It was Wittgenstein who famously suggested that real thinking requires a descent into primeval chaos. Because Hannah Arendt witnessed the attempted eradication of her own people, and—as she argued at the outset of The Human Condition—the birth of the modern world “with the first atomic explosion,” primeval chaos wasn’t far from the surface in the twentieth century. After she escaped the turmoil of Nazi Germany, understanding the paradox of modernity became her life’s work: on the one hand, the promise of unending progress; on the other, the horrifying prospect that the modern project could very well “end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.” The appropriate response, she thought, was “very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” But the enduring controversies surrounding Arendt confirm Wittgenstein’s insight: to think what we are doing was, and remains, much easier said than done.
Arendt’s penchant for this kind of thinking was first cultivated by Martin Heidegger, who was both her teacher and her lover in the 1920s. But where traditional philosophy often operates in the realm of abstract ideas, Arendt’s characteristic focus was on the way ideas were acted upon and embedded in human history. In her view, thought divorced from action led to political impotence, while action devoid of, or dislocated from, thought was a recipe for tyranny. She saw the latter take shape first hand with Heidegger’s devastating gravitation to the Nazi party. It may have been partly because of this sinister coupling of philosophy with the politics of despotism that she refused the label of political philosopher. Instead, she saw herself as a political theorist—that is, as one who looked “at politics, so to speak, with eyes unclouded by philosophy.” In many ways, Arendt’s confounding relationship with Heidegger foreshadowed the vexing trials, both personal and intellectual, that she would face as a German Jew, a displaced European, and, finally, an American citizen. Though much—perhaps, too much—has been made of their affair, the influence of Heidegger’s teaching on Arendt is inarguable, and the trajectory of her thought was clearly rooted in the ultimate task of his phenomenology: to understand die Sachen selbst, “the things themselves.”
From the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to The Life of the Mind (1971), Arendt’s pursuit of “the things themselves” resulted in a fervent challenging of conventional wisdom and a refusal to accommodate popular opinion. As Richard H. King argues in Arendt and America, her writing seems “designed to unsettle.” Instead of shutting issues down, Arendt “opened them up for reassessment.” Anne C. Heller’s too-brief Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times conveys a similar point, underscoring the urgency of Arendt’s message, while capturing the stark resistance she encountered throughout her career.
That resistance persists today, and is at the forefront of Ada Ushpiz’s documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Like Margarethe von Trotta’s drama Hannah Arendt (2012), Vita Activa is centrally focused on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and the animosity Arendt experienced after writing a series of New Yorker articles in 1963, which became the book Eichmann in Jerusalem. As recently as ten years ago, Richard Bernstein says he could still give a lecture on the subject and at some point “somebody in the audience would suddenly get up and start screaming at me…how could I defend this vicious anti-Semite?” What upset so many people about Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann was that she described him as a bureaucratic clown, instead of a monster. Not only did she believe that his role in the Holocaust exemplified what she called the “banality of evil,” she also worried that the Eichmann case, which ought to have strengthened Israel’s legitimacy, ultimately undermined it by devolving into a show trial. As she observed, “it was history [not Eichmann] that, as far as the prosecution was concerned, stood in the center of the trial.” But the sole charge of the court was to deliver judgment of one man’s guilt or innocence. Confusing these different tasks actually made it harder to see how deeply invested the Nazi regime was in normalizing evil as a legal and political necessity.
After the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, discrediting Arendt became a cottage industry in various intellectual circles—so much so that, as Anne Heller suggests, this chapter of Arendt’s life remains the starting point for “almost every discussion” of her work, which is deeply unfortunate. While Vita Activa is worth viewing, it does not correct the problem. Nor will it provide newcomers with an appreciation of Arendt’s intellectual and literary range. Another serious shortcoming, as Roger Berkowitz has pointed out, is that Ushpiz dubiously rewords more than thirty of Arendt’s quotes (heard in voice-over throughout, accompanied by scenes of bustling city streets, Nazi rallies, or mass burials) that are critical to appreciating the subject.
