Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Responsibility and Judgment

Hannah Arendt

Schocken Books ($25)

The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt

Schocken Books ($25)

by Rick Canning

Reading Hannah Arendt is a sober and sobering undertaking, and one reason for this is her business-like manner. She doesn't horse around. Her titles usually announce a weighty subject—The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Life of the Mind, "Moral Responsibility under Dictatorship, ""Thinking and Moral Considerations"—and then she sets right to work. "Of about 2,000 SS men posted at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, (and many must still be alive), 'a handful of intolerable cases' had been selected and charged with murder" begins the first sentence of "Auschwitz on Trial," one of the pieces in Responsibility and Judgment; another starts, "There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them."

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Having established this serious mode, she stays with it. Each page is a solid block of thought (often with footnotes): there are no whims, no fanciful digressions, no rhetorical or metaphorical flights, none of the breaks or modulations that a reader might expect or hope for—just a steady pursuit of serious ideas. As a result, sometimes her work, even a short review, can seem longer than it is. (The Origins of Totalitarianism, at well over six hundred oversized pages, is a mountain of a book.) On the other hand, Mary McCarthy was right when she said that Origins is "engrossing and fascinating in the way a novel is." The same could be said about the nine speeches, lectures, and essays collected in Responsibility and Judgment. And if occasionally the reader suspects that English was not Arendt's first language (it wasn't), her usual style is forceful and clear. "It is the grandeur of court proceedings," she writes apropos the prosecution of Nazi functionaries, "that even a cog can become a person again."

A second reason for the sober tone of Arendt's work, perhaps the most obvious one, is the topics she generally treats. Reading her, one is plunged back into the twentieth century and reminded what a mess it was. In 1968, she referred to the first half of the century as "decades of turmoil, confusion, and plain horror," and this was just a shorter version of her assessment in 1950, in the first sentence of the preface to Origins: "Two World Wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers." It's a wonder sanity itself didn't disappear from the face of the earth.

Hannah Arendt was Jewish. Born in Germany in 1906, she was reading Kant and Kierkegaard by the age of fifteen, and a few years later she was studying philosophy under Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers; it seems a safe bet that when they got together, their talk was profound indeed. By her own account she was not political; politics is the realm of doing, and she was interested primarily in the life of the mind. But this began to change with the advent of National Socialism, a development even the most abstracted intellectual could not help but notice. (Heidegger, who had been not only her teacher but also her lover, made his peace with the Nazis.) Most people, if they're political at all, enter that arena voluntarily, working the phones for a candidate or carrying a petition door to door. Arendt woke up to Hitler. In 1933, the Reichstag was burned (by communists, it was claimed), opponents of the Nazis began to disappear into "protective custody," and Hitler was named chancellor; as she put it later, "Indifference was no longer possible in 1933." She left Germany for France and went to work for a Zionist organization that smuggled German children into Palestine. In 1941 she came to the United States.

With such a background, it's no wonder that totalitarianism was her great subject, and not only when she was treating it directly, as in The Origins of Totalitarianism (and most famously, in Eichmann in Jerusalem). Responsibility and Judgment shows that even much more abstract discussions—of ethics and morality, of political action, the human will, logic, solitude and loneliness, the nature of thinking and understanding—are shadowed by Hitler and, to a lesser extent, Stalin. It was as if everything had to be rethought in the light of the mid-century experience.

In an interview conducted in 1964, Arendt identified 1943, "the day we learned about Auschwitz," as a turning point for her: "It was really as if an abyss had opened….This ought not to have happened…. This should not have happened. Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves." A year later, in a series of lectures included in Responsibility and Judgment under the title "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," she borrowed a word from the New Testament to help clarify this "something": "Evil according to Jesus is defined as a 'stumbling stone,' skandalon, which human powers cannot remove….The skandalon is what is not in our power to repair—by forgiving or by punishment—and what therefore remains as obstacle for all further performances and doings." Arendt outlived the Third Reich by thirty years, but she spent much of that time, intellectually at least, pondering that giant stumbling stone.

The most scandalous part, however, was not Hitler and his associates, or even the camp guards and SS cadres, who behaved with such brutality. In any population, she points out in the same lectures, there will always be people who are driven by hatred or cruelty—outright villains, in other words—and moral philosophy has a category for villains. The true scandal was the behavior of "ordinary people," the so-called good Germans. They never beat or shot anyone, and never ordered anyone beaten or shot; they just found a way to accommodate themselves to beatings and shootings. As long as the Ten Commandments—Arendt's shorthand for all moral codes—were in force, these people never dreamed of following anything else. But when the Nazis came to power and reversed the commandments, the good Germans adjusted themselves. And when the war ended and the Ten Commandments went back into effect, the good Germans accepted that, too.

