Following Nietzsche, Arendt speaks of the Christian publicity without politics as world-destruction and ultimately as ‘desertification’: “the withering away of everything between us, can also be described as the spread of the desert.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 201) As with the growing belief that the purpose of political action is the preservation of life rather than the practice of freedom, this limited government renders the public realm a veritable desert. On the one hand, the totalitarian temptation to marry matters of life and labor with the political subordinates freedom forever to the necessities of survival. On the other hand, the dangerous forces unleashed by warfare render political instability potentially cataclysmic for publicity as the risk of action become unpalatable. These twin attacks on the preconditions of politics threaten to destroy the world we share, about which we deliberate and for which we act.
According to Arendt, the most common response to the pervasive withering of the loose-knit, horizontal political affiliations within a public world is a kind of escapism akin to the early Christian flight into seclusion: “to escape from the world of the desert, from politics, into… whatever it may be.” Yet if we treat our spiritual or contemplative lives not as brief respites but fully functioning alternative publics, we “carry the sand of the desert into the oases,” just as the Catholic Church introduced secular plurality and publicity into their communal seclusions. “[T]he failure to recognize and endure doubt as one of the fundamental conditions of modern life, introduces doubt into the only realm where it should never enter: the religious, strictly speaking, the realm of faith.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 205) Arendt suggests that failure to preserve the barriers between faith and politics will inevitably destroy faith, leaving us no solace from the intrusions of politics. This destruction may look more like private religious experience overpowering the public sphere, as it did in the original Christian Romanization. However, the alienation and doubt of modern life renders the flight into seclusion into a headlong retreat through the wasteland, to an oasis already reclaimed by the desert.
Another response is psychology, which responds to the desertification of modern life by making us comfortable there in the wasteland. However, this threatens to render us so comfortable in our natural setting that we will never try to humanize it. We normally discuss Arendt’s skepticism about psychology because it is rooted in a tendency to focus too much on the actor and not the act, and to that which is hidden rather than that which appears. But here she shows that her primary concern is with the naturalistic turn in psychology, which develops a pernicious conception of mental health and then normalizes it. Here, she sounds rather like Deleuze and Guattari:
“When we lose the faculty to judge—to suffer and condemn—we begin to think that there is something wrong with us if we cannot live under the conditions of desert life. Insofar as psychology tries to ‘help’ us, it helps us ‘adjust’ to those conditions, taking away our only hope, namely that we, who are not of the desert though we live in it, are able to transform it into a human world.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 201)
Psychology is a response to the radical doubt that is attendant with modern life that threatens to leave us without bearings or standards, but she suggests that the adjustments it enables us to make to modern life may only exacerbate the trouble. Enduring and suffering, hoping and condemning, we stand a better chance of re-humanizing the desert if we do not simply acclimate ourselves to its conditions.
Arendt mentions that the foreclosure of the space of action also destroys the faculty of judging, which she here associates not with the power to punish but the power “to suffer and condemn.” This launches a new way of speaking about judging for Arendt: we must endure the desert’s harsh conditions, the doubt, alienation, and desperation of modern life, suffering those conditions openly rather than seeking shelter from or habituation to them. This suffering is judging. We must do this to preserve the two faculties she here says are essential for salvaging the desert landscape for human habitation: passion and action. “Only those who can endure the passion of living under desert conditions can be trusted to summon up in themselves the courage that lies at the root of action, of becoming an active being.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 202) Trapped in the desert, unable to suffer or to condemn, we embrace the modern life like Nietzsche did, as if it were a reflection of our soul’s wasteland. If judging combines the capacity to suffer, undergo, and endure an experience with the power to condemn or praise it, then it is fundamentally different from the act of thinking which merely withdraws from the experience to consider its invisible underside.
Though prejudices do increasingly infect our political lives, Arendt was concerned especially with the prejudicial condemnation of politics itself rooted in the philosopher’s and the Christian’s persecution. The prejudices “are a reflection of those things we all automatically share with one another but no longer make judgments about because we no longer have any real opportunity to experience them directly.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 151) We condemn politics for its refusal to leave us a private space for faith and philosophy, despite the fact that we are the ones who import the sand of the desert from the public world.