For more careful documentation, one can turn to Richard King’s Arendt and America, which investigates how “Arendt’s life and thought were changed by coming to America.” Some, like Marshall Berman, have claimed that Arendt’s American experience had little or no influence on her thought. King demonstrates the implausibility of this position by examining her careful engagement with American history and political theory, shedding light on her deep affection for the country’s literature, and for its Constitution. Arendt did not think America’s founding document was beyond criticism, but she did consider it to be one of the most remarkable political achievements in human history. As she argued in On Revolution (1963), it was the American Revolution, not the French, that was able to empower “the ‘grass roots’ of the people,” while “founding a new body politic stable enough to survive the onslaught of centuries to come.” King’s attention to these aspects of Arendt’s scholarship reminds us that, while the Eichmann trial deserves serious consideration, it is only one piece of a remarkable biography.
Unfortunately, Arendt and America cannot quite decide whether it’s a chronological intellectual history or a thematic argumentative assessment, and it fails to gain momentum. Another problem with the book is that it spends too much time reassuring readers that Arendt’s provocations were within the range of what is now acceptable discourse. Though King is at his best when offering a clear defense of her ideas on their own terms, he too readily looks to areas of particular sensitivity in contemporary politics—such as forced migration, statelessness, racism—and then tries to determine whether or not Arendt was, or still would be, out of touch with today’s prevailing views.
For example, he offers a thorough outline of Arendt’s treatment of race in America and the nuanced position she developed, rooted in her own experience of bigotry. King even points to the fact that her objection to forced desegregation of schools—voiced in her famous essay “Reflections on Little Rock”—was shared by both Malcolm X and Zora Neal Hurston. But he still feels compelled to entertain questions about whether or not Arendt was a racist, or slightly racist, or something. In fact, Arendt’s primary concern with Brown vs. Board of Education was that the Supreme Court’s decision had, “very unfairly, shifted the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of adults to those of children.” While she abhorred the intellectually and morally bankrupt practices of the Jim Crow South, she feared that subjecting children to humiliation and hostility could lead to deeper confusion, resentment, and mistrust. She also worried that the result would set race relations on a path that would be more “color conscious” than “freedom minded.” Like Martin Luther King Jr., Arendt believed that sustainable political strength grew out of shared human objectives, not private interests or individual identities. Given the racial and ethnic tensions currently plaguing both America and Europe, Arendt’s argument about the dangers of identity politics would seem to deserve more than the dismissive judgment that she was on the wrong side of history.
A similar prescience can be found in her work on the dangers of cultural conformism, mass consumption, anti-institutionalism, and anti-intellectualism: all of which Arendt wrote about in the pages of this magazine. In her 1954 Commonweal essay “The Threat of Conformism,” she argued that America needed to preserve space for political dissent, but that “the non-violent coercion of public disapproval is so strong that the dissenter has nowhere to turn in his loneliness and impotence, and in the end will be driven either to conformity or to despair.” Arendt probably would not have been surprised at the influence of web-based outrage and hashtag noise one can find on both ends of the ideological spectrum today, or by the rise of demagogues such as Donald Trump. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote that when a dangerous “mixture of gullibility and cynicism” infects a body politic, it is ripe for leaders who promise a world where “everything is possible and nothing is true.” In light of Trump’s success, one wonders what a Kanye West or Mark Zuckerberg could do with a celebrity-obsessed electorate.
According to Magarethe von Trotta’s movie poster, Hannah Arendt’s thinking “changed the world.” And while that’s partly true, it’s hard not to notice that her most important ideas appear to have been either forgotten or ignored. Even so, changing the world was not her objective. “Do I imagine myself being influential? No,” she said. “I want to understand. And if others understand—in the same sense that I have understood—that gives me a sense of satisfaction, like feeling at home.”