Call it a case of forgotten history. It is little known that Hans Jonas, among the most influential German-born Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century, started his academic career in North America teaching at Carleton University from 1950 to 1955.
After emailing the philosophy department for an interview, no one knew enough to even discuss his work – with good reason, too. There is nothing on campus named in his honour; there is no statue or plaque. He is left as a footnote, if mentioned at all. But, from reading his memoirs, it is clear that his time at Ottawa was far from insignificant in shaping both the history of German Jewish intellectuals and modern philosophy.
When Jonas died in 1994 at age 89, he died alone in his home. He’d cheated death before. His mother died at Auschwitz, and his academic career might have gone alongside Heidegger, his past mentor who he publicly – with untold personal risk – repudiated for Heidegger’s earlier support of Hitler. Why not outfox evil once more? He was a bioethicist after ethics was disproved in the camps of Sobibor and Birkenau; he was, to use Isaac Deutscher’s phrase, a “non-Jewish Jewish” philosopher a century after modern philosophy consumed religion, and then all but collapsed after Nietzsche. Still, while he had important friends – Jonas and Hannah Arendt took philosophy classes in Munich together, Leo Strauss mailed him correspondence, Martin Buber wrote his reference letter to Carleton University – friends only go so far after a sorcerer conjures up a tempest.
Several days before he died, Jonas received the Premio Nonino Prize for his life’s work, and in his keynote speech, he remembered the initial storm. It emboldened him. In 1933, before he left Germany for Jerusalem, then Montreal, and from there to Ottawa in 1950, he wrote in his memoirs about a bar in the Spessart region. There, the men began to sing, “When Jewish blood from the knife blade spurts/Then all will be well again.” He rose up, a Gentile woman beside him, itself punishable by death, and said “Come on, pull out your knives. Here I am. Here’s a Jew.” The men stopped their song.
The choice of words was not an accident. Jonas was an observant Jew, and unlike Leo Strauss, his long-time confidante, he attended shul regularly. Aristotle wrote that courage is the original virtue, and all other virtues stem from it. In Judaism, this is summed up best in Hebrew: Hineni (Here I am). Repeated 178 times in the Tanakh, it is a call for action, a reply to a call from God Himself. Moses said the line at the miracle of the Burning Bush. Samuel began his prophecies with the same word. Even Leonard Cohen sang it in the title track to his last album, “You Want It Darker.”
Yet, since Jonas was a philosopher and not a prophet, he instead promised that he would never come back to Germany except as a soldier in a conquering army. He received his wish. The British Army’s Jewish Brigade needed men like Jonas. After the war, he fought again in the Israeli War of Independence, stationed at the siege of Jerusalem. And then he fought abroad, against nihilism, namely for the value of organic life and its phenomenology.
Judaism teaches that life itself is the highest pursuit, and Jonas wrestled with its implications after creation. If the last phase of his thinking was on ethical studies, ranging from cloning to theodicy, his most influential book – it sold 200,000 copies and inspired the European Green movement – was his 1979 study on the challenge of modern technology, The Imperative of Responsibility. His moral principle was simple: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.”
But when Jonas came to Montreal, none of his earlier work was published, not even his textbook examination of Gnosticism. From the 70 applications he sent for a professorship, it was only Carleton University that offered him an interview – and then the position. His time with the “industrious and pleasant” students intoxicated him, more so for his potential in the Galut. The result, as Jonas phrased it, “During my time in Ottawa I decided once and for all not to return to Jerusalem but to seek my future in the United States.”