Hannah Arendt and Philip Roth: Parallel Lives

by Corey Robin on June 9, 2015

In the second half of the twentieth century, a writer of uncommon gifts travels to Israel. There, the writer, who is Jewish and fiercely intellectual, attends the trial of a Nazi war criminal. When the trial’s over, the writer writes a book about it.

No, it’s not Hannah Arendt. It’s Philip Roth.

Arendt and Roth led oddly parallel lives.

Both were denounced by the Jewish establishment—at roughly the same time, in remarkably similar terms—for pieces they had written for The New Yorker. Long before Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth antagonized the Jewish community with his short story, “Defender of the Faith,” which appeared in the magazine in 1959. Describing the controversy, Judith Thurman writes:

It sparked a violent reaction in certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. Roth was vilified as a self-hating Jew and a traitor to his people who had given ammunition to their enemies by seeming to reinforce degrading stereotypes….Yet rabbis denounced Roth from their pulpits, and a leading educator at Yeshiva University wrote to the Anti-Defamation League to ask, “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”

Sound familiar?

(Speaking of Yeshiva: The university was the site of an infamous confrontation between Roth and his enemies in 1962, one year before the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Sharing the stage with Ralph Ellison and another writer, Roth was forced to defend himself and his work. First question: “Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?” It went downhill from there. Not unlike the 1964 public forum on Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt had the wisdom not to attend.)

Both Arendt and Roth were prominent targets of Irving Howe, Gershom Scholem (“This is the book for which all antisemites have been praying”), and Norman Podhoretz. Again, for remarkably similar reasons.

Harold Weisberg was one of the first to note the parallels, in a short piece on Eichmann in Jerusalem in the Spring 1964 issue of Partisan Review:

Jewish attitudes toward Miss Arendt and her book have been varied. No doubt, some have slandered her, but even at the hands of the most zealous guardians of the American Jewish establishment she has fared no worse than some critics of the American Jewish community—Philip Roth, for example.

While writing my piece and the Eichmann controversy, I thought a lot about these parallels. In my original draft, I included some material on the Arendt/Roth connection, and as I was revising the piece, I thought about ending it with a lengthier discussion of the connection. But as my editor John Palattella wisely pointed out, the piece already had a large cast of characters; introducing Roth at the end would only add to the chaos of an already crowded stage. So I left out the entire discussion.

But after the piece came out, I was contacted by Ira Nadel, a literary scholar at the University of British Columbia, whom I met for coffee last week. Ira is writing a biography of Roth and was kind enough to send me a rich and informative paper he’s written on the Arendt/Roth connection. Here are just some of the biographical points of convergence that Ira identifies in his paper.

1. Roth enrolled in the University of Chicago PhD program in English in Fall 1956 (he had earlier received a master’s degree from there). Arendt lectured at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1957. Though Roth dropped out after a term, he stayed on there to teach and write.

2. In 1958/1959, Roth wrote a three-act play, “Coffin in Egypt,” about the Jewish leader of the Vilna Ghetto, who collaborates with the Nazis. The character is straight out of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

3. In August 1963, the Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin wrote Roth about Arendt’s Eichmann text, “Don’t spoil your summer by looking at it again. I know you liked it the first time,” suggesting that Roth had read and appreciated the work, at least when it appeared in The New Yorker.

4. Roth and Arendt began a correspondence in 1973. In one of his letters, Roth tells Arendt that he’s been reading Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which Arendt edited (and wrote a famous introduction to). He also gives her a copy of his essay, “Looking for Kafka.” (Kafka was one of their shared interests.) He ends the letter: “It would be nice to get together with you again,” suggesting they already had met in person.

5. In the 1970s, Roth taught a seminar on “The Literature of the Holocaust.” Arendt was on the syllabus.

6. In 1983, People Magazine ran a profile of Roth. The profile included this description of Roth’s life with Claire Bloom in London:

There he stays at her Victorian row house in Chelsea, surrounded by Staffordshire china and proper English prints. He takes long walks by the Thames, gripes about the faulty central heating and stretches out on Claire’s canopy bed to devour the stack of varied books on the night table, a small but imposing hillock whose crest consists of a biography of Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, and The Jew as Pariah by Hannah Arendt.

