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Hannah Arendt: German-American Philosopher and Political Theorist


Descended from wealthy German Jews from Koenigsberg, she was raised by her mother after her father’s death from syphilis when Hannah was only 7. Hannah recalled her life as untouched by the strife of world war one, and similarly she remembered no anti-semitism in her early life. By the time she was sixteen she had read “nearly everything.” Her main literary interests included Kant, Goethe and Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s poetry and writings showed her the realms of theology and romantic thought. She matriculated at the univeristy of Marburg in 1924 with thoughts of studying theology, though once there she met Martin Heidegger. She was involved in a turgid affair with the married Heidegger, 17 years her senior, until she learned of his involvement in the National Socialist party. They resumed their relationship after the war in the 1950s, when she returned to europe on frequent visits.

Passing up the name philosopher until later in life, Arendt went by the title of political theorist until late in life. She spent much of her life attempting to understand the political and moral causes of the Nazi rise in Germany, and other totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

Her major ideas included the thought that only through “the activity of thinking” could humanity abstain from evil; that thought could condition us from evil deeds like those of the holocaust.

Her next great teacher was Husserl, who introduced her to his phenomenological method. Soon after, she went on to be a student of Karl Jaspers, under whom she wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine’s concept of love.

In 1929 she married and took up residence in Berlin. During this time she worked on a novel about an eighteenth century salon hostess, though she was arrested in 1933 when she was found gathering ant-semitic materials at the Prussian State Library, by the Gestapo. She immediately fled to Paris and remained stateless until 1951 when she became a US citizen.

By 1941 her mother had escaped from Germany and Hanah had divorced her husband to remarry– they ended up in New York. During the war Hanah wrote about a Jewish state and army, though her words fell to deaf ears.

In 1951 she published The Origins of Totalitarianism. In 1958 she released a second version with 2 new chapters. Critics thought she overgeneralized, though her work was very influential.

Hanah received a Guggenheim Foundation Grant to study Marxism and totalitarianism in 1952. From this study she published: The Human Condition, On Revolution, and Between Past and Future.

She reported on the Eichmann war crimes trial, eventually publishing a book about the topic. The book, entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality and Evil(1964) addressed the idea of trying an individual whose crime was so vast and incomprehensible.

In 1972 she published Crises of the Republic, a collection of political essays from the 1960s. In 1967 she accepted a professorship at the New School for Social Research. Soon after, her husband and later her mentor Jaspers died, causing her to return to her first love, philosophy, with a book entitled The Life of the Mind(1978).

Unfortunately she died before concluding the last third of her tripartite, Justice. The publication of The Life of the Mind only included two parts: “Thinking” and “Willing.” She was investigating the preconditions for these activities in the contemplative life, also discussing the nature of evil. She stuck to her conceptio of evil as banality.


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