Hannah Arendt, born on October 14, 1906 in Hanover, Germany, was one of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers about political philosophy and the nature of evil. In the one and only filmed interview with her that survives, Arendt objected to being called a philosopher; she said she doesn’t feel like a philosopher, and that she thinks she has not been accepted in the philosophical community. We’re still hashing out what she meant by these statements to this day: some believe that she didn’t feel, as a woman, that the traditionally male-centric philosophical circle had room for her, so she did her work in another arena of thought; some believe since she emphasizes action and responsibility in her ethics and political thought, she felt this did not fit into the abstract nature of the accepted philosophical canon. However, her latter remark has proved no longer true, if it ever was: she is not only accepted into the philosophical circle, she has earned a prominent place in it.
Arendt completed her doctoral degree in philosophy in 1928. By 1940, she was forced to flee the Nazi’s persecution of intellectuals, first as a refugee to Paris, then to the United States, where she arrived in 1941. She settled in the U.S. for good, became a naturalized citizen, and taught at the University of Chicago and then at New York City’s New School for Social Research. Arendt established herself as a major political thinker with her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, and a controversial one with her series of articles for The New Yorker about the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. She used this series as the basis for her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Among Arendt’s major themes is the idea that evil is not so much the result of an active malevolence but of thoughtless complacency. She distills this idea in her concept the banality of evil, which made people very uncomfortable at that time and ever since. Many hate this idea in part because they detect in it an element of victim-blaming, such as in Arendt’s including in her discussion the supposed cooperation of many Jewish community leaders in the massive and efficient deportation of the Jews to Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. But I believe people hate Arendt’s concept more because of its implication that it’s so very easy for every single one of us to participate in great evil through our own carelessness and laziness.
Arendt’s philosophy of action and personal responsibility, problematic as it might be in some particulars, presents an important challenge even as it lays on all of us what might feel like an intolerable burden. She demands that we shake off complacency every moment of our lives, that we resist the temptation to thoughtlessly participate in harmful practices and ways of thinking. In an age where mass consumption has become the norm, even the source of meaning and impetus for most of our actions, regardless of its ravages on the beautiful world that gives us life, there are few ideas that are more timely or more important.
Learn about the life and thought of the courageous and brilliant Hannah Arendt:
Hannah Arendt ~ Interview with Gunter Gaus for Zur Person
Hannah Arendt ~ by Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Hannah Arendt ~ Melvyn Bragg talks to Lyndsey Stonebridge, Frisbee Sheffield, and Robert Eaglestone for In Our Time
Hannah Arendt: American Political Scientist ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica
Hannah Arendt and the Hierarchy of Human Activity ~ by Finn Bowring for The Times Literary Supplement
Film Review: Hannah Arendt ~ Yasemin Sari for Philosophy Now
The Trials of Hannah Arendt ~ Corey Robin for The Nation, May 12, 2015
Why Do Hannah Arendt’s Ideas about Evil and the Holocaust Still Matter? ~ An interview with Michael Rosenthal for the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington
Various articles ~ by Hannah Arendt for The New Yorker magazine
Various articles featuring Hannah Arendt ~ Maria Popova for Brain Pickings
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