Hannah Arendt: Prophet for our Time
by James M. Campbell


"What’s happening?" How many of us wish we really knew! Or are relieved we don’t.

It’s not only that so much is secret -- Did the CIA engineer the Cambodian coup? Has an order gone out for a "final solution" to the Black Panther challenge? -- or that it’s all so technical, so infinitely more scientific and complex than the average Joe -- even Joe College -- can grasp -- what with moon landings, electronic snooping, laser beams, micro-biotics. It’s more like an impossible picture puzzle with fifty-thousand pieces, a half inch big, all looking alike. It’s an information glut of contradictory events, ideas, interpretations, swirling around us until, like Simon Peter, we figuratively or literally go fishing to get away from it all. Or we turn to some devil theory, to one simple idea that explains everything and relieves us of complexity. There’s a communist under every bed or a power elite behind every TV set.

And yet we have to generalize, we have to develop frameworks for what’s happening so we can ‘make sense" out of what’s happening. Hannah Arendt is one of those rare persons who performs such a function today. Of course, in order to deal with her you often have to fight your way through Germanic, paragraph-long sentences. Then there’s the problem of most scholars: defensive writing, which is writing with sufficient fogginess and enough qualifications to fend off the attacks of scholarly competitors and enemies in the field.

But even with such limitations, there’s interpretive gold to be mined in her half dozen books and numerous articles, written over the past two decades. Her most basic works are Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, updated in 1958), The Human Condition (1958), and On Revolution (1963).

Miss Arendt is a political philosopher. A native of Hanover, Germany, with a Ph.D. from Heidelberg, she fled the Nazis in 1933, worked for Jewish emigration in France, came to the United States in 1941, and became an American citizen in 1951. She has been research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations, chief editor of Schoken Books, executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in New York City, visiting professor at a number of universities, and University Professor at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research.

In The Human Condition Arendt examines the meaning of action, that most uniquely human of man’s repertoire of capacities. In On Revolution she celebrates revolution as perhaps the grandest example of human action and points out where invariably it goes wrong. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she analyzes what happens when, by a combination of ideology and terror, an elitist government sets out systematically to destroy a citizenry’s capacity for action.

In this paper I will try to summarize her thoughts and then use them as a framework for looking at what’s happening in our country today.