Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Books about Hannah Arendt have been proliferating at a brisk pace. Now there is a new book by Arendt herself, a collection of pieces that span the tumultuous twenty-five year period from 1930 to the mid-fifties. It does boggle the mind. Nazism, fascism, Stalinism, the beginning of the Cold War, the atom bomb, crises of belief and unbelief among Christians and Communists and liberal democrats alike. Arendt had an opinion about nearly everything of political importance, and she formed a judgment-for her the most important of all political faculties is that of judging-on all the issues and figures and philosophic problems that engaged and vexed her. And her judgments were unfailingly issued in a decisive manner; indeed, for some she was altogether too Olympian. My hunch is that one reason her stock has risen in the years since her death in 1974 is precisely because she offers such a sharp contrast to the sheer mushiness that often passes for political thinking at present.

Arendt, politics is not about “feeling your pain.” It is about understanding what of the pain people feel has to do with politics and about what politics can do to resolve our common dilemmas. This means tending to the limits of what politics can do as well. “Feelings” rapidly become subjectivist and limitless. Understanding, by contrast, is concrete and limited, framed by the perils and possibilities of a specific moment in time and space. Understanding can be challenged and is compelled to respond to an alternative argument or interpretation. ”Feelings” are not open to critical challenge in the same way. To base politics on feelings or empathy is, for Arendt, a disaster, drawing politics in on projects that politics, by definition, is ill-equipped to handle. In making her judgments she sometimes bruised the feelings of others. “I am not particularly agreeable,” Arendt says of herself in an interview included in this collection, “nor am I very polite; I say what I think.”

What, then, on the basis of this collection did she think? Wide-ranging and somewhat uneven, as any decent anthology is bound to be, there is much food for thought-from appetizers to dessert-here gathered. First and foremost, of course, is Arendt’s defense of politics itself against its detractors. These detractors run the gamut from totalitarians to systematic philosophers to social science methodologists. The totalitarian must destroy politics and in its place substitute terror. Totalitarians traffic in ideology, and ideology “lends an absolute authority” to a social situation: the ideologist believes himself to be in the grip of a compulsion-an iron hand of necessity-of such force that he is himself helpless against it. He is but a tool in the hands of destiny. “It has been characteristic of our history-conscious century that its worst crimes have been committed in the name of some kind of necessity or in the name-and this amounts to the same thing-of the ‘wave of the future,’” Arendt writes. Those who give themselves over to an ideology go on automatic pilot as the corpses mount. “Tyranny,” she says, “is the hubristic attempt to be like God, invested with power individually, in complete solitude.” Others then become merely grist for one’s mill. “It is against these makers of history that a free society has to defend itself, regardless of the vision they harbor,” she insists, and this goes for idealistic Communists as well as cynical fascists.

Arendt is very clear that terror is not simply a “tool” of the totalitarian but is the very essence of his system. Thus, the ”concentration camps are the laboratories in the experiment of total domination, for human nature being what it is, this goal can be achieved only under extreme circumstances of a human-made hell.” Total domination is achieved only when that dreadful point is reached at which the human person-“who is always a specific mixture of spontaneity and being conditioned”-has been transformed into an altogether conditioned entity. What the totalitarian strives to achieve is a reduced human being, one who is a “bundle of reliable reactions.”

That, oddly enough, is what social science of a certain sort yearns for too. Arendt does not, to be sure, collapse terror and social science into one another, but surely practitioners of social science as a Wertfrei enterprise must squirm at her insistence that the drive to eliminate “every trace of spontaneity” is shared by all control freaks of the twentieth century. It is not surprising, therefore, that when American political scientists hit upon the notion that the study of politics, in order to be a science, had to predict what people would do, they called their project the “behaviorist revolution.” What they would measure, quantify, and model was human “behavior.” Human action falls outside the reach of such methodology. If one redefines what humans do as behavior , one has trimmed the human person down to the appropriate size for the “scientific” study of politics. Arendt saw this as the diminished and diminishing enterprise that it was.

What, then, of philosophy? One problem with philosophy’s relation to politics is that the philosopher is often driven to conclusions by his own internally consistent system. Here again, Arendt presses one of those analogies that distressed so many. Hitler, she claims, was a man of logic if one defines logic “as the capability to press on to conclusions with a total disregard for all reality and all experience . . . .” Philosophy is similarly suspect to the political thinker, in part because of its drive to systematize, to reach inevitable and exhaustive conclusions. This helps one to understand why Arendt avoided calling herself a political philosopher. There is, for her, “a vital tension between philosophy and politics.” In fact, most “political philosophies have their origin in the philosopher’s negative and sometimes even hostile attitude toward the polis and the whole realm of human affairs.”