7. Not about Roth and Arendt but interesting nonetheless: William Styron claimed that Sophie’s Choice was inspired by an incident (a woman forced to choose which of her two children will live, will shall die) that Arendt reported in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In actual fact, Nadel observes, Arendt had reported the story in Origins of Totalitarianism. Styron also claimed Eichmann in Jerusalem was “a kind of handbook” for him. Arendt possessed her own copy of Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Beyond these biographical tidbits, I think the connection between Arendt and Roth is threefold.

First, there is the theme of doubles and impostors. In Operation Shylock, narrator Philip Roth travels to Israel, where he observes the trial of John Demjanjuk and has to endure the ordeal of an impostor acting in his name. Right there, as Bonnie Honig pointed out to me in an email, we have an interesting point of contact. As I explained in my piece on Arendt/Eichmann, one of the charges many of Arendt’s critics have made against her—Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem is the most recent version—is that she got taken in by Eichmann the impostor. Eichmann, they say, put on a show at his trial, pretending to be the schlemiel he was not. The real Eichmann was a vicious and cunning anti-Semite, not the hapless clown Arendt described. (I seem to recall that Arendt was also interested in how identical twins unsettled her theory of natality, the unprecedented novelty of each and every newborn, but now I can’t find the passage anywhere. Well, it’s late.)

Second, one of the motifs of Operation Shylock is narrator Roth’s ongoing attempt to establish the credibility of his own existence against that of the impostor Roth. “Up against reality,” says narrator Roth, “I had at my disposal the strongest weapon in anyone’s arsenal: my own reality.” That is also one of the themes of Eichmann in Jerusalem: the difficulty—and importance—of establishing the credibility of one’s own existence. Eichmann, says Arendt, had almost no sense of reality, no sense of right and wrong, apart from the opinion of others. His others, that is: the higher-ups in the Nazi hierarchy. And while Arendt is scorching on the subject of Eichmann’s conformity to his superiors’ views, she carries on, in good Rothian fashion, her own counterpoint to the problem of conformity. It is critical, she says, that as we form our own opinions about the world, we attend to the views of others about that world. Attending to those views, without getting lost in them, is the foundation of human judgment. The counterpoint of these two lines—Eichmann’s dissolution in the views of others, the necessity of attending to the views of others without getting lost in them—is the music of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Finally, there is the question of comedy. In her 1944 essay on Kafka, Arendt observed that laughter “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” In the same way that it was important for Mel Brooks to be able to laugh at Hitler, so was it important for Arendt to be able to laugh at Eichmann. It was her way of divesting his evil—any evil—of grandeur, of any claim to gravitas or depth.

One of the funnier moments in Eichmann in Jerusalem comes near the end:

Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no “time to waste.”

Only Arendt would have paused long enough to note the hilarity of the statement. “No ‘time to waste'”: Where the hell did he have to go? But there’s another irony. In making that statement, Eichmann thought he was proving his superior cast of mind, his impatience with anything so childish as the Bible. But instead of showing off his mannish impiety, he came off looking like the preposterous efficiency obsessive he was, fretting in even these last minutes of his life over a possible misspent second.

Eichmann’s final words similarly betrayed his attempts to prove himself the hard thinker, the refuser of silly comforts:

He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläuber, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.”

At the end of my essay on Arendt, I talk about how uneasy she was made by the Zionist bid for sovereignty in Palestine. Reflecting a deep ambivalence in the Jewish tradition, Eichmann in Jerusalem—as well as Arendt’s essays on Zionism—can be read as a warning of what will come to the Jews from that having kind of power, that kind of possession over the land and its people.

But in a 1964 interview with Joachim Fest, Arendt holds out for a different kind of sovereignty, a different path to power. In response to the question of whether, in writing Eichmann in Jerusalem, in pursuing the truth as she saw it, she hurt people’s feelings (remember, she was withering on the topic of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis), Arendt says:

There’s no question about it: I have wounded some people. And you know, it’s somehow more unpleasant for me when I hurt people than when I get in the way of organizations and their interests, right? I take this seriously…You see, it’s my view that the legitimate feeling here is sorrow…There’s nothing I can do about it. In fact, in my opinion people shouldn’t adopt an emotional tone to talk about these things, since that’s a way of playing them down…I also think that you must be able to laugh, since that’s a form of sovereignty.

