Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

The Essay Form


“Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.”

– Hannah Arendt, Preface to Between Past and Future, 1961

Hannah Arendt called Between Past and Future her most important book. The essay collection deals with fundamental political-philosophical terms such as freedom, authority, power and reason. Its subtitle—“Exercises in Political Thought”—points towards the genre of the book, essay, which of course comes from the French essayer, meaning something like to try, to experiment and, in this sense, to exercise. It was from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais—the wonderfully experimental, experience-based reflections on topics both philosophical and mundane, first published in 1580—that the genre got its name. Arendt read Montaigne both in the original French and in English translation, and the two respective versions of Essais in her library prove that she read them carefully, and with a pencil at the ready. Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin developed and expanded the possibilities of this genre in their own unique ways, and both thinkers count among Arendt’s key interlocutors. It is however less well known that Arendt’s work in the genre of “essay” also have another starting point: in American literature, from the writings of Emerson and Melville, both of whom she grew to know through the writings of the literary critic Alfred Kazin.


Arendt and Kazin became close friends in the late 1940’s. Their conversation in letters began with Kafka and continued through literature, friendship, and genuine interest in each other's work. Kazin helped Arendt find a publisher for her first American book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” and also played a central role in editing that groundbreaking study. At the same time Arendt was reading Kazin’s essay collection “On Native Grounds,”—she read it “every day at breakfast,” in fact, as she wrote to him. For Arendt, who had arrived in the USA only a few years earlier, Kazin’s book was an introduction to the literature and history of her new homeland—as well as a paradigm of the “essay” genre. At the highpoint of their friendship, in the summer of 1956, Arendt told Kazin in a letter that she had written him into her will as “literary executor for all things in English.” In the very same letter that links their literary legacies in such a meaningful way, Arendt comes back to “On Native Grounds,” and to the “essay:” Harcourt Brace, who published both authors, had suggested to Arendt “that I prepare also a volume of essays,” yet she “shuddered at the thought of it,” since she understood the great challenges posed by the genre that in her eyes Kazin was mastering. It took five more years for Arendt to set aside her “shudder,” and to publish Between Past and Future.

In the meantime, Arendt and Kazin sent other writings to each other, among which two texts in particular continued their conversation about the “essay.” The first is a preface written by Kazin to a new edition of Moby Dick. The novel, Kazin writes, “is not so much a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale as it is an experience of that quest.” To understand writing as an invitation to experience something—an invitation to a process of thinking, to an exercise—echoes the project of Arendt’s Exercises in Political Thought. “This is only to say, what we can say of any true poem,” Kazin continues, “that we cannot reduce its essential substance to a subject, that we should not intellectualize and summarize it, but that we should recognize that its very force and beauty lie in the way it is conceived and written.” “The Introduction is wunderbar,” Arendt wrote Kazin enthusiastically, using the German word both as a sign of intimacy and because the German “wunderbar” more strongly connotes the spirit of “wonder” than the English “wonderful.”

Soon thereafter Alfred Kazin published a large anthology of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Many of Arendt’s American readers rightfully wonder why Emerson does not appear more frequently in her writing. There seems to be such an intriguing correspondence between both writers’ style of thinking and care for language. But Arendt’s copy of Kazin’s anthology shows just how attentively she read Emerson: the volume is heavily underlined. The markings begin in the introduction and revolve — perhaps not so surprisingly, since Emerson was one of the founding figures of American essay writing—around his writing style. “He is a writer who lives entirely by ideas, but who really lives them,” Kazin writes at the very beginning. “He is not a philosopher, not a maker of systems or a prover of systems or a justifier of them. He starts from a conviction about man’s central importance in the world which he never really elaborates, but which he accepts as necessary and evident and profoundly human – he could almost have said, the only human account of the world in modern, ‘scientific’ times.” It is a description that strikingly resembles the fundamental concept of love for the world —amor mundi—which Arendt was writing in The Human Condition at the very same time. Her books moved and excited him, Kazin later wrote to Arendt, “in a way that no ‘technical philosophy’ ever could. What a visionary you are, as my most beloved poets are!”

As visionary as a poet? Or is this more a view of poetic thinking? Hannah Arendt coined the term “poetic thinking” in her essay on Walter Benjamin. Her catchy formulation is explained in a series of negative characterizations. To fundamentally comprehend Benjamin, according to Arendt, one must understand that he was “very scholarly, but in no way a scholar; that his major subject was text and the interpretation of texts, but that he was no philologist; […] that he was a writer whose greatest ambition was to build a text entirely comprised of quotes from other texts—that is, to override his own role as writer; […] he published countless book reviews and many conventional essays on dead and contemporary writers and poets, but he was no literary critic.” The list is much longer in the original, but it continues in the same vein: Benjamin doesn’t belong to any discipline nor profession; readers need to understand that he “thought poetically.”


Arendt’s remarks on Benjamin find an astounding echo in Kazin’s efforts to answer his own question about Emerson: “What kind of writer shall we call him?” “He is not, of course, a novelist or a dramatist,” Kazin writes, “in fact, he could hardly read novels or wholly enjoy great plays for their own sake. Although he was a remarkable and inventive poet, no one can claim that poetry is the major side of his work. As we have said, he is not a philosopher – not even a philosopher like Nietzsche, who so much admired him.” What, then, could a suitable description look like? Kazin finds a surprising turn of phrase: “And though one falls back on the term ‘essayist,’ the term hardly explains why the essay form, as Emerson developed it, attains a free form that is profoundly musical and fugal, a series of variations starting from a set theme.”

