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 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 wasn’t immune to youth’s 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, 1889–May 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.
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, which introduced the notion of “being-in-the-world” as our primary human mode of existence, supplanting notions of subject, object, world, and consciousness.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” he writes in one of their first love letters, collected in Letters: 1925–1975 (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 Arendt’s 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, Heidegger’s infatuation swells to uncontainable magnitude and explodes into the philosophical. He writes:
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.
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 doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Still less as I know what my love exacts from you.
Although Arendt’s breakup letter doesn’t 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. One’s heart is ripped from one’s 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 Arendt’s — 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 other’s 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 Arendt’s 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 Arendt’s that doesn’t 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 Gogh’s 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 haven’t 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 Freud’s 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 Heidegger’s 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,
Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, who were onetime lovers and lifelong friends, Arendt and Heidegger remained in each other’s lives for half a century, until Arendt’s sudden death. Heidegger outlived her by six months. Letters: 1925–1975 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 Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.
Published April 25, 2016