It’s the classic statement of a powerless people: to offer laughter as a kind of sovereignty, a triumph over one’s own powerlessness. It is the comedy of the oppressed against the oppressor—and of the oppressed against herself. That, too, is part of the Jewish tradition. (Oppressed people tend to be witty, Saul Bellow is supposed to have said—again, a quote I can’t confirm.) Against the sovereignty of the state, Arendt offers the sovereignty of comedy.

That puts Arendt in some surprising company: of not only the chorus of Jewish comedic voices coming into their own in postwar America—Sid Ceasar, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce—but also a young writer of scathing satire from Newark.



bianca steele 06.09.15 at 2:50 pm

This is interesting, but I’m not seeing any real significance: is Roth’s work supposed to be essential for a true understanding of Arendt? (Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s only half-serious. But Roth is known for scathing portraits of contemporary women, and though Operation Shylock has an enormous mostly male cast of characters, many passages offer an intense focus on a certain “type” of woman. But I don’t recall any Arendt-like figures in the books I’ve read by him. If Roth and Arendt have affinities, it’s in a highly abstract way, which a novelist, necessarily focused on the concrete social world, may have little patience for. Put another way, say Arendt’s comic granddaughter is Sarah Silverman; I can’t imagine her at all in a Roth novel, not even as a foil for the narrator.)


Corey Robin 06.09.15 at 3:08 pm

Bianca: Your comment baffles me. I spell out precisely what I think some of the connections are between Roth and Arendt. You might have been tipped off by the paragraph that reads: “Beyond these biographical tidbits, I think the connection between Arendt and Roth is threefold.” As for Roth’s misogyny: well, Arendt was no feminist either. I’m not really sure where that leaves us.


bianca steele 06.09.15 at 3:33 pm

I’m referring only to the rhetorical purpose calling in Roth serves in your Arendt project (and secondarily in a CT blog post). Say Roth had Eichmann in Jerusalem in mind when he wrote Operation Shylock (it’s hard to imagine the thought of Arendt’s book never crossed his mind). Say he conceived of his book as a commentary on her. That’s a lot of “if”s, but if (and I think what you write suggests it) . . . then should we read Roth to understand Arendt? Why does a book on Arendt need to mention Roth?

You note that Howe attacked both of them. But unless I misunderstood him entirely, the late D.G. Myers, for one, seemed to read Roth as having made his Oedipal peace with Howe and come to understand that Howe had been right all along. If Arendt did not, suggesting that they’re the same might seem to suggest that Roth is a necessary corrective to Arendt’s thought.

That would be a strange thing for Corey Robin to say, I think, but given that Roth’s noted male supremacism is exactly what many of his readers find valuable about him, I think it would be implied in the background somehow (in this post if not in a longer book).

Your argument suggests to me, rather, that it’s interesting that Roth could conceivably be reconciled to whatever Howe thought he was representing, where for Arendt that task would be more difficult. Or maybe that Arendt was funnier, and Roth less funny, than they’re usually taken to be.


adam.smith 06.09.15 at 3:47 pm

Corey can correct me if I’m off base with this, but I read this as part of his larger concern with the theme of the “bad Jew.” Looking for common traits seems both a logical and worthwhile part of that. I don’t know how much/good of a literature there is on this, but showing how, in many ways, “bad Jews” like Arendt and Roth (and Robin? ;)) are more quintessentially Jewish than their critics is the theme I’m reading from/into Corey’s writings on this.


Corey Robin 06.09.15 at 4:36 pm

Bianca: You continue to baffle me. After I point you to precisely what (and where) I say the connections and parallels between Arendt and Roth are — not, I might add, that “they’re the same” but that there are connections between them — you respond by continuing to ponder and refute a claim I never made or even suggested. By all means, have the conversation you want to have, but please don’t presume that it’s a conversation with me.


Z 06.09.15 at 6:21 pm

Beyond these biographical tidbits, I think the connection between Arendt and Roth is threefold.

