The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt



As one of the most original and influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt is not easily linked with a familiar topic. She did not set out her ideas in systematic form, preferring what seem to be informal reflections. The books she did write are extremely diverse in topic, covering totalitarianism, the place of political action in human life, the nature of political freedom and authority. In essence, she became a political theorist by accident (Canovan 1992). Hannah Arendt was born in Hannover, Germany, of German-Jewish parentage in 1906. She finished High School in Königsberg and then studied successfully at the Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg. In her early intellectual life, she studied philosophy under the tutelage of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, and wrote a PhD dissertation on the thought of St Augustine. With the rise of fascism in Germany, however, things have changed. She went to France as a refugee and then to the United States and began to work for an agency helping young Jewish refugees (Buckler 2012, 83). She began to reflect upon Jewish history and upon the catastrophe that was engulfing her people in particular and Europe in general. Thus, her attention as a thinker was drawn into politics for more than a simple revision of academic interest but rather a matter of urgency, because new considerations had come to light, revealed by the experience of totalitarianism. Published in 1951, in her study The Origins of Totalitarianism, she linked Nazism with Stalinism and made a concentration of political evil her subject of study. After the years of struggle as a refugee, totalitarianism made her famous and she became eligible for fellowships and awarded prices.

In the 1950s and 1960s Arendt was among the most widely read political thinkers and philosophers in the world (Craig Calhoun, John McGowan 1997). She was a Guggenheim fellow in 1952-1953, visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1955, the first woman appointed to a full professorship at Princeton in 1959, and visiting professor of government at Columbia University in 1960. From 1963 to 1967, she was university professor at the University of Chicago. And in 1967, until her death in 1975, she served as university professor at the New School of Social Research (Horowitz 2012). Since her death in 1975, Arendt’s work has been discussed more widely. In the present essay, I will try to concentrate on mainly two considerations that Arendt made to political theory. At first, I will attempt to analyze her concept of the political evil of the twentieth century, especially totalitarianism in its Stalinist and Nazis forms. And secondly her analysis of the excellence of politics, its greatness and the place of individual excellence in it, will be examined. Lastly, some questions will be asked regarding political philosophy of Arendt.

The Political Evil of the Twentieth Century

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt claimed that, in spite of their differences, Nazism and Stalinism were both examples of a new and terrible kind of political system. For her, such systems have a common base in the leadership principle, in single-party politics based on mass mobilization rather than individual voluntary participation, and not at least, in a nearly insatiable desire to expand from nation to empire – whether directly through military adventure or indirectly through political infiltration (Horowitz 2012). The fundamental characteristic of totalitarianism was terror carried out an enormous scale and justified in terms of an ideology. To Arendt, totalitarianism represents a new political phenomenon, quite different from familiar tyrannies. It is a kind of politics with no stability, no structure, and no limits in an endless process of conquest and terror (Canovan 1992). As Zaretsky (1997) explained, according to Arendt, the groundwork for totalitarianism is laid through the isolation of individual and the weakening of the juridical, ethical, and interpersonal relations that sustain individuality. Totalitarianism, in Arendt’s view, is an attempt to exercise total domination and demonstrate that ‘everything  is possible’ by destroying human plurality and spontaneity at all levels , and ironing out all that is human to make it fit a determinist ideology (Canovan 1995).

Arendt’s view on genocide extended far beyond her Eichmann in Jerusalem volume. In fact, unconstrained by journalistic narrative, she developed a general theory of totalitarianism, in which genocide was thoroughly explored. The largest part of the work is in fact taken up with exposition and narrative: moving from the character of the German judicial system and its corruption under Nazism. The next large portion of the work is taken up with series of brilliant historical sketches of deportations. Arendt coined a phrase ‘banality of evil,’ in order to describe Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial in Jerusalem. These three words, along with her charge that the Jewish councils aided the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews, created an unprecedented scandal around the celebrated author of The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt obviously influenced by Marx but equally obvious is that she rejected the traditional Marxist explanations of the rise of totalitarianism (Zaretsky 1997). Immediately after the completion of The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt set to work on a projected second volume which was to investigate The Totalitarian Elements in Marxism. Nevertheless, the book on Marx was never completed since, as she worked on it, she became absorbed in analyzing the defects of traditional philosophy. These studies led her to the radical conclusion that political philosophy needed to be built again on new and more appropriate foundations (Canovan 1992).

