Thinking Without Banisters: Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt’s reflections on judgment, thinking, moral action, and political courage show that she was not a system builder and was not interested in offering axioms by which to rearrange the world. Yet in following her train of thought, we experience the illuminating force of her insights.
Born in Germany in 1906, Arendt was a stateless person from 1933 to 1951, when she became a naturalized American citizen. She fled the Gestapo with her mother the year the Nazis took over, eventually settling in Paris. When France fell to German troops in 1940, she was interned in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (now called Place des Martyrs Juifs) as an enemy alien because of her German nationality. After enduring terrible conditions for several weeks, she was transported to a camp in Gurs, in the south of France. Before the Vichy regime consolidated its control of the camp, a group of women, led by the Austrian Communist militant Lisa Fittko, arranged for forged liberation papers and urged several hundred women, including Arendt, to walk out of it. Most of the prisoners who remained at Gurs were eventually sent to Auschwitz.
It was during Arendt’s flight from France to the US in 1941 that some of her most celebrated political writings, such as “We Refugees” and The Origins of Totalitarianism, began to take shape. She captured her harrowing and humiliating experiences of exile and statelessness in the pithy phrase “the right to have rights.” Political philosophers during the Enlightenment had argued that humans were endowed with certain basic rights, such as life, liberty, and property. It fell to the nation-state to recognize and protect these rights, but Arendt’s experience led her to ask what safeguards people could rely on when their own countries rejected them. As she explained in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
The right that corresponds to [the loss of rights]…cannot be expressed in the categories of the eighteenth century because they presume that rights spring immediately from the “nature” of man…. The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether this is possible.
Perhaps no other passage captures Arendt’s political thought more sharply than this paradoxical claim that communities may deny certain members rights and belonging but that only humanity itself, and not an almighty ruler or a divine force, can prevent this from happening. Humanity is both the culprit and the judge.
Twentieth-century politics had discredited earlier beliefs about human nature, whether one viewed people as principally motivated by sentiment and reason, as Rousseau and Kant maintained, or saw them as Hobbesian combatants seeking relief from constant conflict. In concentration and extermination camps, human psychology was transformed beyond what traditional political philosophers had imagined was possible; the abuses of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century monarchs could not compare to industrialized murder.
Arendt’s resolution to the dilemma posed by the right to have rights is that we must build institutions and practices that can sustain equality. “We are not born equal,” she writes; “we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.” Like all political decisions, this one had to be backed by courage and resolve in the face of unfavorable odds. Only blindness to historical facts could lead one to believe, as liberals and some Marxists still did, that there was inevitable progress in history toward justice and emancipation.
But how far can the circle of equality extend? Can all humans really be considered equal members of the same group? Arendt offers no prescriptions, and unlike political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, she does not use general theories of human nature, history, or the good to deduce what political institutions ought to be and what political actors ought to do. For her, the events of the twentieth century caused an irrevocable break in the philosophical tradition. The concentration camps and genocides; the rise of imperialism and totalitarianism; the plight of the stateless and the emergence of masses for whom no one wanted to claim responsibility—all this required radical rethinking of the human condition, its limits and possibilities.
Born in the industrial city of Hannover to relatively secular Jewish parents, Arendt lost her father at an early age, and the family moved to Königsberg, Germany’s easternmost city, near the border with tsarist Russia. As Samantha Rose Hill, an associate professor at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, recounts in Hannah Arendt, during those years Arendt was interested not in politics but in philosophy and literature. She was
entrenched in her father’s library, reading and memorizing Friedrich Schiller, Goethe, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Homer, while exploring philosophy, devouring Karl Jaspers’s Psychology of Worldviews (1919) and Immanuel Kant’s TheCritique of Pure Reason (1781).
In 1924, at the age of eighteen, she arrived at the University of Marburg to study philosophy with Martin Heidegger, who was developing elements of his seminal work, Being and Time (1927). His obscure but brilliant lectures and seminars on Plato and Aristotle were attended by future luminaries of German philosophy, including Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl Loewith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom were deeply influenced by his thought. Heidegger soon found himself “smitten” with the shy young woman who visited him during his office hours, and less than two weeks after her first visit to his office, he declared his love for her. Their passionate affair lasted several years, continuing until 1928, after she had left Marburg to study with Jaspers at the University of Heidelberg upon Heidegger’s recommendation.
