Oases of Friendship

Hannah Arendt believed in the redemptive power of the particular.

By Michael D. Jackson

Although many classical treatises on friendship cite exemplary pairings, such as Damon and Pythias in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, their focus is on friendship as a discursive and moral category. In Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 essay on friendship, however, the author reflects on his close friendship with Etienne de la Boéthie, whose intellectual gifts and writing Montaigne is at pains to celebrate. Montaigne also makes it clear that, for him, the emotional truth of his friendship with Etienne is far more compelling than any idea one might entertain as to how friendship may be defined.

In the writings of Hannah Arendt, friendship is at once a political virtue and a personal truth. Unlike Montaigne, but like Aristotle, she does not want to conflate friendship with love, arguing that love tends to be so deeply personal and passionately exclusive that it is incompatible with the amor mundi (love of the world) that is the essence of the political.1 But just as Arendt could not completely separate “love” and “friendship,”2 so in the discourse of the nation-state, familial concepts of care, civility, and compassion cannot be disentangled from political ideas of law and order. Hence our vacillation between desiring a strong leader and our insistence that he or she is trustworthy and caring—comforting the victims of a natural disaster, helping citizens come together for the common good.

The fact is that the semantic ambiguity of “love” and “friendship” reflects the existential complexity of what Arendt called “the human condition.” Our very existence is at once contingent on exclusive relationships with people we think of as family or friends and on inclusive relations with people we identify collectively as neighbors, fellow-citizens, members of our tribe, our faith, or our ethnic group, not all of whom we necessarily feel emotionally close to or connected with. This paradox of pluralism can never be resolved since it is neither a political nor a logical problem but reflects the inherent ambiguity of our constitution, comprising elements unique to ourselves and elements we share with all other humans.


Hannah Arendt had, in the words of a close friend, “a genius for friendship.” Her life was centered on her friends, to whom she dedicated her books, whose birthdays she remembered, who she supported emotionally and materially, and to whom she wrote constantly.3 Yet friendship also lay at the core of her political philosophy since it exemplified the trust and openness to dialogue without which human beings cannot hope to create a common world.

Historic photo of two women standing outside

Portrait of Hannah Arendt with Mary McCarthy, likely taken in the early 1970s. CC-PD


That her personal friendships flourished is undeniable, but whether she realized her ideal of political friendship is another matter. Apart from Mary McCarthy, she never felt the deep affinity with her American friends that she felt with the friends of her youth and her fellow German exiles. “Old friends are better than new ones,” she quipped. “She clung to her European background and particularly to the German language,” her biographer Elizabeth Young-Bruehl notes, “never really exchanging her mother tongue for English.”4 For these reasons, it is impossible to understand Arendt’s intellectual sensibility and her “genius for friendship” without understanding what she meant when she spoke of herself as a “conscious pariah.”

In two of the first essays5 she published after coming to the United States in 1941 as a Jewish-German refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, it is not only the loss of Europe that preoccupies her; it is the resistance of Americans to accepting her as she is and not expecting her to become like them and to be grateful for the opportunity. There were times when she feared the fate that her friend Walter Benjamin had envisaged if he migrated to America. As he confided when they were both living in Paris in 1940, he could not imagine being without his library or his vast collection of quotations, and that America offered no other prospect than of being carted up and down the country and exhibited as the “last European.”6 Three months after Benjamin committed suicide at Portbou, on the border between France and Spain, Arendt successfully passed through the town. She found no trace of where her friend was buried and traveled on to Lisbon and thence to New York, and into exile.

In writing about the Jewish people as perennial outsiders, . . . Arendt identifies with Bernard Lazare’s concept of a “conscious pariah” who, in becoming fully aware of one’s invidious situation becomes a rebel against it, refusing to accept any orthodoxy, whether political, philosophical, or cultural.

