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Brief Lives

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

Hilarius Bogbinder thinks about a political theorist who saw action as good thought.

“I am sorry, but I have to object. I don’t belong to the circle of philosophers. My profession, if you can call it that, is that of political theory.” Such was Hannah Arendt’s response to journalist Günter Gaus in a famous TV interview in 1964.

It seems somewhat odd that Johanna Cohn Arendt was at such pains to distance herself from the subject she studied at the Universities of Marburg and Heidelberg. In German universities, she later wrote, “epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, logic, and the like were not so much communicated as drowned in an ocean of boredom” (Thinking Without a Banister, p.420, 2018). Yet, despite the dullness of academic life, she gained a doctorate on the unlikely subject of Saint Augustine and the concept of love. She was also the first woman to teach philosophy at Princeton University. Further, her last, incomplete, work, The Life of the Mind (published posthumously in 1978), was an analysis of the phenomena of thinking, willing, and judging, and was full of philosophical observations; for instance, that “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence” (p.4). Yet despite a stellar publishing career, and the glittering accolades that went with it (for example, she became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964), she refused offers of academic positions. She preferred to be the senior editor of a publishing house, and a freelance writer.

As a thinker, Arendt was not a system builder like Kant, still less a metaphysician like Hegel: ‘Thinking without a banister’ (‘Denken ohne Geländer’) was her motto. As a teenager she was inspired to study philosophy after reading Søren Kierkegaard. Like that Danish existentialist, she was from beginning to end interested primarily in ‘the human condition’ – also the title of her fourth published book.

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt by Gail Campbell

Thought in Action

The only child of Paul Arendt, a civil engineer, and his wife Martha, a political activist, Hannah was born in Hanover. Her secular Jewish parents soon moved with her to Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), which for centuries had been the home of the wider Arendt family. The premature death of her father from syphilis did not alter the family’s relatively comfortable circumstances. Although her mother was a devotee of the socialist thinker Rosa Luxemburg, she later married a wealthy man who supported his stepdaughter’s studies.

Bright and precocious, Hannah (as she was always called) was a bit of a handful. A chain smoking self-confident young woman, in the 1920s, she stood out from the mostly male crowd at the University of Marburg. She studied theology under Rudolf Bultmann, arguably one of the greatest theologians of the Twentieth Century. He set demanding conditions for students who wanted to follow his seminar on the New Testament. They had to sit an interview to determine their suitability. Hannah turned the tables and told the Professor her list of conditions for attending the seminar. The great man assented to her demands (Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, E. Young-Bruehl, p.61).

She eventually majored in Classical Greek and Philosophy. Her first philosophy tutor was the existentialist Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a clandestine romantic relationship. The love letters they exchanged were so full of longing, gentle sensitivity and passion that they became pure poetry: “I kiss you on the forehead and your eyes” Arendt wrote to Heidegger, who responded calling her Meine Liebste (‘my most beloved’) in many lovestruck letters. When you are in love even the most mundane and banal everyday tasks become lighter, and you float away on a breeze of joy. Such were the love letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.

She rarely quoted, let alone referenced, Heidegger in her early work, though she drew extensively on him in The Life of the Mind. Yet it is evident from her letters that their pillow-talk revolved around the philosophy he was developing at the time, and that this later became central to her thinking. In his book Being and Time (1927), Heidegger broke with the tradition of Western philosophy, as it had been since René Descartes, who had seen the mind as something like a spectator in the world. In Heidegger’s analysis, the mind or self (Dasein) was characterised by its Being-in-the-world and its Being-unto-death, to use the not always elegant neologisms that characterised his philosophy.

This fundamental focus on being in the world hovered in the background of Arendt’s most philosophical work, The Human Condition (1958). In it she analysed three characteristics of human existence: work, creation, and the active life (or vita activa). Her concern was that ‘work’ – simple survival – is often given primacy at the expense of creation and the active life. For Arendt, ‘action’ in concert with other people was the highest form of human existence. In contrast to her always idealised image of the Ancient Greek polis, in modern societies ‘action’ is no longer creative thinking but “almost exclusively understood in terms of making and fabricating” (p.322). This she found both regrettable and paradoxical, since we have “proved ingenious enough to find ways to ease the toil to the point where an elimination of labouring from a range of human activities can no longer be regarded as utopian.”

Her next major work On Revolution (1963) was based on these ideas. In this book she contrasted the French and American Revolutions. While many eulogized the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and its spirit, Arendt preferred the American revolt against the British Empire. The French Revolution, she argued, degenerated because its leaders became obsessed with social conditions – in her terminology, with ‘work’. The Founding Fathers who wrote the US Constitution in 1787, by contrast, were men of action, who were “expressing, discussing and deciding, which in a positive sense are the activities of freedom” (p.235).

Arendt always had a certain fascination with men and women of action – the ones who could shape history like virtuoso artists by interacting with other people. As she put it elsewhere, “The Greeks always used such metaphors as flute-playing, dancing, healing and seafaring to distinguish political from other activities… Political institutions, no matter how well or how badly designed, depend for continued existence upon acting men; their conservation is achieved by the same means that brought them into being” (Between Past and Future, p.153, 1961). So it was not incidental that she became a philosopher of action: someone who, while being immensely bookish, was always rooted in the world of the vita activa. The philosopher who elevated the active life to the highest echelon of human activity was no armchair theorist, but a philosophical activist. No wonder she wrote that “true greatness was understood to reside in deeds and words, and was rather represented by Achilles, the doer of great deeds and the speaker of great words, than by the maker and fabricator, even the poet and writer” (Between Past and Future, pp.45-46). Perhaps it was not surprising, after all, that she resisted the epithet of ‘philosopher’.

