Adoration of the Magi (1423) by Gentile da Fabriano. Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence/Wikipedia


Adoration of the Magi (1423) by Gentile da Fabriano. Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence/Wikipedia

Wonder works

History and philosophy should reveal to us the baffling, strange and wondrous qualities of other lives and other times

Marnie Hughes-Warrington

Adoration of the Magi (1423) by Gentile da Fabriano. Courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence/Wikipedia

Marnie Hughes-Warrington

is a professor of history at the Australian National University in Canberra. From 2020, she will be Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Enterprise at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. Her latest book is History as Wonder: Beginning with Historiography (2018).  

4,600 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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They were there, and then they were gone. Thousands of history books destroyed by a wall of dirty water that punched its way through the university library. Grief and shock swelled in me, distending like the water-soaked books that buckled and burst the shelves, splaying their pages. I had got used to them being around, tidy and dry, and that was the problem.

The idea of history is strange, and unsettling. Yet you would not know it from the well-worn tales we tell about it. It was born in story, so we say, fought for both sides, professionalised, nationalised and grew up, democratised and struggled to hang together. Its books will either save or kill civilisation (if only it were that simple). When I talk of wonder and strangeness I am not just referring to the tales of dragons, werewolves, ectoplasm, revenants and angels in histories that we are not sure what to do with. Nor am I thinking of the thousands of histories written by people who could not or did not need to go near a university. Both matter, but here I am concerned with our formal ideas of academic or official history. What we overlook is that even the most scholarly history was born strange, kept strange company, and then forgot that it was strange.

Philosophy, Aristotle tells us in his Metaphysics, begins with wonder.1 History does too. It starts with obvious perplexities but also with our realisation of the strangeness of the everyday, making our head swim like Plato’s Theaetetus.2 History works to make sense of things via our crossings from the present to the past, and from the physical world to the spiritual world. It takes us from the specific to the universal and vice versa; from the habitual to the new; from understanding things to understanding ourselves; from one discipline to another; from exclusion to inclusion and thereby the unethical to the ethical. If you want to know where the cross-beams and limits of history’s blueprint are, look at wonder.

Yet wonder is sadly absent from much of our discussions on history and philosophy today. We use the word in conversations all the time but, somehow, the idea that we might feel like Theaetetus at times doesn’t seem very explicable or, worse, grown-up. History and philosophy don’t do wonder: that is for rockstar boy-scientists, children and sideshow alleys. In thinking these ways, I think we have lost something immeasurably more powerful than the racks of books that I still grieve.

In a way, I think we want wonder lost because it is discomforting. It gets under your skin, mocking your efforts at sense-making. When we look at the way that people have thought about wonder through time, our tidy, rational disciplinary histories unravel. New voices emerge, and we aren’t sure what to do with them. We also come face-to-face with those who appropriate the ‘look’ of history and philosophy to challenge and confuse us about what is certain and what is good, right and fair. They do so for good and for ill. And we face the dark thought that our efforts at ordering both knowledge and the world can prevent us from facing our most troubling ethical problems.

Acknowledging wonder is fraught with difficulties and can leave you riddled with doubt. Even the earliest historians and philosophers knew that. The Hellenistic historian Polybius thought he had it all sorted out when he argued that historians should make sense of things through seeing and the other senses, and that they should do so in as straight a manner as possible. No drama, no elaborations, no making things up.3 Wonder, he instructed, should be used by the historian to talk only about things that even the gods could not understand. He kept his wondering to natural catastrophes and – like Herodotus and Thucydides – used phrases such as ‘others say’ to describe claims to wonder that he wasn’t at all sure about.

It didn’t work. Polybius and his peers signalled the seriousness – and stability – of history through forms of expression and validation that linger today in devices such as footnotes. The problem is that these marks of seriousness, earnestness, can be copied, and even mocked. By clothing history in these ways, Polybius and his peers threw paradoxologists – wonder writers – the rhetorical cords they needed to pull themselves into the position of being a conjoined twin. That twin used the hallmarks of historical seriousness to attract listeners and readers, and to laugh at historians. History has found itself in the strange company of this twin ever since; a twin that spurs its restlessness to achieve better forms of expression and validation. My exotic, my charming, my lies, the Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata tells us in Alēthē diēgēmata (True History), were gifted by the poet, the philosopher and the historian.4 By the time we reach the prodigious tradition of ‘strange’ history-making in 9th-century China, the mockery by history’s self-appointed twin is masterful. ‘Every night,’ the Tang author Duan Chengshi tells us in his Nuogao li (Chinese Chronicles of the Strange):

there would appear an earthworm like a giant arm, more than two feet long, with white neck and red spots. This earthworm would go in advance of several hundred earthworms that looked like ropes encircling the branches and twigs of [a] tree. In the morning they would all cry out, and the sound was always melodious.5

There was a source for this information, he concludes, but the person who told him forgot the name of the book.

We should not speak of the strange, Confucius tells us in Analects.6 Yet he also knew that refusing to speak of the strange could leave us with an ordinary world of obsessions without meaning. Duan Chengshi, like the later strange historians Pu Songling, Yuan Mei and Ji Yun, knew that too. They used the fabulous clothed in the garb of history to speak against the obsessive collecting of those in the bureau of historiography who made the imperial or official histories or Zhengshi. Collecting is not fidelity, they warn us, it is akin to the mania of a fool who hoards money or books.7 Things and ideas are meant to circulate, never to be at rest.

Their words still sting like the dirty water that washes books away. Humanities and social science academics pride themselves on their book collections. In a way, they are like extensions of ourselves: too few books is meanness, thinness, and the converse is that it is not possible to be too generous. The thought that students might not buy physical books, that libraries are deaccessioning or cancelling books, that walls and floors aren’t strong enough in new buildings to hold them, or that not everyone will avail themselves of ‘free books for a good home’ is downright cruel.

Big writing lifts us, makes our heads swim, reminds us of our finitude

The riposte of medieval Christian thought against an empty world of fixations was to cleave off the obsessive into curiositas or curiosity, and to position God as the adjudicator in distinguishing this from pious wonder. By all means, shudder at the sight of a lacerated corpse, Augustine of Hippo instructs us, but if you keep on looking at it then you surrender your mind to earthly sinfulness.8 Curiosity fixes, wonder is fleeting, and God knows this of us. And wonder’s restlessness is not always pleasant. Mine is a severe discipline, the historian Gerald of Wales confesses in his Topographia Hibernica (The History and Topography of Ireland). It uses pure lips to describe both the beauty of geese born from barnacles as well as the shame of a world that makes monsters and bestial acts with them.9 Mind you, Bede also observes in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), those lips need not belong to those wearing priestly garb. In his world, it is the abbess who touches a possessed man with dust from King Oswald’s grave who cures, not the priest who recites the rites of exorcism.10

Lips can sing as well as say wonder.

Scholars of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires kept Aristotle’s writing alive, but none of the major waves of Arabic translation between the 9th and the 10th centuries captured the first book of his Metaphysics. Yet wonder winkled its way into the eyes and ears of the great Persian and Moroccan historians al-Ṭabarī and Ibn Khaldun thanks to Aristotle’s Poetics. In their prose and poetic worlds, few are called to leap to the angelic realm and to swoon, choke and faint with wonder in beholding God, but we are reassured that everyone can feel some sense of the divine in the form, as well as the content, of what we write and read.11 They, like Ibn Rushd – also known as Averroes – saw Aristotle’s Poetics as inviting us to see ‘the strange and the transferred, the altered, and the foreign’ uses of language as triggers for wonder and a closer connection with God.12 An eye for the world and the universal comes from seeing what as well as seeing how.

This is not to suggest that God writes for us, but in writing beautifully, strangely, we intimate that which is Godly, or the infinite, or at least something bigger than ourselves. We still revere this of novelists, but history and philosophy reviewers today are loathe to admit that they might be moved by writing, or that it took them to something so big or generous that it reminded them of their own finitude. Our academic world is, rather, a grudging one in which we more often complain about the success of trade writers, or shift their books to the fiction sections of bookshops in a moment of revenge. Big writing lifts us, makes our heads swim, reminds us of our finitude.

Writing big does not necessarily mean excluding, silencing, colonising, totalising. So too, writing wonder at world scale is not just the imperious, global collection of wonders that we so often associate with the birth of Enlightened thought. For wonder is also a means to open our mind to others. Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes all worked to describe and even to categorise wonder in order to overturn the foreclosure of mind they saw at play in simply accepting the philosophy of the ancients.13 Philosophy and history needed to keep moving, to accept their own restlessness. Look at the figure of ‘l’admiration avec étonnement’ for Charles Le Brun’s Conférence sur l’Expression Générale et Particulière (1698)14 and you gain a sense of the fear and the horror they saw as flowing from the transformation of a fleeting wonder into the fixity of curiosity. Rest in curiosity, Hobbes warns us in Leviathan and The Elements of Law, makes you no better than a hopeful gamester or gambler, always falling for the false words of tricksters and prophets instead of engaging with and trusting the efforts of those who work to rule.15

