When they first met in 1925, Martin Heidegger was a star of German intellectual life and Hannah Arendt was his earnest young student. What happened between them then will never be known, but both would cherish their brief intimacy for the rest of their lives.
The ravages of history would soon take them in quite different directions. After Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, Heidegger became rector of the university in Freiburg, delivering a notorious pro-Nazi address that has been the subject of considerable controversy. Arendt, a Jew, fled Germany the same year, heading first to Paris and then to New York. In the decades to come, Heidegger would be recognized as perhaps the most significant philosopher of the twentieth century, while Arendt would establish herself as a voice of conscience in a century of tyranny and war.
Illuminating, revealing, and tender throughout, this correspondence offers a glimpse into the inner lives of two major philosophers.
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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) taught political science and philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York and the University of Chicago. Widely acclaimed as a brilliant and original thinker, her works include Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Human Condition.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century. His works include Being and Time, The Question Concerning Technology, and An Introduction to Metaphysics.
Dear Miss Arendt!
I must come see you this evening and speak to your heart.
Everything should be simple and clear and pure between us. Only then will we be worthy of having been allowed to meet. You are my pupil and I your teacher, but that is only the occasion for what has happened to us.1
I will never be able to call you mine, but from now on you will belong in my life, and it shall grow with you.
We never know what we can become for others through our Being. But surely some reflection can make clear how destructive or inhibiting the effect we have might be.
The path your young life will take is hidden. We must be reconciled to that. And my loyalty to you shall only help you remain true to yourself.
You have lost your "disquiet," which means you have found the way to your innermost, purest feminine essence. Someday you will understand and be grateful-not to me-that this visit to my "office hour" was the decisive step back from the path toward the terrible solitude of academic research, which only man can endure-and then only when he has been given the burden, as well as the frenzy, of being productive.
"Be happy!"-that is now my wish for you.
Only when you are happy will you become a woman who can give happiness, and around whom all is happiness, security, repose, reverence, and gratitude to life.
And only in that way will you be properly prepared for what the university can and should give you. That is the way of genuineness and seriousness, but not in the forced academic activity of many of your sex-activity that one day somehow comes apart, leaving them helpless and untrue to themselves.
For it is at the point when individual intellectual work begins that the initial preservation of one's innermost womanly essence becomes decisive.
We have been allowed to meet: we must hold that as a gift in our innermost being and avoid deforming it through self-deception about the purity of living. We must not think of ourselves as soul mates, something no one ever experiences.
I cannot and do not want to separate your loyal eyes and dear figure from your pure trust, the honor and goodness of your girlish essence.
But that makes the gift of our friendship a commitment we must grow with. And it prompts me to ask your forgiveness for having forgotten myself briefly during our walk.
But just once I would like to be able to thank you and, with a kiss on your pure brow, take the honor of your being into my work.
Be happy, good girl!
Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices.
We can only thank with our selves. Love transforms gratitude into loyalty to our selves and unconditional faith in the other. That is how love steadily intensifies its innermost secret.
Here, being close is a matter of being at the greatest distance from the other-distance that lets nothing blur-but instead puts the "thou" into the mere presence-transparent but incomprehensible-of a revelation. The other's presence suddenly breaks into our life-no soul can come to terms with that. A human fate gives itself over to another human fate, and the duty of pure love is to keep this giving as alive as it was on the first day.
If you had met me when you were thirteen, if it had been after only a decade-such speculation is futile. No, it has happened now, when your life is silently preparing to become that of a woman, when you will take the intuition, longing, blossoming, and laughter of girlhood into your life and keep it as a source of goodness, of faith, of beauty, of unending womanly giving.
And what can I do at this moment?
I can take care that nothing in you shatters; that any burden and pain you have had in the past is purified; that what is foreign to you and what has happened to you yields.
The opportunities for womanly existence open to you are completely different from what the "student" in you believes, and much more positive than she suspects. May empty criticism fall away from you, and arrogant negativity recede.
May masculine inquiry learn what respect is from simple devotion; may one-sided activity learn breadth from the original unity of womanly Being.
Curiosity, gossip, and scholarly vanity cannot be eradicated; only woman can lend nobility to free intellectual life through the way she is.
When the new semester comes it will be May. Lilac will leap over the old walls and tree blossoms will well up in the secret gardens-and you will enter the old gate in a light summer dress. Summer evenings will come into your room and toll the quiet serenity of our life into your young soul. Soon they will awaken-the flowers your dear hands will pick, and the moss on the forest floor that you will walk on in your blissful dreams.
And soon, on a solitary climb, I will greet the mountains whose rocky stillness will meet you someday, and in its lines what I have kept of your essence will return. And I will visit the alpine lake, and look down from the steepest steepness of the precipice into its silent depths.
© Vittorio Klostermann GmbH: Frankfurt am Main 1998
English translation copyright © 2004 by Andrew Shields
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