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The Correspondance of Hannah Arendt & Eric Voegelin

It is well known that Eric Voegelin reviewed Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in The Review of Politics. Arendt responded and she and Voegelin had a lifelong correspondence. They respected each other’s work, even when they disagreed. Arendt contributed to a Festschrift for Voegelin’s 60th birthday. Voegelin invited Arendt to speak at his institute in Münich, in 1961.

Less known is that Arendt and Voegelin also discussed her book in an exchange of letters before he penned his review.

In response to an introductory letter by Voegelin, Arendt wrote two letters, but only sent the second and shorter letter. According to Peter Baehr, who recently has edited and reconstructed the history of their correspondence, Arendt’s first letter is one her earliest attempts to situate her thoughts on totalitarianism within her emerging thinking about plurality and politics. As Baehr writes:

In his letter of March 16, 1951, Voegelin had introduced himself and offered an informal verdict on Origins of Totalitarianism. On April 8, Arendt typed a letter in response but never sent it. On April 22, she tried again and this time the result was mailed to its addressee. The first version, however, is not only longer but also more informative than the second. Why did she rework and truncate it? The letter she did send offers a plausible reason: “At the moment my own thinking is just at the stage (the in-between stage) at which it is both too late and too early to be brief.” Arendt may simply not have wished to articulate ideas that were still embryonic. The result of this omission was to deprive him, however, of intimations that we now think of as the very signature of Arendt’s political thought. Notably, the unsent letter contains an early statement of Arendt’s concept of “plurality,” a leitmotif of her postwar work.

One particularly fascinating excerpt from Arendt’s never sent letter is concerns the loss of the idea of the human, a theme that is central in The Origins of Totalitarianism and forms the opening leitmotif of The Human Condition. Arendt writes:

The omnipotence of man makes men superfluous (just as monotheism is necessarily the consequence of the omnipotence of God), then totalitarianism’s power to destroy humans and the world lies not only in the delusion that everything is possible, but also in the delusion that there is such a thing as man. … But man exists only as God’s creature. The power of man is limited by the fact that he has not created himself, whereas the power of men is limited not so much by nature as by the fact of plurality—the factual existence of my kind. It does not help me, as the humanists would have it, that I see man in every human being, as this by no means necessarily leads to respect or recognition for human dignity, but can equally well mislead us into believing in a surplus and in superfluity.

Here we see Arendt seeking to identify limits on human power, engaged in the problem of about thinking human and political limits to totalitarian power. If her first book focuses on the loss of human limits and the consequent rise of totalitarianism, her later work turns more and more to the possibility of political limits on human action. Her never-sent letter to Voegelin is, it turns, an important part of that transition in her thinking.

Baehr has done an admirable job of situating these letters in the context of Arendt’s thought and his article, which includes translations of Voegelin’s letter and Arendt’s sent and unsent responses, is well worth reading. You can read Baehr’s excellent essay in the October 2012 issue of History and Theory (vol. 51). You can read Arendt’s letter here.  It is your weekend read.

Posted on 13 April 2012 | 8:43 pm

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