When philosophers engage the political realm they tend to demand of it what it cannot offer-not, at least, without violent wrenchings-and even then the “solution” to the uncertainty and instability of politics- namely, permanence, an unflappable calm, a smoothly managed, mechanically humming affair-is bound to be short-lived. But the concept of freedom, a concept that is not for Arendt primarily an individual, but rather a political, good, “is inconceivable outside of plurality, and this plurality includes not only different ways but different principles of life and thought. A universal society can only signify a threat to freedom.” The philosopher’s quest for the universal overshoots the mark and, in lesser hands, breeds only the quietude of tyrannical suppression of human plurality, a peace of the sort St. Augustine rebuked in his mocking riposte that, in the matter of the Pax Romana, ”Peace and war had a contest in cruelty and peace won the prize.”

What does Arendt offer in place of the horrible realities of twentieth century politics, the hubris of philosophy, and the witlessness of social science pretense? Her insistence that one cannot leap-frog over the concrete existence of the individual. In a wonderful discussion of Kierkegaard, she gives his polemic against Hegel high marks, for in ”Kierkegaard’s view, philosophy is so caught up in its own systematics that it forgets and loses sight of the actual self of the philosophizing subject: it never touches the ‘individual’ in his concrete ‘existence.’ ” Kierkegaard’s ironic rebuff of Hegel (in his very funny Prefaces ) is a rejoinder to any and every philosophical system that “interprets history as a logically comprehensible sequence of events and a process that follows an inevitable course.” For Arendt, the beginning of political wisdom lies in an unwavering commitment to the individual and to a community of individuals-a plurality, not a mass.

From that commitment, Arendt draws another: a determination to resist notions of collective guilt or exoneration in favor of the far greater task of assessing responsibility. The context in which she writes about this is the terrible one of coming to grips with what happened in Nazi Germany. Arendt’s fear was that the victorious Allies would make “no distinction as to responsibility” and that German anti-fascists “will suffer from defeat equally with German fascists . . . .” Although that particular moment has passed, the issue is one that will not soon go away. Arendt repudiates any notion of racial taint or historic guilt. Were she alive she would warn us sternly about the temptations and dangers of current appeals to racial or ethnic identity-to “black rage” or “white guilt” and the like. These antipolitical quests must come to grief of one sort or another.

Arendt cautions as well against the seductive dangers inherent in all political appeals to global ends. There are perverse forms of internationalism-those that find loyalty to finite and limited political bodies contemptible. She never engages in the idolatry of the particular political identity of the citizen of one state by contrast to some other. By the same token, however, she refuses to take refuge in the notion that perpetual peace will be possible only when all particular loyalties are vanquished and we have become “citizens” of a world society. This ersatz universal citizenship is as dubious as are notions of collective guilt or innocence, operating as it does at a level far removed from the concrete tasks of daily life and political responsibility respectful of our individuality and our plurality.

Her discussion of these matters is driven in part by her concern with anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite finds in the historic irreducibility of the Jewish people an obstacle to the achievement of a homogeneous national identity or, for the especially ambitious, a transnational world order. The Jew for the anti-Semite embodies the scandal of particularity. Arendt certainly does not mean to object to political or religious values that transcend national boundaries (democracy, Christianity) but she takes strong exception to any and all attempts to implement a project of globalization as a political end or ideological quest.

Finally, Arendt tellingly warns against complacent endorsements of the democratic enterprise that may not prove robust enough to sustain it over time. Her target here is the American pragmatist John Dewey. In a prescient piece written in 1946, Arendt goes to the heart of the problem with Dewey’s pragmatism: “What makes it so difficult to review this philosophy is that it is equally hard to agree or to disagree with it.” She finds Dewey out of touch with reality, smug in his endorsement of a teleology of progress, certain that the past with its “slaves and serfs” was evil by contrast to the sunny prospects of the present. Dewey frustrates her-she finds that his arguments vaporize as soon as she begins to press them. Arendt would be even less pleased with the thinner version of Dewey compressed into the work of Richard Rorty. Rorty, too, is a happy apostle of progress and it is the seduction of progress-its tendency to lull our judging faculty to sleep-that most worries Arendt about the American democratic experiment. She cites approvingly-and it is worth concluding here-Walter Benjamin’s dark vision: “The angel of history . . . turns his face to the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which unremittingly piles ruins on ruins and hurls them at his feet. He wishes he could stay-to awaken the dead and to join together the fragments. But a wind blows from Paradise, gets caught in his wings and is so strong that the angel cannot close them. This wind drives him irresistibly into the future to which he turns his back, while the pile of ruins before him towers to the skies. What we call progress is this wind.”

Jean Bethke Elshtain is author of Democracy on Trial , her 1993 Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, forthcoming from Basic Books.