The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

The World of Hannah Arendt
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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(left to right) Unknown woman, Hugo Friedrich, Hannah Arendt, and Benno von Wiese at Heidelburg University, 1928. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.

The humanistic education to which Arendt was naturally drawn and received at the universities of Marburg and Heidelberg also deepened throughout her life. She studied philosophy, ancient Greek literature (poetry and history as well as philosophy), and Christian theology because she loved wisdom and tragic beauty and was puzzled less by the existence than the exactions of a transcendent God of love. The teachers who exerted the greatest influence on her were Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, whose "existential" philosophies were considered revolutionary by their peers and by themselves. With Heidegger and Jaspers Arendt studied the tradition of philosophic thought from the vantage point of its self-conscious conclusion, and with them both she developed lifelong personal and intellectual relationships, equally meaningful but different in kind.

Heidegger awakened in Arendt a passion for thinking and that awakening, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not, pervades her work. With him she experienced the awestruck wonder of pure existence that begins the activity of thinking. What Heidegger called the "facticity" (Faktizität) and "thrownness" (Geworfenheit) of human being, the "naked that it is," not how or what or where it is, at one time led Arendt to think that a new political philosophy might be developed from the shock of "speechless horror," akin to "speechless wonder," at the crimes of totalitarianism. She thought then that Heidegger indicated a way to "directly grasp the realm of human affairs and human deeds," which no philosopher had ever done (see "Concern with Politics in Recent European Political Thought"). She gave up that idea, or at least altered it beyond recognition, because of what she also learned from Heidegger: philosophical thinking is "out of order" in the everyday world of common sense from which the thinker, the thinking ego, withdraws. Although habituated to the activity of thinking, Arendt was haunted by this withdrawal. In the end she turned away from philosophy because she did not believe its truths were relevant to the realm of human affairs. Not their truth but the ever changing meanings of the phenomena of the actual world were the "products" of thinking that increasingly concerned her. A philosopher like Heidegger may dwell in a "land of thought," withdrawn from the world, but a political thinker like Arendt returns to the world where every nonanalytical truth becomes a meaning, in her case an often controversial meaning, an opinion among the opinions of others.

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Karl Jaspers, 1961. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.

Karl Jaspers introduced Arendt to a trans-historical, public realm of reason where it was possible to exist in the present and think in living communication with thinkers of the past, which is one important way that she retrieved the past. From Kant via Jaspers she derived her notion of an autonomous faculty of judgment, and through active, public participation in the realm of reason she developed her own formidable power of judgment. If anything did, it was her exercise of that faculty that eventually reconciled her to what she once referred to as "this none too beautiful world of ours". That remark, made in 1944 at the height of the war against Hitler, is tempered by her belief that "all sorrows can be borne" if, like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, their witness sufficiently distances himself from them, fits them into a story, and tells and retells that story. Dramas are made to be repeated, stories to be recounted and retold, in order to keep their meaning alive. Although she did not write fiction, Arendt believed that stories and not the methods of social, political, and historical science capture the contingency of human events; and like all great storytellers she realized that the meaning of a story can never be entirely abstracted from it. What she said in 1944 also differs markedly in mood from what she wrote almost thirty years later toward the end of her life about our natural fitness to perceive the diversity and the beauty of the world's appearances. That too is ultimately a function of judgment, of its "disinterestedness" or disinclination to evaluate appearances according to the standard of their usefulness.

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Walter Benjamin, undated. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.

Arendt examined the intricacies of St. Augustine's concept of love in her dissertation written under Jaspers's direction, an extremely personal work composed in the dense style typical of German scholarship of the period. Although her dissertation bears no indication of any interest in contemporary politics (see Love and Saint Augustine), a decidedly nontraditional Augustine, less Christian than Roman, would later play a vital role in her rediscovery of the prephilosophical, political conception of action. In his De Civitate Dei Arendt found the perfect representation of her view of human beings as beginnings: Initium ut esset homo creatus est ("that a beginning be made man was created") not only concludes The Origins of Totalitarianism but resonates as a leitmotif throughout her work. Nor is any political concern explicit in her second, ambiguously subjective book, on Rahel Varnhagen, in which she dealt historically and critically with the question of Jewish social assimilation, in this case the vicissitudes of the life that an extraordinarily intelligent German Jew elected to live at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Arendt wrote most of the book while still in Germany and completed it during the Paris years at the urging of Walter Benjamin and Heinrich Blücher-- "rather grumpily," presumably because its subject had become "remote" to her. By that time Arendt, as a Jew, had endured a rude political awakening, and the failure of Rahel Varnhagen to establish "a social life outside of official society" would take on a far darker aspect in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Arendt met Heinrich Blücher in 1936 in Paris, where he was a non-Jewish political exile, and married him there in 1940. Under his influence her mind was opened not just to Jewish politics but to the political as such. At the end of World War I in 1918, Arendt was only twelve years old, but Blücher, seven years her senior, had fought in that war, experienced its devastation, and at its conclusion became an active leftist participant in the riots, strikes, and street battles that led to the establishment of the German Republic. A member of the Berlin working class who had a limited formal education, Blücher was politically savvy and aware, as Arendt could hardly have been at that time, of the fundamental changes taking place in those postwar political upheavals. Blücher revealed to Arendt a realm of political reality at the core of the actual world, a realm capable of generating human freedom and, when corrupted, human bondage. Although Arendt consistently avoided situating herself on the left, right, or center of the political spectrum, Blücher became her political conscience, not only when she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, which she dedicated to him, but throughout their life together.


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought