heidegger's 'Nietzsche'. I noticed Arendt generously gave credit to somebody else within this book while the footnote in his book did not].

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  • Jeff Lacy
  • 2019-06-12

Need a better reader

An enlightening and challenging read but fulfilling. The reader, however, though deliberate and clear overall, could have been better at her Latin and German. This weakness was a distraction throughout. But I would rather have an Audible of this book than none at all. This narration was good enough to be helpful.