The Life of Hannah Arendt


Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt's mentor and lover, and, incidentally, the greatest German philosopher of this century, began his lectures on Aristotle with the remark that Aristotle "was born, worked, and died." Heidegger intended to demonstrate that the significance of a thinker's life lies not in his actions, but in his thoughts and the records of his thoughts. Hannah Arendt is as fearsomely intellectual an individual as one could imagine, a thinker whose life was a life of the mind. A Jewess whose membership in the intellectual aristocracy was gained not through birth but through the brilliance and erudition of her written work, she consciously fancied herself a pariah, a term which brought with it a certain moral uprightness within the Jewish tradition. Divorced from the opportunity for action both by temperament and profession, consciously holding herself apart from society at large as an index of her Jewishness, like Heidegger's Aristotle one wonders whether it makes any sense to talk of Hannah Arendt's life. Her life is her thought, and thought covered the range of known human history, form the pre-Socrates to phenomenology, the entire range of humane studies: political philosophy, ideological history, biography, sociology, classical studies, studies of the phenomena of violence and revolution, religious studies, Zionism and anti-Semitism, literature, ethics, epistemology,...the list goes on. To outline several of her major ideas, those of the public and the private; the banality of evil; thinking, willing, judging; totalitarianism as a result of mass society, would take up all of our time here. Consequently, it is perhaps best to reach some sort of compromise between biography and intellectual biography, and there is some reason for this compromise. A fiercely private woman (on her first appearance on television she stipulated that she be interviewed with her back to the camera), she lived for two things: books and conversation, the twin sources of intellectual stimulation. And for her conversations she needed partners, and hence we can properly take an interest in her biography. And some partners they were: Hannah Arendt's friends are some of the most important European and American intellectuals of her generation. I'll name a few of them: Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Karl Jaspers, Paul Oscar Kristeller, Randall Jarrell, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Hans Jonas, Philip Rahv, Robert Lowell, Harold Rosenberg, Mary McCarthy, Rosalie Colie, J. Glenn Gray, W.H. Auden, Benno Von Wiese, Eric Hoffer, Romano Guardini.

This brilliant, high strung, arrogant, naturally aristocratic, private, generous, abstracted, woman was among the most insightful minds of her generation, and a crucial link in our understanding of European and American intellectual relations before and immediately following World War II.

This remarkable woman was born in 1906 in Königsburg, East Prussia (now Kallingrad), the birthplace in the eighteenth century of Immanuel Kant, one of Germany's greatest philosophers and the subject of Arendt's final, unfinished work. Her early childhood was marked by the death of her father. From the ages of two to seven she endured his progressive deterioration into excruciating pain, then insanity, and mercifully, death, caused by the final stages of an attach of the then-poorly treated disease syphilis. Hannah herself was examined for congenital syphilis, but no traces emerged. Despite her father's death, she was raised in an economically comfortable atmosphere, and did not experience strained circumstances until the latter German-Russian confrontations of World War I. She was a precocious, sickly child, who rebelled against the strictness of the Prussian educational system. Her sympathetic mother enabled her to escape the excessive pedagogic discipline, and while still quite young Hannah was mastering Latin and Greek, and graduated a year early, despite frequent absences from school.

Her first intellectual leanings were theological, and she planned to major in theology at the university. However, while attending the University of Freiburg in southern Germany she was drawn to the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, the most famous student of Edmund Husserl. Heidegger's thought combines his own modification of Husserl's notion of phenomenology with a strongly revisionist sense of philosophical history, and a mystically Romantic tendency to see philosophy as a way of reuniting man and nature. While holding herself aloof from the sycophants surrounding Heidegger, she became deeply involved in his thinking, three years before the publication of his major work, Being and Time. Although Heidegger was married and had two children, as well as being 17 years her senior, Arendt and Heidegger became lovers. During this period she began to develop her own point of view, here expressed in an autobiographical fragment addressed to Heidegger:

All good things come to a bad end; all bad things come to a good end. It is difficult to say which was more unbearable. For precisely this is what is most intolerable--it takes one's breath away if one thinks of it in the limitless fear which destroys reticence and prevents such a person from ever feeling at home: to suffer and to know, to know every minute and every second with full awareness and cynicism, that one has to be thankful even for the worst of pains, indeed that it is precisely such suffering which is the point of everything and its reward.