Another point to consider is the incredible mindfulness to details that, to me, constitutes the core of Roth’s approach to both style and plot. But in the light of the following quotation (by someone)

“The point is that Judaism imposes a mindfulness about material life—the knowledge that it is out of our littlest deeds that heaven and hell are made—that turns our smallest practices into the peaks and valleys of a most difficult and demanding ethical terrain.”

maybe this is just saying that both Arendt’s and Roth’s writings are deeply influenced by judaism.


The Dark Avenger 06.09.15 at 6:51 pm

I’ve not read much, if anything of Arendt’s, but I have read some Roth in my day, and!he does come across as telling tales out of school, and he was described by his ex-wife Clair Bloom, as being something of a moralist in his real life, IIRC.


bianca steele 06.09.15 at 8:08 pm


I apologize for upsetting you. I’m sure I would have edited out the word “same” if I were writing these comments for course credit, and I’m sure there are worse insults than to say someone seems to be arguing with a figment in her head instead of with a real person. I’m happy to wind this back to the first phrase of my first comment, and say simply that if there is a reason for listing the conglomeration of facts that are in the OP, such as that Roth used the word “double” in Operation Shylock, other than that they pertain to Roth or to Arendt, I don’t understand what it is. But why bother posting a comment just to say that, you might ask, and you’d be right.


LFC 06.09.15 at 8:22 pm

Couple of comments, both to do w/ Arendt, not with the Arendt/Roth connection. (I’ll preface this by saying I have not read Eichmann in Jerusalem, except for a bit of the opening.)

1. The OP observes in passing (toward the end) that Arendt, as is well known, was scathing on the issue of collaboration by certain Jewish communal/ghetto leaders with the Nazis. Question: to what extent did Arendt address or acknowledge the issue of Jewish armed resistance to the Nazis, and not only in the Warsaw ghetto? (Btw, the May 2015 APSR has an article on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Might be of interest to some.)

2. The OP refers to Arendt’s emphasis on “the necessity of attending to the views of others without getting lost in them…” Isn’t that more-or-less standard-issue ‘liberalism’ (or if you don’t like that word, substitute another)? Would J.S. Mill have said anything esp. different? Couldn’t one perhaps infer a similar line from Tocqueville’s discussion of conformity in Democracy in America? T. says (I’m paraphrasing rather loosely) that conformity of opinion is the form that tyranny takes in a democratic society; this force doesn’t target the body, as in actual despotisms, but skips the body and targets the soul. Implication: the danger of “getting lost in the views of others” exists not only in real tyrannies, such as that for which Eichmann worked, but in democratic societies as well.


Corey Robin 06.09.15 at 9:14 pm

LFC: In answer to your questions:

1. She didn’t address it much at all. Though everyone knew of course about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the theme of Jewish resistance really became a much bigger deal later. Remember, the historiography of the Holocaust was still pretty much in its infancy when she wrote Eichmann.

2. I think the critical issue is the first part of the quoted phrase: “the necessity of attending to the views of others.” The theme of the perils of conformity, as you note, is an old one in modern social thought, going back to the 19th century. The real power of A’s argument is that despite her acidic commentary about Eichmann’s conformity, she doesn’t merely toggle to the other pole, emphasizing the importance of nonconformity or independence. She still insists on a view of judgment, which she derives from Kant’s aesthetic theory, that puts price of place not on forming our own thoughts in isolation from or defiance of others but via taking in the views of others — formulating a sensus communis in which we temporarily look at things from the perspective of others, and through that temporary assumption of other views, slowly formulate a multi-dimensional perspective on various matters.


LFC 06.09.15 at 10:33 pm

Thanks, very helpful answers.


Larry Yudelson (@yudel) 06.09.15 at 10:39 pm

Speaking of Adolf Eichmann and humor…. Here’s a subtitled sketch from the current Israeli comedy series, “The Jews are Coming,” which brings a Monty Python sensibility to the Bible and Jewish history.


john c. halasz 06.10.15 at 1:01 am

I started reading the link to your “The Nation” review article, but I got the distinct sense that I’d read it before. Has at least some of it been published elsewhere, perhaps on your blog?

