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Hannah Arendt: Live dangerously: Reading Hannah Arendt in her Centenary Year 2006-10-18
Peter Vale

*Nelson Mandela Professor of Politics at Rhodes University


The Centenary of the birth, on October 14 th, of Hannah Arendt offers a moment to reflect on one of the most engaging political thinkers of the 20 th Century.


Over the years, appreciations of Arendt have however been uneven. With another radical German thinker, Herbert Marcuse, Arendt was revered in the 1960s because she was a liberal when it came to democratic institutions but was decidedly Left-Wing when it came to social issues. This was the lesson of Arendt’s work when I took a course called “Freedom and Authority” at Wits in 1968; inspired by two remarkable teachers, most of the class hurried off in search of her writings. I remember my thrill (and my amazement) when, I discovered a cache nested in the reference Johannesburg Public Library!


But in the face of the homogenising power of modernisation theory and the deepening Cold War – not to mention apartheid – interest in Arendt seemed to wane. But recently it has deepened again - Feminists are especially interested in her thoughts on their issue. This year of course many are thinking of her life and work. As I write these words, a Centenary conference is underway at Yale University under the title: “Hannah Arendt: Crisis of our Republics”. That event draws some of Arendt’s intellectual and political concerns – Totalitarianism, Political Violence, Judgement and Evil, the Human Condition – closer still to this bleak new Century.


These themes suggest that Arendt’s oeuvre is wide-ranging and that it is positioned at the cusp between philosophy and public policy. What the listing cannot show is that Arendt brought the deep well of political theory to the moment where action and values collide. Her goal was not simply to understand and explain politics; rather to she hoped to impose the “absolute standards” of philosophy on the “lunacy of politics”. The purpose, she famously wrote, was “not to rule the city...but to make...(its)...citizens more truthful”. Her engagement with day-to-day events of her time was extensive: the establishment of the state of Israel, discrimination in the United States, the War in Vietnam, Affirmative Action in the Universities, the challenge of Education – to name a few.


Her adventure was born, perhaps, of an unhappy German childhood under the shadow that would eventually gather around the Nazis. Some writers have suggested, however, that her four-year love-affair with the influential philosopher Martin Heidegger – then her professor – accounts for her intellectual restiveness. Heidegger went on to support the Nazis but Arendt, who was a Jew, forgave him writing, when he turned 80 years old, a remarkable piece honouring his life and word.


But an equally plausible explanation for her intellectual energy may be her experience of a two-stage exile: first in Paris where she faced the wrought of the Vichy government and, later, in the United States – where she built a towering reputation not only for the depth of her analysis but also for the elegance of her writing. Whatever the explanation, most who are attracted to Arendt’s work soon realise, unlike the work of many other philosophers that no single and dominant theme runs through it. Indeed, the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, believes that Arendt is “unclassifiable”.


This complicates any effort to systematically discuss her work. Should one focus, as some do, only her seminal work “The Origins of Totalitarianism”? This is the only one of her writings that refers directly to South Africa; in it, she caricatures the Boers as out and out racists, but reserves her wrath for great imperialists like Cecil John Rhodes. Her analysis of what constituted totalitarianism was overwhelming: it set the course for all future discussions of the notion. It also led to some analytical distortions including the rather simple-minded equation of apartheid with nazism.


Others writers emphasise Arendt’s glorification of classical political action – the ideal of the polis tapped from Greek times: Wolin suggests that Arendt was “much taken by the classical conceptions”. Other commentators have focussed on Arendt’s understanding of the modern revolutionary tradition, the nature of freedom and authority, and the faculties that make up the “life of the mind” – which is the title of an incomplete manuscript which was published after her death in 1975.


So, understanding and appreciating Arendt and her work in contemporary times, as this essay seeks to do, requires us to borrow selectively – not to mention sparingly - from her impressive list of writings.


However, the recent contrition by the former apartheid Minister of Police, Adrian Vlok, has opened some space to consider one small aspect of Arendt’s work which may be of some local interest. Certainly, Vlok as a tragic figure – as an ambiguous symbol of South Africa’s cruel past - would have interested Arendt. Much of this would be preoccupied with the complicated issues of how to forgive the political evil perpetrated by an individual would was caught an existential moment. On this occasion however my interest will not fall on Arendt’s dense arguments around forgiveness; instead, I will draw a single (thought important) aspect of Arendt interest in these matters – the banality of evil – closer towards contemporary South Africa.


What struck me about Vlok’s public re-emergence was his non-response to repeated questions of whether he knew more about apartheid’s atrocities then he was prepared to reveal. Again, and again, he turned the question away fingering un-named others within the apartheid security system. As he did this, I thought of Arendt’s most controversial work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.


To understand its core message, we must return to the 1960s – particularly to the abduction by the Israel Secret Service, in Buenos Aires, of Otto Adolf Eichmann who had been Lieutenant Colonel in the Nazi SS. Eichmann was flown to Israel to stand trail on “crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes during the whole period of the Nazi regime”. At that time, Arendt was living in New York and arranged with the Editor of the New Yorker Magazine, William Shawn, to travel to Israel to cover the trial. Her report and, more importantly, her observations around the events appeared in a five-part series in the magazine in 1963; two years later, they were published in a book form which sold over 260 000 copies.


