October 14, 2014
The searching thought of German political theorist HANNAH ARENDT (1906–75) should never be overshadowed by her unfortunate dalliance with Martin Heidegger, who seduced his brilliant young Jewish student with the same mixture of self-righteousness and delusion that marked his later self-bewitchment in the cult of Blut und Boden Nazism. Arendt escaped his evil clutches and came under the more benign influence of Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg and Walter Benjamin in Paris. But her best work emerged only after she settled in the United States in 1950: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and of course Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) — not her best book, but the one that made her name, and the phrase “the banality of evil,” common cultural currency. Everywhere, Arendt defends with urgent elegance an Aristotelian concept of human flourishing. The Human Condition famously distinguishes work and labour from action — the three aspects of the vita activa. In this schema, labour maintains the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing); work fashions specific things or ends; and action is the public display of self in visible doings, political life properly speaking. The times have outstripped her, alas: Arendt could indict the emptiness of a society free from labour — the wasteland of consumer desire — but she could not have anticipated how smoothly the work idea would fold itself back into that wasteland in the form of workaholism and 24/7 online presence, hollowing out the political core of life.
READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).