For the rest, I would have some hesitation of your framing of the issue as an intramural Jewish dispute, even if the majority of her harshest “critics” were Jewish and framed it that way. Though Arendt was of Jewish origin and was quite conscious of that fact, she was an assimilated entirely secularized German Jew, and IIRC she herself stated somewhere that it was the rise of the Nazis that shocked her into emphatically embracing her Jewish “identity”, since they had so forcefully and ascriptively imposed on her. But her German origins and identity perhaps count as much, if not more in the dispute. (She after all wrote her dissertation on Augustine, and her emphatic philhellenism, which tends to puzzle American readers, is oh, so very German). There are elements of her thinking, (such as “plurality”, as opposed to mere pluralism, and “natality”, in opposition to mortality as the mark of finitude), that might bear traces of Judaic tradition, but her formation in German philosophy seems to me to have left a stronger mark. And that might be a more determinative frame than any dispute over Jewishness, at least with her American Jewish critics, most of whom would have come from Yiddish immigrant backgrounds, often hard-scrabble, in contrast to Arendt’s rather privileged German academic credentials. (Though she was raised in the far east in Koenigsburg, it’s doubtful she would have had much interaction with the surrounding Yiddish-or Slavic- population).

So it’s that different sense of the stakes of being Jewish that might be at the root of the virulence of the attacks on Arendt. She was German as much as Jewish and it was that intimate betrayal and loyalty that framed her response. (Her entire turn toward becoming a political rather than philosophical thinker owes to the shock of becoming a stateless person). IOW it wasn’t a matter for her of maintaining a religious, or ethnic, or nationalist “identity”, but rather of upholding a cosmopolitan perspective, which accounts for her ambivalence toward Zionism, half solidaristic support, half critical distance, a refusal of assimilation without remainder either to American or Israeli conformity.

And I don’t think that the root of anti-semitism is due to either their stubborn apartness or their high (or harsh) moral rigorism. (Levinas, with his hyperbolic insistence of “infinite” responsibility, would be a better case for that than Arendt). Rather the archaic origin of Judaism lies in its critique of pagan idolatry, as the at once sacrificial and magical-manipulative submission to the mythified powers of nature, for which is substituted an ethical compact, a relation to the other, which entails a burden of estrangement, an acceptance than we are all strangers upon the earth, in contrast to the myth of autochthonic origins, of being born from the earth. Most of the peoples of “Christendom” were after all originally migratory pagan peoples who were largely converted by the sword, (whereas Judaism, to its credit, is a non-proselytizing religion, which inevitably condemned it to minority status, wherever it went). It’s the disruption of factitious autochthonous claims, and the introduction of “plurality” over “unity” that would more account for the resentment against harmless Jews, aside from any “materialist” issues. And Arendt is upholding that in her cosmopolitan perspective and her robust modernism, and that’s why she was so thoroughly herself the object of resentment. Yes, an ironical take on Jewish history and tradition.


LFC 06.10.15 at 2:21 am

@j c halasz

Rather the archaic origin of Judaism lies in its critique of pagan idolatry, as the at once sacrificial and magical-manipulative submission to the mythified powers of nature, for which is substituted an ethical compact, a relation to the other, which entails a burden of estrangement, an acceptance that we are all strangers upon the earth, in contrast to the myth of autochthonic origins, of being born from the earth.

Didn’t animal sacrifice continue to be a significant part of the rituals of Judaism in its ‘archaic’ phase? True, the sacrifices were to a single deity, rather than to multiple ones, but it suggests some holdovers from ‘pagan’ practice, doesn’t it? (I don’t pretend to know much about this, just raising the question.)


ZM 06.10.15 at 2:45 am

“True, the sacrifices were to a single deity, rather than to multiple ones”

At my undergraduate university I took subject the world and literature of the bible and the book is thought to originate in various groups who authored it and adapted things over the time of its composition. The earlier elements contain references to different deities, for instance there are origins of a “nationalist” warrior god, one god among other gods of other nations.


Harold 06.10.15 at 3:54 pm

Isn’t “attending to the views of others without getting lost in them” the essence of classical humanism, beginning with Plato’s dialogs?