In 1929 Arendt finished a dissertation in Latin on Saint Augustine’s concept of love, analyzing the relationship between the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. Hill notes that working on Augustine led Arendt to one of her central concepts—love of the world, or amor mundi. She quotes Arendt: “It is through love of the world that man explicitly makes himself at home in the world.” “The world” is one of the central categories of Heidegger’s thought; rejecting modern philosophy’s preoccupation with the single individual’s mind and consciousness, Heidegger analyzed what he called our being-in-the-world, always surrounded by objects and things, preoccupied with tasks and affairs. But for him, this busyness of modern men leads to a forgetting of one’s authentic self, that humans are finite beings whose time-bound journey inevitably ends in death.
For Arendt, by contrast, the world is not the space in which we forget our being-unto-death while pursuing trivial affairs; rather, it is a space that we share with others, with whom we build the lasting institutions of public life. Being-in-the-world involves being in the company of others with whom we enjoy talking and interacting. We labor to meet the needs of the body, create art and artifacts, and engage in moral and political activities.
Heidegger would have considered Arendt’s faith in such a public sphere naive; he wrote of the “light of the public sphere that darkens all.” For him the human condition involved not only facing up to our mortality but listening to the call of history and destiny. (Heidegger plays with the etymological affinity in German between “hören,” hearing, and “horchen,” harkening or obeying.) He heard this “call” in the Nazi politics of reviving a German nation—beaten down by war, inflation, and political crises after World War I—through a return to “blood and soil.” Heidegger became the rector of the University of Freiburg in April 1933 and joined the Nazi Party. He resigned from the rectorship a year later but never gave up his membership in the party.
During a trip to Germany in February 1950, Arendt sought Heidegger out, and their feelings were rekindled. She chose not to confront or disavow him publicly, but there is plenty of evidence in her correspondence with Jaspers, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and others that she was well aware of his duplicitous and opportunistic personality. In an essay celebrating Heidegger’s eightieth birthday, she interpreted his rectorship under the Nazis as a “déformation professionelle,”
the blindness of a philosopher toward the realities of politics.
The Arendt-Heidegger love affair first became public through Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography For Love of the World, published seven years after Arendt’s death in 1975. Young-Bruehl, who had been Arendt’s doctoral student at the New School for Social Research in New York, did not have access to the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence, but she was able to reconstruct their relationship through Arendt’s autobiographical writings, poems, and correspondence with friends. Since then the intellectual dimensions of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship have generally been underplayed as many writers have retold the story, giving it different kinds of romantic or quasi-spiritual emphases.
Women’s private lives can stick to them unduly and, even in the case of a major intellectual figure such as Arendt, can lead to all sorts of rash judgments and evaluations about them.
Arendt herself had experimented with writing the lives of women in her biography of the German salonnière Rahel Varnhagen, born Rahel Levin in Berlin in 1771. Undertaken in 1929, the book seems to have been intended as Arendt’s Habilitationsschrift (her second doctoral dissertation), which would have won her the right to teach at a German university. In recounting Varnhagen’s life, Arendt documents the paradoxes of German Jews’ emancipation between the breakdown of the Jewish ghetto in the eighteenth century and the emergence of the nineteenth-century bourgeois Christian nation-state. By 1933, when Arendt fled Germany, the book was finished except for the last two chapters, which she completed in 1938, during her exile in France. The biography first appeared in English in 1957 as Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess; it has now been published in a superb edition as volume 2 of the bilingual Complete Works, edited by Barbara Hahn, with Johanna Egger and Friederike Wein.
Arendt wanted to “narrate the story of Rahel’s life as she herself might have told it.” What interested her was the evolution of Varnhagen’s psychology and, especially, her Jewish identity. Between 1790 and 1806 Rahel hosted a salon in her Berlin attic apartment, attended by intellectual and political luminaries such as Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, the diplomat Friedrich Gentz, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. These evenings came to an end with Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1806 and the subsequent rise of German nationalism. Her attempt to revive the salon after her conversion to Christianity and eventual marriage to Karl August von Varnhagen, a German aristocrat and civil servant, did not succeed.
