The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times (Hardcover)
The period from 1933 to 1943 was one of the darkest and most chaotic in human history, as the Second World War unfolded with unthinkable cruelty. It was also a crucial decade in the dramatic, intersecting lives of some of history’s greatest philosophers. There were four women, in particular, whose parallel ideas would come to dominate the twentieth century—at once in necessary dialogue and in striking contrast with one another.
Simone de Beauvoir, already in a deep emotional and intellectual partnership with Jean-Paul Sartre, was laying the foundations for nothing less than the future of feminism. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in Saint Petersburg, Ayn Rand immigrated to the United States in 1926 and was honing one of the most politically influential voices of the twentieth century. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged would reach the hearts and minds of millions of Americans in the decades to come, becoming canonical libertarian texts that continue to echo today among Silicon Valley’s tech elite. Hannah Arendt was developing some of today’s most important liberal ideas, culminating with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism and her arrival as a peerless intellectual celebrity. Perhaps the greatest thinker of all was a classmate of Beauvoir’s: Simone Weil, who turned away from fame to devote herself entirely to refugee aid and the resistance movement during the war. Ultimately, in 1943, she would starve to death in England, a martyr and true saint in the eyes of many.
Few authors can synthesize gripping storytelling with sophisticated philosophy as Wolfram Eilenberger does. The Visionaries tells the story of four singular philosophers—indomitable women who were refugees and resistance fighters—each putting forward a vision of a truly free and open society at a time of authoritarianism and war.
Shaun Whiteside is a prize-winning translator of fiction and nonfiction from German, French, Italian, and Dutch. He also translated Wolfram Eilenberger's Time of the Magicians.
“The Visionaries covers 10 years in these women’s lives as they faced alienation, fears for the future and disappointment, while searching for an intellectual framework by which to live . . . In his enjoyable book, Eilenberger manages to convey not only his characters’ complicated lives but the convoluted flow of their endlessly agitated minds. Rand may come across as intolerably egocentric, and De Beauvoir as little better, even if she was soon to become a founder of modern feminism–but the ceaseless intellectual questing of all four makes for fascinating reading.” —The Guardian
"Eilenberger is a German philosopher, writer, broadcaster and a gifted storyteller. His previous book, the luminous Time of the Magicians (2018) deftly wove together the lives and thought of four male 20th-century thinkers . . . If you think that Eilenberger is simply balancing his earlier study with a quartet of women, you reckon without their bold originality . . . All four women walked on the outside of power, politics, and philosophy, which is why their vision of what the world had become by the middle of the 20th century is so acute. If we want to keep our minds free in our own our own age of war and ideological absolutism, we could do worse than to retrace their steps.” —Financial Times
“[Eilenberger's] energetic, multilayered group portrait reveals that these celebrated thinkers were real people whose ideas, as contradictory as they may seem, developed in response to shared social or political circumstances. This fascinates.” —Publishers Weekly
“With the same acumen as he displayed in Magicians, Eilenberger draws compelling narratives around these women’s lives while ably synthesizing much of their core thinking . . . An absorbing, well-grounded study.” —Kirkus
“What was it like to be alive during Hitler’s ascent? To read this vivid, gripping book is to relive that time through four of the century’s most original minds—not just their evolving ideas but their daily frustrations and fears for the future. To them, philosophy was as concrete and urgent as food or safety, and Eilenberger shows you why.” —Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help
“This is intellectual history at its best—lucid, rigorous, and readable. Interweaving the work of four extraordinary thinkers and the lives of four extraordinary women, Wolfram Eilenberger takes us on a journey into the dark heart of the twentieth century, showing how that darkness shaped some of the brightest minds of the moment and inspired their respective visions of the good society. The Visionaries is a gripping group biography, but most importantly a much-needed reminder of the power of philosophy in the face of rising authoritarianism. Not to be missed.” —James McAuley, author of The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France
“An exhilarating journey through the lives and thought of four exceptional women whose effort to make sense of the dark times in which they lived is an essential compass for understanding ours. Deeply researched and intimately written, Eilenberger’s book is an intellectual feast.”
—Lea Ypi, author of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History