The trouble with the great tradition of Western political philosophy, as Arendt saw it, was that it was a philosophers’ tradition, and the philosophers had always been chiefly interested in the life of the mind. They had never been sufficiently interested in material life to analyze it properly, and had been actively hostile to free politics. She came to conclusion that some of the most fundamental political experiences had been ignored by political philosophers. Arendt’s analysis of Marxism, therefore, led her to reflections that made her give up her book on Marx and embark upon a more fundamental enterprise. In order to see clearly where Marx and the philosophers before him had gone wrong, she attempted to an analysis of the basic human activities that bear upon politics. This book was The Human Condition, published in 1958, which she provides a fresh perspective on political life. She challenged at every turn our received ideas of what politics is and should be. In The Human Condition, Arendt says of Machiavelli that he was ‘the only post-classical political theorist’ who made the ‘extraordinary effort to restore its old dignity to politics’ (Arendt 1958, 35). Arendt’s project, therefore, is to take Machiavelli’s burden again.

The Human Condition: Theorizing Political Action

Politics was the central subject of The Origins of Totalitarianism which is derived by Arendt’s formative experience as a refugee, but it did not become clear until the publication of The Human Condition. By ‘politics’ Arendt meant a distinctive human activity based on the human potential for freedom, unlike totalitarianism (Zaretsky 1997). As Buckler (2012) notes it, the totalitarian experience, in Arendt’s view, signaled a rupture with the past that simultaneously showed us the wholly contingent character of the realm of freedom. Crucially, the need to make contingent realm of freedom our subject is no longer met by the finality and closure that historical narrative might once have promised. Now, in our political thought, a central emphasis needs to be placed upon spontaneity. As Buckler suggests, this can be understood by reference to Walter Benjamin’s image of ‘pearl diver’. Arendt opens her essay on Walter Benjamin which is titled ‘The Pearl Diver’ with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

Upon this quotation, Arendt defines the theorist as a storyteller just like a pearl diver, who delve into past in order to recover events, who converts the memory of the dead into something ‘rich and strange’, and provide us with the kind of illumination that comes with the appearance as singular occurrences (Benhabib 1994). Thus, Arendt builds an extended metaphor upon the quotation as a bold new form of cultural production, in which the father whose bones made of coral lie under the sea is the corpse of historical tradition. The pearls that were his eyes are quotations freed from the context of the historical tradition. The pearl diver who grasped such buried treasures from the corpse of history, who turned them around in the rich and strange clarity of naked light, was Walter Benjamin who is the break in tradition (Willis 2007). In this context, Arendt specifically gives examples from the ancient world, specifically many references to the politics of ancient Greek city states, but not because she thinks ancient Greece to be best political regime which is free from brutal violence and systematic coercion of slaves, women and the others, or because she considers ancient world as a source of traditional wisdom to provide the basis for a sense of narrative continuity (Buckler 2012, 84). Rather she appeals to the experience of ancient Greece, and to Athens in particular, in order to grasp the past images that ‘may remind the lost experiences and atrophied capacities that might help us to think with originality about our current condition.’ (Buckler 2012, 84). In the days of the early Greek polis, before academic philosophy had been invented, the citizens of Athens lived a life in which thought and action were united. This primordial unity was symbolized by the word logos, which meant speech as well as thought. Greek politics was conducted through this logos, and the significance of this went beyond the fact that action within the polis was carried on by means of persuasion rather than force. It also meant that in the citizens’ endless talk, action disclosed thought itself informed the actions of the citizens as they persuaded one another.  Within the public realm that formed between the citizens, reality could appear and be seen from all sides, while within this kind of politics, based on speech and uniting thought and action, the plurality and freedom of men had full play (Canovan 1990).

Labor, Work and Action

In the light of these methodological concerns, Arendt analyzes the concept of vita activa and opposes the active life as a whole to the life of the mind. In this sense, Arendt distinguishes the various modes of the vita active as three human activities: labor, work and action, which are correspond to the three basic conditions under which humans live. They are essentially sensible occurrences that give rise over time to equally sensible outcomes. The life of mind is partly contrasted with the vita active because it does not appear before others; we learn of its nature and complexity by studying its sensible expressions in words, works, and deeds (McCharthy 2012). Labor produces objects of consumption whose life-giving benefit is lost if they are not eaten or frozen. For Arendt, ‘labor is the activity which correspond to the biological process of the human body’ and labor is subject to ‘the natural ruin of the time’ (Arendt 1958, 55). Labor arises out of the fact that at one level human beings are animals, having to live on the earth like other animals and to spend a great deal of energy staying alive and keeping the species going (Canovan 1992). Although Arendt’s theory is thought of primarily as the service of biological necessity, she extends it to cover many functions in modern society such as production of consumer good, and the whole business of doing any job simply to make a living. With the development of what Arendt called ‘society’, politics has been taken over by the labor’s obsession with production and consumption, and the result is a monolithic community in which politics is nothing but natural housekeeping.

