Hannah Arendt Essay - Critical Essays

Arendt, Hannah


Hannah Arendt 1906–1975

German-born American philosopher, journalist, editor, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism of Arendt's work. For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volume 66.

A distinguished political philosopher and cultural historian, Arendt directed her writing towards the analysis of modern political movements, most notably of the events and circumstances that led to the rise of totalitarianism and to the ubiquitous sense of personal, social, and political alienation in the twentieth century. Arendt maintained that political activity expresses what is most valuable in human endeavor and argued that individuals achieve a sense of purpose and meaning through active participation in decision-making processes concerning social change or the preservation of ideas. Her reputation as a profound and independent philosophical analyst of political systems began with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), but her best-known and most controversial book is Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), which blends reports of the 1962 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann with observations about Nazism and anti-Semitism. The work also suggests a Jewish complicity in Germany's atrocities during World War II. Ever ready to apply philosophical thought to current events, Arendt examined a broad range of topics—racism, war and revolution, culture and the life of the mind, the nature of evil, the social effects of technology—yet her main concerns were twofold: the problem of political evil in the twentieth century and the dilemma of the Jew in the contemporary world. "Twenty years after her death [her admirers] see her desire for a 'new politics' of collective action vindicated by the revolutions of 1989," remarked Tony Judt, "and her account of modern society in general and totalitarianism in particular confirmed by the course of contemporary history."

Biographical Information

Born October 14, 1906, in Hannover, Germany, to erudite Jewish parents active in social causes, Arendt spent her childhood in Konigsberg, her father's ancestral home. She studied philosophy, theology, and Greek under instruction from three leading contemporary German philosophers: Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a brief liaison, at Marburg University; Edmund Husserl at Freiburg University; and Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg University. Heidegger's ideas strongly influenced Arendt's own thought, and Jaspers directed her doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine's concept of love, which was published in 1929. Forced out by rising anti-Semitic sentiments, Arendt fled in 1933 to Paris, where she worked with Jewish orphans and refugees and completed her first book, a biography of an eighteenth-century Berlin salon hostess, Rahel Varnhagen (1958). In 1940 Arendt married Heinrich Blucher, an art historian. The two moved to New York, where Arendt served as research director for the Conference of Jewish Relations from 1944 to 1946 and as chief editor of Schocken Books from 1946 to 1948. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1950 and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. During this time Arendt established herself as an incisive political commentator by writing essays and reviews for Aufbau (Construction), an emigre newspaper, and secured her reputation with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition (1958). Following her appointment as the first woman professor at Princeton University in 1959, Arendt later lectured for the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago from 1963 to 1967, when she joined the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research. Eichmann in Jerusalem, which first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker, generated furor over Arendt's comments about German Jews, and Arendt lost many friends despite her efforts to reply to her critics. Arendt voiced her response to the revolutionary zeal of 1960s in On Revolution (1963), Men in Dark Times (1968), On Violence (1970), and Crises of the Republic (1972). Arendt died suddenly of a heart attack on December 4, 1975, in New York City.

Major Works

The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt's first major publication, analyzes the historical circumstances that fostered the development of fascist ideology in twentieth-century German and Russian society, tracing its roots to anti-Semitism and nineteenth-century imperialism. Closely related to Origins, The Human Condition outlines Arendt's views on the public realm or vita activa of human activity, interpreting the causes of personal and social alienation in terms of the nature of labor, work, and action. Her posthumous The Life of the Mind (1978), a proposed three-volume study of the elementary mental activities of thinking, willing, and judging, of which only the volumes "Thinking" and "Willing" were published, treats the private realm or vita comtemplativa, analyzing the processes of the mind and their effects on action. Arendt's belief that political activity was the noblest of human endeavors expressed itself in the highly controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, which suggests that the failure of Jews to act against the policies of Nazi Germany actually enabled the state to proceed with the Holocaust; though never intending to exculpate Eichmann's guilt, Arendt showed that he was not a mere evil madman, but rather someone who had developed an inability to think. Her other book-length studies include On Revolution, which is a comparative analysis of the American and French revolutions, and On Violence, which argues that violence is a reaction to a lack of power. Some of Arendt's best work is found in essays she wrote for a variety of periodicals and later collected in such volumes as Men in Dark Times, which contains biographical sketches of her personal heroes; Crises of the Republic, which offers her observations on the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the Watergate scandal; The Jew as Pariah (1978), which collects pieces on Jewish themes; and Essays in Understanding (1995), which features the writings of her early career.

