Some Thoughts on the Importance of Personality


Action is “the miracle that saves the world from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

“I mentioned the quality of being a person as distinguished from being mere human…, and I said that to speak about a moral personality is almost redundancy…In the process of thought in which I actualize the specifically human difference of speech I explicitly constitute myself a person, and I shall remain one to the extent that I am capable of such constitution ever again and anew.”

-Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”


We are used to finding in Arendt’s work a clear distinction between action and speech on the one hand and thinking and judging on the other. But here in the second quote, Arendt declares that only this thinking through and – qualified – speech can transform a mere human being into a personality.

Now, when, as Arendt writes in the first quote, the miracle of action saves the world from its normal‚ ‘natural’ ruin, defining nature as non-civilization, as barbarity, then this means that such an action is insolubly connected to the question of the personality of those who act. Who are those who acted in Occupy Now! or joined Los Indignados in Spain: were they individuals in the literal sense of independent human beings as the smallest units, which change sometimes rapidly into parts of masses, or were they persons, personalities? This question is much more important than the question of political goals or theoretical programs. Because it depends on those, who act, whether the world can be saved from its neo-liberal ruin and if yes, how.


The distinction between individuals and personalities always has an elitist appearance. But it is evident that we find personalities independent of their social status among workers, academics and politicians. A personality is not formed by its social origin or intellectual Bildung, but by a practical everyday education of citizens. This education is not based on the separation of reason and emotion, but on that what Arendt referred to as the “understanding heart” of the biblical King Solomon, which comprises equally heart and mind. The European 18th century, facing a secular society increasingly oriented towards an open freedom, searched for the possibility of a self-bound orientation in judgment. It discussed taste as a power of cognition. Melchior Grimm for example, a more or less forgotten German illustrator, essayist and diplomat, wrote: “The condition of a pronounced and perfect taste is to have a sharp intellect, a sensitive soul and a righteous heart.” Here taste does not only mean the aesthetic but also the moral judgment. In Grimm’s trilogy all three elements are indispensible in their mutual conditionality: reason can become inhuman without soul and heart; the sensitive soul apolitical due to an unchecked compassion; the righteous heart confused without reason.

Back then there was a prevailing understanding that moral and artistic quality rest in equal measure on independent thinking and on independent judgment. This is still visible in our everyday use of language whenever we speak of a “beautiful” or “ugly” gesture or figure of speech or of the “inner beauty” which a person possessing integrity shows by that integrity. These examples are, according to Kant, expressions of the harmony of the different powers of cognition both in regards to their inner proportions and in respect to the free coexistence of these powers and their mutual influence on one another. It is a harmony which occurs between form and content as well as between “an enlarged mentality” and reason, it differs from purely rational judgment.

Therefore, it is not the reason, which we are proud of because it distinguishes us from animals, but rather what Arendt calls an enlarged mentality which is of decisive political importance. In her Denktagebuch (Thinking Diary) she wrote: “Because of the fact that not self-bound reason but only an enlarged mentality makes it possible ‘to think in the place of another’, it is not reason, but the enlarged mentality which forms the link between human beings. Against the sense of self fueled by reason, by the I-think, one finds a sense for the world, fueled by the others as common-sense (passive) and the enlarged mentality (active.)”

From this interpersonal perspective follows the aspect that freedom is to be understood as “freedom for,” as inter-subjective, common freedom, which is inseparably bound to the responsibility for everything that happens in the political community. This responsibility does not deal with moral or juridical guilt for one’s own actions but instead with the responsibility of someone who is “a responder,” who understands that the actions of all decide whether or not we live in a decent society.

Though with Kant the era of investigations into the conditions for an independent judgment ended and the Kantian “capacity to judge” was replaced during the 19th and 20th centuries by logic, ideologies and theoretical systems, there were still some ambassadors of the 18th century left – Arendt of course, and her contemporaries like George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell’s works are marked by a hypothesis; namely, that the decency inherent in the everyday life of normal people can resist the general loss of orientation in an age of ideology. “It looks like a platitude,” he wrote, but his message was nothing more than: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” He tried to interpret what he called the “common decency” as a compass not only of single persons but also of the social and political life of citizens. According to Orwell this common decency rests on general, practical everyday moral norms and habits. Common decency differs from explicit and rigid moral prescriptions of “the good human being” by its openness and flexibility. For Orwell it was not human dignity in an abstract way that had to be protected but the behaviour to which a society commits itself that was in need of defending. The decent life affords social regulations that consist of respect for others, the absence of domination or humiliation, and social, economic or cultural equality. The highest income should not be ten times higher than the lowest. All laws should respect or support a decent life and include all citizens in the “pouvoir constituant des vie ordinaries.” Orwell was against the socialism of his time as an oligarchic collectivism, which attracted only the socially marginalized and intellectuals. “In our country,” he wrote, “the liberals fear freedom and the intellectuals are ready for any sort of ignominy against thinking.” That means: “The direct conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.”

