Hannah Arendt and Colorado College

The political theorist's connection to campus

by Elliot Mamet; photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress


The story of Hannah Arendt’s association with Colorado College begins in Marburg, Germany, in October 1925. Hannah Arendt, a brilliant 18-year-old Jewish philosophy student, received a letter from her teacher, Martin Heidegger:

“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.

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.”

It is with this letter that Arendt and Heidegger’s secret affair commenced. Heidegger was in the midst of writing his masterpiece, “Being and Time.” Their affair soon ended, but until Arendt’s death in December 1975, they continued an intellectual companionship that remains one of the most striking stories in 20th century intellectual history.

The story remains compelling because Martin Heidegger succumbed to Nazism. The evidence on this point is clear: Consider Heidegger’s rectorship address given at Freiburg University in 1933, his membership in the Nazi party that lasted until the end of the war in 1945, his lifelong failure to renounce his party membership even when asked directly in a 1966 interview, and, most recently, the publication of the so-called black notebooks, which connect his philosophy to a political Nazism. 

Unlike Heidegger, who avoided the calamity of war by retiring to his German hut, Hannah Arendt, a Jew, was forced to escape the horrors of Europe. She devoted the rest of her life to wrestling with what she viewed as the thoughtlessness that pervaded the modern predicament. Yet after 1950, their companionship reignited. Hannah Arendt became, in the words of the intellectual historian Martin J. Woessner, one of two people to serve as “Heidegger’s chief American advocate.”

The second of these Heideggerian advocates came from an emphatically different background than Hannah Arendt. He grew up not in Königsberg, Prussia, but in Miffletown, PA. He felt at home not in the cocktail-chatter of Paris or New York City, but rather riding horses and hiking at the foot of Pikes Peak. He was Jesse Glenn Gray, professor of philosophy at CC.

Glenn Gray, who received his undergraduate degree from Juniata College and his master’s from the University of Pittsburgh, opened the mail on May 8, 1941, to find both his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University and his U.S. draft notice. During his four years in the military, as a private and second lieutenant, Glenn Gray kept a detailed philosophical memoir that was eventually turned into a short and influential book, “The Warriors.” 

As a student of German philosophy, Gray was especially interested in the work of Martin Heidegger. In 1954, he made Heidegger’s personal acquaintance, which led to his appointment as general editor of Harper & Row’s Heidegger translation series. He remains one of the most distinguished faculty members in CC’s history. The J. Glenn Gray Memorial Lecture and J. Glenn Gray Award are given in his honor.

Glenn Gray started teaching philosophy at CC in 1954. He first met Hannah Arendt at Wesleyan University in the fall of 1962, while researching philosophy of education on a Guggenheim Fellowship. This meeting was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that centered on a shared interest in Heidegger, and resulted in Arendt’s two visits to CC.

The path to bringing Hannah Arendt to CC was somewhat arduous. In the summer of 1963, Associate Dean Fred Sondermann wrote to Arendt inquiring about her availability to attend as a distinguished guest in January 1964, for a symposium entitled “The Second World War.” Arendt wrote back, “My schedule for the coming academic year is so over-crowded that I cannot afford to accept any new engagements. I hope you will understand my predicament.”

In the fall of 1964, Arendt was asked again to speak at CC, this time by her friend,x professor Glenn Gray. She accepted, and her visit was scheduled for December 1964. She insisted that she appear for an informal discussion with students and faculty with “no singing,” meaning no public lectures or grand speeches. Gray suggested that Arendt discuss “Between Past and Future,” her work on political thought published in 1961. 

Around the same time, Hannah Arendt received an unsigned note from a student member of the CC program committee, calling Arendt’s work “interesting, exciting, and formidable,” and requesting that Arendt come to CC to speak. Arendt’s response was tart: “Dear Question Mark: You forgot to sign your name but otherwise everything is all right. You may know that I am in correspondence about coming to Colorado Springs with Professor Glenn Gray. I suggest that you get in touch with him. Sincerely Yours, Hannah Arendt.”

A blizzard interfered, and Arendt’s visit was rescheduled for April 16, 1965. Though she did not deliver a formal lecture, Hannah Arendt spoke to students and faculty about “Between Past and Future,” as well as on “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” published in 1963. By all accounts, her visit was a tremendous success. In a glowing letter to President Worner, Professor Sondermann described Hannah Arendt’s visit as “an extraordinarily stimulating and refreshing experience,” and proposed continuing the format whereby a high-profile speaker would visit campus for a seminar, rather than a lecture. Glenn Gray recalls hearing from his faculty colleagues that “a kind of renaissance spirit” had emerged at CC. As Gray wrote, “From my point of view the weekend was perfect and will be cherished in memory. When one considers how rarely anything anticipated lives up to anticipation, your short stay was all the more remarkable.”

