Monday, 19 March 2012 08:00

Hannah Arendt: Women of Ideas

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Hanna Arendt (1906-1975) was a German Jewish political philosopher. Arendt was primarily interested in the nature of power and freedom and her work would seem to fall under the rubric of political science rather than philosophy.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) she seemed to argue that Stalin’s totalitarianism and Hitler totalitarianism have similar roots. She saw both systems rooted in imperialism and anti Semitism. (As a Jew, she saw the world from the prism of her Jewish interests hence she could say such outrageous thing that Russian communism was rooted in anti Semitism; Trotsky, one of the leaders of early Soviet Communism, was Jewish though the internal power struggle between him and Stalin, who was not even Russian, led to his ouster.)

In her other seminal work, The Human Condition, she explored such subjects as labor and action. In this work and other works Arendt seems to be grappling with human tendency to do what power and authority asks it to do. In Nazi Germany soldiers said that what they did, kill Jews, were because they were told to do so.

Everywhere folk carry out their supposed duties, what they were told to do by their bosses even if the consequence is evil. In America racist institutions shut black folk out of the avenues of power. Discrimination made sure that blacks were not hired by government officials, let alone private businesses. Now were these people merely obeying orders or were they evil?

If people have freedom and could ascertain what is right or wrong, are they responsible for their actions done in obedience to authorities? Surely, the typical American could decide that discriminating against African Americans is evil?

Arendt was grappling with whether evil is real or just what she called the “banality of evil”. People obey orders and in the process conform to what turns out wicked policies. Are they evil or are they simply doing their jobs?

What is evil; is evil real? Do human beings have the capacity for critical thinking and can therefore choose inaction when told to take action that is evil, such as discriminate against other people? Arendt grappled with these issues and as a scholar presented interesting arguments on both sides of the coin but in the end did not answer her question.

Are human beings free and therefore capable of evil action?  What is evil? Is nature evil or not? Does nature respect human interests? Nature certainly destroys people as so-called evil human beings do. Nature, say, a tsunami or earthquake could snuff out millions of people and that is all there is to it. No one can say that nature behaves any better than human beings.

If people do what nature does, snuff out some persons, are they evil? Was Hitler evil or was he behaving naturally? By the same token was it natural to snuff Hitler out.

All these debate about good and evil seem interesting, something done at the Ivory tower seminars. In the real world people do all sorts of things. Criminals target innocent persons and kill them.

Realistic persons know that it is a waste of time wondering about human nature; they know that given the opportunity average human beings would do anything, including killing other people. Therefore, they set up institutions to punish those who harm other persons. Debating about people’s good or evil nature seems like waste of time.

Arendt’s books seem what those with time to waste could read; those who want to engage in endless debate about human evil or lack thereof.


Hannah Arendt. The Origin of Totalitarianism (1951)

Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition (1958)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176