The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt

By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty | Go to book overview

42
Thinking Through the Good Life

HANNAH ARENDT

Having studied with Heidegger and Jaspers at Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg,
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) emigrated to France in 1933 and then, in 1941, to the
United States, where she taught at the New School for Social Research. Influ-
enced by Greek and Roman political theory, she became a critic of totalitari-
anism and (what she thought of as) defective democracies. She described a
form of civic life that accords primacy to the praxis of shared, deliberative
political activity as an essential expression of human nature (The Origins of
Totalitarianism
1951; The Human Condition, 1958; Between Past and Future, 1968.)
Profoundly affected by the rise of fascism, she attempted to explain how or-
dinary people living in a highly developed culture could have lapsed into the
barbarism of the Holocaust. In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) Arendt describes
the banal, unnoticed, incremental steps that allow an Eichmann to think of
himself as merely doing his duty. Precisely because not paying attention—de-
flecting reflection and self-criticism—is a perfectly normal psychological pat-
tern, the "banality of evil" can occur anywhere, anytime. Arendt also wrote on
Kant (1982) and Augustine (1996). She also occasionally wrote produced bio-
graphical studies of courageous and original thinkers who seemed marginal in
their time (Men in Dark Times 1968, and Rachel Vernhagen: The Life of a Jewish
Woman
, 1974. Her ambitious work in philosophical psychology, The Life of the
Mind
(1977), characterized varieties of mental activity, distinguishing instrumental
calculation from genuinely civic thought and contemplation. A good deal of
her philosophical correspondence with Heidegger and Jaspers has been pub-
lished posthumously, as was her more personal correspondence with Mary
MacCarthy (Between Friends, 1995).


On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing

I explicitly stress"ed" my membership in the group of Jews expelled from Germany at a relatively early age because I wish to anticipate certain misunderstandings which can arise only too easily when one speaks of humanity. In this connection I cannot gloss over the fact that for many years I considered the only adequate reply to the question, Who are you? to be: A Jew. That answer alone took into account the reality of persecution. As for the statement with which Nathan the Wise (in effect, though not in actual wording) countered the command: "Step closer, Jew"—the statement: I am a man—I would have considered as nothing but a grotesque and dangerous evasion of reality.

Let me also quickly clear away another likely misunderstanding. When I use the word "Jew" I do not mean to suggest any special kind of human being, as though the Jewish fate were either representative of or a model for the fate of mankind. (Any such thesis could at best have been advanced with cogency only during the last stage of Nazi domination, when in fact the Jews and anti-Semitism

-472-

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