An Introduction to Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a 20th century German Jewish political theorist. She emphasized the public exercise of individual freedom as the highest political good. Arendt refused to identify with liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, or any ideology for that matter. Instead, she advocated a politics of participation in which citizens engage in deliberative forums to exchange and revise their ideas. Arendt’s anti-dogmatic civics are reflected in her decision to write non-systematically. Rather than attempting to draft a comprehensive philosophy, Arendt contented herself with investigating topics one by one. The products of these investigations, for instance her writings on the origins of totalitarianism, the proper purview of politics, and the banality of evil, are simultaneously insightful and controversial in their irreverence for conventional thought.

Arendt was born in Germany on October 14, 1906. She enjoyed an intellectually rich upbringing in her hometown of Linden. Her father, who passed away when Arendt was seven, was a lover of the classics and kept an extensive library that the young Arendt frequented. Her mother was a musician and a Luxemburgist who made Arendt read the complete works of Goethe for moral instruction and measured her developmental progress in a logbook. As an adolescent, Arendt learned ancient Greek, wrote poetry, and ran a philosophy club. Both of Arendt’s parents identified as socialists and raised Arendt in a progressive and secular environment.

In 1914, Arendt and her mother temporarily moved to Berlin out of concern for the advancing Russian army during World War I. Arendt was forced to relocate a number of times throughout her life due to her Jewishness. She later described her experience of anti-semitism, which began in her childhood, as feeling like a “conscious pariah.” At the age of 15, she was kicked out of school after boycotting an anti-semitic teacher.

This incident, however, did not hamper Arendt’s academic success. She quickly enrolled in courses at the University of Berlin before transferring to the University of Marburg, where she studied under her professor and one-time lover Martin Heidegger. In 1929, she was awarded a PhD in philosophy for her thesis Love and St. Augustine, which argues that neighborly love transcends desire and piety as the most fundamental form of love, as evidenced in the second half of the Great Commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” That same year, Arendt married her first husband, the German philosopher and writer Gunther Stern.

In 1933, Hitler seized power and Arendt was commissioned by the Zionist Federation of Germany to compile a list of the Nazi’s anti-semitic statements and actions that could be used to draw international attention to the crisis. After being reported by a librarian for anti-state propaganda, Arendt was detained for eight days by the Gestapo. By befriending a young officer, she was able to secure her release to await trial. Arendt immediately fled Germany and spent some months in Geneva writing speeches and securing visas for Jewish escapees before settling in Paris. There, she continued humanitarian work with an organization that helped resettle Jewish children in Israel.

Arendt divorced Stern in 1937 and married the German poet and philosopher Heinrich Blucher in 1940. By this time, France was no longer safe, and Arendt was forced to relocate once again. With the help of friends, she managed to gain passage to Portugal through Spain, where she sailed to the United States just months before the European borders were sealed. Upon arrival, Arendt spent two months in Massachusetts to learn English and remarked that “The fundamental contradiction of the country is political freedom coupled with social slavery.” She then moved to New York City, which became her permanent residence for the remainder of her life.

In the United States, Arendt worked variously as a writer for Jewish-American magazines, the executive director for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, an editor at Schocken books, and a professor at prestigious universities across the country. Arendt developed coronary artery disease from her lifelong smoking habit and suffered a fatal heart attack while entertaining guests at her home on December 4, 1975.

Arendt’s Jewish identity is at the center of her thought. As a firsthand witness to the Holocaust, her project is to understand the atrocities of the 20th century, which belied the ostensibly upward moral and political trajectory of humanity. In her first major work, On the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt offers an account of the conditions that enabled Nazism and Communism to take hold. She observes that totalitarian ideologies appeal to nature and teleology: the natural triumph of the German master race or the predestined victory of Soviet classless society. In the wake of World War I and the Great Depression, people were highly unstable emotionally and economically and sought a simple explanation for their problems and how they could be solved. Additionally, the breakdown of family and community ties from industrialization left people lonely and isolated laborers who craved membership in a group and lost the ability to think critically. This combination of factors made people susceptible to the reassuring narratives of Hitler and Stalin.

