Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political thinkers of the last century, has a personal biography that itself reflects some of the pivotal political events of her lifetime. Born into a German-Jewish family, Arendt studied at the University of Marburg with Martin Heidegger, by whom she was deeply influenced but whose ties with the National Socialist movement in Germany proved troubling to her. She left Germany in 1933 and ultimately emigrated to the United States in 1941, where she became a citizen. In her new country, Arendt emerged as a prominent academic, holding positions at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago as well as at the New School in New York. In addition to her writings on the historical and philosophical roots of 20th century movements like Nazism and Stalinism, Arendt's works approach topics and authors far beyond the limited concerns of her own era, including Marx and the function and nature of labor, Galileo and the aims of scientific investigation and Aristotle and the activities of free citizens. She is, then, a modern thinker with substantial ties to the various traditions, questions, and controversies at the heart of Contemporary Civilization.
Arendt is perhaps best known for her writings on the tumultuous politics of the middle of the 20th Century. Her reporting for The New Yorker on Adolf Eichmann's trial, later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem, argues that a principal organizer of the Holocaust was a profoundly ordinary man who relied on intellectual clichés to justify his crimes against humanity. Coining the phrase "the banality of evil" to capture Eichmann's complicity, her writing is in some sense a searing rebuke of mass opinion and blind obedience to the state rather than a mere journalistic account of the aftermath of World War II.
In her massive 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, too, Arendt examines the historical and sociological roots of the totalitarian movements of the early 20th Century, ranging from the colonial institutions of the previous century to the failures of Enlightenment conceptions of human rights to protect the victims of state-sanctioned mass murder. Her work includes other critical essays on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to the Pentagon Papers, and Arendt proves an astute observer of contemporary events, often integrating them into broader historical narratives and perennial questions of political philosophy. These works, moreover, illustrate Arendt's remarkable success in becoming an influential figure not only within the academic community but also in intellectual culture more broadly, a feat evidenced by her lasting contributions to publications like The New York Review of Books and Partisan Review.
Despite her interest in the political events of her own immediate past, Arendt is not strictly a political philosopher of recent events. In her 1958 book The Human Condition, for example, she puts herself into dialogue with thinkers like Marx and Aristotle as she divides human activity into "labor," "work" and "action," criticizing the modern dominance of "work," which primarily seeks an instrumental end out of human activity. Turning also in this text to the emergence of space exploration, she considers the ramifications of using "the viewpoint of the universe" in scientific research and the production of opaquely technical knowledge, problems also explored in a 1963 essay in The American Scholar entitled "Man's Conquest of Space." Taking the "active life" or vita activa as her broader point of interest in The Human Condition, too, Arendt also considers the vita contemplativa in an unfinished work, posthumously published as The Life of the Mind. Reconsidering the activities of "thinking," "willing" and "judging," Arendt serves as an opportunity to reconsider the value of the intellectual life as set out in Contemporary Civilization texts such as Plato's Republic and Aristotle's political and ethical writings.
Written by Charles McNarama, Core Lecturer, Classics, Columbia University