In this scholarly and artistic work, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl dramatically portrays one of the most prominent and controversial political philosophers of our time.
Hannah Arendt (1906-75) was born to Jewish socialist parents in Konigsberg, Germany. Her strong character was formed early in life; her stepfather found her to be ''headstrong, frighteningly intelligent, and far too independent.''
At Marburg University she fell in love with Heidegger's ''passionate thinking'' and likewise with the philosopher himself. An inspiration to Heidegger, and a star pupil of Karl Jaspers (her lifelong friend), she was described by a fellow student as having ''an intensity, an inner direction, an instinct for quality, a groping for essence, a probing for depth, which cast a magic about her.''
Heidegger and Jaspers were her philosophical mentors, but it was Kurt Blumenfeld, a Zionist, who led to political awareness and a sense of her Jewish identity. Although not officially a Zionist (she thought of herself as an independent), she accepted the theory that assimilation was not the answer to the ''Jewish question.'' In her first book, ''Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess,'' she wrote: ''In a society on the whole hostile to the Jews . . . it is possible to assimilate only by assimilating to anti-Semitism also.'' Echoing a dictum of her mother, she believed, ''When one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.''
Faced with the grim threat of Nazism, Arendt became an activist, first with the Zionists in Germany, and later, after a narrow escape from the Gestapo, with various Jewish organizations in Paris. There she married the self-educated political thinker Heinrich Blucher. Together in exile they formed what Randall Jarrell described as ''dual monarchy,'' surrounded by a circle of intellectuals and artists, ''outsiders'' like themselves. Arendt always made a distinction between those she called ''pariahs'' and those who were ''parvenus.'' ''Social nonconformism,'' she wrote, ''is the sine qua non of intellectual achievement.''
Courageous and indomitable, she survived a grueling experience in an internment camp in France to make a daring escape with Blucher to America, a country where one had ''the freedom of becoming a citizen without having to pay the price of assimilation.'' Here she was indefatigable. She learned English and worked to support her husband and mother while developing the intellectual writing that was to bring her international fame and censure.
In 1951 she published ''The Origins of Totalitarianism,'' the book she referred to as her and Blucher's ''child.'' In an attempt to understand the terrible events that led to the horror of the Nazi's ''Final Solution,'' she set out to trace the main elements of Nazism, and the underlying political problems they represented.
Just as she rejected ideologies that pretend ''to know the mysteries of the whole historical process,'' so, in her analytical method, she sought order without attempting to fit everything into a total or final order. She believed that ''the event illuminates its own past, but it can never be deduced from it.'' Arendt came to the conclusion that the distinguishing mark of a totalitarian regime is the institutionalized terror embodied in the concentration camp. Her main conceptual problem was the idea of ''radical evil''--evil so great that it becomes ''unpunishable, unforgivable.''
Arendt came to the concept of the banality of evil during the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. To her surprise, she found him neither demoniacal nor impressive. Her consequent articles for The New Yorker led to violent accusations that she was anti-Israel and a Jewish self-hater. She defended herself by insisting that evil can never be grandiose; ''it is only extreme.'' ''Only the good has depth and can be radical.'' Evil is the absence of the good, and that is why it is banal.
Throughout the 1960s Arendt was deeply involved in American politics, and was the center of many intellectual controversies. A prolific writer, she thought of herself as a radical, always ready to challenge accepted ideas.
With a wealth of quotation, description, and explanation, Young-Bruehl, a former student of Arendt, and now an associate professor at Wesleyan University, has created an intimate and powerful picture of Arendt, her work, and her world. ''The future,'' Arendt wrote, ''is unpredictable, and history begins only when the story it has to tell has come to an end.'' Arendt's own story has ended, but her challenging ideas remain to illuminate the future.