The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man

This final thinking essay in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, was added to the second edition in 1963. The essay asks us to think about how science and technology transform the human condition. Arendt starts the chapter by asking the question…

“Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?”

Inspired by the humanist’s concern with man, she addresses this question to laymen rather than scientists.

The assumption is that if man can conquer space then this must increase his stature, but Arendt’s concern is that science emancipates itself from our humanistic concerns and is at war with common sense (p.260). For Arendt, science makes us distrust our senses and replaces a common sense objective world view with a subjective world view, and because science undermines our senses we begin to see the world ever more subjectively; we treat objects as things that are disposable and changeable by man, and see the world as humanly made. Whilst this view increases the stature of man, it also diminishes his stature because we become objects in the world and study ourselves. This is especially the case when we begin to see ourselves from the Archimedean point (p.272).

So the answer to Arendt’s question about man’s stature is not a scientific activity, but requires a humanist approach. This she discussed in her essay on The Crisis in Culture (p.221/2), where she quoted Cicero as having said, “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents.” She explains this as follows:

“What Cicero in fact says is that for the true humanist neither the verities of the scientist nor the truth of the philosophy nor the beauty of the artist can be absolutes; the humanist, because he is not a specialist, exerts a faculty of judgment and taste which is beyond which each specialty imposes on us.” (p.222)

Does the conquest of space make it more difficult or potentially impossible for humans to remain free to make judgements of taste, so that they can choose friendship over a determinative truth?  Is it true that we live in a world that only scientists understand? She writes:

“…. notions such as life, or man, or science, or knowledge are pre-scientific by definition, and the question is whether or not the actual development of science which has led to the conquest of terrestrial space and to the invasion of the space of the universe has changed these notions to such an extent that they no longer make sense. For the point of the matter is, of course, that modern science – no matter what its origins and original goals – has changed and reconstructed the world we live in so radically that it could be argued that the layman and the humanist, still trusting their common sense and communicating in everyday language, are out of touch with reality; ….” (p.262/3)

Arendt believes that the scientist has left behind not only the layman, but also a part of himself and his own power of human understanding. We can create machines which do things that we can’t do and which we can’t fully understand; that are beyond our human understanding and that defy “description in every conceivable way of human language…” (p.265). This challenges our earthliness. Arendt thinks that we won’t be able to keep up with this mechanical world of scientists and technicians (the latter she calls ‘plumbers’) who share the conviction that the human world is not the real world, that the earth is simply something to be understood rather than our home, and that there’s a truer world, which for scientists is a question of knowledge, and for plumbers a quest of a will to power, a quest to change the world.

We increasingly live in a world in which all objects are humanly created. We rarely touch something that is not man-made and even if it is natural, it’s only natural in that we’ve made the choice to let it be. When we now encounter the world we don’t encounter the object we only encounter ourselves.

“The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, night well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man – the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.” (p.272)

This life in a man-made world on the one hand gives us grandeur and dignity, but on the other hand we lose our capacity to make humanist, as opposed to scientific, judgements. Do we want to live in a world where everything we see and touch is a human creation, including ourselves, or do we believe that there are certain parts of the human world, that as thinking human beings, we should agree to leave untouched? We are increasingly living in a world removed from nature, such that our earthliness, our freedom, and our spontaneity have become increasingly less meaningful and our stature in the world is increasingly diminished.

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 .

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

Source of image: https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/arendthtml/arendthome.html

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

The Crisis in Culture: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Culture. Its Social and Its Political Significance

Hannah Arendt starts this chapter (Chapter 6) with the comment that the new phenomenon of mass culture, which is a culture of mass society, is of growing concern among intellectuals, to the extent that she sees a crisis in culture. She discusses this problem of a crisis in culture in terms of its social and political significance, in what I have come to realise is her usual thought-provoking way, challenging the reader to think in the gap between past and future.

For Arendt, culture helps to create the world. This humanly created world is made up of durable, lasting, non-consumable things that occupy our attention and make our world meaningful and lasting; things such as monuments, paintings, poems. The threat to this enduring and lasting world comes from the rise of consumerism and mass society, where people have excess time for leisure and entertainment, and the means to purchase this. The more society consumes cultural goods, the more it transforms culture into entertainment. The crisis in culture in terms of its social significance began when society started to monopolise culture, and people wanted to use culture for their own purposes and to increase their social status (p.198). The most effective way to do this is to loot the history of culture, and to make things accessible to the masses not just by reproducing them, as in printing many copies of a book, which Arendt is not opposed to, but by changing them, as in making films of a book, or translating a book, such that the original, lasting, durable book is in danger of being lost. Arendt writes that we risk losing these lasting cultural objects which give a sense of durability and continuity in our world by changing them and turning them into entertainment (reduced to kitsch in reproduction, p.204); we lose the sense of taking care of our world. This threat to the enduring and lasting world, which is how Arendt explains culture, is for her, the social significance of the crisis of culture.

