TLDR; Hannah Arendt never wrote a "moral philosophy." It is not hidden away in the archives or any of the recent collections of her work, nor in her unpublished lectures, letters, or journals. She was a political theorist who thought that moral philosophy requires a set of social relations that are inaccessible in the modern world. Yet as she has become more popular and is taught more and more often by moral philosophers, she is developing an unearned reputation as a moralist that perverts both what we should mean by moral philosophy and what she hoped to show us about the world we now inhabit.
Starting in the mid-nineties and then accelerating in mid-2000s, the publishing house Schocken Books has been publishing impressive thematic collections of mostly unpublished or inaccessible papers by Hannah Arendt. Edited by Jerome Kohn, the collections take up themes like Arendt’s approach to her Jewish identity, or the themes of understanding, politics, or judgment. The first “Essays in Understanding” collection was originally published in 1994, but seemed not to find an audience, and so was not completed: after the successful publication of a new version of Origins of Totalitarianism in 2004, the series was rekindled in 2005 by the publication of The Promise of Politics. Promise was a hit, as were the followups, and a new volume of essays on understanding is due at the beginning of next year.
This has been a great service to Arendt scholars, but it has also had a peculiar impact on the uptake of Arendt in the contemporary era. As I will argue here, these four volumes have completely transformed the disciplinary identification of her work and, perhaps, undermined her own account of how she ought to be read and understood.
Some background: I wrote my dissertation on Arendt. Though I attended Bard College where Hannah Arendt is buried, I first encountered her work in graduate school under the tutelage of Holloway Sparks, a political theorist, when I took a seminar on her work. We read Arendt–as I think was then the fashion–in chronological order, after a brief introduction by way of this interview (transcribed in the Penguin Portable Arendt as this was pre-Youtube):
At the very beginning of the interview, Arendt claims that, “I neither feel like a philosopher nor do I believe I’ve been accepted by the circle of philosophers as you so kindly suppose.”
The interviewer, Günter Gaus, protests: “I consider you to be a philosopher.”
Arendt responds: “I can’t help that, but in my opinion, I am not a philosopher. I’ve said good-bye to philosophy once and for all.”
Later, she explains: “I want to look at politics with an eye unclouded by philosophy.”
That was enough to situate Arendt as, in some sense, anti-philosophical, and to highlight the important distinction that motivated much of her work: an antagonism between politics and philosophy. Philosophers, Arendt argued, were too obsessed with objectivity in their assessment of nature and metaphysics to be able to take up the situated thinking of a political theory. Where political theory essays to understand what has happened, which is just what we expect from philosophy of science or metaphysics, when it tries to be political, philosophy retreats to a kind of impotent moralizing. Contrast Marx and Rawls and you’ll see the difference immediately.
It was, at the time, also quite au courant to cite Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt on the question of Arendt as an ethical thinker:
The myriad currents of political opinion represented by Arendt’s critics flowed over or around the larger issues Arendt had raised–and not answers. These issues loomed larger in American political life as the war in Vietnam escalated. Rosalie Colie, Arendt’s Wesleyan friend, ended a letter about the war with a plea: “Please write your morals. We need it, I do anyway.” For a “morals” there was–and still is–a great need, but Eichmann in Jerusalem would not satisfy it.
Thus, Young-Bruehl too assumed that Arendt had left philosophy and its effort to separate normative issues from political ones behind.
Now, of course, we have since that time received the Schocken Books collections with great pleasure. Much there is collected around themes, and perhaps because of this great interest in Arendt’s morals the papers I hear most often cited are the papers on personal and collective responsibility. In other words, the desire for Arendt’s “morals” is so great, produced so much secondary scholarship and archival research, that Jerome Kohn decided to publish the primary source material that might best represent this theme.
The impact of this decision has been, I think, far ranging. I wrote my dissertation just as these collections were being published, so I feel that my own experience of Arendt bridges the pre- and post-Schocken worlds. An ethical reading of Arendt that at the time felt fresh and only available to those who had spent time in the archives at the Library of Congress has begun to feel fairly well accepted. Yet I sometimes wonder whether we have lost the political theoretical version of Arendt in the shuffle.
Consider five ways to read Arendt for the first time: (1) the exhaustive chronological reading of a graduate seminar, (2) in order of impact and importance, (3) a thematic tour through works relevant to your interests, (4) an exhaustive reading focusing on lines of argument and thematic connections, and (5) brief dips into relevant essays, ignoring the larger project.