Conférence sur l’Expression Générale et Particulière (1698). Courtesy Wellcome Images

Discipline of mind and memory as valued by Hobbes, Descartes and Bacon finds expression in Jean Bodin’s expansionist Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, 1565), a manual for making sure that the ‘courses’ and ‘seasonings’ of history are served in the right order.16 The histories of Bodin’s day, and those of the 17th and 18th centuries, are certainly ordered. But they are also voluminous and packed with stories – like those told in Nathaniel Wanley’s Wonders of the Little World (1678) – of rulers with big foreheads and dwarf pirates.17 Wonder-works seeped into histories, leaving writers such as Daniel Defoe to provide the sharp diagnosis in The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclosed: or, an Universal History of Apparitions Sacred and Profane (1729) that our attempts to separate the real from the unreal, the ghostly from the living and the sacred from the sinful are shaky at best.18 People could not help wondering, and they could not stop being curious.

Making room for these voluminous, raggedy works in our histories of history, and of philosophy, seems somehow disorderly, or an admission that we might have fallen prey to the curiosity that Augustine and Hobbes warned us about. Yet life has raggedy edges, and tidiness – as contemporary theorists of history and philosophers have warned – can come at too high an ethical price.

Immanuel Kant might have thought that he found a solution to the problem in writing a history of the world in around 10 pages. Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim (1784) captures in clever detail the prickly and shifting boundaries between ourselves and others, fuelled by a powerful sense of mind. So too, Kant talks in the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) of the quiet wonder at play when we contemplate natural or human-made phenomena that run against our expectations of the world.19 G W F Hegel historicised that quiet sense of wonder in the realisation of an immanent freedom, spirit or mind.20 While it is tempting to see his idea of realisation as leaving wonder behind, readers such as Robin George Collingwood and Benedetto Croce recognised that the dialectic does not kill earlier thought, it transforms it.21 In this world of thought, it therefore made sense for Leopold von Ranke – who is history’s empiricist hero or villain, depending on whom you ask – to talk of intuition as well as the reasoned critique of archival materials.22

The abstraction of philosophical histories was never tightly bounded, despite the controlling stories we tell about them. While Hegel saw in history the realisation of freedom, Sarah Josepha Hale argued that the world was unfolding in the direction of women’s rule,23 and William Howitt warned that the future writ in the rational would be resisted in favour of a return to the spiritual, intuitive inner eye. Meanwhile, in another world that historiographers are yet to fully acknowledge, the Kyoto philosophical historians Kitarō Nishida, Keiji Nishitani, Hajime Tanabe and the Indian disciplinary-boundary breakers Rabindranath Tagore and Ranajit Guha turned Hegel and Aristotle back to Buddhist thought and found wonder in the everyday and the humble, not the rare or the novel. It is easy to see the history of histories and philosophies as masculinist and imperious if you ignore some of the most unsettling, and even strangest things written in their names.

While there are thousands of pieces on rationality in philosophy, you can count those on wonder on one hand

It is also possible, though tortuous, to read Kant and Hegel without the metaphysics, and to treat wonder as a matter for epistemology or even psychology to describe. This, I think, is akin to showing your audience the film projector you have just used to show a train hurtling towards them. You don’t wonder in those circumstances, the film historian Tom Gunning argues, you perform wonder in the company of those who do the same.24

But if we perform wonder, what trick are we in on? A trick on us, I believe. We might have convinced ourselves, with Descartes, that we grow out of wonder. While there are now thousands of technically adept pieces on rationality in philosophy, you can count the publications on wonder on one hand. Look across to the theory of history, and you would struggle to find even one. Read the lament for ‘punctum’ and for ‘aura’ in Roland Barthes’s and Walter Benjamin’s writings, though, and tell me that we have not lost something.25

It should never have been a case of losing, Luce Irigaray and Marguerite La Caze’s re-reading of Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul (1649) reminds us. When you grow out of something, you grow into something else. In their world, there is no ethics without the opening up to others granted by wonder.26 You just need to remember to stop yourself, the historian Merry Wiesner-Hanks tells us in The Marvelous Hairy Girls (2009). By all means use all the theories at your hand to explain the monstrous. But before you do, she goes on, have the courage to name those monsters, and discover perhaps that the monstrous is the world you accept.27 This is Jacques Derrida’s ‘Unheimlichkeit’, our simultaneous attraction and revulsion to being ‘un-homed’ from a world that makes sense – a sensible world that is predicated upon the silencing and exclusion of so many oppressed people, past, present and future.28 And the scariest thing about it, Hélène Cixous continues, is that we travel always ‘so close’ [si près] but never reach home.29

