Curiously, the only name of the lot that elicited more confusion than ratification — also the only woman and the only one to have persistently rebuffed the ascription of “philosopher” — was Hannah Arendt. There was less consensus about her legacy and allure. “Why her?” asked a young woman at the University of Freiburg who had spiritedly agreed to sneak me into Kollegiengebäude I, which hosted the philology, theology, and philosophy departments. “Was she one of the greats?”
It wasn’t that this student or the others hadn’t heard of Arendt — it was that they didn’t quite understand her position in the constellation of modern Western intellectuals. Arendt is one of the greats, I assured her. But I wondered then, as I do now: What kind of people are drawn to Hannah Arendt? (I’m not, to be clear, accounting for the controversy-chasers who’ve never read — carefully and thoughtfully read — a single one of her books.) The question is interesting because Arendt’s ideas are harder to distill into maxims of didactic bravado than those of, well, take your pick. She resisted clichés. “I hope I don't shock you if I tell you that I’m not sure I’m a liberal,” Arendt said to Roger Errera in a 1973 interview for French public television. “I really don’t have any creed in this sense. I have no exact political philosophy which I could sum up with one ‘ism.’”
“She did not want to find a master key or universal solvent,” her friend Mary McCarthy tendered in her 1976 obituary. Instead, McCarthy wrote, Arendt pursued fastidious distinctions that testified “to a sort of typical awe-struck modesty before the world’s abundance and intense particularity.”
Arendt’s fans, her avid readers, who take solace in her disciplined and intrepid scholarship, tend to share this taste for agnosticism. They find an impertinent sort of exhilaration in dispassionately thinking through their experiences, relying on terms and categories only insofar as they clarify and cohere, and reconsidering them as soon as they prescriptively reinforce presumptions. I call it impertinent because the comfortable majority, in late modernity, came to preside over the orthodoxies of the day — and those of us left disheartened by our own age’s contempt for gradations and second thoughts oft find ourselves pariahs at the party. This is a time, after all, when half-baked ideas and knee-jerk reactions, subject to a novel sort of mobocracy, can quickly make up national conversations.
“The experiences behind even the most worn-out concepts remain valid and must be recaptured and re-actualized if one wishes to escape certain generalizations that have proved pernicious,” Arendt wrote in a grant application to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1956, which resurfaced in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s sweeping 1982 biography, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World.
Today, we have a new biography at hand. Hannah Arendt, by Samantha Rose Hill, is the latest in the “Critical Lives” series, which neatly (usually in under 250 pages) presents the life and work of “leading cultural figures of the modern period.” Previous titles include Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, Søren Kierkegaard, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Philosophers’ lives are, of course, irresistible. They tend to be bestrewn with dysfunction. Something about the gulf between the life of the mind and the life of the person leaves us marveling at the cost of luminescent thinking (or of practical drudgery, depending on your side). Nietzsche was lonely, spurned, star-crossed. Schopenhauer feuded with elderly women, comforted only by his poodles. Heidegger … well. But Arendt, while “a magnificent stage diva,” (McCarthy’s words) when compared to the theorists and scholars of the Frankfurt School, was extraordinarily disciplined. She was charmingly self-aware. “She was too reverential about the great thinkers to claim ‘originality’ in philosophy itself,” wrote Alfred Kazin, also her friend. “Her distinctive procedure, which she must have learned in German seminars, was to circle round and round the great names, performing a ‘critique’ in their name when she disowned a traditional position.”
In a 1964 interview for the German television series Zur Person, the host, after noting that Arendt was the first woman to be profiled on the show, asked Arendt if she considered her role as a female philosopher to be unusual or peculiar — and whether she wanted to achieve extensive influence with her work.
“I’m afraid I have to protest,” Arendt answered, cigarette in hand. “My profession, if one can speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher nor do I believe I've been accepted in the circle of philosophers.” (Certain philosophy professors did indeed view her as a journalist, while others enthusiastically offered her tenure.) Arendt continued with a lenient smile: “You ask about the effect my work has on others. If I may speak ironically, that's a masculine question. Men always want to be influential. […] I want to understand.”
I’m dwelling on her gender partly to further contrast her absence of disorder and angst with the chaos of so many of her male counterparts and predecessors. And let’s face it. She knew dark times better than most. I usually sidestep the oppression-point scales that implicitly girdle our present social discourses, but Arendt was indisputably well credentialed: she fled Nazi Germany and then an internment camp in France, and when she arrived as a Jewish refugee in New York at the age of 35, she barely spoke English. But all that aside, confident, professional female philosophers — I, at any rate, believe she was a philosopher — were, for obviously unjust reasons, rarities in the 1950s. And because she was so unconcerned with her gender (she nearly declined an offer to be the first tenured female professor at Princeton due to newspapers’ fixation on the “first” part), it was all the easier to revel in her beauty and glamour as the backdrop of an extraordinary mind.
