How the Schocken Books collections changed Arendt scholarship

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 It is not hidden away in the archives or any of the recent collections of her work, nor in her unpublished lectures, letters, or journals.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in mid-2000s, the publishing house Schocken Books has been publishing impressive thematic collections of mostly unpublished or inaccessible papers by Hannah Arendt.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:

  1. The Human Condition
  2. Between Past and Future
  3. On Revolution
  4. Origins of Totalitarianism
  5. Eichmann in Jerusalem
  6. Life of the Mind
  7. Love and Saint Augustine
  8. Crises of the Republic
  9. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Hannah Arendt on Academic Freedom

We often say that colleges and universities deserve some sort of freedom from political interference. But for Arendt, freedom just is politics. The idea of freedom from politics is largely oxymoronic for her, and involves fundamental misunderstandings of the component terms “freedom” and “politics.” But of course, we seem to know what we mean when we use “freedom from politics” so these misunderstandings are obviously institutionalized in ways that are at odds with Arendt, such that it takes some excavation to determine how this divergence is possible, and whether we can adjudicate the disagreement:

“As long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community so that they then can be granted, either as individuals or social groups, a freedom that lies beyond both politics and life’s necessities, we are indeed justified in measuring the degree of freedom within any political body by the religious and academic freedom that it tolerates, which is to say, by the size of the nonpolitical space of freedom that it contains and maintains.” Hannah Arendt, Introduction into Politics.” The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken Books, 2005), pg. 136.

The disdain with which Arendt articulates the justifications for religious and academic freedom in this passage is remarkable.  What seems obvious to us seems equally absurd to Arendt, such that she has to spell out our mistake: “as long as one understands politics to be solely concerned with what is absolutely necessary for men to live in a community….”

(She might as well write, “if you insist on starting from absurd premises, then yes, it’s true, absurd conclusions will follow….”)

She is not just exasperated that we are so devoted to universities and churches that we’ve set them outside of and above politics, but seems to believe that when we see the assumptions required we will reject them. (Loyal readers will recall this post on Christianity and the flight from politics.) For Arendt, politics is not merely about providing the bare necessities of communal life: if anything, communal life serves to provide the conditions of possibility for politics. But our communities are decidedly non-Arendtian: why should we accept that reversal?

Here, a brief Arendtian recap may be in order: she argues that the Platonic (née Parmenidean) ideal of freedom from politics is predicated on the belief that speech carried out before the many becomes corrupted or deceptive, while speech among the few can achieve truths “higher” than political freedom. We now regularly encounter these “higher” or “realer” truths: science, religion, justice, beauty, family, wealth, health, culture, morality, and happiness are all often celebrated as the true purpose of politics, those ends that politics must achieve but for which politics should be forsaken. So obviously Arendt is on to something in her diagnosis. But it’s thus striking that Arendt is nearly alone among political theorists and philosophers in claiming that the true purpose of politics is politics–the coordination of collective action–itself!

For this she is often accused of romanticizing the Greek polis. She goes so far as to say that many people and places have taken the “higher” purposes of politics so seriously that they’ve lost track of politics in the first place:

“Politics as such has existed so rarely and in so few places that, historically speaking, only a few great epochs have known it and turned it into a reality.” (Arendt, Promise of Politics, 119)

But I don’t think this is properly-speaking a romantic view of the Greeks, since the Greeks are to blame for losing track of the meaning and significance of politics (for themselves and for Europe too) when they built the Academy:

“In order for their institution to succeed, the few had to demand that their activity, their speech with one another, be relieved of the activities of the polis in the same way the citizens of Athens were relieved of all the activities that dealt with earning their daily bread.” (Arendt, Promise, 131)

Arendt has often received criticism for her view that politics is only possible for those who are free from necessity because others (slaves, peasants, capitalist workers) labor. She always acknowledge the horror of this dependency and exploitation, but it’s hard to ignore how elitist she sounds in those moments. Here she accuses those seeking academic and religious freedom of a similar kind of elitism: to turn politics into a means-to-an-end of something that cannot equal it.1

Universities are not, then, havens from politics, but in their purest forms they become hierarchical substitutes for politics. This helps to explain the kinds of inconsequential wrangling that often trouble departmental life: having determined that only academic merit can satisfy our fundamental political needs, we then get lost in minutiae in a fight for recognition.

