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Hannah Rich reviews Lyndsey Stonebridge’s latest book on the life and work of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. 05/02/2024
The world today, riven with conflict, tribalism and despair, feels increasingly dark. Our headlines and social media force us to confront the horrors that pervade and wrestle with the humanity of those behind them. Perhaps ‘twas ever thus. Yet, as Lyndsey Stonebridge’s new biography of Hannah Arendt demonstrates, there is still potential for newness and imagination in our response, drawing on the wisdom of those before us. Above all, Arendt teaches us here, there is power in our capacity to love.
Hannah Arendt was a Jewish German–American historian, philosopher and political theorist perhaps best known for her writing about the “banality of evil” in the wake of the Second World War. Her life spanned eras, continents and identities, and her work resonates still, almost half a century after her death. She wrote incisively about the human condition, power, democracy, totalitarianism, how nations deal with refugees, statehood and statelessness; none of which are any less salient now. This is reinforced by the mention of a young senator who wrote to Arendt in 1975 for a transcript of her final speech. The name of that young senator, to coin a phrase, was Joseph Biden.
In We Are Free to Change the World, Stonebridge paints a tender picture of Arendt as a person not just a brilliant mind. In parts, it is so affectionate that it is hard to believe they are not contemporaries; that the biographer never actually met her subject outside of the pages of her books. If some of the fine details are imagined rather than strictly real, as Stonebridge acknowledges in the introduction, then they succeed in humanising her. I found myself captivated by Hannah Arendt as a character, a woman lying awake at night and smoking cigarettes, not just as a source of wisdom and political imagination.
The physical sites are well imagined too; this is not travel writing, but along with a growing bibliography, it left me with a list of cities to visit and bridges I longed to cross for real. Visiting Arendt’s student digs in the university town of Marburg, we find that “outside, next to the fence there is (what else could there be?) a cigarette–vending machine, the perfect shrine to Hannah Arendt” (p.38). Elsewhere, there are plentiful small details that bring her to life in full colour; the wine–fuelled night she enjoys with friends in Berlin before fleeing across the Czech border, the soft Swiss bedsheets of her time recuperating in the Alps, the glass of Campari with which an imagined Arendt toasts the reader in the final paragraph.
Yet in the face of growing darkness of the sort with which she was familiar, no one turns to Arendt just to learn about the lizards she might have watched bathing in the Alpine sun.
This is also an exploration, rightly, of her ideas in the cold light of today. The location of evil may have shifted since Arendt’s lifetime, but the landscape has not: “misery remains, as does the thoughtlessly cruel administration of human beings as though they were little more than freight” (p.2). It is grimly serendipitous that this book was published in the very week in which the UK government is on the cusp of another civil war about how harshly it can get away with treating migrants. As Stonebridge notes, “the tacit acceptance that there are certain categories of people – refugees, migrants, the uprooted, the occupied, the incarcerated, the permanently poor – whose lives are essentially superfluous has not changed much since the Second World War.” (p.1)
“I don’t know if we will ever get out of this,” Arendt writes to Karl Jaspers in 1946, about the powerlessness and political extremes of their time. It is tempting to feel similarly in 2024. Theirs was a generation who lived through the war, moving from pre–war to post–war in a single lifetime. Last month, the UK defence secretary Grant Shapps suggested that we are moving again from “a post war to a pre–war world,” and the cycle continues.
Arendt wrote of her own detachment from the political establishment that “one of these days … I will be able to describe the actual domain of political life, because no one is better at marking the borders of a terrain than the person who walks around it from the outside.” This is not a biography which holds the same distance from its subject, coolly surveying a life from its perimeter. It is clearly on less comfortable ground discussing Arendt’s perceived defence of Adolf Eichmann and the brutal backlash, which “hangs like a brown cloud” over the rest of her work. There is a similar change in tone when it comes to Arendt’s inability to understand the racial dynamics and tensions of mid–century USA. A less rose–tinted portrait would certainly go further in its critique here.
There are lessons here on the difference between thought and action, which are instructive in a world where social media has conditioned us to opine on everything. Hannah Arendt did not have fully formed thoughts on everything, nor did she claim to be a master of her own thoughts.
Journalist and author Jamie Bartlett recently summed up the tendency of social media and the chronically online to render speaking publicly “so easy that not doing it kind–of–implies you don’t know or don’t care about what’s going on in the world”.
It is ironic that Hannah Arendt often features prominently on lists of historical figures people wish had been alive in the social media era, whose Twitter presence we might have enjoyed. Arendt, as Stonebridge understands her, would be entirely allergic to the reactive and absolute nature of social media that Bartlett diagnoses: “There are some heroes who have indeed summoned the courage to shout Think! down the barrel of a gun and have changed history in the process but most people prefer to shout Stupid! into the void of social media which is not especially dangerous at all and is the very opposite of courageous” (p.235).
For a writer best known for her theories and insights on totalitarianism, this book is at its strongest in its exposition of Arendt’s understanding of ‘love’. It is deliberate that it is “love and disobedience” that characterise the lessons from Hannah Arendt according to the subtitle, not evil and power. We learn that Arendt herself initially wanting to call her most influential work not The Human Condition but Amor Mundi (Love of the World), struck by St Augustine’s writing on the “Christian political principle” of love, itself inspired by the first letter of St John.
Arendt knew that “love matters to our politics because it matters to us at the most intimate level of our lives. As we do now, Arendt lived in a world where there was far too much passionate intensity of the worst kind, and not nearly enough neighbourly love.” (p.80) She was seized by the knowledge that love itself can be deadly; the misdirected love of God has killed millions and, at home, it is generally accepted that the perpetrator of violence is more likely to be a lover than a stranger to the victim.
But love is not unredeemable. Arendt saw the banality of evil, the ease with which she observed that ordinary people could slip into acts of unimaginable horror, but also the everyday nature of love that might save us. It is both the beginning of the world and the beginning of a better world. It is “what makes us human, plural, alive to one another and to the human condition itself” (p.90). The way Arendt loved was perhaps her greatest and most original response to totalitarianism. Having stared evil in the face, her reflection on “the great incalculable grace of love” is a lasting gift to politics.
You have to love the world – to let the love of the world dwell in you – to write as Arendt did. I think you have to know what love is, too, to write a biography as beautiful and intimate, if not flawless, as this one.
We Are Free to Change the World. By Lyndsey Stonebridge. Hogarth; 368 pages; page references here from the e–book edition.
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Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie, CC BY–SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).
Posted 5 February 2024
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.