In writing about the Jewish people as perennial outsiders, “excluded from society and never quite at home in this world,”7 Arendt identifies with Bernard Lazare’s concept of a “conscious pariah” who, in becoming fully aware of one’s invidious situation becomes a rebel against it, refusing to accept any orthodoxy, whether political, philosophical, or cultural (including one’s own ethnic or social heritage). This was more than a matter of refusing to become a victim of circumstance. It was a decision to make an intellectual virtue out of one’s marginal and unassimilated status.8

As a refugee or immigrant, you sometimes feel that the natives assume their worldview to be natural and incontestable. Even the stigmatizing label “refugee” is unquestioned. You, by contrast, can take nothing for granted. Even if naturalized, with a legal and moral right to be in the United States, you may hesitate to speak your mind, and you may nostalgically remember your natal country, whether you left it gladly or reluctantly, as a place where you felt self-confident and had every right to be.

This sense of being an outsider can affect your choice of friends, making it likely that you will gravitate to people who also feel out of place rather than seeking the company of those who speak and act as if their belonging was a given. And here one thinks of Adolf Eichmann, whose “fetishization” of normality as a rationale for the murder of those who deviated from the “norm” became the subject of Arendt’s controversial book on the banality of evil. Yet, as she observed, no one is immune to seeing others through the lens of their own history, and even the lessons that Jews learned from years of oppression did not survive the hour of their liberation.

Her views cost her several friendships, notably with Hans Blumenthal. But her bitter experience of fascism fueled an aversion to all forms of collective dogma, whether these were academic agendas, political allegiances, social causes, or mass movements that involved going along with the crowd. As Theodor Adorno would write in 1968, besieged by demands from the left that he declare his support for the student movement, “one does not capitulate to the collective”: “The uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither signs over his consciousness nor lets himself be terrorized into action, is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists.”9

In her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, Arendt confesses that though she studied philosophy, she did not stay with it, she said “goodbye” to it, and she does not regard herself as a professional philosopher.10 One can take this to mean that Arendt’s commitment to open-mindedness makes her wary of conversations in which the terms of reference are narrowly predefined or overinflated—as in totalitarian societies—and in her arresting phrase “thinking with a banister,” she echoes Nietztsche’s lines in Thus Spake Zarathustra about everything being in flux now, with all “railings and bridges [having] fallen into the water.”11

Her refusal to blindly align herself with philosophical positions or political parties is not unconnected with the value she placed on friendship. Both reflected her belief in the redemptive power of the particular, “the little things” of life in which “the secret of reality lies hidden.”12 In these words, Arendt echoes Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s celebration of the homely, fugitive, and minor experiences of life that “awaken in us again the old fondness for the world.”13 In her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, Arendt celebrates her friend’s “passion for small, even minute things,” and his desire to capture history in the most insignificant moments, “its scraps, as it were.” Benjamin was particularly fascinated by two grains of wheat in the Jewish section of the Musée Cluny “on which a kindred soul had inscribed the complete Shema Israel,” and he sought to achieve something similar on the printed page. From the beginning, Arendt notes, he was less attracted to theories and ideas than to particular phenomena. His central concern was for “directly, actually demonstrable concrete facts, with single events and occurrences whose ‘significance was manifest’ ”14—the very phenomena that many academics would dismiss as contingent, ephemeral, and unenlightening.

Arendt’s conception of thinking is intimately connected to her conception of friendship, which also consists in small gestures and everyday sharing. And she compares such actions to going visiting. Thinking is an expression of what she called “the visiting imagination,”15 in which one puts oneself in the place of another and sees the world from a displaced standpoint.