What is clearly characteristic of Arendt's thought, and this citation is an indication, is the tendency to take her own emotionally charged reflections and generate abstract principles governing generalized human experiences. She explains this, perhaps unintentionally, a few years later in one of her first published works, Rahel Varnhagen:

If thinking rebounds back upon itself and finds its solitary object within the soul--if, that is, it becomes introspection--it distinctly produces (so long as it remains rational) a semblance of unlimited power by the very act of isolation from the world, by ceasing to be interested in the world it also sets up a bastion in front of the one "interesting" object, the inner self.
In the isolation achieved by introspection, thinking becomes limitless because it is no longer molested by anything exterior; because there is no longer any demand for action, the consequences of which necessarily impose limits even upon the freest spirit... Reality can offer nothing new; anticipation has already anticipated everything. Even the blows of fate can be escaped by flight into the self if every single misfortune has already been generalized beforehand as an inevitable concomitant of the bad outside world, so that there is no reason to feel shock at having been struck this one particular time. Not only does interiorization permit a certain level of ethical stoicism, it permits one to capture the outside world in the very act of freeing oneself from it.

Arendt was approaching the dissertation stage of her education, and her relationship with Heidegger would not permit her continuing at Freiburg. After a semester of study at Marburg with the master himself, Husserl, she then went to Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers, who with the publication of his three volume work, Philosophy, a few years after contact with Arendt, himself became one of the most celebrated minds in Germany, and subsequently eclipsed Heidegger due to Heidegger's later involvement with National Socialism.

While in Heidelberg Arendt had another affair, this time with a man twenty, rather than seventeen years her senior, Erwin Loewenson, an essayist and expressionist writer, and they continued their friendship until Loewenson's death in 1963. She also completed her dissertation, on Augustine's concept of Love, a curious topic perhaps for a racially conscious Jew, but one whose debt is more to Heidegger's phenomenology than Augustine's Catholicism.

Following completion of her dissertation Arendt moved to Berlin where she revised her dissertation for publication and met the man who was to become her first husband, Gunther Stern. They lived together for nine months in Berlin while she worked on revision and Stern engaged in the ultimately fruitless task of finding a university position. She also began work on a very interesting book, Rahel Varnhagen, the biography of an eighteenth-century Jewish woman. In this book Arendt explores many of the themes which occupy her throughout her career. Most of the book treats Rahel's problems with the pressure of assimilation, since she was first married to a Gentile. Rahel's experiences were mirroring Arendt's own, in that from 1930 to her departure from Germany in 1933 the question of Jewish conduct in an increasingly oppressive and racist society became the central one for Jewish intellectuals. Many Jewish intellectuals also became Communists, and the interrelations between Zionism, Orthodox Judaism, and Communism made for a dizzying array of related, though opposed religious and political positions. Within her own relationship she became increasingly involved in Zionist causes, while her husband became increasingly involved with the Communists, and while the conflict between the two was not as stark as between Fascism and Communism, there were no doubt some testy times on the home front.

In order to bring more money into the household Arendt also found herself a journalist and a book reviewer, and these occupations gave her an opportunity to think, if not act, on the question of women's equality. In a review of Alice Ruhle-Gerstel's The Contemporary Woman's Problem, she criticized the woman's movement in Germany for being insufficiently political; she felt that women's equality is fundamentally a political issue and that women are wasting their time treating the problem psychologically or sociologically. Here we see a developing sense for the political which will find its expression in The Human Condition and other later works.

After hiding communists and working for the Zionists in Berlin, Arendt was arrested in 1933 by the Gestapo and held for eight days, released by a sympathetic officer. She then saw the necessity for escaping, and after brief stays in Czechoslovakia and Geneva, found her way to Paris.

Hannah Arendt was to remain in Paris for the next seven years. While living in Paris she worked for several Jewish organizations, mainly helping Jews to escape to Palestine as the anti-Semitic menace of Nazism became more powerful and European-wide during the thirties.

