Villa's book, however, is much more than a mere correction of misinterpretations of a major thinker's work. Rather, he makes a persuasive case for Arendt as the postmodern or postmetaphysical political theorist, the first political theorist to think through the nature of political action after Nietzsche's exposition of the death of God (i.e., the collapse of objective correlates to our ideals, ends, and purposes). After giving an account of Arendt's theory of action and Heidegger's influence on it, Villa shows how Arendt did justice to the Heideggerian and Nietzschean criticism of the metaphysical tradition while avoiding the political conclusions they drew from their critiques. The result is a wide-ranging discussion not only of Arendt and Heidegger, but of Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Habermas, and the entire question of politics after metaphysics.
Villa begins by focusing on some of the most controversial aspects of Arendt's political thought. He shows that Arendt's famous idea of the banality of evil--inspired by the trial of Adolf Eichmann--does not, as some have maintained, lessen the guilt of war criminals by suggesting that they are mere cogs in a bureaucratic machine. He examines what she meant when she wrote that terror was the essence of totalitarianism, explaining that she believed Nazi and Soviet terror served above all to reinforce the totalitarian idea that humans are expendable units, subordinate to the all-determining laws of Nature or History. Villa clarifies the personal and philosophical relationship between Arendt and Heidegger, showing how her work drew on his thought while providing a firm repudiation of Heidegger's political idiocy under the Nazis. Less controversially, but as importantly, Villa also engages with Arendt's ideas about the relationship between political thought and political action. He explores her views about the roles of theatricality, philosophical reflection, and public-spiritedness in political life. And he explores what relationship, if any, Arendt saw between totalitarianism and the "great tradition" of Western political thought. Throughout, Villa shows how Arendt's ideas illuminate contemporary debates about the nature of modernity and democracy and how they deepen our understanding of philosophers ranging from Socrates and Plato to Habermas and Leo Strauss.
Direct, lucid, and powerfully argued, this is a much-needed analysis of the central ideas of one of the most influential political theorists of the twentieth century.
Through intense close readings of theorists such as Hegel, Tocqueville, Mill, Adorno, Arendt, and Foucault, Villa diagnoses the key causes of our democratic discontent and offers solutions to preserve at least some of our democratic hopes. He demonstrates how Americans' preoccupation with a market-based conception of freedom--that is, the personal freedom to choose among different material, moral, and vocational goods--has led to the gradual erosion of meaningful public participation in politics as well as diminished interest in the health of the public realm itself. Villa critically examines, among other topics, the promise and limits of civil society and associational life as sources of democratic renewal; the effects of mass media on the public arena; and the problematic but still necessary ideas of civic competence and democratic maturity.
Public Freedom is a passionate and insightful defense of political liberties at a moment in America's history when such freedoms are very much at risk.