Her friends, students, suitors, and biographers made frequent reference to her “womanly seductiveness,” in the words of Julia Kristeva. She “was to charm me and others, by no means unerotically,” Kazin wrote, recalling their first encounter. McCarthy reminisced about Arendt’s femininity, her eyes, her ankles and calves, and what she looked like when she was thinking: “She lay motionless on a sofa or a day bed, arms folded behind her head, eyes shut but occasionally opening to stare upward.”
Even her writing style is oddly seductive. Some, no doubt, are put off by what Young-Bruehl described as her “meandering English sentences” perilously elongated by conjunctions and dependent clauses that betrayed her German mother tongue. Others find them poetic. Either way, one is hard-pressed to find an Arendt scholar, biographer, or reviewer who doesn’t on occasion succumb to Arendtspeak. Some of her favorite words: “men,” “world,” “think,” “act,” “faculty,” “realm,” “public,” “social,” “plurality.” She also wielded a series of figurative idiosyncrasies with the endearing spiritedness of a new citizen with a new language: “as it were”; “precisely”; “so to speak”; “I am afraid”; “nothing less”; “when the chips are down.”
Samantha Rose Hill, professor at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and formerly the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, is plainly both a scholar and fan, and no less pervious to Arendtspeak. Hill, for instance, uses “think” as a transitive verb instead of its customary intransitive usage — e.g., Heidegger wanted to “think Being anew” — one of Arendt’s rhetorical trademarks. More significantly, Hill quickly cuts to the core of Arendt’s principal talent: the formulation of trenchant categories and definitions that, for all their certitude, take from the past only what is necessary, looking otherwise to the present and future. Arendt could be sweeping and specific all at once, making observations about entire centuries and occupations — “It was not in the Middle Ages but in modern thinking that philosophy came to play second and even third fiddle” — before homing in on the moments and books that underpinned her propositions.
“What separated and continues to separate Arendt’s work from others,” Hill writes, “is the ways in which she was able to make connections across bodies of literature that she read and memorized.” The breadth of her reading, Hill tells us, was enough to prompt even Jerome Kohn, New School professor and trustee of Arendt’s literary estate, to say, “The problem with Hannah Arendt was that she knew too much.”
There is something almost mythological about Arendt’s conceptual categories and distinctions. Even when they begin to sound clinical or quirky, they remain intoxicating because they serve, with a luminous sort of aplomb, as guideposts in a chaotic world.
“It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and finally, ‘violence’ — all of which refer to distinct, different phenomena,” Arendt wrote in On Violence, before going on to carefully define each term.
At a lecture at Bard in 1968, she similarly reprimanded a student who referred to religion as an ideology:
Look, all these terms we use here — ideology, imperialism, totalitarian, dictatorship, tyranny, etc. — all these words are used in a very loose way. You will hear that if some president of a university is in disagreement with a student, he is being accused of being totalitarian. But the most he could be was tyrannical — even if he wanted to, he simply couldn’t be totalitarian. So we use all these words in specific, well-defined ways because otherwise they apply to so many phenomena that they are like an umbrella, under which you can put everything, and you no longer know what you are actually talking about.
Biography is a tricky art form, particularly when the subject stood at historic crossroads and produced works of resounding complexity. The truth is, given the information that was available at the time, Young-Bruehl’s For Love of the World missed practically nothing. Hill calls it “a momentous feat,” and she couldn’t have written her version without repeating and drawing from Young-Bruehl, whom she acknowledges as an indispensable source. Still, while Young-Bruehl’s 500-page book moves excitedly and fussily between summaries of Arendt’s ideas and personal tidbits, making quick consultations almost impossible, Hill sparingly and undramatically chooses her details (without, thankfully, passing over the gossip).
Hill’s strengths are threefold. She is evidently so used to explaining Arendt’s ideas to nervous freshmen that each chapter contains a SparkNotes-like summary of the major works written during the time period in question. They are concise and comprehensible.
Second, Hill was well situated to go diving for gems in Arendt’s papers, letters, and marginalia. For one thing, Bard College houses Arendt’s entire personal library — over 4,000 volumes. And since the publication of Young-Bruehl’s biography almost 40 years ago, much more of Arendt’s correspondence has come to light — books and books of it — including letters between her and her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, and also with Heidegger, Jaspers, and McCarthy. Hill was able to recompile and reselect from the growing pile with contemporary perspective — after all, while Arendt died quite recently by most measures, Hill was born after her death.
Lastly, Hill spares us the clichéd, tabloid-ish critiques that make up a sizable chunk of Arendtian lore (“she was a self-hating Jew”; “I can’t believe she loved Heidegger”; “she thought Eichmann’s crimes were banal”; and so on and so forth). Instead, Hill calmly — and quietly, but without truckling — applies her close readings of Arendt’s most controversial ideas to our own oftentimes taut and illiberal social atmosphere.
