We Are Free to Change the World: Han­nah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience

  • Review
By – July 2, 2024

Peo­ple usu­al­ly know Han­nah Arendt for her work cov­er­ing the Adolf Eich­mann tri­al in Jerusalem in 1961, and for her inven­tion of the term banal­i­ty of evil” to describe Eich­mann. It was a term that was great­ly mis­un­der­stood at the time (and per­haps today). But Arendt was not triv­i­al­iz­ing evil — she was argu­ing against moral rel­a­tivism and for the impor­tance of mak­ing moral choic­es. This was a guid­ing prin­ci­ple she pur­sued through­out her life and career.

Arendt was born in Ger­many in 1906 and stud­ied at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty under Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger. She earned a PhD in phi­los­o­phy, but her career was cut short by the rise of the Nazis. She escaped via Por­tu­gal to the Unit­ed States, arriv­ing in New York in the spring of 1941. While she taught at numer­ous uni­ver­si­ties in the US, it was her writ­ings that made her one of the most influ­en­tial philoso­phers of the twen­ti­eth century.

In this book, Lyn­d­sey Stone­bridge focus­es on Arendt’s The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism, The Human Con­di­tion, and On Rev­o­lu­tion, in addi­tion to her cov­er­age of the Eich­mann tri­al. Hav­ing seen total­i­tar­i­an­ism up close in Ger­many and Rus­sia, Arendt warned of the attacks on free­dom that she saw in the rise of fig­ures such as Juan Péron and Hungary’s com­mu­nist leadership. 

The Hun­gar­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion was a mod­ern event that a life­long admir­er of rev­o­lu­tion could use to good effect in her writ­ing. Arendt under­stood free­dom as humanity’s high­est achieve­ment. As Stone­bridge puts it,” Free­dom to par­tic­i­pate in your own gov­ern­ment … to have dig­ni­ty, to be a cit­i­zen and not a sub­ject; that was the essence of rev­o­lu­tion.” She saw this theme in every rev­o­lu­tion, from the Amer­i­can and French Rev­o­lu­tions to the Civ­il Rights Move­ment of the 1950s and 1960s. Rev­o­lu­tion is inevitable, Arendt argued, because it aris­es from suf­fer­ing, and suf­fer­ing is intol­er­a­ble. She was con­vinced that the first step to rev­o­lu­tion is thought: how peo­ple think and how they act on what they think are pre­req­ui­sites for mak­ing moral choic­es — choic­es like revolution.

Like St. Augus­tine, on whom she wrote her dis­ser­ta­tion, Arendt saw love at the cen­ter of life. She mar­ried Hein­rich Blüch­er and had a tal­ent for rela­tion­ships, whether in mar­riage or among her large, intel­lec­tu­al cir­cle of friends. In love, she believed, we find our humanity.

Stone­bridge has writ­ten a fine book for any­one who wants to explore Arendt and her writ­ings. Her work here will set oth­ers forth on a greater path to understanding.

Jill S. Beer­man grew up in New Jer­sey and attend­ed Mont­clair State Uni­ver­si­ty. She has a doc­tor­ate in Amer­i­can Stud­ies from New York Uni­ver­si­ty. She taught high school and col­lege for twen­ty-five years. 

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