You are on page 1of 5

The Remarkable Love Letters of Hannah

Arendt and Martin Heidegger


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.
By Maria Popova
The Remarkable Love Letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger
The great German writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906
December 4, 1975), the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures,
possessed one of the most piercing intellects of the twentieth century a source of
abiding insight into the crucial difference between truth and meaning and time, space,
and where the thinking ego resides. But even Arendt wasnt immune to youths impulse
to relinquished reason for its counterpoint.
When she was a 19-year-old university student, Arendt fell in love with her 36-year-old
married professor, Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889May 26, 1976). A
philosopher as influential as he is controversial, Heidegger made monumental
contributions phenomenology and existentialism; he also joined the Nazi party and took
an academic position under Nazi favors. Although he resigned a year later, stopped
attending Nazi party meetings, and later told a student that he considered taking the
position the greatest stupidity of his life, he never publicly repented. That he should
fall in love with a Jew Arendt saw the power and privilege of being an outsider as
central to her identity exposes the complexity and contradiction of which the human
spirit is woven, its threads nowhere more ragged than in love.
arendtheidegger
Heidegger considered their romance the most exciting, focused, and eventful period
of his life, and that creative vitality fertilized Being and Time his most famous and
influential work. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, he writes in one of their
first love letters, collected in Letters: 19251975 (public library) half a century of
their electrifying correspondence, first as lovers and then as friends and intellectual
peers.
In his first letter to Arendt, penned in February of 1925, Heidegger implores:
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.
We never know what we can become for others through our Being.
From the start, Heidegger sets out to reconcile the intensity of his feelings with what he
knows to be in Arendts best rational interest:
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.
[]
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.
[]
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 That makes the gift of
our friendship a commitment we must grow with 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.
Eleven days later, Heideggers infatuation swells to uncontainable magnitude and
explodes into the philosophical. He writes:
Dear Hannah!
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 others 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.
But just before the one-year anniversary of their romance, Arendt ended things abruptly,
in large part because she wanted to focus on her academic pursuit of philosophy. In a
reply to her from January of 1926, Heidegger makes an admirable effort to syncretize
the two conflicting forces ripping him asunder his own heartbreak and the sincerity
with which he wishes the best for Arendt. He writes:
My dear Hannah!
I understand, but that doesnt make it any easier to bear. Still less as I know what my
love exacts from you.
Although Arendts breakup letter doesnt survive, it appears that in it she cited her need
to withdraw from the romance in order to focus on her work a perennial paradox of
human satisfactions, which Heidegger addresses in his response:
This withdrawal from everything human and breaking off all connections is, with
regard to creative work, the most magnificent human experience I know with regard
to concrete situations, it is the most repugnant thing one can encounter. Ones heart is
ripped from ones body.
And the hardest thing is such isolation cannot be defended by appeal to what it
achieves, because there are no measures for that and because one cannot just make
allowance for abandoning human relationships With the burden of this necessary
isolation, I always hope for complete isolation form the outside for a merely apparent
return to other people and for the strength to keep an ultimate and constant distance.
For only then can all sacrifice be spared them, along with the necessary rejection.
But this tormented desire is not just unattainable, it is even forgotten so much so that
the most vital human relationships become a spring again and provide the forces that
drive one into isolation once more. Such a life then becomes wholly a matter of
exigencies that have no justification. Coming to terms with this in a positive way not
taking a position exclusively as a kind of escape is what it means to be a philosopher.
And yet however tragic the sacrifices of being a philosopher may be, Heidegger
encourages young Arendt to make them anyway. His words radiate a testament to the
notion put forth generations later by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in many ways an
intellectual heir of Arendts that embracing our neediness is essential for healthy
relationships. Even as Heidegger emboldens Arendt to go her own way, he articulates
his longing for her and his need for their love to persevere:
It is clear independently of you and me in this final point that, in your youth and
receptive stage of learning, you should not commit yourself here. It is always bad for
young people to not summon the strength to go away. It is a sign that the freedom of
instincts has died out, and as a result, when they stay they no longer grow in a positive
way

[]
And perhaps your decision will become an example If it has good effect, it can only
be because it calls for sacrifice from both of us.
The evening and your letters have renewed my certainty that everything stays close to
what is good, and becomes good You, even in your situation, must be happy as only
those with a young heart and strong expectations and faith can be at the prospect of a
new world new learning, fresh air, and growth. May each of us be a match for the
others existence, that is, for the freedom of faith and for the inner necessity of an
unalloyed trust that will preserve our love.
My life continues without my involvement or merit with such uncanny certainty
that I want to believe the new emptiness that will come with your departure is necessary.
And yet despite Arendts departure, the emotional intensity between the two magnetized
them into continued correspondence and occasional meetings over the months that
followed. By July of 1927, more than two years after their romance began, they were
still very much in love. Responding to another letter of Arendts that doesnt survive and
that appears to have been particularly emotionally charged, Heidegger writes:
My dear Hannah!
[]
Although you have remained as present to me as you were on the first day, your letter
brought you particularly close. I hold your loving hands in mine and pray with you for
your happiness.
[]
Child, my dear, do you only hope I might trust in you? Ask the innermost part of your
heart, which has shone on me so often from your wonderfully deep eyes; it will tell you:
deep down I am completely and purely sure of this trust.
Your letter has shaken me as much as first being close to you did. Those days have
returned with such elemental power, thanks to this word of your love.
Echoing Van Goghs beautiful reflection on the parallel necessity of giving and
receiving in love, Heidegger adds:
Dear Hannah, for me it was as if I had been favored to give away something ultimate
and great, so as to receive it, the gift and the giving, as a new possession. I still havent
come to grips with it, much less comprehended the unsuspected things I saw in our
existence in those hours.
In April of 1928, Arendt echoes Freuds famed assertion that love and work are the two
cornerstones of the human spirit, and ultimately chooses the work of philosophy over
her romance with Heidegger. She writes to him, beseeching him to understand her

choice trusting, even, that as a philosopher himself, one wholly consumed by his
work, he would have no choice but to understand:
I love you as I did on the first day you know that, and I have always known it, even
before this reunion. The path you showed me is longer and more difficult than I thought.
It requires a long life in its entirety. The solitude of this path is self-chosen and is the
only way of living given me. But the desolation that fate has kept in store not only
would have taken from me the strength to live in the world, that is, not in isolation; it
also would have blocked my path, which, as it is wide and not a leap, runs through the
world. Only you have a right to know this, because you have always known it. And I
think that even where I finally remain silent, I will never be untruthful. I always give as
much as anyone wants from me, and the path itself is nothing but the commitment our
love makes me responsible for. I would lose my right to live if I lost my love for you,
but I would also lose this love and its reality if I shirked the responsibility it forces on
me.
The following year, Arendt met a young German journalist and philosopher in
Heideggers seminar. That fall, she married him. Writing on her wedding day, she sends
Heidegger one final romantic reverberation, at once plaintive and proud:
Do not forget me, and do not forget how much and how deeply I know that our love has
become the blessing of my life. This knowledge cannot be shaken, not even today,
when, as a way out of my restlessness, I have found a home and a sense of belonging
with someone about whom you might understand it least of all.
[]
I kiss your brow and your eyes,
Your Hannah
Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, who were onetime lovers and lifelong
friends, Arendt and Heidegger remained in each others lives for half a century, until
Arendts sudden death. Heidegger outlived her by six months. Letters: 19251975
survives as the extraordinary record of this enduring relationship, brimming with
timeless wisdom on nearly every aspect of life and culture.
Complement it with Arendt on how we humanize each other, then revisit the love letters
of John Keats, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Bront, Oscar
Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida
Kahlo.