A Philosopher in Hard Times

Michael S. Roth in The LA Review of Books:

SAMANTHA ROSE HILL’s intellectual biography of Hannah Arendt is a timely look at one of the most impactful, if elusive, 20th-century political thinkers. The book makes accessible key themes in Arendt’s work. Looking for a philosophical focus on creative work that escapes the mystical Teutonic fog of Heidegger? See the concept of natality described in The Human Condition. Concerned about the rise of populist authoritarianism? The Origins of Totalitarianism remains a bracing read, its conceptual flaws and political agenda less important today than its description of the aspiration to tyrannical control. Want to step back from political relevance to something more primary? Arendt’s late reflections on thinking and judgment will be powerful. In all these cases, and many more, Hill is a thoughtful guide.

The early biography is covered quickly. Hill doesn’t say much about the impact of the death of Hannah’s father, only noting with awkward foreshadowing that the loss did not diminish her “inherent wonder at being in the world.” Be that as it may, we know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s more detailed 1982 biography that the seven-year-old Hannah maintained an unusually sunny disposition for months after her father’s death but a year later began acting out and succumbing to various ailments; Young-Bruehl understood this as Hannah’s way of grieving. The young girl’s family was unobservant, but she learned about her Jewish identity from the everyday antisemitism of the street. After her mother moved to East Prussia, a challenging place to be at the outbreak of World War I, Hannah took comfort in her books. Years later when asked by Günter Gaus why she had read Kant at such a young age, she responded, “I can either study philosophy or I can drown myself, so to speak.”

More here.