Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a renowned philosopher who redefined political thought by emphasizing the importance of civic engagement and the moral dimensions of politics, challenging conventional notions of power and governance.

Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975)


In the realm of political philosophy, Hannah Arendt stands out as a luminary whose ideas transcended traditional boundaries. Born in Germany and later becoming a prominent figure in American academia, she was a contemporary of Adolf Hitler, an era marked by turbulent political ideologies and global conflict. Arendt, in her own words, described her thinking as “thinking without barriers,” reflecting her commitment to unorthodox perspectives. While she didn’t establish a formal school of political thought or amass a legion of followers, her originality and insights have earned her immense admiration in the field of political philosophy.

Influences on Hannah Arendt


Hnnah Arendt’s intellectual journey was significantly influenced by existentialism, a philosophical movement that challenged the traditional Western philosophical tradition dating back to Plato. She criticized this tradition for its reliance on a uniform method of inquiry to analyze both the natural world and human existence. Arendt’s approach differed in that she sought to understand political philosophy “from the inside,” eschewing the construction of an external, objective theory of politics.

Martin Heidegger

Another powerful influence on Arendt’s work was the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, particularly his seminal work “Being & Time.” Heidegger’s ideas left an indelible mark on Arendt’s inquiries, inspiring her to engage in historical Abbau or Destruktion. This endeavor aimed to unveil the authentic essence of political experience, replacing prior distorting assumptions within the philosophical tradition.

Karl Jaspers

Collaborating with Karl Jaspers, an existentialist philosopher, Arendt delved into the philosophical tradition from the perspective of its self-conscious culmination. Under Jaspers’ guidance, she discovered the formidable power of judgment through active political engagement within the realm of reason. Her studies under his mentorship culminated in her thesis on the concept of love in the thought of St. Augustine.

Important Writings of Hannah Arendt

Throughout her prolific career, Hannah Arendt produced several influential works that continue to resonate in contemporary political discourse:

The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951): In this seminal work, Hannah Arendt dissected and analyzed Nazism and Stalinism as major totalitarian movements. She explored the mechanics of totalitarianism, emphasizing the role of propaganda, the transformation of masses into classes, and the use of terror in its formation, with a focus on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Human Condition (1958): In this work, Hannah Arendt advanced an individualistic perspective of politics, portraying it as an arena where individuals strive to excel through extraordinary deeds. She delved into how human activities should be and have been understood within the Western civilization.

Between Past and Future (1961)

On Revolution (1963): Hannah Arendt offered a comparative analysis of two pivotal eighteenth-century revolutions: the American and French Revolutions.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1965): This work underscored the importance of critical reasoning and explored how evil had evolved into a commonplace, faceless phenomenon.

On Violence (1970): Hannah Arendt analyzed the nature, causes, and significance of violence in 

Some other works of Arendt:

  • “The latter half of the twentieth century”.
  • “Man in dark themes”
  • “Crisis of the republic”
  • “Lectures on the Kant’s Political Philosophy”
  • “Existent Philosophy”

Major Themes of Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought

Views on Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt’s first-hand experience of living under a totalitarian regime during Hitler’s reign deeply informed her views on totalitarianism. She believed that twentieth-century totalitarianism was a unique and distinct phenomenon, characterized by unprecedented levels of violence. According to her, totalitarianism was not just about restricting freedom of speech and expression but also about controlling thoughts and the very essence of humanity. In her view, totalitarian regimes treated their citizens as soulless machines, using extreme violence and powerful ideologies, including propaganda and myth, to maintain their grip on power.

Hannah Arendt traced the origins of totalitarianism to several factors, including a critique of modernity for prioritizing economic pursuits over the political sphere. She metaphorically connected the onset of the modern age to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Additionally, she criticized excessive bureaucratization and technocratic societies, which she believed modernity had engendered. She also contended that the neglect of the political sphere by the Jewish community played a role in their plight. Ultimately, Arendt linked the rise of totalitarianism in Europe to a long history of tribalism and imperialism, a phenomenon intertwined with the emergence of mass society.

Theory of Action by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt has given her theory of action in her book – Human Condition. She has used a phenomenological approach in her theory of action. She divides human activities into two broad categories:

  • Action (Vita Activa)
  • Thinking (Vita – Contemplativa)

According to Hannah Arendt, Action is more important than thinking. She further classified action i.e human activities into a tripartite division: 

  • Labour (Humanity as animal Laborans)
  • Work (Humanity as Homo Faber)
  • Action (Humanity as Zoon Politikon)

Action (Vita Activa)

Hannah Arendt’s framework classifies human activities into three key domains, with “action” occupying a central position. She posits that action, in its most profound sense, embodies the initiation of something novel, the ignition of fresh and spontaneous processes. It is, in essence, the pinnacle of human activity and finds its ultimate expression in the political sphere, where individuals participate in public affairs. Arendt underscores the authenticity of action, elevating it above labor and work.

