Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906 – December 4, 1975) was an eminent political theorist of German origin. In 1940, Arendt was taken to the infamous internment camp at Gurs, near the Pyrenees. At the last minute she was able to avoid deportation to an extermination camp and finally made her way to New York in 1942.
As a student in Germany, Arendt studied with Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Husserl and Walter Benjamin. Subsequent to her escape to New York, Arendt had to face the ongoing academic discrimination against immigrant Jewish scholars: most American universities simply refused to give them academic appointments. As a temporary solution, Jewish relief organizations helped to establish the “University in Exile” as a haven for the immigrant academics (later to become The New School for Social Research). Arendt joined the graduate faculty there, along with the eminent political philosopher Leo Strauss, Max Wertheimer and Hans Jonas. The graduate faculty of the “University in Exile” collaborated with the Ecole Libre des Haute Etudes, established in New York by Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Government in Exile. Faculty members of the Ecole Libre included Jaques Maritain and Claude Levi-Strauss.
Intense debate followed the publication of her book about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, especially among members of the intellectual New York Jewish community. Critics rejected Arendt’s conclusion that Eichmann was basically an ordinary man who symbolized the effects that a totalitarian regime could have upon almost anyone. Tiring of the incessant criticism of herself and her work, she accepted an invitation to teach on the graduate faculty of The Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. (Over time, The Committee on Social Thought has had faculty members such as Saul Bellow and Jacques Maritain.) This was an opportunity that allowed her to resume previous relationships with other immigrants on the graduate faculty at the University, including Leo Strauss and Hans J. Morgenthau in the Department of Political Science.
In addition to her faculty positions at the “University in Exile” (New York) and the University of Chicago, Arendt later held professorships or guest-professorships at several universities (including Princeton, Harvard and Berkley). She received numerous honors, including ten honorary doctorates.
During her later years in New York City, she became more reclusive, but maintained a renowned circle of friends, including W. H. Auden. In 1971, she was personally deeply struck by the death of Auden. She openly wept on the way to Auden’s memorial service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Devine. At the memorial service, she was dressed in black and overcome with melancholy. In her own memorial for Auden, she focused upon Auden’s capacity to let himself feel full vulnerability to the devastations of human failures and to:
Sing of human unsuccess / In a rapture of distress.
Arendt went on to say:
Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love.
An Arendt quotation on growing old:
I must admit that I mind this defoliation (or deforestation) process. As though to grow old does not mean, as Goethe said, ‘gradual withdrawal from appearance’ — which I do not mind — but the gradual (rather, sudden) transformation of a world with familiar faces (no matter, friend or foe) into a kind of desert, populated by strange faces. In other words, it is not me who withdraws but the world that dissolves – an altogether different proposition.