Arendt left both her husband, Gunther Stern, and her mother in Germany. She and her husband had become increasingly estranged, and in 1936 she met the Communist Heinrich Blucher, himself a Berlin emigre. A volatile, self-educated, dedicated, abrasive man who was given to spontaneous, passionate lecturing of his friends on social occasions, Blucher and Arendt became lovers and lived together in Paris while their respective spouses remained in Germany. In 1938 Arendt's mother was able to escape Germany, leaving her second husband (a marriage of convenience) behind. While she and Blucher definitely did not get along, the three were together in Paris. In the same year the internment of Germans began in France, and Blucher was separated from Arendt for two months. Upon his return they petitioned for divorce from their spouses and were married on 16 January 1940. In May of that year Arendt herself was interned in a camp in Gurs. As a Jew and a German she had the option of a concentration camp in Germany, or an internment camp in France. With the fall of France, by Summer the entire country was in a state of confusion, and Arendt managed to escape the camp and, with the help of friends, began to live in Mountauban*. Here, through a happy accident, she was reunited with Blucher. When the order came through from the Vichy government for all Jews to register with the police, the Bluchers began in earnest to seek visas for America. Traveling to Marseilles, they managed to obtain them, albeit illegally, with the promise that Arendt's mother would not be far behind. Their friend Walter Benjamin was not so lucky. In addition to an entry visa for one's country of destination, one needed an exit visa from France. Traveling to the Spanish border illegally with a number of other Jews, Benjamin was denied entry into Spain, although he had secured a visa for America. That night he took his life. The next day the rules were changed and the group he had been traveling with were granted permission into Spain.

Leaving Marseilles, the Bluchers arrived in New York city in May of 1941. They spoke no English. Between them they had twenty-five dollars. Martha Arendt arrived in June.

Let's stop for a moment, and imagine some analogies. Hannah Arendt, I think I can say without too much exaggeration, was one of the best educated and most intelligent women in Europe in the 1940s. She has a classical European education; she knows Greek, Latin, French, and German; she is conversant with 2500 years of human history; she knows all of the basic political documents of Europe, as well as America. In 1941 she arrives in America. What does she think of America? Dr. Joyce Brothers moves into your house. What does she think of your family? Billy Cunningham, the coach of the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers basketball team, arrives at a Nova scrimmage. What does he think of the Nova Knights? Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, author of Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, shows up at this lecture. What does she think of my lecture? And so on... Arendt says of America, several weeks after arriving here: The fundamental contradiction of the country is political freedom coupled with social slavery." With respect to the modern American political situation, she managed to sound both "conservative and revolutionary:" "The eighteenth-century American republican principles were to be upheld while all the domestic forces which threatened them--all the nineteenth-and twentieth-century forces of political unfreedom as well as all the evils of mass society--were to be opposed" (p.210). As was noted at the outset of this lecture, Arendt remains throughout her intellectual career someone committed to ideas and ideals, and tends not to analyze a situation on the basis of the actual functional reality of the situation, but on the basis of how it reflects the stated ideals that underlie it. To me, this is neither better or worse than being a "pragmatist," particularly considering that with her work with the refugees she remained a practical person to the end.

Upon arrival in New York, Arendt's first aim was of course to learn English, which she did through living with an American family in Massachusetts. Returning to New York with a rudimentary grasp of English, she gained some income through part time teaching at Brooklyn College and as a columnist for Aufbau, one of the most important German language newspapers in New York, and a forum for discussion of the Jewish question throughout the war. Arendt was a fierce advocate for her own independent positions regarding the Jewish situation, whether it be the question of whether the Jews should form an army to oppose Hitler, or the proper political status of the newly imagined Israeli state in Palestine. She rejected both the notion of a minority Jewish presence within a Palestinian state and a Zionist state which would grant minority status to the demographic majority, the Palestinians. Instead, "What Arendt wanted was a Palestinian entity in which there would be no majority or minority status distinctions" (p. 183), based upon the notion that any such distinction is anti-democratic, and against the notion of a federation, a notion very successful in America, and one which she felt ought to be the model for the new, Israeli state.

Toward the end of the war Arendt took a position as the research director for the Conference on Jewish Relations. Part of her work related to gathering together once again the monuments to Jewish culture, textual and otherwise, which had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. In addition she established a connection with Schocken books, the leading Jewish publisher in America, and through Schocken made the acquaintance of T. S. Eliot, Randell Jarrell, Hermann Broch, and others.

After the end of the war, during 1945 and 46 Arendt began to write the book which would make her famous, The Origins of Totalitarianism. This huge work is a compilation of her thoughts throughout the war and before, and the occasion for her to analyze not only the nature of the totalitarian state, but its relation to racism, particularly anti-Semitism. The book is divided and sometime published in three parts: Anti-Semitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. In this work "Arendt came to the conclusion that it was the concentration camps that fundamentally distinguished the totalitarian form of government from any other" (p.204). She saw in totalitarian forms of political organization not the organic outgrowth of human being-together which strives for principles to best order this being-together, but rather the instantiation of a state based upon logical principles about the nature of man which precede any experience of man. A totalitarian state is characterized by the following through of the logic of its first principles at the expense of the humanity of the state.