After her 1965 visit and throughout the late 1960s, Hannah Arendt and Glenn Gray maintained an active correspondence. Of particular interest is their correspondence on Heidegger. Gray at one point proposes to Arendt that a complete copy of Heidegger’s “Nachlass,” or papers, be stored in Tutt Library, “which has special facilities for such things, and which is close [to] the geographical center of the U.S.” They also comment on contemporary politics; alluding to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election, Hannah Arendt writes, “I suppose you have been watching television as I have, and probably you feel as much relieved as I do.” Glenn Gray concurs: “Yes, it is as though one had been relieved of a brain tumor.”

In honor of Heidegger’s 80th birthday in 1969, Arendt spoke publicly about Heidegger. She claimed that he was firstly a contemplative thinker in the realm of philosophy, who nevertheless succumbed to the temptation to “engage with his own adobe” in political life. (These remarks were later published as “Heidegger at Eighty” in the New York Review of Books on Oct. 21, 1971.) For Arendt, Heidegger’s escapade with Nazism is similar to Plato’s temptation act as a philosopher-king. Arendt, a Jew, says this about Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism: “He was still young enough to learn from the shock of the collision, which after ten short hectic months thirty-seven years ago drove him back to his residence, and to settle in his thinking what he had experienced … Plato and Heidegger, when they entered into human affairs, turned to tyrants and Führers.”

In a letter dated Oct. 22, 1969, Glenn Gray responded to Hannah Arendt’s analysis. On Arendt’s comparison of Heidegger to Plato, Gray writes, “Plato was a political thinker. He may have appeared ridiculous, laughable, in trying to put his thoughts into practice … But MH’s [Martin Heidegger’s] ‘escapade’ seems hardly in the same league.” For Gray, Heidegger’s Nazism falls to a more insidious involvement than Plato’s failed pursuits in the realm of politics. “It was much worse than a mistake … In a way, I blame him more than you do, for his political stupidity, but sympathize with him also more. Hence my inclination is to call his performance a sad and silly error.” 

Hannah Arendt writes back tongue-in-cheek, focusing on moving beyond dark scholarly debates: “I somehow have the notion that it’s about time that women enter the community of scholars and bring a little laughter among these serious beasts.” She also hints at her past affair with Martin Heidegger: “I hope I don’t sound presumptuous when I say that I tend to agree with you that in these aspects which I stressed I can interpret him ‘like no one else.’” After “Heidegger at Eighty” was published in 1971, Gray cautions Arendt, “I hope your favorable estimate of MH will not stir up Jewish passions once more. The subject of Heidegger and National Socialism is still a hot potato; even I am regarded with suspicion in certain liberal circles as suspect of Nazi sympathies.”

Arendt visited CC for the second time on Feb. 15, 1970. She discussed “Eichmann in Jerusalem” with students over breakfast in Rastall Dining Hall, conducted a tutorial on Aristotle, lunched with Freedom and Authority faculty in the Bemis Exile Room and delivered a lecture at Armstrong Hall entitled “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” a lecture that turned into one of her most famous essays. 

Indeed, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is a tour de force of contemporary political thought. As Arendt so poignantly remarks, “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And this indeed may prevent catastrophes, at least for myself, in the rare moments when the chips are down.” Arendt’s thesis is that thinking is expressed through a “two-in-one,” a conversation with oneself. To engage in thinking, suggests Arendt, is to attempt to strive to overcome thoughtless evil, evil Arendt understood so well as a Jewish German refugee. 

After her visit, Arendt sent Gray a revised reprint of “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” The inscription on the essay read, “for Glenn—though not good enough—Hannah.” Glenn Gray was remarkably impressed. “You must finish this enterprise, Hannah... This is my greatest concern about you: that you let nothing interfere with finishing what you started, for the sake of those of us who need your insights and intellect.” Elsewhere, he wrote that the essay “is like Thucydides work on the Peloponnesian War, not for the time but for all time, as he remarked [sic].”

Hannah Arendt was to visit CC again in Aug. of 1974 to meet with faculty and students. Unfortunately, a heart attack precluded her trip to Colorado. Even as Arendt recovered in New York City, she and Gray kept up an active correspondence. Gray was assigned chapters of her final opus, “The Life of the Mind,” to review. That work was to have three sections: on thinking, on willing and on judgment.

Hannah Arendt died on Dec. 4, 1975, in New York City. She completed the sections on thinking and on willing, but only finished the first page of the section on judging, found in her typewriter the night she died. If it is true, as Arendt writes in “Heidegger at Eighty,” that “the thinking ‘I’ is ageless,” then perhaps what Arendt writes about Heidegger is equally true about herself:

“Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak, in the course of which it turns out that they propose things altogether different from the familiar, worn-out trivialities they had been presumed to say. There exists a teacher; one can perhaps learn to think.” 

The research for this article was conducted over the summer in the Hannah Arendt Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. My immense gratitude to Professor Timothy Fuller for his assistance.