The staying power of Hannah Arendt

On the 110th anniversary of her birth, the foundations laid by the noted thinker are still fertile

Youtube Reproductions of scenes from the documentary Hannah Arendt – Ein portrait [2006], by the German Jochen Kölsch: her writings are still currentYoutube

Now that 110 years have passed since her birth, celebrated on October 14, 2016, as have 41 years since her death, German thinker Hannah Arendt has acquired the status of a classic author and enjoys a consensus as to the importance of her work, according to Celso Lafer, professor emeritus at the University of São Paulo (USP). Lafer was a student of Arendt in 1965, at Cornell University. At the time, he says, Arendt was well known, but controversial—among other reasons, because of her diagnosis of the activities of Adolf Eichmann, a high official in Nazi Germany in charge of the mass deportations of Jews into concentration camps. To Arendt, military officer Eichmann was like a cog in a set of gears who acted without the benefit of reason or thought – an ordinary man. This led her to coin the phrase for which she is best known by the general public, “the banality of evil.”

Her reflections on the trial of Eichmann in Israel (1961) were first published as a report for the magazine The New Yorker, and later in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). Arendt was accused of minimizing, or at least relativizing the cruelty of Nazism as critics failed to perceive the consistency of a work that had its cornerstone in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), in which she described the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as devoted to absolute domination. She argued that they could not be studied using references from the past, given their unprecedented characteristics.

It is that consistency, according to Lafer, that is recognized today and enables Arendt’s work to produce reflections in articles and books published every year. Her former student refers to findings by Italian political scientist Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004):   Arendt’s work is an explanatory interpretation of the 20th century, it prompts continual readings and re-readings, and her concepts remain valid in helping us understand the world today. “What she wrote continues to reverberate in the problems with which we are faced,” says Lafer, a former president of FAPESP.

Today the writings by Arendt are not considered as restricted to exclusive studies of political theory—which the thinker claimed as her field of work, rejecting the epithet of philosopher—but are becoming tools for thinking about education (see Revista FAPESP Issue nº 247), the status of women, international relations, or U.S. institutions (Arendt lived in the United States from 1941 until her death, in 1975). “The challenge that Hannah Arendt imposed was how to deal with a world that had lost the conceptual scaffolds of tradition, without resorting to the guardrail of concepts corroded by reality,” says Lafer. “Hence the importance of the activity of judging, in all its complexity, attentive to the singularities of each case, without subsuming them in universal categories.”

In the place of concepts used previously, Hannah Arendt proposed calling upon experience. In that aspect, as an author she was uniquely qualified to address human rights. The thinker lived as a displaced person because, since she was Jewish, she was persecuted, imprisoned, and stripped of her German nationality by the Nazi regime, in 1937, stateless until she acquired U.S. citizenship in 1951. It was for that very reason that the Hannah Arendt Study Center, associated with the USP School of Law, selected the topic A questão das migrações e os direitos humanos [The question of migrations and human rights] as topic for the colloquium held to commemorate the 110th anniversary of her birth.

“She was very critical with respect to the human rights established by the French Revolution,” says Laura Mascaro, researcher and coordinator of the center alongside Claudia Perrone-Moisés, a professor at the USP School of Law. “To her, that concept was connected to the status of belonging to a State and would cease as it comes to pass that foreigners are no longer useful to the countries in which they found themselves, which would lead to the uncertainty in the receiving of additional immigrants.” This is the root of the concept of “the right to have rights,” which is unique to all of humanity and should be the foundation of all aspects of international law.

Mascaro, with researchers Luciana Garcia de Oliveira and Thiago Dias da Silva, is responsible for translating the articles compiled in the book entitled Escritos judaicos [Jewish writings] published this year for the first time in Brazil by Editora Manole. The book contains essays pertaining to “one of the few causes in which she became actively engaged, the construction of Palestine as a bi-national federated State,” and related to the obtaining of rights by the Jewish people, for centuries deprived of a homeland.

According to Mascaro, among other topics in the text that are of current interest, Hannah Arendt predicted that, without dialogues and agreements between Jews and Palestinians, as well as with neighboring countries, Israel would be destined to become a country that is in a permanent state of war. Her proposal was the creation of a Judeo-Palestinian binational State that would be structurally different from the European nation-states.  It would be a democracy based on autonomous local governments formed by Jews and Arabs.  The two parties would organize to discuss common problems, in a vertical federation having different levels of councils.

A shared world
The idea of political organization structured on the basis of a shared world was dear to Hanna Arendt’s heart and part of her concern about the need to broaden the democracy of modern States. The key factor for this would be the involvement of every human being in political action. “Political action inundates the idea of representative democracy because it is not restricted to the field of sdictions that are defined by law,” explains André Duarte, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), longtime student of the work of the German thinker.

According to Duarte, Arendt’s study of the modus operandi of totalitarianism enabled her to detect the establishment of the logic of an idea—in the case of Nazism, Aryan superiority. That logic comes to take on the condition of a premise, which leads the State to dispense with other fundamentals, produces individual loneliness, and sows widespread mistrust in society. “A State not bound by moral underpinnings would seize control of the shared spaces , in which political action would constitute its very essence,” Duarte states. Not even freedom would be an end in itself, but rather a condition for political action.

Adriano Correia, a professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG) recalls that to Arendt, political action is taken only by someone who loves the world. “A policy not loved by individuals does not make room for participation,” he explains. Correia is author of the technical revision of the new edition (the 13th) of The Human Condition (1958), published in October 2016 under the Forense Universitária label of Grupo Editorial Nacional (Gen), with an introduction by British political scientist Margaret Canovan, now retired. According to Correia, one of the fundamental aspects of the book is the presentation of the author’s criticism of modern democracies because they have given priority to economics over the political field. Although Hannah Arendt wrote the book during the Cold War, Correia observes, it has been discussed more frequently since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), largely due to the power achieved by international capital.

Philosopher Yara Frateschi, at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH-Unicamp), considers the political thought of Hannah Arendt to be continuously fertile “because while it is very critical of the way society functions, it is at the same time interested in its potentials.” According to Frateschi, the thinker argues that one must counterbalance universalist concepts with diversities, contexts, and specificities. “To Arendt, universalism by itself can only become a ghost that would perpetuate injustices,” she says.

According to Frateschi, Arendt was an enthusiast of civil disobedience and saw the revolutionary periods as favorable to interesting political experiences.  But she absolutely rejected political violence because it is “the destruction of bridges that favor the construction of agreements and laws for an ordinary life—all violence leads to the danger of the absolute dissolution of the individual, as under totalitarianism.”