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Hannah Arendt: Political Thoughts

Hannah Arendt was an US philosopher and political theorist. Born in Germany, a student of Martin Heidegger, she established her reputation as a political thinker with one of the first works to propose that Nazism and Stalinism had common roots.
Notable works: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), On Human Condition, and On Violence (1970).


She is perhaps the only women scholar recognized as philosopher.
She describes her thinking as ‘thinking without barriers.’ According to her, she is writing for herself and so makes little effort that the reader can easily understand her ideas. Her methodology is also complicated in the sense phenomenology.

Her major works


It is one of the most controversial work of Hannah Arendt. She was a German, belonging to Jewish community. Contemporary of Hitler. Experienced the atrocities committed by Hitler on Jews. She had to ultimately take shelter/asylum in USA. She has criticized Nazism and Stalinism in her book. In her other works she has praised USA (AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND DEMOCRACY). It was the time of cold war and her work came to be regarded as politically motivated and she was regarded as cold war intellectual.


Its major philosophical work. Here she has given her theory of action. In this work she has established that the most important function is participation in politics. Though she cannot be categorized as belonging to a particular school of thought, yet she can be projected as the scholar of ‘civic republicanism.’ It represents those who emphasize on civil society activism and participation of people in political affairs.


She has given the concept of banality of evil.

  • Collection of more than 3200 Previous Year Questions (1995-2023)
  • All questions divided into 10 Subjects
  • Subject further sub-divided into more than 75 topics
  • All answers according to official answer key

Hannan Arendt on Totalitarianism.

She experienced the atrocities of Nazi regime.
Her methodology:
Significance: One of the best analysis on totalitarianism.
What is totalitarianism? Totalitarianism is totalitarianism.
It implies that neither there is any other example nor words to express the feelings of those who have undergone the totalitarianism. It can be experienced. To understand totalitarianism, one has to be a Jew, In Germany during the time of Hitler. However Hannah Arendt explained totalitarianism as the reign of terror of violence.
Characteristic of totalitarian state is that it is ruled by violence.

How totalitarianism of 20th Century has been different from the earlier authoritarian regimes?

There is no other example in the history, because the scale of violence used under Hitler and Stalin has been unprecedented. The totalitarian state not only controls action and speech, if also tries to control soul. In other authoritarian regimes, violence was a means to an end, in totalitarianism violence becomes an end in itself. The foundation of totalitarian state is terror and terror is justified by the use of ‘ideology.’ Terror and ideology are two instruments of totalitarian state.

Hannah Arendt on Ideology.

Hannah Arendt is critic of ideology. Those who give ideology claim that it is a scientific thinking but ideology is based on myths. Ideologies are misused by totalitarian leaders.
She gives an example of the ideology of fascism and ideology of communism. The propounder of these ideologies projected it as ‘scientific thinking’. Marx claimed his theory as science. Hitler also claimed his theory of the racial superiority of Aryan race as scientific. He based his theory on Darwin’s theory of ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘Natural selection.’
Totalitarians projected these ideologies are based on superhuman laws. Nature will proceed in accordance to these laws. As human beings, our responsibility is to carry forward the laws of nature, rather than going against nature. Instead of being passive participant, we can play the active role in history.
If Marx called for killing of capitalist, Hitler called for killing of Jews. They appealed masses to kill the targeted enemies in the name of historical laws. When people become a part of the conspiracy, it becomes easy to justify violence.

What conditions give rise to totalitarianism and why people get influenced by totalitarianism?

The most conducive environment for the growth of totalitarianism is when there is a social and economic crisis. When the stability of life is affected, that time people become vulnerable.
She also blames modernity responsible for rise of totalitarianism. In symbolic sense, she says that with modernity, political sphere has got neglected, there is decline in deliberative democracy and bourgeoise class controls the state. Animal laboran have assumed importance over zoon politikon. It give rise to totalitarianism.
When ‘depoliticized masses’ get right to vote, it gives rise to demagogic leaders. Thus totalitarianism is based on mobocracy.
Only when people act in responsible manner, participate in politics, they can prevent the emergence of totalitarianism.

Hannah Arendt on Politics

This she has explained in her book ON HUMAN CONDITION and on the basis of her theory of action. She has applied phenomenological approach.

Theory of Action

Hannah Arendt Theory of Action

According to Hannah Arendt, Action is more important than thinking. She gives hierarchy of actions. Least important action is labour.
What is labour? Those actions which are performed to fulfil our basic needs. Man has no control, there is no freedom for man in this sphere. All animals perform this action. In this stage, man is animal laboran.
Work: Work comes in second place. It includes those actions like economic activities, professional actions etc. According to Hannah Arendt, man is builder of this world, when man performs this action, they make the world a place worth living. Man is Homo Faber. He is only partially free.
Action: Highest in the hierarchy. Most important action. Only humans perform it. Sphere of complete freedom. It is participation in politics or political action. When man performs political action, he achieves ‘human condition’. After all man is Zoon Politikon.

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Her analysis of Action

Only through action, person reveals his identity. Actualize the capacity for freedom. Reaffirm the reality of this world.

Components of Action.

There are two components of action: freedom & plurality.

1] Freedom.

She defines freedom as natality. (capacity to do something new).

2] Plurality.

Plurality has two components: equality & diversity.

Equality means sameness. Since all of us are humans, all of us are same or equals.

Though all of us are same, yet all of us are different. Everyone has capacity to do something new. It means everyone is irreplaceable. Thus according to her, every life is precious. Any person can be the source of natality.
According to her, plurality is important. We exercise our freedom, in presence of others rather than alone. Just like an artist need audience, as a humans to express ourselves, we need others. Plurality is a human condition, because on this earth men and not man lives.

What is the theme of plurality and freedom?

Emphasis on people’s participation in politics, giving everybody freedom to express himself. Recognizing the worth of each person. This shows Hannah Arendt is a supporter of participative and deliberative democracy.

Hannah Arendt on Relationship between Action and Speech.

According to Hannah Arendt, action is speech and speech is action. She means to say that there should be no difference in what we say and what we do. In the words of Hannah Arendt “Only where words and deeds have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds are not brutal. Where words are not used to hide, but to reveal.” Thus for Hannah Arendt “the action is the only activity that goes on directly between humans… corresponds the condition of plurality… this condition is not only condition sine qua non but condition per quam.

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Hannah Arendt on Power

Phenomenological approach. Based on her understanding of totalitarianism and her theory of human action. She tries to give the real meaning of power, rather than what is generally understood. In order to understand power, we need to distinguish between some words which appear similar e.g. Force, Strength and Violence.

Difference between Force and Power.

According to her, nature has force e.g. Wind, Water etc. whereas power is a characteristic of society or social world.

Power and Strength.

Strength is a characteristic of individual. Person may be strong or weak whereas power is a characteristic of people acting together. It is a characteristic of collectivity.

Power and Violence.

Violence is used by the authority whereas power belongs to the people. On the basis of above differences, we can tell following characteristics of power.
1] It is a characteristic of human world.
2] It is a characteristic of collectivity.
3] It belongs to the people. Since it belongs to the people, power does not require legitimation, power is always legitimate.
4] Power is sui generis. It means power emerges on its own, neither the control of economic power nor political offices give power. Power cannot be stored. Power emerges whenever people come together, power disappears when people go back to private sphere. Thus power belongs to the people, acting in concert with each other.
Thus power is a source of freedom which is exercised in the state of plurality.

Banality of Evil

The concept emerged in her book EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM.
She wants to know as to why in present times evil does not appear evil, it has become banal or the normal, regular part of our day to day life.