While I still think (1) is the proper way for upper-level students to imbibe Arendt’s oeuvre, I can acknowledge that completeness is not always a friendly initial goal. Most of my colleagues and readers are pursuing some version of (3) or (5), although a few may get seduced by the exhaustive thematic approach. When my friends James Stanescu and Joseph Trullinger asked me to rank Arendt’s works by importance, I discovered that as much as I hate to admit that some of her books and essays are more important than others, I do have strong feelings about how they ought to be read if (2) is at stake. The ideal read order by impact and quality would be:
- The Human Condition
- Between Past and Future
- On Revolution
- Origins of Totalitarianism
- Eichmann in Jerusalem
- Life of the Mind
- Love and Saint Augustine
- Crises of the Republic
- Men in Dark Times
This is in many ways a conventional order: though many students will start with Eichmann, I believe one can’t appreciate it as an Arendtian text without having a grounding in her other work, both on politics in general and on totalitarianism in specific. I also happen to think that two works which are not as often read today deserve to be more carefully studied: her work On Revolution comparing the French revolution to the American one, and her collection of linked essays, Between Past and Future, which is both deeply philosophical and shows–as she protested in the interview–how political theory is truly a different method than political philosophy.
The publication of the four Schocken volumes (with a fifth coming in January) have radically changed this ordering, however. First, it made available her unpublished piece, “Introduction into Politics” which she intended as a followup to Between Past and Future. (Recall my lengthy treatment of one of its themes here.) Second, it made easily available a triptych of pieces: “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” and “Thinking and Moral Considerations” which together are often read as supplying the necessary “morals” from Arendt.
Let me say a few things about this triptych: written as lectures and addresses, they are clear and easy to read and teach. They also address some of the questions that most bedeviled critics of her account of Jewish leaders’ collaboration with Nazi authorities, and her strange half-indictment of Adolf Eichmann less for what he did out of hate than for what he did out of stupidity. These essays are certainly in conversation with the startling results coming out of social psychology (Asch, Milgram, Zimbardo) regarding the terrible things people will do out of compliant respect for authority or subsumption into a role or job. How can seemingly ordinary men and women–who love their families, attend church regularly, and might never scruple to steal or cheat–engage in horribly violent acts?
Yet is this, this moral psychology, really all we want from moral philosophy? In some sense, the horrors of the Shoah are plain to all who care to look, and “speechless horror” is a perfectly adequate response. After that, Arendt’s moral philosophy constantly returns to a conception of self-consistency, regular reflection, and seems to conclude that most evil-doing is a kind of superficial self-deception. The totality of her moral philosophy might be boiled down to: a) “No one has the right to obey,” and b) “Morality is being able to live with yourself and what you’ve done.”
Arendt says as much in “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” which largely summarizes the argument of Between Past and Future and is primarily about confronting the collapse of morality into manners, the loss of abstract principles or autonomy in the pursuit of social conformity, and the ease with which mores and customs can be turned towards wickedness.
As such, I’ve begun to worry that these new collections may cause us to ignore Arendt’s political theory. It’s as if a new edition of Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer became all the rage and we began to ignore the Critiques. Reading Arendt through the lens of her disgust with moral philosophy–which, like religion and theology was utterly unable to prevent or even explain the Nazis–means that we ignore what, to my mind, she was able to help us see about the world. It also means that we too readily accept that moral philosophy can never be anything other than a kind of degraded political theory. I think there are many more interesting lines of inquiry to be had from moral philosophers than how to avoid committing genocide!
But I won’t defend moral philosophy from Arendt here. Too many of her critics read her looking for flaws or weaknesses to attack. Instead, here’s an act of appreciative theory:
Joshua Miller’s Top Ten Things that Arendt Got Right About Political Theory
- Race-thinking precedes racism. Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarianism is a mammoth book, but the basic argument is simple: you can’t hate Jews for their race until you think of the fundamental flaw with Judaism in racial terms. Thus, race-thinking comes before racism. Before race-thinking, Europeans hated Jews for completely different reasons: religion! You don’t exterminate other religions, you convert them. But once you have race-thinking, you can create justifications not just for anti-Semitism but for colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery of Africans.
- The Holocaust happened because Europeans started treating each other the way they treated indigenous peoples in the rest of the world. Europeans learned to think racially in the colonization of Africa, and the European model for dealing with resistance involved murderous concentration camps. Thus, when race-thinking eventually returned as a form of governance in the European continent, so too did the concentration camps.
