Humanity in dark times

The following paper was presented at Saints and Madmen: Integrity at its Limits, at the Einstein Forum in June 2014.

Hannah Arendt is well known for her reflections on totalitarianism, the rise of the social and the problem of evil. Yet, she also deeply admired exemplary individuals who acted with integrity. In Men in Dark Times (1968), Arendt wrote about individuals such as Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin and above all, Gottfried Lessing. What did she admire in these people and how did they illuminate the dark times of the 20th century? In many ways, one might read Men in Dark Times as praise for those who lived the good life, who were phronemoi, or individuals with phronesis and good judgment. However, they were also people who resisted the retreat into the private sphere and bureaucratic rise of the social. The idle talk of the crowd and deformation of the political are perennial themes in Arendt’s work — from Origins of Totalitarianism to The Human Condition. If those books paint a broad philosophical and historical landscape, Men in Dark Times, like Eichmann in Jerusalem and Rahel Varnhagen is an exercise in philosophical biography.


The phrase, ‘dark times’ refers to one Bertolt Brecht’s poems: Truly, I live in dark times! An artless word is foolish. Written over a period of twelve years, ‘this collection of essays and articles is primarily concerned with persons – how they lived their lives, how they moved in the world, and how they were affected by historical time.’ (Arendt 1968: vii) At first glance, it’s a rather odd assortment of chapters, some of which were originally written as book reviews, introductions, public speeches or laudatio. Each individual though possesses an illuminating quality. All lived during the 20th century, with the exception of Lessing, who lived during the 18th. ‘Thus they share with each other the age in which their life span fell.’ (Ibid) And yet, Arendt cautions against interpreting her individual chapters as ‘representations of an era’ or ‘mouthpieces of the Zeitgeist.’ (Ibid: viii) Instead, she concentrates on how the words and deeds of each person illuminated the darkness of the public realm. Darkness refers to a lack of the public sphere and a shrinking of the world that people share in common.

That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles are drawn. (Ibid: ix)

After reading Men in Dark Times, Mary McCarthy wrote to Arendt that she was struck by the ‘folkishness of these portraits’ (McCarthy 1995: 225). ‘There’s a gnomic quality in most of them (in both senses of the word) and something of the woodcut.’ (Ibid) Each essay presents an individual, who is almost heroic, singular and full of integrity. Since they are surrounded by darkness, McCarthy reads each one as a kind of ‘runic tale’ offering character lessons on how to live. Moreover, she suggests that what links each of the woodcuts, or folkish portraits, is the role that friendship plays in each of their lives and the way each one of them complements the other as a sort of traveling companion.

This is book is very maternal, Hannah – mütterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/ they are different from us. It’s the only work of your I would call “German,” and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together. All this gave me much pleasure, as well as surprise. (Ibid: 225)


Writing back to her, Arendt agrees with the ‘fairy tale quality of the portraits.’ Indeed, she herself pictured the book as a series of ‘silhouettes’ in which each person treasures the importance of friendship, rather than intimate retreat into the private realm. (Arendt 1995: 232) Given the fact that Arendt and McCarthy were public figures, as well as close friends, who corresponded with one another for over 25 years, their appreciation of the political aspects of friendship is intriguing. In the spirit of McCarthy’s letter to Arendt, today’s presentation will examine a few woodcuts from Men in Dark Times — each of which embodies or illuminates the qualities that Arendt most admired: friendship, humanity, judgment and love of the world.


Lessing is the first woodcut or silhouette in the book – and the one, whom I will speak about most about in today’s presentation. Upon receiving the Lessing Prize in 1959, Arendt’s acceptance speech is both an appreciation of Lessing as a person and a reflection on a lifelong theme in her writing: love of the world or amor mundi. She marveled at Lessing’s ‘attitude toward the world, toward a world and public to which we owe the space into which we speak and in which we are heard.’ (Arendt 1968: 3) His approach is different from Heidegger’s Sorge and Augustine’s amor because Lessing felt gratitude for the sheer existence of the world. It was precisely his attitude of thankfulness and critical engagement that Arendt admired. ‘Nothing in our time is more dubious, it seems to me, than our attitude toward the world, nothing less to be taken for granted than that concord with what appears in public which an honor imposes on us, and the existence of which it affirms.’ (Ibid: 4)