Whereas, work, for Arendt, ‘corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence’ (Arendt 1958, 7). Work fabricates durable and permanent things that serve as a common worldly bond uniting the deed, the living and the unborn. It is one of the ways in which human beings distinguish themselves from animals. Other species simply live in the earth, but human beings build a world of civilizations, a world made up of artefacts, buildings, institutions and works of art.

Arendt considered that traditional political philosophy had interpreted politics in terms of work, as a matter of creating and controlling a political structure. Modern political thought, on the other hand, including Marxism, interpreted it in terms of labor, as a matter of supplying material needs. Both approaches ignored the aspect of the human condition that makes politics both possible and necessary. In fact, Arendt agreed with Marx that politics had to be rooted in a conception of human condition, but she disagreed that ‘labor’ in Marxist sense was the basis of that conception. Thus, through a direct repudiation of Marxist orthodoxy, Arendt introduced another conception of the human condition: action. Arendt repeatedly criticized traditional theories for failing to provide an unprejudiced account of human action. She defined action –as creative, spontaneous, visible and unique acts – separated from work and labor. Action for her was the fundamental political activity through linking this concept to the public/private dichotomy.

New individuals are continually being born into the world, each with the capacity to do unexpected things, upset what is already there and embark upon news enterprises. Arendt refers to this human capacity for beginning new projects as ‘action’ and considers that it is very closely connected with speech. Action is essentially dynamic because it is always interaction. It is in the nature of this situation that no one can predict or control the outcome of events. Human action is inherently irreversible. Once an action has begun, it sets in motion a chain of reactions that initiating agent is unable to cancel or control (McCharthy 2012). Whenever we act, it is deeply uncertain whether we will achieve our intended purpose or not. Accordingly, the result of action are essentially unpredictable. The speeches and deeds emerging from the action occupy a unique temporal position within the vita active. Unlike work and labor, action and speech leave no distinct phenomenal product behind. In this sense, politics, according to Arendt, is political action. Thus, for Arendt, ancient Greece was the classic example of a society where action is appreciated. More recent examples of the political action, she wished to celebrate occurred in the French Resistance and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Since action in her sense involves taking unexpected initiatives, beginning something new, the examples she mentions tend to be exceptional political situations such as revolutions or demonstrations. In this context, action is unpredictable and irreversible. Overall, the reason for Arendt’s stress on action was her belief that political philosophy needed to be refounded to take account of it. Most elements of the great tradition of the political philosophy seemed to her to be seriously flawed by the anti-political bias of the philosophers who had constructed it, and she believed that fundamental concepts needed to be rethought in the light of human plurality and the capacity for action. As Zaretsky suggests, Arendt’s conception of action is located in relation to work and labor although she disparaged both of these in contrast to action. Perhaps most crucially, she connected the three activities as ‘the human condition’.

Arendt’s insistence on the public aspect of freedom played an important role in her reflections on the twentieth-century political thought. She criticized the liberal claim of the exclusion of individuals ‘from participation in the management of public affairs’. She asserts, thereby, ‘the individual loses his rightful place in society and his natural connection with his fellow-men’ and becomes an isolated subject and powerless in political matters. Also, the retreat of the citizen into the private sphere turned politics into a sphere of absolute obedience and political matters regulated by the state under the guise of necessity (Arendt 1972, 141). Thus while for instance liberalism is most commonly associated with the intention to protect the individual against the state, Arendt’s modernity, by excluding the citizen from politics, made the state more irresistible than ever (Keedus 2014). Arendt’s own positive proposal for a renewed understanding of politics – her theory of politics as action in a public sphere where men ‘act in concert’ (Arendt 1972, 143) and make ‘new beginnings’. She defined public as political realm marked by the freedom of political actions. The public is essential to her view of freedom culminating in the claim that men are only truly free when acting in the public sphere. The public is also described by Arendt as the place of ‘widest possible publicity’ for human action, where everybody is witness. In short, for Arendt, the public realm in the most significant sense of the term is the place for human excellence.