During this period Arendt's mother died, but her death occurred during one of the most hectic periods of Hannah Arendt's life, and she had neither the time to grieve nor was she by temperament a griever. She was involved in the continuation of research about the concerns that brought her to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, and which would result, between 1958 and 1962, in the publication of On Revolution, The Human Condition, and Between Past and Future.

Arendt's way of looking at the world and its inhabitants is not that of the social scientist. She does not see men as isolated units subject to study by behavioral and statistical means. Instead, as she says, "The world and the people who inhabit it are not the same. The world lies in between people." This definition of the world is a less rarefied version of Martin Heidegger's analysis of what he called "the worldhood of the world," which is that matrix of interpretative interrelations which constitute for man that which makes the world intelligible. as the world. This view has analogies to our modern notions of structure which have emerged from anthropologist, psychologist, and literary theorists. By viewing the world not as a collection of things but as a tissue of human significance, one begins an analysis of the world in a truly political way, i.e., political in the sense of polis, the Greek name for men as a group. It is from this point of view that Arendt's speculations on politics begins.

If the world is constituted by this "in-between" that exists between men, one can also view the more private, but still essentially public relation of man to wife in a similar way.

Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others. As long as its spell lasts, the only in-between which can insert itself between two lovers is the child, love's own product. The child, this in-between to which the lovers now are related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world. Through the child, it is as though the lovers return to the world from which their love expelled them. But this new worldliness, the possible result and the only possible happy ending of a love affair, is, in a sense, the end of love, which must either overcome the partners anew or be transformed into another mode of being together. Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for that reason, rather than its rarity, that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of antipolitical forces. (pp. 267-268)

Hannah Arendt's personal life improved when her husband obtained the first "real" job he had in America, as a teacher at Bard College, a position which he held throughout his wife's numerous travels around the world. She spent much of the early fifties on grants of one sort or another, traveling around Europe as both a lecturer and researcher. As well, she spent time at American universities such as the University of California at Berkeley. It is perhaps needless to add that her rigorous European education coupled with her fierce intellectualism made her less than happy with bother the quality of American students and with the isolating sectarianism that she found amongst the faculty.

I have mentioned Arendt's ambivalent, though sometimes critical attitude toward the "woman question." She had attacked the women's' movement in Germany for being insufficiently political, and in a sense had written it off as one of her concerns, yet her first book- length work after her dissertation was the study of a Jewish woman of the 18th century, Rahel Varnhagen. While possessed of a ready opinion about a particular situation involving the role of women in society, she nonetheless never held any dogmatic attitudes toward the sociological aspect of being a woman in what had been basically a man's world, that of international academia. A few examples from the Fifties: In the Fall of 1953 she was invited to give the Christian Gauss seminars at Princeton, a very prestigious event. When some of the men involved expressed pleasure at having a woman lecturer, she said "At the closing ceremony, and ever so slightly tipsy, I enlightened these dignified gentlemen about what an exception Jew is, and tried to make clear to them that I have necessarily found myself here an exception woman" ("exception," I assume, being Arendt's term for our "token" (p. 272). She was most pleased, while at Berkeley, to be called the new Rosa Luxembourg.

Karl Jaspers, who along with Heidegger, was most responsible for her early intellectual development, had survived the war with both his life and integrity intact. Not so fortunate was Martin Heidegger who, because he remained rector at the University of Freiburg during the Nazi period, was seen by many to be a collaborationist (opinions are sharply and deeply divided on this question). Jaspers had been awarded a Peace Prize by the German book trade for the publication of his 1958 book, The Atom Bomb and the Future of Mankind. Arendt was selected to give the speech which accompanied the prize. She was to give the lecture in Paulskirche in Frankfurt, and the officials told her how good it would be for a woman, for the first time, to give an address in Paulskirche.

Year later, in 1967, Arendt was invited to a prestigious Harvard conference on the Russian revolution; she noted to friends that she was the only non-Sovietologist present, neglecting to mention that she was also the only woman. This again indicates the ambivalence she had toward her status as a female academic.

Arendt felt that as a woman, a Jew, and a non-German it was unusual and perhaps unwise to give the lecture (and added that her freckles were a consideration); however, she relented and gave the speech. It was well received by everyone except Heidegger and his circle, since her praise of Jaspers was by omission, a damnation of Heidegger, who in their last meeting together in Freiburg had confessed his long-standing love both to her and to his none-too- pleased wife.

During the early Sixties Arendt found herself embroiled in the dispute over racial segregation, specifically in Little Rock, Arkansas. Since her position on this dispute involves some knowledge of her 1958 book, The Human Condition, I would now like to discuss this work, because of its relevance to this period of her life, because of its importance in her thinking, and because I think it is her best book, and is certainly my favorite. My apologies to those of you who may have heard this part of the act in another humanities course; this particular rendition is new and improved.

The Human Condition is a book about the Vita Activa, or active life. In this work Arendt strives to discover the meaning of the word political in its basic sense, understanding very literally that man is a political animal, i.e., that man is essentially, not accidentally political, that his essence is political. There are many definitions of the essence of man: man is a reasonable being, man is the animal that possesses language; man is the creation of God. Each of these definitions seeks to identify what it is that makes man man. Arendt started from the premise that man is a political animal. She sought the answer to the meaning of the word "political" not conceptually but historically, i.e., how has man understood the word political in his actual experience. In order to investigate this question she returned to the understanding of the term by the Greeks of the 5th century BCE.

Before we turn to what political mean for the Greeks, let us first ask what she means by the word "action." Arendt divided human activity into three categories: labor, work, and action. Labor corresponds with life itself, those biological processes necessary to sustain life. When man engages in labor hie is engaged in activities necessary to sustain himself biologically. Since this is an ongoing, never-ending process, labor does not, as it were, create a past; it is essentially concerned with maintaining the ongoing present. Just as labor is identified with the phenomenon of life, work is that activity in which man makes a world independent of himself as a biological entity. This worldliness, in creating something outside man, creates, as it were, a past; through the creation of artifacts a working man assures the continuity of the world independent of biological fact. Just as labor is identified with the phenomenon of life and work is identified with the phenomenon of the world, action is identified with the phenomenon of human plurality. Action is only possible for man within the context of other men and is hence the true sphere of the political. In her own words, Arendt states that,

All three activities and their corresponding conditions are intimately connected with the most general conditions of human existence: birth and death, natality and mortality. Labor assures not only individual survival, but the life of the species. Work and its product, the human artifact, bestow a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time. Action, insofar as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history. Labor and work, as well as action, are also rooted in natality insofar as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers. However, of the three, action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something new, that is, of acting.

Thus, if man is man insofar as he is political, the realm of the political is the realm of action. How might we relate this to our modern notion of political? Obviously we know what political means for us: politicians are the shepherds of our public welfare. In a representative democracy such as ours they are both our mouthpiece and our means of getting something done collectively. Part of our disgruntlement, however, stems from precisely this situation: our representatives do not represent precisely this situation: our representatives do not represent us. The only recourse we have is to vote these rascals out; only to find that we have voted in a new set of rascals. In any event, what we expect from our elected leaders is a firm grasp of our local interests and the strength and ability to bring whatever is needed to our particular locale. We aren't particularly interested in their abilities with regard to what we call domestic policy. We expect roads to be built, jobs to be created, welfare and unemployment benefits where appropriate, etc. In essence, we elect officials to take care of our public space. The way in which they usually take care of this space is with money: money from government contracts, money for government programs, money for highway improvements, money for a new sports center. Consequently, the actual interest of a modern politician centers around economics. We usually feel most comfortable with a lawyer or better yet, a successful businessman to represent us, since, after all, government is really a big business, with operating capital, a debt, programs competing for funding, and so on. People complain sometimes that if only the government could be run like a corporation it would be much more successful, and we can see evidence of this desire in, for example, making the postal system a semi-private corporation.

In running the government like a business, however, we have tacitly surrendered government's political function to an economic one. Politics and economics aren't the same thing, yet there doesn't seem to be any politics, in any meaningful sense of the term, in this country. All we have are elected officials taking care of our economic needs. For the Greeks, such would be a gross misuse and misunderstanding of politics.

