Arendt, Hannah

Arendt,Hannah - philosopher is known for her interest in politics and her insistence that the philosophical tradition too often ignores it. As a displaced German Jew during World War II, she is most famous for work on totalitarianism, political action, and what she called the “banality of evil.”

Some Major Themes found in her work are:

  1. Pariah and Parvenu
  2. Totalitarianism
  3. Active life
  4. Public, private, and social
  5. Philosophy and political theory
  6. Banality of evil
  7. Violence, revolution, and freedom
  8. Contemplative life and judgment

1. Pariah and Parvenu Her first major work after her dissertation was an intellectual biography, Rahel Varnhagen: the Life of a Jewish Woman, the bulk of which was completed by 1933.

Rahel Varnhagen was a Jewess who lived in Berlin in the 19th century and gained notoriety by being the hostess of a salon that drew the famous artists and intellectuals of the period. Arendt’s biography examines Varnhagen’s life long struggle to fit into society and deal with her Jewish heritage. Arendt discusses two Jewish types, the pariah and the parvenu, and she claimed that Varnhagen was in the middle of these two types.

The Jew as 'pariah' was derived from the work of Bernard Lazare. It defines the Jew as an outsider to society. As Pariahs, Jews could be politically effective so long they were not reclusive and they remained politically engaged. The Jew as parvenu, on the other hand, is one who pursued a privileged social status to be an exception from the prejudice against Jews based upon a special personality or unique talents.

Hannah Arendt holds that the parvenu is politically ineffective, even though he or she may enjoy a better standing in society, because being an exception ignores the root of the problem of anti-Semitism. By disassociating themselves with their Jewishness, parvenus fail to combat the idea that there is something wrong with being Jewish. She thinks it is vital that if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Trying to be an exception to the rule does nothing to combat the injustice of the rule itself.

In recent years, thinkers like Bat-Ami Bar On, Bonnie Honig, and Jennifer Ring have given more attention to Arendt’s discussion of anti-Semitism, prejudice, and her writings that explore different facets of her identity as a woman and as a German Jew. Some feminists have prioritized this philosopher's examination of Varnhegan’s life as a positive example of taking race and gender concerns seriously, and admire her for being one of the first thinkers to tackle such issues philosophically.1

2. Totalitarianism In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt traces the historical development of anti-Semitism and race thinking that led to totalitarianism in Germany and Russia. But the book is mostly known for its analysis of totalitarianism itself. For Arendt, totalitarian regimes turn the function of government completely upside down because government no longer concerns the common good of the people, but it kills large sections of society for the sake of a transnational ideology.

She believes that totalitarianism is a new form of government that differed from other types of tyrannies, dictatorships, or imperialist politics in the following ways:

  • Totalitarianism concerns Trans-national ideology Usually, political despotism functions according to the self-interested aims of the person or party in power. Tyrannical rulers invade other countries for material gain and to solidify their power. For Arendt, totalitarianism is quite different from these kinds of despotism because it is not the personal interests of those in power which is most important.

    The trans-national ideology is the most important agenda and those in power promote it , even at the expense of the resources of the nation. Nazism was concerned seeking to control the laws of nature by promoting the racist dogma of the superiority of the Aryan race. Stalinism focused upon controlling the laws of history through the eradication of capitalism and the bourgeoisie.

    Totalitarianism divides the world into roughly two hostile forces which sacrifice self interest in order to promote their political view. For example, when Hitler was losing the war, he could have diverted the funds and resources involved with the death camps to the front, or at the very least, require those who were imprisoned to labor for the war effort. This would have helped him win the war and maintain Germany’s sovereignty. However, Hitler did not divert resources from his world-wide ideological project of exterminating the Jews and other persons who were deemed not to be fit to live and he lost the war more quickly as a result.

  • Totalitarian states do not have a known hierarchical structureArendt believes that totalitarian regimes do not have a predictable hierarchical structure like typical tyrannies.