And then there is the not-so-pure form: acknowledging that the university is partially shielded from politics, we retreat to it with a fantasy that Arendt diagnosed as an Archimedean (“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth”) whereby we desire to engage in politics without being engaged by it, to act on the world without being acted upon. The university becomes a place to engage in politics, to affect policy and act as a political agent, but one that is sheltered from the consequences of ordinary political spaces. It becomes a microphone or a platform with which to shout one’s projects without having to listen.

It’s this conception of academic freedom that both inspires and worries me. It inspires me because I’d like to think we can find some shelter from the political currents of the day to think through the problems that confront us and investigate matters that require it, and that when that thinking and investigation is done our fellow citizens should listen to what we’ve figured out. It also inspires me because the company of disagreeing friends is one of the major sources of joy in my professional life. (Recall: 1, 2, 3)

But it worries me, too, because governments fund these havens, and they are growing increasingly disenchanted with our work. And it’s only natural that when political actors recognize a source of influence in their communities–an unmoved mover that is both powerful and claiming shelter from power–they will move to capture the “commanding heights” of that influential position. An Iowa state legislator even proposed partisan balancing tests for new faculty. (And the backlash surrounding his Sizzler certification is ample evidence of the exclusivity and signaling role of college education.)

Now, a standard reply is that the university has earned its role as a place outside of normal politics by welcoming a diversity of viewpoints. We inoculate ourselves from the claims of partisanship by encouraging educated disagreement, and take a voluntary vow of nonpartisanship in exchange for that freedom. But this is no longer sustainable. It’s both at odds with the evidence of partisan affiliations, and at odds with the consensus-building towards expertise we expect from the sciences.

We really don’t and shouldn’t welcome a diversity of viewpoints on race and IQ, for instance, which is both reasonable (internal to the disciplines involved) given the methodological shenanigans required to justify white superiority stories, and reasonable (writ large) given the fact that pseudoscientific racism actively hurts our students and our society.

I am tempted to end on the idea that academic freedom debates are a part of local, nested norms of safety and collegiality and freedom-from-interference, such that there is no generic answer about academic freedom, but rather a set of internal institutional norms that get articulated and adjudicated in practice. But sometimes in all that sophisticated distinction-making and precise line-drawing, I think we miss the fact that universities are parts of society as a whole, inhabited by faculty and staff with multiple conflicting allegiances and communities of interest. We don’t need principles of academic freedom because we are discovering the eternal and unchanging truths of these systems, but rather we need these principles as simple coordination mechanisms. Sometimes we need to be able to say: “This is not what we do, this is not who we are.”

1. It’s worth noting here that most legal defenses of academic freedom either make a professor’s rights subordinate to the public welfare via the claim that unimpaired investigations into the natural sciences produce public goods (i.e. Sweezy v. New Hampshire) or treat academic freedom as a tacit custom that governs university contracts with faculty. (i.e. Greene v. Howard University)

Touchstone Terms: Arendt’s Metaphysical Deflation

This post is a part of a series on some ideas that I find particularly useful or interesting. It also extends the post from last week of metaphysical deflation in Nietzsche. Here, I begin an account of Arendt’s metaphysical deflation, and its intimate connection to a kind of skepticism about personal identity.

Though Hannah Arendt began her intellectual career as an existential phenomenologist, she declined to elaborate her own theory of perception. Implicitly, she takes our encounter with the world to begin with the world, and not a particular object in that world. As she writes in her first attempt to describe the vita contemplativa: “[Facts] must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence.” (Arendt 1968, 238) The disorder of phenomena must be ordered even before we can encounter them, and Arendt was content to begin where she found herself, in an ordered world where experience was already endowed with sense.

Withdrawal from the Sensible

For Arendt, the phenomenological basis of thinking lies in the withdrawal from experience into what she calls “invisibility.” The world gives us phenomena, both visual and otherwise; it presses us with its sensational gifts until this generosity threatens to overwhelm us. In its withdrawal, thinking encounters invisible aspects of its now-absent experiences.

When we think, Arendt suggested, we focus on re-imagined appearances preserved by our memory. These ‘invisibles’ strike the thinker as further appearances, beyond or on the far side of appearance. Reflection on this process reveals a double movement: from sensation to image, and from image to thought. “[T]he thought-object is different from the image, as the image is different from the visible sense-object whose mere representation it is.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Arendt borrows her account of this process from Augustine: first, “sense-perception” gives way before an “image that re-presents it.” (Arendt 1978, I, 77) Memory holds this image in abeyance until thought calls upon it to provide this image, and here “the mere image of what was once real” is separated from “the deliberately remembered object.” In this bifurcated form, memories come to us either as abstractions and impressions of the experience, or as stored presentations of a past moment.