The world is not the same as the people who live in it. ‘The world lies between people, and this in-between – much more than (as is often thought) men or even man – is today the object of the greatest concern and the most obvious upheaval in almost all the countries of the globe.’ (Ibid: 4) Such an in-between place is cultivated through friendship, critical thought, writing and speaking with others. Lessing was exactly such an individual who wrote and spoke his mind – and yet – he was never quite at home in the world. Such discomfort or alienation from the world can be the cause of philosophical retreat or withdrawal. Lessing, however, remained grateful for the very existence of the world. ‘But it was also an attitude that remained indebted to the world, never left the solid ground of the world, and never went to the extreme of sentimental utopianism.’ (Ibid: 5) While he certainly criticized the world, he refused to escape from it. ‘For Lessing never felt at home in the world as it then existed and probably never wanted to, and still after his own fashion he always remained committed to it.’ (Ibid)
Like Rahel Varnhagen, Lessing could be viewed either as a pariah or a parvenu. Either way, though, as a Jew, he remained an outsider and liminal figure in German society. Both Varnhagen and Lessing were preoccupied with the question of being at home in the world. While the pariah is excluded from the public world, the parvenu is granted marginal, but not full acceptance. This duality of the world is an old concept that fascinates Arendt. One could choose to withdraw into philosophical contemplation like Plato or Heidegger, or one might engage critically with the world, like Lessing. Although Arendt’s last book, The Life of the Mind examines thinking, willing and judging as a solitary pursuit, she admired individuals who chose the unpredictable messiness of the world over withdrawal into orderly solitude.


In Arendt’s eyes, Lessing exemplified Selbstdenken or the ability to think for oneself. Selbstdenken is not synonymous with philosophical contemplation as escape or withdrawal from the world, but connected to humanity and a common world. Selbstdenken, as ‘independent thinking for oneself’ (Ibid: 8) – is rooted in the world and connected with freedom and action. ‘When men are deprived of the public space – which is constituted by acting together and then fills of its own accord with the events and stories that develop into history – they retreat into their freedom of thought.’ (Ibid: 9) Arendt emphasizes the difference between Lessing’s Selbstdenken and Stoic retreat from the world into the inner sanctuary of the self. Thinking is not a solitary monologue, but ‘an anticipated dialogue with others.’ (Ibid: 10)

The title of her chapter on Lessing is important: ‘On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing.’ In Arendt’s reflection on Lessing, humanity is not an abstract concept but most closely linked with the qualities needed for friendship. Friendship differs from fraternity or brotherly attachment to other people. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that friendship is necessary for the good life. ‘Friends help the young in guarding them from error, and they help the old who, because of their weakness, need attention or additional support for their actions, and they help those in their prime of life to do noble actions…’ (Aristotle 1975: 140) As Arendt’s correspondence with Mary McCarthy, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and Heinrich Blüchner demonstrate, friendship is an important part of being a good person. ‘There can be no happiness or good fortune for anyone unless a friend shares in the joy of it.’ (Arendt 1968: 24) Arendt takes great care in arguing that friendship should not be equated with intimate conversation or solitary retreat into the self. ‘But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse. They held that only the constant interchange of talk united citizens in a polis. In discourse the political importance of friendship, and the humanness peculiar to it, were made manifest.’ (Ibid: 24) The humanness, which is achieved in friendship, is philanthropia or ‘love of man’. Philanthropy means that men share the world with others. Arendt reflects on how Greek philanthropia changed when it became Roman humanitas. Since Roman citizenship was given to people of different origins, who were not born in Rome, people of different backgrounds could become friends. Friendship is not an intimate sentiment but makes political demands because friends share the world in which their friendship is rooted. (Ibid: 25)


Arendt agrees both with Lessing’s emphasis on the political relevance of friendship rather than compassion and Aristotle’s argument that the activity of friendship takes place in the public sphere. Lessing ‘considered friendship – which is as selective as compassion is egalitarian – to be the central phenomenon in which alone true humanity can prove itself.’ (Ibid: 12) Humanity as brotherhood or fraternity emerged historically among persecuted individuals, who were excluded from the public sphere. Moreover, humanity was often ‘the great privilege of pariah peoples’ (Ibid: 13). Such fraternity among pariahs and those excluded from the public world creates a kind of ‘warmth of human relationships’ (Ibid) – a kind of solidarity of the oppressed and the excluded. Yet, again Arendt is critical of reducing humanity to compassion and fraternity among the excluded. In contrast, she wishes to preserve the ancient Greek emphasis on conversation among equal citizens in the public sphere. It is precisely this link between Aristotle and Lessing that Arendt wishes to rekindle in the modern world.


Above all, Arendt admired Lessing’s steadfast gratitude for the world itself. Although he was critical of the society that he lived in, Lessing cared deeply for it and refused to retreat from it. ‘The question is how much reality must be retained even in a world become inhuman if humanity is not to be reduced to an empty phrase or a phantom.’ (Ibid: 22) This question of how ‘humanity’ might retain its relevance is one that Arendt already struggled with in Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘Or to put it in another way, to what extent do we remain obligated to the world even when we have been expelled from it or have withdrawn from it?’ (Ibid: 22). In the face of statelessness, homelessness and exclusion from the common world, why should a person respond to the world, rather than withdraw bitterly from it? In spite of the fact that Arendt’s understanding of individual existence is influenced by Heidegger, she emphasizes being in the world with others. Unlike Heidegger, she is far more interested in the political and moral consequences of Mitsein than he was. Arendt’s amor mundi goes beyond Heidegger’s Sorge or care because she focuses on the space between people and the continuity of the world for the next generation. Moreover, she emphasizes plurality and freedom in the world, rather than response to the call of Being.


