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Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

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Arendt, Hannah

German/American, 1906–1975
Hannah Arendt’s chief mode of expression was the essay. Several of her books consist of essays she wrote and later assembled and published in book form or added to another work. She preferred the essay genre, because its dialogic form and flexible nature suited her dialectical method of argumentation. Greatly influenced by the German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, both of whom she studied under, Arendt was introduced to German Existenz philosophy combined with Søren Kierkegaard’s angst and existential themes such as man’s solitude and meaningless existence. Moreover, as a German Jew she was influenced by the question “Die Frage nach dem Sinn von Sein” (to question what it means to be) and by Heidegger’s “being-question.” Throughout her life she explored concepts such as the meaning of existence and the nature of being.
Arendt’s first work, the dissertation Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin (1929; Love and St. Augustine), consumed her for many years. Arendt was obsessed with the concepts of love and goodness, and all of her later topics—political morality, the human condition, evil and totalitarianism, Christian love, and God’s love—were related to the ideas she explored in her dissertation. In The Human Condition (1958) she wrote: “Love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, possesses an unequaled clarity for the disclosure of WHO, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings and transgressions… Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason that it is not only apolitical but anti-political, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.”
For Arendt’s mentor Heidegger, the question of being, the relationship between subject and object, and the problem of truth and rational language signaled the end of traditional philosophy. The pre-Socratic philosophers were already occupied with the question of being and the “unhiddenness” (Unverborgenbeit) of being, a question which proves impossible to understand by rational philosophy. Heidegger thought philosophy’s most important task was how to bring being into the “openness” of its essence. Man must clear the “dark forest,” as was claimed by Giambattista Vico, whose work provided the framework for the humanist controversy raging at the time. From this controversy emerged Heidegger’s assertion that philosophy has come to an end as metaphysics.
Arendt preferred to sidestep this issue, concentrating instead on human action, judgment, and affirmation of man’s ontological world and the need for justification of our reality and our connectedness to the world and ourselves. Her philosophical and personal quest, both as a human and as a Jew, was to view the world we live in as more secure and less alien. For Arendt, life is fleeting and precarious, based ontologically on appearance; only judgment allows the historian or philosopher to bestow meaning on our past, our memory, our historical narratives, and our worldliness.
Originally a student of philosophy, Arendt became involved in political theory with the rise of Nazism. Only later did she find her way through political thought back to philosophy. The tension between philosophy and politics represented for her a major impasse; she claimed that the activity of thinking can make philosophers unwilling to go along with political action and inclined to favor tyranny. Historically, she explained, this discord had not always been present. In the days of the Greek polis (city-state), for example, speech and thought went hand in hand. Each Greek had a doxa (opinion), and there were many different views. All this changed with the death of Socrates. Arendt believed his death produced Plato’s opposition to politics, as well as his attempt to replace pluralism with absolute truth, something Socrates never dared.
This historical schism between philosophy and politics became even more acute in Arendt’s own life experience. In 1933, when she and other Jews were in danger from Nazism, Heidegger, her mentor and intimate companion of many years, proclaimed his affiliation with the Nazis. This eye-opening experience taught her that indeed there may be a link between philosophy and tyranny. In a 1946 essay on German Existenz philosophy, she blasted Heidegger’s views and compared him to Karl Jaspers, who always opposed Nazism and behaved more responsibly politically, and in her judgment was a better philosopher; with him there was no impasse between philosophy and politics, or between thought and action. Yet, despite the high esteem she held for Jaspers, she chose to disregard his advice to pay attention to Max Weber, who envisaged violence as at the core of all politics. Nevertheless, Arendt came close to Weber’s in her work on tyranny and totalitarianism. She did not call for imitation of Christian goodness as a response to totalitarianism, but insisted on the need for and responsibility of every citizen to keep the world free of tyranny. In the paper “Collective Responsibility” (wr. 1968) she wrote: “In the center of moral considerations of human conduct stands the self; in the center of political considerations of conduct stands the world. If we strip moral imperatives of their religious connotations and origins we are left with the Socratic proposition: it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong… The political answer to the Socratic proposition would be: what is important in the world is that there be no wrong…never mind who suffers it; your duty is to prevent it.”
For Arendt what was unprecedented in totalitarianism was the event of totalitarian domination itself and its relation to racism and racist theories. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), a study of Nazism and Stalinism whose publication linked her name with controversy and made her both famous and infamous, Arendt reiterated that totalitarianism is a new, unprecedented, and terrible phenomenon. It is not simply a form of tyranny, or a special form of cruelty: what is at stake, she believed, is human nature.
She wrote of totalitarianism’s attempt to “change human nature,” not by making something new and good but, much more sinister, by trying “to rob a human being of his nature under the pretext of changing it”; in that way her characterization of totalitarianism is “absolute” and “radical evil.” She cited as an example the extermination camps as “laboratories in which the fundamental belief of totalitarianism that everything is possible is verified,” by a process in which men became subhuman, deprived of human freedom or moral responsibility, reduced to “ghastly marionettes with human faces who march docilely to death.” Arendt claimed that what was truly sinister was the attempt to turn human beings into “specimens of human beast” by stripping men of any human action. Totalitarian regimes are absolute evil, for they destroy all forms of humanity for the sake of total tyranny and domination of members of the herd. Thus, she wrote to Karl Jaspers, men become “superfluous” as human beings. Moreover, the quest for human omnipotence dictates no human plurality. If man is to be omnipotent, human beings as individuals must disappear. The core idea of totalitarianism is the attempt to maintain total tyranny and prove that “everything is possible” by eliminating human plurality, moral decision making, and freedoms of all kinds to fit a predictable ideology. Tyranny and totalitarianism create a drive for expansion of power, “expansion for expansion’s sake,” as a self-propelled momentum to which everything else is sacrificed; this was manifested in Nazism, with global conquest on the one hand and “total domination” in the camps on the other.
Arendt believed the impetus for this deadly drive began with Western imperialism, particularly with the “scramble for Africa” in the 1880s. Although of economic origin, based on capitalism, the danger developed when a new kind of politics of cut-throat competition and global expansion emerged. Arendt maintained that racism was part of the ideology of imperialism, providing a comfortable excuse for the exploitation of natives removed from their dominated lands. Arendt feared, and wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that although Nazism was finally defeated, racism would continue to be a problem.
Even more than 20 years since her death, Hannah Arendt continues to echo a contemporary voice, carrying humanistic and universal consciousness. Her work is gaining new interest and popularity possibly because of her fears, premonitions, and timely warnings.
DALIA DANIEL

