Storytelling and the Human Condition: Lessons from Hannah Arendt

We live in an era where people like to define themselves and others by one aspect of who they are: their nationality, their ethnicity, their vocation, their political tribe, or their gender.

Jewish-German-American storyteller and philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose life I explored and grew to admire in my new TV series with Wondrium and The Great Courses, “Storytelling and The Human Condition,” resisted such essentialization. She defied being reduced to one aspect of who she was. She resisted being boxed in by academic discipline or social constraints in her pursuit of freedom, autonomy, and human dignity—ideas she cared about throughout her life. Rejecting the title of “philosopher” or “journalist,” she instead preferred the generalist identity of “storyteller.” Her life, legacy, and work, as well as her aversion to one-dimensional identities, her ability to tell a tall tale, and her zealous interest in questions related to the human condition, make her story one worth reflecting on now.

Arendt’s Life Story

Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 into a secular Jewish family in Northern Germany. She had an early and lifelong passion for The Great Conversation, beginning with the classics, the study of Ancient Greek and Roman languages, literature, ideas, and culture. Arendt had a special affinity for St Augustine: she earned her doctorate studying St Augustine and love. Arendt studied philosophy and theology at the University of Marburg. There, she met and began an affair with philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was among the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. Arendt ultimately had a falling out with Heidegger because of his decision to join the Nazi Party—a decision he never renounced, not even at his death in 1976.

She lived during an era of profound division and racial bigotry. Arendt lived in Germany during a rising tide of antisemitism. World War I had ended in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, which required Germany to pay the equivalent of $33 billion—an impossibly high sum—in reparations to other countries. Germany also lost 10% of its land, was barred from having a military, and subjected to many other punitive measures. The result was low morale and deep bitterness among the German people, as well as widespread economic instability and inflation. Almost immediately after the Treaty of Versailles had been signed, a conspiracy theory began to gain popularity: The Jewish people were responsible for negotiating the Treaty’s unfavorable terms, all in an attempt to undermine and control Germany and its people.

Enter Adolph Hitler, one of many people who capitalized on this anti-Semitism. His Beer Hall Putsch, a failed coup d’état led by his Nazi Party, took place in 1923, just four years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler wrote and published his virulently anti-Semitic Mein Kampf in 1925 while in prison for the coup attempt.

Hitler came to power in 1933, and Arendt was arrested and imprisoned as part of his anti-Semitic campaign. She was eventually released, however, and she fled to Switzerland and then France, where she remained until the Nazi invasion in 1940. Arendt managed to escape the Nazis once again and obtained refuge in America in 1941. She spent the remainder of her life based in New York, reflecting on the nature of totalitarian rule, which she had spent nearly a decade of her life evading.

Storytelling, Tragedy, and Genius

Hannah Arendt shows us the relationship between storytelling, tragedy, and genius. Arendt’s personal story, and the stories she created through her written work, are potent examples of the power of storytelling to help us foster our human agency even in the face of unjust circumstances beyond our control. And if she could do this in the face of gross dehumanization and injustice, maybe we can do it in our own lives, too.

Again, being Jewish, Arendt was a minority. She was forced from her homes and loved ones because of her ethnic identity. She endured hardship and discrimination because of facts about her she could not control. And yet, she chose to harness the power of storytelling to transform her trauma into triumph. She found a way to create beautiful, ingenious work from the deep suffering and tragedy she endured. Arendt processed her own traumas by pouring herself into storytelling, reporting, and social commentary investigating the evils and loss that she experienced and witnessed throughout her life.

Arendt thought storytelling was central to being human. During her lifetime, she was referred to as a “philosopher,” a “writer,” and a “journalist.” She could have clung to her identity as a woman or as an ethnic minority. But she didn’t. She wanted her work to speak for itself. She evaded questions about what “discipline” she fit into as an academic by calling herself a “storyteller.” She thought that storytelling helped us understand who we are as human beings, and that examining the stories we tell ourselves—and that people in other times and places have told themselves—reveals important insights into our shared fate and promise as human beings. Arendt says that in “the great storybook of mankind,” we are each the authors of our own stories. Though we do not know how our stories will be received in the future, Arendt offers us an example of how we can take this chance all the same and bravely form and tell our stories, an act that affirms our freedom and helps us to reach the fullness of our potential as human beings.

Storytelling and Totalitarianism

Arendt’s most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, shows that stories are central to totalitarianism. French polymath and scientist Blaise Pascal once said that the human condition is defined by the greatness and wretchedness of man. We are capable of incredible altruism and ingenious, as well as unthinkable cruelty. This duality to our nature is reflected in our storytelling—a powerful tool that can be used for good or for ill, Arendt warns.

Published in 1951, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism explores the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. Totalitarianism arises, Arendt says, in social contexts of extreme personal loneliness, isolation, and atomization. When our social bonds are weakened, when our meaning is misplaced, we become primed to embrace ideologies and public figures that help us forget our loneliness and that help give our lives meaning. A strongman arises to meet those needs; he offers a story that explains people’s unhappiness, and conversation, dialogue, and discourse are shut down. Arendt coined the phrase “the rule from within” to explain how totalitarianism colonizes people’s minds and renders them unable to think their own thoughts outside of a “party line.” In light of the crisis of loneliness and meaning in our own day, this is a concerning insight.