Corey Robin 06.10.15 at 4:17 pm

Harold: As I explained to LFC at 10, Arendt’s theory of judgment is one in which we take in the views of others as part of the sensus communis that gets fashioned. I explain more about her view of judgment, and its indebtedness to Kant’s aesthetic theory, in my Nation piece. You’ll see it’s a very far cry from anything Plato would endorse.


Harold 06.10.15 at 4:47 pm

I didn’t say Arendt’s theory of judgment was something Plato would endorse, I merely suggested that attending to the views of others is neither limited to nor intrinsic to Judaism only.


Corey Robin 06.10.15 at 5:27 pm

I’m not sure anyone said or suggested that attending to the views of others is limited to or intrinsic to Judaism. I certainly didn’t.


Doug 06.10.15 at 5:28 pm


The animal sacrifices in early Judaism were set up in opposition to the human (usually child) sacrifices in the religions of the surrounding people.

In fact, one could argue that the substitution of animal sacrifice for human sacrifice was the primary driving force behind Judaism. The Canaanites, like their descendents the Phoenicians and Cathaginians, often sacrificed their first born to their gods–this is actually attested by certain rather gruesome archaeological finds.

And in the founding story of Judaism, of course, Abraham, either a canaanite or a related tribe, is fully prepared to sacrifice his precious firstborn at his god’s command–only to have his god substitute a lamb instead.

So, while animal sacrifice might seem “pagan” in the 21st century, at time of Judaism’s foundation, it was actually a rather remarkable repudiation of common religious practice. Which was followed by several thousand years of repudiating common religious practice, whatever that happened to be at the time. [Interestingly, Jewish rejection of Christianity can be seen as a direct continuation of their rejection of canaanite religion, insofar as both involved “human” sacrifice. And indeed, Jews class Christians as pagans rather than monotheists.]


LFC 06.10.15 at 5:59 pm

Doug @20

The animal sacrifices in early Judaism were set up in opposition to the human (usually child) sacrifices in the religions of the surrounding people.

Ok, I either didn’t know that or knew it and had forgotten.

Jews class Christians as pagans rather than monotheists.

Well, I don’t know who you mean by “Jews” in this sentence. I’m completely irreligious today, but I had a more or less typical, I guess, Jewish upbringing (Hebrew school, bar mitzvah, and all that), and I definitely consider Christians to be monotheists.

p.s. Not that I want to turn the thread to a discussion of Christianity. I just looked through Corey’s Nation piece, which I hadn’t read before (though bits of it had appeared here or on his blog), and there is something in it I would like to comment on, but will have to postpone that to later.


Stephen 06.10.15 at 6:30 pm

Doug@20, as I understand it, i pagan Greek or Roman religion, animal sacrifice was normal, human sacrifice was definitely not. Am I to suppose that the Greeks and Romans had become Jewish without noticing it?


Harold 06.10.15 at 7:29 pm

The Greeks and Romans also deplored human sacrifice, though they continued to practice it here and there, in times of great stress, I’ve been told. It was part of the Axial Age enlightenment you might say.


LFC 06.10.15 at 8:09 pm

On second thought, I think I won’t comment on The Nation piece here; I feel the need of more time to mull it over than the constraints of ‘comment thread time’ allow.


Harold 06.11.15 at 3:09 am

I really would like to know what it was about Hannah Arendt’s philosophy that Plato wouldn’t have endorsed. Might he not have hailed her as a new Diotima?

I wish somebody with a knowledge of both could compose a Menippean satire, like Lucian’s or Lord Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead, in which they both participate in a Socratic debate in the Elysian Fields that would shed some light on this matter.


john c. halasz 06.11.15 at 4:36 am

So now that things here drifted off topic, I’ll try to irrelevantly clear some bits up. I didn’t mean to imply that, in providing a synoptic account of 3 thousand years of the emergent evolution of a religious tradition, it originated in a rejection of human sacrifice. We don’t actually know clearly about its origins. But “sacrificial submission” doesn’t have to imply such, nor the absence of any sacrificial rituals, merely that the divine is no longer a submission to divinized natural order, an inevitable and sanctified fate, but rather to an imageless, invisible and world-transcendent order, whose commandments and laws free from such submission to the pre-given.