She was sent to prepare the report on the trial of the Nazi official Eichmann. Like her other works, this work also became controversial. Eichmann was the main official responsible for extermination of Jews .However instead of blaming him or establishing him as culprit, Hannah Arendt found that he was not the real culprit. He was ‘bureaucrat.’ A bureaucrat performing his duty, following orders. Hence she believed that real faults lies with the bureaucratic culture which is found in our societies, The culture of blind obedience to the authority and to the lack of capacity to make critical judgements.
When Eichmann was asked whether he has  committed the grave crime, his response was NO. He held that it was his duty. It would have been crime if he would not have followed the command of the state.

When Eichmann was asked, what was the motivation behind following the orders? His motivation was simple. He thought he will get promotion. 
In the words of Hannah Arendt, persons who commit crimes are neither monsters, psychopath, sociopaths or brilliants. They are just bureaucrats.The main fault of Eichmann was that he lost imaginative capacities. He could not understand the moral consequences of his actions. He did not exercised his capacity to think. He was innocuous man, operated without thinking, incapable of moral judgements. He was defending himself through standardised phrases .

Evil become banal, when it acquires unthinking systemic character, it becomes banal when ordinary people participate in it, built distance from it, justify it in countless ways. There are no moral conundrums. When ordinary people justify it, in this situation, evil does not look like evil, it becomes faceless.

  • Collection of more than 3200 Previous Year Questions (1995-2023)
  • All questions divided into 10 Subjects
  • Subject further sub-divided into more than 75 topics
  • All answers according to official answer key

Test Your Knowledge!

1] What is the methodology adopted by Hannah Arendt in deriving her ideas?
a) Dialectics
b) Phenomenology
c) Historical analysis
d) Empirical method

Show Answer

Ans: b) Phenomenology

2] Which of the following is not true?
a) Arendt describes her thinking as ‘thinking without barriers’
b) She can be projected as a scholar of ‘civic republicanisn’
c) She criticised USA in her work ‘American Revolution and Democracy’
d) She criticized Nazism and Stalinism

Show Answer

Ans: c) She criticised USA in her work ‘American Revolution and Democracy’

3] Which of these are characteristics of a totalitarian state according to Arendt?
a) Use of terror and ideology
b) Violence becomes an end in itself
c) State tries to control even soul
d) All of the above

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of the above

4] Why did Arendt criticize ideology?
a) Ideology is based on myth
b) Ideology is ‘scientific thinking’, incompatible with social science
c) Ideology makes human beings passive
d) Ideology expands human thinking

Show Answer

Ans: a) Ideology is based on myth

5] Which of these is highest in hierarchy in Arendt’s theory of action?
a) Thinking
b) Labour
c) Work
d) Action

Show Answer

Ans: d) Action

6] According to Arendt, when does a person achieve ‘human condition’?
a) When she performs labour to fulfil basic needs
b) When she exercises her thinking faculty
c) When she performs political action
d) When she is economically free.

Show Answer

Ans: c) When she performs political action

7] What does the statement ‘power is sui generis’ mean?
a) Power is a characteristic of collectivity
b) Power emerges on its own
c) Power is used by authority
d) Power is always legitimate

Show Answer

Ans: b) Power emerges on its own

8] How does Arendt define freedom?
a) Capacity to do something new
b) Freedom from restriction
c) Freedom from want
d) Freedom from fear

Show Answer

Ans: a) Capacity to do something new

9] When does evil become banal in Arendt’s view?
a) When ordinary people criticize evil
b) when one’s conscience is shaken by an evil deed
c) when there are huge moral repercussions of an evil action
d) When ordinary people participate in it

Show Answer

Ans: d) When ordinary people participate in it

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Ramnivas Gurjar

Very very thanks sir
Very informative for rpsc


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I will see this content again after getting selected in upsc cse 2025.
Thanks a lot, for such a mesmerizing content


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I don’t have any other words than to say thanks.


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Last edited 3 years ago by yogesh