Arendt considered Varnhagen’s generation of German Jews naive in their romantic conception of Innerlichkeit (inwardness). In Arendt’s view, Varnhagen cultivated a certain passivity and tried to live her life “as if it were a work of art.” Arendt observed that to “believe that by ‘cultivation’ [Bildung] one can make a work of art of one’s life, was the great error that Rahel shared with her contemporaries.” Cultivation neither mitigated the injustices of the world around her nor combated anti-Semitic prejudice. Arendt’s generation rejected such self-centeredness in favor of political engagement—whether by joining Communist and socialist resistance to Nazism or by aiding various Zionist groups that hoped to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Hitler’s rise to power and the widespread anti-Semitism in genteel European society convinced Arendt that, in the political realm, one “can resist only in terms of the identity that is under attack”—in her case, as a Jew.
Jewish politics had entered her life in 1926, when she met the Zionist leader Kurt Blumenfeld at a student gathering in Heidelberg. While in exile in France, she continued to help Zionist groups, and she remained active in Zionist circles even after she came to the United States, although she never wished to settle in Palestine. After the death in 1949 of Judah Magnes, the leader of Brit Shalom, a movement among German Jewish intellectuals that advocated for a binational federation of Jews and Palestinians and that Arendt supported, she was silent about Zionist politics for nearly fifteen years. The bitter controversy that erupted in 1963 with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, when she was accused of anti-Semitism and of being a self-hating Jew, cost Arendt some old friends, including Blumenfeld and the famous historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, whom she had known since their days in Berlin.
What Irving Howe, one of the founders of Dissent magazine, referred to as the “civil war that broke out among New York intellectuals,” or some version of it, will continue to erupt every time some new archive is opened and new evidence comes forth.
) has often been misintrepeted as minimizing the evil of the Holocaust itself, rather than describing the bureaucratic apparatus needed to make a totalitarian regime function. Historians more justifiably take exception to Arendt’s account of the supposed collaboration of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte), established by the Nazis in German-occupied Poland and Eastern Europe, in ensuring an orderly transportation of Jewish citizens to concentration camps. Still, Arendt thought that the State of Israel was justified in putting Eichmann to death, even though she criticized the judgment of the Israeli court for condemning Eichmann for “crimes against the Jewish people” and not “crimes against humanity.”
Arendt’s immersion in these experiences as both a participant and a theorist informs her tragic sense of politics. Dana Villa, a political scientist at Notre Dame and the author of an important early work on Arendt and Heidegger, writes in his new book, Arendt, with respect to two world wars, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust:
What first appears to be an unmitigated disaster also opens the possibility of viewing the past with new eyes…. This possibility can be redeemed only if one confronts the late modern situation with a high degree of intellectual integrity and dispenses with any attempt to “re-tie the broken thread of tradition.”
Villa’s comprehensive account of Arendt’s work stresses that although she wrote extensively about the rupture in the tradition of political philosophy that made it impossible to rely on the insights of the past alone, Arendt remained in continual conversation with Plato and Aristotle, Saint Augustine and Nietzsche, Machiavelli and Kant, Hegel and Marx. Central to this conversation is Arendt’s critique of philosophy for being contemptuous of the “frailty” and unpredictability of public affairs that often frustrates political actors, who frequently discover the full meaning of their actions only in retrospect.
Villa is particularly astute in analyzing the temptations this unpredictability gives rise to: some are led to treat political life as an artifact that could be constructed as an engineer designs a building or a sculptor builds a monument. This technocratic inclination to escape from the uncertainties of moral and political action into the durability of fabricated objects persists down to our own day in the plans of bureaucrats to fully administer society or of revolutionary and utopian thinkers to remake human psychology. Arendt thought that already in the Republic, Plato had tried to escape from the unpredictability of human affairs by constructing an ideal “city in speech” that negated the contentious and boisterous life of politics in the ancient Greek city-states, rendering philosophers ill equipped amid the messiness of the actual polis.