This aspect of decency refers to what for Arendt is the basis of all political action and independent judgment; the effort to recover in a political community the right middle ground and human scale that marks the place where civilization ends.

Like Arendt and Orwell, Albert Camus stressed the importance of moderation while he observed excess among Marxist intellectuals after WW II, described in his most provocative book The Rebel. Revolutionary errors, he declared, disregarded natural limits and in so doing betrayed human inviolability. The experience of modern revolutions shows that “revolutions when they have no limits other than historical effectiveness, means endless slavery.” For Camus it is the task of revolt to redefine the place of the right middle and human scale in a permanent critical confrontation with present conditions.

Herein lays the actuality of these three authors, Arendt, Orwell and Camus: writing about totalitarianism, they described the conditions of a decent society, which was menaced then by revolutionary dogmatism and ideological mass-movements, and which is menaced today – not by revolts, or mass protests – but quite the contrary, by the destruction of politics and the common good by neo-liberalism.


Therefore, it is not by chance that Arendt in her portraits of writers, politicians and thinkers, which she wrote on various occasions and published in her book Men in dark Times, always came to speak about their personal qualities. For example, Lessing’s critical mentality which could “never give rise to a definite worldview which, once adopted, is immune to further experiences in the world because it has hitched itself firmly to one possible perspective”; Rosa Luxemburg’s cultural background of an assimilated Jewish life in Poland characterized by excellent literary taste, independent moral concepts and the absence of social prejudices, and Waldemar Gurian’s independent judgment and non-conformism – he was her friend and the dean of the University of Notre Dame – who “was delighted when he could break down the(se) barriers of so-called civilized society, because he saw in them barriers between human souls.

-Wolfgang Heuer

Remembrance and Gratitude

“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands…Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship…But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse…The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”

-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24

As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”

Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.

When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result…is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”

But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the  active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner–‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle…in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.

There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life–those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.

Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.

When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal…mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’–as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”

Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy

A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost…I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself–free like a leaf in the wind…And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere…Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten–And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’–In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”

“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”

-Kathleen B. Jones


Refugee Writers and Inner Emigrants

‘They must remember that they are constantly on the run, and that the world’s reality is actually expressed by their escape.’

 -Hannah Arendt, ‘On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing’

Hannah Arendt never forgot that she was on the run from totalitarianism. Neither did she cease to express its reality in her work. She is the late twentieth-century’s most politically articulate refugee writer: an escapologist who taught us about the real nature of our chains. But the ‘they’ who must remember that they are ‘on the run’ in this quotation are not refugees from persecution. They are fugitives of the mind, the ‘inner emigrants’ who retreated from totalitarianism in their heads.

Two of Arendt’s most elegant and characteristic ironic gestures are present in this sentence. First, addressing the inner emigrant using language that more properly belongs to the refugee (running, escaping) performs the intimate and uneasy relation between existential homelessness and political and historical homelessness that is at the heart of her work. Don’t think all your lofty freethinking somehow allows you to rise out of the world’s darkness; don’t forget that your contemplation is as much a symptom of your political times as it is an escape from them. The inner emigrant must learn her lessons from the refugee, from the one, indeed, who is never allowed to forget she is on the run. 

The imperative for the inner emigrant to listen to the refugee is what also makes the irony of this sentence situational. The occasion is Arendt’s acceptance of the Lessing prize in Hamburg in 1959. Her theme, ‘thinking in dark times’, would have held few initial surprises for her audience who would have anticipated the reference to Lessing’s famous Selbstdenken, self-thinking as the perquisite of freedom. But Arendt offers scant comfort to those thinkers in her audience who might have counted themselves as inner emigrants under the Reich. Thinking in Lessing doesn’t mean retreating into self-absorption, she reminds them, but anticipating what we say with others. No point in being one’s own angry comedian. There is little to be gained by muttering alone in the dark. The real scandal of totalitarianism is that it condemns the humanity that comes from this kind of exchange to worldlessness. Running directly parallel to ‘the invisibility of thinking and feeling’ into which inner emigrants escape, therefore, is the invisibility of totalitarianism’s superfluous people, the refugees, the inmates of work and death camps, who take refuge together, she says, quietly, in the weird companionability of the ‘closely packed human beings.’

