Hannah Arendt

Hannah ArendtPortrait convener
Dr Alex Beaumont
York St. John University

Introductory lecture (mp3 file)

Also see Alex’s essay, ‘Truth, Integrity and Democratic Politics‘ in our Project Journal


  • ‘Truth and Politics’ from Between Past and Future. Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
  • ‘The Answer of Socrates’ from The Life of the Mind. Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
  • ‘Response to Gershom Scholem’ Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)
  • Preface to ‘Reflections on a Little Rock’ Reprinted in Peter Baehr (ed.) Penguin Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin)

* If you have difficulty getting hold of any of these readings, please contact us [contact@integrityproject.org]

Secondary texts

Introduction to readings

In 1961 Hannah Arendt travelled to Jerusalem to report on the trial of the Nazi SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker. During World War II, Eichmann had overseen the forcible deportation of Jews from around Europe to ghettoes and, ultimately, extermination camps. After the war he fled to Argentina, where he was captured by Israeli Mossad agents, covertly transported to Jerusalem and charged with fifteen crimes, including crimes against humanity. He was found guilty by the Israeli court and hanged on 31 May, 1962.

Arendt had numerous misgivings about the process by which Eichmann was brought to justice, ranging from his non-judicial extradition through to the legal means by which his execution was justified. However, while intensely cognisant of the historical, political, judicial and moral challenges of trying him, she was emphatic in her condemnation of the man himself. In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), the book based her New Yorker report, she identifies Eichmann as a ‘new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, [but also] commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong’. The nature of Eichmann’s involvement with the Final Solution and the scale of the murder itself clearly rendered him an enemy of humankind, but while the judges ‘knew, of course, that it would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster’, there seemed to be little that was truly monstrous about him. He was a provincial and unthinking but nonetheless ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal man’ who followed orders exactly as the law governing him demanded.

For Arendt, however, it was precisely in this respect that he was morally and legally culpable. At one point in his trial, Eichmann explained that he had always sought to live his life in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative: ‘act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’. By his own admission Eichmann knew that, in administrating the Final Solution, he was in breach of this imperative, but he consoled himself with the belief that his own moral agency was less important than commitment to the the law itself – another, altogether different, interpretation of the categorical imperative. This, combined with the mediocrity of Eichmann’s character, formed the basis of Arendt’s famous concept of the banality of evil. As she writes:

[Eichmann] had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula as no longer applicable, he had distorted it to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or the law of the land […] Kant, to be sure, had never intended to say anything of the sort; on the contrary, to him every man was a legislator the moment he started to act: by using his ‘practical reason’ man found the principles that could and should be the principles of law. But it is true that Eichmann’s unconscious distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant ‘for the household use of the little man.’ In this household use, all that is left of Kant’s spirit is the demand a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law—the source from which the law sprang. In Kant’s philosophy, that source was practical reason; in Eichmann’s household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.

Eichmann in Jerusalem raises some complex and challenging questions about integrity in the twentieth century. At an individual level, Eichmann lacked integrity: by his own account he was at variance with his conscience in contributing to the Final Solution; a profoundly irresponsible form of ethical chicanery was therefore necessary for him to justify his actions to himself. Moreover, the cost of his self-justification was arguably the concept of integrity itself: irrespective of the specifically Nazi conceptualisation of the relationship between individual and community (Volkgemeinschaft), if all moral agency is subordinated to the law at a philosophical level, the ‘unity’ of the self upon which a Platonic model of integrity might be developed is rendered incoherent.

This is to say nothing about the specifically juridical question of how individual guilt might be ascertained and justice administered in a mass society – another concern raised by Arendt in her book, and elsewhere in her writings. However, the question of individual accountability resonates more widely where Eichmann in Jerusalem is concerned, because its publication resulted in an enormous, sustained and lasting antipathy towards Arendt herself. The reasons for this are complex, but they can be divided into two broad categories, the first having to do with the moral implications of Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, and the second with what was perceived as an allegation of complicity by parts of the European Jewish population with the murderous regime responsible for the Shoah. The latter in particular – a fundamental misreading of the book, according to Arendt – resulted in personal turmoil: Arendt lost the respect of numerous intellectual peers, as well as many friendships that had been maintained for a good part of her adult life.

However, where Eichmann responded to his predicament in the Third Reich with an utter lack of integrity, Arendt arguably became a paradigm of the concept in her response to the controversy surrounding the report on his trial. It is thus on her response that the reading for this session of ‘Portraits of Integrity’ will focus. At stake in much of Arendt’s writing after Eichmann in Jerusalem was published are two connected issues: the obligation to think autonomously and the political difficulties of speaking the truth. In our reading material this month, the first is represented by ‘The Answer of Socrates’, originally given as a lecture at the University of Aberdeen and published in The Life of the Mind; the second is represented by ‘Truth and Politics’, published in Between Past and Future. We will also discuss two short pieces in which Arendt accounts for the radical independence of her thought. The first is her letter to her erstwhile friend Gershom Scholem explaining her position in Eichmann in Jerusalem; the second is the preface to her essay ‘Reflections on Little Rock’, published in Dissent in 1959, which controversially critiqued the NAACP’s focus on school desegregation as part of its Civil Rights campaign in the southern USA.