Actively Alive

The hours run down
The days pass on
One achievement remains
Merely being alive

Thus Arendt wrote in the poem Trost (‘Consolation’) when she was an undergraduate. But the words were even more pertinent and fitting for her Wanderjahre – her years of wandering after she graduated. Even ‘merely being alive’, in the most literal sense possible, was increasingly difficult at a time of increasing anti-Semitism.

Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger by Darren McAndrew

After her relationship with Heidegger ended, Arendt married fellow student Günter Anders (or Günter Stern, as he was originally named). She was briefly arrested by the Gestapo, but by a stroke of luck, and a sympathetic officer susceptible to her charm, she was released. Given the circumstances, it was out of the question that she could defend her Habilitationsschrift, the second doctorate necessary to become a professor in Germany. (This thesis, a study of the Seventeenth Century Jewish socialite Rachel Varnhagen, remained unpublished until the 1950s.) She fled to Paris and obtained work as an émigré working for the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and later served as president for Youth Aliyah – an organisation that sought to save children from the Nazi butchers.

The German invasion of France forced her to flee to America. By this time she had divorced Anders and married Heinrich Blücher, a former communist who later taught philosophy at the prestigious Bard College in New York, even though he had never finished his university studies. The couple were by all accounts close, and maintained a large circle of friends which included other expats such as the English poet W. H. Auden. It was in New York that Arendt wrote her greatest books in the language of her adopted country.

It is somewhat paradoxical that a woman who in ‘great words’ wrote about the evils of National Socialism and in ‘great deeds’ helped her Jewish compatriots to flee those evils, remained untranslated into Hebrew until 1999, when her report Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) finally appeared in this language. This short book was indeed responsible for this delay. Arendt had always been a bit of a contrarian, and she was never quite at ease with the idea of giving the Jews a state in Palestine. Her ideal was a joint, binational state with the Palestinians (Eichmann in Jerusalem, Introduction, p.x). As early as 1946 – before the establishment of the state of Israel – she feared Zionism was becoming, “a living ghost amid the ruins of our time” (‘Zionism Reconsidered’, Menorah Journal 1945, p.172). Such dissent was not particularly controversial, even among Jews. However, many more took exception to her description of the Nazi murderer Eichmann – one of the main organisers of transportation to the gas chambers – not as a criminal mastermind but as a pathetic, unintelligent idiot, who as a lower functionary made supreme evil into a banality (hence the famous subtitle for the book: The Banality of Evil). But what incensed many in the Jewish community most was that, on the basis of the evidence from his trial, she partly blamed Jewish community leaders under Nazi occupation for facilitating the Final Solution – in order to “assure order or to prevent panic” – even though some appear to have known about the horrors awaiting those who were transported to the camps (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p.199). The book was originally written as reportage for a series of magazine articles for the New Yorker, and not all her words were as carefully chosen as they perhaps would have been had she written it as a philosophical treatise. But the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, an American NGO fighting anti-Semitism, sent out a circular urging rabbis throughout America to denounce her. The Intermountain Jewish News description of Arendt as a ‘self-hating Jewess’ was as offensive and ill-informed as it was inaccurate. But it was headlines such as this that prompted the otherwise respectable left-leaning French Weekly Le Nouvel Observateur to pose the question, ‘ Est-elle nazie?’ – ‘Is she a Nazi?’ To suggest this about someone who personally saved fellow Jews from certain death is heartbreakingly unfair, not least as Arendt was also the author of perhaps the most perceptive philosophical analysis of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and tyranny – namely her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.

A sprawling work which defies categorisation and draws on political science and history as much as on philosophy, The Origins of Totalitarianism was the first work to chronicle the emergence of, and explain the underlying causes of, the new phenomenon of totalitarianism. Unlike earlier dictatorships, this type of tyranny sought total control over individuals and their minds. Like some other books at the time, such as Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Arendt’s was a contribution to a specific historical debate, and can be read in this context. Yet it is not difficult to see how many of her acute observations transcend her times, and apply to the 2020s, when demagogues denounce ‘experts’ and the ‘elites’. As Arendt wrote in 1951:

“While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob will always shout for the ‘strong man’, the ‘great leader’. For the mob hates society from which it is excluded… Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob.” (p.106)

Arendt never compromised. After she suffered a stroke while lecturing in Aberdeen in 1974, she returned to New York, but continued to smoke, and to entertain her large circle of friends. On the 4th November 1975, shortly after her sixty-ninth birthday, she threw a lavish party in her Manhattan apartment. While the guests were still there she suffered a heart attack. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

“To live in the sense of being fully alive had early been and remained her only hope and desire” Hannah Arendt wrote about the Danish novelist Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The words are even more fitting for herself!

© Hilarius Bogbinder 2021

Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish-born writer and translator. He studied politics and theology at Oxford University and now lives in London.

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