Truth and Politics: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: Truth and Politics

In this chapter/essay Arendt explores questions around truth, facts and lies and their relation to politics, politicians and truth-tellers. Her thinking is as relevant today as it was when she originally published the essay in the New Yorker in 1967. I will quote her footnote, on the first page of the chapter in full, as it explains where she is coming from in this writing.

“This essay was caused by the so-called controversy after the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” [for which Arendt received a lot of flak – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eichmann_in_Jerusalem]. Its aim is to clarify two different, though interconnected, issues of which I had not been aware before and whose importance seemed to transcend the occasion. The first concerns the question of whether it is always legitimate to tell the truth – did I believe without qualification in “Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus?” The second arose through the amazing amount of lies used in the “controversy” – lies about what I had written, on the one hand, and about the facts I had reported, on the other. The following reflections try to come to grips with both issues. They may also serve as an example of what happens to a highly topical subject when it is drawn into that gap between past and future which is perhaps the proper habitat of all reflections.” (p.223)

It’s extraordinary to think that this was written in pre-internet and pre social media days!

Arendt recognises that there are different kinds of truths. In this essay she focusses on factual truth (so not logical, historical, political, philosophical, mathematical, rational or other kinds of truths), and the distinction between facts and lies. How do we experience factual truth as unique individuals and how do we share these experiences with the world? What do we do when someone attacks our world, our perception of reality? How do we form opinions and strengthen our own opinions, to then take them into the public realm?

In the modern era factual truth is under attack; lying is eroding the common fabric of society, but truth and politics have always been on bad terms with each other. Since the beginning of political theory, truthfulness has never been regarded as a political virtue, and lying has always been regarded as a necessary, justifiable and reliable tool in the political realm.

Why do we value lying in the political realm and what does this mean for the nature of political truth?

Truth telling is a dangerous position and truth-tellers, such as Socrates, who died for telling factual truths, stand alone outside the public and political realm, and the realm of human affairs (p.255). Arendt distinguishes between philosophers, who pursue truth by engaging in dialogue, and politicians, who use rhetoric and the art of persuasion. She tries to unpick and understand the differences between truth, fact and opinion.

“Philosophical truth, when it enters the market place, [the market place of ideas] changes its nature and becomes opinion, because [of] a shifting not merely from one kind of reasoning to another, but from one way of human existence to another …”

….“Factual truth, on the contrary, is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstance in which many are involved; it is established by witnesses and depends upon testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even it if occurs in the domain of privacy. It is political by nature …” (p.233)

Factual truth is fragile because the world of human affairs is always changing. Facts are the outcome of us living together. When power and politics chip away at facts with lies, this destroys the world that we share. Arendt is concerned that factual truth is not going to survive the onslaught of power in the modern era. 

Factual truth is always a question of plurality and is political by nature. To share our experiences of the world we need a common language, a common understanding of the facts. The world is something we make together. Plurality is important in the formation of political opinion.

“Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm. Facts inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.” (p.234)

The more people we talk to, the stronger our reasoning becomes. We have to enter into the public realm, make public use of our private opinions, and encounter other opinions that are not our own, but expressing one’s political opinion has become a dangerous business. We are met with increasing hostility and less dialogue.

Arendt then moves on to ask the question, How do we form political opinions?

“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them….. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion.” (p.237)

Forming political opinions is an intellectual thinking exercise about the relationship between truth and politics. We don’t blindly adopt viewpoints and it’s not just a question of empathy. We have to maintain and protect the integrity of our thinking and our internal thought partner. The quality of our opinions depends on the degree of their impartiality. We have to be able to discern for ourselves, different arguments and opinions.

“In matters of opinion, but not in matters of truth, our thinking is truly discursive, running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” (p.238)

The opposite of factual truth in modernity is the lie, the deliberate falsehood. The modern lie is not just about hiding the truth or deceiving others, but is about mass manipulation of fact and the remaking of the world. Consistent lying pulls the ground out from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand (p.253). We lose the capacity for thought; our ability to judge is under attack. Truth is always powerless when it comes to clash with power, but although power can destroy truth, it can never actually replace truth. You cannot eradicate truth. Truths reassert themselves.

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”  (p.259)

In the modern era there is the possibility that politics can eradicate truth, but truth is an existential pre-condition for human life. Human life is not possible without truth. Mass manipulation of facts destroys truth and reality wobbles.

“The experience of a trembling wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality is among the most common and most vivid experiences of men under totalitarian rule.” (p.253)

How can we prevent this and preserve a non-political realm; preserve an outside of politics affirmation of truth telling, an affirmation of spaces in which truth will be told?  There are four possibilities:

  • The solitude of the philosopher
  • The impartiality of the historian or the judge
  • The isolation of the scientist
  • The independence of the fact-finder, witness, reporter

What holds up the world is not politics, but the humanities. We need storytellers and artists to teach us how to reconcile with reality. Truth has lost the war with opinion, but the war is still raging with factual truth. It is now easy to deny fact, and when facts are unreliable we lose faith in the world. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. Facts need agreement and consent. Factual truth comes into existence when men get together.

In the last section of this chapter, Arendt writes:

“To look upon politics from the perspective of truth, as I have done here, means to take one’s stand outside the political realm. This standpoint is the standpoint of the truthteller, who forfeits his position – and, with it, the validity of what he has to say – if he tries to interfere directly in human affairs and to speak the language of persuasion or of violence.” (p.255)

I am aware that I have used a lot of quotes from Arendt’s book in writing about this chapter. For me her words are powerful and so relevant to the political situation which we experience today, that they are best quoted in full.

References

To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz  and Samantha Hill.

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://iai.tv/articles/hannah-arendt-on-why-its-important-to-break-your-bubble-auid-1180