12 Responses to Hannah Arendt

  1. Rachael says:

    Thanks for a great introduction, Alex. I’m struck again by Arendt’s description of Eichmann as a ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal man’. In the introduction to our April meeting (on Plato) Amber identified a certain kind of strangeness as a mark of a man of integrity (indeed, this strangeness is what prevents Polus from taking Socrates seriously). It’s interesting to find Arendt emphasising Eichmann’s normality as a marker of a distinctive kind of ‘evil’.

  2. Amber says:

    Arendt’s formulation of Eichmann’s distorted maxim makes me think of Hegel, actually, not Kant at all. Too much unity, desire for completeness (or indeed, even integratedness?), can be a dangerous thing. Thanks for the contextualization of these essays, Alex. I will read them again in the coming week with better understanding of what they are up to.

  3. So I know we’re reading these essays as expressions of integrity, rather than as essays about it; still, when Arendt does come to mention integrity directly, at the end of the “Little Rock” essay, the remarks are intriguing. She associates integrity with a certain kind of pride – one which does not deign to compare oneself with others – reminiscent of Aristotle’s *megalopsychos*, or ‘great-souled’ person. Another one on the list of moral emotions (with shame, blame, and guilt) to explore in relation to integrity?

    Also, since Rachael left us in our last meeting with a reminder of Sue Mendus’ insistence that sometimes, at least, resignation of one’s post (in response to pressures on one’s integrity) is a cop out, I couldn’t help but notice (in Arendt’s letter about *Eichmann in Jerusalem*) a robust defence of those circumstances when saying ‘I won’t be party to this’ is what is required. Are the two positions on the ethics of refusal pointing to different cases, or expressing different views?

    • R.Wiseman says:

      Hi Amber, on your second point I’d really like to think about this more. There’s something very particular about Arendt’s phrase: ‘I am just a simple Jew, I have no desire to play any other role’ (p. 394). Does Arendt think that a non-Jewish German citizen could/should have said ‘I am just a simply German, I have no desire to play any other role’, and this count as the kind of ‘doing nothing’ that is integrity-preserving?

  4. R.Wiseman says:

    re. ‘Reflections on Little Rock’. I’m struggling to see how tolerating discrimination in the social realm can be is no threat to the integrity of persons (p. 238) if, as Arendt holds, ‘pride’ is ‘indispensable for personal integrity’ . As she says ‘the situation of being unwanted … is more difficult to bear than outright persecution … because personal pride is involved. […] Pride, which does not compare and knows neither inferiority nor superiority complexes, is indispensable for personal integrity, and it is lost not so much by persecution as by pushing, or rather being pushed into pushing one’s way out of one group and into another’ (p. 244). But isn’t being excluded from social spaces — vacation resorts is an example she gives — a ‘situation of being unwanted’? Perhaps Alex can help me out!

  5. Amber says:

    Thank you everyone for the discussion yesterday. I really enjoyed it.
    There were a few points from the reading that didn’t come up in discussion that I thought might be good to draw out:
    First was the discussion in “Socrates” about using people as representative types (p. 399 from the Portable Arendt): that is, in effect, what we are doing in this project; it was nice to encounter some reflection on with what legitimacy one does that.

    Also, a few pagest later in the same essay, Arendt describes finding what perplexes people, rather than solving riddles and presenting solutions. I don’t know whether her thought is that the latter describes philosophical thinking (i.e. what Plato or Aristotle got up to), but if so I would object. Philosophy has to remain what Socrates did; but isn’t there room for a connection between the two (as there is for Plato, for Kant)? That is, can’t solving riddles and presenting solutions be an instrumental part of finding out what worries people, and engaging them constructively in those worries? And then, when it doesn’t serve that purpose, it really is worthless? Or is it a philistine impulse of mine here, to suppose that abstract thought must, in the end, be brought back to the cave, if it is to be any good at all?

    Next, from “Truth and Politics”: Did any of the historians among us rile at being called ‘storytellers’? I hope not, since the job is considered terribly important! Especially striking is that the ‘political function of the storyteller (the historian, the novelist) is to teach acceptance of things as they are. From this arises the faculty of judgement’ (paraphrase, p. 573 of the Portable Arendt). We are to teach acceptance of things as they are – NOT because this leads to calm acceptance, quietism (often a charge laid against the Buddhists, who claim to teach precisely that), but because it makes possible the judgement necessary for action.

