June 19, 2019

Hannah Arendt’s Politics of Possibility

“When Hannah Arendt accepted the Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 1969, she used the occasion to reflect upon the contributions of one of its namesakes. Because Arendt did not step foot in America until she arrived as a stateless refugee in her mid-thirties, her early exposure to its culture was limited. As a student in pre-war Germany, Emerson was one of the few American authors she read closely. Arendt praised Emerson for being a humanist rather than a philosopher, a serene thinker who “wrote essays rather than systems.” As with the other (rare) occasions in which Arendt dispensed unqualified praise, there was an unspoken subtext of deep personal identification. This is apparent in her conclusion, a long quotation from Emerson describing what for Arendt remained the essence of the humanities:

For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been at once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.

Arendt’s project was to recover the original poetry of the words that structure our world, and her devotion to it is responsible for the irresistible force of her prose, which is precise but never clinical, passionate but always lucid. Her writing, so often itself rooted in etymology, is suffused with wonder at the multitudes contained in individual words, the pictures they paint and the worlds they conjure.”

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