March 8th is International Women’s Day and a good chance to highlight a famous German/American female philosopher named Hannah Arendt. Her philosophical and political theories were developed around her experiences growing up as a Jew in Germany under the Nazis. Most of her teachings revolve around the ideas of evil and power in totalitarian regimes. Many of her thoughts are as pertinent today as they were when she wrote them seventy years ago.
Who Was Hannah Arendt?
Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 near Hannover, Germany. She was the daughter of educated, liberal Jewish parents and spent much of her youth growing up in Königsberg, located in East Prussia. Her family was well integrated in the German community there, and Hannah’s education was predominantly secular, emphasizing Goethe’s humanities-oriented ‘Bildung’ (education) ideals. She was quite a precocious girl: She understood ancient Greek at a young age and was ferociously independent in her thinking and actions during her schooling.
She spent some time during the First World War in Berlin and eventually studied there. Later she also studied in Marburg, Freiburg and Heidelberg, where she received her Doctorate in Philosophy in 1929.
After finishing her PhD, Hannah started to research anti-semitism and was arrested by the Nazis in 1933. Following her release, Hannah fled Germany and eventually landed in Paris. She expanded her philosophical interests there until Hitler invaded France in 1940. She was detained by the French and escaped to the United States in 1941 via Portugal.
Hannah became a US citizen in 1950. She was active in trying to find a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and published her first book in 1951: The Origins of Totalitarianism. This is probably her best known work, dealing with the nature of power and evil as well as politics, direct democracy, authority and totalitarian rule. She subsequently wrote many other books and taught in several renowned American universities.
What Was Hannah Arendt’s Political Philosophy?
Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy was based on the idea of active citizenship that emphasizes civic engagement and collective deliberation. She believed that no government could extinguish the drive for human freedom. She saw the evilness of totalitarian power in its manipulation of human thinking.
Perhaps her philosophy is best summed up in quotes from her lectures and books. Below are a few quotes taken from the Internet portal azquotes.com.
‘The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists’.
‘Evil thrives on apathy and cannot exist without it’.
‘The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but destroy the capacity to form any’.
‘The is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil’.
‘Generally speaking, violence always rises out of impotence. It is the hope of those who have no power to find a substitute for it and this hope, I think, is in vain. Violence can destroy power but it can never replace it’.
Hannah Arendt’s ideas and theories are clearly still relevant today.
Hannah Arendt died in 1975 in the United States, where she is buried.