- Totalitarianism is largely caused by the growth of a class of “superfluous” people who no longer have a role in their economy. In an industrializing society, much traditional work can now be done with fewer workers. One possible solution to this oversupply of workers is to put some of that surplus labor force to work monitoring, policing, and murdering the rest.
- Ideologues ignore counter-evidence. A very good way to understand ideology is as a logical system for avoiding falsification. There are alternatives theories of ideology that aren’t immune to counter-evidence but instead merely exert constant pressure: for instance, there’s a difference between what Fox News does and what Vox does, and Arendt’s account is more useful for criticizing Fox’s constant spinning than Vox’s technocratic neoliberalism. But Arendt supplied us a useful account of ideology that is closest to our standard use and our current need.
- The language of human rights is noble and aspirationally powerful. However, statelessness renders most rights claims worthless in practical terms and in most judicial institutions. Someone who must depend on her rights as a “man” or a human is usually worse off in legal terms than an ordinary criminal.
- You don’t discover yourself through introspection. You discover yourself through action. The main set of claims she made in The Human Condition about the role of public and political life strikes me as pretty important, especially insofar as it denigrates economic and racial identity politics. Think of the cocktail party version of this: on meeting a new person, some people will ask, “Where do you work?” in order to get to know them, identifying them through their profession, their economic role. Others will ask: “What are you into?” as if to say that our recreation and consumption is what defines us. But for Arendt, the appropriate question is: “What have you done? What do you stand for?”
- If you take that seriously, “identity” politics is frustratingly restrictive. A person is not defined merely by the class or race they come from: they are defined by the principles upon which they act. While it is often necessary to step into the political sphere as a representative of Jews or women–and Arendt acknowledged that this becomes unavoidable when one is attacked as a woman or a Jew–the best kind of politics allows us to enter the political sphere as ourselves, not knowing what we will discover about those selves until we have acted. So the need for identity politics is an indication of larger injustices: we respond as members of our groups when systematic and institutional forces oppress us as members of these groups.
- Revolutions that aim for political goals are more likely to succeed than revolutions that aim for economic goals. Misery is infinite and thus insatiable; political equality is comparatively easy to achieve. Thus it’s important to connect economic complaints to a deprivation of political equality: the important problem with white supremacy, for instance, is not that whites “have” more than Blacks, but that we count for more, that it is uncontroversial that “White Lives Matter.” (Though an important indication of that “counting for more” is that white people have more than Blacks because we continually plunder Black people and are able to get away with it systematically.)
- Philosophy as a discipline is fundamentally at odds with politics. This is a problem for political philosophy, and it helps to explain why so much of political philosophy is hostile to politics and tries to subsume the agonistic nitty-gritty of the public sphere under rules of coherence and expert knowledge. This is because thinking as an activity is a withdrawal from active life, and especially politics: the fundamental conflict between the eternal and the ephemeral is not one that can be usefully bridged, and most often those encounters are pernicious for both thinkers and doers.
- Work and labor are different. Some activities are repetitive and exhausting, and only biological necessity forces us to continue them. Some activities make the world and our lives within it meaningful and fruitful. Many people have economic roles that mix the two activities, but still and all they are distinct. What’s more, there’s not shame in wishing and working for a world without labor, perhaps a world of automation. But a world without work would be fundamentally meaningless.
- Evil is not complicated, so don’t overthink it.
One last thing: the Schocken collections are admirable and beautiful texts, but Jerome Kohn sometimes turns to salesmanship in his introductions. Perhaps one reason they play such an outsized role in recent readings of Arendt is that he argues in the introduction (and many readers seem to accept) that “her unwritten volume on Judging… may have crossed some of the t’s and dotted some of the i’s of ‘Some Questions of Moral Philosophy.’” In short, Kohn bills these lectures as filling in the unwritten volume. (While he disavows this interpretation in the next line, he also writes assertively if schematically about what Judging must be given these essays.)
Lectures given in 1965 and 1966–which only set up questions and ostentatiously end in uncertainty rather than answer them!–are supposed prefigural accounts of Arendt’s thoughts a decade later. It’s really a shame: a Heideggerian anxiety over mortality and the unfinished projects it portends that is deeply un-Arendtian. As with Beiner’s transcription and interpolation of the Kant lectures and indeed as with my own dissertation on her work, we are so focused on what we lost with her death that we ignore what she gave us.