Hannah Arendt On the Oasis of Friendship

In the isolation of the artist, in the solitude of the philosopher, in the inherently worldless relationship between human beings as it exists in love and sometimes in friendship — when one heart reaches out directly to the other, as in friendship, or when the in-between, the world, goes up in flames, as in love. Without the intactness of these oases we would not know how to breathe, and political scientists should know this.

— Hannah Arendt

Dark times are inevitable in a human life. The isolation of a private existence and the bellicosity of a contentious public life can leave a person feeling as if she is lost in a desert. In the Spring of 1955, in the midst of her own desert of loneliness, Hannah Arendt discovered that friendship could be a life-giving oasis. Friendship, she learned, was a temporary refuge from a barren world where “one heart reaches out directly to the other” — an assemblage of persons marked by intimacy, equality, and freedom.[1]

From February until the end of May 1955, Arendt was a visiting professor at the University of California Berkley. The scale and prestige of the university, coupled with her separation from her husband Heinrich Blücher, who remained in New York, had an isolating effect on Arendt. When she arrived at Berkeley in February of 1955, she wrote to Karl Jaspers and described her condition as “a bit alone and wondering how this is all going to turn out.”[2] Arendt’s loneliness was exacerbated by the partisan environment at Berkeley that reflected the political partisanship of the mid-1950s. Berkeley was a socially and intellectually dry place for Arendt where the life-giving springs of thinking had dried up, leaving faculty and students separated into their theoretical siloes. This experience inspired the concluding remarks to her “History of Political Theory” course at Berkley.

In her reflections, she argued that modern politics is characterized by a transition from a common world that joins people together to a “desert-world” that separates them and makes politics impossible. Although seemingly pessimistic, Arendt emphasized that as long as human beings were still capable of acting together, politics was still possible. But how could an individual endure the desert conditions of modern political life? Arendt named four oases — “life-giving resources” — wherein one could sustain oneself and learn to breathe and act again: art, philosophy, love, and friendship. Of these, it was the oasis of friendship that allowed Arendt to live and breathe again during her time at Berkeley.

After receiving Arendt’s letter describing her loneliness, Karl Jaspers responded almost immediately. He knew well the experience of loneliness, and he wanted to connect Arendt with some scholars at Berkeley with whom she might have some common interests, so he recommended that she reach out to Leonardo Olschki and Manfred Bukofzer. Jaspers admitted that both men had “some stature intellectually but… none in human terms.” [3] Desperate to escape her loneliness, Arendt reached out quickly to Leonardo Olschki and met with him.[4] The day after the meeting, Arendt sent Jaspers a postcard with a panoramic image of the University of California Berkeley, which she referred to as a “desert,” with the following note: “As you can see I went right to the Olschkis’ — an oasis in the desert. You were much in our thoughts”[5]

(8)

To which Leonardo and his wife added a personal note: “In time Frau Arendt will find still more camels of this breed in this particular desert.”[7] Leonardo Olschki had become a camel in the desert of Berkeley. He had learned how adjust to the barren conditions by escaping into pure culture and scholarship, but Arendt resisted this world-denying metamorphosis.

The notes, as it turned out, were contrived, as Arendt pointed out almost a month later in a letter to Jaspers, “the postcard I wrote there wasn’t altogether honest. I wrote what he, and she in particular, so obviously wanted me to write… That happens to me sometimes. And then, it is also somehow true that this is a beautiful desert, of all the deserts the most beautiful. The only problem is that the Olschki’s can’t be an oasis for me anymore. I can’t return to that world of pure culture, which isn’t even very pure.”[8] Arendt understood that Olschki had turned scholarship into an escape from the desert-world, and she knew that the invitation to join him on the oasis of “pure culture” would have been a flight from the world. As she pointed out in her final lecture at Berkeley, “… we ruin the life-giving oases when we go to them for the purpose of escaping…”[9] What Arendt was seeking was an oasis in the desert that would help her avoid succumbing to the desert conditions of a professional academic life but would also not become an escape from the world. She found this oasis in her friendship with Eric Hoffer.

As she wrote to Jaspers:

The first real oasis I found appeared in the form of a longshoreman from San Francisco who had read my book and was in the process of reading everything of yours that is available in English. He writes himself — and publishes, too — in the manner of the French moralists. He wanted to know everything about you, and I mean everything, and we were friends right off. He showed me San Francisco the way a king shows his kingdom to an honored guest. He works only three or four days a week. That’s all he needs. With the rest of his time he reads, thinks, writes, goes for walks. His name is Eric Hoffer, of German background but born here and without any knowledge of German. I’m telling you about him because his kind of person is simply the best thing this country has to offer. And don’t forget that I met him through a colleague, and he has lots of friends at the university. You couldn’t take him to Olschki’s house, and that speaks against Olschki.[10]