Politics for the Greeks means, simply, of the polis. The polis physically consisted of all the adult male citizens of a particular city state, such as Athens. Yet, the polis wasn't essentially a physical entity which could be accounted for by counting and listing the inhabitants of a City-state. Instead, the polis was that public space created by the aggregation of a group of citizens, i.e. the "world" in Arendt's sense of the world. This public space, usually considered to be the area surrounding the agora, was again, not exactly a physical space. The polis, while centering around the agora, was more precisely the psychic space which emerges in a gathering together of a group of free citizens. The polis was the reality constituted by the interaction of the Greek citizens in a public space. Consequently, when the Greeks referred to something "political" they were referring to something of the "polis", of the public arena within which all adult Greek males participated.

In order to further make clear what the Greeks saw as the polis, let me compare the term polis, with its antonym, with its opposite. The opposite term to polis is idios or private. The demos or public when constituted as a sovereign entity, was the polis; those of the polis when not conducting their public business were of the idios or private (from which we get our word idiot; and idiot is one who cannot interact with other men; he only has his private world). So the Greeks divided their psychic world into two areas, the public and the private.

Since for the Greeks man is by nature a social animal, those activities which occurred outside the realm of human interaction were not specifically human. The activities of eating, sex, sleeping, and other activities necessary to sustain physical life, that is, the world of labor, were seen by the Greeks as those which humans share with animals, and therefore not essentially human. We share with the animals the need to eat, sleep and propagate; we do not share with them the necessity to interact through speech and action. Consequently, the private sphere was first of all, animal-like and second of all, mute. Because the private activities were the "lower" activities, i.e., the animal activities, they were of a lower dignity and importance than those of the public sphere.

Another way of characterizing the private world of the Greeks is with the term they used to refer to activities of the household, the oikos. The term oikos referred to the household and all of those activities dealing with housekeeping: again, eating, sleeping, procreating, and interestingly, making money. In the Greek economy, nonagricultural activities which produced money were largely conducted by foreigner, and the making of money was certainly not a public activity. money-making did not 1) involve one with fellow citizens but with foreigners and 2) only helped keep one alive (and was thus part of the oikos).

While the private sphere was the sphere of necessity, of animality, of muteness, it was understood that one must have mastered the private sphere before he could move into the public sphere. Only those who have mastered the oikos could move into the public sphere of the polis. The private was the sphere of necessity: the public was the sphere of freedom, and it was only in the public sphere that men came into their own as free men. One could only be equal in a free state, so consequently the arena of equality was the public one, not the private one of women and slaves.

As I have said, the public arena was that of speech and action. In a Puritan culture such as ours, action seems to be superior to speech: human activity which does not result in flailing one's arms and legs around is somehow suspect, somehow "unproductive." For the Greeks, however, action and speech were in a certain sense synonymous. To put it another way, speech was another form of human action, and excellence in speech was akin to excellence in action: a soldier and an orator were not engaged in two widely differing activities. Instead, each was employing a mode of action whereby his excellence, his aureate, could shine through in the public sphere. Speech was not parasitic on action; instead it was a form of action, and "created" reality just as surely as did warfare. And in showing one's excellence one was demonstrating one's superiority, not one's equality, with his fellow freemen.

So, to repeat. The Greeks divided their lives into two spheres, the public and the private. The private sphere was governed by necessity, a sphere in which man took care of all of the animal functions necessary for survival. These included eating, sleeping, propagating, and making money. One took care of these needs in order to be able to emerge into the public sphere, the sphere of freedom. The public sphere was governed by freedom, and was a sphere in which man demonstrated his excellence in speech and action to other men. Speech and action are those two human activities which men do not share with animals and are therefore distinctively human. The polis was the sovereign recognition of the existence of this public space in which citizens interacted.

