In his farewell address President Ronald Reagan saw the U.S. as a New Jerusalem, the shining city upon a hill. The reference for the president’s patriotic speech was biblical. (See Mt. 5:14, Rev. 21:21) Reagan’s carefully crafted, sanctimonious American image still remains, but Reagan and U.S. responsibility for massive killings of indigenous people in the Central American civil wars have been quickly forgotten. (200,000 civilians killed in Guatemala - never publicized)
The Reagan legacy continues with Trump; only the bigotry, nationalism and militarism are out in the open with a deluge of threats and unapologetic vile rhetoric. With the ground of U.S. Democracy flooded with hate, where do we establish our roots?
Let us consider some thoughts of three courageous women during the time of the Second World War. A summary of their work can be found in the book, Three Women in Dark Times, Cornell University Press, 2000, Ithaca, NY by Sylvie Courtine-Denamy. All references in this article are to Courtine-Denamy’s book.
The three women, Simon Weil (1909 – 1943) Edith Stein (1891 – 1942) and Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), were recognized as outstanding philosophers in their own time. Simone Weil finished first in a Sorbonne general examination on philosophy ahead of notables Merleau–Ponty and Simone de Bouvoir.
The Three Women of Dark Times addresses the horrible events and politics of their era with courage and wisdom. Weil and Stein had an idealistic approach and Arendt a pragmatic and existential vision. The women were from Jewish families.
SIMON WEIL 1909 - 1943
Weil addressed the problem of “up-rootedness” by trying to establish a “universal” identity. She worked in factories and did farm labor to experience the alienation of the worker. She became mal-nourished because others did not have a sufficient diet. Simone Weil was hostile to Judaism in her attempt to be above race. Jewish scholars, Martin Buber and Levinas “underscore not only Weil’s profound misunderstanding of the Jewish religion but also her unfair treatment of it.” (143)
Weil warned that the rootlessness of our time tempts people to “belong unconditionally to a totalitarian system which gives them a solid illusion of inward unity.” (p. 142) She explained:
God’s children should love no fatherland short of the universe as a whole…one must uproot one’s self and have no native land… One can only be rooted in the absence of a definite place. (pp. 43-44)
Simone Weil tended toward pacifism, but opposed Hitler and fascism to the extent that she volunteered for the Spanish Republican Army to fight Franco in Spain’s Civil War. She died in England in 1943 of tuberculosis refusing to take nourishment. Weil, although close to Roman Catholicism, never requested baptism and maintained her “universal” identity.
EDITH STIEN 1891 - 1942
Edith Stein was a student and assistant to the founder of the philosophical method of Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. She broke with Husserl over her Ph.D. dissertation on Empathy – Einfuhlung translated by a German professor as, “to feel into the feeling of another.”
Was Stein’s “Empathy” opposed to Weil’s “Universalism”?
In 1922 Edith Stein converted to the Roman Catholicism. She saw faith and Thomistic Theology as the necessary confirmation for her philosophy. She never renounced her Jewish heritage but joined the Carmelite order of nuns in 1933. She took the name Benedicta of the Cross. In 1938 Edith Stein as Sister Benedicta of the Cross wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI asking for an Encyclical to defend the Jews. She never received an answer and the Encyclical was never written.
Her roots were in the Great Commandment of the Jewish Law, ‘Love God and love your neighbor as yourself including the stranger,’ (Dt. 6:3, Lv. 19:18, 33) however she expressed it as a Christian. She wrote, “For the Christian there is no such thing as a ‘stranger.’ There is only the neighbor, the person next to us, the person most in need of our help.” (p. 205)
Because she was Jewish she was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1942. Edith Stein was declared a Saint in 1998 by Pope John Paul II.
HANNAH ARENDT 1906 - 1975
Hannah Arendt was an associate of Martin Heidegger, one of the first and most renowned of the Existentialists. However, she could not give him a pass on his association with the Nazis.
Arendt agreed with Husserl that philosophy begins with the consciousness of the person, but this did not lead her into the idealism of Stein and or even that of Husserl and Heidegger. Action was crucial for her. She recounts a story of her childhood. She told her Rabbi that she feared that she had lost her faith. “Who is asking for it?” he replied. Jewish scholar Emmanuel Levinas commented, “What the Rabbi meant was - doing good is the act of faith in itself.” (p. 205) Arendt saw that action springs from humane loving friendship in an in-human world. Friends board an Ark like Noah and collaborate in action with those floating in companion Arks. (pp. 209-210) Hannah Arendt escaped to the United States in 1933. She believed strongly in the U.S. Constitution.
The three women, Simone Weil, Edith Stein, and Hannah Arendt did not curse their fate for having to live in the “Dark Times” of the 20th century. They not only accepted their fate, they loved it. A subtitle of the book, Three Women in Dark Times is ‘Amor fati – amor mundi’ – they loved their fate – they loved the world. (pp. 41- 52, 219-221)
A challenge of the prophet Micah is brought to mind.
Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God. (Mi, 6:8)
The three women responded with classical philosophical writing to help in understanding a time which defies understanding. The universalism of Weil, the empathy of Stein, and the dedication to action of Arendt are only a tiny piece of their philosophical work, but an important aid to understanding and acting in our own dark times.