Hannah Arendt

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2023

Article abstract: One of the most challenging political philosophers of the twentieth century, Arendt adopted an Aristotelian approach to explore the origins of totalitarianism, the structure of human consciousness, and the nature of violence and evil.

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Early Life

Hannah Arendt was the only child of Paul and Martha (Cohn) Arendt, a German-Jewish couple who lived in Hanover. Arendt’s father was an engineer and the family moved to the town of Königsberg, the former capital of East Prussia, where the young Hannah grew up. She attended the University of Königsberg shortly after World War I, receiving a bachelor’s degree from that institution in 1924. Later that same year, she began postgraduate study with the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg. Arendt met Hans Jonas (her future colleague at the New School for Social Research) when she and Jonas were the only two Jewish students to enroll in a New Testament seminar offered at Marburg by the biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann.

Arendt’s education continued at the University of Heidelberg where she studied philosophy under Karl Jaspers. During her years at Heidelberg, Arendt began to be influenced by Jasper’s Christian existential philosophy and his view that each individual is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions. In 1928, when Arendt was only twenty-two years old, the University of Heidelberg granted Arendt a doctorate. In the following year, her dissertation was published as Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin (1929; The Idea of Love in St. Augustine). In September of 1929, Arendt married the young Jewish philosopher Günther Stern, whom she had met in 1925 during her postgraduate training in Marburg.

As the National Socialist movement (the Nazis) began to gain power in Germany, Arendt felt that her Jewish heritage was placing her in increasing danger. She fled to Paris in 1933, and began to work for Youth Aliyah, a relief organization that attempted to find homes in Palestine for Jewish orphans. Her relationship with Stern began to deteriorate during the 1930’s, and the couple obtained a divorce in France in 1937. Arendt’s activity in relief work continued, however, until 1940, when she married Heinrich Blücher, a professor of philosophy. Blücher was to remain one of Arendt’s most important mentors during the course of their thirty-year marriage.

In 1941, France was invaded by the Nazis, forcing Arendt and Blücher to move to the United States. From 1944 until 1946, Arendt performed humanitarian work for the Conference on Jewish Relations in New York City. At the same time, she worked to preserve the writings of several Jewish authors, many of whose works had been suppressed by the Nazis during World War II. In 1946, Arendt assumed the position of chief editor for Schocken Books, remaining at that post until 1948. She applied for American citizenship in 1950, and was granted full citizenship during the following year.

Life’s Work

Hannah Arendt began to draw the attention of international scholars in 1951 with the publication of her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In this work, Arendt suggested that the roots of both communism and National Socialism could be traced not only to the imperialism of the nineteenth century but also to the anti- Semitism rampant throughout Europe at that time. Arendt’s thesis initially met with mixed reviews. Many scholars praised the extensive research that was reflected in The Origins of Totalitarianism and concurred with its view that the rise of modern dictatorships resulted from the collapse of the nation-state. Nevertheless, many critics also rejected Arendt’s view that anti-Semitism had been a decisive factor in shaping all forms of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Arendt was criticized for taking too personal a view of modern history and for failing to be objective in her interpretation of events. Since the original publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism, however, Arendt’s central thesis has gained considerable academic support.

In 1958, Arendt’s Walgreen lectures delivered at the University of Chicago were published as The Human Condition. With its groundbreaking distinction between work, labor, and activity, and its optimistic view that political activity can enhance civilization, this book improved Arendt’s reputation as a scholar. One of Arendt’s most influential works, The Human Condition uses an Aristotelian approach to address issues of concern in modern society. Nevertheless, several critics found the book’s prose style to be extremely dense, even awkward. Arendt’s literary style continued to be criticized following the publication of several of her later works.

Arendt became the first woman to hold the rank of full professor at Princeton University when she accepted the position of visiting professor of politics in 1959. Soon after, her major study of modern society and its values, Between Past and Future (1961), was published. In this work, Arendt argued that by rejecting both tradition and authority modern society had deprived itself of the basis for establishing generally approved standards of behavior. Her view that moral relativism had left the twentieth century without a shared system of values was to be echoed repeatedly in the decades that followed.

In 1963, Arendt completed the work that was to reach her largest general audience. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil began as a series of articles for The New Yorker magazine. Adolf Eichmann, a leading official of the Nazis, had been captured in Argentina by agents of the Israeli intelligence service in May of 1960. His war crimes trial in Israel attracted international attention and inspired The New Yorker to send Arendt to Jerusalem for her perspectives on the trial.

Coining the phrase “the banality of evil,” Arendt characterized Eichmann, not as a Nazi fanatic, but merely as an officious bureaucrat whose personal ambition had caused him to be responsible for horrific actions. Unlike the prison guards and the executioners who took an active role in exterminating the Jews, Eichmann was (in Arendt’s view) little more than a “paper shuffler” whose duties had resulted in unimaginable suffering. The Nazi regime, Arendt continued, did not arise because of the fanaticism of a few of its leaders but because of a collapse of conscience throughout Europe. Jewish leaders themselves, Arendt contended, were not wholly guiltless in permitting the Holocaust to occur. To imply that one person was single-handedly responsible for the murder of millions was to attribute more power to him than any individual can possibly have. Finally, Arendt’s book criticized the Israeli government for its conduct of the trial.