I ought to glide past the gems — the synopses and well-picked gossip — so I can talk a little more about these ideas. But there is some irresistible stuff, old and new, in the book: 19-year-old Arendt’s pet mouse; the FBI’s on-file description (“a small, rotund, stoop shouldered woman with a crew-like haircut, masculine voice, and marvelous mind”); her god-given mentors (Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers); Heidegger’s impression after their very first student-teacher meeting (“from now on you will belong in my life”); her astonishing social circle while exiled in Paris (Brecht, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Benjamin, Merleau-Ponty, Lacan); the drama that ensued during Arendt and McCarthy’s second encounter (McCarthy said she felt sorry for Hitler; Arendt erupted); and my favorite, Arendt’s reaction after her taxi was hit by a truck in Central Park:
When I awoke […] and became conscious of what had happened, I tried out my limbs, saw that I was not paralyzed and could see with both eyes; then tried out my memory — very carefully, decade by decade, poetry, Greek and German and English; then telephone numbers. Everything is alright.
With the writing that followed her second major book, The Human Condition, Arendt started to draw controversy. It was inevitable. She was adamant about speaking without sentiment or ambiguity. She abjured both self-pity and tribalism, and she challenged the zeitgeist when she thought it was being swept away by presuppositions or incoherence. In her 1959 essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” she protested what she saw as the desegregation mandate’s instrumentalization of schoolchildren. It brought on the ire of many liberals, including Ralph Ellison. But the peak of her pariahdom came when she covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker, which culminated in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Hill scarcely breaks a sweat defending Arendt on the Eichmann matter, which is still alive and kicking in parts of academe. Hill has obviously heard it all, knows where most strictures fail to hold water, and gives Arendt the last word:
To Arendt the most upsetting part of the literary show trial was that she was pronounced guilty for a book she had never written. Most of her critics had, she wrote, not even bothered to read it. They objected to her ironic tone, not its content. Worst of all, they were more interested in invalidating her than engaging with her arguments.
Arendt’s own response to her friend, the Israeli philosopher Gershom Scholem, who accused her of having no “love for the Jewish people,” captures her abstention from groupthink:
How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life “loved” some nation or collective — not the German, French, or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else there might be in this price range of loyalties. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.
When it comes to how this translates to contemporary matters of social and identity politics, however, Hill is a little more cautious. Any professor who teaches Arendt today — and shares her doughty independence — would have a hard time not implicating both camps in our present cultural schism: the red hats as well as the social justice enthusiasts. Arendt would have been appalled by the left’s — and accordingly, prevailing media’s — brandishing of identitarian simplifications and catchwords that bear little resemblance to “what we’re actually talking about.” She firmly believed in airing differences of opinion in public, while keeping private and social interests out of politics. Moreover, as Hill tells us, Arendt thought “the rhetoric of equality is dangerous to democratic political life, and she consistently argued that men would only ever be equal in the sense that they were unequal.”
At first, Hill tiptoes around these implications, feigning neutrality. In reviewing the heated scholarship surrounding Arendt and race, she begins quietly (“some view,” “those who argue,” etc.). But after 150 pages, Hill seems to realize her “cancellation” is an unlikely scenario. She becomes more explicit: “Any form of identity politics was a contradiction in terms for Arendt, who drew a sharp distinction between who a person is and what a person is. Nobody belongs to a political movement, Arendt argued, just because they are born black, Jewish or female.”
At the end of my dewy-eyed (and yes, slightly facile) philosopher’s trail, I found myself at the Nietzsche-Haus in Sils Maria, where the ascetic priest had completed a number of his significant works. The village was a little too photogenic, a little too befitting of our tourism-savvy 21st century. I could reflexively film and photograph and broadcast, but internalizing the otherworldly space posed a peculiar sort of impasse. There were trappings of such alienation throughout my travels — when I felt more distant than ever from the great thinkers, even while standing in their footsteps.
“Our world today is not the world of the early and mid-twentieth century,” Hill reminds us. Indeed, the images and textures on my tour — the Philosophers’ Walk in Heidelberg, overlooking the campus where Arendt completed her dissertation; the Black Forest cabin in Todtnauberg where Heidegger wrote Being and Time; the Alpine meadows by which Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra — were stirring in their own ways, but they were neither recreations nor substitutes for thinking presently. Our overpopulated, stratified, and still clamorously connected world offers a throng of new matters to bravely and freshly contemplate — to understand without cannibalizing the past or recoiling from what Hill calls Arendt’s “radical openness” to the distinctions of the time.
In his posthumously published notebooks, Nietzsche mused that “a people which is becoming conscious of its dangers produces a genius.” Arendt would have found the plaudit applied to her silly and possibly “masculine.” All the same, her fierce, free clarity inspires. We inherit from her an exemplar par excellence. Arendt shows us “how to think the world anew […] how to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, how to think critically without succumbing to ideology,” Hill writes. “Only when we do this, she says, will we be able to love the world.”
Shaan Sachdev writes about ontology, political bias, Beyoncé, masculinity, the military industrial complex, and other things. His website is: www.sachdev.com.