Arendt’s dilemma

Found a very interesting piece on Hannah Arendt through the Savage Minds blog. It focuses on a central dilemma in Arendt’s writing: That between the public and the personal, and how it is expressed in her view on politics. A few excerpts:

Arendt??s experience at the Eichmann trial bolstered the belief that defines her political philosophy: that there must be a rigorous separation between love, which we can experience only privately, and respect, which we earn in and require for our public lives. (…) A dignified individual existence, she believes, requires distance from others (…) Compassion is dangerous, in her view, because ??not unlike love,? it ??abolishes the distance, the in-between which always exists in human intercourse.? What preserves that distance, on the other hand, is pride??the pride of equals that she finds exemplified in the political realm, the ??public space.?

This view of politics may help explain why, in ??The Human Condition? and ??On Revolution,? Arendt exalts it as the highest of human activities. Politics, in her work, is not really an empirical concept??an affair of elections and legislation, still less of tax policy or Social Security reform. Everything having to do with economics, in fact, Arendt prefers to exclude from her definition of politics, relegating it to the nebulous category of ??the social.? Real politics is found, rather, in the deliberations of the Founders in Philadelphia, or the debates of the Athenians in their assembly. It is an affair of exceptionally talented individuals??people not unlike Hannah Arendt??arguing with one another under conditions of equality and mutual respect.

Still more revealing than Arendt??s definition of politics is her explanation of why people are drawn to it in the first place. We do not enter the political world to pursue justice or to create a better world. No, human beings love politics because they love to excel, and a political career is the best way to win the world??s respect. In ancient Greece, she writes, ??the polis was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements that he was the best of all. The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.? Arendt recognizes that most of the people of Athens, including all women and slaves, were shut out from this arena, but she accepts that her kind of politics is necessarily an aristocratic pursuit. In yet another instance of her favorite metaphor, she defends ??the bitter need of the few to protect themselves against the many, or rather to protect the island of freedom they have come to inhabit against the surrounding sea of necessity.?

Nothing could be more characteristic of Arendt than the longing for respect and recognition that shines through these seemingly abstract arguments. All her experiences as a woman and as a Jew (…) goes into her yearning for the masculine, aristocratic freedom of the Greek polis (…) At times, Arendt??s love of the public and the political, and her fear of the private and the psychological, becomes almost neurotically intense. As she wrote to McCarthy, ??the inner turmoil of the self, its shapelessness,? must be kept under strict quarantine: ??It is no less indecent, unfit to appear, than our digestive apparatus, or else our inner organs, which also are hidden from visibility by the skin.?

Too much of life and too many kinds of people are excluded from Arendt??s sympathy, which she could freely give only to those as strong as she was. If, as she wrote, ??it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world,? then our love for the world actually makes it harder for us to love the people who inhabit it. This is the dilemma that runs through all Arendt??s writing, demonstrating that what she observed about Marx is true of her as well: ??Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work.?

I find this tension between public and private, between the desire to excel and the love for close relations fascinating. How can one balance the desire to be respected by many with the desire (need, even) to be loved by few? I suspect that this is the dilemma that lies at the root of much stress and depression which affect so many people today: When we cannot combine these two domains, the tension between them tears us apart.

Leave a Reply