“That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the beautiful.”
-Edgar Allan Poe
“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.
Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
“Having said this, I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence.”
“Sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’”
—Hannah Arendt citing Conor Cruise O’Brien, On Violence
Nelson Mandela gave one of the great speeches of 20th century at his trial before the South African Supreme Court in Pretoria in 1964. Mandela’s speech is best remembered for the ringing conclusion in which he articulates the ideals of free and democratic life as that “ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Six months after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech” from the Mall in Washington, DC, Mandela ended his own speech before being sentenced to life imprisonment with these words:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Mandela died yesterday and he will be rightly remembered for both his vision and his courage.
I want to focus on another aspect of his legacy, however, the question of violence. Often forgotten by those who quote only the final paragraph of Mandela’s speech, much of his speech is an exploration of the need for and proper revolutionary use of violence. Indeed, after a brief introduction in which Mandela reminds the Court that he holds a bachelor’s degree, that he is a lawyer, and that he was raised to revere his tribal forebears who fought in defense of their fatherland, he comes to the question of violence. “Having said this,” he says, “I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence.”
What follows is one of the most thoughtful and subtle reflections on the strategic and moral complications of violence we have. It is worth citing at length, and even this summary barely does Mandela justice. But here is Mandela’s argument for a limited campaign of violence in response to the violence of the South African state:
I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.
I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, and that I played a prominent role in its affairs until I was arrested in August 1962….
In order to explain these matters properly, I will have to explain what Umkhonto set out to achieve; what methods it prescribed for the achievement of these objects, and why these methods were chosen. I will also have to explain how I became involved in the activities of these organisations.
I deny that Umkhonto was responsible for a number of acts which clearly fell outside the policy of the organisation, and which have been charged in the indictment against us. I do not know what justification there was for these acts, but to demonstrate that they could not have been authorised by Umkhonto, I want to refer briefly to the roots and policy of the organisation.
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism…..
I must return to June 1961. What were we, the leaders of our people, to do? Were we to give in to the show of force and the implied threat against future action, or were we to fight it and, if so, how?
We had no doubt that we had to continue the fight. Anything else would have been abject surrender. Our problem was not whether to fight, but was how to continue the fight. We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights. It may not be easy for this court to understand, but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence - of the day when they would fight the white man and win back their country - and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods. When some of us discussed this in May and June of 1961, it could not be denied that our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing, and that our followers were beginning to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism.
It must not be forgotten that by this time violence had, in fact, become a feature of the South African political scene. There had been violence in 1957 when the women of Zeerust were ordered to carry passes; there was violence in 1958 with the enforcement of cattle culling in Sekhukhuniland; there was violence in 1959 when the people of Cato Manor protested against pass raids; there was violence in 1960 when the government attempted to impose Bantu authorities in Pondoland. Thirty-nine Africans died in these disturbances. In 1961 there had been riots in Warmbaths, and all this time the Transkei had been a seething mass of unrest. Each disturbance pointed clearly to the inevitable growth among Africans of the belief that violence was the only way out - it showed that a government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it. Already small groups had arisen in the urban areas and were spontaneously making plans for violent forms of political struggle. There now arose a danger that these groups would adopt terrorism against Africans, as well as whites, if not properly directed. Particularly disturbing was the type of violence engendered in places such as Zeerust, Sekhukhuniland, and Pondoland amongst Africans. It was increasingly taking the form, not of struggle against the government - though this is what prompted it - but of civil strife amongst themselves, conducted in such a way that it could not hope to achieve anything other than a loss of life and bitterness.
At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.
This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto published on 16 December 1961, which is exhibit AD, we said:
"The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices - submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom."
This was our feeling in June of 1961 when we decided to press for a change in the policy of the National Liberation Movement. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did….
Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision.
In the light of our political background the choice was a logical one. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality. This is what we felt at the time, and this is what we said in our manifesto (exhibit AD):
"We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We hope, even at this late hour, that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realisation of the disastrous situation to which the nationalist policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate state of civil war."
The initial plan was based on a careful analysis of the political and economic situation of our country. We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications, would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position.