“The point is that a consumer’s society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world and the things which belong exclusively to the space of worldly appearances, because its central attitude toward all objects, the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.” (p.208)

“This earthly home becomes a world in the proper sense of the word only when the totality of fabricated things is so organized that it can resist the consuming life process of the people dwelling in it, and this outlast them. Only where such survival is assured do we speak of culture, and only where we are confronted with things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references, and whose quality remains always the same do we speak of works of art.” (p.206)

Moving on to a discussion of the political significance of the crisis of culture, Arendt writes:

“Generally speaking, culture indicates that the public realm, which is rendered politically secure by men of action, offers its space of display to those things whose essence it is to appear and to be beautiful. In other words, culture indicates that art and politics, their conflicts and tensions notwithstanding, are interrelated and even mutually dependent. …….. The common element connecting art and politics is that they both are phenomena of the public world.” (p.215)

The political significance of the crisis of culture, comes, for Arendt from a loss of judgement. Culture, and to be cultivated, involves judgement. In all political judgement there is the need for agreement, a common sense of what is beautiful. To have a political culture we have to see the world in a common way, and have a common sense. “Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” (p.218). We have to produce this through acts of judgement that woo (Kant) and persuade us that the judgements are meaningful and important.  Political judgements are aesthetic not just logical; they are judgements of taste, not rooted in absolute truth. They humanise culture. For political judgement we must put ourselves in the space of many perspectives to create a public political common sense.

The loss of judgement equates to the loss of ability to make common sense (i.e. sense that is commonly held between people) judgements and, as such, is a threat to the lasting, durable, common nature of our society. Political culture means that we make a judgement to embrace a common truth, not because it’s true, but because it is who we are, and it unites us as a people (see Chapter 7 Truth and Politics). Politics for Arendt is not about truth, but about opinions and judgements. The crisis in political culture is when we put truth above friendship, above commonality, above respect. Politics requires fidelity to friendship over truth. Today we often see that both sides in a political argument claim they are speaking the truth, when actually they are arguing over judgements about opinion.  Opinions are not truth. Certain opinions over time can become common sense in a political society. They are not true in a logical sense, but become common truths in our world. Arendt calls these prejudices, which can sometimes be taken as a political truth.

“Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken in it, as well as how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.” (p. 219/20)

Hannah Arendt’s concern is with worldliness; to give the world lasting durability. She places value on worldliness because there is a certain humanity to a world that is immortal. Part of what it means to be human is to belong to a world in which you can act in public in ways that matter. The crisis in culture matters. Culture is those goods that all of us come to recognise as worth preserving. The rise of mass society and multi-cultural society makes this process harder, politically and socially, and may well no longer be possible.

As with all the chapters in this book, this has been a fascinating chapter to engage with and think about. The irony ….  that I am reading a translation of Hannah Arendt’s book, that I watched the film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta last weekend, and that I have found the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College video discussion on this chapter very thought provoking …. is not lost on me! I have relied on resources other than Arendt’s original work to engage with her ideas, the very action that she claims is leading to a crisis in culture.

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 .

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

Source of image: https://www.alejandradeargos.com/index.php/en/artp/41817-hannah-arendt-20th-century

The Crisis in Education: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Education

The focus of this essay/thinking exercise, Chapter 5 in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, is the crisis of education in America. This she says has become an important factor in politics (incomparably more important than in other countries), because of the difficulty of ‘melting together’ diverse ethnic groups, which can only be accomplished through schooling, so that English, and what it means to be an American, can be learned by all groups. In America education is seen as a political activity to make a better world, but Arendt thinks this is dangerous and that education should be kept separate from politics.

“Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity [i.e. wants to brainwash them – see Chapter 3, What is Authority?]. Since one cannot educate adults, the word “education” has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretence of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force.”(p.173/4)

Arendt starts this chapter by writing:

“… no great imagination is required to detect the dangers of a constantly progressing decline of elementary standards throughout the entire school system.” (p.170)

She connects the crisis of education to the crisis of authority, which she has written about in Chapter 3 under the title ‘What is Authority?’ and also to the loss of tradition, which she writes about in Chapter 1, ‘Tradition and the Modern Age’.

“The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” (p.191)

“That means, however, that not just teachers and educators, but all of us, in so far as we live in one world together with our children and with young people, must take toward them an attitude radically different from the one we take toward one another. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.” (p.191/2)

In addition to authority and tradition, Arendt also thinks equality is an important issue in American education. She points out that the UK system of education as meritocracy leads to an oligarchy. This she says contradicts the principle of equality, but, she writes, equality can only be achieved at the cost of teachers’ authority and the progress of gifted students (p.177).

According to Arendt there have been three basic assumptions, all connected to the loss of authority, that have led to the crisis.

  1. That there exists a child’s world in which children are autonomous. Arendt says that children cannot be autonomous, either from the adult world, or from their own group.
  2. Teaching is emancipated from the material to be taught. “A teacher, so it was thought, is a man who can simply teach anything; his training is in teaching, not in the mastery of any particular subject.” (p.179).
  3. You can know and understand only what you have done yourself, and as such, doing is substituted for learning, and the inculcation of skills is considered more important than the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum.

All of this raises two questions for Arendt.