With the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt found herself once again on the defensive for her views. While many scholars had regarded her interpretation of history as excessively Zionist in The Origins of Totalitarianism, there were some critics who now accused her of being anti-Semitic for criticizing the Israeli court in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Despite years of service to Jewish relief organizations, Arendt found her book condemned by the Jewish humanitarian league B’nai B’rith (“Sons of the Covenant”) as a “distortion” of history.

Despite this criticism, Arendt’s academic career continued to prosper. In the same year that Eichmann in Jerusalem was published, Arendt accepted a professorship from the highly prestigious Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. On Revolution (1963), a philosophical and political comparison of the French and American revolutions, was also released at this time. In 1967, Arendt left Chicago to begin teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City. During that same year, Arendt was the only nonspecialist invited to speak at Harvard University at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Arendt’s collection of intellectual profiles, Men in Dark Times, appeared in 1968. Despite the title of that work, its most influential essays were those that dealt with women, including the German socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg and the Danish author Isak Dinesen. On Violence, Arendt’s philosophical essay dealing with the use of force in society, was published in 1970.

That same year Arendt’s second husband, Heinrich Blücher, died. Although Arendt mentioned to friends at the time that she would not be able to continue her work without Blücher, she soon occupied herself with several major projects. The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age (1978) helped to restore Arendt’s tarnished reputation in the Jewish community. The Life of the Mind (1978) was envisioned as a three-volume work, only about half of which was ever completed. In this massive study Arendt attempted to explore what she regarded as the three major activities of human consciousness: thought, will, and judgment. Both The Jew as Pariah and the completed portions of The Life of the Mind were published posthumously.

Hannah Arendt died suddenly in New York on December 4, 1975, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Four days later, Arendt was eulogized at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City by Hans Jonas, her longtime friend and colleague at the New School for Social Research, and the novelist and essayist Mary McCarthy, who served as Arendt’s literary executor.

Summary

Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy resulted from the union of three independent strands in her intellectual training: Arendt’s Jewish heritage led her to seek philosophical explanations for human suffering and exposed her to the threat of anti-Semitic totalitarianism; her familiarity with the existential philosophy of Heidegger, Jaspers, and Bultmann encouraged her to develop an emphasis upon individual responsibility; and her study of the Greek and Roman classics led her to adopt the methods of classical philosophy in her study of the problems afflicting modern society.

Criticized both for excessive Zionism and anti-Semitism in her writing, Arendt was, in the end, an original thinker who resisted all categorization. Her rigorous philosophical analysis of political issues and, in the last decade of her life, of human consciousness itself made her works among the most influential texts in political philosophy to be written since World War II. Running counter to the pessimistic tone found in a great deal of modern scholarship, Arendt viewed political life as a potentially heroic activity that is fully in keeping with the highest values of Western culture.

Bibliography

Canovan, Margaret. The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. Arguing that Arendt’s works are more useful for their general interpretation than their specific solutions to problems, Canovan sees Arendt as challenging the basic assumptions of modern thought. Canovan also concludes that Arendt’s view of politics was “romantic.”

Glazer, Nathan. “Hannah Arendt’s America.” Commentary 60 (September, 1975): 61-67. This article, written for the general reader, argues that Arendt’s interpretation of European fascism is correct but that her attempts to see parallels between prewar Germany and postwar America are generally misleading.

Jonas, Hans. “Hannah Arendt.” Social Research 43 (Spring, 1976): 3-5. A reprint of the eulogy delivered by Jonas at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City on December 8, 1975. It provides a fascinating personal assessment of Arendt’s importance by a colleague who knew her well.

Parekh, Bhikhu C. Hannah Arendt and the Search for a New Political Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1981. This challenging analysis of Arendt’s philosophy explores how she sought to reconcile an Aristotelian world view with the existentialism of Jaspers and others. Parekh argues that Arendt’s most original contribution to modern thought was her integration of politics into the general conception of “culture.”

Social Research. 44 (Spring, 1977). This entire issue was devoted to articles dealing with various aspects of Arendt’s thought and its impact. Twelve scholars contributed to this special issue, including Robert Nisbet on Arendt and the American Revolution, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl on Arendt’s story-telling, Erich Heller on Arendt as a critic of literature, and Hans Morgenthau on Arendt and totalitarianism.

Whitfield, Stephen J. Into the Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980. The most thorough analysis of the issues raised by Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, this book also contains extensive notes and an excellent bibliography.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt, For Love of the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. The best biography available of Arendt’s intellectual and personal life. Highly readable, it also contains a useful analysis of Arendt’s philosophical works and a few rarely available examples of poetry by Arendt.

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