Arendt here splits sensory data from the imago, and asserts that we develop concepts or ideas of the appearance from the imago. She gives a similar account in her reading of Kant’s “Schematism,” where she argues that intuitions and concepts are naturally combined in any particular encounter with an object through the faculty of imagination. The schema “table” is available to anyone who has encountered at least one table, and can even be relayed verbally or abstractly, through description or a quick sketch. (Arendt 1992, 82-3)

The thinker encounters past appearances anew, re-presented through memory, altered, manipulated, combined, and dismantled until they offer insights that the thinker calls by many names: category, cause, or concept. Some of these names actually obscure the phenomena they describe. The thinker may develop the distinction between appearances and invisibles into metaphysical systems. She may encounter her own activity and posit a subject or a soul. Many of these efforts to cement the movement of thought into certainty are more or less obviously flawed. “[O]ur tradition of philosophy has transformed the base from which something rises into the cause that produces it and has then assigned to this producing agent a higher rank of reality than is given to what merely meets the eye.” (Arendt 1978, I, 25) According to Arendt, the long history of ontological mistakes is itself reducible to this confusion of cause and ground, and the normative dimension that it takes on.

The ‘Two-World’ Theory and the ‘Two-in-One’

Arendt refuses to grant professional philosophers a privileged capacity or relationship to thought, and she stakes few claims about the relative superiority of various metaphysical schemes. The frequent exception to this rule is her rejection of idealism: she constantly points out the errors of speculation that posit the invisibles as a ‘truer’ world than the appearances, since these tempt the thinker to attempt to dwell in the withdrawn world of invisibles. She calls this the ‘two-world theory,’ in which the thinker privileges the world of his withdrawal over the appearances from which they are derived. In those cases, Arendt applauds the derisive laughter that brings the philosopher back to the present and obvious, confronting him with the appearances he has ignored. Yet she emphasizes that the potential errors available to metaphysical thinking are not an indictment of the project of thinking altogether.

The speculative play of these invisibles is entertaining, even engrossing. It leads its practioners astray as often as it corrects them. Arendt’s account of the role of thought in avoiding evil focuses on two lines from the Platonic dialogues, developing a version of thinking as ‘account-giving’ or a narrative self, through reference to Socrates’ self-relational ethics. She claims these are the only non-aporetic assertions in the Platonic version of Socrates: that “it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one,” and that “it would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me, than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me.” (Arendt 1978, I, 181) The Gorgias’s account of wrongdoing, Arendt argues, depends not upon a given self-identity established through logical assumption, but rather on the reflective work of producing this self-identity.

Thinking brings the many propositions about intentions, desires, beliefs, and experiences that must share the intimate space of the psyche into harmony. This is why Arendt emphasizes the Socratic parenthetical, “…I, being one, should….” The force of this imperative to maintain consistency and avoid wrongdoing lies in the success of the work of unification of the self; so long as the self does not, or cannot, achieve unity, the force of the imperative is lacking. Thus, she cites the Hippias Major, where Socrates ends with a playful account of his jealousy of Hippias, who is not discomfited by self-contradiction, while Socrates must return home to cohabitate with “a very obnoxious fellow who always cross-examines him,” that is, himself. (Arendt 1978, I, 188)

Hippias does not feel the sting of the imperative to avoid wrongdoing. His ‘blissful ignorance’ secures him against the self-injury that contradiction entails. Hippias contains many men, just as Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Hippias is not one, cannot be one, but is many: the man who claims that beauty is a woman or that it is gold, a man who maintains that it is a thing or object and then also that it is a life lived so as to bury one’s parents and be buried in turn, and yet another man who is unconcerned with the contradiction because opinions are just bits of speeches to be collected and wielded as needed.

Of course, Hippias is not Adolf Eichmann. But like Eichmann, there is a lingering threat that he will act without knowing, behaving in such a way as to take a bold stand unconsciously, ungrounded in conviction or courage. Because he simply cannot become one with himself, the plurality within him threatens to engage the plurality without in a manner that destroys the common world.