  • What is the essence of education?
  • What is the true reason for the abandonment of common sense in education? i.e. that we know what we are teaching.

Arendt writes that education is about the world and education is about life.

“Thus the child, the subject of education, has for the educator a double aspect: he is new in the world that is strange to him and he is in the process of becoming, he is a new human being and he is a becoming human being. This double aspect is by no means self-evident and it does not apply to the animal forms of life; it corresponds to a double relationship, the relationship to the world on the one hand and to life on the other.” (p.182)

Educators cannot be non-authoritarian. They must protect the life of the child and protect the humanly built world. Their qualification is to know the world and to take responsibility for it, such that they allow young people to grow into the world and renew and change it, but also such that they protect the world. Education should in some sense be conservative (in the sense of conservation); it should cherish and protect “the child against the world, and the world against the child, the new against the old, and the old against the new.” (p.188)

The essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world (p.171). Each new generation grows into an old world, that already exists, and it is the role of teachers to prepare children for the world of the adult, when they will be responsible for changing the world. But children are not just undersized adults. The focus should be on teaching about the world as it is,  in all its plurality, rather than what we want it to be. Children should not be indoctrinated. Education should be both conservative (conserving the world as it is) and revolutionary (allowing for change and the new).

“Education is the point at which we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young would be inevitable.

And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” (p.193)

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 .

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

Source of image: http://souciant.com/2018/02/hannah-arendt-was-here/

What is Freedom? Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: What is Freedom?

This chapter is a companion essay to the preceding chapter, What is Authority? in Hannah Arendt’s book, ‘Between Past and Future’.

For Arendt, the problem of freedom is the problem of how human beings live together; it is political freedom, the freedom to start something new, the freedom to be human. Freedom is the reason men live together in politics. To be free is to act. This makes you unique. Through your actions people notice you and you become meaningful.

But Arendt says, science tells us that everything has a cause, so everything is determined. Does this mean that freedom is an illusion?

“In all fields of scientific and theoretical endeavor …. we proceed according to the no less self-evident truth of nihil ex nihilo, of nihil sine causa, that is, on the assumption that even “our own lives are, in the last analysis, subject to causation” and that if there should be an ultimately free ego in ourselves, it certainly never makes its unequivocal appearance in the phenomenal world, and therefore can never  become the subject of theoretical ascertainment. Hence freedom turns out to be a mirage….” (p.142)

Then she goes on to write that the most dangerous difficulty is ‘that thought itself, in its theoretical as well as its pre-theoretical form, makes freedom disappear.’ (p.144)

All of this emerges because of a misunderstanding of what freedom is; it comes from thinking of freedom as inner freedom, freedom of the will, but Arendt says that this is not what freedom is about. Freedom as the will is a modern invention. She attributes the idea of freedom of the will to Christianity, St Paul and Augustine.

Historically, men first discovered the will when they experienced its impotence and not its power, when they said with Paul: “For to will is present with me: but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (p.160)

For Arendt, freedom is never internal, never a retreat from the world, never a freedom of will (which is the mainstream, traditional idea of freedom), but instead a freedom to act. She points out that whilst for Thomas Hobbes safety and security were the highest values, these values lead to a retreat inwards. For Arendt, the highest political value is courage, which is indispensable for political action.

“It requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake.”( p.155)

Lack of courage and the desire for safety and security encourages men to see freedom as an inward power, not as an outwardly action.

In addition to Christianity and philosophy, and Hobbesian liberalism, a third real danger that results in the reduction of political freedom today is from the social sciences.

“The rise of the political and social sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has even widened the breach between freedom and politics; for government, which since the beginning of the modern age had been identified with the total domain of the political, was now considered to be the appointed protector not so much of freedom as of the life process, the interests of society and its individuals.” (p.148)

Arendt thought that the rise of the social sciences resulted in a loss of authority. See her essay ‘What is Authority?

A government begins to be governed by social science when it tries to make life safer and so regulates life and human behaviour. This threatens the possibility of freedom as a political act. We need to return to thinking that politics is about courageous action, that it seeks something new, not simply security and safety.

Freedom is not acting under the guidance of the intellect; freedom is not acting under the guidance of the will. Freedom is the acting that actualises a principle, which is external, such as honour, glory and virtue, not a dictate of the will which is internal. If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty that they must renounce. Freedom is a meaningful performative act, good or bad; an action in the world that people will see, where people are trying to work out how to live together in this complicated world without authority. Freedom makes possible new beginnings, the freedom to start to do things and make something new.

To be free and to act are the same.

“… freedom, which only seldom – in times of crisis or revolution – becomes the direct aim of political action, is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.” (p.145)

Freedom is a central and important idea in Hannah Arendt’s work, because freedom allows us to act and be meaningful; it allows us to be human.

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 .

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

Source of image: http://www.dhm.de/blog/2020/05/14/hannah-arendt-only-within-the-limits-of-nature-is-freedom-possible/

What is Authority? Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: What is Authority?

This is a long, dense essay which is complicated and difficult to follow. It is definitely a challenge to thinking.