In 1963, Arendt published a case study of this phenomenon with Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Three years earlier, Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann had been captured in Argentina by the Mossad and extradited to Israel to stand trial for crimes against humanity. But when Arendt arrived in Jerusalem to report on the spectacle for The New Yorker, she encountered not an unapologetic Jew hater but an unassuming man that Arendt described as, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” After listening to testimony and researching his background, Arendt concluded that radical evil wasn’t what drove Eichmann to his acts but rather a mix of thoughtlessness, lack of empathy, and the desire to belong. Although she was critical of Eichmann’s defense that he was only carrying out his Kantian Duty — Arendt countered that “No man has, according to Kant, the right to obey” — she viewed him not as a shockingly evil human being but a predictable consequence of modernity.

Arendt expands on her critique of modernity in The Human Condition (1958), which examines what she calls the viva activa, or the “active life.” According to Arendt, humans, in their capacity as active beings, engage in three types of activities:

  1. Labor, which is done to survive and produces only temporary products that are immediately destroyed or consumed.
  2. Work, which is done to produce worldly, permanent structures that will outlast a single lifetime.
  3. Action, which is done to publicly disclose one’s unique identity to others.

Arendt views labor as a primitive activity akin to animal instinct. While one is laboring, one acts only out of necessity, which Arendt views as a lowly existence. She suggests that the Ancient Greeks must have had a similar perspective given that they delegated labor to the slave population.

Work is certainly a higher activity, as it aims beyond one’s subsistence to the buildup of society. Yet it is still a means to an end, whereas action, the highest activity, is an end in itself. In the tradition of Aristotle, Arendt affirms free will using the concept of natality, or newness. Unlike other animals that are ruled by their biology, humans can reflect, evaluate and choose before they act. This power to act anew, to do the unexpected, is for Arendt the essence of freedom.

Importantly, Arendt argues that throughout history, human society has been divided into two realms: the private and the public. The private realm was where families labored to secure basic necessities for themselves. The public realm was where free individuals, unencumbered by animal needs, distinguished themselves through great words and deeds. The public sphere was thus a space, built up by work, that allowed people to express their freedom, and was not meant to be used to decide how to satisfy people’s needs. In On Revolution (1963), Arendt contrasts the French Revolution, which subordinated freedom to social need, to the American Revolution, which upheld freedom as the highest ideal.

Arendt blamed capitalism for the erosion of the private and public spheres. In an attempt to satisfy private needs via public means, capitalism is said to have flattened society into a singular “social” realm that deprives people of a space free from necessity. By reducing every activity to a mere act of production, capitalism weakens family and community ties and by extension the ability to think critically and form collective opinions. Arendt viewed this as the triumph of animal laborans (the laborer) over homo faber (the worker) and homo politicus (the political actor).

In her mature years, Arendt sought to explain the viva contemplativa or the “contemplative life” and how it connects to the viva activa. To this end, she offers a three-part model of our mental faculties: thinking, willing, and judging. According to Arendt, humans gather information, process it, and then use the results to form opinions about the world. Judgment can be active when political actors make decisions in the public realm, or contemplative when spectators interpret the past without resorting to preconceived notions. Arendt compares contemplative judgment to “thinking without a banister.”

Crucially, Arendt holds that our judgment is incomplete until it encounters the opinions of others. We must “enlarge our mentality” — a phrase Arendt borrowed from Kant — to compile a judgment that is representative of not just ourselves but society as a whole. This is the reason that Arendt emphasizes active participation in the public sphere. It is only by disclosing ourselves to one another that we will achieve mutual understanding. By bringing citizens together while simultaneously respecting their ineliminable difference, society honors Arendt’s principle of plurality: that “men, not Man, live on the Earth and inhabit this world.” In this way, society fosters the social bonds that empower citizens to act collectively for a common purpose.

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