October 14, is the birthday of Hannah Arendt, philosopher, social thinker, great woman. Born in Germany in 1906, she died in New York City on December 4, 1975.
I had her for classes and seminars at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in the early seventies. I chose that school over others because of her presence. I was not disappointed.
Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil had a major impact on me when I read it in the mid-sixties. Not only did it reinforce my concern for standing up against injustice, in a strange way that I cannot now explain, it moved me toward active nonviolence.
I consider her essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” with its references to Eichmann and Socrates, as one of the best essays to understand our times – and I mean 2016 and beyond in the US. When I taught the course Introduction to Philosophy, I often used that essay at the end of the semester, together with Ignacio Ellacuría’s essay “What is philosophy good for?”
But what I most remember about her was that she was a real person who was open to others.
At the end of the semester, she opened her apartment to the seminar students where we ate, drank, and talked. She loved the interplay of ideas. I was struck when I read of her death. She died entertaining people in her home. She died as she lived.
I also remember the time when, before class began, a young man came into the room with a Resistance button. This was during the Viet Nam War and the Resistance button was often worn by those who resisted the draft. She gave him a warm welcome and, if I remember well, hugged him.
But what happened at a speech in an unlikely place proved to me that she was a great woman, a great human being.
In 1972 Arendt received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. AT the same ceremony Catholic Worker co-founder, Dorothy Day, received the university’s Laetare Medal.
As a result Hannah Arendt was invited to speak at one of the New York Catholic Worker’s Friday night Clarification of Thought presentation. This was not the first time, Hannah Arendt had a connection with the worker. When her husband died in 1970, she donated his clothes to the Catholic Worker.
The Catholic Worker was in the Bowery. The Friday night meetings drew a wide range of people – Catholic Workers, people of the street, activists, and this evening a bunch of philosophy grad students from the New School.
I have no recollection of her topic. But what I do remember was one of her responses during the questions after her talk.
The Catholic Worker Clarifications of Thought could attract some very vociferous questioners, some not altogether coherent. One man began questioning Arendt and continued doing so with great vehemence. The woman leading the evening tried to get him to shut up – though her request was very respectful. But he insisted and the woman – was it Eileen Egan? – again tried to get him to stop his line of questioning. But Hannah Arendt broke in and said that he could and should continue his questions.
I don’t remember her exact words but she said them with such respect for the person and such openness to dialogue – no matter how heated. She was truly a woman who listened.
I remember that night with an appreciation of a woman who lived the search for truth, who lived as one who truly believed in thinking as the dialogue of the self with the self, a dialogue that ends up being open to others.
Hannah Arendt, I miss you. i would love to hear your thoughts on the reality of the world today.
May your writings continue to bring light to a world “in dark times”.