    Usually, tyrannies have a clear-cut hierarchical power structure with the ruler at the apex. Totalitarian regimes have a confusing jumble of duplicate jobs and multiple levels of administration and bureaucracy. Only those at the very highest levels understand how the whole structure operates. Since the vast majority of people do not understand the overall power structure, power is effectively left up for grabs. Spying organizations and secret police build an atmosphere of paranoia between the different segments of government so that the members of the party do not seek to topple the totalitarian dictator, but struggle amongst themselves to retain the power of their sector within the organization.

    Arendt describes the structure of totalitarianism as being like an onion because it has multiple layers of bureaucracy that are ignorant about what the other layers are doing. The totalitarian ruler sits at the middle of the onion, with ultimate control.

  • Totalitarianism does not use terror is as a means to an end In tyrannies, terror is uses as a means to an end to solidify the tyrannical ruler’s interests. Often, despots torture persons who are outspoken against the state and try to force a confession to justify lengthy imprisonment. They use terror to frighten or crush dissent.

    In totalitarian regimes, there is no need to force confessions in order to imprison or execute persons who dissent, because persons can be killed without “confessions,” and forcing them to refrain from dissenting is not the point. Terror is not used to make the masses obedient, but to eradicate what is considered to be unfit to live. In fact, totalitarian regimes use terror much more broadly to attack persons who were completely obedient to the ruling party. The victims are rounded up, placed in concentration camps, and exterminated.

  • Totalitarianism promotes extreme isolation and paranoia. In totalitarian regimes, free speech is suppressed and propaganda is promoted, so persons become isolated. They not know who to trust and even family members are potential informants to the totalitarian regime.

    The isolation causes persons to lose their grip on reality and their ability to question the state is compromised. Totalitarianism seeks to discourage any form of free thinking or spontaneous political action that would be necessary to battle against it. Ultimately, she holds that totalitarian regimes treat average persons as superfluous and expendable, while simultaneously maintaining the absolute power and infallibility of those in power. 2

3. The Active Life

The Human Condition (1958) is often thought to be Arendt’s most important book. In this she focuses on the vita activa, the active life, because she believes that the philosophical tradition has overemphasized the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. She uses categories that she claims are derived from pre-philosophical Athens to describe the active life. She asserts that the active life is composed of three parts: labor, work, and action.

  • Labor:

    Labor concerns the repetitive and cyclical biological needs of human life, involving growth, metabolism, and decay. For example, labor is expended to produce food, but once the food is consumed hunger arises once more, and there is a need for more labor.

    The demands of labor are unending and cyclical. Arendt acknowledges that there can be some joy associated with the work of labor, but she also describes a life dedicated to labor exclusively as being unsatisfactory. The ancient Greek laborer was deprived of public, political life, since labor occurs privately and within the household. Labor is a precondition for politics because one must have these vital needs met before one can expend energy on political matters, but Arendt believes that the rise of technology has allowed all persons to have the opportunity to participate in politics, if they desire it.

  • Work

    Arendt believes that work is an activity that builds a fabricated world of more permanent and stable things, like shelter, furniture, and objects. Unlike labor which is cyclical and unending, work follows a clear cut means/end rationale in which an object is made according to the blue print or pattern of the crafts person and therefore, has a specific beginning and end.

    The objects of work last longer than objects of labor and give a more durable space for humans, providing safety against the unpredictable world of nature. With work, the focus of life moves beyond sheer survival. Fabrication is a necessary precondition for engaging in politics, which requires a public and durable space that will shelter humans from the unending demands of nature.

  • Action

    The most important aspect of the active life is political action, or praxis. Arendt believes that humans exist in a state of plurality, which means that though they are equal to one another and have similarities, they are also unique individuals who are different from one another. She describes the miracle of human life as natality, or the fact that each human life brings new things into the world that cannot be predicted in advance.

    Political action allows persons to disclose who they are through words and deeds and make their unique self known in the world. Like the ancient Athenians, she holds that persons who act politically can attain a degree of immortality through action when it is remembered by others.