Arendt’s view is that authority no longer exists. The loss of authority is a consequence of the loss of tradition and religion in the modern world. Today we value tradition only when we like the tradition. A consequence of the loss of tradition, says Arendt, is a loss of depth in human existence, and a loss of permanence, durability and stability. (p.94)

I’m not sure in what order these essays were originally published, before they were collected together in this publication, but the first three chapters of this book, Between Past and Future, (the Preface, The Gap Between Past and Future; Tradition and the Modern Age; and The Concept of History) are helpful in understanding where she is coming from in this essay.

Since Arendt believes that authority no longer exists, her question is not so much What is authority? But instead, What was authority when it did exist?  This she traces back to the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle) and the Romans. There is quite a hefty section on the philosophy of history in this chapter.

Arendt describes authority as the authentic and undisputable experiences common to all (p.91) and says that authority implies an obedience in which men retain their freedom (p.105). For her authority does not mean being forced, persuaded or compelled to accept a situation as authentic and undisputable, but instead we obey and accept authority because we freely desire to do so. For Arendt, authority does not require coercion and does not involve violence. An authoritarian government allows for autonomy and freedom. This way of thinking about authority has largely been lost in the modern world, in political (education, religion and politics) and pre-political forms (parental authority).

So, if authority is necessary but lost, how do we live in a world without political authority?

As with tradition, Arendt can see a positive potential in the loss of authority, which when associated with more freedom allows for more spontaneity and the possibility of making the world anew. The loss of authority does not mean the loss of an ability to care for the world.

“but the loss of worldly permanence and reliability – which politically is identical with the loss of authority – does not entail, at least not necessarily, the loss of the human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us.” (p.95)

How do we begin thinking about the need to build a world that is permanent and stable, but without authority?

To live in a political world, we have to talk a common language. We have to agree on the meaning of such words as tyranny, totalitarianism, and authority, otherwise we live in a meaningless, solipsistic world. Two theories have made the word ‘Authority’ confusing.

1. The Theory of Liberalism. Liberalism sees authority, tyranny and totalitarianism as the same, but Arendt points out that whilst in an authoritarian regime there is a restriction on freedom, a tyrannical regime abolishes public freedom, and a totalitarian regime eliminates freedom. If we think in terms of pyramids, in an authoritarian regime, authority is at the top and filters down through the pyramid, as, for example, in the Christian Church, or, in the case of the Romans, authority begins with ancestors at the bottom of the pyramid and works up to the people. In the case of tyrannical regimes, there are no intermediate layers to the pyramid, only the top and bottom (p.99). Totalitarian regimes are like onions, with the totalitarian leader at the centre facing outwards and the people in the outer layers facing both inwards and outwards to the world.

2. The rise of the social sciences. Arendt writes:

“…. many social scientists believe they can do without the study of what the historical sciences call the sources themselves. Their concern is only with functions, and whatever fills the same function can according to this view, be called the same.” p.102

At the end of the first section of this essay, Arendt poses four questions:

  1. What were the political experiences that corresponded to the concept of authority and from which it sprang?
  2. What is the nature of a public-political world constituted by authority?
  3. Is it true that the Platonic-Aristotelian statement that every well-ordered community is constituted of those who rule and those who are ruled was always valid prior to the modern age?
  4. Or, to put it differently, what kind of world came to an end after the modern age not only challenged one or another form of authority in different spheres of life but caused the whole concept of authority to lose its validity altogether? (p.104)

In the following sections of the chapter, Arendt goes on to discuss what she considers to be the mistaken ideas of authority of the ancient Greeks. Plato’s idea was to replace persuasion with the idea of philosophical truth. After the ‘murder’ of Socrates, he no longer trusted the people to make the right decisions through persuasion and argument.

“Very early in his search he [Plato] must have discovered that truth, namely, the truths we call self-evident, compels the mind, and that this coercion, though it needs no violence to be effective, is stronger than persuasion and argument. The trouble with coercion through reason, however, is that only the few are subject to it so that the problem arises of how to assure that the many, the people who in their very multitude compose the body politic, can be submitted to the same truth.” (p.107)

The problem is that truth itself is not a concept that necessarily has authority.

“Platonically speaking, the few cannot persuade the multitude of truth because truth cannot be the object of persuasion, and persuasion is the only way to deal with the multitude. But the multitude, carried away by the irresponsible tales of poets and storytellers, can be persuaded to believe almost anything; the appropriate tales which carry the truth of the few to the multitude are tales about rewards and punishments after death; persuading the citizens of the existence of hell will make them behave as tough they knew the truth.” (p.132)

Aristotle also considered the question of how to conceive of authority without coercion or persuasion. For him, the answer was education. Arendt points out that the “substitution of education for rule had the most far-reaching consequences” (p.118) and that confusing political authority and education leads to the process of brainwashing.  Both Plato and Aristotle end up putting violence back into authority; Plato the violence of experts, who imposed their self-evident truths on the people (e.g. philosophers), and Aristotle the violence of educators who brainwash those who disagree.

