Four extraordinary women, with quite different and often controversial ideas, are the subjects of Wolfram Eilenberger’s masterfully researched and beautifully written The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times. Eilenberger’s much praised Time of the Magicians (2020) covered the lives of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Cassirer and Walter Benjamin. Like that work, The Visionaries is a superb combination of biography, history and philosophy for general readers, this time covering the period from 1933 to 1943 and the impact of World War II on four writers’ lives. Each of these women recognized that “there was something fundamentally wrong with [the] world—and with the people in it,” Wilenberger writes. “But what exactly could it be? And how, in the early 1930s, was it possible for an individual to heal that increasingly oppressive malaise?”
Hannah Arendt left her native Germany in 1933 for France, where she helped others immigrate to Palestine, before coming to the U.S. to write and publish. Arendt wrote that she would like to identify with “the tradition of German-language writing and thought,” but she was denied the chance because she was Jewish. “Certain people are so exposed in their own lives that they become junction points and concrete objectifications of life,” she wrote, and indeed she became one such person. As a result, Arendt had a lifelong concern for human rights, and her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is considered a classic.
Ayn Rand immigrated from Russia to the United States in 1926 and experienced ups and downs as a writer, including a hit Broadway play. “From her earliest youth she had known exactly why she was in the world: to forge her own happiness in life and to create stories that showed the world as it should be—and not as it unfortunately was,” Wilenberger writes. Rand became a cultural icon with novels like The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and other works.
Simone Weil left France to work as a journalist and social activist. Weil felt that the only definite way out of the crisis of their time was to return to the “great source texts of humanity,” Wilenberger writes. Throughout her lifetime, Weil engaged with the works of Homer and Plato, the Bhagavad Gita, the Stoics and Christian writers, and her 1949 book, The Need for Roots, continues to be read today.
Simone de Beauvoir remained in France as a teacher, novelist and essayist. Within a year after the German occupation of Paris, Beauvoir wrote, “I was at last prepared to admit that my life was not a story of my own telling, but a compromise between myself and the world at large.” With the publication in 1949 of The Second Sex, a founding document of modern feminism, Beauvoir became an international celebrity.
Wilenberger’s engaging book will enlighten and entertain—in the best sense—many thoughtful readers.