In thinking about freedom, Arendt turned to the experience of Greek and Roman lawgivers, to advisers to princes such as Machiavelli, and to framers of constitutions such as the American Founders, retrieving a forgotten concept of freedom from their experience and writings. In ordinary speech, we use freedom and liberty as synonyms denoting the capacity to choose one course of action over another, to express one set of preferences over another. I am “free” and at “liberty” to listen to jazz or classical music, to go for a walk or to read a book. For Arendt, however, freedom was not equivalent to such private liberties. True freedom was “public freedom,” the freedom of a community to give itself laws and imagine a new shared world.
Villa observes that “Arendt makes [public freedom] the centerpiece (along with public spirit and public happiness) of her analysis of the modern revolutionary tradition initiated by the French and American revolutions.” Public-spiritedness means devotion to the affairs of the community one shares with others, and public happiness is the joy one feels in acting in concert with others to build a new form of political life. By these measures, the American Revolution was more successful than the French Revolution, which devolved into bitter factionalism and terror.
Arendt distinguished engagement in moral and political life, which she called the vita activa, from the life of the mind, or the vita contemplativa. Her three-volume The Life of the Mind was unfinished at the time of her death. Divided into Thinking, Willing, and Judging, and edited by her friend Mary McCarthy, it is most puzzling and intriguing in its final incomplete volume, Judging. Here we find Arendt turning to Kant’s theory of judgment as developed in his aesthetic philosophy, to address one of the central aspects of any moral and political action: how to judge properly the principles that guide one’s actions and the circumstances surrounding them.
In An Education in Judgment: Hannah Arendt and the Humanities, D.N. Rodowick, a professor of the humanities at the University of Chicago, shows how Arendt came up with this highly original interpretation connecting Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment to moral and political freedom. Rodowick calls attention to Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” which discusses the negative effect of mass media on art and culture. In this essay from the early 1960s, Arendt writes that the Critique of Judgment (1790) “contains perhaps the greatest and most original aspect of Kant’s political philosophy.” This claim has puzzled scholars since she wrote it. Villa considers her turn to Kant “counterintuitive.” The late Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar thought it absurd to neglect, as Arendt did, Kant’s writings on politics and, in particular, law, and to focus instead on his writings on aesthetics.
But Arendt found something inherently political in Kant’s aesthetics, namely his rejection of the subjectivism and relativism of judgments of taste. To say that an English garden is beautiful is not equivalent to saying, “I like English gardens better than German ones.” It is to offer a judgment for evaluation; I am committing to persuading you with good reasons so that you might agree with me. Far from being merely subjective, aesthetic judgments are held up to the potential criticism of others, thereby making a shared world possible by bringing our perspectives into line with those of the people around us. Kant calls this capacity to take others’ views into account “enlarged thinking” (erweiterte Denkungsart). We achieve it, he writes, by comparing “our judgment not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgment of others, and thus put ourselves in the position of everyone else”
Through this imaginative process, we reach beyond the limitations of our personal preferences and idiosyncrasies, appealing to others with whom we aim to build a common world. Aesthetic judgments are thus political because they aim at persuading others by taking their standpoint into account. Arendt describes this as “wooing” or “courting” the agreement of everyone else. Such judgments are integral to what she in The Human Condition calls the “web of narratives” by which we recount who someone is and what someone has done. “From the viewpoint of this common experience,” she writes in “The Crisis in Culture,” “it is as though taste decides not only how the world is to look, but also who belongs together in it.”
Arendt’s distinctive concern with judgment in aesthetics as well as in politics was principally motivated by her dismay at the destruction of a shared European culture. When we share a world of common cultural significations and references, we also share the certitude of judging: we say this or that ought not to be done because it is against God’s law, against the nation, against humanity, and so on. Kant called such assertions, in which a general rule is applied, “determinative” judgments. Yet he claimed that judgments of taste and beauty were not determinative, because no such shared rules existed for them. It was rather through the exercise of “reflective” judgment that we would need to articulate a new general rule that might or might not be accepted by others.
Reflective judgments could be reached only by thinking, which for Arendt means a mental activity whose goal is not to generate factual knowledge about something or someone, but to liberate judgment by forcing one to confront certitudes and platitudes—one’s own as well as those shared with others. “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly,” Arendt writes. “And this indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down.”