Biography

Born 14 October 1906 in Hannover, Germany. Studied at Königsberg University, B.A., 1924; University of Marburg; University of Freiburg; University of Heidelberg, studying under Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, from 1926, Ph.D., 1928. Married Günther Stern, 1929 (divorced, 1937). Worked for the Youth Aliyah, Paris, 1934–40. Married Heinrich Blücher, 1940. Emigrated to the United States, 1941, becoming a U.S. citizen, 1950. Research director, Conference on Jewish Relations, New York, 1944–46; chief editor, Schocken Books, New York, 1946–48; executive director, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, New York, 1949–52. Professor at the University of Chicago, 1963–67, and the New School for Social Research, New York, 1967–75; also visiting professor at various American universities and colleges, 1955–60.

Awards:

many, including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1954; Lessing Prize, 1959; Freud Prize, 1967; Sonning Prize, 1975; honorary degrees from eight universities.
Died in New York, 4 December 1975.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Selected Writings

Essays and Related Prose
Sechs Essays, 1948
The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951; as The Burden of Our Time, 1951; enlarged edition, 1958
The Human Condition, 1958
Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, 1961; enlarged edition, as Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, 1968
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963; revised, enlarged edition, 1964
On Revolution, 1963
Men in Dark Times, 1968
On Violence, 1970
Die verborgene Tradition: Acht Essays, 1976
The Life of the Mind, 2 vols., 1978
Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, 1982
Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, edited by Jerome Kohn, 1994

Other writings:

works on political philosophy, Zionism, and other Jewish issues, and correspondence.

Further Reading

Arendt, Hannah, and Mary McCarthy, Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah
Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1995
Bradshaw, Leah, Acting and Thinking: The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989
Canovan, Margaret, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992
Disch, Lisa Jane, Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994
Ettinger, Elzbieta, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale
University Press, 1995
Isaac, Jeffrey C, Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1992.
Kateb, George, Hannah Arendt, Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, and Oxford: Robertson, 1984
May, Derwent, Hannah Arendt, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1986
Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth, For Love of the World: A Biography of Hannah Arendt, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1982

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