Key thinker: Hannah Arendt (1906–1975)
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975)
Hannah Arendt was born in the small town of Linden, Germany to secular and assimilated German-Jewish parents (see 19.1. Introduction). She grew up in Hannover and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) and was raised mainly by her mother, Martha Cohn Arendt, following her father’s death (https://hac.bard.edu/about/hannaharendt/). From 1924 to 1928, Arendt studied philosophy at the University of Marburg and the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg. At Marburg, Arendt studied under Martin Heidegger and started a romantic relationship with the controversial German philosopher (see Key thinker: Martin Heidegger). Their relationship was complicated by Heidegger’s marriage and his involvement with Nazism after the rise to power of Hitler’s NSDAP in 1933. Arendt received her doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg with a thesis titled Love and Saint Augustine, supervised by Karl Jaspers (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/). After finishing her thesis Arendt married Günther Stern, a philosopher, poet, and author who published his work under the nom de plume Günther Anders, but the couple divorced in 1937.
In 1933, Arendt was working for the German Federation of Zionists. She was harassed and arrested by the political police, and eventually forced to flee to Paris where she wrote a biography of the Jewish socialite and intellectual Rahel Varnhagen (https://hac.bard.edu/about/hannaharendt/). In France, Arendt joined Zionist groups and formed a close friendship with the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-philosopher-in-hard-times/). As the Nazi invasion of France drew closer Arendt, who had married the philosophy professor Heinrich Blücher in exile, was again forced to flee (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hannah-Arendt). After escaping from a detention camp in Southwest France, Arendt and Blücher secured their transit to New York, where they arrived in 1941 (https://hac.bard.edu/about/hannaharendt/). Arendt’s close friend and collaborator Benjamin wasn’t as lucky: he committed suicide while trying to cross the French-Spanish border to escape the invading German army.
Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee and stateless person (see 19.1. Introduction). Over the next decade, she would learn English, write columns for German émigré journals, work as an editor for Schocken Books, and serve as Executive Director of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization. The publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 marked an important turning point for Arendt; the book made her a respected émigré intellectual and earned her a reputation as a brilliant political thinker (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hannah-Arendt). But not all of Arendt’s writing was well-received by her American audience: her reporting for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann antagonized the Jewish community who were offended by Arendt’s portrayal of the Nazi war criminal and her claim that Jews had been complicit in the murder of their own people (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-philosopher-in-hard-times/). For Arendt, Eichmann was an example of ‘the banality of evil’; his evil, she suggested, might be accounted for by his inability to think or imagine what another person is experiencing, and his blind faith in bureaucratic procedure (see 19.7. Conclusion).
In 1950, Arendt had resumed contact with Heidegger, and defended his Nazi involvement as a mistake by an otherwise great philosopher (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hannah-Arendt). This defence of Heidegger contradicted her own claim that any compromise with evil is immoral. In the following years, Arendt taught at top-tier universities in America including Yale, the University of Chicago, and the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. She also continued to write essays and commentary for publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. In the 1960s, Brühl suffered from a series of heart attacks and eventually died in 1970. Arendt collapsed and died from a heart attack in her apartment five years later (https://www.nytimes.com/1975/12/05/archives/hannah-arendt-69-political-scientist-and-writer-is-dead.html). She was 69 years old.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt argues that twentieth-century totalitarianism is a phenomenon without historical precedent (see 19.2.1. A New Form of Government). Arendt rejects the idea that totalitarianism is a perverted religious belief that re-emerges in a secular society or that there is a natural progression in European thought towards oppressive forms of government. Instead, totalitarianism had ‘crystallized’ from certain underground currents in Western thought that had preceded it—antisemitism, imperialism, or nationalism—to form something entirely new (see 19.2.2. Crystallization). For Arendt, totalitarianism has its own ideology (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx); both Nazism and Stalinism are based on a fictitious set of beliefs and principles that seek to explain everything in the world (see Key Concept: Ideology). Totalitarian regimes aim to completely dehumanize human beings through constant terror. Totalitarian concentration camps, for example, are designed not only to kill inmates but to turn them into ‘living corpses’ before finally killing them or letting them die of exhaustion, malnutrition, or disease. Arendt calls this ‘total domination’: the regime continues to terrorize human beings until no one can resist (see Key Concept: Totalitarianism). For Arendt, only the Soviet Union under Stalin and Nazi Germany fit this precise definition of totalitarianism.
The concept of ‘the political’ is at the core of Arendt’s political theory. Arendt draws a sharp divide between the economic and the political sphere: the former is where human beings biologically reproduce themselves, while the latter is where they engage in politics as citizens or members of a community (see Chapter 13 on Aristotle). Arendt distinguishes between liberty (negative freedom) and actual freedom (positive freedom) (see Key Concept: Liberty and Freedom). Like Aristotle, Arendt believes that human beings can only be free or happy if they are able to participate in politics and cooperate with others to form a community that enables its citizens to flourish. She argues that the infiltration of the social (e.g. private economic interests) into the public sphere has eroded our ability to engage in politics (see 19.3.1. The Specificity of the Political). According to Arendt, there is a tradition of anti-political bias in the history of Western philosophy, beginning from Plato and including Hegel and Marx, who assume the primacy of the economic over the political (see Key Concept: Tradition). To push back against this tradition, Arendt scoured the history of philosophy in search of thinkers, like Augustine or Machiavelli, who understood the importance of the political sphere. Arendt’s thought on the political has been influential in shaping debates around radical or agonistic democracy in political theory (see Mouffe, 2020 and Rancière, 2021).
Arendt has been criticized for her Eurocentrism. In On Revolution (1963), Arendt contrasts rebellions with revolutions; while the former overthrows a regime and liberates human beings from oppression, the latter establishes a new political order in which they can flourish as citizens. While Arendt discusses two major revolutions of the eighteenth century—the American and French Revolutions—she neglects to mention the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) (see Chapter 16 on C.L.R. James), a perfect example of a rebellion that turned into a revolution when former slaves formed an independent Black republic. Such Eurocentrism is also on display in Arendt’s critique of violence. Arendt was critical of the use of violence in politics, and argued that it was incompatible with the exercise of political power. But her essay On Violence (1970) only engages the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth (see Chapter 27 on Frantz Fanon) while completely ignoring Frantz Fanon’s more nuanced argument about anti-colonial violence (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/12/06/frantz-fanons-enduring-legacy).
Arendt’s sharp separation between the social (household) and political (public sphere) leads her to overlook the household as an important site of social reproduction. Her idea of the political is based on an idealization of the Greek polis and a lack of consideration for the role that women and enslaved people played in making the political participation of citizens (property-owning men) possible in the first place (see 19.5. Between Feminism and Anti-Feminism). Arendt shows little interest in feminism or issues related to gender and sexuality; instead, she focuses on abstract questions about the human condition or the human capacity for speech and action. Like John Rawls’ veil of ignorance (see Chapter on Rawls and Chapter 9 on Mills for a critique), Arendt’s supposedly gender-neutral perspective masks prejudices and biases that it unwittingly reproduces through the erasure of feminist thought. But these omissions do not diminish Arendt’s status as one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers. Her work on the dangers of totalitarianism and the value of political freedom still resonates today.
Richard J. Bernstein, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now, Cambridge: Polity, 2019.
Samantha Rose Hill, Hannah Arendt, London: Reaktion Books, 2021.
Seyla Benhabib, “Thinking Without Banisters”, New York Review of Books, 24 February 2022.
Jenny Turner, “We Must Think!”, London Review of Books, 4 November 2021.
Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics, London/New York: Verso, 2021.
Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, London/New York: Verso, 2020.