In Her Mind's Eye
Arendt had a distinctly high-minded conception of politics, seeing it not as the bureaucratic administration of collective concerns or a burdensome public duty, still less as a self-interested continuation of warfare by other means. Politics for her was a precious cultural achievement rather than a regrettable social necessity, and it involved the careful maintenance of institutions that enable people to converse freely and respectfully about the world as they see it and as they would like it to be. It was essentially concerned with problems of a kind that will never have perfect solutions, and that therefore require improvisation, invention and endless critical discussion. Politics required us to set aside all sentiments of pride, indignation, shame or resentment, as well as any pretensions to superior expertise, in order to become responsive, intelligent citizens willing to negotiate all our differences on a basis of complete equality. Politics, in short, was the opposite of totalitarianism, and it depended on an open-hearted love for "human plurality"--for people not in the mass or in the abstract but in the distinctness and idiosyncrasy of their lives and the infinite variety of their perceptions. It was more like a serene philosophical seminar than a self-interested struggle for power, and it was not so much a means to human happiness as the pith and substance of it.
There was a deep backstory to Arendt's depiction of politics in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the beginning, she thought, there was the ancient Greek polis, or city-state, where genuine politics--also known as democracy--enjoyed a brief flowering before being stamped upon by Plato and his philosophical disciples in the fourth century BCE. The philosophers, with their single-minded dedication to excellence and truth, were bound to abhor the implicit pluralism and egalitarianism of an authentic political world. Politics did not recover from their scorn until the eighteenth century, when "the tremendous equalizing of differences which comes from being citizens of some commonwealth" was glimpsed once again by the republican revolutionaries of America and France. Unfortunately the revolutionaries built their case on a metaphysical notion of "natural rights" that had no purchase outside the classical nation-state. When that structure collapsed, a space was opened up for totalitarian tribalism, with its lethal fantasies about historical destiny and its contempt for human plurality. But totalitarianism was collapsing in its turn, creating the possibility of a "new form of universal solidarity." The new solidarity would be built on a system of "global rule" designed around a single fundamental human right--the "right to the human condition," as Arendt called it, or the right to politics, or more concretely the "right to citizenship." Politics could then come into its own as the field where freedom flourishes, and we would be swept up in an unprecedented global event: "not the end of history," Arendt wrote, "but its first consciously planned beginning."
Arendt was not the kind of author to dwell on doubts or hesitations. She wrote in order to give expression to views already fully formed, claiming that the only limit to her productivity was her typing speed. And when The Origins of Totalitarianism started landing on people's desks in 1951, its bulky self-assurance caused annoyance as well as admiration. Arendt was little known at the time, and though her name conveyed the interesting information that she was a woman, the book gave no indication of the equally interesting facts that she was also a middle-aged Jew who had received a philosophical education in Germany before fleeing to Paris in her 20s to do social work with Jewish orphans; nor did it recount how she had escaped to the United States in 1941 and embarked on a career in New York as a writer and editor, apparently unfazed by the challenge of working in an unfamiliar language. It would no doubt have offended her sense of the dignity of politics to suppose that her personal life story gave any special authority to her opinions, but her intellectual manner was so strikingly alien that readers were intensely curious about who she was and where she was from.
The anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement recognized Origins as "a profound and important book" but complained about its eccentric way with English words and the "apocalyptic portentousness" of its style, surmising that English might not be Arendt's native tongue, and that she was in all probability a German. The intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes, writing in The Nation, noted that Arendt was "impatient with easy explanations and verbal fluency"--which was a very tactful way of putting it--and praised her for delivering a "salutary mental shock." He was also able to draw on private knowledge and commend her work as testimony to "the high intellectual level of the German emigration of the 1930s, which has done American thinking an inestimable service by setting a standard that the native-born have rarely been able to match."
Arendt was indeed indebted to her German education. In 1924, at the age of 18, she left her home in Königsberg to study philosophy at Marburg, where she was taught by the as yet obscure Martin Heidegger, and briefly became his lover. Two years later she moved to Heidelberg and worked with Karl Jaspers, creator of the idea of Existenzphilosophie. She was 22 when she earned her doctorate with a dissertation on Augustine, and by that time she could be described as part of an existentialist movement, believing with Jaspers and Heidegger that truth can be perceived only in particular historical perspectives, and that each of us is responsible for our ways of seeing the world and the ideals by which we choose to live.
Equally important, her teachers gave her a vivid sense of the essential shape of history. Jaspers and Heidegger took it for granted that the development of humanity could be read off from the canonical works of the philosophers: from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Kant and Hegel. But they regarded the great tradition as a vast and elaborate error rather than a treasury of timeless truths: The art of agile, multifaceted thinking had been all but smothered by Plato's boring, otherworldly objectivism, until Kierkegaard and Nietzsche came to the rescue in the nineteenth century.
It was an attractive story, and a convenient one too, since it implied that world history was bounded by Socrates at one end and Nietzsche at the other, and that its entire span could be comprehended in a single philosophical survey. The young Arendt had a flair for this kind of sweeping panopticism, and in the early 1930s she wrote several articles for German newspapers in which, having paid tribute to Jaspers and Heidegger, she leapt from one great historic thinker to another, assigning them roles in a familiar old drama in which ancient worldliness is replaced by Christian interiority, which is then challenged by the Enlightenment, which is rebuked in its turn by a "Romantic impulse," until the whole sad story is brought to an end by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. If the articles are impressive in their range of reference, however, they are also dispiriting in their eagerness to slot each of the great philosophers into a prefabricated historical scheme. Their youthful author was on the way to being a formidable scholar, but she was in danger of becoming an inflexible dogmatist too.