Charity as a Flight from Politics

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Auden’s criticisms of Arendt explicily call for a flight into the invisible and eternal world, which comes at the cost of politics and especially political judgment. In The Human Condition, Arendt described this flight from the world as a response to the destruction of the world itself. Early Christians sought “to find a bond between people strong enough to replace the world” because the Roman Empire had violently undermined their pre-existing basis of public appearance and collective action. Arendt ascribes responsibility for the politicization of the “consciously and radically antipolitical character of Christianity” to Augustine, “precisely because an extraordinary tradition of Roman thought still lived on in him.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 138) It was Augustine who helped the Church to “secularize the Christian flight into seclusion,” rendering the private religious lives of the community once again public and ecclesiastical. In so doing, he helped the faithful to “constitute within the world a totally new, religiously defined public space, which, although public, was not political.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 139) In short, it is Augustine who invents the publicity without politics that had remained the ideal for a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual life.

In choosing charity to cement their relations, Christians rendered all men brothers and the church a family, substituting an expanded conception of the household for politics. However, where the Greek household was dominated by a patriarch who secured his freedom from necessity through violence (the enslavement of laborers), and who cemented the family’s subordination to his needs through affective connection (love, loyalty, and familial duty), the Church placed God the Father in the patriarch’s place and cemented its members connections by cultivating the affects of care and fidelity. Unlike the Roman patrician or the Greek citizen, the family of the Church is headed by a patron who does not enslave us in order to achieve his freedom. Instead, Christianity demands that we free ourselves from our own dependence on the things of the flesh and from the world that grants meaning to otherwise merely material subsistence: “the bond of charity between people… is quite adequate to the main Christian principle of worldlessness and is admirably fit to carry a group of essentially worldless people through the world….”(Arendt The Human Condition, 53) By suggesting that the Church produces connections without worldliness, Arendt is both playing on the ‘otherwordly’ nature of the bonds of faith and identifying a temptation towards quietism that Christian doctrine originally encourages, in which Christians are cast adrift in the desert of mundane existence and await salvation in death.

Arendt’s fundamental concern is that all attempts to found a space of freedom in retreat from politics are doomed to failure when they run afoul of the conditions of human existence. In this case, the relevant conditions are plurality and natality. Thus, while the familiarity and friendship within the Church attempts to bind a plurality on the basis of their shared rejection of the world and retreat from the unpredictability of a violent world, instead it only succeeds in relocating politics in this newly formed and theologically-oriented space. The bond of faith is highly provisional and predicated on the immanence of death and annihilation, and does not produce a set of institutions to organize labor or create meaning in response to novelty that will save us from the cycles of necessity or render the span between birth and death meaningful. Instead, the very bonds of charity require a constant affirmation that “the world itself is doomed and that every activity is undertaken with the proviso quamdiu mundus durat (‘as long as the world lasts.’)” (Arendt The Human Condition, 53) On this model, which Augustine himself famously denounced in The City of God’s response to Christian millennialism, Christian charity can only persist under the constant double threat of personal mortality and cosmic apocalypse.

Yet counter to the theological quietism this millennialism demands, the longer this anticipation of world-destruction goes unsated, the greater will be the temptation to concern ourselves with making a world and populating it with meaningful acts rather than subsisting in contemplation and prayer.  When early Christians surrender to the temptations of secular affairs, their fall from Neo-Platonic contemplation of the divine follows the newly privatized trajectory of charitable seclusion. In this newly created space of theological appearance, Christians demanded that goodness and wisdom, the tyrannical products of thinking, should rule. Where Arendt’s standard reply to all attempts to rule by goodness and holiness is that they are transformed into mere opinion or worse, exposed as hypocrisy, the moment they appear publicly, the early Christians embraced this tension, seeking the shelter of a private world while attempting at the same time to practice justice in public. According to this newly discovered theory of justice, even acts of charity “must not appear before the eyes of men… indeed must remain so hidden that the left hand does not know what the right hand its doing—that is, the actor barred from beholding his own deed.”(Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 138) Arendt held that these warring impulses are unsustainable so long as public matters must be controlled in secret, and the competing publics of church and state were destined to coalesce.

The Christian antipolitician sought to maintain influence on secular politics while remaining “secure from outside influence.” (Arendt and Kohn 2005, 140) To influence without being influenced, the Church had to find the Archimedean point, not just worshiping the unmoved mover but becoming one. Arendt claims that its failure was inevitable, but at the same time she admits that the Catholic capacity to supply a substitute for citizenship allowed it to preserve a public realm (though not a political realm) long after the Roman Empire’s fall.

Arendt’s ultimate dissatisfaction with Christian antipolitics is that it is motivated not by freedom and participation, but by the ideal of limitation. Politics becomes a means to an end, but that end, freedom to worship, lies outside of political life. “The idea is to limit the sphere of government as far as is possible and necessary in order to realize freedom beyond the reach of government.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 143) In their efforts to carve out a space for religious freedom, the early Christians had wrought a radical and unsustainable shift in priorities in the Romans’ life-world: from the freedom-to act towards the freedom-from the demands of the active life.





2 responses to “Charity as a Flight from Politics”

  1. […] There’s something poetically seductive about his call to “confront evil together and in solidarity,” to be bound only by “Truth and certain elementary values.” Yet I’ve always thought that his promise that the dissidents would overcome ideological and technological politics was an empty one.  I think that Havel’s life gives us some insight into why this promise remained unfulfilled and unfulfillable, “easy to say but difficult to do.” In short: his politics was rooted in the sense that the spiritual dimension that “transcends“ politics, but this really means it runs away from politics. […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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