Die Erde ist keine Heimat – the Earth is no home – Josef Bierbichler writes, conjuring up the longing and the taint of the word ‘home’ in German, and the ever-present spectre of death.30 Ours is a shifting, fractious and fractured world, defying all simple sense making, but never calling for us to end our restless, fragile, dangerous attempts to explain it. It is also a world in which the questioning and even mockery of history continues by wonder writers, but this old conjoined rhetorical twin is now also joined by the hateful, lacerating form of revisionist and denial histories, with their fine-edged rhetorical lacework of footnotes.

Yet can we be blamed for wanting to escape, to rest, and from wanting to dwell?

The name of our dark angel – Martin Heidegger – floods to mind. Wonder is there throughout his writings, sometimes playing centre stage in his call for us to return to the philosophy of the Greeks to unsettle, unconceal and historicise being in order to ask questions about it. Curiosity the villain is there too, although it now appears in the form of a technocratic academic world that mistakes conferences, book collections, publications and disciplinary boundary policing for thought.31 It is damning, and Heidegger’s suggested cure is to dwell in wonder, to turn over the ordinary and to commit to the unending writing and rewriting of being.

But Heidegger was damned too, as Hannah Arendt wrote on his 80th birthday, calling the story of Thales in Plato’s Theaetetus to mind.32 Thales was so busy looking up at the stars that he fell into a well. A nearby servant girl jeered at him, noting that he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was before his very feet.

The Holocaust was at his feet, and remains at ours, at mine. And the appalling wondrous need not be monumental – sublime – in scale. Ursula K Le Guin had it right when she noted that mistreating one child in order to keep our world turning should be enough to make us walk away.33

As I was writing about Heidegger and Arendt, I walked, fell into my own well. Uncle Carl, local Ngunnawal Elder in Canberra, warned me never to trust the power of the creek. I heard him with a glue ear, picking up some of what he was trying to teach me, but making it fit my assiduously trained settler-administrator’s mind. When you help to run the show, it is easy to believe that you know the show. You don’t. You also assume that people will cross over boundaries to reach you, as Aboriginal people have done for more than 200 years in Australia at risk to their language, country, culture and even safety. I hadn’t figured out that I needed to live what he was telling me. Our Canberra campus has Kambri – ‘meeting place’ – at its heart, and that place of boundary crossings is beautiful, strange, awe inspiring, unsettling and even dangerous to everything we hold firm.

On a weekend in late February, 164mm of water fell on the university, sliding down the concrete-cradled creek with ever-increasing speed. It ran uphill. Then down, obliterating 100,000 books and dumping a thick layer of mud into the neighbouring offices of dear friends. I didn’t ask for a cataclysm while writing a book about wonder, but I got one.

The day after the flood, I was already gone, un-homed as Derrida would put it. My library was gone, and with it the idea of books coming to me in the orderly, rational ways that I commanded. I was an administrator with books in my head and little or no means to make them. I leapt with my mind, and then with my role. I became a seeker, wildly grateful for every scrap of library access and every precious dog-eared page held. Books found in strange ways, in strange bundles. I hardly know from one day to the next what I will be gifted thanks to the kindness of friends and strangers. All thanks to national libraries, university libraries, state libraries and local council libraries, with their stained-glass windows and warm places for the homeless to sleep. Places with students feeding on bandwidth, scholars with hushed heads, women at peace, pairs fighting over access to the last power outlet, and people rehearsing debates with demons aloud. Inspiring, numinous, beautiful, uncanny, scary. I and many hundreds like me are still that seeker, and will be for years to come. Our, my, writing will never be the same.

Those buckled, even broken library bookshelves made it easier for me to appreciate that the banks of a creek are meant to be broken, to shift, as well as those of the lines we draw between and within the disciplines such as history and philosophy, and between those who work within universities and those who work without.

