15.5.11

Hannah Arendt



"This is the precept by which I have lived: Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes."

Hannah Arendt (Hanover, 1906 - New York, 1975) was one of the most influential historians and political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into a German-Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and lived in Paris for the next eight years, working for a number of Jewish refugee organisations. Between 1937 and 1950, Arendt was a stateless person. In 1941 she immigrated to the United States and soon became part of a lively intellectual circle in New York. She held a number of academic positions at various American universities until her death in 1975. She is best known for two works that had a major impact both within and outside the academic community. The first, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, was a study of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes that generated a wide-ranging debate on the nature and historical antecedents of the totalitarian phenomenon. The second, The Human Condition, published in 1958, was an original philosophical study that investigated the fundamental categories of the vita activa (labor, work, action). In addition to these two important works, Arendt published a number of influential essays on topics such as the nature of revolution, freedom, authority, tradition and the modern age. At the time of her death in 1975, she had completed the first two volumes of her last major philosophical work, The Life of the Mind, which examined the three fundamental faculties of the vita contemplativa (thinking, willing, judging). Her studies are of great importance for the theory and analysis of totalitarianism and the nature and origins of political violence. In 1975 she was awarded the Sonning Prize by the Danish government for her contributions to European civilization.

The Origins of Totalitarianism. No book was more resonant or impressive in tracing the steps toward the distinctive twentieth-century tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, or in measuring how grievously wounded Western civilization and the human status itself had become. She demonstrated how embedded racism was in Central and Western European societies by the end of the nineteenth century, and how imperialism experimented with the possibilities of unspeakable cruelty and mass murder. The third section of her book exposed the operations of "radical evil," arguing that the huge number of prisoners in the death camps marked a horrifying discontinuity in European history itself. Totalitarianism put into practice what had been imagined only in the medieval depictions of hell. In the 1950s, The Origins of Totalitarianism engendered much doubt, especially by drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia (despite their obvious ideological conflicts and their savage warfare from 1941 to 1945). The parallelism continues to stir skepticism in some readers, especially because of the unavailability and unfamiliarity of Russian sources when the book was researched and written. But Arendt's emphasis on the plight of the Jews amid the decline of Enlightenment ideals of human rights, and her insistence that the Third Reich was conducting two wars—one against the Allies, the other against the Jewish people—have become commonplaces of Jewish historiography. Much of her book is stunningly original, and virtually every paragraph is ablaze with insight. More than any other scholar, Arendt made meaningful and provocative the idea of "totalitarianism" as a new form of autocracy,  springing from subterranean sources within Western society, but pushing to unprecedented extremes murderous fantasies of domination and revenge (Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, 1997).

Quotations

By its very nature the beautiful is isolated from everything else. From beauty no road leads to reality.

In order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism.

Nothing we use or hear or touch can be expressed in words that equal what is given by the senses.

Action without a name, a who attached to it, is meaningless.

The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.

Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.

The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.

Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act. The Human Condition

Exasperation with the threefold frustration of action —the unpredictability of its outcome, the irreversibility of the process, and the anonymity of its authors— is almost as old as recorded history. It has always been a great temptation, for men of action no less than for men of thought, to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents. Ibid.

Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.


Por el agua suave en movimiento,
que vence a la dura piedra con el tiempo,
lo comprendes, los fuertes sucumben.

Bertold Brecht

Resources
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
European Graduate School
Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958
Reflections of Violence

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