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

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.