“The essay form,” are the three words of the quote that Arendt underlined in her copy. They echo the passage from Between Past and Future quoted here at the beginning: “Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.” On the same page of this preface, Arendt expands the resonance and meaning of these “related keys” in a highly intriguing way. Her investigations between past and future seek to discover the “spirit” which has “so sadly evaporated from the very key words of political language,” such as freedom and justice, responsibility and virtue. In order to trace the “wunderbaren” spirits that Arendt roused from the key words of our political language, we need to listen to the keys in which these exercises and essays in political and poetic thinking were composed and written.

-Thomas Wild

-Translated from German by Anne Posten


For the Sake of What is New

"Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world."

-Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education

In the central and perhaps most provocative passage of her essay on The Crisis in Education (1958), Arendt thrice repeats the same word: to preserve.  This should not be surprising, in the context of her presentation of the thesis that “education must be conservative.”  Education must be carried out with a “conservative attitude” in order to preserve the possibility for something new to arise.

Arendt thinks little of educators and professors who issue directives to their pupils about what actions they should undertake to change the world.  The responsibility of the educator is more to bring a “love for the world” into the seminar room.  Whether the tutor wishes the world to be different, better, or more just should be inconsequential.  It is his job to represent the factual world as frankly as possible.  One cannot do more and should not do less.  This love for the world forms the basis for “newcomers” to take the chances of their new beginning into their own hands.  Seen in this way the tutor must be “conservative” (in relation to the state of the world), not in order inspire “progressive” action but rather to enable new beginnings that cannot be planned or calculated.  And so says the full quote about education that must be conservative: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.”

A few lines earlier Arendt distinguishes between this innovative “conservative attitude” in education and conservatism in politics.  Political conservatism, “striving only to preserve the status quo,” ultimately leads to destruction: if people do not undertake renewals, reformations, the world is abandoned to decay over time.  Immediately after this second use of “to preserve” Arendt uses the word a third time.  Since the world is shaped by mortals, it is at risk of becoming as mortal as its inhabitants.  “To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” Arendt writes, “it must be constantly set right new.”  The “capacity of beginning something anew” appears according to Arendt principally in action, which is the capacity that has “the closest connection with the human condition of natality”—“the new beginning inherent in birth,” Arendt writes at the same time in The Human Condition (1958).

Aren’t these three very different meanings of “to preserve”?  Can this single word really convey all these nuances?  Only when one consults the original German version of Arendt’s essay does the scope of distinctions become clear.  The Crisis in Education is the English version of a lecture Arendt gave in 1958 in Bremen, Germany, translated by Denver Lindley.

The conservative stance in politics, which is “striving only to preserve the status quo” is said in German to seek to “erhalten.”  This is very similar to the English to preserve, to conserve, to maintain.  Yet in the next part, where education is said to be the way “to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants,” this protection of the world against mortality is called in German “im Sein halten,” literally “to hold or to keep in the state of being.”  The point here is not any physical preservation of the world, nor any quasi-metaphysical or Heideggerian elevation of the “world.”  Arendt’s German wording rather suggests that the philosophical is to be found in the world, which she understands as something that emerges from the space in-between people: the in-between of the many and diverse.  Finally, the task of education to be conservative and to “preserve” the revolutionary in every child is called “bewahren” in the German version, i.e., to retain and perpetuate, literally: to keep true—to keep the newness true.

“Erhalten,” “im Sein halten,” “bewahren”—these differentiations of the “conservative attitude” of education that Arendt develops in German on the conceptual level must be conveyed through context in English.  This does not mean that the English is deficient.  Rather, it demands that the reader reflect on the particularity of each appearance of “to preserve.”  Arendt’s German text lends the direction of these reflections important impetus.

Likewise, a decisive conceptual impetus for Arendt’s German lecture comes from the English.  In the middle of the passage on the conservative attitude in education, she quotes an English line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.”  The literary citation is not tasked with illustrating a theoretical reflection.  Arendt thinks and writes with the poetic thought of this verse.  In the German lecture she uses an unusual construction, saying that the world must be (newly) “eingerenkt”—it is the German equivalent of “to set it right,” if one reads “joint” literally as the joint of a body; the usual translation of “out of joint” is “aus den Fugen,” where “Fuge” has more the connotation of “seam,” “interstice,” or “connection.”  In this way Arendt answers the English literally and therefore newly in German.  She gives her text a “figurative posture,” which advocates for a plurality of languages.  This can also be understood as a political gesture against the totalizing assertion of one homogenous language (of truth, of philosophy etc.).

All of this is possibly less revolutionary than the “newness” that each child brings into the world.  And yet a reflection of it is brought “as a new thing into an old world.”  In addition, Hamlet’s line “that ever I was born to set it right” being placed in the charged context of Arendt’s thoughts on natality (the human condition of being born, which equips every newcomer with “the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting”) challenges both perspectives on action: Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet more capable of taking action than we usually think?  Is Arendt’s “newcomer” more bound in his or her actions than we typically assume?  Arendt’s mode of writing preserves an educating esprit for her readers.

—Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten