Some people’s lives capture our imagination for their intensity and totality, their passion, their authenticity and commitment, and not least for their legacy. Hannah Arendt is one such case: dynamic, an intellectual beacon, a woman of ideas and action.
Born into an intellectual German-Jewish family in the early years of the 20th century, she was a precocious student growing up in Königsberg, modern-day Kaliningrad, Immanuel Kant’s birthplace and where he spent his entire life, saying of it: “Such a town is the right place for gaining knowledge concerning men and the world, even without traveling“.
Arendt ignored Kant’s advice to stay put and as a result, her life would be anything but contemplative, the ideal she outlined in The Human Condition, drawing on the ideas of Plato for a life that established a better understanding of the world of ideas and that would provide objective vision. Instead, she chose the alternative, active life he also described, one that requires interaction with other people and on which social institutions are built and political decisions made.
Arendt even rejected the term philosopher, preferring to see herself as a political theorist, with its practical connotations. She studied at the University of Marburg with Martin Heidegger, whose ideas influenced her early thinking, among others that “thinking is an activity“, that ideas are not just speculation or concepts to be pondered over but that can transform the world. Arendt wrote of “passionate thinking“, an attitude she maintained throughout her career, in defense of ideas and political choices. She had a relationship with Heidegger, who was married with two children, and which only came to light after the publication of his letters in 1995, when both were dead. Heidegger would support the Nazi party after it came to power in 1933, appointing him rector of the University of Freiburg. After World War II, Arendt would attempt to justify Heidegger’s decision, saying he had been used by Hitler and that he was never a Nazi. In a 1971 letter to him she wrote: “You are the first to know that there is no one else like you.”
In the late 1920s, after leaving Marburg, she studied at Freiburg, where she attended courses by Edmund Husserl, and then at Heidelberg, where she met Karl Jaspers, with whom she would maintain a friendship and intellectual exchange throughout her life. Her doctoral thesis dealt with the concept of love in the work of Saint Augustine. During this time she met her first husband, Günther Stern, a sociologist.