When did you first encounter the writings of Hannah Arendt and why did they connect with you?
I first encountered Hannah Arendt when I was a graduate student in the late 1980s and 1990s. I was studying psychoanalysis and feminism. Arendt was not much interested in either. Nor was she very fashionable. This was pre-internet days, so nobody knew how stylish she was – with her cigarette and her faraway eyes – or that she could write tweet-sized aphorisms that illuminated whatever it was that was bothering you. Her seriousness and dark irony seemed out of time in those days, but very attractive. I started reading her seriously during the early 2000s, after 9/11 and in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed then that the world was lurching into a new dark period – as, indeed, it did. Her controversial reports on the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem in 1961, and her major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, struck me deeply for her fierce commitment to difficult truths, and for her moral clarity about political judgement and responsibility.
How do you see her writing and ideas as relevant to today?
Terror, war, disenchantment, post-truth politics, conspiracy theories, racism, mass migration, the threat of total annihilation – Arendt lived through them all. Every time I thought I was describing about the past as I wrote about her life and ideas, the present would move into view. Arendt wrote about two kinds of profound alienation that had taken hold in the twentieth century: world alienation, when we are alienated from one another, lonely, politically and culturally disenfranchised; and earth alienation, when we are alienated from the earth and its life forms. These two types of estrangement shape our present. And our failure to deal with either is now even more serious for our survival than it was when Arendt was writing. She could see where we were heading.
If she were alive, what do you think Arendt would say about the state of our politics now? What issues would she think were a priority to tackle?
In the last years of her life, she wrote about how out of touch politics and decision-making was becoming – almost irreparably so. On the one hand, there were big political parties that had little to do with people’s lives and opinions and were interested in only maintaining power for power’s sake. On the other, you had a then developing tech and science culture which was also taking away power – the power to make choices, think for yourself, to have your privacy. She saw the human challenges of AI long before many. Tackling powerlessness would be her priority. Discovering, and possibly rediscovering, ways of giving politics the genuine plurality that can only come when different people, with different identities, opinions, talents, histories, act in concert.
Your book talks about thinking as activism. What do you mean by that?
I don’t actually say thinking is a form of action. Like Arendt, I keep the two apart for very good historical reasons. Any kind of groupthink is seductive, and for that reason very dangerous. Thinking new worlds into being without regard for reality was what got us totalitarianism. What she did mean is that we need to fight to protect space to think for ourselves – to test ideas out, to hear other voices in a two-in-one dialogue in our heads. It’s thinking finally which allows us to make judgements about our world. But that is also where activism kicks in: with political judgement, and with the courage to say this is wrong, I cannot live with myself if I let this pass, I must act, I will act.
What advice would Arendt have for climate change protestors and anti-war marchers today?
Act, act together, have fun, but follow your common senses too. Arendt was always excited when people came together to act against bad politics. Growth-for-growth’s sake consumer culture, the trashing of the earth, the madness of much of what we are doing – to others, to ourselves, to the planet – the persistence of colonial mindsets, are all not just bad politics, they are disastrous for the existence of the world in a very profound sense. But it was also for that same reason she disliked radical movements that didn’t have a sense of the common world. You cannot make a revolution without the consent – active or passive – of others. And you absolutely can’t make a new political reality out of violence. You might change the world, but the likeliest thing is that you’ll have changed it into a more violent world.
After reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt famously wrote of the ‘banality of evil’ and the tendency of politicians to retreat from messy democracy into the relative comfort of administrative bureaucracy. What lessons does she have for us to avoid repeating the same mistakes?
Think! The most striking thing about Adolf Eichmann was his thoughtlessness. That was what was banal. And don’t hide behind power. Think about what words mean, what systems are for, about how easy it is to put a cliché or a ‘procedure’ in place of a human being. And have the courage to refuse to do that.
How have you applied Arendt’s ideas in your own life, both personally and professionally?
Arendt only had one permanent academic job towards the end of her life (at the New School in New York) because she really disliked university administration and because she profoundly distrusted academic intellectuals. She never forgot the professors and colleagues who were supine in the face of the Nazi takeover, whilst still thinking they were really great at thinking! But she really did like her students – I interviewed several – and they loved her back. She called them the ‘new people’, supported their thinking and their activism, and battled hard to keep education free as space for thought, experiment, learning and mistake-making. I think about what her classrooms would have been like a lot, and I also think students are the most important part of any university. I’ve also learnt from Arendt about the necessity – as well as the dangers – of speaking your mind. She sets high moral standards for truth and action. She’s a hard act to follow.
Did you discover anything new or surprising about Arendt when writing the book?
I don’t think I’d appreciated her huge capacity for joy and love – for the world and for her friends. It’s perhaps not how you think of a twentieth-century European intellectual who wrote about totalitarianism, but she loved parties, dancing, and never lost her appetite for getting really quite drunk with her friends. She lived through many nightmares, but she was, fundamentally, joyous.
What’s next for you and your research?
Arendt was a great theorist of new beginnings – of what she called ‘natality’ and the capacity to begin again. But towards the end of her life, she also began to think about endings and old age. That’s where I’m beginning my next book: with what is next for my generation of twentieth-century women.
Lyndsey Stonebridge’s new book We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love & Disobedience is published by Penguin and released on 25 January 2024.
Life in brief: Hannah Arendt was a German-Jewish political writer who was born in Hanover in 1906. In 1933, she fled Germany and worked with refugee children in Paris. Sent to a camp at the beginning of the war, she finally escaped Europe for America in 1941 where she became one of the country’s leading intellectuals. Her masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was one of the first historical studies of the then new political phenomenon. She is best-known for her reports of the trial of the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, for The New Yorker in which she coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. She died in New York in 1975, after dinner with good friends.