Attacks on the economic life-lines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people. In addition, they would provide an outlet for those people who were urging the adoption of violent methods and would enable us to give concrete proof to our followers that we had adopted a stronger line and were fighting back against government violence.
In addition, if mass action were successfully organised, and mass reprisals taken, we felt that sympathy for our cause would be roused in other countries, and that greater pressure would be brought to bear on the South African government.
This then was the plan. Umkhonto was to perform sabotage, and strict instructions were given to its members right from the start, that on no account were they to injure or kill people in planning or carrying out operations.
It is strange today to hear politicians of all stripes praising Mandela for his statesmanship when they, for years, condemned his embrace of violence and arrested those in the U.S. who—following Mandela’s own tactics—chained themselves to fences to oppose the U.S. government’s support of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is true that Mandela lived numerous lives. As a young man, he was part of a royal tribal household. As a young adult, he was a lawyer. Later he was a non-violent leader. Still later, he turned to limited and rationalized use of violence. For 27 years he paid for his crimes in prison and then emerged a statesman, one committed to reconciliation, freedom, and multicultural democracy. Finally, when he stepped down from the Presidency after one term he helped assure South Africa’s democratic future and became an elder statesman in the truest sense of the word.
To understand the complexities of Mandela’s limited turn to sabotage (as opposed to terrorism in his words), it is helpful to consider Hannah Arendt’s essay On Violence, originally published in the New York Review of Books in 1969. Violence, writes Arendt, is at root instrumental. It is a means to an end. And sometimes, violence can yield positive and even moderate results, Arendt claims, citing Conor Cruise O’Brien: “Sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’”
As did Mandela, Arendt well understood that violence can be a useful and important means in struggles for justice. She points to numerous of examples where violence has worked to promote justice: “France would not have received the most radical bill since Napoleon to change its antiquated education system if the French students had not rioted; if it had not been for the riots of the spring term, no one at Columbia University would have dreamed of accepting reforms; and it is probably quite true that in West Germany the existence of ‘dissenting minorities is not even noticed unless they engage in provocation.’” Violence can, and often does, make injustice visible to a citizenry that is blind to it. Because violence can “serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention,” violence can serve the cause of reform and also of justice.
We must take Arendt and Mandela’s point seriously. Violence is a means to an end. Violence can work. “No doubt, ‘violence pays.’” Violence can yield results.
But Arendt is not an advocate for violence. Violence can pay, she writes, but “the trouble is that it pays indiscriminately.” And this is where the use of violence becomes dangerous.
The danger in using violence as a means is that when “applied to human affairs,” violence as a means has a tendency to overwhelm whatever good ends towards which it aims. Too often, violence will lead those in power to respond with sham reforms designed to end violence. They will seek the path of least resistance, instituting reforms that are often the wrong reforms. Arendt offers the example of the way that the student university protests of the 60s led to new courses in Swahili and “admitting students without the necessary qualifications” instead of real reform of the entire educational system.
What is more, violence—precisely because it is effective—has a tendency to promote more violence in response. If violence in the name of justice doesn’t achieve its ends quickly, the likely result is not justice, but more violence: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”
To read Mandela’s speech from 1964 is to encounter someone who thought through the promise and danger of violence in precisely the rational way that Arendt call for. The question we should ask is whether the turn to violence by the ANC in South Africa—even the limited, rational, and property-oriented violence Mandela embraced—promoted or retarded the cause for reform? Was it the ANC’s violence that led, 30 years later, to the reform of South Africa? Or was it Mandela’s dignity in prison and his emergence as a force for peace and reconciliation? Let’s celebrate Mandela as a hero this week. But let’s also ask: Was he right about violence?
“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.”
-Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
“What is Politics?” is the question taken up by a conference co-sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center and the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hannah Arendt dedicated her work to the reinvention of the public realm and to freedom in political action. Today, as in the 1960s, her ideas inspire theoretical debates as well as civil political initiatives.
The conference, with lectures by experts on Hannah Arendt’s work, focused on the influence of her European-American experience and the particular importance of transcultural exchange in Arendt’s theory of political action. Speakers included Marie Luise Knott, Anson Rabinbach; Princeton University, Peg Birmingham; DePaul University, Robert Harrison; Stanford University, Martín Plot; California Institute of the Arts, Wolfgang Heuer; Freie Universität Berlin, and Roger Berkowitz; Bard College. Most of the talks were videotaped and are now online. They are your weekend read. Happy Thanksgiving.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Magnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness.” I encountered the idea in an essay by Joe Weisenthal, who himself quotes Tyler Cowen: “Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.” Read more about nettlesome chess and humanity on the Arendt Center Blog.
