Hannah Arendt is very well known in continental philosophical circles. She remains unfairly unknown outside of continental philosophy circles.
Arendt is best known for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil. That book was her report of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and that phrase that she develops there. The banality of evil has somewhat become a part of human consciousness.
Arendt’s philosophical views that she expressed in that book, though, were formed much earlier. Arendt was a student and apparently lover of Martin Heidegger, and she also studied under philosopher Karl Jaspers.
Arendt was a German Jew who originally opposed the Nazis until it became politically impossible for her to do so. She escaped Germany just in time as she was about to undergo trial for illegal activities doing research on Nazi anti-Semitism and just narrowly escaped the Nazi occupation of France. She was one of the fortunate few to escape to the United States that Nazi tyranny deeply affected her personally and philosophically.
Her experiences inspired her to write in 1951 her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she took aim at what she called the novel form of government that is totalitarianism. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that totalitarianism—and by this we can understand fascism and Stalinism—differs from despotism, tyranny, or dictatorship in its use of terror to subjugate mass populations instead of subjugating only political adversaries.
So, whereas a dictator might kill off his political rivals and more or less leave the people alone, totalitarianism is a broader, all-encompassing terror of the population to keep them in line. This led Arendt to conclude that the operative factor of Nazi terror was not the Jewish populations because the Jews were merely a convenient excuse that they pulled from history, but the general Nazi practice of subjugation itself was the Nazi terror everyone was brought into line.
Arendt’s highly controversial claim is supported by the fact that the Nazi concentration camps were initially built not for Jewish people but for leftist political activists and subversive intellectuals. Arendt in no way diminishes the antisemitism of the Nazis, and remember, she was a victim of it herself as a Jewish person. But Arendt places it into the wider historical context of the marginalization of minority populations throughout history, including colonialism.
More broadly speaking, Arendt’s claim is that totalitarianism seeks to eliminate the intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative of the individual person. She considered the persecution of intellectuals, religious leaders, and artists by both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as springing from their resentment of everything they could not understand.
Total domination of society cannot allow people to have free created initiative because creative energies are not predictable or controllable. Totalitarianism, preferring predictable mediocrity, persecutes everyone who shows talent and initiative and replaces them with, in Arendt’s words, crackpots and fools, because those with a lack of intelligence and ingenuity are the most likely to stay loyal to the regime.
No doubt it was Arendt’s conception of this uncreative, unintelligent functionary within the totalitarian apparatus that led her to see Adolf Eichmann in that light. In her book. Eichmann in Jerusalem, she wrote that he was the unthinking, dutiful functionary who was terribly and terrifyingly normal. She concluded that evil isn’t always radical. It’s not the wild-eyed berserk terrorist. Evil can also be simply a function of thoughtlessness.
Totalitarianism exploits the tendency of ordinary people to conform willingly to mass opinion and obey orders. The Stanley Milgram psychological experiments shine some light on how people are very willing to obey orders when they are told is for the greater good. They’re even willing to inflict pain on others if they’re told it is important for them to do so. To follow orders is a behavior easier for people than critically evaluating the consequences of their actions, Arendt said. This allows evil to become banal, something normalized as acceptable behavior. Arendt described Eichmann as a human example of the banality of evil, a bureaucrat who facilitated horrific crimes because he found personal meaning and importance within the Nazi movement.
in her 1958 book, The Human Condition, Arendt argued that people develop within the social realm more than within the political realm. Here she shows Karl Jasper’s influence, outlining a view of the human condition as one of existential and aesthetic action.
Central to her discussion is her concept of natality, which she first used in her doctoral dissertation on Augustine that Jasper’s oversaw. Natality is in sharp contrast to the pessimism and the obsession with mortality found in existentialist philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre. Unlike those two, Arendt says that people are not born in order to die, but in order to begin. Natality in Arendt’s conception is the root of the human faculty of action by which people can continually find new beginnings. It is a more existential version of Bergson’s concept of the Elon Vital that generates not only life but also choices in how to live.
Arendt identifies two essential human actions: forgiving past wrongs, an act that will unfix the fixed pass, and promising future benefits, an action that will fix the unfixed future. Moreover, Arendt distinguishes among labor, work, and action.
Labor is actually directed at mere biological survival. We need to procure food, we need to procure shelter, we need the basic things to live and survive. Labor is therefore a repetitive and cyclical process that has a certain air of futility in it. We are doomed to continually look for food and look for shelter and avoid nasty animals and things like that.
Work she defines as different from labor in that it has a clearly defined beginning and a clearly defined end because work produces durable objects. The concept of work fits both with making instrumental tools like hammers and creating works of art. Here we see Heidegger’s influence on Arendt.
Her third concept, action, is the ways in which people disclose themselves to each other. Our actions distinguish us as unique people, what we do and what we say establishes and communicates our individuality. Unlike labor and work, which are directed at material objects, our action is always directed at other people. Action generates human relationships, and action maintains human relationships. Action, because it is an expression of our individual self, leads to human plurality, to individual expressions, and that includes art, but it includes all aspects of human communication, human expression, and human relationships.
Arendt notes that philosophers since Plato have disliked and dismissed human plurality. Indeed, yes, one of the main themes of Western philosophies has been to say that the individual doesn’t exist—we’re all just a part of this universal of humanity.
But Arendt considers it a basic human condition to be plural. We have a twofold character of equality and distinction. Yes, we’re human. We are part of the human race. We’re part of our society. We’re part of our community. We’re part of our family. But we are always also still a distinct individual. Every one of us is unique. Acknowledging the diversity of people allows us to see what is possible in action. Again, this is Arendt’s conception of action.
To see how action generates a kind of objectivity in the understanding of the ways in which action can be witnessed from different perspectives. Human plurality, our distinctness, creates tensions with other people in their distinctness. That’s a given, but Arendt’s answers to these problems are those two essential actions of forgiveness of the past and promises for the future.
To understand Arendt is to understand two very large and complicated ideas that there are in human society—the tendency towards totalitarianism and the tendency for individuals to fall victim to totalitarianism. But there is also the reality of human action, people disclosing themselves, people being individuals, people reveling in their plurality and distinctness. These two basic forces could be seen as colliding constantly within society,
This is an almost woefully inadequate introduction to Arendt. But it’s more of an introduction than most philosophy professors will ever give you. Inexcusably, society, most of academia, and education ignore Arendt and her insights. That is a shame because her views on totalitarianism and the human condition are more relevant than ever.