ARENDT Hannah—political philosopher, regarded as a precursor of existential phenomenology, b. October 14, 1906 in Hanover, d. December 4, 1975 in New York.
Arendt regarded action in the public sphere as the fullest realization of man’s potential. She is the author of the thesis of the banality of evil. The influence of philosophers such as Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Marx, Heidegger, and Jaspers appears in her works. As a political thinker she is regarded as belonging to the tradition of civil republicanism: it’s source is Aristotle and it is also present in the writings of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and de Tocqueville, and it holds that politics makes man’s fulfillment possible when citizens gather together in “the public sphere” to deliberate and decide on matters of common interest.
She was raised in a family of wealthy Jewish merchants. After the outbreak of the First World War she moved with her mother to Berlin. From 1924 to 1929 she studied philosophy in Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg, under E. Husserl, M. Heidegger, K. Jasper, and others. In 1929 she defended her doctoral work on the concept of love in St. Augustine. In 1933 after being arrested briefly by the Gestapo she departed for Paris. When Hitler occupied France in 1941 she emigrated with her husband and mother to the USA. From the early 1950s she was involved in rehabilitating Heidegger and made an important contribution to his popularity in the USA. In her writing for the general public she opposed the groundless accusations that Poles were anti-Semitic. She lectured in many American schools: Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, and Princeton, and she was finally affiliated with the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1959 she received the prestigious Lessing Award, and in 1985 she received the Sonning Award for her contributions to European culture.
The works of Hannah Arendt: Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin (B 1929); The Origins of Totalitarianism (NY 1951, 1958² Korzenie totalitaryzmu [Roots of totalitarianism], Wwa 1993); The Human Condition (Ch 1958); Between Past and Future (NY 1961; Między czasem minionym a przysłym [Between time past and future], Wwa 1994); Eichmann in Jerusalem (Lo 1963; Eichmann w Jerozolimie. Rzecz o banalności zła [Eichmann in Jerusalem. The matter of the banality of evil], Kr 1987, 1998²); On Revolution (Lo 1963; O rewolucji [On revolution], Kr 1991); Crises of the Republic (NY 1972; O przemocy. Nieposłuszeństwo obywatelskie [On violence. Civil disobedience], Wwa 1998);
Works published post-humously: The Life of the Mind (I–II, NY 1978; Myślenie [Thinking], Wwa 1991; Wola [Will], Wwa 1996); Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (CL 1982); Essays on Understanding 1930–1954. Uncollected and Unpublished Works by Hannah Arendt (C 1994).
Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism made her world famous. The book presents the now classic view that the Nazi and Stalinist systems, despite diametrically opposed ideologies, were structurally identical versions of totalitarianism. The totalitarian system was a formerly unknown system of dictatorship based not only on bureaucratic administration and terror, but also on ideological domination. An ideology concentrated on an idea such as race, nation, or class builds around itself a tight system of concepts that are consequences of the idea. Next it tends to build a political system on this basis and this inevitably entails terror. Arendt understands terror as a systematic, institutionalized, and carefully planned use of force without any legal bounds. Totalitarianism finds its fullest expression in concentration camps and gulags where the world is completely depersonalized, mechanical, and lacking any room for thought, will, judgment, privacy, or action. Arendt rejects the idea that philosophy is the cause of the rise of totalitarianism but thinks that by failing to esteem pluralism in the ends and means of human actions, philosophers—from Plato to Marx—facilitated the rise of totalitarian systems. One of the most important sources of the rise of totalitarianism was the growth of imperialism, territorial expansion for economic ends, which involved the development of institutionalized forms of force on an unprecedented scale, especially military force, and a significant increase in the efficiency of bureaucracy. This expansion created a climate favoring the development of nationalistic and racist ideologies. In this way the three fundamental pillars of totalitarianism developed.