Lincoln Caplan has an excellent essay on Judge Learned Hand in the NYRB this weekend. Hand was one of the most influential legal minds in the United States. Here is Caplan: “To Hand, law’s role is to help shape common purpose and reflect the will of the people as part of the compact between them and their government. He was a small “d” democrat. Case by case, he saw his job as weighing competing views of the law and its application to the facts and working his way toward the best outcome in the circumstances. His psyche, outlook, and practice aligned to make him a model of a restrained judge…. “The spirit of liberty,” he said, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded….””
Matthew Davis, in a piece that's part memoir and part profile, describes his relationship with the Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa, who is, even now, still working from Damascus. Although Davis's description of his time in and eventual deportation from Syria is striking, and his worry for his friend is palpable, in his conclusion he suggests something that is too easily forgotten: life, for Khalid and Damascus both, goes on, even as Syria appears to be crumbling. “Ever since the war began in January 2011, I had little doubt that Khaled Khalifa would remain in Syria, in Damascus, his paradise, to help usher in the new ideas he spoke passionately about in Iowa City. More than two years on, however, I wonder whether this ending will change, too. Khaled’s health is failing; he is depressed; he has been barred from leaving the country. I get none of this from him, only those close to him. From him, I get positive emails, an optimism as much at Khaled’s core as his rotund gut and passion for writing. Khaled’s fourth novel was recently published in Cairo. I’ve also heard that Qasabji is still open, Nabil still serving arak and beer, albeit at a higher price.”
Reviews of the movie "Hannah Arendt" have been thinly veiled opportunities to rehash old scores and attach Arendt once more for her reputed sins. That is why David Rieff’s review in The Nation this week is welcome. It offers meaningful praise for the film, with detailed accounts of what Rieff likes, while also offering serious-minded criticisms. From there, Rieff moves on to the question of the controversy itself. Rieff has little love for Arendt or, in the end, “Hannah Arendt.” I may disagree on both accounts, but he is fair-minded. “For entirely understandable and legitimate reasons, both philosophical and (though she almost certainly would have denied it) biographical, Arendt believed that the Shoah was not only the greatest crime in human history (a claim for which an argument can unquestionably be made), but an unprecedented one. The concluding pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem are suffused with her fear that, as she put it, “once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.” For Arendt, Eichmann was nothing less than a new type of criminal, one who “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel he is doing wrong.” But it is not clear that she was right.”
William Weaver, the esteemed translator of Italian works including novels by Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, Eugenio Montale, Oriana Fallaci, Ugo Moretti, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Elsa Morante, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Svevo died this past week. “Bill Weaver,” as he was known on campus, taught at Bard from 1992-2002. I never met Weaver, but he looms large in the world of the Hannah Arendt Center. The Center is housed in what we refer to as the “Mary McCarthy House,” because Arendt’s close friend Mary McCarthy lived there during both her stays teaching at Bard College. But most of my senior colleagues still refer to our dwelling as the “Bill Weaver House,” since Weaver lived there for 10 years and hosted many a dinner party there during his time on campus. As Bard’s President Leon Botstein wrote, “His contribution to the literary and cultural life of the College was extraordinary. It is through him that the College received the endowment that created the Bard Fiction Prize.” You can read his obituary in the New York Times, which quotes from this 2000 interview in The Paris Review. “Some of the hardest things to translate into English from Italian are not great big words, such as you find in Eco, but perfectly simple things, buon giorno for instance,” he said. “How to translate that? We don’t say ‘good day,’ except in Australia. It has to be translated ‘good morning,’ or ‘good evening,’ or ‘good afternoon’ or ‘hello.’ “You have to know not only the time of day the scene is taking place, but also in which part of Italy it’s taking place,” he continued, “because in some places they start saying buona sera — ‘good evening’ — at 1 p.m. The minute they get up from the luncheon table it’s evening for them. So someone could say buona sera, but you can’t translate it as ‘good evening’ because the scene is taking place at 3 p.m. You need to know the language, but, even more, the life of the country.”