The general view of anthropologists is that human sacrifice, like cannibalism, while not impossible, is often more rumor than fact. In particular, with respect to the Phoenicians, cognate to the Caananites, though they are generally thought to have been the originators of alphabetic writing, as subsequently transmitted to the Hebrews and the Greeks, nothing of their writings survives and all that we know of them are effectively slanders from their enemies, in Biblical and Roman sources. The accusation that they engaged in child sacrifice is especially suspect. It’s true that in Carthaginian sites, whether major or minor, throughout the Western Mediterranean rows of neatly laid out urns containing ashes of infants can be found around altars, but that is not clear evidence of infant sacrifice. Rather it’s likely that the Phoenician practice was to cremate the remains of dead infants and offer them back to their gods, to resume the cycle of fertility/generation, since infant mortality back then was likely in the 40-50% range. Archaic mythical stories, such as Abraham/Isaac or Iphigenia, are not probative evidence of the substitution of human sacrifice for more “civilized” means,- (and the reported wars and massacres would have been far worse anyway),- but rather an indication of the emergence of institutional rituals to replace and propitiate the unmitigated cycles of nature and retribution. But what might have distinguished the ancient Hebrews, who were a small people and never militarily powerful or successful for long, was a refusal to divinize the natural/political order as the object of sacrificial submission, which might account for the peculiar potency of their legacy. (I don’t want to get into the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and just who the Essences were and how many Kairates there ever were, etc. I was just trying to make a synoptic remark about Rabbinical diaspora Judaism as its some down to the modern era).

This is entirely off topic, but it does get to something that has always bothered me. It’s the styling of the Nazi extermination of European Jews as the Holocaust. It’s not just that they targeted others as well, so it’s not just about the Jews, though they did target the Jews most virulently, extensively and foremost. It’s that “holocaust”, a Greek word, means “burnt offering”, as if it were a matter of voluntary sacrifice, rather than massive murder. The Hebrew Shoah, meaning catastrophe, without distinguishing between natural and man-made causes, (since the tradition wouldn’t have distinguished such “acts of God”), is more apposite, at least with respect to the considerable Jewish portion. It seems less prone to the subsequent political manipulation of what is essentially irrecuperable and irredeemable, what, in its singular horror and evil, shouldn’t become the justification of lesser evils.

Now to get back to the OP, (having said to much, haven’t said enough), I think there is a strong disanalogy in the attempted correlation of the cases of Arendt and Roth, (who I never read, so I’m relying on second-hand sources and reputation). Roth was spilling the beans on the family, the mishpocheh, blasphemously and especially with respect to sexual matters and repressive hypocrisies, but essentially about private matters. Whereas for Arendt, private matters, “the darkness of the heart”, were precisely not matters for public-political consideration and exposure. And Arendt was being condemned and repudiated for the very public character of her pronouncements and judgments, as if it were a deficiency in her own character.


Harold 06.11.15 at 5:09 am

Suttee? It was real all right.


Corey Robin 06.11.15 at 2:23 pm

Arendt was in fact accused of doing the exact same thing Roth had done: airing the Jews’ dirty laundry in public. If you read the attacks on both of them, you’ll see, as I say in the OP, that they were criticized — often by the same people — in remarkably similar terms. That doesn’t mean there weren’t differences between them. Of course there were. The point of making comparisons, at least interesting comparisons, is not to bring things that are identical or very much alike into contact with each other; it’s to bring things that are in fact quite different into proximity in order to see previously unnoticed points of contact.


Doug 06.11.15 at 3:30 pm

john c. halasz @26, Just FYI, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the Carthaginians and their ancestors did, in fact, practice human sacrifice. c.f. “Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization” by Richard Miles, Penguin Books, 2012. Outside Carthage there is at least one, if not more, burial grounds solely for young children, most of whom were killed and buried ceremonially (ala the child sacrifices of the Incans, though not quite as formal.)

I was surprised myself–I certainly wouldn’t put it past the Romans to make stuff up–but apparently it wasn’t entirely fictional. I also seem to recall similar evidence from phoenician sites, but I can’t remember the source.


