Hannah Arendt

A towering intellectual who theorized about the nature of totalitarianism and Nazi evil.

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Throughout her career and her more sophisticated writings on political theory, Arendt argued for the importance of deep thinking, dialogue, and the democratic state's requirement for spaces of free discourse (such as the salon). Arendt often wrote about the idealized space of the ancient Greek polis as a model of public gathering and discussion. Politics, to her, was the gathering of citizens together for expressions of genuine freedom and action. She was concerned that political philosophy had gotten off track; she wanted to bring it back from the metaphysical and contemplative realm to the world of concrete, observable action.

The Banality of Evil

Arendt's most well-known work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, was published in 1963. Israeli secret police had captured Eichmann--the S.S. lieutenant colonel who had run the death camp transportation operations--in Argentina in 1960. He was tried in a Jerusalem court and Arendt covered the story for the New Yorker. In Arendt's view, Eichmann was the ultimate unthinking bureaucrat whose evil actions of "just following orders" were more a result of his lack of imaginative moral capacity than a deep intent to cause harm. In other words, Eichmann's behavior was unthinkingly ordinary and banal, hence the term "the banality of evil."

The hubbub surrounding this book led to Arendt's further estrangement from the Jewish community. Many believed that she had not presented a picture of unassailable victimhood for the Jews killed in the gas chambers and had not universally condemned German behavior in the face of so much atrocity.

Arendt published three more books in the 1960s that further articulated her political philosophy. Teaching at Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and the New School for Social Research, Arendt also used her classrooms as a platform to spread her beliefs about freedom and political action. She joined with students in opposition to the Vietnam War and authored several articles that ruthlessly critiqued the American government for the imperialist direction of its foreign policy in the 1970s. Hannah Arendt died of heart failure in 1975, just a few months shy of completing her last book, whose title also serves as a fitting epitaph: The Life of the Mind.

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.