Hoffer had none of the pretentions of a seasoned and cynical academic. He was working-class and made reading, writing, and independent thinking the center of his life; he had no aspiration to become a “scholar.” After their first meeting, Hoffer sent Arendt a copy of his book The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms, a book Arendt loved and heavily annotated.[11] The gift of the book and Arendt’s response to Hoffer illustrate the intimacy and reciprocity of their friendship that made interpersonal disclosure and recognition possible:

That was a happy day indeed. Like a king who shows his realm you showed me San Francisco; you are king bounty not only to your godson. I think I never understood the Walt Whitman side of this country so clearly before I met you and you told me how you used to wander and live the elements, where every man is your brother and nobody is your friend… I love the book you sent me because it has the same quality. You won’t know that; it is the side of ourselves which must remain dark to us and can appear — shine really — only to others. It is the same sovereignty, the majesty of solitude which shines through every sentence.[12]
(13)

Hoffer sent a short note in response to Arendt: “Thanks for the most beautiful letter. After you took the train I thought of the enormous pleasure I derived from giving you pleasure. Is this not partly the meaning of friendship? It was a golden day…”[14]

[15]

In friendship, the law of the desert, which alienates and territorializes, pitting one person against another, is suspended; the abyss that opens between people in the desert-world is overcome by an oasis of friendship wherein “one heart reaches out directly to another”.[16]

In our contentious age, where the desert-world of American politics threatens to become a wasteland, it is perhaps prudent to find and maintain those friendships that can serve as temporary refuges from the conditions of desert life. But as Arendt would remind us, it is important neither to adjust to the desert conditions nor to succumb to the temptation to escape the desert. Instead, she would have us see our friendships as places of renewal and resources for re-engagement with the world.

Endnotes

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009), 202.

[2] Hannah Arendt, Courses, University of California, Berkeley, Calif. “History of Political Theory,” lecture, “Tocqueville, Alexis de, and Karl Marx, and conclusion, 1955,” Series: Subject File, 1949–1975, n.d., The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., #007034. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=04/040610/040610page.db&recNum=10&itemLink=/ammem/arendthtml/mharendtFolderP04.html&linkText=7

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, Berkeley 4, Cal., February 6, 1955,” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #162, 251.

[5] Karl Jaspers, “Karl Jaspers to Hannah Arendt, Basel, February 18, 1955,” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #163, 254, 255.

[6]A copy of Olschki’s book Machiavelli the Scientist in Arendt’s personal library at The Stevenson Library at Bard College bears an inscription from Olschki dated February 27, 1955 indicating the date of their meeting. http://library.bard.edu/search?/cJC143+.M404/cjc++143+m404/-3%2C-1%2C0%2CE/frameset&FF=cjc++143+m404&1%2C1%2C

[7] Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #164, 256.

[8] Hannah Arendt, “Postcard to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955,” Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, Germany, Karl Jaspers Archiv.

[9] Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #164, 256, fn. 1.

[10] Ibid., #164, 257.

[11] Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 203.

[12] Hannah Arendt, “Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, February 28, 1955” in Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers: Correspondence: 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), #165, 257–258.

[13] See Arendt’s annotated copy of Eric Hoffer’s book The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms in the Arendt Collection at the Stevenson Library at Bard College: http://library.bard.edu/search?/cPS3515.O232+P3/cps+3515+o232+p3/-3%2C-1%2C0%2CE/frameset&FF=cps+3515+o232+p3&1%2C1%2C

[14] Hannah Arendt, “Letter to Eric Hoffer, March 13, 1955,” The Hoover Institute, Eric Hoffer papers, Box 25, Folder 12, Hoover Institution Archives.

[15] Hannah Arendt, “Letter to Eric Hoffer, March 13, 1955,” The Hoover Institute, Eric Hoffer papers, Box 25, Folder 12, Hoover Institution Archives.

[16] Eric Hoffer, General, 1938–1976, n.d., “Hi-Hy” miscellaneous, 1955–1974, Series: Correspondence File, 1938–1976, n.d., “Letter from Eric Hoffer to Hannah Arendt, March 16, 1955,” The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., #007034. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=02/020650/020650page.db&recNum=26&itemLink=%2Fammem%2Farendthtml%2FmharendtFolderP02.html&linkText=7

[17] Eric Hoffer, General, 1938–1976, n.d., “Hi-Hy” miscellaneous, 1955–1974, Series: Correspondence File, 1938–1976, n.d., “Letter from Eric Hoffer to Hannah Arendt, March 16, 1955,” The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., #007034. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mharendt_pub&fileName=02/020650/020650page.db&recNum=26&itemLink=%2Fammem%2Farendthtml%2FmharendtFolderP02.html&linkText=7.

[18] Hannah Arendt, “Epilogue,” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), 202.

Dr. John Douglas Macready is a Professor of Philosophy at Collin College in Plano, Texas. His work focuses on critical issues in social and political philosophy with specific attention paid to the philosophy of human rights. He is the author of Hannah Arendt and the Fragility of Human Dignity (Lexington, 2018).