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It is a rarity for a person to be acknowledged as an expert in a particular field, especially when the individual in question lends an impression of staying removed by a few degrees from the very sphere that has accorded her such an exalted status. Hannah Arendt was one such individual. Universally acknowledged as one of the most famous critical thinkers of our times, Arendt brought an “outside in” perspective to her cutting edge thinking. She was an expert and an outsider, the advocate as well as the skeptic. In her own words, thinking was a dialogic process – a “two in one” approach. To facilitate the activity of thinking, one ought to retreat from the remorseless glare of the public in order to experience the silent dialogue of thought. “When one experiences the silent dialogue of thought, the thinking ego splits in two, and when one reappears in the world, the ego repairs itself into one.”
Samantha Rose Hill, in “Hannah Arendt” has produced an aperçus of Arendt that is an unmistakable trigger for curiosity. This slim biography is neither a vivisection of the pedagogy of Arendt’s philosophy nor a dissection of her eventful and intellectual life. Instead it is a benevolent door that is slightly held ajar for any inquisitive soul to venture deep into the dazzlingly profound world of Hannah Arendt. Hill certainly possesses the requisite credentials – and more – to undertake this formidable endeavour. She is an assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. Bard College, incidentally, preserves Arendt’s humongous personal library.
Born in Hannover, Germany in 1906, Arendt’s family moved to Königsberg, when she was still a toddler. Losing her father to syphilis and attendant complications, and being targeted for her Jewish pedigree, birthed in Arendt not only a sense of introversion but also an unshakeable degree of determination and righteousness. A chance opportunity to see Rosa Luxemburg in the flesh at a feisty Spartacist rally further exacerbated Arendt’s independence and fueled a passion that would thread through her entire life. Arendt was dispatched by her mother to Berlin, where she studied philosophy and theology under Romano Guardini.
Arendt’s life took a tumultuous turn when she landed at the University of Marburg after being goaded into doing so by her childhood friend, Ernst Grumach, who was deeply influenced by the teaching of Martin Heidegger. Arendt not only took Heidegger’s classes on Plato and Aristotle, but also started a turbulent affair with Heidegger, reverberations of which would be felt for decades. The University of Leipzig followed Marburg where Arendt wrote her dissertation on love and Saint Augustine under the tutelage of Edumund Husserl, Heidegger’s professor. However Arendt’s greatest influence would be the inimitable existentialist philosopher and psychologist, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers ‘ thinking was premised on the worldly, and the concept of constituting the world in common can be seen permeating the works of Arendt.
Arendt soon married Günther Anders and began working on her habilitation, Rahel Vahnhagen: the Life of a Jewish woman. Hannah Arendt’s life took on a decisive colour of defiance and morality after the infamous burning of the Reichstag. Talking about the event, she said, ‘I couldn’t be a bystander.” She fled Hitler’s Berlin in 1933, to Paris without papers and a smattering of French. This period characterised a ferment of intellectual thinking. An astounding gang of ‘intellectuals in exile’ such as Jean Paul Sartre, Bataille, Lacan, Breton, Merleu-Ponty and Arendt formed an eclectic band of heterogenous thinkers. A brief and horrific spell at the Gurs internment camp preceded a fortuitous escape to the United States, when Arendt and her second husband Heinrich Blücher were the lucky recipients of 2 of the 238 visas granted by the United States to Jews escaping the Nazis.
It was in the United States, in 1951, that Arendt published her 600-odd page magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Origins contended that there was a clear distinction between the features of authoritarianism, tyranny fascism, and totalitarianism. The perfidy of totalitarianism rested on the bulwark of a radical atomization of the individual, elimination of spontaneity and political freedom. Thus according to Arendt, the basic construct of totalitarianism was the instrumentalization of terror and construction of concentration camps. According to Arendt, ‘The real horror of the concentration and extermination camps, lies in the fact that the inmates, even if they happen to keep alive, are more effectively cut off from the world of the living than if they had died, because terror enforces oblivion.’
Arendt was offered a lectureship at Princeton University, thereby becoming the first woman to be offered such a position at Princeton. She also assumed teaching duties at University of Chicago, University of California Berkeley, and at Williams College. The Origins was followed by The Human Condition in 1958. Samantha Rose Hill describes this book as one ‘which demonstrates the activity of thinking itself’. The Human Condition is a searing examination of the life of action from the perspective of human experience and activity in the world.
Arendt covered herself in controversy with her work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Covering the Eichmann trial in Israel, Arendt was disillusioned with the proceedings which she termed a ‘circus’. The notorious Eichmann, according to Arendt was a clown. This was not because of any element of hilarity, but because of an element of irrationality and a lack of expansive thinking. Arendt took refuge in a line from the poet Bertolt Brecht, who contemplates ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter’. Arendt was eviscerated by the Jewish community for reducing an evil of untold proportions to the trivia of banality. Affected people alleged that Arendt was claiming anybody could have done what Eichmann did.
Arendt was vociferous and convinced in whatever stance she took. Maybe this iron clad self-belief was what attracted a bevy of intellectuals to her. After the demise of Blücher, both W.H. Auden and Hans Morgenthau made platonic proposals to her which were understandably turned down. On December 4th, 1975, Hannah Arendt entertained Salo and Jeanette Baron for dinner. Post dinner, she was taken up by a brief coughing spell, which made her sink into her chair and lose consciousness. A doctor who was summoned pronounced her dead. Arendt had suffered a massive heart attack.
The legacy of Hannah Arendt’s work is rich not just in quantum but in content. She always exhorted her readers to ‘think without a banister’. According to her, thinking was equivalent to traipsing up and down a staircase with absolutely nothing to hold on to. But even with nothing to hold onto, the thinker might have everything in his arsenal to bank on.
‘Hannah Arendt‘ – a biography of contemplation.