Like Eichmann, Hippias fails to supply a consistent account of himself to himself. Unlike Eichmann, however, Hippias’s self-contradiction will not result in genocide. Thoughtlessness becomes evil only in those circumstances when the deed and the account of the deed we give ourselves diverge. In that divergence, we approve an act that we would never forgive. In those situations, we say we ‘ought to have known better.’ Yet Arendt argues that the Socratic conflation of knowledge and virtue is flawed, because action does not always depend on forethought, and the quest for certainty actually threatens to overwhelm the capacity to act with an impossible demand: to know the results.

The Unfinishable Work of Self-Unification

Thought is a process of self-reflection aimed at bringing oneself into agreement with oneself. Thus the ‘I’ who thinks in the Cartesian formulation is not a metaphysical given, but a product, a work of fabrication. (Arendt 1978, I, 187-9) For Arendt, internal consistency is an achievement garnered through the work of thinking, not an assumption to be granted. Once achieved, even the metaphor of unity or consistency will have to be jettisoned.

How do we make ourselves whole? How do we weld our psyche into a persona? How do we channel the diverse currents and movements of mind into a single intention or position upon which we can act? For Arendt, this is the wrong question: though thoughtlessness threatens evil, thoughtfulness does not promise goodness. (Arendt 1978, I, 191) In fact, thoughtful action appears to be a contradiction in terms for Arendt, as does thoughtful politics: the capacity for action is the will, and the same impulse that wrongly seeks certainty of results will also fail when it seeks to contain the human capacity for novelty within the bounds of some internal narrative or personal ethic.

Arendt writes of thought that, “the guiding experience in these matters is, of course, friendship and not selfhood; I first talk with others before I talk with myself.” (Arendt 1978, I, 189) My relations with others give me a model for my self-relation, and the two continue to inform each other so long as I am afforded both interlocutors and opportunities for solitude. Thinking, then, is not an encounter between desires and intentions, but rather between perceptions, concepts, and most of all, propositions. It takes on the tone and rhythm of my conversations with others, and finds there the language to explain my experience.

Arendt modeled this self-reflection on an ideal of self-friendship in the midst of a divided, democratic polity. Aristotle argues, that we do not govern our desires and intentions, but master them. If he is right, then the moment we attempt to apply these same techniques publicly, the republic becomes a tyranny. One cannot dwell in self-dissensus: we must struggle to achieve consensus between these intentions. As such, it seems that a citizen-thinker must enslave herself in order to act as an equal with others. How else can we acquire the agreement of rage and lust with the conclusions of reason or duty? Arendt draws on Aristotle, then, when she rejects the image of a body-politic, to be ruled by the soul as the city is ruled, where diverse interests and intentions struggle for recognition just as vigorously as they do in the world we share with other citizens.

There cannot be a polity-within, because the psyche is too intimate for politics. Thinking cannot be reduced to an act of the will, whereby we force ourselves to believe something, overcoming the resistance of counter-arguments through the threat of intellectual violence. It remains a question whether thinking enforces some kind of logical syntax, or is enforced by it, just as it remains a question how friends can remain friends in the face of disagreement.


Arendt, Hannah. “Truth and Politics.” In Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
———. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1978.

Nietzsche and the Parable of the Talents

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth And Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.)

I think most philosophers will be familiar with this famous essay by Nietzsche deflating our conception of truth into a kind stripped metaphor. This idea that words are like coins who have gotten so old and rubbed clean that they count only as weights of metal and not as coins captures the ways in which the etymologies of words can surprise and delight us, and give us an understanding of our history–and ultimately of human meanings–that we have not previously explored.

Yet it has always seemed to me that there was a direct reference hidden in these lines–almost certainly a well-known one that Nietzsche the philologist would have been expecting us to catch. The coins that become mere metal complete a transformation that began in the Gospel of Matthew, in the “parable of the talents.” The word “talent” in modern English means a natural skill or aptitude. It’s a term for innate competence or mastery. Yet for the Greeks it was a unit of measure, and for the Romans it was a unit specifically used for the measure of currency. How did this odd “worn out metaphor” come about?

In the parable, Jesus depicts a master leaving on a long trip: he leaves different sums of money to three different servants. When he returns, those with the most money had invested it. The servant with the least money had merely preserved the original loan. So the richer servants hand over increased wealth, while the poorest merely returns the principle. The master punishes the servant for not investing as the richer servants had done.

It gets worse:

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

On their own, these lines from Matthew seem to be advocating for a kind of “success theology,” by which God demands that we grow rich or suffer punishment. If nothing else, it supports usury and interest-bearing loans, which the Church forbade.

But this passage is followed by a list of commandments that seem utterly at odds with the claim that “Them that’s got shall have/Them that’s not shall lose/So the Bible says/And it still is news” as Ella Fitzgerald sang. Thus the passage–or perhaps the compositor–already begins the transition in the meaning of the word (we see the same in Luke, but the term there is “mina,” which didn’t receive the same development.) How do we save the passage from the explicit reading?

As early as Augustine, the passage has been interpreted as an allegory: since the direct meaning is offensive and at odds with what follows, the implicit meaning must be otherwise. Augustine saw it as a passage on salvation, and not wasting the opportunity it supplies. Later commentators analogized the talents to God-given abilities, and later still we find ordinary language mentions of “talents” without the connection to the Biblical text, including the success theology idea.

But back to Nietzsche: it seems to me obvious that Nietzsche is referencing this particular history in his account of the coins returned to metal once again. How odd that we would embed meanings in innocent words, and have later generations read them back out again? We’re doing that all the time, at many different levels, mobilizing that army of metaphors in a way that takes crystallized human relations as if they were merely for expressing banal observations about the color of snow.

I call it “deflationist.” Nietzsche makes an effort to reduce Christian allegories to their constituent parts, to take all meanings and make them mere patterns of behavior, all while spinning out more allegories, parables, and poetic embellishments. In particular, explorations of metaphysics become etymological explorations into the play of metaphors. In a future post, I hope to detail the ways in which Hannah Arendt picks up this metaphysical deflation in her own work, and try to specify what it means for her conception of truth.

Imperialism as a Response to Surpluses and Superfluousness

“Older than the superfluous wealth was another by-product of capitalist production: the human debris of every crisis, following invariably upon each period of industrial growth, eliminated permanently from producing society. Men who had become permanently idle were as superfluous to the community as the owners of superfluous wealth. That they were an actual menace to society had been recognized throughout the nineteenth century and their export to populate the dominions of Canada and Australia as well as the United States. The new fact in the imperialist era is that these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country together. The concept of expansion, the export of government power and annexation of every territory in which nationals had invested either their wealth or their work, seemed the only alternative to increasing losses in wealth and population. Imperialism and its idea of unlimited expansion seemed to offer a permanent remedy for a permanent evil.” (Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, pg. 150)

Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism is famous for drawing explicit comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is much celebrated (though infrequently read) because it achieved an important ideological task: previously it was tempting to treat the mass casualties on the Eastern Front as evidence that the Soviet Union had nothing in common with the Nazis they died to defeat. But if these were simply the two faces of totalitarianism, then we were obligated to oppose them both.

Yet Arendt was not a devoted anti-Communist: her actual goal was to offer a historical explanation for how the Jews came to be murdered by their neighbors. Thus she offers an explanation for the growth of the biological–rather than religious–sort of anti-Semitism that caused Jews to be seen as a race to be purged rather than a culture to be converted. To make this history work, she suggests that only an account of imperialistic racism can explain the development of ethnic concentration camps by which the tools for mass murder were developed.

Arendt rejects two possible explanations for anti-Semitism that still circulate today, that the Jews were merely randomly selected, and that the enmity against the Jews was somehow inevitable. First she rejects the “scapegoat” explanation by which the Jews were supposedly a convenient, innocent group upon which to a hang a community’s aggressions. As she puts it, “An ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily… the chief political and historical fact [is] that the [the forgery, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”] is being believed.” (Origins, 7) Something, she argues, has to explain why it was not the “Protocols of the Elders of Romani” that motivated Nazi ideology, given that Rom and homosexuals were also murdered in large numbers. Anti- Semitism, though, was the motivating ideology that made the other murders conceivable: the gas chambers for Jews could be used to murder the disabled, but they were first built for the Jews.

Arendt goes on to argue that the idea of eternal enmity is also mistaken, because it misunderstood the role that Jewish assimilation into bourgeois culture had played in stocking the fires of a hatred that was no longer about the divide within Judeo-Christianity: “The Jews mistook modern anti-Christian anti-Semitism for the old religious Jew-hatred….” (Origins, 7) While religious Jew-hatred served a unifying function within Jewish communities, modern anti-Semitism nearly destroyed them, by replaced religious fervor (which could be nullified by conversion) with racial animosity (from which no assimilated parvenu could be safe.)