Arendt’s Political Theory: Some Questions

Arendt’ account of political thought was always highly selective and deeply polemical. Ever since its publication, Arendt’s thesis of totalitarianism – the thesis that Stalinism and Nazism were essentially similar- is vulnerable to critical objection, particularly from historians of Germany and the Soviet Union (Canovan 1995, 60) since the book was ignore much of the historical evidence.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – a foundation stone of Arendt’s reputation – includes three parts, subtitled ‘Anti-Semitism’, ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Totalitarianism’. The final section of the book which presents Arendt controversial thesis of totalitarianism was the one has attracted most attention. The initial problem of this section was that it stands in a very curious and complicated relation to the rest of the book. As Margaret Canovan says, ‘the extensive discussion of the book on anti-Semitism and racism seemed to have little connection with the USSR, while the book lacked any corresponding discussion of Stalinism’s ideological roots in Marxism.’ In this context, Arendt’s likening of Marxism and Stalinism in her book have been widely attacked. However, she made very little effort to guard herself against critics.

It is questionable, and not at all certain, that Arendt’s view on genocide extended on her Eichmann in Jerusalem volume. In fact the problem inheres in the subtitle rather than the title: A Report on the Banality of Evil. There is a problem with the word ‘banality’ which strongly implies the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday vulgarities experienced by all creatures. Using such a term to describe Eichmann thus appeared as a form of clever apologetics, making him into an everyday functionary (Horowitz 2012). The question thus arises whether the trial was actually intended to punish single person for his crimes, or a symbolic assault on the totalitarian regime that existed in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

Moreover, in her many books and essays, she regularly returned to the same themes and criticism. She asserts that philosophical reflection had failed action and speech by distorting their nature and purpose, that philosophers had denigrated political activities by denying the greatness of human affairs, that public realm had been invaded by biological concerns leading to the victory of economics over politics. She essentially criticizes Marx, especially on Marx’s philosophy of history. Arendt understands the tradition of political history as having culminated in the thought of Karl Marx. Tradition, in Arendt’s view has it beginning in Plato and Aristotle and its end in Marx. The end came with Marx’s declaration that philosophy and its truth are located not outside the affairs of men and their common world but precisely in them and that can be realized only in the sphere of living together, which is called society through emergence of socialized men. Thus, for Arendt, the end came when a philosopher turned away from philosophy so as to realize politics (Arendt 1961). According to Arendt, Marxian identification of action with violence implies another fundamental challenge to tradition. Aristotelian definition of man attains his highest possibility in the faculty of speech and the life in a polis was designed to distinguish the Greek from the barbarian and the free man from the slave. The Greeks, living together in a polis, conducted their affairs by means of speech, through persuasion and not by means of violence, through mute coercion. To Marx, as Arendt supposes, the whole sphere of political action is characterized by the use of violence. Thus, for Arendt, Marx’s ‘glorification of violence’ contains the denial of speech. And she claims, ‘Marx’s theory of ideological superstructures ultimately rests on this anti-traditional hostility to speech and the glorification of violence.’ (Arendt 1961, 23). It is obvious that Arendt is not a Marxian and does not believe that freedom is the necessary result of revolution; but neither does she deny that freedom can be experienced in revolutionary action. And more obviously violence seems as a focal point in her presentation of speech, thought, and action in the public and private realms. In fact, she presents a utopian space characterized by the absence of violence. In this context, she situate violence as prepolitical phenomenon and outside of the political realm. Additionally, in Arendt’s view, violence is associated with necessity, with the natural-biological needs that she links the life of the social question (McGowan 1997). In Arendt’s work, however, there is a political violence that cannot be linked to necessity. A question to be asked here why Arendt offers such a lucid definition of the violence without criticism. She evaluates violence as prepolitical which forces the laborers, family, and the slaves to stay in the private realm, where she thinks they belong, in order to enable free men to enter the public and political realms (Gines 2014). In this very precise sense, Arendt appears to justify violence.