In other words, before we can think from the standpoint of fellow citizens and others, we have to learn to think for ourselves; only once we have identified what matters to us can we hope to reach agreement about our shared priorities and the ways we can best protect them. We have to have the courage to stand our ground even when our deepest convictions are challenged; yet at the same time, we have to modulate our independence of thought by submitting our judgment to what we anticipate would be the viewpoint of others and reflect on how or why we diverge.
In our own time of suspicion and mistrust, when every claim to universality is believed to conceal some self-interest or even a drive to domination, these Kantian ideas central to Arendt’s thinking have fallen into disrepute. Absent a shared world of assumptions, the exercise of “enlarged thinking” can lead more often to hubris than inclusion: one might project a standpoint onto others without knowing enough about them, thus denying their individuality through bland assertions of commonality. Conversely, a shared sense of humanity may be lost so fully that one can no longer see others’ perspectives at all, because one no longer considers them human beings but instead objectifies and reduces them to disposable bodies—as happened in Arendt’s experience as an internee and stateless refugee. Intelligence alone does not guarantee that one will avoid such errors. Recognizing equality while also acknowledging difference requires political experience, a degree of self-knowledge, and a willingness to confront opponents and take risks. Arendt learned this when the universalist ideals of the German Enlightenment collapsed around her.
She saw then that the right to have rights does not refer, as some liberal political theorists assume, to a shared human substance or quality by virtue of which we acknowledge one another’s equality; it refers rather to the commitments we must make to one another to build and sustain institutions that protect equality. We exercise a freedom that is in some respects groundless, and we “think without banisters,” to use one of Arendt’s phrases, by creating representative institutions, promulgating laws and constitutions, and demonstrating civic courage when such institutions betray their original promises and need to be renewed. Such engagement with the public world requires something from the political sphere that is the antithesis of classical liberal individualism. It requires vigilance in identifying and promoting the common good, and a readiness to accept the burdens of taking political initiative. Arendt regretted the passing away of public freedom and public happiness, which could be attained only in working with others to build institutions, and she rejected the growing materialism, consumerism, and privatization of life in modern capitalist democracies.
Arendt’s own judgments were sometimes quite wrong, especially concerning what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “color line.” In her discussion of the colonization of Africa in The Origins of Totalitarianism (which drew on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness), she romanticized the continent and dehumanized its inhabitants, writing that “they behaved like a part of nature” and “had not created a human world, a human reality.” In her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959), she criticized efforts to desegregate local public schools by sending US marshals to protect Black students who were ordered to attend previously all-white schools. She took exception to the politicization of the lives of children, which reminded her of Nazi and Stalinist youth groups, and failed to understand how different the sacrifices made by Black Americans were from these movements. Yet she was one of the first thinkers to connect imperialism and totalitarianism to European atrocities during World War II, by suggesting that the dehumanization and genocide of colonial subjects in Africa created mental structures that rendered certain others—be they Jews, Communists, socialists, gays, the handicapped, the Roma—as stateless refugees and eventually superfluous beings to be disposed of in Europe’s concentration camps.
Arendt’s reflections on judgment, thinking, moral action, and political courage show that she was not a system builder and was not interested in offering axioms by which to rearrange the world. Yet in following her train of thought, we experience the illuminating force of her insights. Her characterization of her friend Walter Benjamin as a “pearl diver” who plumbed the depths of Western philosophy and culture, to bring its buried treasures to the surface, applies equally to her.
Pearl diving is not mere historical retrieval. It involves moving along the jagged ocean floor and upsetting its natural sedimentation in order to recover those hidden treasures. To reach them, the diver must often mess up the layers at the bottom of the ocean, as Arendt and Benjamin did by testing the broken edges, ruptures, and discontinuities of the past instead of treating them as elements in a smooth and continuous path. Arendt’s legacy is not a doctrine or a philosophical system. It is a bracing induction into thinking about the political and facing up to its promises as well as its failures.
Seyla Benhabib is a Professor Emerita of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale and Senior Scholar in Residence at Columbia Law School. She is the author of Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin. (February 2022)