In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem she further developed her views on totalitarianism. The book is a collection of essays that Arendt wrote as a journalist with the popular magazine “The New Yorker”. She observed the trial of the German criminal in Israel. Totalitarianism is a system that deepens man’s isolation by destroying social contacts and the sphere open to man’s public action. War criminals therefore do not grow out of the history of European anti-Semitism but unthinkingly realize an ideology externally imposed upon them and remain uncritically loyal to the standard code of conduct. This thesis, described by Arendt in the subtitle of a book named “the thoughtlessness of evil” led to much controversy among Jewish writers.
Arendt saw the Greek polis and the Roman republic as the true models for the organization of social life. Life in those states was divided into the private and the public sphere. The private sphere included family life and the maintenance of home economy, and it was governed by the biological needs associated with sustaining existence. Only the public sphere allowed for the experience of positive freedom. It created the possibility of public action among citizens who possessed equal right, the experience of authentically shaping the future of their society, and the expression of pluralism in values and opinions. Arendt regarded the public sphere in the Greek polis as the paradigm for understanding politics. Its meaning was not to defend and harmonize individual interest of the members of society, to influence social forces, or to manifest authority—these are pre-political phenomena. The aim of politics, based on persuasion and understanding, is to acquire and fix in memory the glory that results from the performance of deeds outstanding in excellence. Freedom of action and speech, private property, and the existence of a public space (the agora) where all may exchange views and make common decisions are conditions for the existence of the public sphere.
Arendt’s model of action, and the model of politics it implies, are in fact two different models. On the one hand it is an expressive model of action intended to show the non-repeatability of individuals most fully in heroic deeds. A model of politics is a tendency6 to achieve greatness and glory corresponds to this model. On the other hand it is a communicative model of action as a form of co-existence that serves to establish mutual relations and social solidarity. The result is a model of politics by persuasion and mutual accommodation leading to public deliberation and decision.
In a manner characteristic of the existentialists, Arendt rejects the category of man’s nature as schematic and unsupported by facts. Instead of resorting to this category, Arendt uses a phenomenological method that is intended to grasp what is most characteristic of man and especially of his activity in ordinary experiences. Arendt distinguishes three basic forms of man’s activity: labor, work, and activity. Labor is connected with sustaining the biological continuity of life. Work enables man to permanently form his surroundings and is an intermediate form between labor and activity (e.g., it includes building houses, writing books, painting, and composing). Activity is a typically human form of action— it occurs in the public sphere where it manifests man’s ability to begin something completely new and unforeseeable, and to establish a new order. There he manifests his non-repeatability in his relations with others with whom he discusses and decides matters. Arendt contrasts this metaphysical approach to the general sociological approach to politics where man is treated as an individual that can be interchanged and repeated and who functions in the category of “behavior”, “playing a role”, “laboring”, or “belonging to a group”.
Arendt’s invocation of historical models and concepts (e.g., πολις, ποιησις [polis, poiesis]) which she reinterprets phenomenologically is based on her hermeneutical approach in which the past is a treasury of experiences much richer than those considered in contemporary theories. Language especially preserves the memory of the original experiences that were named and of which men spoke in the past. For example, the language of past cultures (Greek and Roman) contain a treasury of experiences completely absent in today’s languages. We see the influence of M. Heidegger in this approach. By his deconstructive reading of western philosophical tradition, Heidegger intended to discover the original meanings of our categories and to free them from the distortion of tradition. According to Arendt, the totalitarian systems interrupted the continuity of European culture and so we can no longer preserve the past as a whole. We can only save those fragments of the past that still have meaning in our understanding of the present situation. Saving the past is very important as we try to preserve a proper temporal reference; we rediscover the past, invest it with importance and meaning for the present, and make it an inspiration for the future. From the time when Roman civilization yielded to the influence of Greek thought there has been a process of covering the original human experiences expressed in language with a layer of tradition. The meanings of words as read through tradition does not lead us to the original experiences that gave rise to these meanings; the loss of continuity of tradition should be an opportunity to rediscover these old experiences.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt identifies elements of the totalitarian system in all modern political systems. A critique of totalitarianism is for her a component of the critique of modernity and the modern concept of politics. In modernity, i.e., the period that began in the sixteenth century, the public sphere has become smaller and smaller, and the private sphere of introspection and the realization of economic interests has begun to dominate. Over time the social sphere has been deformed. In the social sphere the relations of production and consumption are dominant. The social sphere presses upon the public and private sphere. It is the sphere of bureaucratic administration, anonymous labor, domination by elite groups, the manipulation of public opinion, and ultimately the appearance of totalitarian systems where uniformity and conformity replace pluralism and freedom, where isolation replaces human solidarity and all forms of social life. Animal laborans—of the social sphere with the supreme values of life, productivity, and abundance—dominates over homo faber (the private sphere: endurance, stability, continuity) and ζωιον πολιτικον [zoon politikon] (the public sphere: freedom, pluralism, solidarity).