Education as a path to truth can only yield authority when education is bound with a strong sense of tradition. The nature of a public political world constituted by authority is one in which the traditional authority of ancestors is taken for granted, as was the case in Ancient Rome, where authority was buried deep in the past.

“At the heart of Roman politics, from the beginning of the republic until virtually the end of the imperial era, stands the conviction of the sacredness of foundation, in the sense that once something has been founded it remains binding for all future generations.” (p.120)

This essay is about how to do politics after a break with tradition, when authority is no longer available. Even the fear of hell which has been used through the ages to bring man into line “is no longer among the motives which would prevent or stimulate the actions of a majority.” (p. 135). Not only is authority dead, but so too is religion and the idea of hell.

Is there a way to re-imagine a kind of political authority after the loss of authority, religion and tradition in the modern world? No – writes Arendt, with one exception, and that is revolution. Arendt claimed that “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning, ….  since they represent the attempt to found a new political space, a space where freedom can appear as a worldly reality.” (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/)

Arendt believed that politics is about talking and engaging with regular people such that they come up with their own ideas on how to govern themselves. The politics of revolution does not privilege the educated elites or the wise. It can’t be from the top down.

We live in a time in which politics is seen as corrupt ( Arendt is referring to Western liberal democracies). The only way to re-establish authority is through re-founding our fundamental freedoms through revolution, not violent revolution as in the French revolution, but non-violent, non-coercive revolution, as was the case in ancient Rome, which valued, tradition, religion and authority, and the American revolution where the founding fathers transferred the seat of authority to the judiciary (p.140) and ‘the act of foundation took the form of a constitution of liberty.’ (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/) . Arendt makes a distinction between the American liberation from England and the successful American Revolution, when freedom was founded in America in a meaningful way once the Constitution was established and became secure.

In this thinking exercise, Arendt calls on us to conduct an honest analysis of the present political situation. This was the real political challenge when she wrote this essay and remains a real political challenge for us today. We must honestly confront our own limited perspectives and honestly listen to those we disagree with, and make an effort to understand our present situation and to unite people across their differences. Arendt’s hope is for a new kind of authority without a revolution, in which we confront the loss of authority anew without religious or traditional authorities, and commit to the elementary problems of human living together. (p.141)

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 .

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

Source of image: https://www.thenewleam.com/2019/03/the-foresight-of-hannah-arendts-theory/

The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern

In this second essay/thinking exercise, Hannah Arendt turns her attention to the concept of history, both ancient and modern, and the danger in modern times of conceiving of history as a process, and thus a technology, as opposed to singular events, deeds and words, as was the case in ancient history. In ancient history, “the subject of history matter is these interruptions – the extraordinary.” (p.42). The task of the historian was to remember the great deeds.

“The concern with greatness, so prominent in Greek poetry and historiography, is based on the most intimate connections between the concepts of nature and history. Their common denominator is immortality ……. History receives into its remembrance those mortals who through deed and word have proved themselves worthy of nature, and their everlasting fame means that they, despite their mortality, may remain in the company of things that last forever.” p. 48

Ancient history immortalised the actions of mortal human beings, by remembering their great deeds, but in the modern age, history changed with the loss of the idea of immortality. With the rise of science, uncertainty and doubt (see the previous chapter on Tradition and the Modern Age), modern history became a man-made process, in which there is no true, knowable, objective reality. Science makes us suspicious of our senses; we begin to distrust our world and lose a common objective. We lose confidence in great deeds and no longer think singular events important. We try and recreate a common world through history as a process, so history becomes based on action.

“The modern concept of process pervading history and nature alike separates the modern age from the past more profoundly than any other single idea”. p.63

In the modern era nature is no longer static, but can change. For history, this means a loss of objective and impartial reality. In an impartial standpoint of history we can credit infinite points of view.

“….. the Greeks discovered that the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view.” p. 51

In the modern age, all we have is processes through which we act, and action becomes determinative of the human condition, the world and nature. We can remake the world and change nature. We increasingly see the world through our own eyes. History is no longer driven by the greatness of the events of history, but becomes determined by its usefulness to achieve our ends, a technology, a means to an end.

“The historian, by gazing backward into the historical process, has been so accustomed to discovering an “objective” meaning, independent of the aims and awareness of the actors, that he is liable to overlook what actually happened in his attempt to discern some objective trends.” p. 88

History and science merge together in the modern age to form a technology which we use to impact our world. Nothing is truly worthy of being remembered. The historian is someone who starts a process to create history, and similarly the scientist is someone who “makes” nature.

“We know today that though we cannot “make” nature in the sense of creation, we are quite capable of starting new natural processes, and that in a sense therefore we “make nature”, to the extent, that is, that we “make history”. p.58

We have thus devalued history and the humanities. Why study history, when it’s not there? It’s what we make. As such, an interest in history in the modern age is declining.

When the world has become subjectivized, internalised and doubted, judgements become judgements of taste and preference. History is no longer objective. Nature is no longer immortal. The way we know nature and history is increasingly determined by human framing and by the questions we ask. Both nature and history can be impacted by human action and anything is possible. We can remake reality on the basis of a lie.  “… we can take almost any hypothesis and act upon it, with a sequence of results in reality which not only make sense but work ….” (p.87). The hypothesis can be as mad as it pleases. We can make it real, even if it is not true.