Many of the qualities that Arendt admired in Lessing can also be found in other chapters of Men in Dark Times. It is in her etchings of Karl Jaspers that she develops the importance of, judgment, communication and humanity. ‘Humanitas is never acquired in solitude and never by giving one’s work to the public. It can be achieved only by one who has thrown his life and his person into the “venture into the public realm.”’ (Ibid: 73-74) In particular, she admires Jasper’s venture into the public realm with the publication of his books which were explicitly written for a general audience: Man in the Modern Age, The Question of German Guilt and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. Arendt is drawn towards his conviction that ‘both philosophy and politics concern everyone.’ (Ibid: 74) Like Lessing, Jaspers does not seek a singular conception of truth, but many truths and opinions. In his insistence on the primacy of communication, he harkens back to the fundamental tenant of Socratic dialogue. ‘Truth itself is communicative, it disappears and cannot be conceived outside communication; rather the “existential” realm, truth and communication are the same.’ (Ibid: 85) Above all, Arendt admired the way in which Jasper’s chose to live during National Socialism. If prudence or phronesis is one of the virtues of human beings, Jaspers’s prudence illuminated the darkness of his times. As Aristotle writes: ‘A prudent man is thought to be one who is able to deliberate well concerning what is good and expedient for himself, not with respect to a part, e.g., not the kinds of things which are good and useful for health or strength, but the kinds of things are good and expedient for living well [in general].’ (Aristotle 1975: 104-105) Moreover, Aristotle distinguishes phronesis or prudence and practical wisdom from theoretical wisdom or sophia. It was precisely Jaspers’ insight, political judgment and prudence that Arendt found to be so illuminating.


Her chapter on Walter Benjamin is perhaps the most poignant and famous of the woodcuts in Men in Dark Times. Originally published in the New Yorker and subsequently, as the Introduction to his posthumous collection of writings that Arendt herself edited, the chapter marvels at Benjamin’s life during the darkness of 20th century Europe. Like Jaspers, Benjamin was one of her friends. Like Lessing, Benjamin rarely felt at home in the world. ‘Did he ever feel at home in twentieth-century Germany? One has reason to doubt it.’ (Arendt 1968: 172) Arendt shared Benjamin’s broken relationship to tradition – to philosophy, theology and literature. What might tradition mean in light of totalitarianism and the concentration camps? How can or might the past shed light on the present? ‘Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past.’ (Ibid: 193) As a collector and flâneur, Benjamin’s relation to tradition was eclectic. Arendt appreciated how he rescued objects and ideas from obscurity and obsolescence. As a kind of pearl diver, he maintained the fragile link between past and present. In his collections, quotations, fragments and essays, Benjamin looked for the elective affinities between objects and ideas. His collections redeemed fragments of the past. ‘Collecting is the redemption of things which is to complement the redemption of man.’ (Ibid: 197) What links Benjamin to Lessing and Jaspers is his wonder at the world. He marveled at the strange beauty of the world and wished to rescue remnants of it from the destruction of time. His method was a kind of profane illumination of a broken tradition.


Although Arendt did not write directly about integrity, she did write about arête, excellence and virtue. ‘Excellence itself, aretē, as the Greeks, virtus as the Romans would have called it, has always been assigned to the public realm where one could excel, could distinguish itself from others.’ (Arendt 1958: 48-49) In contrast to her controversial portrait of Eichmann, Men in Dark Times is full of rich biographical sketches of extraordinary individuals, who were truly good human beings. Lessing, Jaspers and Benjamin valued friendship, conversation with others and the fragile existence of the world itself. Arendt was especially drawn to their good judgment, ability to think for themselves and resilient sense of humanity. In the tradition of Plutarch, Arendt pays attention not only to the character and integrity of the person, but also to the choices that they made during their life. Perhaps, one could argue that her woodcuts in Men are Dark Times are etchings of what it means to be a Mensch. In Yiddish, a mensch is a good person of integrity and honour. Unlike a man, the term, Mensch is related to Humanität, with origins in Cicero’s Humanitas, German Menschlichkeit and adopted into Yiddish as mentsch.



Arendt, H. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Arendt, H. 1968. Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Arendt, H. and McCarthy, M. 1995. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975. Ed. C. Brightman. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Aristotle, 1975. Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle. Grinnell, Iowa: The Peripatetic Press.

Benjamin, W. 1968. Illuminations. Ed. H. Arendt. New York: Schocken Books.



About Siobhan Kattago

Siobhan Kattago is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at Tallin University, Her teaching and research interests lie at the intersection of Philosophy, Sociology and Politics. She is author of two monographs: *Ambiguous Memory: the Nazi Past and German National Identity* (Praeger 2001) and *Memory and Representation in Contemporary Europe: The Persistence of the Past* (Ashgate Publishers 2012).
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