Historic photo of Hannah Arendt gathered with friends, posing for a casual group shot

In the 1940s, Hannah Arendt and her husband began socializing with a group of New York friends, many of whom were writers and intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review. Pictured here standing are Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, and Gloria Macdonald; seated are Nicola Chiaromonte, Mary McCarthy, and Robert Lowell. CC-PD


But it is humanly impossible to be equally open to everyone, and Hannah Arendt clearly preferred the company of people with whom she felt a connection and continuity with her past. Her relationship with Karl Jaspers (her teacher at Heidelberg) lasted from 1926 to 1969, and while she revered him as an intellectual mentor and father figure, he became, after 15 years, a close friend whom she addressed as Liebe Freundin or Leibe Verehrtester. As someone who had “migrated within” during the Nazi years, Jaspers might also be considered a conscious pariah who shared Arendt’s view “that a decent human existence today is only possible on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death.”16

Arendt’s relationship to the man she married also evokes the margins. Heinrich Blücher was born at the turn of the century into an impoverished working-class family and received only minimal formal education. Blücher was an autodidact and communist with a distaste for the ivory tower. He never published anything yet taught successfully at Bard and the New School, and Arendt would confide to Karl Jaspers that it was Blücher who taught her “to think politically and see historically.”

There is an uncanny similarity between Blücher and Eric Hoffer, a maverick intellectual and longshoreman she met during a teaching stint at Berkeley in 1955.

After settling in at the Faculty Club in February, Arendt wrote a long letter to Jaspers describing her rail journey out to California and saying how much she was looking forward to her next trip to Europe and seeing him. In response to her mention of feeling lonely, Jaspers suggested she might like to meet Leonardo Olschki, a literary scholar of German-Jewish descent, who taught at Berkeley, as well as Manfred Bukofzer, a historian of early music who had emigrated from Germany in 1939.

Arendt immediately introduced herself to the Olschkis and sent a postcard to Jaspers comparing their meeting to finding “an oasis in the desert.”17 Three weeks later, however, she apologized for her dishonesty and explained that the Olschkis “can’t be an oasis for me anymore. I can’t return to that world of pure culture, which isn’t even very pure.” Not only was their thinking not anchored in the gritty realities of life, they cultivated a comfortable but alienated simulacrum of the world into which they could escape. She continued: “On the subject of oases: the first real oasis I found appeared in the form of a longshoreman from San Francisco who had read my book.” Eric Hoffer was also reading Jaspers and was keen to have Arendt tell him all she could about her old teacher. While her academic colleagues might have shown her around the campus, Hoffer showed her around the city. “We were friends right off,” she wrote to Jaspers,18 and she read Hoffer’s book The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms as one friend might read another’s mind.

The resemblances between Heinrich Blücher and Eric Hoffer are striking. Although many details of Hoffer’s early life are difficult to verify, his roots were working-class and German, he received little formal education, and his father died when he was young. After his father’s funeral he received about $300 insurance money and spent the next 10 years wandering up and down the country, doing odd jobs, spending time on Skid Row, and reading voraciously.

Michel de Montaigne’s essays may have been the inspiration for Hoffer’s own career as a thinker and writer, and though he left the docks in his early 60s and became an adjunct professor at Berkeley, his world remained the world of the common man. He had no ambition to be known as a scholar or public intellectual, and when he retired from teaching in 1970, he declared, “I’m going to crawl back into my hole where I started. I don’t want to be a public person or anybody’s spokesman. . . . Any man can ride a train. Only a wise man knows when to get off.”

“Surrounded by friends, she rode like a solitary passenger on her train of thought,” Mary McCarthy wrote of her friend in 1970, for Hannah Arendt’s mind was always on the move, always ahead of the game.

Arendt was not only drawn to him as a kindred spirit who scorned the well-worn tracks of the academy, but she adopted his image of thinking as a train that one should learn when to get on and when to get off. “Surrounded by friends, she rode like a solitary passenger on her train of thought,” Mary McCarthy wrote of her friend in 1970, for Hannah Arendt’s mind was always on the move, always ahead of the game.19


A couple of years after Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Human Condition, was published in 1958, a second-year undergraduate at the University of Auckland won The Anthropology Prize. With his modest prize money, he decided to buy a book and paste the paper plaque celebrating the award on the inside cover.

