Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition

Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt, author of The Human Condition

I recently read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition [University of Chicago Press, 1958].  I’ve only been wanting to read this book for about 40 years, finally a short while ago a copy fell into my hands and I said, OK, it’s about time to actually read it.

It’s a quite idiosyncratic, extraordinary, and fascinating book. No other  book 

is quite like it. It ranges across a host of issues that are dear to my interests, but is not organized or presented in a manner that is typical of either a work of scholarship or any standard essay on history, philosophy, or intellectual history.  I found this unorthodox presentation quite to my liking; it clearly gives you a deeper insight into how Arendt’s rather unique mind works.

The book basically takes off from her more famous work on the exposition of totalitarianism [a term she coined] and its roots and gives a broader, deeper examination of the historical and philosophical foundations of our present historical situation.  In some ways, the work is more appropriate and relevant to  our current time at the beginning of the 21st century than it was to the immediate post-WW II era it addressed upon its original publication.

This is, in part, because certain developments that she presupposes as a near-future necessity have actually already taken place or begun to take place since 1958: a furthering of human rights, a  recognition that women’s rights are central to the furthering of human rights, the civil rights movement and a greater recognition that civil and human rights are central to the future civilization of the human race and the need to strengthen institutions that carry that recognition forward, a better understanding of the evils of totalitarianism and Arendt’s  distinction between totalitarianism and earlier, 19th century authoritarian forms of government.

The book also contains a very relevant critique of Marx, one that all those who are enthralled with the Marxist-influenced  writers of postmodernism would do well to read and pay attention to.  In fact, the rise of postmodernism since 1958 is one of the reasons Arendt’s book is more relevant now than it was then: for it is in an odd, almost prescient way, a very strong statement that is more relevant in a world in which postmodernism exists than it was for the pre-postmodernist world.

I would highly recommend reading this book, except for one caveat: it is not an elementary exposition. Rather, it requires an extensive background across a host of philosophical and historical areas that, while they  match my interests, reading, and education quite closely, they do not quite coincide with the usual preparation of most educated Americans. So not the book for everyone.  However,  while with the rise of postmodernism’s influence in American universities over the last two generations, the number of readers who will be prepared to read this book has most assuredly increased enormously amongst the younger generation, it will still seem to many like a voice from out of left field– a left field that does not match anything they’ve previously read in American letters.

Even so, there are readers, American readers and scholars, who feel this is one of the most important, and definitely one of the most underrated, books  written in our time.  In a better world, it would be required reading for every art historian, critic, and scholar of letters working today.