Hannah Arendt: a short bio
Political philosopher, an authority on anti-Semitism, and writer of The Human Condition (1958) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). When Arendt’s brief love affair with the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in the 1920s was revealed, it caused much debate. Heidegger had joined in the 1930s the Nazi party. Arendt, a Jew, gained fame as a German-Jewish refugee scholar. She did not cut his friendship with Heidegger after World War II, although a number of Heidegger’s colleagues were disappointed in his reluctance to apologize for his Nazi past.
“Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason that it is not only apolitical but anti-political, perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces.” (from The Human Condition)
Johanna (Hannah) Arendt was born in Hannover, East Prussia, into an old Jewish family from Köningsberg. She was the only child of Paul Arendt, an engineer, and Martha (Cohn) Arendt. Both her father and grandfather had died when she was young – Paul Arendt died from syphilis in 1913. A few years later her mother remarried. Arendt had troubles in adjusting herself to her stepfather and two stepsisters; at sixteen she was already intellectually far ahead of her friends of the same age. She had read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and founded a circle for reading of ancient literature. After receiving her B.A. from Königsberg University (now Kaliningrad), Arendt went to Marburg, a small university town. There she met Martin Heidegger, whose lectures attracted students from all over Europe. “There is a teacher; perhaps thinking can be learned… ” she later wrote in her commemorative essay ‘Martin Heidegger at Eighty’ (1969).
Heidegger was writing at that time his most important work, Being and Time, which was published in 1927. Arendt, called “the green one” because of her elegant green dress, moved to an attic near the university. As a young student of philosophy, Arendt was not an interlocutor who was Heidegger’s intellectual match. Their age difference – seventeen years – was perhaps a greater problem socially and psychologically than sexually. “The demonic has seized me,” Heidegger wrote to Arendt in a passionate letter. Her attic apartment was their secret meeting place. “Why do you give me your hand / shyly, as if it were a secret?” Arendt asked in a poem. “Are you from such a distant land / that you do not know our wine?”
The young, insecure Arendt has been characterized one-track-mindedly as a “victim” of Heidegger’s seduction. Without doubt Arendt must have realized early that she cannot build her life of their affair. Heidegger was married and had two young children. Thea Elfride Petri, his wife, came from a Protestant family; Heidegger was a Catholic. She had attended Heidegger’s classes in 1915 and two years later they married. She become a faithful companion to Heidegger. Elfride was a Nazi before he joined the party, and her anti-Semitism was notorious even in the 1920s.
In some sources it has been speculated that Arendt was looking for a father figure, or she tried to find acceptance as a Jewish woman in the hostile German society. Heidegger definitely was an authority figure, devoted to philosophy, and the most inspiring person in Arendt’s life. She become the passion his life. Their secret meetings and correspondence continued also after Arendt left Marburg for Heidelberg, where she finished her studies with Karl Jaspers, a friend of Heidegger.
In 1926, when Arendt informed Heidegger of her other affairs, he congratulated her. “I love you as on the first day – that you know,” Arendt wrote to him, but in 1929 she married Günther Stern, and moved with him to Frankfurt. Stern was a journalist and former philosophy student. Arendt did not love him and they divorced in 1937. Arendt’s doctoral thesis, Der Liebesgriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, appeared in 1929. In a note, referring to Heidegger, she criticized his concept of “world” as impersonal and loveless. In Arendt’s subsequent study of Rahel Varnhagen, a Berlin Jew, her description of Rahel’s broken love affair with Count Finckenstein has been read as an examination of Arendt’s own experiences.
Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, when Hitler became the leader of new Third Reich. Arendt was arrested, interrogated, and as soon as she was released from jail, she fled to Paris with her husband. In exile Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, an organization which trained students who wanted to move to the Holy Land. In 1940 she married Heinrich Blücher, an art historian and fellow exile. Following the fall of France to the German army, Arendt and Blücher escaped to the United States, where they started a new life. Arendt learned English, began to write, and moved among the intellectuals of the Partisan Review milieu. Alfred Kazin wrote in his diary after meeting her: “What luck. Hannah Arendt placed next to me at the dinner for Rabbi Leo Baeck…. Darkly handsome, bountifully interested in everything, this forty-year-old German refugee with a strong accent and such intelligence – thinking positively cascades out of her in waves – but I was enthralled, by no means unerotically…. I love this woman intensely – she is such a surprise, such a gift.” However, during the 1940s, the living situation of Arendt and Blücher was grim. They cooked their meals in a communal kitchen, and Blücher shoveled chemicals in a factory before he found more agreeble work.
At the beginning of 1946 Arendt published an essay entitled ‘What Is Existential Philosophy?’ She also met Jean-Paul Sartre who was lecturing in the United States. In New York City Arendt worked from 1944 to 1946 as a research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations, then as chief editor of Schocken books (1946-48), and executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (1949-52). In 1950 Arendt became a U.S. citizen.
After the war Arendt contacted Jaspers and took him into her confidence. She was still living in modest circumstances but it did not prevent her from sending her former teacher and his wife three parcels of provisions each month. In November 1949 Arendt went to Europe as a member of Commission for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in Europe, inspecting and recording what remained of Jewish cultural treasures. During this journey she revealed her love affair with Heidegger to Jaspers, who answered, “Ach, but this is very exciting”. At that time several of Heidegger’s students had gained fame as thinkers of their own right, and they had to deal with their mentor’s Nazi allegiance. Arendt remained dutifully his defender, but there was other problems. “I know that he can’t bear to see my name appear in the public, that I write books, etc,” Arendt complained to Jaspers.
Arendt’s first major book in the United States was The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), a study of Nazism and Stalinism, which sought to locate their roots in nineteenth century expansionist and anti-Semitic tendencies. Arendt dedicated to work to Blücher, acknowledging the role he had played in the shaping of its ideas. In spite of her husband’s many affairs with other women, Arendt remained devoted to him until the 1950s, when they both began to live increasingly independent lives.
On her tour in Europe Arendt met Heidegger in January 1950, at a hotel in Freiburg. “When the waiter announced your name… it was as though suddenly time had stopped,” she noted a few days later. Their friendship and correspondence started again. She sent him food parcels, books, phonograph record and during the following years she visited him several times. Elfride was not enthusiastic about her husband’s interest in Arendt, who wrote to Jaspers: “The woman is jealous almost to the point of madness. After the years of apparently nursing the hope that he would forget me, her jealousy only intensified.” The Human Condition, which Arendt sent to Heidegger, was received with years of silence. In the late 1960s the silence was broken and she worked on the English translation of Heidegger’s writings. On her sixtieth birthday he wished her all the best and send a poem entitled ‘Herbst’.
On the grounds of her belief, that the ideal political entity was a federal republic and but “neither the federal nor state government should interfere with an individual’s right to free association in the social realm,” Arendt criticized in 1957 President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to integrate the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas. Originally ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ was written for Commentary magazine but it was published in 1959 in Dissent, with the note “We publish it not because we agree with it – quite the contrary” and with two articles attacking Arendt’s arguments. This controversial essay, in which Arendt defended the right of discrimination, was not collected in Crises of the Republic (1972), which dealt with the events of the 1960s and early 1970s. Men in Dark Times (1968), referring in its title to the first line of Bertold Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity’ (“Indeed I live in the dark ages!”), contained essays on Rosa Luxenburg, Karl Jaspers, Isak Dinesen, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Pope John XXIII, and other figures. In 1963 Arendt became a professor at the University of Chicago. She finally settled at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she taught from 1967 until her death. Arendt also lectured as a professor at various American universities and colleges. In 1959 she became the first woman professor at Princeton University. Arendt died in New York on December 4, 1975. Heidegger died next year. Her final work was The Life of the Mind (1978), which was published posthumously. Arendt’s several awards included the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1954); Lessing Prize (1959), Freud Prize (1967), Sonning Prize (1975). She was a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In her article series written for the New Yorker and later published in a book form, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that Adolf Eichmann was but one cog in the Nazi bureaucracy, but partly the collaboration of the councils (Judenräte) contributed to the catastrophe. The subtitle of her account, “A Report on the Banality of Evil” became a famous phrase. Arendt saw that Eichmann himself was not an evil but responsible monster. Throughout the trial he admitted what he had done, he had obeyed orders, but did not feel guilty. Arendt also offended her readers by reporting that Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. “It was as though in those last minutes he [Eichmann] was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson on the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” The controversial book was much criticized, and prompted Saul Bellow to comment sourly on intellectuals in Mr Sammler’s Planet (1969). Arendt lost many of her friends, although Mary McCarthy loyally defended her in the Partisan Review. In her own defense Arendt pointed out that many of the critical statements attributed to her were in fact made by the Israeli prosecution. The uproar over her book continued in the press until the November 1963.
The Human Condition was Arendt’s major work and summarized her thoughts. When Heidegger analyzed being, Arendt focused on “doing,” exploring the related ideas of labour, work, and action from etymological, philosophical, and social point of view. Arendt drew the distinction between labor and work from Locke, who spoke of “the labor of our body and the work of our hands.” This distinction is common in European languages – the Greek distinguished between ponein and ergazesthai, the French between travailler and ouvrer, the German between arbeiten and verken, and so forth.
Arendt connected the concept of labor to biological processes, life and death, to living organisms following the cycle of life, in which animal laborans produces consumer goods, non-durables necessary to keep the human organism alive. The meaning of Heigegger’s Dasein was temporality; death and mortality were central issues in Heidegger’s Being and Time, but Arendt underlined life: “The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the action is ontologically rooted.” Laboring activity never comes to an end as long as life lasts. Work is what a homo faber does – human hands produce the artificial environment as home for the mortal human beings, its use-objects, durables mostly.
Together labor, work, and action are the fundamental activities of human life and form the vita activa. Arendt referred often to Plato and Marx, whom she highly appreciated but did not believe in Marx’s vision of the the emancipation of man from labor. The utopic society in which animal laborans has gained freedom from necessities, is actually a dystopia. It is a consumer society, a waste economy, where the constant striving for happiness creates only destruction.
On Revolution (1963) compared the French and American revolutions. Arendt claimed that the French Revolution was a limited struggle over scarcity and inequality, and the American an unlimited search for political freedom. One of Arendt’s central themes throughout her studies on political theory was the separation of political life (the public realm) from social and economical life (the private realm). Looking back to the pre-Socratic Greek polis (city-state) and the early United States of America, she found models for what public life should be. In these societies individual citizens sought to devote their time the community, and were even ready to die for it. When the public and private spheres were absorbed into the social / economic sphere, it disturbs the peace of the contemplation, the vita contemplativa. In the modern age, labor is glorified, and contemplation itself has become meaningless. Arendt’s unfinished trilogy, The Life of the Mind, was based on the Kantian three-layered hierarchy of pure reason (thinking), practical reason (willing), and judgment. Arendt managed to complete only the first two parts, Thinking and Willing.