    Political actions are unpredictable because the outcome cannot be entirely controlled by the actor, but is reliant upon the audience who views them. Action is irreversible because once the action occurs, the actor cannot control how long it is discussed, remembered, or if it is not deemed to be significant at all. An action’s unpredictability can be curtailed through the ability to make promises about the future which stabilizes future actions to some degree. Action’s irreversibility can be countered by the ability of humans to forgive one another, so that the negative impact of an action does not remain forever. Unlike totalitarian politics which crush human spontaneity and individuality, Arendt’s description of political action prioritizes free discussion, tolerates differences between persons, and encourages public participation and reflection upon politics. 3

4. The Public, Private, and Social in The Human Condition Here she introduces her distinction between the public and the private. She thinks that private matters should remain outside of politics and that citizens should seek to make political decisions based on the public good of the community, rather than upon personal and self-interested ends. In modern times the categories of the public and private have been blurred and the result has been the rise of the “social,” which she is adamantly against.

  • A. The private realm

    The private realm is governed by necessity and survival needs associated with labor, rather than freedom. The private realm also provides personal protection and privacy from the world at large.

    Private aspects of life, which according to Arendt, were kept private in ancient Greece, are now being discussed openly, in the glare of the public eye. Media are less occupied with political matters and more occupied with sensational and private concerns. Private matters should remain outside of politics because they are concerned with personal or self-interested ends, rather than with the public good.

  • B. The Public Realm

    The public realm is governed by freedom, distinction, and equality. The public realm is comprised of political actions, in which actors display their unique qualities through words and deeds. Action must occur in public for it to have significance. For Arendt, the spectators produce a political judgment which decides the meaning of the action based upon what is best for the community as a whole.

    She states that the social arises when the public and private sectors are blurred. It involves:

    1. bureaucracy -In society, government tends to be modeled on the ancient household which is concerned with housekeeping. Unlike political action, which presumes political activity amongst equals, the “social” government is connected to a passive model that does not encourage active participation in government. Government workers proceed as administrators of tasks, rather than participate as unique individuals who can make their opinions heard. Arendt calls the rise of bureaucracy, the “rule by nobody,” because government activity becomes impersonal and indistinct.
    2. individual self interest -Also, the focus of a “social” government concerns helping some individuals attain private ends, rather than achieving what is good for the whole. Private life and economic issues of housekeeping emerge into the public spotlight and take precedence over public activity. The influx of lobbyists in the American political process is an example of this trend. Those with money can seek to have their individual interests protected, but often, do not think about what is best for the country as a whole.
    3. conformity Perhaps most antithetical to Arendt’s notion of action, is that the rise of the social is guided by a sense of conformity, rather than individual distinction. Society tends to promote a community of laborers or workers, as opposed to political actors. The workers focus on the private needs to sustain human life and accumulate private wealth, rather than cherishing the free and unique aspects of humans.

      For Arendt, the rise of the social in contemporary life results in loneliness, world alienation, consumerism, and lack of belonging to the world because persons are deprived from hearing the opinions of others and actively participating in politics.

5. Philosophy and Political Theory

Arendt is against how philosophers typically theorize the political. In an essay called “Philosophy and Politics,” she states that it was primarily Plato who misconstrues the relationship between philosophy and politics.

  • A. Plato’s politics

    Plato’s Republic misunderstands the proper relationship between philosophy and politics by placing the philosopher kings in charge. She thinks that for Plato, politics involve universal and eternal truths of the forms, particularly, the form of the good. All communities should conform to the same universally true political principles for Plato. To think of politics on the model of philosophical truth is anti-democratic and tyrannical for Arendt, because it reduces the different opinions of the people to something that can be dismissed as merely subjective and biased perspectives. Arendt believes that philosophy concerns contemplation of questions of meaning that are done in solitude. This is vastly different from the pursuit of the active life that requires others.

  • B. Arendt's Politics

    She asserts that politics requires doxa, or opinion, and she rejects the idea the political opinion is entirely subjective and biased. The doxa of politics is in-between the subjective and the objective because it concerns the truth of one’s perspective in the world. In politics, one must consider the different opinions of the community and then try to come to a consensus about what is best for all. To place the philosopher in charge of the state is to design a state according to the opinion of the best life for the philosopher, rather than considering the different opinions of everyone.