Arendt argued that Eichmann was not driven by fanaticism - which was the prosecution position - but rather by an opportunity to escape the humdrum existence which had been forced upon him (and all mankind) through the processes of modernity. The opportunity to serve enabled Eichmann to become part of a wide movement – the Nazis – which, through their own pretentiousness, allowed him to take on a more alluring persona than that he had enjoyed as a travelling oil salesman, which had been his civilian occupation. Although minor, Eichmann had come to occupy a pivotal position in the Holocaust project; indeed, he was considered something of a “technical expert” on the “Jewish Problem” but he did not actually kill a single victim. Eichmann understood his complicity in aiding and abetting in “one of the great crimes in history”, but he denied the wider charges. All of these features, I want to suggest, are reflected in a greater or lesser degree in the Vlok case. 


Hannah Arendt engaged with the trial and its politics on many levels. So  she did not deny the right of the Israel to bring Eichmann to trail, but she was troubled by the government’s use of the event in nation-building. But her chief interest lay with Eichmann. What kind of man was he? Why did he do these evil things?


To explore these, and other, questions Arendt turned to two threads that ran through her work; the first was with the nature of Totalitarianism; the second was with the role of Thought in the making the world for good or evil.


Because the intrinsic evil of Totalitarianism was a feature only of the present age, traditional approaches to understanding its politics were inadequate. Only by seeking to reach beyond the endless production of practical knowledge, could the evil which was inherent in Totalitarianism be understood and dissolved. Eichmann could not do this because, as Arendt argued, his experience was marked by an “absence of thinking”. He occupied a world which was shaped by a proclivity for the recycled phrases of power and control which are integral to all process of modern government and the procedures of modern administration. Eichmann was incapable, she wrote, “of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché”. 


The ultimate purpose of these endless stock phrases was to secure everyday surveillance and political control and because these were embedded in a code of social practice, functionaries are unable to see another’s point of view. As a result, Eichmann could not have lied to (or deceived) the Court, Arendt argued, because communication on these matters with him was not possible. This was because “he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the world and the presence of others, hence against reality as such.” Put differently, Eichmann’s life was vacuous and his reflections were remote from the reality of his actions. Some years after the publicaTIOn of the book, Arendt offered a brief further reflection on this issue with this telling indictment of the modernist experience: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil.”


This observation (and its roots in Arendt’s thinking) has great resonance in  the chilling times in which we live.


The tendency to reduce politics to a form of social engineering – to be administered by a cadre of “experts” is the everyday experience of our lives. This approach to the political has been routinized into the everyday by the coded language (and the metaphors) of economics which are invariably couched in utilitarian terms. In South Africa - but elsewhere, too - this negation of the true purpose of politics – which is to strengthen the polis – has weakened democratic institutions allowing them to be exploited by private and class interests.  In short, the moral imperative of politics – in the traditional sense - has been corroded: ends become are stripped of their intrinsic worth becoming, instead, part of a “value-chain” – to use the clichéd language of the early-21 st Century.


The recycling language of modernity – the empty terminology of terms like “accountability”, “transparency” and “governance”  – service economic interests only. This encourages the polis to be prized – not by moral values like equality – but by “opinion surveys, seduced by the fashion industry, orchestrated by political lobbyists, disciplined by party machines, administered by bureaucracy – and studied by the social sciences”. In South Africa, this approach to social relationships has been strengthened by the power of Think-Tanks which have abandoned the critique that they once exercised. (Think-Tankers were particularly distasteful to Arendt who once declared that “the trouble with Think-Tankers is that they cannot think”.)


As a result, functionaries and “experts” mouth clichés about manufactured ideas. True, the words themselves are different from those that were once used by the apartheid apparatchiks so enthusiastically fingered by Adrian Vlok and by Vlok himself, and those that Hannah Arendt heard from the lips of Eichmann, but cumulative affect is the same – political speech riddled with cliché, a consummate failure to see the other point of view, a banality of evil. 


Hannah Arendt believed that there can be “no dangerous thoughts”, but that “because it dissolves all stable convictions and creeds, ...thinking is a dangerous activity”. As we face this bleak century, surely she would certainly have advised us to live dangerously – only this can bring polis to life again.





Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1951.


Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Viking Press, 1963.


Hannah Arendt. On Violence. Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1969.


Hannah Arendt. “A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence”. The New York Review of Books, 29 February, 1969.


Hannah Arendt. (translated by Denver Lindley) “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution”, The New York Review of Books, 22 April, 1971.


Hannah Arendt. “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers”. The New York Review of Books, 18 November, 1971.


Hannah Arendt. Crises of the Republic. Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1972.


Peter Baehr. (editor) The Portable Hannah Arendt. Penguin Books, 2000.


Peter Baehr. “Of Politics and Social Science. ‘Totalitarianism’ in the Dialogue of David Riesman and Hannah Arendt”. European Journal of Political Theory, 3: 2.


Dean Hammer. “Hannah Arendt, identity and the politics of visibility”. Contemporary Politics, 3: 4.


Mark Lilla. “Menage à Trois”. The New York Review of Books. 18 November, 1999.


Patchen Markell. “The Rule of People: Arendt, Arche, and Democracy”. American Political Science Review, 100: 1.


Samantha Power. “The Lesson of Hannah Ardent”. The New York Review of Books. 29 April, 2004.


Corey Robin. “Total Terror. Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism”. International Centre for Advanced Studies, New York University, Working Paper # 10.


Alfons Sollner. “Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in its Original Context”. European Journal of Political Theory, 3: 2.


Ronaldo Vazguez. ”Thinking the Event with Hannah Arendt”, European Journal of Political Theory, 9: 1.


Dana Villa. (editor) The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt. Cambridge University Press, 2000.


Sheldon Wolin. Politics and Vision. Princeton University Press, 2004.



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