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HANNAH ARENDT'S CENTENARY: Political and Philosophic Perspectives, P. I / Vol. 74, No. 3 (F 2007)

Jerome Kohn, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Editor

The current issue of Social Research and the one to follow this winter are dedicated to a discussion of the writings of Hannah Arendt, our colleague here at The New School for Social Research from 1967 until her death.

Hannah Arendt’s centenary was celebrated with conferences and colloquia, art, exhibitions, dramatic and musical performances, in film, on radio and television, as well as in new monographs and biographies, and in new editions of her own works.

The article presents an excerpt of a lecture given by political theorist Hannah Arendt in 1953 entitled "The Great Tradition." It has been divided into two parts, the first part published here, is subtitled “Law and Power.”

The paper argues that a specific "concept of the political" can be reconstructed in Arendt by bringing together elements coming from Origins of Totalitarianism, Part II ("Arendt's Theorem": the deprivation of citizen's rights is also a destruction of human rights), from The Human Condition and On Revolution ("isonomia" or equal liberty is the necessary correlate of the "right to have rights"), and from On Disobedience (without a possibility of disobedience there is no legitimate institution of obedience). These propositions produce a singular variety of "institutionalism", which involves a "groundless" politics of Human Rights (or a politics of Human Rights without natural foundation, only a support from political action), and also helps clarifying the thesis on the "banality of evil" in Eichmann in Jerusalem: the sovereign tautology "law is law" is the root of voluntary servitude. To say that we have a choice between becoming Eichmanns or taking the risk of civil disobedience is too quick; and to suppose that a state where civil disobedience becomes recognized would be immune of the danger of totalitarian transformation is an illusion, but as an ideal type, these formulations may encapsulate what Arendt's "concept of the political" hints at.

Hannah Arendt's 1949 essay on the critique of human rights was published in English and German in the same year under two quite different titles: while in English the title asks the skeptical question: "'The Rights of Man'. What Are They?", the German title claims: "Es gibt nur ein einziges Menschenrecht " - "there is only one human right". The article shows that the English title's skepticism and the German title's assertion represent two internally connected moves of Arendt's argument. For Arendt aims at a fundamental critique of the modern natural law tradition of human rights which, at the same time, hints at a possible alternative understanding of a " right to have rights" in terms of a political anthropology - a new understanding of human dignity.

The claim is that Arendt founds the 'right to have rights' in the anarchic event of natality. Arendt is very explicit that the event of natality is an ontological event. In The Human Condition, she writes: "The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal "natural" ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted." (HC 246, emphasis mine) At the same time, she is equally insistent that this ontological event is not metaphysical; it is not the origin of anything like human nature: "To avoid misunderstanding, the human condition is not the same as human nature and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition do not constitute anything like human nature" (HC 9).

A political philosophy that no longer wants to be a philosophy inevitably runs into contradictions. The productive transparency of Arendt's philosophical experiment becomes visible, however, if we avoid simple mappings to Aristotle, Kant and Heidegger in order to emphasize the point and counterpoint of Arendt's message. The connections she draws, unusual in the world of philosophical thinking, have an obvious and a hidden side. The hidden side can be frequently found in the nuances, and these will be pursued inasmuch as they allow an entirely new reading of Arendt's relationship to practical philosophy.

The paper is focussed on Arendt's lecture course "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," as edited and published by Jerome Kohn in 2003. The main characteristics of moral philosophy, as Arendt envisions it in this lecture, are stated. The author presents as a proposition that Arendt's observations and thoughts in moral philosophy can be linked to her political philosophy, and that there is no "conflict" between Arendt, the political philosopher, and Arendt, the moral philosopher.

This paper deals with the recently published work by Hannah Arendt, "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy" (1965), which is her most extensive discussion of moral issues. What emerges from this work is a fuller account of what genuine morality is. Writings that she published had prepared her readers for the idea that genuine morality is Socratic morality, which holds that it is better for the person to suffer wrong than to do wrong. That means, in the contexts of resistance to totalitarianism and to tyranny and despotism, that it is better to suffer wrong than to be an accomplice or passive bystander of wrong done to others when one could be safe if one did not resist. On the other hand, Arendt makes it clear that spurious morality in the form of what she calls "the morality of mores" makes people accomplices or passive bystanders.

