A Jewish refugee from Hitler, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) analyzed major issues of the 20th century and produced a brilliant and original political philosophy.
Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, the only child of middle-class Jewish parents of Russian descent. A precocious child whose father died in 1913, she was encouraged by her mother in intellectual and academic pursuits. As a university student in Germany (1924-1929) she studied with the finest and most original scholars of that time: with Rudolf Bultmann in New Testament and Martin Heidegger in philosophy at Marburg, with the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl at Freiburg, and with the existentialist Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg. She remained close friends with Heidegger and Jaspers throughout her life.
After receiving her Ph.D. and marrying Gunther Stern, both in 1929, she worked on a biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a noted 19th-century hostess, which analyzed Varnhagen's relationship to her Jewish heritage. In 1933 Arendt was arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for gathering evidence of Nazi anti-Semitism. She fled to France where she worked for Jewish refugee organizations until 1940 when she and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, were interned in southern France. They escaped and made their way to New York in 1941.
Throughout the war years Arendt wrote a political column for the Jewish weekly Aufbau and began publishing articles in leading Jewish journals. As her circle of friends expanded to include leading American intellectuals, her writings found a wider audience. Her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), argued that modern totalitarianism was a new and distinct form of government which used ideology and terror to control the mass society that emerged as European nation-states were undermined by anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialism. As the first major effort to analyze the historical conditions that had given rise to Hitler and Stalin, Origins was highly acclaimed and widely studied in the 1950s.
Labor, Work, and Action
A second major work, The Human Condition (1958), followed. Here and in a companion volume of essays, Between Past and Future (1961), Arendt gave explicit and systematic treatment to themes which had been present in her earlier work and which were to characterize all her mature writings. First was the radical character of the modern situation. In the face of unprecedented problems such as totalitarianism, mass society, automation, the possibility of travels through space, and the eclipse of public life, humans were no longer able to find solutions in established traditions of political authority, philosophy, religion, or even common sense. Her solution was as radical as the problem: "to think what we are doing."
In The Human Condition Arendt rethinks the vita activa, the three fundamental human activities of labor, work, and action, and their relationships. These activities were properly arranged, she argued, only when they were seen in relationship to the distinction between the public and the private. In her view the public provided the space of appearances among humans which speech and action required, and the private protected labor, the interaction of humans with nature and their bodies, from public view. When this distinction breaks down, as it has in modern times, mass society results in which neither true individuality nor true common action is possible.
The Human Condition also developed two other major themes of her work, freedom and worldliness. She was fond of quoting St. Augustine (on whose doctrine of love she wrote her doctoral dissertation): "That there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody." Freedom, or this human capacity for new beginnings, was the "lost treasure" bequeathed by no testament or tradition, rediscovered in every revolution, and radically threatened by mass society and totalitarianism.
The world, comprised of all fabricated things from houses to works of art, Arendt saw as providing a specifically human habitation which protected us and our creations from the ravaging processes of nature. Since this world existed before and continued after the appearance of each individual in it, it offered the possibility of a worldly immortality such that the character and achievements of humans could be remembered after they pass from the world. Here her thought had its most radically secular character. Action, the highest and most worldly human capacity, found worldly rather than divine solutions for its predicaments. Thus she quoted with approval Machiavelli's maxim to "love our country more than the safety of our soul."
The Human Condition established Arendt's academic reputation and led to a visiting appointment at Princeton— the first woman full professor there. Her Princeton lectures became On Revolution (1963), a volume which expressed her enthusiasm at becoming an American citizen by exploring the historical background and institutional requirements of political freedom.
The Banality of Evil
In 1961 she attended the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi functionary who had been involved in the murder of large numbers of Jews during the Holocaust. Her reports, which appeared first in The New Yorker and then as Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), were frequently misunderstood and rejected, especially her claim that Eichmann was more bureaucratic and banal rather than radically evil. Her public reputation among even some former friends never recovered from this controversy.
At the University of Chicago (1963-1967) and the New School for Social Research in New York City (1967-1975) her brilliant lectures and affectionate concern inspired countless students in social thought, philosophy, religious studies, and history. Frequently ill-at-ease in public, she was an energetic conversationalist in smaller gatherings. Even among friends, though, she might sometimes excuse herself and become totally absorbed in some new line of thought that had occurred to her. Playful in the company of men, after the death of her husband in 1970 she attracted marriage proposals from W. H. Auden and Hans Morgenthau.
During the later 1960s she devoted herself to a variety of projects: essays on current political issues (the Pentagon Papers, violence, civil disobedience) published as Crises of the Republic (1972); portraits of men and women who offered some illumination even in the dark times of the 20th century, which became Men in Dark Times (1968); and a two-volume English edition of Karl Jaspers' The Great Philosophers (1962 and 1966).
In 1973 and 1974 she delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland, which were subsequently published as The Life of the Mind (1979). Conceived as a volume on the contemplative life parallel to The Human Condition on the active life, it too was intended to focus on three human capacities: thinking, willing, and judging. While all three were independent of the active life, the political role of each was also examined, from the role of thinking in opposing evil to the ability of judging to measure the achievements and failures of our public life. Only the first two topics were actually addressed in the lectures she delivered; she died of a heart attack in New York City on December 4, 1975, as she was beginning work on the third. Fortunately, earlier lectures on Kant's Critique of Judgment suggested what her approach to judging would have been, and these were published posthumously as Lectures in Kant's Political Philosophy (1982).
Honored throughout her later life by a series of academic prizes, frequently attacked for controversial and eccentric judgments, Hannah Arendt died as she lived—a brilliant and original interpreter of human capacities and prospects in the face of modern political disasters.
Further Reading on Hannah Arendt
The definitive biography of Arendt is Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, For Love of the World (1982). It includes a comprehensive bibliography. Arendt's political thinking is summarized in Margaret Canovan, The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt (1974). Essays by Arendt on Jewish questions, Zionism, and the Eichmann controversy can be found in Ron H. Feldman, editor, Hannah Arendt: The Jew as Pariah (1978).
Several volumes of essays on Arendt have appeared. Melvyn A. Hill, editor, The Recovery of the Public World (1979) includes a a response by Arendt, and both Social Research (Spring 1977) and Salmagundi (Spring-Summer 1983) devoted issues to her. Her teaching style and its effect on students is described by Peter Stern and Jean Yarbrough in American Scholar (Summer 1978) and Melvyn A. Hill in The University of Chicago Magazine (Spring 1976). Of the many obituaries which appeared following Arendt's death, those in the New York Review of Books (January 22 and May 13, 1976) by Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell are especially revealing.
Additional Biography Sources
Barnouw, Dagmar., Visible spaces: Hannah Arendt and the German-Jewish experience, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
May, Derwent, Hannah Arendt, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1986.