arendt: in the eye of the conceptual storm


Arendt’s conceptual daring has been the object of admiring awe, but also of intense pro-and-con partisanship, for over a half century. First, of course, came The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Having fled Germany in 1933 at the age of twenty-seven, and later Paris, after internment in southern France, Arendt arrived as a refugee in New York and spent eight years researching a book that would eventually, through much revision in dialogue with unfolding world events, yoke the regimes of Hitler and Stalin together to illuminate the ghastly new form of government they had in common. Today, scholars agree that Arendt wasn’t the first to use the term totalitarian or to compare the two seemingly opposite systems. But her study’s momentous flow of provocative assertions and its bewildering yet somehow literarily skillful juxtaposition of abstraction with the starkest facts fixed the idea in readers’ memories. Thereafter, Arendt moved intermittently among New York intellectuals and continued to blur categories that had hitherto been seen as opposed. She was a philosopher who offered notes on the very latest world affairs; she was a sometimes-obscure, elitist champion of political freedom.

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