Few in Arendt’s Hamburg audience would have missed the fetid historical referent behind those ‘closely packed human beings’. The point she was making was not that the experiences were comparable (compassionate empathy for Arendt was always besides the political point), but rather that under Nazi totalitarianism there was no more place for the thinking mind than there was for the Jew. And this is the reality that the inner emigrant must keep in mind: the irreality to which so many were condemned. With characteristic understatement and rhetorical control, Arendt uses the historical occasion of her lecture to demonstrate her argument: the Jewish refugee comes out of the darkness into the very public space of the Free City of Hamburg to think about what happens when thoughts and persons are expelled from humanity. She then expresses the reality of her journey in the ironic dialogism of her prose. The full quote reads:

Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is constantly acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. When people chose this alternative, private life too can retain a by no means significant reality, even thought it remains impotent. Only it is essential for them to realize that the realness of this reality consists not in its deeply personal note, any more than it springs from privacy as such, but inheres in the world from which they have escaped. They must remember that they are constantly on the run, and that the world’s reality is actually expressed by their escape. Thus, too, the true force of escapism springs from persecution, and the personal strength of the fugitives increases as the persecution and danger increase.

As much as the distinctions between different kinds of emigration, it is the movement of flight, and everything that can be expressed in it, that Arendt is conveying here. In his translation of Rilke’s Die Tauben, which he dedicated to Arendt, Robert Lowell, re-casts homesickness as a feeling for ‘flight’s lost moment of fluttering terror.’  Fluttering between registers and contexts, between the mind and what it must remember, between inner and outer emigrants, Arendt’s writing keeps that terror in worldly view.

To talk about Arendt as a refugee writer, then, is not just to acknowledge her biographical circumstance or her major importance as one of the first theorists of modern statelessness. ‘Refugeeness’ cuts straight through her work like, she might have said, a thin red thread. She does not so much think from the position of a refugee, as think through the experience of exile to the extent that it becomes the paradigm rather than the exception. Thinking itself, indeed, becomes a refugee art in her later work. In this, perhaps, she offers a model for how we might approach the often hybrid and hard-to-place writing of some of her contemporaries in exile. In fact, we might even say, Arendt teaches us to look at the reality of totalitarianism from the only perspective that can truly matter, from one remove from that reality.  

The late Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was one of the first to grasp the significance of Arendt’s refugee method.  Her still unsurpassed biography is bisected by the chapter, ‘Stateless Persons’, which describes Arendt’s flight from Europe and the origins, biographical, political and historical, of her work on totalitarianism. When Young-Bruehl next came to write the life of the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, she repeated the gesture: the chapter ‘On Losing and Being Lost’ describes the self-analysis Freud underwent after her escape to England. Mourning both her father (Sigmund Freud died in exile in 1938) and her lost home (‘How strange it is to carry a past within oneself which can no longer be built upon’), the experience of emigration shifts not only the thinker, but also the ground on which she thinks. For Freud, as for Arendt too, the new threat is about a reality in which it is possible to totally disappear; of retreating into the mind to the extent that one becomes as lost as the object, person, past, or country, one mourns. In a world shadowed by the dark, writes Freud in ‘About Losing and Being Lost’, the temptation is ‘to follow the lost object into death.’

Arendt would have been uncomfortable, to say the least, with keeping intellectual company with a psychoanalyst (she might have been wryly amused to know that her work was the subject of discussion at a conference on ‘Psychoanalysis and Totalitarianism’ in London in September). Psychoanalysis is precisely where the inner emigrant might forget the reality she is fleeing and vanish into a hole of private self-absorption. Read both Arendt and Freud as refugee writers, however, and they arrive in a very similar place: for both the task of the mind after totalitarianism is to become reconciled to a ‘seemingly unendurable reality’ (in Arendt’s words); a reality in which oblivion is an ever-present threat. ‘The best that can be achieved’ after Nazi totalitarianism, Arendt tells her Hamburg audience in 1959 ‘is to know precisely what it was, and to endure this knowledge, and then to wait and see what comes of knowing and enduring.’ ‘What is true for today can become nonsense in no time at all’, echoes Freud in a line quoted by Young-Bruehl: ‘So one lives just in the present and must get used to it.’ These are not the statements of women who have found a new home in the world, but rather of two thinkers who understand how emigration has transformed not only the earth, but the ways in which the mind inhabits it.

-Lyndsey Stonebridge