  • C. The role of the philosopher in politics

    She claims that Socrates fully understood the correct relation between the philosopher and politics because he took on the role of the gadfly, or the pestering questioner, who tried to help persons clarify their own opinions and prepare them for acting politically.

    Most importantly, she thinks that Socrates did not assert that philosophers should design and rule the state according to universal philosophical truths, like Plato. Socrates thought that philosophers could have an important political role in helping persons clarify and understand the truth in their own doxa.

6. The Banality of Evil

In 1961, Hannah Arendt attended the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem as a reporter for The New Yorker. She attended the trial to discover what motivated a somewhat average citizen to become an agent who assisted mass murder by transporting persons to the death camps. The most famous concept from her work Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963)is the “banality of evil.” She does not suggest that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis was banal or insignificant, but maintains that evil is not committed strictly by sadistic monsters plotting demoniacal ends.

Evil can occur though extreme thoughtlessness and insensitivity by persons who are not particularly evil at the start. She thinks that it may be comforting to understand Eichmann’s behavior as being that of a monster, but this would allow persons to excuse Eichmann’s behavior easily, as an isolated incident. What is truly frightening is that Eichmann was “…terrifyingly normal” (Eichmann in Jerusalem 253).

Particularly, she believed that Eichmann lacked the ability to think for himself and engage in any rigorous moral questioning of the state. Eichmann spoke in clichés of Nazi propaganda and he clung to codes of conduct given by the state. She does not think that everyone would have reacted like Eichmann did, or that there is an Eichmann lurking behind each of us, as some have interpreted her view.

Arendt rejected the idea of the “collective guilt” of the German people because she thought it excused individuals of their responsibility and she maintained that Eichmann was completely responsible for his behavior and deserved the death sentence. Yet, the source of Eichmann’s failing is an extreme form of shallowness and the inability to imagine another person’s perspective. This allowed him to believe that he was following his moral duty by following Nazi orders, but what he failed to acknowledge is that it made him complicit in mass murder. iii

7. Violence, Revolution, and Freedom

Arendt believed that her work, On Revolution (1963), was her best book. She uses the book as a platform to discuss what she saw as the problem of a new beginning, or that fact that new beginnings typically involve violence.

  • A. Violence - In general, she is against violence in politics because it is mute and does not concern the freedom and equality manifested in the words and deeds of action. In fact, Arendt contends that when despots use violence to solidify their political power, the process fails miserably because political power concerns the consent and endorsement of the people that is freely attained. Pragmatically, she thinks that violence as a political tactic is unsuccessful because the means of violence overwhelm whatever goal is meant to be attained. Violence unleashes a chain of events that cannot be easily controlled. Moreover, if a government truly has the authority that is vested in it by the people, there is no need for violence at all. When violence emerges, it signifies the impotence of those in rule who have failed to convince the people of their agenda.
  • B. Revolution and Freedom - Despite the fact that violence should be avoided in politics, Arendt is puzzled by the seeming necessity for violence in the case of revolution. When a community is oppressed, sometimes violence may be necessary, so long as the goal of the revolution is to attain the public freedom of the people.

    On Revolution, admires many aspects of the American Revolution because she believes that its aim was to secure the public freedom of the people. She holds the American Revolution occurred mainly through common deliberation in the writing of the Constitution, as opposed to the exclusive use of violence. Though Arendt believes that the American Revolution was successful initially, she does not believe it fully succeeded in guaranteeing the freedom of the people because it did not put structures in place to counter the fact that it is a representative democracy. Since most of the work of politics in the United States occurs through representative officials, she insists that the direct influence of average persons on politics is usually limited. Arendt agrees with the Jeffersonian insight that a town hall structure should have been incorporated into the U. S. Constitution so that average citizens would have more frequent and direct engagement in political matters.