To see how far we have moved from this conception of the political, think about our modern view of the functioning of government. Ever since the nineteenth century politics has given successively away to economics. The public sphere today is the sphere of animality and necessity. In fact, we do not really have a public sphere; we have a social sphere. We consider the function of government to be that of social housekeeping. Government's aim is to ensure the physical welfare of its citizens. Government's principal interest is in keeping its citizens alive; in other words its principal function is that of housekeeping. The oikos, or private sphere of the classical world has invaded the public sphere of the modern world: the oikos has become economics. Political life in the modern world is not longer the arena of human action, speech, and excellence, but an arena whose principal function is to sustain the physical being of the country's inhabitants. While privacy for the Greeks was a torture, (to be deprived of the company of men) our aim in the modern world is to secure privacy, to be able to isolate ourselves from our fellow man. The reason for this is because the private sphere, like the public sphere, has been transformed in the modern world. The private sphere in the modern world is not the sphere of necessity but the sphere of desire, and the fulfillment of desire. We have created a space in which citizens feel it is their political right to fulfill their desire. The more money we have, the better we will be able to fulfill our desires, since our principal relationship in private is not with other men, but with objects. Life is equated with sustaining ourselves as do the animals, liberty consists in the liberty to isolate ourselves form our fellow citizens, and the pursuit of happiness consists in fulfilling our desires, privately. The danger of this new hybrid sphere of the social is that it has reduced and obscured the proper realm of the public, the realm of freedom. And if freedom is the aim of political organization, by organizing political bodies on the principles of social housekeeping we are in fact acting counter to the stated aim of politics. Such an approach to a thinker such as Marx results in a much more telling critique of communist theory than by opposing it with democratic ideology.

I have gone into a bit of detail about the book The Human Condition for several reasons: 1) it illustrates the way in which Arendt approaches a question of political theory. While in its expression it may sound abstract and rarefied, in fact her approach to such questions is quite concrete; she asks herself not what does this term mean logically or conceptually, but how in the course of human experience have people defined such terms, and what does their experience tell us about proceeding from such a definition. Second, it shows how her political theorizing is not pie-in-the-sky, ivory tower stuff, but actually has application to contemporary problems. In the Little Rock situation, for example,which was what began this digression, Arendt felt that there needed to be a careful distinction between the political and the social dimensions of the situation. Clearly, on Constitutional grounds Blacks deserved equal treatment under the law, and they should not be denied equal access to public institutions. Social equality, however, cannot be enforced by law. Social groups, "organized in America `along lines of profession, income and ethnic origin,' rather than along lines of `class origin, education and matters,' as in European countries, are discriminatory by nature, by `social right,' and not subject to the basic political principle of equality before the law." She went even further "and suggested that social discrimination, manifest in social groupings, is an important barrier against `mass society,' against a society in which group distinctions and interests have disappeared" (pp. 309-310). While this is a beautifully clear dissection of the limits of the exercise of public power in a democracy; you can see also, however, how people either unfamiliar with her work or prey to the democratic sickness of a rage for federally enforced, quantitatively measured equality could find her analysis potentially racist. No doubt Arendt, herself a Jew, was sensitive to minority rights in a modern democratic state, but this did not prevent her article, "Reflections on Little Rock," from being rejected by the Jewish magazine that originally commissioned it, Commentary, nor did it prevent the article, once it was published in Dissent in 1959. This controversy, however, was merely a presage of one to come over a book Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann.

Adolph Eichmann, one of the most notorious Nazis still alive in 1960, was kidnaped in that year from his home in Argentina and returned to Israel for a trial. Arendt was commissioned by the New Yorker to cover the trial, and her coverage eventually resulted in a 5 part series for the magazine and later a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Although Arendt's position is much more complex than I can take the time to represent here, her work on the trial became one of the cornerstones for thinking about the Nazi period, the question of crimes against humanity, and proper international juridical procedure. Arendt was herself involved in controversy for two solid years following publication of the work, and the book is now in its twentieth printing. It has been cited in Supreme Court decisions, as well as helping to shape Israeli thinking on the question of the treatment of Nazi war criminals.

What generated the controversy was both her view of Eichmann and her view of the Jews role in their collective extermination. The subtitle of the book, "A Report on the Banality of Evil," encapsulates her view of Eichmann. Eichmann, Arendt felt, was not an evil monster, as he had been portrayed by the press and by the Israeli prosecutor, but rather a simple, arrogant, none-to-bright bureaucratic functionary. Eichmann's banality, and hence evil, consisted not in the classical western notion of guilt on the basis of evil intent, but rather on his inability to imagine that what he was doing had moral implications and hence could be evil. In addition to being contrary to our usual picture of the Nazi monster, made popular in films and in journalism, Eichmann's inability to conceive of his wrongdoing struck at the heart of what constitutes guilt in Western legal procedure. Potentially, this had the effect of calling into question the legal process of the Israelis. This was more than many people, Gentiles and Jews, and indeed many of Arendt's friends, could take.