According to Arendt, the only way to restore the proper role of the public sphere is revolution. In On Revolution, she compares the French Revolution and the American Revolution, as well as some later ones, including the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, to understand the conditions of an effective revolution (Arendt recognizes only the American Revolution as successful). The property that connects revolution with action in the public sphere is a radical new beginning, a spontaneous and unforeseeable initiation. Every revolution has two stages: (1) a rebellion and assumption of control over society; (2) the establishment of institutions that make the revolutionary gains permanent (constitutio libertatis). One condition for a successful revolution is to achieve the second stage and thereby establish the public sphere. A common obstacle in this action is that the purpose of the revolution changes from political to social (i.e., to satisfy material needs). This gives birth to a representative party system of domination and often of terror rather than a model of equal participation in councils of self-governing units where everyone can participate in public debates. Some conditions for a successful revolution are that material needs must be met first and that the use of force in the final stage is brief and transitory.
Arendt develops the philosophical-anthropological foundations of her political philosophy in her book The Life of the Mind (published posthumously), which beside Thought and Will was going to contain a treatise on judgment. One of the reasons why totalitarian “thoughtless evil” did not appear in the premodern epochs was that there was a continuity of tradition. This continuity was broken in modernity (tradition was rejected in various areas: S. Kierkegaard—in the question of the faith; K. Marx—in politics; F. Nietzsche—in the domain of values). This immediately revealed a discord between thought and action (and this found expression in the views of D. Hume and I. Kant): there are no rational reasons supported by experience that can be reasons for acting, since facts do not imply obligations. Tradition had filled this gap between thought and action. In had provided the reasons for acting and indicated what is good and what is evil. The loss of the continuity of tradition made it impossible to invoke tradition in questions of action. To avoid repeating a situation of “thoughtless evil”, each man must make a personal effort to think. Arendt distinguishes thinking from cognition, following Kant’s distinction between reason and intellect. Thinking should give meaning and understanding. It is not connected, as is cognition, with an effort to acquire the truth. Thinking is rather a certain process that each must undertake on his own.
Thinking belongs to the contemplative life. It is important insofar as it takes part in the will and in the judgment—vita contemplativa. Arendt thinks that before Augustine the question of the will as the act of volition was unknown (she finds some germinal notions in Aristotle’s concept of προαιρεσις [proáiresis]). Augustine was the first to treat the will as the ability to choose (liberum arbitrium voluntatis). Before Augustine, “I want” (an internal state) was identified with “I can” (an external state). The will manifests man’s positive freedom—only man is capable of making a beginning, of beginning something in an unrepeatable and unforeseeable way, and this happens only in the public sphere. The full realization of thought and will is possible only in a social organization where there is a public sphere that provides an occasion for winning glory and demonstrating one’s full non-repeatability and uniqueness in direct contacts with others.
Arendt made an important contribution to political philosophy by analyzing the nature and role of political life. She developed a completely new terminology, showed the newly learned dimensions of political experience, and shed light on certain dangers of modernity as she contributed to upholding the tradition of political philosophy in times when it was in crisis.
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