On the Death of My Dear Friend, Agnes Heller

“Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas”

“Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas”

Paraphrase of Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1096a11–15

Such was Agnes’ principle: she valued her friends and of course her loved ones, but truth was always her highest value. For me, friends have always come first. Hers was the principle of the philosopher, mine that of the political. In philosophy, truth is everything. But in politics nothing is more important than to construct and preserve “the friend,” although without, as Carl Schmitt imagined, necessarily relying on intense animosity. Which principle should I follow in an obituary for Ági? Since it will not be a philosophical essay, I will try to follow mine. Not only one friendship is at stake.

We have been friends, Ági and I, since 1969. I was much younger than she, having been born in the last year of the War in 1944. For a moment perhaps, we might have been, my mother and I, and Ági, in one of the same houses of the international ghetto, under Swedish, Swiss or Vatican weak protection. She was 14 or 15 back then, and her dramatic survival — by jumping into the Danube in front of an Arrow Cross Firing squad — has been often recounted. One bronze pair of shoes now on the shore could have been hers for all we know, although in this case they would stand for a survivor not a victim. Ági was an amazing survivor. She survived not only the Nazis, the Stalinists, the retributions after 1956, the Kadar regime and its sanctions, but also the New School’s firing in 1993 of her husband, Ferenc Fehér, a very brilliant man and a great friend of mine. Feri died one year after in Budapest, for no apparent physical cause. Ági, however, lived and stayed at the New School for many more years with the help of Judith Friedlander who became Dean. Undoubtedly, she would have also survived the Orbán era, but for the tragic, entirely non-political accident that took her life.

There is no doubt that she was one of Hungary’s greatest philosophers, ever, along with Lukács and a few members of the so-called Budapest School: Fehér, György MárkusMária Márkus, Mihály Vajda, Sándor Radnóti, János Kis and György Bence. Aside from Lukács himself, she was both the most prolific and most famous, with influential followers not only in Hungary, but also Italy, Germany, Australia and of course the United States. Her specialty was ethics and moral philosophy, but Ági’s true gift was that of the historian of philosophy — publishing as she did important works on Aristotle, the Renaissance, Spinoza, KantMarx as well as Lukács. She was a spellbinding lecturer on the great philosophers, as all her Australian and New School students can all attest. She also wrote a great deal on politics, first with her husband who was the true political thinker of the pair, and later alone. Even when writing on her own she could be astonishingly right; in spite of what was, in my view, a problematic tendency to directly move from philosophy to politics without much mediation through history, social science, or economics. But she could also be maddeningly wrong, for the same methodological reason, as in her defense of the U.S. war in Iraq, and the related toleration of the Israeli right. Whatever the merits of her work in politics, she could not stay away from this field. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that she not only confronted three authoritarian regimes in her lifetime but also the attempts to build a fourth — although she mistakenly pronounced this last as a new regime form, a tyranny. I strongly disagree with this last judgment concerning the hybrid right wing populist government of Orbán, a regime that can be, for now, best described as competitive authoritarianism. But given her life and her eventual attraction to the totalitarian paradigm she can hardly be faulted for seeing versions of this form everywhere, including Saddam’s Iraq (thereby justifying in her mind American intervention) as well as Orbán’s Hungary.

As already said we met in 1969. She and other members of the Budapest School, including Lukacs himself, have personally contributed a great deal to my own intellectual perspective and development. In 1971 she travelled with me on an American lecture tour (and called me a monk afterwards; it took one to see one, even if incorrectly.) It was Ági and Feri who got me in touch with the Telos group in the very early 1970s (according to Feri: not yet good, but could become excellent). The journal then became a vehicle for dissident Marxists, “post Marxists,” and critical theorists from not only Hungary, but also Italy, Germany and France, playing a key role in introducing the Budapest School to English speaking audiences. Together in this effort, we managed to get me banned from Hungary for a decade and, shortly thereafter, most members of the School (with the exception of Vajda, and the younger members, Kis and Bence) also chose emigration, first to Australia. It was my great privilege and good fortune as then Chair of Sociology, with the help of Richard Bernstein in the Enabling Committee and the support of Ira Katznelson, who embraced this plan for the reconstruction of philosophy, to succeed in bringing Heller and Fehér to the New School.

At that time, three New School Departments, political science, sociology and philosophy came close to dissolution. The new dean, Katznelson, brought great ideas, great energy, and viable candidates to the project of reconstructing both political science and sociology, and, significantly, he was able to add a department of history to the New School for Social Research for the first time. But, as American social scientists, he and most of his new hires had little interest in or experience with serious critical philosophy. I was one of the new hires, at least formally, but unlike the others was inspired by attempts of critical theorists first in Frankfurt, then New York, and then again in Frankfurt and Starnberg to generate an interdisciplinary social science of which philosophy was to be a central component. But where to find philosophers ready to work together with sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and historians? Even in Germany that profile was increasingly disappearing due to the Americanization of the universities. The Budapest philosophers were thus not only my close friends, but in my mind also key to the renewal of the New School as a very special American and international institution. After all, the Graduate Faculty, built up in the 1930s and 40s was itself a locus of philosophically-related inter-disciplinary social science, if one competing with the Frankfurt School then residing in Morningside Heights. Moreover, it was a faculty (first name: “University in Exile”) relying on refugee or exile scholars, and the Budapest philosophers now unfortunately had that status. The logic of renewal through their presence was clear, and to their credit, Katznelson and President Fanton realized this.

Unfortunately however the plan eventually failed despite the hiring of Heller and Fehér.[1] There was now resistance to the hiring of Gy. Márkus, the best philosophical social scientist and economist of the group, who was paradoxically offered a position a couple of years earlier. As one philosophy colleague told me, we are the New School, not the Budapest nor the Frankfurt School, meaning we are linked to Husserl and Heidegger and not Marx, Lukács and Habermas. By the time Richard Bernstein, who was sympathetic to Frankfurt as well Budapest and could have accomplished an appointment for Márkus, came on board Márkus was no longer available for family reasons. Short term positions for Kis and Bence in sociology, supported by Soros, that I managed to organize and secure, could not change the situation. And the firing of Fehér in 1993 put a final end to the project.[2] In the end it was represented at best by Heller alone, even if ably supported by Bernstein who became the organizing force of the Department. For whatever reason, Heller and Bernstein constructed a very strong program around the main strength of both: the history of philosophy. Interdisciplinary work disappeared as even an aspiration, and unfortunately only very few political scientists and sociologists in the other departments were interested in renewing it.

Sadly enough, this also meant that Ági and I also grew apart. Admittedly, my interest in philosophy, which I once taught at The Cooper Union, also faded to the benefit of legal and political theory. Ági herself was never a social scientist in any systematic sense, though at one time she was employed as a researcher at the Institute of Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Science.[3] But most importantly we went our separate ways because of significant political differences, differences that seemed for a while very difficult to reconcile.

Still, I am incredibly saddened by her death, especially because it came when she was so alive and vigorous. But I admit I also feel some guilt. A few weeks before the end we had a strong conflict via e-mail. She wanted me to forgive her for an action she took that followed from her principle: truth (as she saw it) came first, or at least an interest transcending persons and their relationships. I could not do as she wanted because of a probably too-rigid adherence to my contrary principle regarding the much higher value of friendship; one that I thought she had not lived up to. That I did not then give her a positive response may have had to do with the feeling that she would live “forever,” as her mother nearly did, giving us time in the future for such reconciliation. But true friendship would have required that I forgive her then and there, irrespective of the truth involved. She lived according to her principle, and I regret that I did not, at that moment, live according to mine.

Andrew Arato is the Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor of Political and Social Theory at the New School for Social Research. 

[1] For the contrary view, see the work of Agi’s close friend, Judith Friedlander A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (Columbia, 2019)

[2] Editor’s Note: Public Seminar was unable to determine the circumstances of Ferenc Feher’s departure from The New School.

[3] Perhaps her work on everyday life was one product of that period. Agnes Heller, Everyday life. (Routledge, 2015).

Also for you:

Andrew Arato

Previous post

How Latinos are America’s Greatest Hope for Economic Growth and Renewal

Next post

How Disney has Turned the Film Industry Into a Small World, After All