Although Totalitarianism has been perhaps the most widely read of Hannah Arendt’s book, it is The Human Condition that has attracted most scholarly attention (Canovan 1995). It is even regarded as her magnum opus. And it has been the subject of a good deal of analysis and criticism, especially regarding her account of politics. In this context, Arendt’s conception of political activity has had few important defenders. The majority of theorists have been more impressed by the limitations and dangers of action. As we have seen, action is irreversible, futile and often unpredictable. It is essentially dynamic because it is always interaction. It is in the nature of this situation that no one can predict or control the outcome of events. Whenever we act, it is deeply uncertain whether we will achieve our intended purpose or not. Consequently, the result of action are essentially unpredictable. In this sense, the desire to escape from action is a desire to escape from defining features of the human condition itself (McCharthy 2012). As we have seen, especially in The Human Condition Arendt distinguishes between labor and work. She also distinguishes between the public and the private realms, specifically in the Greek polis, as premise of classical political thought had forgotten. In fact, as Zaretsky points out, the concept of public and private realm had not been forgotten but instead anticipated by the concept of state and society. In this context, Arendt reintroduces this distinction by arguing for the significance of political theory in preference to functionalist, behaviorist, sociological, or economic determinist explanations (Zaretsky 1997).

Additionally, Arendt is commonly thought to have made more of the Aristotelian characterization than anyone else in the twentieth century, especially upon man’s nature. As we have seen, in The Human Condition, under the discussion of the public/private realm, she attempts to understand man as a social or a political animal. Then she argues that humans have found their greatest fulfilment in politics as political animals. In fact, it was Aristotle who characterized humans as the only animals in possession of logos, or the ability to reason and participate in philosophical thinking. Not only that, but he also valued dramatic actions as public gestures out of which an actor’s character emerges. These two ideas – the significance of human being’s ability to think and of public action- central to much of Arendt’s philosophy.

Therefore, Arendt remained in all her works the jurist, the legal analyst. Her concerns were to plumb the depths of legitimacy, not as an abstract discourse on nationalism, but as an effort to review the grounds that permit people to survive even harsh and tyrannical conditions (Horowitz 2012). She was totally uninterested in economics, and was concerned to create a political philosophy far from the influence of economic considerations. In this sense, Arendt was neither a conservative nor liberal, at least not in any conventional modes of those concepts. From the beginning, Arendt’ thoughts on political action, freedom and the reality of the public realm were motivated by her judgment that totalitarianism had brought about the total collapse of traditional conventions (Mewes 2009). This complete breakdown in Western traditions led Arendt to a rethinking of both the ontological roots of politics and the place of political freedom within the framework of human condition. Thus, she tried to search an understanding of politics, especially in its meaning, by reexamining of the whole realm of politics in the light of elementary human experiences within this realm itself (Arendt 1961, 14).



Arendt, Hannah. 1961. Between Past and Future. New York: Viking Press.

—. 1972. Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcout.

—. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

—. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Hartcourt.

Benhabib, Seyla. 1994. “Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative.” Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays, Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra Hinchman, 56-62. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Buckler, Steve. 2012. Hannah Arendt and Political Theory: Challenging the Tradition. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press.

Canovan, Margaret. 1992. “Hannah Arendt and the Human Condition.” Political Thought since 1945: Philosophy, Science, Ideology, Leonard Tivey and Anthony Wright, 23-45. London: Edward Elgar.

—. 1995. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Canovan, Margaret. 1990. “Socrates of Heidegger? Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Philosophy and Politics.” Social Research 135-165.

Craig Calhoun, John McGowan. 1997. Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gines, Kathryn. 2014. “Only Violence and Rule over Others Could Make Some Men Free.” Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question,  Kathyn Gines, 93-112. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Horowitz, Irving L. 2012. Hannah Arendt: A Radical Conservative. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Keedus, Liisi. 2014. “Thinking Beyond Philosophy: Hannah Arendt and the Weimar Hermeneutic Connections.” Trames 307–325.

McCharthy, Micheal H. 2012. “Our Tradition of Political Thought.” The Political Humanism of Hannah Arendt, Micheal H. McCharthy, 111-179. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

McGowan, John. 1997. “Must Politics Be Violent? Arendt’s Utopian Vision.” Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, Craig Calhoun ve John McGowan, 263-297. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mewes, Horst. 2009. Hannah Arendt’s Political Humanism. Northwestern University: Peter Lang.

Willis, Mark. 2007. “Blind Flaneur.” Walter Benjamin: The Pearl.

Zaretsky, Eli. 1997. “Arendt and the Public/Private Distinction.” Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics, Craig Calhoun and John McGowan, 207-232. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.