“… for the first time in our history the human capacity for action has begun to dominate all others …” p.62

“It is beyond doubt that the capacity to act is the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities, and it is also beyond doubt that the self-created risks mankind faces today have never been faced before.” p.63

In this thinking exercise Arendt concludes that thinking of history as a process is dangerous, and means that we should be rigorously suspicious of historical arguments, and question all common sense narratives.

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 .

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

Source of image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=6GUNDQ2CyPw

Tradition and the Modern Age: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: Tradition and the Modern Age

In this thinking exercise (Chapter 1) in her book ‘Between Past and Future’, Hannah Arendt takes a closer look at the beginning and end of tradition, which she first mentioned in the Preface. This is an exercise in thinking about the break in tradition, which is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

What does she mean by tradition? Tradition is the transmission or passing on of customs, beliefs or facts, carried over from deep in our past, from generation to generation.

What does she mean by modern age? The modern age is the age of science. Arendt distinguishes the modern age (the rise of science and the political and Industrial Revolutions of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) from the modern world (the two World Wars of the 20th century, the first atomic explosion, and the rise of totalitarianism). The modern world is defined by the break of tradition and the rise of totalitarian domination.

“Totalitarian domination as an established fact, which in its unprecedentedness cannot be comprehended through the usual categories of political thought, and whose ‘crimes’ cannot be judged by traditional moral standards or punished within the legal framework of our civilization, has broken the continuity of Occidental history. The break in our tradition is now an accomplished fact.” p.26

Arendt tells us that tradition in the West started with the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and ended with the teachings of Marx. Plato used the allegory of the cave to describe the sphere of human affairs, i.e. man lives in darkness and confusion, in the shadows, which we must turn away from to discover the clear sky of eternal ideas; for Plato truth was in ideas. Aristotle, Plato’s student, added to this saying that man is a rational animal, distinguished from other animals in that he thinks. For the rationalist, truth was in reason.

If Plato turned away from the world to ideas, Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche turned away from ideas to the world. Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche….

….“ were the first who dared to think without the guidance of any authority whatsoever; yet for better and worse, they were still held by the categorical framework of the great tradition.” p.28.  

In this second turning of Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the idea of truth, the trust in things as they appear, trust in the idea of God, and the idea that truth is a result of reason, is undone. Truth becomes a working hypothesis, or a mere value, something we decide upon socially. Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche all recognised this. They stood at the very end of tradition, just before the rise of totalitarian governments. They were not the cause of the break in tradition, but “they perceived their world as one invaded by new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with” (p. 27). Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were fighting against tradition and trying to free themselves from these truths that they saw as unsustainable, but they were still within the tradition.

Today we live without tradition (Arendt introduces this idea in her Preface). We are not fighting against tradition any more. That fight has been won. But, for Arendt what we hear is not the silence of tradition, but the silence of what we could argue for. What do we believe in? Is there a way, in the absence of tradition, to fight for something that is true in a public way, not just a subjective belief? The loss of tradition risks danger and confusion. Quoting Plato, Arendt writes:

“The beginning is like a god, which as long as it dwells among men saves all things “ 

– and she continues that this …

“is true of our tradition; as long as its beginning was alive, it could save all things and bring them into harmony. By the same token, it became destructive as it came to its end – to say nothing of the aftermath of confusion and helplessness which came after the tradition ended and in which we live today”. p.18

This end of tradition is both good and bad. Today tradition scarcely commands our interest, but whilst this has led to confusion and helplessness, Arendt believes…

… “it is the great chance to look upon the past with eyes undistracted by any tradition, with a directness which has disappeared from Occidental reading and hearing ever since Roman civilization submitted to the authority of Greek thought.” p.28

So Arendt is both optimistic and pessimistic.

In the modern age, science unsettled the idea of truth, despite the fact that it seeks to find truth beyond what we see. For Plato truth was in ideas, for Christianity truth was in God, for the rationalists, truth was in reason, i.e. for them all truth stands outside the messy modern world; they are non-physical truths. But in the modern age, science infused doubt and mistrust into tradition and challenged the entire foundation of the Western tradition. This has led to uncertainty which our tradition of thought is unable to deal with. This is the pessimistic view.

Thinking more optimistically, Arendt writes that tradition came to a conceptual/philosophical end with Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and to a factual end with the rise of totalitarian domination. In this thinking gap between past and future in which we now find ourselves, we now have to think for ourselves for the first time since the time of Plato and Aristotle. We no longer have truths; we have values, and we now put a value on everything. There are no highest values, all we have are the values we make and create. The result of this is the loss of wonder, but it is also an opportunity. Arendt’s optimistic view is that we can now potentially start a new tradition, to live freely in a way that we haven’t lived since the Roman empire. This is the opportunity in the gap between past and future – to think through the problems free from tradition.

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 .

