A Philosopher in Hard Times

By Michael S. RothDecember 26, 2021

A Philosopher in Hard Times

Hannah Arendt by Samantha Rose Hill

SAMANTHA ROSE HILL’s intellectual biography of Hannah Arendt is a timely look at one of the most impactful, if elusive, 20th-century political thinkers. The book makes accessible key themes in Arendt’s work. Looking for a philosophical focus on creative work that escapes the mystical Teutonic fog of Heidegger? See the concept of natality described in The Human Condition. Concerned about the rise of populist authoritarianism? The Origins of Totalitarianism remains a bracing read, its conceptual flaws and political agenda less important today than its description of the aspiration to tyrannical control. Want to step back from political relevance to something more primary? Arendt’s late reflections on thinking and judgment will be powerful. In all these cases, and many more, Hill is a thoughtful guide.

The early biography is covered quickly. Hill doesn’t say much about the impact of the death of Hannah’s father, only noting with awkward foreshadowing that the loss did not diminish her “inherent wonder at being in the world.” Be that as it may, we know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s more detailed 1982 biography that the seven-year-old Hannah maintained an unusually sunny disposition for months after her father’s death but a year later began acting out and succumbing to various ailments; Young-Bruehl understood this as Hannah’s way of grieving. The young girl’s family was unobservant, but she learned about her Jewish identity from the everyday antisemitism of the street. After her mother moved to East Prussia, a challenging place to be at the outbreak of World War I, Hannah took comfort in her books. Years later when asked by Günter Gaus why she had read Kant at such a young age, she responded, “I can either study philosophy or I can drown myself, so to speak.”

At 18, Arendt went to the University of Marburg, where she met Martin Heidegger. He would publish his epochal Being and Time just a few years later. Heidegger was a charismatic professor twice Arendt’s age, and they become privileged interlocutors and then lovers. This affair might have struck their contemporaries as less disturbing than it strikes many today, except that it was hardly a secret that Heidegger didn’t like Jews. He disliked them, as the old Jewish joke goes, more than was necessary. In the following decade, Heidegger would join the Nazi Party and lend a hand in the de-Jewification of the Volk’s universities.

According to Hill, another relationship of great importance to Arendt was that with Anne Mendelssohn Weil. I personally would have liked Hill to say more about this, and not only because I got to know Anne and her extraordinary sister Katherine late in their lives. Anne’s husband, Eric Weil, penned one of the most blistering accounts of Heidegger’s perfidy shortly after the war — ironically noting that Heidegger had every reason to complain that, despite putting all his authority in support of the Third Reich, the Nazis failed to show him proper respect, preferring the crude biologism of others.

Hill does relate how Arendt left Marburg and Heidegger to study with the latter’s teacher, Edmund Husserl, and then with his rival, Karl Jaspers. Arendt wrote her doctoral dissertation on love and Saint Augustine. She also published a book on the life and salon of the 18th-century Jewish intellectual Rahel Varnhagen, in which she acknowledged the attractions of pariahdom. Of those, Arendt would go on to have her fill. The situation for Jews was worsening, and “[t]he only way to be a conscientious person was to become an outlaw.” Arendt fled to France, where she was part of Zionist groups and close friends with Walter Benjamin and other Marxist intellectuals. Ahead of the Nazi invasion of France, Arendt would be rounded up with other Jews, and she had a harrowing time making her way to Marseilles and gaining papers of transit. So many perished trying to escape, including Benjamin. What would the lucky Jewish survivors gain, she asked? “The experience of sadness — the faculty of adapting and not letting themselves be annihilated.”

Arendt managed to get to New York with her new husband, Heinrich Blücher, and at war’s end she was already working on The Origins of Totalitarianism. In 1949, she returned to Europe to find a “cloud of melancholy” hovering over a continent in ruins. She was there as a leader in “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction,” and while lecturing spent a day or two (accounts differ) with Heidegger. Quoting Arendt, Hill writes that “their night and morning together were ‘confirmation of an entire life,’” and goes on to talk about reconciliation making possible “new beginnings.” In another context, though, Arendt reminded readers that some people choose actions that make living on earth with them altogether impossible. The banality of love also comes to mind.

Origins made Arendt well known, and she began teaching at top-tier universities. By bringing together an incisive account of Nazism with a sketchier description of Stalinism’s path of violence, she became very acceptable to establishment intellectuals during the Cold War. If she enjoyed her increasingly public reputation, she enjoyed putting it at risk even more, which she did in her reporting for The New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) disappointed those who wanted to see the former Nazi official as an evil monster, and it enraged others because of her account of Jewish complicity in the murders of their own people. Hill quotes Arendt’s claim that reporting on the trial was “an obligation I owe my past,” but it is unclear how Hill interprets that debt and how Arendt discharged it. By the “banality of evil,” Arendt said she meant “resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing,” which is precisely what she was accused of in her account of those fellow Jews who didn’t manage to escape.

Hill’s Arendt is a thinker who moves easily from poetry to philosophy, from reflections on politics to an analysis of thinking itself. Like Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hill emphasizes her subject’s efforts to maintain her “love of the world” — an embrace of the plurality of what we can encounter, despite the “dark times” in which we might find ourselves. Hill writes lucidly about the key ideas and is particularly good on Arendt’s deep and lasting friendships. Arendt inspired love and loyalty among those close to her, and while her commitment always to “stop and think” led to sharp disagreements, it also resulted in meaningful, enduring relationships.

Arendt saw the political as a space in which power could be created through civic engagement, as well as violence as a tactic that ultimately denied the political. Suspicious of what we today call the “politics of identity,” she was eager to cultivate possibilities for living not yet imagined. “Arendt’s work,” Hill judges, “is fundamentally about the discovery of human freedom, its gradual, fateful disappearance from the world, and the elusiveness of the conditions of its recovery.” Arendt, in her own life, tried to maintain this freedom in the harshest of conditions and, in her work, sought to elucidate how others might contribute to this same vital endeavor.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. A paperback edition of his Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness was published this fall.

LARB Contributor

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are The Student: A Short History (forthcoming), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019), and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (2014).


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