On Hannah Arendt — A life of the mind

Laurel M. Church

What I propose... is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experience and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness — the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial or empty — seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Hannah Arendt
from Prologue to The Human Condition


ob Cotner and I have been talking about a series on the life of the mind, based on the title of Hannah Arendt’s final volume. Bob asked me to discuss Arendt’s work for this journal, while he would cover the works of other contemporary writers, relating to their contribution to the contemporary understanding of the life of the mind. Each time we would come close to a decision about publication date, I would say “I need more time to reacquaint myself with Arendt’s thought after so many years.” Bob would reply, “What I want is a personal response to how her work influenced your thinking — not an exegesis — you talk about her work all the time.”

But, of course, talking and writing are two separate things, and, as Arendt was at pains to point out, we must make distinctions — which for me are more easily made in the give and take of conversation than in the intractable act of writing. The irony for me is that Arendt’s writing style — until Mary McCarthy began editing for her — was abysmally difficult. I have often said that it took ten years for my own writing to recover from the years of poring over her early books — even to the point of parsing her more convoluted sentences. As is true of many philosophers, Arendt spends as much energy telling us what an idea is not, as she does telling us what an idea might, in fact, be. Her works are not political primers, but contain within them her own (often contradictory) approach to a history of political thought. Sifting through her work for clear thematic content, at times, verges on the surreal.

This being said, I believe Bob is right: it is important to consider her contribution to the idea of the mind, written in a century that was itself surreal – a century that contained the breakdown of political civility on such an unprecedented scale that an estimated hundred and fifty million people lost their lives in the violence of world wars, civil wars, secret wars, and extermination camps.

In the ‘60s, I wrote my Master’s thesis in Political Science on Hannah Arendt’s thought, focusing mainly on the Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, On Revolution, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil — the latter book having brought her work to my attention because of my intense interest in understanding the factors that allowed the Nazis and their followers, internationally, to murder millions of Jews and others under the cover of world war. (It should be pointed out that for a number of years immediately after the war, there seemed to be a moratorium on serious discussion of what is now known as the “Holocaust” and so-called “holocaust studies” did not take shape until late in the ‘60s.)

“The Banality of Evil”* Arendt’s Most Notable Phrase

I first became interested in Hannah Arendt in 1964, when I heard about the controversy surrounding Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil — a book I hoped would help me begin to answer for myself the question of how such evil could have taken place. And more important: what could lead an Eichmann, who reported he had no animosity for the Jews, to become the leading bureaucratic perpetrator of the Final Solution? What made a man of the calibre of Albert Speer, a highly-cultured, well-educated German, who was Hitler’s architect and a high ranking administrator, take part in what he should have known was an evil undertaking? Arendt’s exploration of what might have led normal people to take part in this darkest of contemporary events constitutes her most original contribution to 20th Century political discourse: how the condition of thinking impacts doing, and, as a consequence its opposite, thoughtlessness, becomes the telling factor in evil-doing.

After reporting on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt set about to understand him, not as a monster or even a criminal, but in terms of his banality— in other words, of his “thoughtlessness.” In her final book, The Life of the Mind, she attempts to answer this question: “Could the act of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass… could this activity be among the conditions that make men [sic] abstain from evil-doing or even actually condition them against it?” The question she posed, of course, contains the seeds of her answer.

While her critics contended that Arendt exonerated Eichmann by refusing to demonize him as a monster for his crimes by, among other things, her use of the term “banality” to characterize his evil acts, what Arendt wants us to understand goes beyond simplistic demonization of such perpetuators: what we must understand is that their crimes reflect something even more frightening — the capacity of otherwise “normal” people to take part in horrendous acts because they have not understood their responsibility to engage in authentic acts of thinking, which is most critical when they are involved in political action.

Radical Evil Eradicates Thinking

I know Arendt as a philosopher of the political, defining politics as speaking and acting in public, defining politics not as “who gets what — where, when, and how,” but ideally as the process whereby humankind determines what shall be included in the political space of speech and action: an end itself, rather than a means to an instrumental end. And it is the act of thinking which must serve as a guide to speaking and acting in public. Let me note here that I will often use the term “authentic thinking” to differentiate Arendt’s definition of thinking from the less rigorous definition, which you and I would commonly use.

The arc of Arendt’s political thought takes us from the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) through the great Christian thinkers, and finally to modern philosophers, such as Marx, Hegel, Jaspers, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. As she takes us through the ideas of each of these philosophers, it is apparent that she is modeling the internal dialogic nature of the act of thinking, which ultimately involves judging. And by going back to Christian thought from Paul to Augustine she arrives at the idea of willing — the will providing the ground for ultimate freedom of mind in the spontaneity of thought.

Thinking, as Arendt defines it, separates the internal state of the human being from the external world of common sense, i.e., the sense we hold in common with one another, which, as the history of the 20th Century proves, has the potential to lead us into deadly mob behavior. Paradoxically, while the act of authentic thinking separates us from the world, it also has the capacity to re-establish our human connection with the world of things and of action.

It is not Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” but thinking as the controlling essence of what it means to be part of a shared humanity; however, once that controlling essence is served up to an outside authority as pernicious as a Hitler or a Stalin, human beings lose their internal bearings: their will to freedom (spontaneity) — their will to judgment — and can ultimately sink into a state of radical evil, allowing them to exterminate fellow human beings in the name of a received idea, such as the Master Race or the New Man.

As I understand Arendt, and I am using my own terms here, authentic thinking has the potential for being the ultimate freeing activity, saving the individual from two traps, the solipsistic “I” of pure ego and the “Non-I” of rapturous surrender to the dictates of monomaniacal leaders. The life of the mind — Thinking, Willing, and Judging — in my estimation, has the power to become the saving grace of compassionate humanity.

This to me is the significant part of — in Arendt’s phrase — the “story told by events,” that led her to a lifetime of work seeking to understand the human essence that might keep us from the chilling potential to recreate continually the ground for radical evil. And perhaps what should be foremost on our minds today is: How do “we” contain humankind’s potential for radical evil without falling into the accompanying trap of thoughtlessness ourselves? A reconsideration of the lessons we might have learned from the violence of the 20th Century might begin with a reconsideration of the life of the mind so ardently presented by one of that century’s most perceptive witnesses. A consideration of Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on thinking might be our best hope.

*Arendt herself attributed the coining of the phrase “banality of evil” to her friend and mentor, philosopher Karl Jaspers.

Editor’s note: Caxtonian Laurel M. Church, Ph.D., Artist in Residence at Aurora University, is continuing her focus on the effects of the wars of the 20th Century, this time in the form of a long narrative poem, “Music Hall Warrior,” featuring a woman whose “story told by events” takes her from her childhood during the Great War and culminates in her experience of the London Blitz and its aftermath.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt just prior to her death in 1975. Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust. From the American Memory website of the Library of Congress, through whose courtesy it is used.

See bibliography of works by Hannah Arendt

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