Staircase Over the Void

Staircase Over the Void
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP

Thinking Without a Banister sounds like a freethinker's slogan, a refusal of the supports of authority, tradition, and revealed faith. It recalls Hannah Arendt's appreciation of Gotthold Lessing in the opening essay of Men in Dark Times, her book of essays from 1968. There, Arendt praises the German thinker's untrammeled intelligence, which led to his rejection of Lutheran orthodoxy and embrace of Spinoza, the patron of freethinkers. Readers might expect a similar posture in this new volume of Arendt's previously unpublished or uncollected essays, lectures, and interviews.

But the title in fact sounds a note of alarm, rather than triumph; it refers to the collapse of tradition and authority, which has made independent thought a perilous necessity rather than a bold choice. Arendt argues that liberation from older forms of oppression yielded equivocal results, some of them dire. Far from ensuring a golden age of freedom, the modern loss of tradition and authority created a vacuum that allowed a novel form of tyranny, the totalitarian state, to emerge and spread with the momentum of a natural disaster

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