    Finally, also from “Truth and Politics”: “Let justice be done, though the world perish”, Michael Kohlhaas’ rallying cry, I believe. I’m looking forward to discussing the novel in the autumn.

  6. Lisa says:

    Hi all, thanks for letting me join the discussion. I am now not convinced any more whether Arendt has one notion of integrity at all. There is the idea of the integrity of the social spheres, which Alex rightly emphasized: various kinds of corruption happen if people act in the “wrong” mode in a certain sphere. And then there is the idea of being “at one” with oneself, in the inner dialogue that she describes as the mark of thinking. What I still haven’t really understood is how the two things hang together. The idea of the being at one with oneself seems to lead to certain forms of refusal to participate, and presumably it also rules out certain forms of action (e.g. murdering innocents, lying?). But what else does it do? Does it provide guidance for how to keep up the boundaries between the other spheres?
    I think Arendt is on to something very important when separating these spheres, and I think that calls for a return to a “unity” of the social space, against “fragmentation” can be rather dangerous. But does Arendt help us in understanding how we can navigate between these spheres without compromising our integrity? A cynical reading would hold that by offering us a theory of different spheres, she actually provides us with a tool to justify actions in one realm that would be unthinkable in another one (this may be particularly true if “the political” is understood as a realm of antagonism, as Alex emphasized).
    An interesting point from “The Human Condition” is that she says that political actions (which might be the first thing that comes to mind in the cynical reading – Arendt loves Machiavelli, after all) need to be accompanied by speech, because otherwise the person cannot reveal herself. I guess this speech must be authentic in some way, at least it can’t be just talking in clichés, as she describes in the case of Eichmann. But I am not sure whether she would also hold that such political speech has to possess other characteristics, for example honesty or truthfulness, that would maybe make it possible to connect it to an account of integrity.
    There were some questions about the kind of character Arendt herself was, and whether and how she might be a model of integrity (especially the kind of stubbornness with which she sticks to her position, not being strategic about the context of communication). For those of you know don’t know it and who understand German, I highly recommend the video interview with Günter Gaus (available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9SyTEUi6Kw). She has a very interesting way of insisting on her position, while also, smilingly, accepting that others see things differently.

    • Amber says:

      Regarding whether Arendt has just one concept of integrity (it’s not, after all, a focal point for her): I was startled to see that she associates with Billy Budd’s absolute goodness – the kind of goodness that has no space in the political sphere which can and must be restricted to virtue and vice – with ‘natural integrity’. I don’t think she’s theorizing here, just appealing to available connotations of the word ‘integrity’ – in this case, I think, perhaps ‘wholeness’, ‘unbrokenness’. (This is from ‘The Social Question’ in *Vita Activa*)

      • Lisa Herzog says:

        Interesting – the German version of Vita Activa does not have Billy Budd, unless I overlooked it. I’ve been musing quite a bit about whether the fact that German was her mother tongue makes a difference. “Integrität” exists in German, but it does not hold a very prominent place in moral or public discourse. It has a rather formal ring to it – we also use “territoriale Integrität”, and “Integrität” is also used as a technical term in IT. But then linguistic conventions did not bother Arendt too much in other contexts, so I am not sure how important this is.

  7. R.Wiseman says:

    I’m posting this on behalf of Demetris Tillyris.

    What seems to lurk in the background of Arendt’s essay on Truth and Politics, is a rather profound political realist, and to be more specific, Machiavellian point: truth and its absolute and unconstrained quest can be politically suicidal, and indeed a disastrous political vice. It will aid neither those in power to preserve or remain in their positions nor can it help secure, what more contemporary political realists (such as Williams) term, the first question of politics: the requirement of stability and a modicum of order and security to the community. In this sense, Arendt does seem to come quite close to Mendus’ and Hollis’ position on what is distinctive of political integrity and virtue: those who are eager to lead a life of politics by practicing the absolutism, consistency and integrity of the saint are dangerous for the public realm and politics itself; political integrity conflicts with, and is not akin to, moral integrity. Even more Machiavellian (and, even more interesting perhaps) is the distinction she draws between two kinds of truthfulness – truthfulness to others and truthfulness to oneself. This distinction, coupled with her discussion on the dangers of truth and moral integrity in politics brings to mind her analysis of Robespierre’s Terror of Virtue in On Revolution.

  8. ack77 says:

    Alex’s introduction to the reading group session is now available here on the website, at the top of this Arendt session page.

  9. Rachael Wiseman says:

    For those of us still thinking about Arendt, I’ve opened comments on Alex Beaumont’s EF paper here: https://integrityproject.org/2014/08/18/truth-integrity-and-democratic-politics/. Adam Kelly has started us off …

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