Mike Schilling 06.11.15 at 3:34 pm

I definitely consider Christians to be monotheists.

Odd-number-theists, anyway.


LFC 06.11.15 at 4:08 pm

M Schilling:
Odd-number-theists, anyway.

The Trinity is not polytheism. I’m no expert on Christianity but I know that much. There may be an old Jewish joke (or “joke”) about it’s being difficult enough to believe in one God, never mind three; at least, a relative once said something like that in my hearing, intending to be funny. Whether or not the remark is funny, it has no basis, afaik, in Christian theology, either Protestant or Catholic. FTR, I tend to find religion in general unappealing, and that very much includes the network-of-small-prescriptions variety mentioned by Corey in his Nation piece. But I won’t say anything more about that.


Harold 06.11.15 at 4:09 pm

It was my understanding that the Vikings practiced human sacrifice until the ninth or 10th C. AD. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norse_religion

Also, the Bible was mostly written down after or during the Babylonian captivity, long after many events described and through the lens of a morality of a new era. It is thought that the many injunctions against the practice is a sign that it was still going on, even amongst the Jews (as was polytheism, condemned in a similar manner).


john c. halasz 06.11.15 at 5:17 pm

Sigh… This ia all OT, but @29, I did address the archeological findings. They are evidence of a burial practice, not of wide-spread infant sacrifice. The textual evidence is almost entirely Roman, (since they destroyed the literary remains), and certainly highly defamatory. (If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the Romans: they were brutal militarists). And though human sacrifice is not unknown, it tends to be less common than ascribed. The Aztecs certainly practice human sacrifice and ritual canibalism, but they did so with enemy war captives as victims.

@ 32 The Torah/Pentateuch was composed in layers over several centuries, beginning around maybe 900 BC, with only the final “priestly” redaction occurring with the Babylonian captivity. Certainly there was evolution in religious understandings, but how much is historical, (especially from times centuries before its composition), who’s to say?

The only point I made, which set off this tangent, is that Judaism, as it has come down to us in modern times, “originated” in a critique of idolatry, which amounts to a transition from “natural” religion in paganism to ethical religion, as embodied in a compact and its law, originally ethnocentric, but making increasingly “universal” claims. Perhaps one way to bring this out is the difference between pagan oracles and Biblical prophets, whose calls for “repentance”, i.e. for a return to the compact, were not simple, if ambiguous predictions, and were increasingly directed against the king.


The Dark Avenger 06.11.15 at 7:28 pm

“The inscriptions are unequivocal: time and again we find the explanation that the gods ‘heard my voice and blessed me’. It cannot be that so many children conveniently happened to die at just the right time to become an offering – and in any case a poorly or dead child would make a pretty feeble offering if you’re already worried about the gods rejecting it.”

“Then there is the fact that the animals from the sites, which were beyond question sacrificial offerings, are buried in exactly the same way, sometimes in the same urns with the bones of the children.”



Harold 06.12.15 at 12:56 am

Parallel lives never connect, which is just about what you might expect. It does seem that HA and PR’s lives did intersect. They both admired Kafka. She was a big name and he was an up-and-coming one, it sounds like; and he admired and wanted to talk to her. One wonders what she thought of him, if anything.


Harold 06.12.15 at 1:05 am


js. 06.12.15 at 1:12 am


This is bizarrely off-topic (well, ok, not that much), but wanted to say: I finally got around to your Nation piece on Arendt last week or so, and it was immense! Just really loved it. Basically, thanks!


john c. halasz 06.15.15 at 7:45 pm


bianca steele 06.15.15 at 10:23 pm

I’m not sure Saul Bellow liked anyone: http://www.newyorker.com/books/double-take/eighty-five-from-the-archive-saul-bellow. Maybe not representative, but he sounds like an exhausting correspondent. I guess he had high standards.


Harold 06.15.15 at 10:51 pm

Saul Bellow’s strictures against Hannah Arendt were completely boiler plate for the times. Anyone wanting more examples of how male (and even some female writers) talked and wrote about women’s writing can consult the rich selection of samples assembled in Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women (1968).


john c. halasz 06.15.15 at 11:13 pm


” I guess he had high standards.”

Or maybe high standards in low places.

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