Critical Reception

Arendt's writings provoked widespread debate among political scientists, sociologists, and historians, who in turn generated a wealth of contradictory commentary on a variety of subjects; at the same time their influence has proved extraordinary, extending even to the American judicial system. (The Origins of Totalitarianism has been cited in several court decisions protecting the rights of displaced persons and expatriates.) "To some she represented the worst of 'Continental' philosophizing…. For such critics her insights into the woes of the century are at best derivative, at worst plain wrong," observed Judt, who added, "Others … find her a stimulating intellectual presence; her refusal to acknowledge academic norms and conventional categories of explanation, which so frustrates and irritates her critics, is precisely what most appeals to her admirers." The paradoxical reception of Arendt's work derives in part from ambiguities detected in the works themselves, which have provided fodder for both her supporters and detractors. Margaret Canovan, for instance, detected a "serious inconsistency" between the "elitist" and the "democratic" aspects of Arendt's political thought, while such critics as Sheldon S. Wolin, George Kateb, and John Sitton, contrary to prevalent analyses of her work in terms of totalitarianism, have scrutinized her writings for indications of her attitudes toward democratic government. Although the hostility that greeted Eichmann in Jerusalem has subsided, the volume continues to fascinate readers. Walter Laqueur, for example, reevaluated the question of "whether, in fact, [Arendt] was misunderstood and injustice done to her"; Tony Seibers analyzed the book in terms of its affinities to literary elements of storytelling; and Barry Clarke examined Arendt's representation of the "banality of evil" in the personality of Eichmann. In addition, numerous comparative analyses of Arendt's writings and those of other philosophers—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant to Walter Benjamin and Heidegger—further illuminated her own ideas. "[Arendt] made a good many little errors, for which her many critics will never forgive her," admitted Judt. "But she got the big things right, and for this she deserves to be remembered."

Principal Works

Der Liebsgriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation (dissertation) 1929
The Origins of Totalitarianism (philosophy) 1951
The Human Condition (philosophy) 1958
Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (biography) 1958
Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (philosophy) 1961
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (journalism) 1963
On Revolution (philosophy) 1963
Men in Dark Times (philosophy) 1968
On Violence (philosophy) 1970
Crises of the Republic (philosophy) 1972
The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age (philosophy) 1978
The Life of the Mind. 2 vols. (philosophy) 1978
Lecture's on Kant's Political Philosophy (lectures) 1982
Hannah Arendt—Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969 (letters) 1992
Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975 (letters) 1995
Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954 (essays) 1995


Denis Donoghue (essay date May 1962)

SOURCE: "After Reading Hannah Arendt," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. 100, No. 2, May, 1962, pp. 127-30.

[In the following essay, Donoghue relates "the profound, humane reflections" in Arendt's works to contemporary poetry, noting that he "had the disturbing impression that she had far more to say—more of humane relevance—than any ten contemporary poets."]

I first read Hannah Arendt in Partisan Review, a classic essay on Hitler's concentration camps. The essay was free from hysteria, violence, vituperation; there was only the violence within—Wallace Stevens's great phrase—animating the prose; no "rhetoric". I had not thought much about the camps; they were...

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Irving Howe (essay date October 1963)

SOURCE: "'The New Yorker' & Hannah Arendt," in Commentary, Vol. 36, No. 4, October, 1963, pp. 318-19.

[In the following essay, Howe denounces the New Yorker's refusal to print rebuttals to Arendt's arguments in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which made its debut in the magazine as a controversial series of articles.]