Labor (Humanity as Laborans)

In the realm of labor, we encounter actions that even animals are capable of performing. These activities are driven solely by the need to sustain life and serve no higher purpose. Engaging in labor offers no avenue for the development of individual identity, independent thought, or freedom.

Work (Humanity as Homo Faber)

Work encompasses all endeavors where humans harness natural materials to craft enduring objects, whether artistic creations or everyday items. These tangible products collectively form what Hannah Arendt refers to as the “world”. In the domain of work, individuals experience a degree of partial freedom, assuming the status of Homo Faber, the maker.

Concept of Power by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt offers a phenomenological lens through which we can analyze the concept of power, drawing crucial distinctions between power and related terms.

Power vs. Strength

Hannah Arendt distinguishes power from strength. Strength is an attribute of an individual, while power is intrinsically tied to collective action and the solidarity of groups.

Power vs. Force

In her nuanced analysis, Hannah Arendt differentiates between power and force. Force is a natural phenomenon, while power is a social construct rooted in human collaboration and organization.

Power vs. Violence

Hannah Arendt underscores the disparity between power and violence. Violence is associated with authoritative entities, such as the state, while power emanates from the collective will of the people.

Key Features of Power

  • Belongs to the Human Realm: Power is a quintessentially human phenomenon, distinct from the forces of nature.
  • Not an Individual Possession: It is not the possession of an individual but arises when people come together and dissipates when they return to their private lives.
  • Emerges through Collective Action (sui-generis): Power is an outcome of people acting in concert with each other.

According to Hannah Arendt, Power is ‘acting in concert with each other’. She fervently advocates the necessity of active participation in civic and civil affairs as a safeguard against authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies. For her Power is not identified with violent coercion but rather with the human capacity for concerted action.

Political Action by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt’s conception of politics is intricately linked to her theories of power and action. She maintains that humans are inherently “zoon politikon,” emphasizing that political action represents the true essence of being human. For her Political action is necessary for the creation of a common world.

She presents a distinctive view of power and politics, asserting that they reside within civil society. For Hannah Arendt, power finds its essence in empowerment, where individuals act collectively. In her view, the political community is the quintessential realm of action, where citizens are fully committed to a political way of life. In this context, politics is best understood as a form of action, actively shaping the course of our shared existence.

Revolution: A Mental Transformation

Hannah Arendt’s stance on revolution fundamentally differs from Marx’s endorsement of violent upheaval. She asserts that true revolution transcends changes in material conditions; it’s a revolution of the mind. Rather than relying on violence, Arendt advocates for peaceful means of transformation.

Comparing the American and French Revolutions

Hannah Arendt conducts a comparative analysis of two iconic revolutions: the American and the French. In her view, the American Revolution serves as a superior model of revolution because it bestowed civic freedom upon its citizens. Conversely, the French Revolution primarily focused on addressing “social and economic questions” while neglecting civic freedom.

Hannah Arendt’s Vision of Revolution

For Hannah Arendt, the essence of a revolution lies in the attainment of civic freedom—a “political question.” A genuine revolution should create ample opportunities for the political community to actively engage in public affairs.

Summary of Hannah Arendt’s Thoughts

Intellect vs. Reason: Hannah Arendt distinguishes between science, characterized by the exercise of “Verstand” (Intellect), and philosophy, marked by the exercise of “Vernunft” (Reason).

Government and the People: Hannah Arendt challenges the traditional distinction between the government and the governed, asserting that both play integral roles in governing the country. Arendt is credited for re-emphasizing equality between ruler and the ruled.

Participatory Community: She envisions a political community as inherently participatory, constructed from the grassroots up. Hnnah Arendt’s ideal is a “council state.”

Politics as a Moral and Cultural Activity: Contrary to the notion of politics as a brutish and coercive endeavor, Arendt views it as a cultural and moral pursuit, deeply intertwined with human existence.

The Banality of Evil: Arendt explores the root of evil as blind obedience to authority. Her concept of the “Banality of Evil” highlights how even ordinary individuals can commit heinous crimes in the absence of critical and moral judgment. This concept has found relevance in analyzing contemporary issues like genocides and terrorism.

Views on Revolution: Hannah Arendt’s profound ideas on revolution and political thought continue to inspire critical examination of the nature of transformation, governance, and human behavior. Her call for a mental revolution and emphasis on civic freedom challenge us to rethink conventional notions of political change, offering a fresh perspective on the power of collective action and critical thinking.

Quotes by Hannah Arendt 

  • There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous. 
  • Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda. 
  • Action without a name, a who attached to it, is meaningless. 
  • Power relations are essentially cooperative in nature
  • The third world is not a reality but an ideology. 
  • Life of the Mind
  • The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.
  • The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. 


Hannah Arendt’s enduring legacy is rooted in her capacity to offer a novel and invigorating perspective on the realm of politics. She reminds us that politics transcends the mere pursuit of power; it is a higher and more noble endeavor. Arendt is rightfully acknowledged for her profound reassertion of the principle of ‘equality between those who govern and those who are governed.’

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