The movie "Hannah Arendt" has just been released on DVD and features an extensive insert booklet produced by the Hannah Arendt Center!
Become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center and get your copy in time for the holidays!
Learn more here.
Magnus Carlsen—just 22 years old—beat Viswanathan Anand (the reigning world chess champion) this week at the World Chess Championships in Chennai, India. There has been much excitement about Carlsen’s victory, and not simply because of his youth. As Joe Weisenthal writes, Carlsen’s win signifies the emergence of a new kind of chess. We can profitably speak of at least three eras.
First, what is often called the Romantic era of chess. Here is how Weisenthal describes it:
In the old days, high-level chess was a swashbuckling game filled with daring piece sacrifices and head-spinning multi-move combinations where the winner would pull off wins seemingly out of nowhere.
Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Weisenthal explains, chess became more methodical. New champions would still take chances, but they were studied risks, more considered, and often pre-tested in preparation games. Players would study all past games by opponents analyzed through computers. This meant that the spontaneous move was more often than not beaten back by the prepared answer.
As the study of chess became more rigorous, these wild games became more and more rare at the highest level, as daring (but theoretically weak) combinations became more easy to repel…. Modern chess champions have won by building crushing, airtight, positional superiorities against their opponents, grinding them down and forcing a resignation. The chess is amazing, although frequently less of a high-wire act.
The third era of recent chess might be called the computer age. It began, for better or worse, when IBM’s Deep Blue super computer beat the great chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. The current generation of players (like Carlsen) were raised playing chess against computers. This has changed the way the game is played.
In an essay a while back in the NYRB, Kasparov reflected on what the rise of chess-playing computers meant.
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.
One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic. The romantic era of elegant and swashbuckling chess is over. But so too is the rational, calculated, grinding chess that Weisenthal describes as the style of the late 20th century. Since all players are trained by the logical rigidity of playing against computers, playing by pure logic will rarely give one side the ultimate advantage.
Which brings us to Carlsen and the buzz about his victory at the World Chess Championships. Behind Carlsen’s victories is what is being called his “nettlesomeness,” a concept apparently developed by the computer science professor Ken Regan. The idea has been described recently by Tyler Cowen:
Carlsen is demonstrating one of his most feared qualities, namely his “nettlesomeness,” to use a term coined for this purpose by Ken Regan. Using computer analysis, you can measure which players do the most to cause their opponents to make mistakes. Carlsen has the highest nettlesomeness score by this metric, because his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes. In contrast, a player such as Kramnik plays a high percentage of very accurate moves, and of course he is very strong, but those moves are in some way calmer and they are less likely to induce mistakes in response.
For Weisenthal, the rise of “nettlesomeness” signifies the "new era of post-modern chess. It's not about uncorking crazy, romantic brilliancies. And it's not about achieving crushing, positional victories. It's about being as cool as a computer while your opponent does things that are, well, human."
I am not sure Weisenthal gives full credit to Carlsen’s nettlesomeness. Yes, Carlsen does engage in a bit of emotional warfare—the getting up from the table, trying to throw off one’s opponent. But his nettlesomeness also involves “his creative moves pressure the other player and open up a lot of room for mistakes.” This is important.
In Kasparov’s earlier essay, he also describes his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world's highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. The lesson Kasparov drew from this is that computer-assisted chess magnifies the importance of human creativity:
The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.
One may, however, question Kasparov’s conclusion. The computers did even out the match. As he admits, “My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine.” More often than not, the result of computer-assisted chess is a draw.
What Carlsen’s victory may show, however, is that at a time when most players learn against machines and become technical wizards, it is those players who rise above the calculating game and are adept at finding the surprising or at least unsettling moves that will, at the very top of the sport, prove victorious. That is what Regan and Cowen mean by nettlesomeness. All of which suggests that, at least for the top chess player in the world, chess remains a human endeavor in which creativity can be enlisted to discombobulate human opponents playing increasingly like machines.
For your weekend read, take a long gander at Weisenthal’s essay. It includes simulated chess games to illustrate his point! Happy reading and playing.