This essay investigates the tradition of interwar German-Jewish political theology associated most of all with Leo Strauss and Franz Rosenzweig. It is suggested here that the Straussian notion of an eternal conflict between politics and religions may be derived, in part, from Rosenzweig's image of the depoliticized Jewish community. Furthermore, this "concept of the apolitical" represents something like a modernist reprisal of Stoic ideals, most especially the ancient ideal of ataraxia, or "freedom from disturbance." This apoliticism is distinguished most of all by two interlocking principles; first, that politics is mere disorder if not a return to the state of unredeemed nature; and second, that religious peace must accordingly be found elsewhere than politics. This argument for the near-incommensurability of politics and religion represents the special if not altogether unique contribution of Weimar German-Jewish intellectuals to the enduring tradition of political theology. It is therefore worth posing the following question: Why does Hannah Arendt's political theory appear to bear almost no trace whatsoever of this political-theological tradition? By what logic did Arendt dissent from the political-theological principles that so captivated her German-Jewish contemporaries? And which tradition should command our allegiance today?

The political sphere Arendt strove throughout her career to defend and restore depended upon the performative abilities of its participant speakers. But Arendt's theatricality is that of the speech act, not of the stage in a literal sense, where original utterances and originary deeds are not primarily at stake. Arendt versus Zweig replays the cultural enmity of Berlin versus Vienna, giving voice and person to a Central European cultural fissure that travels far and wide into the émigré experience and remains too regularly overlooked in all of its venues by scholars of Central Europe. The distinction is especially elusive to American scholars, who often remain insufficiently sensitive both to the cultural differences between northern and southern Central Europe, and to the survival of religiously marked cultural differences. Hannah Arendt was an émigré from the northern German world and from the German language. In cultural as well as geographical terms, she was an émigré from Prussia. Born in Hanover, reared in Koenigsberg, educated in Heidelberg, she identified with Berlin and its claim to cosmopolitanism. She therefore became a cosmopolitan thinker from Berlin, a metropolis whose generosity and arrogance (much like New York's) has resided at least since the 1870s in its self perception as the center of the world. But Arendt also did battle with her fellow Berliners, especially when they seemed to abandon their Berlin-trained worldliness.

A number of Jewish women invented a singular way of entering into German culture; singular in that no tradition in Judaism or in Germany had shown them the way. Rahel Varnhagen, one of the first, is the subject of a biography by Hannah Arendt. Varnhagen never wrote a book, only letters and a diary, in which she unsystematically mixed narration and reflection, political and philosophical thoughts. Arendt's biography is true to heterogeneity of this kind: her biographical writing offers no synthesis, jumping from systematic representations to individual experiences, and then to historical events or even social context. Arendt wrote to Jaspers that she had chosen the genre of biography precisely because she could not say what she wanted to in abstracto, meaning philosophic: more precisely, within the frames of Existenzphilosophie. Two things are noteworthy here: 1) the kind of biography that Arendt wrote; and 2) the very fact that she chose--despite Heidegger's well known contempt for it--the biographical genre. In order to give an account of those two things, one has to arrive at an understanding of what it is in the frames of Existenzphilosophie that prevents expression of the predicament of Rahel's existence and makes biography the more appropriate genre in her case.

In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt makes the unexpected statement that totalitarian violence "is expressed much more frighteningly in the organization of its followers than in the physical liquidation of its opponents." Of course, her intention is not to deny the radical physical violence of totalitarianism but rather to understand the distinctive features of totalitarian terror. In order to fully understand the importance of what Arendt is describing, we should compare this first moment of the analysis with another assertion that seems just as paradoxical and that is also in The Origins of Totalitarianism: noting totalitarianism’s contempt for facts and reality, Arendt remarks that the propaganda of totalitarian movements is "invariably as frank as it is mendacious." Totalitarian propaganda does not just lie about the aims and real actions of totalitarian movements or regimes: it also gives itself the organization required to change the real world and make it "true" to its assertions, though they be utterly absurd and utterly monstrous. Through totalitarian organization the natural bonds of solidarity and communication are broken; they are replaced by distrust and informing. The objective is to pervert human plurality into a mass of fragmented individuals, to suppress the common world and substitute it with alienation from the world, from others, and from oneself. From then on, everything is blurred for the outside observer who would still like to distinguish between adherence to the regime out of conviction and submission through terror, organization, and indoctrination. The issue of knowing whether this enthusiasm is forced or sincere loses much of its pertinence. Let us keep this important point in mind when we pass judgment too rapidly on the "fanaticism" of Islamic crowds streaming down the streets of Teheran or any other totalitarian theocracy.

Hannah Arendt asserts that "in the modern world authority has disappeared almost to the vanishing point." However, she attributes some kind of authority to the words of poets, in the case discussed here, to those of her friend W. H. Auden. The precious gift of the poets to write poems that have an "unconstraining" power (Auden's word), gives that authority to their voice.


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