Hannah Arendt was one of the most original and influential philosophers of the 20th century. Her work considered historical and contemporary political events, such as the rise and fall of Nazism,
Today’s topic is Hannah Arendt. All the philosophers we talk about have interesting thoughts. But many of them have relatively dull lives. Hannah Arendt is not one of them. She led a very interesting life, and the events in her life had a lot to do with her philosophy.
Arendt wrote about totalitarianism, the human condition, and fundamental issues in political theory. She wrote an influential book about the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem -- a book that made the phrase “the banality of evil” famous. She died in the mid-nineteen seventies. At the time she was a leader on the New York intellectual scene.
Arendt was Jewish, born in Germany early in the century. She actually grew up in Königsburg, Kant’s home town. In the twenties she studied with Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an intense affair, and then went on to write her dissertation with Karl Jaspers, on Augustine.
One might be surprised at the Heidegger connection. Heidegger was a great philosopher, but also a Nazi? What’s a young Jewish graduate student doing having an affair with a Nazi?
But Heidegger wasn’t a Nazi then. He joined the party after Hitler’s rise to power in the mid-thirties, when he was Rector of the University of Freiburg. Arendt actually returned to Germany from New York in the early 50’s, when the occupation forces were trying to decide what to do with Heidegger. Her support was helpful in his being allowed to return as an emeritus professor, and to have contact with students again. This episode, by the way, is the topic of an interesting play, “Hannah and Martin,” which focuses on her conflicted feelings in giving that support.
Between the time of her dissertation and the fifties? Anti-Semitism and Nazism began to affect Arendt in a big way. In Germany after you write your dissertation, you have to write another book, called the "Habilitation". She was prevented from doing that because she was Jewish, and that also meant she couldn’t teach there.
She began to study anti-Semitism, which drew attention to her. She moved to Paris after being questioned by the Gestapo. She worked to help Jewish refugees there; she spent some time in prison but escaped, and eventually, in 1941, made it to the U.S. She held a number of posts, finally becoming the first woman to be a full professor at Princeton, in 1959. She died in 1975.
The titles of her books, like The Origins of Totalitarianism, suggest the connection between Arendt’s interesting life and her philosophical interests. She preferred to be called a “political theorist” but her books were very philosophical nevertheless -- dealing with the nature of action, especially political action.
Ken and I will be joined by Seyla Benhabib, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. She is the author of The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt.