The Personalist Project

A facebook friend linked this engrossing hour-long interview with Hannah Arendt.

The whole thing is worth watching, but several moments in particular gave me a sense of spiritual and intellectual kinship with her.

1) Her response to the question about whether she sought influence when she pursued philosophical studies. This she said was "a masculine question." She was never interested in influence. It wasn't about making a career or cutting a figure in the academic world. She studied philosophy because she had an urgent interior need to understand things.

2) She wrote in order to articulate her ideas to herself. For her, thinking and writing were part of the same process of coming to understand.

3) When a reader responded to what she wrote—found it true; found it resonated with his own experience—it gave her deep satisfaction and "a feeling of belonging." This brings to mind the correlative lament in Kierkegaard about the sadness of "being alone in the understanding of a truth." Those who love truth find communion through it.

4) In response to the question whether she misses the Europe before Hitler, she says assuredly no. Wasn't the Europe before Hitler the Europe that led to Hitler? In a perhaps somewhat analgous way, I find it difficult to sympathize with people who are nostalgic for, say, pre-Vatican II Catholic culture, or the antebellum south. If we have experienced a bitter disillusionment, and learned its painful lessons, how can we pine for a return to our former condition of not-understanding?  

5) Her reflection (beginning at 37 minutes) on her relation to her mother tongue is moving, and deeply personalistic. The German poetry that she learned by heart lives continually in the back of her mind...

6) The final minutes—a thought partly in tribute to her professor and friend, Karl Jaspers, is especially evocative. "Humanity is never acquired in solitude or by giving one's work to the public. It can be achieved only by someone who throws his life and his person into the public realm...We undertake something. We weave our strand into a network of relations. What comes of it we never know...This venture is only possible when there is a trust in mankind. A trust which is hard to formulate...A trust in what is human in men—all men."

Finally, two random afterthoughts.

The chain-smoking is sort of disconcerting, isn't it? It used to be so normal.

The intelligence and general high level of civilization about the whole interview—by striking contrast with the "clips" and soundbites and mindless propaganda we are everywhere bombarded with today—deepen my sense of gloom over the state of the world.

There is a new film about Arendt just being released. I'm looking forward to it.

Comments (4)

Marie Meaney

#1, Jun 1, 2013 11:06am

At times, she gets very phenomenological in her writing - actually the most in "Eichmann in Jerusalem" (even though she was severely critcized for it, for reasons which I won't go into here). My main frustration with her is that she shies back from anything religious; she has no sense of the supernatural and one feels a real blockage there. Perhaps because she attended some of Bultmann's lectures and was influenced by them? But then, she also listened to some lectures by Guardini, when very young. 

Rhett Segall

#2, Jun 2, 2013 5:32pm

I love the thought that her "thinking and wriing were part of the same process of coming to understand". It reminds me of a comment by Chief Justice John Roberts to the effect that writing gives depth to thought.  Yet I find writing one of the most difficult disciplines. Often a thought that I feel to be qualitative and carrying some depth seems to me to be trivial and common place when I find the energy to express it on paper.

A principle that helps me is this thought from Thomas Merton:

"In order to learn to wrie well one must learn to write badly."

My friends tell me I'm doing well on this initial phase.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 6, 2013 9:40am

Marie Meaney, Jun. 1 at 11:06am

At times, she gets very phenomenological in her writing - actually the most in "Eichmann in Jerusalem"

I loved her response to the critics of "Eichmann in Jerusalem" too. She firmly rejects the false charge that she blames the Jews (this is an objective matter). But she accepts that some critics dislike her tone. There's nothing to be done about that, she says. It's who she is. A subjective question.

Marie Meaney

My main frustration with her is that she shies back from anything religious; she has no sense of the supernatural and one feels a real blockage there. 

I didn't know this. I don't think I've ever read anything of hers. I look forwar to learning more about her from you, Marie! 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 6, 2013 9:44am

Rhett, I'm with you in lamenting that maddening gap between the depth and delicacy of the insight you think you have and the clunky unspecialness of what comes out when you try to put in it words.

That's the negative experience of writing your thoughts. The positive experience is when you've struggled and struggled to say something, realized you're missing something key, and then suddenly seen what it is—something you wouldn't have seen if you hadn't made the effort to put it to paper, or screen.

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?