Sehnsucht is not the best way to describe my restless seeking and boundary crossing – or that of history and philosophy. That word has always struck me as pointing to the solitary male genius who draws from others and from nature to make or to unmake himself. We have enough of those heroes – the rockstar scientists who talk wonder – and enough wells. This is a story without a hero and without an ending, as is the way of ethics. It is just about having the grace to acknowledge where you are and who you are with, and conceding that you don’t understand them and you likely don’t understand yourself. This mightiest of all concessions provides all the courage you need to make sense again and again – to let go – even if others do not care for you or they despise what you say and who you are. It has allowed me to be different, and to change the course of my life. Aristotle knew that. Uncle Carl knew that. This is the wonder of history and of philosophy.


1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans H Tredennick, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Loeb Library, 1933, 1.982b.

2. Plato, Theaetetus, Sophist, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Loeb Library, 1969, 155c-d.

3. Polybius, The Histories, trans E S Shuckburgh, Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1962, 2.56.

4. Lucian: Selected Dialogues, ed C D N Costa, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp 203-4.

5. Duan Chengshi, Chinese Chronicles of the Strange, trans C E Reed, New York: Peter Lang, 2001, 2.18.

6. Confucius, Analects, trans R Dawson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 7.21.

7. Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, trans H A Giles, Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 2010, 2.239; Chi Yün [Ji Yun], Shadows in a Chinese Landscape: The Notes of a Confucian Scholar, ed and trans D L Keenan, New York: M E Sharpe, 1999, pp 31, 123.

8. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans H Chadwick, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, 10.35.

9. Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans T Forester and T Wright, 3.25.

10. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans L Sherley-Price and R E Latham, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990, 3.11-12.

11. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, trans F Rosenthal, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958, 1.185; see also al-Ṭabarī’s poetry at: Al-Ṭabarī, The History of Al-Ṭabarī, various translators, New York, State University of New York Press, 1989–98, 29: 464–5; 31: 939; 32: 1097.

12. Ibn Rushd, Averroes’ Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, trans Charles E Butterworth, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986, p 12.

13. Francis Bacon, The Oxford Francis Bacon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, vol 11, 1.18; René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul [1649], trans S H Voss, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1989.

14. Reproduced in Jennifer Montagu, The Expression of the Passions, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

15. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [1668], trans and ed E Curley, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994, III, 37; Thomas Hobbes, ‘Human Nature’ and ‘De Corpore Politico’, trans and ed J C A Gaskin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, ‘elements of law’, IX, 18.

16. Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, trans B Reynolds, London: Macmillan, 1989, p 20.

17. Nathaniel Wanley, The Wonders of the Little World; or, A General History of Man, London: W J and J Richardson et al, 2 vols, 1678.

18. Daniel Defoe, The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclosed: or, an Universal History of Apparitions Sacred and Profane, Under all Denominations; whether Angelical, Diabolical, or Human Souls Departed, London: J Clarke, 1729, p 2.

19. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans P Guyer and E Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 5. 272.

20. G W F Hegel, The Philosophy of Mind: Part Three of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences [1830], trans W Wallace, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, §449.

21. Benedetto Croce, What is Living and What is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel, Garland, 1915; R G Collingwood, ‘Croce’s Philosophy of History’, Hibbert Journal, 1920, vol 19, pp 263-78.

22. Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History, trans and ed G G Iggers and W A Iggers, London: Routledge, 2011, pp. 63-4.

23. Sarah Josepha Hale, Woman’s Record, or Sketches of all Distinguished Women from ‘The Beginning’ till AD 1850, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1853, p xxxv.

24. Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, Wide Angle, 1986, vol 8(3-4), pp 56-63.

25. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang, 1980; and Walter Benjamin, ‘A Short History of Photography’ [1931], Screen, 1972, vol 13(1), pp 5-26.

26. Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans C Burke and G C Gill, Ithaca, NJ: Cornell University Press, 1993; and Marguerite La Caze, Wonder and Generosity: The Role in Ethics and Politics, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013.

27. Merry Wiesner-Hanks, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds, Yale University Press, 2009, p 225.

28. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans P Kamuf, London: Routledge, 2006, p 1, 123.

29. Hélène Cixous, So Close, trans P Kamuf, Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

30. Josef Bierbichler, Mittel Reich, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011, p 524.

31. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans J Stambaugh, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996, section 12, section 36.

32. Hannah Arendt, ‘Martin Heidegger at Eighty’, trans A Hofstadter, The New York Review of Books, 21 October 1971, pp 50-3.

33. Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ [1973] in The Unreal and The Real: Selected Stories Vol 2, Gollancz, 2014.

Marnie Hughes-Warrington

is a professor of history at the Australian National University in Canberra. From 2020, she will be Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Enterprise at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. Her latest book is History as Wonder: Beginning with Historiography (2018).
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