The four pieces in the first and most trenchant part of Responsibility and Judgment explore the importance of this moral flip-flopping, this "honest overnight change of opinion." It represented, for her, nothing less than a "total collapse of all established moral standards"—the failure, in other words, of the Ten Commandments. This was simply a fact of 20th-century history: all moral codes, when put to the test, had given way. Anyone interested in finding out what had happened, or what might happen, would have to confront this fact.

The main reason for the failure is that a moral code is external; it comes from an outside authority, and an individual can therefore possess a moral code without thinking much about it—in the same way that he might possess some of grandpa's old hats. Such people, Arendt says in "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship," have the "mere habit of holding fast to something," but no deep commitment to the content of what they hold. "Much more reliable" in a crisis, she says, "will be the doubters and the skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds." In other words, the doubter is more reliable because, as he doubts, he thinks. It's the thinking that makes the difference.

In "Thinking and Moral Considerations," and at even greater length in the "Moral Philosophy" lectures, Arendt develops the idea that thinking itself, regardless of content, has moral implications. When thinking, the individual is both alone and not alone. He is separated from other people, but within himself the thinking person discovers, and talks to, himself. Drawing on Socrates, she argues that the "I" is not singular; instead, self-consciousness produces a split in the "I," a two-in-one structure, a self that speaks and a self that speaks back. Simply put, to think is to engage in an internal dialogue; in so doing, the division within the self becomes more real and more powerful. Being aware that "I am two-in-one" means that there "can be harmony or disharmony with the self."

This potential for harmony or disharmony is what gives thinking its moral potential. The thinking person is always being watched—not by God or the state, but by himself, his partner in thinking—and should he offend that partner, harmony within himself will be impossible. The thoughtful person, faced with the temptation to commit murder, understands that if he yields to that temptation, he will forever after have to live with a murderer. In place of rules inscribed on stone tablets, handed down generation to generation, Arendt substitutes the thinking individual, asking himself in solitude a simple question: If I do what I am being asked to do, will I be able to live with myself?

Her discussion of these ideas is persuasive and clear throughout, and there's even something inspiring in the importance she places on the thinking individual, who looks within and finds the power to say No. It is essentially a negative morality, as Arendt understood. "It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong ": this formulation, which she borrows from Socrates, tells us what not to do. It's a morality of withdrawal and refusal, appropriate in times of extreme crisis, when the system has been so corrupted that working within it is no longer possible.

For a world not languishing in totalitarian darkness, however, this morality is not enough. In dire circumstances, refusing to act can be a form of action, even of heroic action, but ordinary conditions require something else: ordinary action. Arendt understood this, too, but it seems to me that, in this book at least, she has little to say about ordinary conditions and actions. It may be that the disasters of the twentieth century tended to overwhelm her imagination, as well they might; it was a scandalous time, after all. Her mind seemed to turn naturally toward crises, and toward the riddles of individual behavior during crises.

It may also be that she was too honest to offer prescriptions, recommendations, principles, and generalizations that she couldn't believe in. In the final piece in this collection, "Home to Roost," a speech she delivered in 1975, only a few months before she died, she sneers a bit at those who prattle on about the "lessons of history." At first this seems odd, because so much of her work is grounded in history. But it wasn't the attempt to understand the past that she objected to; it was the attempt to use the past to bind the present or, worse, to predict the future. All such "lessons" are suspect because, by definition all "roots and 'deeper causes'… are hidden by the appearances which they are supposed to have caused." The "lessons" of Vietnam, for example, can only be drawn and applied by people, and it is the fate of people to wander around in semidarkness.

In 1953, she put the problem this way: "The main shortcoming of action, it has been repeated time and again since [Plato], lies in the fact that I never quite know what I am doing… . Since I act in a web of relationships which consists of the actions and the desires of others, I never can foretell what ultimately will come out of what I am doing now." This is a genuine dilemma, for the point is not merely that we don't know what we're doing—a situation that could be remedied by more thinking—but that we cannot know. Twenty-two years later, in "Home to Roost," she was still wrestling with this problem, speaking of the "'unbelievable'… aspect of reality, which cannot be anticipated by either hope or fear."

To say that the future cannot be anticipated is to say that it cannot be controlled; we make the future, but we don't really know how and we won't necessarily like (or even believe) the results. Part of the value of Responsibility and Judgment lies in the fact that it doesn't shrink from this predicament. We don't know what we're doing, yet we have to do something: this isn't a state of affairs likely to please anyone, but it ought to teach us to act with humility. The proud alternative is to believe that the future is ours to make and mold. That's when the real disasters loom.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents