Thought Experimenters

Making sense of a broken world

From left: Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Ayn Rand, Simone de Beauvoir (Background: Amélien Bayle/Flickr, figures: Wikimedia Commons)
From left: Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Ayn Rand, Simone de Beauvoir (Background: Amélien Bayle/Flickr, figures: Wikimedia Commons)

The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times by Wolfram Eilenberger; Penguin Press, 400 pp., $32

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.

Even Eilenberger, despite his even-handed interpretations, seems by turns impatient with and staggered by Rand’s potted version of the Nietzschean superman.

From there, Eilenberger recounts what happened when history was unleashed on these four thinkers and how it shaped their thought. Arendt’s brutal transformation from a German citizen into a stateless person, indeed a pariah, laid the foundation for her landmark works on the human condition in an age of totalitarianism. Beauvoir, through her polyamorous (and paradoxically exclusive) relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as her experience in occupied France, crafted the fundamentals of existentialism that Sartre would later adopt and assume as his own. Weil, with her stints as a factory worker in Paris, a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, a farmhand in southern France, and finally a member of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement in London, turned from the political to the mystical, her last writings toggling between proposing policies for postwar France and starving herself to death while a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

In a way, Rand was the philosophical joker in this deck of remarkable individuals. No doubt she had as compelling a vision as did Arendt, Beauvoir, and Weil. But whereas their visions were many-faceted, Rand’s was as unwavering as it was unappealing. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, Rand had just one vision and it was the wrong one. Even Eilenberger, despite his even-handed interpretations, seems by turns impatient with and staggered by Rand’s potted version of the Nietzschean superman and will to power. “What might appear to common sense as a severe mental distortion, if not actual narcissistic personality disorder,” he writes with admirable restraint, “in Rand’s world represents the ideal state of every ego.”

Eilenberger rightly stresses the philosophical and ethical urgency that fired the writing of each of these thinkers, but the urgency he brings to his own prose at times leads to historical and biographical errors. To cite just a few: Jean Grenier was not a “publisher” but an essayist; the term existentialism was not “coined by the arts pages of a newspaper” but by the Catholic thinker Gabriel Marcel; Beauvoir was enrolled not at the École normale supérieure but at the Sorbonne; Albert Camus attended not a general rehearsal of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies but instead opening night (where he first introduced himself to Sartre). Bernard Lazare was not a sociologist but a literary critic, Dreyfus defender, and Zionist theorist (and a principal figure in Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism). Finally, the number of civilians caught up in the 1940 Exodus in France was more than twice the three million stated in the book.

The reader might also wonder why Eilenberger chose to bring together these four thinkers, especially Rand. After all, in the books on the Vienna Circle and Oxbridge thinkers, the main characters were friends, colleagues, or at least aware (and mostly wary) of one another. The “visionaries,” however, were largely strangers to one another. Although Eilenberger presents a famous and famously short encounter between Beauvoir and Weil, none of his subjects ever spent significant time in the physical or intellectual company of the others, with one important exception that Eilenberger fails to mention: in The Human Condition (1958), Arendt cited with great admiration Weil’s work on the condition of the working class.

But these hesitations soon recede as Eilenberger sweeps us up in his otherwise masterly account, which reminds us not only, as he writes, that “thought that merits the name … is a very lonely business,” but also that thinking is a devilishly difficult business, one that demands our attention.


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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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