  • Arendt, H. (1977). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-why-does-germany-love-hannah-arendt-1.9018083

The Gap Between Past and Future: Hannah Arendt: Preface

I will always remember the start of 2021 as being, for the most part, ‘dark’. Short, dark, very cold days, with snow (which is unusual in my area) and frost on the ground, and stuck indoors because Covid-19 has mutated and we are yet again in lockdown, and yet again under threat of being completely overwhelmed by the number of cases of sick and dying people. ‘Dark’ also in the sense of the political mess my country (Brexit and the economy), and other countries (in particular the US) seem to be in. But what has really uplifted me in this dark month of January 2021, has been my discovery of Hannah Arendt, whose book ‘The Gap Between Past and Future’ has been selected by the Philosophy of Education virtual Reading Network (@PhilofEd) for discussion next week on Tuesday 19th January.

I have heard Hannah Arendt referred to many times in the past, but I have never got round to reading her books. Between Past and Future is a good introduction to her work and ideas, which I have thoroughly enjoyed engaging with, to the extent that I have decided to write a post on each chapter. This is to help me clarify my own understanding, and I should stress that her writing is so dense, so complicated, and so full of ideas, that it is impossible to do it justice in these short posts. For me writing these posts has helped me see her key points more clearly, or her key points as I understand them, but the content of these posts is no substitute for reading her book.

Preface

In this book Hannah Arendt pulls together eight essays, which she calls exercises in political thinking, and in which she examines the gap between past and future. Together these essays offer an extended metaphor. The extended metaphor is ‘the gap’, which comes to stand for the space for thinking. Arendt thought that most people don’t live in this gap; they don’t think. She tells us that since the time of the Romans the gap has been bridged over by what we call tradition. Tradition provides us with habits and institutions that largely prevent us from living in this gap, which I take to mean, largely prevent us from thinking. My understanding is that she means that we no longer have the ability, nor the capability to think. There have always been some greater thinkers (philosophers, poets, artists) who have lived in this gap, who have made thinking their primary business, but most of us haven’t.

However, Arendt also discusses the loss of tradition, saying that most of us can no longer orient our lives through tradition. The demise of the Church over past years comes to mind, and its fairly easy to think of other similar examples.  For Arendt this loss of tradition means that the gap between past and future, the space for thinking, has now become relevant to all, a fact of political relevance, but politics today no longer brings thought to reality; we live in a world in which there is no political truth. It’s amazing to think that Arendt published this book in 1977. Her thinking seems so current.

Arendt starts her book, in the Preface, with a quotation from Rene Char (French poet and writer): “our inheritance was left to us by no testament”. What does this mean? For Arendt our inheritance is the lost treasure of freedom, freedom as experienced, for example, by the freedom fighters of the French resistance and other revolutionaries and challengers, who recognised the uncertainty of what it is to be a challenger and learned what it means to start something new. Arendt asks how we re-find this lost treasure that has no testimony/tradition. Freedom isn’t bound in tradition that we can hold onto, so how can we bring freedom to be? Here, I think, she is talking about freedom of thought and freedom to act. Although freedom happens in moments, as experienced by freedom fighters, we don’t have the space to make it real. It is fleeting. How can we hold onto and think in a way that is meaningful in the world, when there is no testament or space for this free thinking?

Arendt uses Kafka’s parable of HE as a parable of the space of thought (the mind), a parable which describes the infinite past and the infinite future each as a force which both act on HE, who is pressed from behind and from in front. Arendt then references Hegel who wants to reconcile thought and reality:

The task of the mind is to understand what happened, and this understanding, according to Hegel, is man’s way of reconciling himself with reality; its actual end is to be at peace with the world. The trouble is that if the mind is unable to bring peace and to induce reconciliation, it finds itself immediately engaged in its own kind of warfare.” p. 7

Arendt thinks we have lost the ability to make sense of the world; the effort to think and make sense of the world/reality is a battle. She thinks that Kafka’s parable addresses this, in part, but what is missing is ‘a spatial dimension where thinking could exert itself without being forced to jump out of human time altogether. p.11.’

Thinking shouldn’t be a rational umpire. Is there a space where human thinking could reflect on the battle whilst still being in human time? For Arendt, this is ‘the gap’. The battle field of Kafka’s two forces should result in a third force ‘whose origin would be the point at which the forces clash and upon which they act.’ Arendt thinks this the perfect metaphor for the activity of thought. Man can start something new  in this space between past and future, a space of freedom and thinking.

All Arendt’s writing (at least in this book, I haven’t read any others) is like this: complicated! But I suppose that is the point. She is trying to move us into ‘the gap’; trying to show us what it means to think, because only there will the truth appear. At the end of the Preface, she writes:

“The following eight essays are such exercises, and their only aim is to gain experience in how to think: they do not contain prescriptions on what to think or which truths to hold. Least of all do they intend to retie the broken thread of tradition or to invent some newfangled surrogates with which to fill the gap between past and future. Throughout these exercises the problem of truth is kept in abeyance; the concern is solely with how to move in this gap – the only region perhaps where truth eventually will appear.” (p.13/14)

References

To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. Arendt’s text, whilst sometimes poetic and lyrical, has been, for me, difficult to follow. 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 .

