The life and death of a philosopher should have a more than personal significance. When Hannah Arendt died December 4, many people mourned a friend and a teacher, but some also knew that a shattered culture had lost one of its very last and finest voices. Now there is no one left who can speak about and out of the depth of the experience of German Jewry. She was one of the last survivors of a spiritual republic whose social history was as terrible and brief as it was intellectually radiant and enduring.
Hannah Arendt typically began her career as a philosopher with a dissertation on a subject that was neither Jewish nor German. It dealt with St. Augustine’s concept of love. Soon after she realized that it was no longer possible to dwell quite so far above history and she turned to study the life of one of the first representatives of Jewish assimilation, Rahel Varnhagen. It was not meant to be biography but an investigation into the original situation of a group whose end was at hand. Newly emerged from the ghetto Rahel devoted her life to the Goethe cult and to German poetry generally. She would come to terms with her life as a Jew, of which she was ashamed, only on her deathbed. It was only then that we can see her, as Heine saw her, as fully human. Miss Arendt was not inclined to sympathize with such moral weakness, but she never rejected the more universal aspirations of that flawed individual life. When many years later she came to write about Rosa Luxemburg, whom she admired greatly, she did not forget to mention her heroine’s perfect familiarity with and deep affection for German poetry. That was by no means all. German “Bildung” since the late 18th century gave its beneficiaries a complete knowledge and abiding passion for the classics, especially for the Greeks. Without forgetting Jerusalem, Miss Arendt’s intellectual life was shaped at every turn by the memory of Athens.
It was with this inheritance that she began her work as a political theorist. Her own and her contemporaries’ most intense and immediate experience was exile. The sufferings of exiles are hard to express directly and impossible to explain to those who have never felt them. Yet one of Miss Arendt’s first political essays dealt with just that, and in a very philosophical way. Whatever merit the notion of the rights of man against the state may once have had, she argued, it had become clear, that, in the world of nation-states, to be stateless was to have no rights whatever. The first right of man was to belong to a political society. Without statemembership one is unwanted and displaced, superfluous, in short. This essay, and indeed how men have been systematically reduced to superfluousness, was to become one of the centerpieces of her first and most widely read book. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Its subject is not the beginnings, but the essence of this new regime. Following her masters, Aristotle and Montesquieu, Miss Arendt looked for the principles, and not at the history, of totalitarianism. As fear had been the principle of old despotisms, so terror was that of totalitarian regimes. These were unique, not only because of the technological and organizational instruments at their disposal, but because of their design. Their object was destruction as an end in itself. Neither self-interest, nor profit, nor aggrandizement, but a desire to render men mere depersonalized instruments of power moved the rulers of these regimes. To this purpose they developed entirely new ways of governing. When anti-Semitism and imperialism had enfeebled its class and state system, Europe was ready for racism, perpetual war and the totalitarian party and its leaders. The world of the masses met its fate. It has become fashionable to criticize the notion of totalitarianism as a Cold War invention devised to exploit and mobilize anti-Fascist opinion against Soviet Russia. Whatever small truth there may be in that charge, it does not apply to Miss Arendt’s book, because its scope was far wider than its title suggests. It deals not with particular men or rulers but with the dynamics of the decay of Europe’s public life. Totalitarianism becomes, in such a vision, the epitome as well as a constant possibility of a world half-mad at best.
Miss Arendt’s second and most profound work, The Human Condition, tells a very similar story, though in a less desperate tone. It is an account of that great reversal of values that makes the modern world the very obverse of antiquity. If we are to understand ourselves at all, we must look at ourselves in contrast to the Greeks. If we can no longer think like them, we also cannot think at all without them. Miss Arendt never displayed the nostalgia so common among exiles, but she did long for the lost wisdom of the ancients. They placed contemplation at the highest and labor at the lowest point of human endeavor; we have taken the opposite course and lost our bearings. They valued public activity, while we have forgotten that privacy is a state of civic deprivation. They gave economic occupations a subordinate place; we worship them. Christianity at least preserved communal and contemplative life, but the natural sciences and systematic, self-oriented doubt destroyed these and far from liberating us delivered us into the clutches of necessity. Estranged from the world of nature and history we cling to mere life, unable to grasp reality and deprived of common sense, authority and public traditions. We have disinherited ourselves, even in the absence of regimes given to pure evil. It is not the message of The Human Condition but the manner in which the argument is developed that gives it its distinction. Here speculative philosophy, the history of ideas and common experience are woven into a single web that reminds one only of one predecessor, Hegel.
The final volume of Miss Arendt’s trilogy on political theory is On Revolution. At first sight it seems like a valentine presented to America, a celebration of the one revolution that succeeded while all others failed. Not having to face acute misery the American revolutionists did not have to confront the social question. Unlike the Jacobins they were not driven to the politics of pity, which became those of the terror. Moreover, the Founding Fathers following Montesquieu knew power and freedom to be inseparable. The French, faithful to Rousseau, moved from royal to popular absolutism in pursuit of an unfettered general will. Finally authority widely dispersed allowed the Americans to build a lasting constitution, rather than to briefly endure one imposed upon them from above. In spite of all this praise, the end of the book shows a patriotism that was not merely a refugee’s gratitude. To complain of unceasing declension is the deepest impulse of American patriotism, and Miss Arendt evidently shared it. Revolutionary success induced moral and intellectual torpor, and an indifference to political participation, which had been the very source of the original achievement. With Tocqueville Miss Arendt saw voluntary associations and the political assertions of minorities as the best hope and greatest strength of American public virtue. Without these bulwarks against delusion, lying and deception, the problemsolvers who infest our government will succeed in creating a counter-reality in which government is calculation and people are mere obstacles to be removed.
Decline and corruption were at the very center of Miss Arendt’s political thought. It is a classical theme. If Hitler provided the immediate impetus, Plato and Aristotle were the formal causes of her philosophy. She never made these silly comparisons between Weimar and America, but without the former she might not have turned to politics, or made the politics of destruction her main concern. Political philosophy is tragic thought. Without a dramatic sense of fate and mutability no rational intelligence would turn to this hideous subject. It was both the force of reason and the contempt for illusion that moved Miss Arendt to look so carefully at political actuality. To have made what she saw coherent and intelligible to others was a great intellectual victory, for her personally, but also for the tradition of open political discourse.