Some months ago, shortly after James Baldwin published in the New Yorker his now famous article about the Negroes, there appeared a mildly satiric comment upon it in the New Republic. The author of this comment elaborated upon the incongruity between Baldwin's passionate outcry and the sumptuous advertisements surrounding it. At the...

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J. M. Cameron (review date 6 November 1969)

SOURCE: "Bad Times," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 8, November 6, 1969, pp. 4, 6, 8-9.

[In the following excerpt, Cameron highlights ambiguities in Arendt's political writings, tracing their genesis to the "peculiar character" of twentieth-century culture.]

Thinkers who are original and profound often mask their ideas in a style, not so much of prose as of thought, that is opaque to all but the most determined reader. This is obvious in the work of, say, Kant; and opacity of style may produce those long-lasting ambiguities that provide rich material for the work of the commentator. If Miss Arendt's work survives—and it is surely more likely to survive...

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Philip Green (review date 7 May 1972)

SOURCE: "Crises of the Republic," in New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1972, pp. 27-8.

[In the review below, Green comments on the "astonishing" insight Arendt brought to her writings, despite "those occasional lapses from which no truly serious work of the intellect is ever wholly free."]

In a recent essay not reprinted in this collection, Hannah Arendt has written that "thinking" isinherently an antisocial and subversive activity, a quiet enemy to all established versions of right and order. The truly independent thinker is never finally at ease with the customs and institutions of his (or her) times, but rather is continually and relentlessly probing for the soft...

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Lore Dickstein (review date 24 November 1974)

SOURCE: A review of Rahel Varnhagen, in New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1974, pp. 27, 30.

[In the following review, Dickstein objects to the dispassionate narrative tone and the lack of psychoanalysis of the subject in Rahel Varnhagen, especially since "the reader … would have expected more from so brilliant a theorist."]

[Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman] was written more than 40 years ago and the woman it deals with lived more than 170 years ago, but the story of Rahel Varnhagen survives the passage of time. Rahel Varnhagen was one of the more renowned "salon Jewesses" of Berlin at the turn of the 19th century. Her charm and...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)

Mary McCarthy (essay date 22 January 1976)

SOURCE: "Saying Good-by to Hannah," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXII, Nos. 21-22, January 22, 1976, pp. 8, 10-11.

[Below, McCarthy eulogizes Arendt, emphasizing her person rather than her ideas.]

Her last book was to be called The Life of the Mind and was intended to be a pendant to The Human Condition (first called The Vita Activa), where she had scrutinized the triad of labor, work, and action: man as animal laborans, homo faber, and doer of public deeds. She saw the mind's life, or vita contemplativa, as divided into three parts also: thinking, willing, and judging. The first section, on thinking, was finished some time ago....

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Robert Lowell (essay date 13 May 1976)

SOURCE: "On Hannah Arendt," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXII, No. 8, May 13, 1976, p. 6.

[In the following essay, Lowell reminisces about his relationship with Arendt and his impressions on reading her works.]

Hannah Arendt was an oasis in the fevered, dialectical dust of New York—to me, and I imagine to everyone who loved her. We met in the late Fifties or early Sixties in Mary McCarthy's apartment. She seemed hardly to take her coat off, as she brushed on with purpose to a class or functional shopping. In her hurry, she had time to say to me something like "This is an occasion," or more probably, "This is a meeting." I put the least intention into her words,...

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Margaret Canovan (essay date February 1978)

SOURCE: "The Contradictions of Hannah Arendt's Political Thought," in Political Theory, Vol. 6, No. 1, February, 1978, pp. 5-26.

[Below, Canovan investigates Arendt's major works, discerning "a contradiction between democratic and elitist attitudes on the one hand, and an uncertainty about the relation of her political thought to practice on the other."]

Hannah Arendt's political thought is baffling even to the most sympathetic reader. It is baffling not only because of her fondness for questioning our established certainties, and not only because her political values are strange and shocking to us, but most importantly because her thought is riven by a deep and...

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Walter Laqueur (essay date March 1979)

SOURCE: "Re-reading Hannah Arendt," in Encounter, Vol. LII, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 73-79.

[In the essay below, Laqueur addresses the questions of why Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, why it provoked controversy, and "whether, in fact, she was misunderstood and injustice done to her."]

Few books in living memory have stirred up more bitter controversy than Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in 1964. The controversy still continues as the introduction to a recent collection of Mrs Arendt's "Jewish" essays shows [The Jew as Pariah], albeit without the acrimony of the earlier debate. The editor clearly believes that Mrs Arendt was...

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Berel Lang (essay date Summer 1988)

SOURCE: "Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Evil," in Judaism, Vol. 37, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 264-75.

[In the following essay, Lang explains how the relation between personal conscience or religious commitment and public or civic life informs Arendt's conception of modern totalitarianism.]

In the 20th century the position of the German Jewish community was to be one of unusual complexity, of powerful ironies and, ultimately, of great disruption and pain. On the one hand, the ideals nourished by the Enlightenment, emerging in the last part of the 18th Century, and represented in Germany by such figures as Kant, Lessing, and Goethe, had spoken eloquently about the...

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Jean Bethke Elshtain (essay date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: "Hannah Arendt's French Revolution," in Salmagundi, Vol. 84, Fall, 1989, pp. 203-12.

[In the essay below, Elshtain discusses Arendt's interpretation of the revolutionary tradition, focusing on her "construction of the French and American revolutions as prototypes of 'successful' revolutions."]

Of the Chinese students with their worker and peasant allies, massed by the tens of thousands in Tiananmen Square in defiance of martial law, it can be said that Hannah Arendt would have loved it. Their actions are "spontaneous" in the sense that they could not have reasonably been predicted. Their rhetoric is cast in the language of freedom. A papier mache representation...

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Tobin Siebers (essay date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Storytelling: Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 201-11.

[In the following essay, Siebers analyzes Eichmann in Jerusalem in terms of memory and judgment—qualities largely absent in twentieth-century culture but inherent to storytelling.]

Few modern events have stirred the need for recollection and judgment more than the Holocaust. As time and witnesses pass on, however, its memory grows more dim, and legally speaking the atrocities of Nazi anti-Semitism have remained for the most part unjudged. The trial of Adolf Eichmann and the Nuremberg Trials assume great...

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Richard A. Shweden (review date 20 September 1992)

SOURCE: "Dialogue Amid the Deluge," in The New York Times, Vol. CXLIV, No. 49977, September 20, 1992, pp. 1, 53-4.

[Below, Shweden reviews Hannah Arendt—Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969, concluding that "it is a privilege to enter [Arendt's and Jaspers] studies."]

The correspondence begins at the University of Heidelberg in 1926, in the years before what now might be called the "ethnic cleansing" of the German universities and the Holocaust. It starts with a skeptical query from a 19-year-old German Jewish student, Hannah Arendt, to her German and non-Jewish professor, Karl Jaspers, about the impossibility of learning anything from history. It ends 43...

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Tony Judt (review date 6 April 1995)

SOURCE: "At Home in This Century," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 6, April 6, 1995, pp. 9-14.

[In the review below, Judt finds that both Essays in Understanding and Between Friends provide a better understanding of Arendt herself, demonstrating that "it becomes a little easier to see just what holds together the various parts of her oeuvre and why they provoke such diverse and powerful responses."]

Hannah Arendt died twenty years ago, leaving a curious and divided legacy. To some she represented the worst of "Continental" philosophizing: metaphysical musings upon modernity and its ills unconstrained by any institutional or intellectual...

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Further Reading


Ettinger, Elzbieta. Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, 139 p.

Brief account of Arendt's relationship with Heidegger.

McCarthy, Mary. "Hannah Arendt and Politics." Partisan Review LI (1984/1985): 729-38.

Recollects the significance of politics in Arendt's public and private life.

Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, 563 p.

Bio-critical study gathered from oral and print sources....

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