  • Arendt, H. (1977). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: https://www.kalw.org/post/philosophy-talk-hannah-arendt#stream/0

On Politics and Plagues. What can literature do for us?

Like many others during this time, I have turned to literature to try and gain deeper insights into the times we are living through and, in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I am not alone in reading Albert Camus’, The Plague. Early in the lockdown Stephen Downes linked to a post about it in his newsletter, OLDaily, which contained this video

The Plague was also the first fiction choice for the online platform Quillette’s Quarantine Book Club, where it generated a lot of interesting discussion.

Two other books that have informed my thinking at this time are Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which I have slowly and carefully re-read, whilst making extensive notes), and William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail.

The question of what can literature (in the broader context of the humanities) do for us at times like this, was discussed by Professor Sarah Churchwell, Dr Kate Kirkpatrick and Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge in an excellent online conversation ‘On Politics and Plagues’ at the end of last month. This was organised by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as a precursor to the Being Human Festival, due to take place on November 12-22nd November.

Lindsey Stonebridge is currently writing a book about the relevance of Hannah Arendt for today. Arendt is known for her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’. What did she mean by the banality of evil and how does it relate to the idea of infection? Lindsey Stonebridge told us that Arendt did not refer to the banality of evil as a plague, but as a fungus. By banality she did not mean ordinary. She talked of banality as meaning thoughtless (not thinking) and what happens when we are in a bureaucratic, over-socialised system which allows thoughtlessness to happen. The banality of evil is fearsome and thought-defying. In this sense, evil is not demonic, but banal. The problem of modern evil is that it’s not radical, not deep, not profound; it’s like fungus. Fungus is really contagious; it grows rampant all over a surface. In this sense thoughtless, policy-driven bureaucratic evil is like fungus. It is not a plague; it is a moral rot, which grows and rots at the same time, like a fungus.

Kate Kirkpatrick has recently published a well-received biography of Simone de Beauvoir, who was an associate of Camus. She suggested that Camus and Arendt thought in similar terms about moral contagion and the trivial wrongs that result in really morally significant actions. In Camus’ novel, the plague has agency and humans are passively reactive. Simone de Beauvoir thought that in Camus’ writing, the plague gave people an alibi for not being politically engaged and for not being morally responsible; it enabled evasion of individual accountability. de Beauvoir thought that although humans cannot make evil disappear, they can mitigate it. Arendt, in her reference to the banality of evil, wanted to cut it down to size (no matter what the scale, as in the holocaust), to make it recognisable.

Lynsey Stonebridge thought that Arendt and de Beauvoir would have agreed that there is no master plan. When you have a plague (e.g. political evil as a contagion and when politics is out of control) you feel helpless and people rush for the demonic (the big man), but to deal with the morality we need to analyse it. She believes that generally people are trying but failing to do this, because they are not thinking; we can’t think in the policy and administrative systems spaces we have set up, she says. Camus wrote that the plague never dies, you can’t defeat it. Kate Kirkpatrick thought that this might encourage apathy, or it might spur people to different political thought, but what do we do about the habits of thoughtlessness that have led to increased inequalities and oppression? A response to the banality of evil, according to Lynsey Stonebridge is thought, language and writing.

At this point the conversation moved on to a discussion about the relationship between fascism and patriarchy. Kate Kirkpatrick pointed out that this discussion depends on which fascism you are talking about, and that situations and freedoms are different and context dependent. For further information about this discussion see the video of the recording which I have linked to below.

Finally Sarah Churchwell (who hosted this conversation) asked Lindsey to discuss the political and moral question of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to her recently published article in the New Stateman, What Hannah Arendt can teach us about Work in the Time of Covid-19. In this she argues that the metaphors we choose matter; they do political work. She writes:

The government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy, published on 11 May, states that people will be “eased back into work” as into a dentist chair: carefully, and with face masks.

The reason they need to be coaxed is, of course, the economy. At one point in the document, it reads as though it is the economy, not people, that has been sick: “The longer the virus affects the economy, the greater the risks of longterm scarring.” The economy needs ventilating, and people are its oxygen.

Lindsey Stonebridge’s argument is that the metaphors being used explicitly prevent us from being agents of the economy; we are not working for the economy, we are labouring for the economy, but according to Arendt action requires both labour and work, and it’s action that makes us human. Labouring is simply what we do to survive. Work, on the other hand, gives collective meaning to what we do. We labour by necessity; we work to create a human reality.

This is why debates and policies about how we get back to work matter so much: we are also talking about what kind of human society we are – or want to be.

If taking the human value of work more seriously is key to a better politics, we should also grasp this opportunity to think about what counts as valuable work.

This fascinating conversation ended by returning to the question, What can literature do for us?

As this conversation shows, it gives us ways to think about the world. It also gives us the opportunity to participate in human memory and consider what it means to be human, by listening to a plurality of voices, and aesthetically, it gives us pleasure.

For a recording of this event, where you can get the full details and not just the bits that interested me, here is the video.