  • C. The Council System - When Arendt discusses politics in positive terms, she often refers to the council system, based on the worker’s and neighborhood councils, political clubs, and societies, which emerged in France after the Revolution and during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Arendt admires the inclusive nation of these groups that involve average citizens and spontaneously emerge at times of political crisis. For Arendt, the councils say: “We want to participate, we want to debate, we want to make our voices heard in public, and we want to have a possibility to determine the political course of our country. Since the country is too big for all of us to come together and determine our fate, we need a number of public places within it. The booth in which we deposit our ballots is unquestionably too small, for this booth has room for only one” (Crises of the Republic, 232). Failing to provide proper means for the government to be influenced by local public debate, the Americans lost their revolutionary treasure, which according to Arendt, was their freedom.

8. The Contemplative Life and Judgment In her last work, Arendt focuses on the contemplative life, or the vita contemplativa, to understand the role of mental activity in politics. After the Eichmann experience, Arendt recognized that the mind may have a crucial political role, particularly with regard to the absence of thinking and moral deliberation. In The Life of the Mind (1971, 1977), Arendt’s task is to explore three different faculties of the mind: thinking, willing, and judging.

    A. Thinking Arendt defines the activity of thinking narrowly, which she connects to the activity of philosophizing and the search for meaning. Thinking concerns the inner dialogue that one has with oneself and involves matters that fill one with wonder that are speculative and abstract. Arendt believes that in order to think, one must withdraw into what she calls a “no-where,” or the nunc stans, in order to hear the soundless dialogue of the mind with itself. Socrates is her model for the philosophical thinker because he finds few conclusive answers to the questions that he pondered. Arendt concludes that thinking is different from politics because it leaves the realm of appearances and does not concern practical matters. This conclusion supports her position that the job of the philosopher is not to design a theory of the state to be reproduced in the world. For Arendt, metaphysical questions of meaning and fascination with abstract universals are different from engagement with politics and concern for particular situations.

  • B. WillingThe second volume of the The Life of the Mind examines the will, which is the faculty that concerns taking initiative in the world. The will is connected to human freedom as the spring of political action. Most of this volume discusses Arendt’s disagreement with the Western philosophical tradition which tends to think of the will as something that involves supreme individual control and the power to enact one’s agenda in the world.

    Since political action falls into a web of relationships in the public realm, it cannot be controlled entirely by the actor. Further, Arendt disagrees with a tendency within philosophy to believe that the will is predictable or determined in some way, but claims that political action is spontaneous and unpredictable.

  • C. Judging The last topic that Arendt intended to cover in The Life of the Mind is the faculty of judgment.

    Unfortunately, Arendt died before writing this volume, but her lecture notes on the topic of judgment have been published as Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (1982).

    These notes suggest a provisional theory of judgment. For Arendt, political judgment is what the spectators of action use to decide the meaning of a particular action for a community. Arendt considers judgment to be more important than the action itself in her later work. Arendt bases her theory of political judgment upon Immanuel Kant’s aesthetical theory, and in particular, his discussion of judgments of beauty. Arendt is drawn to this text because Kant describes instances of beauty as particular cases that cannot be filed under a universal rule. Though Kant did not see any political application to this part of his theory, Arendt sees similarities between the particular instance of art and the experience of witnessing a unique political action, since all actions disclose who a particular individual is and have unique circumstances.

    The complicated process of judgment that she describes in her lecture notes is meant to maintain the individuality of the event, but also provide a basis from which to make an objective judgment about its meaning for the community.

Overall, Arendt’s work has been very influential in the fields of philosophy and political science. Feminists and race theorists have found her work on anti-Semitism and Jewish identity to be historically significant. Her work on totalitarianism has been a theoretical jumping off point for discussion of the topic. Philosophically, she has led a wave of thought in Continental philosophy that argues for the necessity of philosophy to engage with political questions. Finally, her belief in the importance of plurality has been important to contemporary discussions of the need for political theory to be sympathetic to questions of difference and otherness.

Article by Karin Fry, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point

Fry, Karin. Arendt: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2009.

Click here to read a Chronology of Arendt

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