Although this student received a small bursary, which covered his fees, he was obliged to work on the waterfront as a “seagull” (casual laborer) several days a week to meet his living costs. On the day he went to Progressive Books in Darby Street, he was wearing his working clothes—hobnailed boots, dirty jeans, a tartan shirt. He chose this bookshop because it specialized in left-wing publications. It would not ordinarily be the place one would expect to find a copy of The Human Condition, but perhaps the fact that it was about labor, work, and action (the vita activa) qualified it to appear among the Moscow Publishing House editions of Marx and Engels.

The student was first attracted to the title and spent some time skim-reading the opening chapters, before deciding that this was the book he wanted to buy. But almost 40 years would pass before he realized that his research on storytelling among Somali and Iraqi refugees in Wellington, New Zealand, would be illuminated by the pages that Arendt devoted to the subject in her book, as well as in her reflections on being a refugee. He had stumbled on a work that engaged his intellectual sympathies, and an author with whom he could identify as an outsider like Camus and Kafka. “My writing grows out of my life,” Hoffer wrote. This student felt the same way, and when he read what Arendt wrote about Hoffer (“My first real oasis”), he felt that in some uncanny way, he was an avatar of this maverick philosopher and that he had found his own oasis in the desert.


  1. “Because of its inherent worldlessness, love can only become false and perverted when it is used for political purposes such as the change or salvation of the world”; Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1958), 52. See also Hannah Arendt, “ ‘What Remains? The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Günter Gaus,” October 28, 1964, in The Portable Hannah Arendt, ed. Peter Baehr (Penguin, 2003), 3–22, at 16. The full interview, “Zur Person,” is available on YouTube. www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVSRJC4KAiE.
  2. Of Arendt’s youthful love affair with Martin Heidegger, Elzbieta Ettinger suggests that “it underwent many transformations over the years. To say that it turned into a friendship is to say both too much and too little, though both Arendt and Heidegger might have called it just that”; Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger (Yale University Press, 1995), 1.
  3. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (Yale University Press, 1982), xii.
  4. Ibid., xiv.
  5. Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” The Menorah Journal 31, no. 1 (1943): 61–77; and “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” Jewish Studies 6 (1944): 99–122.
  6. Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (Penguin, 1973), 168.
  7. Arendt, “The Jew as Pariah,” 107.
  8. In the 1964 Gaus interview, Arendt described the “special warmth” that existed among Jewish people when they were dispersed and without a state, and she argued that this pariah status, “this standing outside of all social connections,” “this sense of being an emigrant in one’s own homeland,” paradoxically generated an intellectual spirit of open-mindedness; Arendt, “What Remains?” 17.
  9. Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (Columbia University Press, 2005), 292.
  10. Arendt, “What Remains?” 1–2.
  11. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago University Press, 1982), 42. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Penguin, 1978), 313.
  12. Hannah Arendt, “ What Is Existenz Philosophy?” Partisan Review 13, no. 1 (1946): 34–56, at 36.
  13. Ibid., 37. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “Moments in Greece (1908–1914),” trans. Tania and James Stern, in The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, ed. J. D. McClatchy (Princeton University Press, 2008), 80–100, at 87.
  14. Hannah Arendt, introduction to Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken Books, 1969), 1–55, at 11, 12, 13.
  15. Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy.
  16. Hann Arendt, letter to Karl Jaspers, January 29, 1946, Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926–1969, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992), 28–33, at 29.
  17. Arendt to Jaspers, February 28, 1955.
  18. Arendt to Jaspers, March 26, 1955.
  19. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975, ed. Carol Brightman (Harcourt Brace, 1995), xvi.

Michael D. Jackson, Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, is internationally renowned for his work in the field of existential anthropology and has been widely praised for his innovations in ethnographic writing. Jackson has done extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone since 1969 and also carried out anthropological research in Aboriginal Australia, Europe, and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is the author of more than 40 books of poetry, ethnography, fiction, and memoir, including most recently, Walking to Pencarrow: Selected Poems (Cold Hub Press, 2016), The Paper Nautilus (Otago University Press, 2019), and Coincidences (University of California Press, 2021).

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