One of the main components of her story is the idea of a privileged group becoming superfluous: the Jews had had a role in Europe as usurers. When Protestantism and the industrial revolution forced Europeans to recognize that banking could be compatible with Christianity, it began to seem that Jews were irrelevant. Thus the network of trade, diplomacy, and credit that a few Jews helped to facilitate began to seem replaceable, and them men and women who had created and profited from it thus became dispensable, along with the mass of much poorer Jews who had no role at all but survived on the forbearance of sovereigns alone, who were themselves increasingly checked by democratic institutions and beholden to public opinion.

I call this an entitlement crisis, following Habermas’s usage in Legitimation Crisis. Habermas’s theory of the entitlement system, and the crisis that it can generate, depends on the idea that one of the primary functions that institutions in society must satisfy is justifying inequalities in the distribution of merit and material goods. An entitlement crisis is one in which the benefits and privileges of some class no longer seem deserved: when one has power without purpose or wealth without a visible role in production. Marx’s theory of exploitation invoked one entitlement crisis: the capitalist earns advantages at the expense of others, and these advantages are undeserved.

Habermas Political System

In modern society we don’t usually experience the capitalist in this way; we mythologize Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as somehow deserving their wealth, and worry that perhaps bankers and stock brokers do not. The Jews, however, had taken on a role in European society that made them seem as if they had privileges granted by the state that they didn’t deserve, while divorcing themselves (for good reason tied to the enmity of non-Jews) from the other classes that were not governing.

Meanwhile, the industrial revolution produced surplus capital in need of investment, and Europe also had many more superfluous men, who were put out of work and off their lands by the industrial revolution and had to make their way in a culture that no longer needed them. Capitalists thus became imperialists looking to use the state–and those surplus men–to open up foreign markets to their goods.

Only conquest could render foreign markets open to both their goods and their innovations without surrendering the future profits from both. Thus in a long discussion of Cecil Rhodes, Arendt argues that “expansion for expansion sake” is not actually a political ideal but a product of “business speculation.” It is the logic of the market–of ever-more-productive industry and ever-more-efficient transactions–taken as “the permanent and supreme aim of politics.” (Origins, 125) Yet there is an inevitable mismatch between the potentially limitless expansion of economics and the very limitations of legitimate consent required for the function of a nation-state. The project of unlimited growth is doomed to fail, and to create demands for isonomy wherever it touches.  (Origins, 126-8)

Imperialism, you see, is an allocation problem: how to re-allocate the benefits of increased productivity without losing the ownership stake that the capitalists had developed in those surpluses they call profits. Perhaps this allocation failure ought to create class conflict, but instead it created an alliance between surplus men and surplus money, an alliance between the mob and capital. And the mob was “a mass of people… free of all principles and so large numerically that they… could only be used only by imperialist politicians and inspired only by racist doctrines.” (Origins, 156-7) On Arendt’s account, the mob becomes a serious force in domestic politics when it begins to form movements to demand more imperialism, more conquest, and pride of place for the domestic mob against the colonies.

The mob’s first political movements are not leftist populism, but an effort to “imperialize the whole nation… for the looting of foreign territories and the permanent degradation of alien peoples.” (Origins, 155) As if recognizing that whole groups of surplus people will eventually be exterminated, the mob clamors for others to be disposed of first. That these techniques–the concentration camp, the racist registrations, the differential legal status–eventually make their way back to Europe to contribute to the mass extermination of the Jews was already prefigured in their imperial origins.

If Arendt is right, the bourgeoisie are to blame for totalitarianism, even when it ultimately turns on them. The mob only existed because the bourgeoisie refused to countenance the obvious solution: domestic redistribution of the increased productivity of the industrial revolution. This is one of the main motivators of my scholarship, though it’s usually quite far in the background: to develop an account of entitlements and merit that can sustain domestic equality and eliminate the threat of superfluousness in the face of our burgeoning wealth. Thus I worry about the way that the current political economy fails to find roles for people unless they are disciplined enough to attend college. And I worry more about the unspoken belief I see among my peers that the uneducated and unemployed are somehow to blame for their own useless existence, for not having made anything of themselves but a racist, and thus worthy of dismissal.

As I’ll argue in a future post, this is the flipside of the abusive policing and mass incarceration of African-Americans. The mob would not be a mob if it was not organized around racial and racist ideologies. As Arendt explains, the degradation of ethnic others is implicit in the mob’s origins, and–arguably–is the only purpose to which it can be put. It’s a provocative assertion, and hopefully historically bounded, but if Arendt is right then populism is always nationalist, and nationalism is always imperialist.