An Introduction to the Life & Thought of Hannah Arendt: Presented by the BBC Radio’s In Our Time

Unset­tling his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels between the new­ly-devel­op­ing world order and the ter­rors that scourged Europe in the 1930s and 40s now seem unde­ni­able to most informed observers of con­tem­po­rary geopol­i­tics. Euro­peans have their own polit­i­cal crises to weath­er, but all eyes cur­rent­ly seem trained on the mil­i­tary behe­moth that is my own coun­try. “These are not nor­mal times,” admits Jane Chong at Law­fare. Though she cri­tiques Nazi com­par­isons as need­less­ly alarmist, she “sees no rea­son for opti­mism.” While ref­er­ences to his­to­ry’s great­est vil­lain abound, we’ve also seen Aus­tralian sci­en­tist Alan Finkel com­pare the U.S. leader to Joseph Stal­in for the sup­pres­sion and cen­sor­ship of envi­ron­men­tal data.

The dev­as­ta­tion Hitler and Stal­in vis­it­ed upon West­ern and East­ern Europe can hard­ly be overstated—and we still find it near­ly impos­si­ble to com­pre­hend. But not soon after the end of World War II, one of the 20th century’s most prob­ing ana­lysts of polit­i­cal thought attempt­ed to do just that.

Han­nah Arendt’s 1951 The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism remains one of “sev­er­al sem­i­nal works on tyran­ny and oppres­sion that have recent­ly gained pop­u­lar­i­ty among read­ers,” notes Ali­son Gris­wold at Quartz. And Arendt’s 1963 clas­sic Eich­mann in Jerusalem also con­tin­ues to inform the moment, offer­ing a “sober­ing reflec­tion,” writes Maria Popo­va, on what Arendt called “the fear­some, word-and-thought-defy­ing banal­i­ty of evil.”

Arendt’s renewed rel­e­vance recent­ly prompt­ed Melvyn Bragg, host of the excel­lent BBC Radio pro­gram In Our Time, to bring three guest phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sors—Robert Eagle­stone, Fris­bee Sheffield, and Lyn­d­sey Stone­bridgeon air to dis­cuss her ideas and influ­ence. Bragg begins with a brief out­line of Arendt’s biog­ra­phy, then turns to Sheffield, a lec­tur­er at Gir­ton Col­lege, Cam­bridge, for elab­o­ra­tion. They imme­di­ate­ly address one of the most con­tro­ver­sial aspects of Arendt’s young life, her affair with her men­tor, Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, who joined the Nazi par­ty and remained a true believ­er in its ide­ol­o­gy.

But the con­ver­sa­tion quick­ly moves on from there to encom­pass Arendt’s mul­ti-dimen­sion­al thought. “There’s a great range to her writ­ings,” says Sheffield. A trained clas­si­cist, Arendt wrote her dis­ser­ta­tion on the idea of love in St. Augus­tine. Her most philo­soph­i­cal work, The Human Con­di­tion, drew on clas­si­cal con­cepts to rank human activ­i­ty into a hier­ar­chy of labor, work, and action. She “wrote on a great range of top­ics,” Sheffield notes, though “there is a con­sis­tent inter­est in pol­i­tics and polit­i­cal themes through­out her work.”

Yet Arendt reject­ed the label of polit­i­cal philoso­pher and is her­self “hard to pin down” polit­i­cal­ly. Her 1963 book On Rev­o­lu­tion, cri­tiqued left­ist and Marx­ist thought and praised the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion for its con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism. She was skep­ti­cal of the notion of uni­ver­sal human rights, and her essay On Vio­lence made the argu­ment that vio­lence appears only in the absence of polit­i­cal pow­er, not its ascen­den­cy. As we learn from lis­ten­ing to Bragg’s assem­bled pan­el of guests, Arendt con­sis­tent­ly empha­sized two clas­si­cal con­cepts: the val­ue of a civic and polit­i­cal order and the impor­tance of the “life of the mind,” also the title of a two-vol­ume work pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1978.

In Our Time’s short, live­ly con­ver­sa­tion pro­vides an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to Arendt’s life and work. To dive more deeply into the Arendt cor­pus, vis­it Bard College’s Han­nah Arendt Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics and Human­i­ties, browse the Library of Congress’s Han­nah Arendt Papers, and read Lyn­d­sey Stonebridge’s short online essay “Han­nah Arendt’s Refugee His­to­ry.” You’ll also find an exten­sive read­ing list of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources at the In Our Time BBC page.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Han­nah Arendt on “Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty Under Dic­ta­tor­ship:” Bet­ter to Suf­fer Than Col­lab­o­rate

Han­nah Arendt Dis­cuss­es Phi­los­o­phy, Pol­i­tics & Eich­mann in Rare 1964 TV Inter­view

Han­nah Arendt’s Orig­i­nal Arti­cles on “the Banal­i­ty of Evil” in the New York­er Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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