Arendt also called into question the activity of the Judenrate, the Jewish councils, during the war, calling into question their quiet complicity with the Nazis. While this remains an open historical question, she was suggesting that some of the Jewish victims were actually a kind of collaborator. She was denounced in America by many leading Jewish intellectuals, magazines, and institutions, in Israel by the chief prosecutor, and also in Europe. It is not my intent to render a judgment on Arendt's ideas, but it was a significant period in her career, and had professional and personal reverberations for the remainder of her life. What it indicates to me, not in the content of her thought, but in the conduct of her thinking, is that Hannah Arendt is a person of extraordinary intellectual integrity.

In the mid-60s Arendt was confident that public opinion would be sufficient to contain U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but as the escalation of the war increased, so did her opposition to it. Arendt was at Columbia University in April 1968 when the students occupied several buildings. She enthusiastically supported the students' position, as well as her friends' son, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was expelled from France for his actions in May of 1968.

This period also saw publication of On Revolution. This book examines four revolutions, the English, the American, the French, and the Russian, and seeks to explain the phenomenon of revolution though distinguishing it from revolt, coup d'etat, and other forms of political change. The book was not particularly well received in academic circles, although it was one of the required texts for student radicals of the period.

This was a violent period in America, violence in Vietnam, violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago, violence on college campi throughout America, and it was in 1970 that Arendt published On Violence. In this work Arendt traces the differing justifications for violence, from Marx, to Sorel, to Sartre, and distinguishes between the exercise of power and the engagement in violence. Rather than academic debate, this work found a ready audience in those who were reflecting upon and at times advocating the use of violence to move an increasingly intransigent and unresponsive government in Washington. Arendt herself continually upheld the concept of civil disobedience, to the point of urging a constitutional amendment supporting it. Her commitment to civil disobedience was certainly a moral one, but she basically saw it as the most practical form of political change which the people, as opposed to their sometimes irresponsible elected representatives, could engage in.

Karl Jaspers, Arendt's lifelong teacher and friend, died in Basel on 26 February 1969. She attended the funeral in Basel, and returning to America, continued to wear black for months. The following year her husband, Blucher, finally succumbed to his ongoing ill health and died of a heart attack on 30 October 1970. After a few days off she returned to her teaching duties and then retired for several weeks during the summer of the following year to a retreat in Minnesota. During this period between Blucher's death and the end of the spring semester she was visited by W. H. Auden, who proposed to her. She refused. Auden died three years later on 29 September 1973.

Growing older, finding the world of her friends gradually, but frighteningly diminishing, she reflected on this process of aging:

I must admit that I mind this defoliation (or deforestation) process. As though to grow old does not mean, as Goethe said, "gradual withdrawal from appearance" -- which I do mind -- but the gradual (rather, sudden) transformation of a world with familiar faces (no matter, friend or foe) into a kind of desert, populated by strange faces. In other words, it is not me who withdraws but the world that dissolves -- an altogether different proposition. (p.440)

While the world was "dissolving" around her Arendt herself continued to be involved in a number of projects: lectures, conferences, seminars, classes, and research for what was to be her final, unfinished book, The Life of the Mind. This was to be a three-volume work comprised of Willing, Thinking, and Judging. In December of 1971 she was diagnosed for angina, but cheerfully ignored her doctor's advice and continued to smoke, eat inattentively, and overwork. In 1972 she was asked to give what are perhaps the most prestigious lectures in philosophy, the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Scheduled for 1973, over the next year she prepared the work that was to be the Willing volume for the Gifford Lectures. She gave the first series in 1973 and then remained in Europe to work on the second series. During that second series in May of 1974 she suffered a nearly fatal heart attack, and was confined to the hospital for several weeks where she conducted herself as a perfectly awful patient, continuing to smoke, drink coffee, and eat erratically. While recovering from her heart attack in southern Europe she learned that she had been awarded the Danish government`s Sonning Prize for Contributions to European Civilization, a prize which carried with it $35,000. She had the further distinction of being the first woman to receive this prize, whose other awardees had included Churchill, Schweitzer, Bertrand Russell, Karl Barth, Arthur Koestler, Niels Bohr, and Lawrence Olivier, but she was characteristically oblivious to the "woman" angle, focusing instead in her speech upon the question of what public life means for the very private profession of scholar and thinker.

Returning to America Hannah Arendt suffered a fall in the street in December of 1975 and did not seek a doctor's examination. Several days later, while having coffee with friends in her apartment, she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was buried in Riverside Memorial Chapel on 8 December 1975.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford