Hannah Arendt

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophers
Twentieth-century philosophy
Hannah Arendt 1933.jpg
Name: Hannah Arendt
Birth: October 14, 1906 (Linden, Germany)
Death: December 4, 1975 (New York, United States)
School/tradition: Phenomenology
Main interests
Politics, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Greek philosophy, technology, Ontology, modernity, philosophy of history
Notable ideas
Humanity as Homo faber
Humanity as animal laborans
The labor–work distinction
The banality of evil
Distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa (praxis as the highest level of the vita activa)
Influences Influenced
Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger, Russell, Jaspers, Benjamin Jürgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin, Maurice_Merleau-Ponty, Giorgio Agamben , Seyla Benhabib

Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906 – December 4, 1975) was a Jewish-American political theorist of German descent and one of the most original, challenging, and influential political thinkers of the twentieth century. A student and associate of such German thinkers as Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers, she earned her doctorate in 1933 but was not permitted to teach because she was Jewish. Forced to flee Germany and then France, she arrived in the United States with her husband in 1941. The publication in 1951 of The Origins of Totalitarianism made her an intellectual celebrity. Her books deal with themes such as the nature of freedom and authority, totalitarianism, revolution, the faculties of 'thinking' and 'judging,' the history of political thought, and the interpretation of politics and human activity.

Rejecting much of the Western philosophical tradition, Arendt maintained that political theory and philosophy had inhibited a correct understanding of political activity, and emphasized the active life as the apex of human achievement. In short, people have a responsibility to use their intellect and to engage in constructive public discourse, while horrific atrocities such as genocide came about because of the failure of individuals in positions of authority to exercise judgment and will. Although often described as a philosopher, Arendt refused that label on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with man in the abstract, while she as a self-described "political theorist" centered on the fact that "men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world."


Hannah Arendt was born October 14, 1906 in the then-independent city of Linden in Lower Saxony (now part of Hanover), Germany, the only child of Paul and Martha (Cohn) Arendt, both of whom were secular Jews and had grown up in Russian-Jewish homes. When Hannah was seven, her father died of paresis (syphilitic insanity), and not much later, battles between Russian and German armies were fought near her home. She was raised in Königsberg (the hometown of her admired precursor Immanuel Kant) and Berlin. In 1920, her mother married Martin Beerwald.

Hannah graduated from high school in 1924, and that fall she began to study theology with Rudolf Bultmann at the University of Marburg. She went on to the University of Heidelberg, where she wrote a dissertation on the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine, under the direction of the existentialist philosopher-psychologist Karl Jaspers. In September 1929, Arendt married Günther Stern, a Jewish philosopher whose pen name was Günther Anders. She also completed her dissertation that year and earned her doctorate, but was prevented from habilitating (and thus from teaching in German universities) in 1933 because she was Jewish. When the National Socialists began to take power, Arendt became a political activist and, beginning in 1933, helped the German Zionist Organization and its leader, Kurt Blumenfeld, to publicize the plight of the victims of Nazism. She was arrested by the Gestapo for doing research on anti-Semitic propaganda, but won the sympathy of a Berlin jailer, was released and escaped to Paris, where she remained for the rest of the decade. Arendt worked with Youth Aliyah and helped rescue Jewish children from the Third Reich and bring them to Palestine.

In Paris, she befriended Raymond Aron and the literary critic and Marxist mystic Walter Benjamin, her first husband's cousin. She also met Heinrich Blücher, a poet and communist with no formal education who had been a member of Rosa Luxemburg's defeated Spartacus League, and a gentile. In 1937, Arendt divorced, and on January 16, 1940 she married Blücher. Less than half a year later, the Wehrmacht invaded France, and the couple was separated and interned in southern France along with other stateless Germans. Arendt was sent to Gurs, from which she escaped and soon joined her husband. In 1941, Arendt escaped with her husband and her mother to the United States with the assistance of the American diplomat Hiram Bingham IV, who illegally issued visas to her and around 2,500 other Jewish refugees.

Arendt became active in the German-Jewish community in New York, writing for the German weekly Aufbau, and for Jewish journals such as Jewish Social Studies. Arendt argued for a Jewish army and, expressed the hope that Arabs and Jews might live together in a postwar Palestinian state. After the Holocaust, the editor and historian Salo W. Baron made her responsible for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, an effort to locate and redistribute historical Jewish artifacts that had been misplaced during the war. In 1944 she began work on her first major political work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In 1946, she published What is Existenz Philosophy, and from 1946 to 1951 she worked as an editor at Schocken Books, a German Jewish publishing company that had reestablished itself in New York. In 1951, she attained American citizenship, and The Origins of Totalitarianism was published. The book made Arendt an intellectual celebrity, and she began the first in a sequence of visiting fellowships and professorial positions at American universities.

After World War II Arendt resumed relations with Heidegger, and testified on his behalf in a German denazification hearing. She also resumed communication with Jaspers,[1] and began corresponding with Mary McCarthy.[2] Arendt served as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, Columbia University, and Northwestern University. She also served as a professor on The Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago, as well as at The New School in New York City, and served as a fellow at Yale University and Wesleyan University. In 1959, she became the first woman appointed to a full professorship at Princeton.

In 1958, she published The Human Condition and Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess, a book which she had begun years before in Germany. In 1959, she published Reflections on Little Rock, her controversial consideration of the emergent Black civil rights movement. In 1961, she published Between Past and Future, and traveled to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker magazine.

In 1963 she published her reflections on the Eichmann trial, first in the New Yorker, and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In this year, she also published On Revolution. In 1967, having held positions at Berkeley and Chicago, she took up a position at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1968, she published Men in Dark Times.

In 1970, the year that Blücher died, Arendt gave a seminar on Kant's philosophy of judgment at the New School which was published posthumously as Reflections on Kant's Political Philosophy in 1982. In 1971 she published Thinking and Moral Considerations, and the following year Crisis of the Republic appeared. She then began a projected three-volume work, The Life of the Mind. Volumes 1 and 2 (Thinking and Willing) were published posthumously. She died on December 4, 1975, having only just started work on the third and final volume, Judging. Arendt was buried at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where her husband taught for many years.

Thought and Works

The writing of Hannah Arendt covered a wide variety of topics; she never elaborated a systematic political philosophy. She drew inspiration from Heidegger, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche, and Jaspers, and wrote about themes such as the nature of freedom and authority, totalitarianism, revolution, the faculties of 'thinking' and 'judging,' the history of political thought, and the interpretation of politics and human activity. Much of her work focused on affirming a conception of freedom synonymous with collective political action among equals. She theorized freedom as public and associative, drawing on examples from the Greek polis, American townships, the Paris Commune, and the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

Her first major book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, traced the roots of Stalinist Communism and Nazism to the devastation of the ordered and stable contexts in which people had once lived by massive disruptions including World War I, the Great Depression, the spread of revolutionary unrest and violent overthrow of traditional political systems. In such confused and desperate circumstances, she contended that people were open to the promulgation of a single, clear and unambiguous idea that would place the blame for human suffering on a particular group or institution, and indicate a clear path to a secure future against uncertainty and danger. The vulnerability of European populations to totalitarian ideas was the consequence of an accumulation of “pathologies” which had invaded the liberty and freedom of the public realm. These included imperialism, which legitimized colonial oppression as a business enterprise; and the bourgeois takeover of political institutions to further their own ends. Such conditions undermined the legitimacy of political institutions and weakened principles of citizenship and democratic consensus, and did not allow for the preservation of individual liberty within a viable political system.

Arendt insisted that Stalinist Communism and Nazism were distinct from older forms of tyranny, a completely 'novel form of government' based on terror and ideological fiction. Older tyrannies had used terror as a means of acquiring or maintaining power and authority, but these modern tyrannies regarded terror as an end in itself, rather than a rational political strategy. Modern tyranny justified terror with an ideology or a historical law, such as the inevitable supremacy of a ‘chosen race’ or triumph of a classless society.

The Origins of Totalitarianism examined a number of the recurrent themes that appeared throughout Arendt’s political writings, including an examination of the conditions necessary for a humane and democratic public life; the historical, social and economic forces that undermined these conditions; the conflict between private interests and the public good; and the impact of intensified economic cycles of production and consumption that derailed the traditional context of human life. The book aroused a controversy because Arendt equated anti-Semitism and imperialism in her examination of the destabilizing pathologies which had undermined the tenets of politics; a number of her critics maintained that these were separate in both origins and nature.

The Human Condition

Arendt’s most influential work was The Human Condition (1958), in which she rejected the Western philosophical tradition from Plato through Marx, arguing that the apex of human achievement was not philosophical thought, but active life. She argued that Western philosophical tradition had elevated contemplation and ideas over actual appearances and the human activity which responds to appearances. She took a phenomenological approach to politics, attempting to uncover the true character of lived political experience which had, for the most part, been obscured and distorted by philosophical tradition, and hoping to reinstate the life of public and political action to the apex of human values and goals.

Arendt divided the active life into three areas: labor, which is repetitive but sustains life; work, which creates objects and the collective human world; and action, new activity, especially political, which involves shared enterprise. She placed these areas in an ascending hierarchy with action at the top. The fundamental defining quality of action was its freedom, its status as an end in itself, subordinate to nothing outside itself. Furthermore, this freedom was visible and not just a quality of inner contemplation. Freedom was first experienced as a tangible reality in intercourse with other human beings, before it became a mental concept. To act was to take initiative, to set something in motion, and it was this capacity to initiate something new that gave action the qualities of novelty, uniqueness and unpredictabliity.

Men are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.[3]

Arendt regarded action as a public category, a practice that is experienced through interaction with others. She maintained that actions could only be justified by their public recognition and the shared rules of a political community, not for their own sake. Action would have no meaning if there were no one present to see it and give meaning to it. Action only had meaning in the presence of others like ourselves who could both understand our actions and recognize our uniqueness. Arendt connected action to speech, since intercourse with others required communication.

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men…corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition - not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam [sufficient condition] - of all political life.[4]

On Revolution and the Banality of Evil

On Revolution (1961) was an application of Arendt’s political concepts to the modern era. She challenged both liberal and Marxist interpretations of modern political revolutions, disputing the liberal claim that revolutions such as the French and American were mostly concerned with establishing a limited government that allowed individual liberty, and the Marxist claim that they were an attempt by the suffering masses to overcome exclusion by the privileged few. Instead, she claimed that these revolutions were exercises of individuals acting together for a common purpose, the establishment of public spaces of civic freedom and participation, with mixed results. The French Revolution ended by reducing political institutions to administering the distribution of goods and resources; and the American, while protecting the average citizen from arbitrary exercise of authority by constitutional checks and balances, did not allow participation in “judgement and authority.”

Her reports on the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, concluded that Eichmann’s atrocities did not arise from a malevolent desire to do evil, but through a failure or absence of sound thinking and judgment. She introduced the idea of the banality of evil; the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction. The book sparked considerable opposition in the Jewish community, partially because she attributed some responsibility for the catastrophe to the councils (Judenräte), who complied with the German authorities. It inspired a number of historical investigations of the behavior of Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. The subsequent debate has often reinforced the picture of venality, delusion, fear, and selfishness that Arendt briefly presented.

This connection between complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgment inspired the last phase of Arendt's work, which sought to examine the nature of the faculties of 'thinking,' willing' and judging, and their roles in making politically and morally responsible choices.

Arendt’s biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a Jewish salon hostess in Berlin in the early 1800s, was an attempt to illuminate the conflict between minority status and German nationalism through her subject's conversion to Christianity and repudiation of Jewishness. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman was begun when Arendt herself was experiencing oppression in Germany because she was Jewish, but was not published until 1958.


Arendt remains one of the most original, challenging, and influential political thinkers of the twentieth century. Her books influenced the development of modern political theory, particularly in North America, Europe, and Australia, where scholarly conferences and subsequent anthologies have been devoted to her work (as well as a dozen other books and numerous dissertations). In 1975, the Danish government awarded Arendt its Sonning Prize for Contributions to European Civilization, which no American and no woman before her had received.

A variety of political thinkers with widely divergent positions have made use of Arendt’s thought, including participatory democrats such as Benjamin Barber and Sheldon Wolin, communitarians such as Sandel and MacIntyre, and neo-Kantians such as Habermas, Albrecht Wellmer, Richard Bernstein, and Seyla Benhabib.

Arendt was a pioneer in the academic world; she became the first woman to become a full professor (of politics) at Princeton University, and subsequently taught at the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and finally the New School for Social Research.

Arendt's emphasis on the plight of the Jews amid the decline of the Enlightenment ideal of human rights, and her insistence that the Third Reich was conducting a war against the Jewish people, have become common themes of Jewish historiography.


Although Arendt emphasized the examination of “appearances” of political action rather than philosophical theory, her own theory was detached enough from the everyday political reality to provoke a number of criticisms.

Her reliance upon a rigid distinction between the 'private' and 'public'—the oikos and the polis,—to delimit the specificity of the political realm, has raised criticisms from feminist and Marxist thinkers that her definition of the ‘public’ realm, as pertaining to human self-disclosure in speech and deed, excludes domestic matters and problems of the distribution of material resources, which are legitimate political concerns.

Her emphasis on direct citizen deliberation, as synonymous with the exercise of political freedom, excludes representative models, and might be considered unworkable in the context of modern mass societies. The elevation of politics to the apex of human good and goals has also been challenged, since it subordinates the status of other modes of human action and self-realization.

Selected works

  • Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin. Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, (1929)
  • The Origins of Totalitarianism, [1951] Harvest Books, New edition (March 21, 1973) ISBN 0156701537
  • Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman, ed. by Richard Winston, Clara Winston [1958] Harvest Books, Rev. Ed. edition (October 19, 1974) ISBN 0156761009
  • The Human Condition, [1958] University of Chicago Press; Enlarged edition (October 18, 2018) ISBN 978-0226586601
  • Between Past and Future, (1961) ISBN 0143104810
  • On Revolution, (1963) ISBN 0143039903
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (1963) ISBN 0140187650
  • Men in Dark Times, (1968) ISBN 0156588900
  • Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, (1969)
    "Civil Disobedience" originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in The New Yorker. Versions of the other essays originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. ISBN 0156232006
  • The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, Edited by Ron H. Feldman, (1978) ISBN 0394170423
  • Life of the Mind, (1978) ISBN 0156519925


  1. Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, Correspondence 1926-1969, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, ISBN 0151078874).
  2. Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, (Secker & Warburg, 1995, ISBN 0436202514).
  3. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Penguin Classics, 2006, ISBN 0143104810).
  4. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0226586601).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Arendt, Hannah, and Karl Jaspers. Correspondence 1926-1969. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. ISBN 0151078874
  • Arendt, Hannah, and Mary McCarthy. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975. Secker & Warburg, 1995. ISBN 0436202514
  • Ettinger, Elzbieta. Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0300072546
  • Villa, Dana (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521641985
  • Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0300105889
  • Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Why Arendt Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0300120443

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2024.

General philosophy sources


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