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Hannah Arendt – Philosophical thinking

Hannah Arendt was a scholar, journalist and philosopher from a Jewish family. Forced to leave Germany for political reasons, she went first to France, then to the United States, where she taught at many universities.

The themes of her philosophy are:
a. Totalitarianism
b. The banality of evil
c. Analysis of the crisis of modernity

a. Totalitarianism was born in Italy with Mussolini. In “The origins of totalitarianism” Hannah Arendt identifies the causes of totalitarianisms: they are a tragic consequence of mass society where men are atoms, closed to political action.
Arendt points out in society what is the single party that controls the mass with two instruments:

  • Use of terror
  • Search for consensus through ideology

The first part of the essay is dedicated to anti-Semitism, while the third part analyzes the characteristics of totalitarianism.

b. His work “The banality of evil” is the chronicle, taken up in a philosophical key, of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for the deportation and extermination of millions of human beings, especially Jews: as the philosopher points out, Eichmann was just a bureaucrat, a simple employee, a “normal” man who believed he had done his duty by obeying orders that it was not his job to discuss. This is why evil is banal, in the sense that it can insinuate itself in the simplest and most normal people.
Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina, where he had taken refuge. Tried in Jerusalem, he was executed in 1962.
The men tried were accused of:

  • War crimes
  • Crimes against the Jewish people
  • Crimes against humanity

c. Hannah Arendt also argues that with totalitarianism massified man does not engage in politics and thus the ancient political action of the polis is lost. She then elaborates on the theme of the lost polis and asks herself how to recover the participation, no longer present, in her own life.
“Vita activa. The human condition ”: modernity is a progressive decay of the human condition, a narrowing of possibilities. Human doing (active life) is expressed through three fundamental elements, which correspond to the three phases of man:

  1. Operational activity: “homo faber”. It is dedicated to the construction of lasting objects. With the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the advent of modernity, man has become above all “homo faber”, the being who, thanks to technology, produces unnatural objects. But an element of “violation and violence” is inherent in every fabrication: the “homo faber” has “always been a destroyer of nature”. And work is an activity that restricts the personality: in work, man “is not together with the world, nor with other people, but only with his own body”. Since the end of the polis, action has been set aside, the individual has concentrated on the private sphere and political action has been replaced by work, by the “homo faber”.
  2. Work activity: “animal laborans”. It corresponds to man’s need for survival. The mere “animal laborans”, a being whose activity has the sole purpose of preserving life by satisfying biological needs, has taken over from “homo faber”. In the Greek polis, which for Arendt, as well as for generations of German thinkers, represents the ideal of coexistence and culture, these tasks were carried out by slaves, in order to allow free men to devote themselves to the higher activities of public life, that is to politics, understood in a broad sense.
  3. Acting activity: politician. It corresponds to the lost political action. In the modern world, the noblest form of human activity has become impossible: the authentic “vita activa” consists in fact in political action and in public communicative interaction between free citizens, as in the polis. The disappearance of the true political dimension has dramatic consequences for the human condition: man’s activity is restricted to just “doing”, understood as the production of objects, and this in turn to a senseless “getting busy”.

But man is a political animal! Human politics is a positive and natural connotation that has been lost.


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