Stories can build up, humanize us, and be personally empowering. They can also tear down, degrade, and dehumanize. Totalitarian terror takes away a person’s name, rights, and identity; it reduces a person to their body alone. Once a human being is no longer a human being, but just a body, they are more easily rendered disposable and superfluous.

Arendt also offers an explanation of why totalitarian regimes become so bureaucratic and why critical or creative thinking is a threat to both bureaucracy and the regime. It starts in minor, creeping ways, but bureaucracies can lead the way for authoritarian regimes to gain power. And once in power, the regime’s aim is total control over the human mind, body, and spirit. Arendt writes:

“Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition. The consistent persecution of every higher form of intellectual activity by the new mass leaders springs from more than their natural resentment against everything they cannot understand. Total domination does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable. Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Human agency, and a high view of the dignity of the human person, are also central to Arendt’s life and work. The opposite of a society that promotes human freedom, liberty, and open inquiry is a society where people are subjugated, and where the dignity of the individual is corroded or disregarded because they have the “wrong” religion, race, ethnicity, or more. A truly free society must tolerate difference.

Central to respecting personhood and human dignity is self-determination. Arendt discusses how totalitarian regimes function by stripping certain people in society of their dignity and personhood. Once they are able to do this, it becomes “okay” in the public consciousness to strip people of basic rights, to persecute them, even to murder them.

In 1960, Adolph Eichmann, one of the masterminds behind the Holocaust, was arrested by the Israeli Secret Service and tried in Israel for crimes against humanity. The New Yorker sent Arendt to report on the proceedings. What she observed at his trial led her to coin the phrase “banality of evil.”

Arendt was lambasted by many of her contemporaries, including fellow Jewish people. They claimed that she was calling the Holocaust “banal,” thereby diminishing it. Yet that could not be further from the truth. In her “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Arendt argues that evil comes in many forms. Sometimes it is grand and bloody; other times, it is mundane, or banal, in its triviality.

Those that stamped paperwork sentencing countless victims to starvation, torture, and death in concentration camps didn’t have to look those they condemned in the eye. The people behind these grievous injustices were disconnected from the ultimate evil act, which made their evils easier to commit. Yet most of us recognize now that these people were just as culpable as those who, also following the orders of the “system,” carried out the torture and killings.

The Human Condition

In another of her books, The Human Condition, Arendt tells a story about what it means to be human. She introduces us to a dichotomy in human life: the vita active and the vita contemplative. The former is the active life which she says consists of labor, work, and action, while the latter is the “contemplative life.” She says that neither is better than the other. Both are just part of what it means to be human. She’s in good company. Across history, philosophers and theologians have reflected on the relationship between the mind and the body, which have different needs and possibilities. Our bodies have physical needs: food, shelter, and community. Our minds have intellectual needs: nourishment, stimulation, and cultivation. Arendt reminds us that to be fully human and to lead meaningful lives, we must pursue two vocations to meet the needs of these different facets of our humanity. We must pursue a vocation that allows us to provide for our physical needs and those of our loved ones, and we must pursue a vocation that meets our intellectual needs and feeds our minds. Too often, we focus on one over the other.

Most people in human history have been so focused on survival that they didn’t have the chance to cultivate their mind—or if they did, it was due to rather exceptional circumstances—but nurturing of both mind and body is essential to being human. That’s also one of Arendt’s key insights. We’re here not just to learn how to live, but how to live life well. Arendt’s personal story and her life’s work affirm an important truth: The human condition is defined by the greatness and wretchedness of man, and stories help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of the human experience. Arendt lived through the horrors and devastating aftermath of the Third Reich and World War II. As a journalist, she told stories to help herself and others cope with it.

Arendt’s Call to Action

Arendt is a profoundly sophisticated thinker, well-deserving of a place in The Great Conversation and our reading lists. She reminds us of the duty and ability we each have to promote justice and fight against evil in our everyday lives. Her encouragement to find a balance between the contemplative and active life is an idea that is central to the project of the publication and newsletter I founded, called Civic Renaissance. Like Arendt, I also believe that ideas, beauty, goodness, truth, and the wisdom of the past should nourish our hearts and minds—and that such things should compel us to action, propelling us to make the world around us and the lives of others better.

I love this quote from Arendt which can encourage each of us to see our acts, large and small, as part of a larger story about making the world a more just, tolerant, and free place. Arendt writes:

“Every deed and every new beginning falls into an already existing web, where it nevertheless somehow starts a new process that will affect many others even beyond those with whom the agent comes into direct contact … The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness and unpredictability; one deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation. In acting, in contradistinction to working, it is indeed true that we can really never know what we are doing.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to Hannah Arendt for helping us think more clearly about the challenges of our era and of every era in confronting us with the greatness and the wretchedness of the human condition, for inspiring us to be part of the solution in our everyday lives, and for encouraging each of us to harness the power of story to make the world a brighter place today. That is our prerogative. We are free to choose that. As Arendt said, in the great storybook of mankind, we are each the authors of our own stories.

Alexandra Hudson
Alexandra Hudson
Alexandra Hudson is the curator of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to beauty, goodness and truth, and reviving the wisdom of the past to help us think more clearly about the present. She is a former Novak Journalism Fellow, author of the forthcoming book, The Soul of Civility, and creator of the lecture series Storytelling and the Human Condition (which you can try for FREE with a one-month Wondrium trial). Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.
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