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Brave women in dark times


By Sylvie Courtine-Denamy
translated by G.M. Goshgarian,
Cornell University Press, 272 pages, $35


This dense and important book is an absorbing presentation of the lives and thinking of Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil, three brilliant 20th-century philosophers who remain influential today. Sylvie Courtine-Denamy is herself a philosopher who knows the political, intellectual and cultural world of her subjects intimately.

Focusing on their work in the period from 1933 to 1943, the author places them in the crucible of rising European totalitarianism, which inevitably affected their uniquely committed approaches to philosophy. For those who do not remember the events of those years, she wisely begins chapters with factual bulletins that constitute a crash course in the events, arguments and intellectual figures of the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust.

By interweaving the development of her three philosophers within this context, Courtine-Denamy brings deeper meaning to many of their writings. Weil’s classic analysis of The Iliad as a poem of force, her most famous essay, becomes an astonishing contemplation of the suffering that total war might cause. The common darkness around Stein, Arendt and Weil also highlights the similarities and differences among them, revealing how, despite their own sufferings and exile -- and in Stein’s case, martyrdom -- each grew intellectually and morally in response to the injustices suffered by others.

All were born Jewish but related differently to their identity and to religion. Stein (1891-1942), the beloved 12th child of a practicing Orthodox family from Breslau, felt drawn to Christianity and ultimately to the contemplative life of Carmel. In her bedroom she had pictures of Jewish heroines from the Bible as well as Christian saints. She was baptized in 1922 but always identified with the Jews, stressed the Judaism of Jesus, and when Hitler took power in 1933, wrote that it was “luminously clear to me that once again God’s hand lay heavily on his people, and that the destiny of this people was my own.”

After failing to get an audience with Pius XI, she wrote him a letter about the situation of the Jews in Germany and her fears for the church’s future but received only his blessing in response. Stein chose sympathy as the subject of her doctoral dissertation and displayed it just before her death at Auschwitz when she confessed to a priest, “You don’t know what it means to me as a daughter of the chosen people to belong to Christ, not only spiritually, but according to the flesh.” She then took her sister Rosa’s hand and said, “Come; we’re going for our people.”

Both Arendt (1906-1975) and Weil (1909-1943) were from assimilated Jewish families, and in the case of Weil, agnostic as well. Weil could neither identify with the Jews nor call them the “chosen people.” Intensely drawn to Christ, passionately committed to justice for all, prayerful and ascetic to an extreme, still she could never join the church. Though she believed in all its doctrines and teachings, she deplored its tendency to use intimidation in imposing its views and exercising its power.

Without ever repudiating her identity as a Jew, Arendt developed a remarkable ability to recognize what was good in Christianity and recognized what needed criticizing in Zionism. Having barely escaped Germany in 1933 and France in 1940 after a stay in a detention camp, she could not help being angry with her former teacher and lover, philosopher Martin Heidegger, who made accommodations to Nazism that greatly helped his career. Nevertheless, in The Human Condition, written in the English she learned in exile in the United States -- she became a citizen in 1951 -- Arendt pointed to pardon as essential for any political life. For her it emerged as the redemptive possibility of overcoming the irreversibility of action. She saw Jesus as the one who understood that the power to pardon “does not derive from God ... but on the contrary must be mobilized by men toward each other before they can hope to be forgiven by God.”

Perhaps the most striking similarity among the three is their common witness to the belief that philosophy must be something to live, not merely to think. Edith Stein interrupted her doctoral studies to work in a Red Cross military hospital for a year during World War I. Simone Weil did mind-numbing labor in an automobile factory that permanently influenced her political philosophy: She would thereafter insist that a human life for working people must include the ability to think and act, not merely to consume. Hannah Arendt took on the dangerous job of collecting anti-Semitic propaganda in Germany before she fled to Paris in 1933.

This book is an introduction to three philosophers who argued that witness and clear thinking are essential if we are to develop a politics that can serve human beings instead of reducing them to pawns and consumers. We can still learn from Weil’s remarkable insight that morality is a matter of attention, not will, and that the capacity to love is related to the ability to see reality accurately. And we might well pay attention to Arendt’s suggestion that constructive politics be used instead of destruction. It seems especially true in light of our mindless use of bombing as a substitute for foreign policy. Her selection of friendship as a basis for a human politics, one depending on discourse, dialogue and care for the world we have in common, calls for the response of religious believers today.

Sylvie Courtine-Denamy’s important book should be a springboard for those who wish to continue to read and carry on the work of the brave, clear-sighted women she has helped her readers understand.

Sally Cunneen’s doctorate is in philosophy. She is the author of In Search of Mary and is presently teaching a course on Mary at Fairfield University. Her e-mail address is SCunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001