When hope is a hindrance

For Arendt, hope in dark times is no match for action | Aeon Essays
A film still of survivors leaving Auschwitz after liberation. The film was taken by the Soviet army and according to the USHMM consists of both staged and unrehearsed footage taken in the first hours and days of the survivors liberation in January 1945, as well as scenes of their evacuation, which took place weeks or months later. Photo by AKG London

For Hannah Arendt, hope is a dangerous barrier to courageous action. In dark times, the miracle that saves the world is to act

Samantha Rose Hill is a senior fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and the University of the Underground. She is the author of Hannah Arendt (2021) and Hannah Arendt’s Poems (forthcoming 2022), and her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, OpenDemocracy, Public Seminar, Contemporary Political Theory and Theory & Event.

Edited by Nigel Warburton

As Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher waited in Montauban, France in the summer of 1940 to receive emergency exit papers they did not give into anxiety or despair. They found bicycles and explored the beautiful French countryside during the day and delighted in the detective novels of Georges Simenon at night. In the words of Helen Wolff: ‘Hannah, in her high-spirited way, made of this anguishing experience a kind of gift of time.’ It was ‘a hiatus within a life of work and duties’.

Which is not how one might be inclined to act when their life is in peril. What enabled Arendt to make a gift of time during such an anguishing experience?

It wasn’t hope.

Arendt was never given to hopeful thinking. As early as 1929, she saw what was happening in Germany, and lost friendships because of it. She despised what she called ‘opportunistic politics’, which ‘leaves behind it a chaos of contradictory interests and apparently hopeless conflicts’. And she turned away from any notion of messianism that might offer redemption in the future. After the war, in a letter to the American philosopher Glenn Gray, she wrote that the only book she recommends to all her students is Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Written by the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, the devastating memoir details life under Stalin’s regime and the struggle to stay alive. (In Russian, nadezhda means hope.) Arendt called it ‘one of the real documents’ of the 20th century.

Many discussions of hope veer toward the saccharine, and speak to a desire for catharsis. Even the most jaded observers of world affairs can find it difficult not to catch their breath at the moment of suspense, hoping for good to triumph over evil and deliver a happy ending. For some, discussions of hope are attached to notions of a radical political vision for the future, while for others hope is a political slogan used to motivate the masses. Some people uphold hope as a form of liberal faith in progress, while for others still hope expresses faith in God and life after death.

Arendt breaks with these narratives. Throughout much of her work, she argues that hope is a dangerous barrier to acting courageously in dark times. She rejects notions of progress, she is despairing of representative democracy, and she is not confident that freedom can be saved in the modern world. She does not even believe in the soul, as she writes in one love letter to her husband. The political theorist George Kateb once remarked that her work is ‘offensive to a democratic soul’. When she was awarded an honorary degree at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1966, the president said: ‘Your writings challenge the mind, disturb the conscience, and depress the spirit of your readers; yet out of your wisdom and firm belief in mankind’s inner strength comes a sure hope.’

I imagine Arendt might have responded: ‘“Sure hope” for what exactly?’

Arendt never offers a systematic account of hope, but she returns to hope throughout her work. She begins her essay ‘What Is Freedom?’ by declaring: ‘To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise.’ In her essay ‘On Humanity in Dark Times’, she writes: ‘In hope, the soul overleaps reality, as in fear it shrinks back from it.’ And her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) begins with a discussion of hope: ‘Desperate hope and desperate fear often seem closer to the centre of such events than balanced judgment and measured insight.’

Arendt’s most devastating account of hope appears in her essay ‘The Destruction of Six Million’ (1964) published by Jewish World. Arendt was asked to answer two questions. The first was why the world remained silent as Hitler slaughtered the Jewish people, and whether or not Nazism had its roots in European humanism. The second was about the sources of helplessness among the Jewish people…

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