Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
24Jul/140

Video Archives – Racism Lecture Delivered by Robert Bernasconi (2011)

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Tuesday, February 1st, 2011: Race, Slavery, and the Philosophers of the Enlightenment

Lecturer: Robert Bernasconi, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Penn State.

Robert Bernasconi challenges the defense of enlightenment philosophers who supported or defended race based slavery in their writings and raises questions about how racism infects their philosophy. In this lecture, he aims to implicate John Locke and Immanuel Kant in the development and propagation of an idea of race as an absolutizing, essentializing concept that motivates racism and racial slavery.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Nov/130

Arendt on the Declaration of Independence

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"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
Bonnie Honig
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113

Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.

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Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.

Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:

Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).

People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.

From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.

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As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.

While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
8Oct/130

Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics

ArendtBookreview1

Arendt, Rousseau, and Human Plurality in Politics
Margaret Canovan
The Journal of Politics, Vol. 45, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 286-302

Readers of Arendt's On Revolution have long remarked on her valorization of the American over the French Revolution. In this context, Margaret Canovan's article offers a nuanced analysis of an unexpected topic: Arendt's relation to one of the philosophical heroes of the French Revolution, Rousseau. While Canovan does expand on Arendt's objection to Rousseau along the lines one would expect from On Revolution, she also notes a number of positive connections that contribute to our understanding of Arendt and 20th century political thought.

Canovan begins by situating Arendt's thought in the rational 18th century tradition of the Enlightenment rather than social and historical convictions of the 19th century. Most importantly, in her work on political beginnings, Arendt was drawn to Rousseau for his contribution to social contract theory. Within this focus on initiating moments:  "[b]oth writers believed that contingent human actions, not inevitable historical processes, lie at the heart of politics; and neither believed that rules for establishing good states were revealed to men by God or Nature" (288). In other words, Arendt goes back to the Enlightenment as a period that tries to hold off metaphysical influence in politics, an influence that can be seen to return in the belief in history and progress in the 19th century. Indeed, Canovan highlights Rousseau's distinction between the natural "man" and artificial "citizen." From this perspective, Arendt's emphasis on citizenship also leads to a concern for the fragility of the state that cannot rely on an external guarantor.

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The major difference that Canovan sees between Arendt and Rousseau concerns Rousseau's conception of the citizens ruling themselves through the general will in the sovereign. Here the citizen gives up his private will for the general will and the unity of the this general will has priority in all cases. Rousseau emphasizes that the general will has to be carefully tended: people have to be more or less equal in income and rights and undergo stringent education if one hopes to promote a perspective beyond the private will. Canovan also notes that when it seems that the citizens simply give up their rights to the sovereign after they establish a general will, Rousseau's point is that the sovereign will apply the same principles of reason to a problem as the individual and thus reach the same conclusion if all citizens had addressed it individually.

Taking Arendt's perspective, Canovan writes that: "Rousseau makes heroic but unavailing efforts to render ineffective the fact that there are more of us than one and that we are all unique, each of us having his own standpoint from which to view the world, each his own mind which is capable of in-dependent thought, each his own self which can disclose itself in unexpected action." (292) In other words, on Canovan's reading, Rousseau replaces the dictator with the people who are the origin of the general will, but in giving up the power of this will they end up authorizing another form of dictatorship.

Toward the end of the article, Canovan leaves behind her sharp descriptions of similarities and differences to return to points where Arendt and Rousseau agree to a point. For example, she helpfully describes both Arendt and Rousseau as emphasizing promises and agreements. The difference is that for Arendt, they are offer only provisional stability, rather than the 'once and for all' of the social contract. Humans will not agree on the ultimate aim of their action but "they can concur in loyalty to a common set of worldly institutions" (297). In this schema, public deliberations are needed because each person has the use of reason but reason has to come out in the speech of individuals rather in the assumption of the general will.

In conclusion, Canovan writes that in light of Arendt's political thinking: "[t]he task of the political theorist cannot be to describe an ideal state or to lay down principles of justice for implementation" (300). Her contrast with Rousseau helps understand why this is so: Arendt's conception of plurality removes the single philosopher's claim to political truth. Yet Canovan's article implies that although Arendt warns against a common end she defends of different idealism, one not concerned with the end but the begging of the state and the idea of starting something new that one then defends as a common institution.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
23Jul/130

Hannah Arendt as a Jewish Cosmopolitan Thinker

ArendtBookreview1

Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.

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This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.

This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism

combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.

Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.

In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”

Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.

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Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.

I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.

This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7May/130

Arnold Gehlen on Arendt’s The Human Condition

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Arnold Gehlen,"Vom tätigen Leben (Hannah Arendt)", Merkur Vol. 159 (1961) 482-6.

The conservative anthropologist Arnold Gehlen fell out of favor in post WWII Germany largely due to his support of the Nazis: he joined the party in 1933 but continued to teach after the war following a “denazification” process. However, with the recent rediscovery of thinking influenced by philosophical anthropology in Germany, his work is again becoming important. Gehlen can be seen as one pole of a broader debate about the relationship between the abstract qualities of humans and their environment. Gehlen’s signature idea describes man as a "deficient being" (Mängelwesen) who develops culture, including technology in the broader and narrower senses, as a kind of armor for survival. Man’s physical weakness ultimately forces him to create his own environment, but this is more a sign of the constant threat he is under rather than an opportunity for great progressive changes.

Peter Sloterdijk, a major figure in the re-emergence of philosophical anthropology has pressed the issue with his recent description of culture as “human zoo” that houses mankind. For Sloterdijk, man is a beastly creature, one who has over centuries struggled to tame himself with cultural ideals and the brute force of laws. As mass society has dissolved the cultural bonds of humanism, Sloterdijk writes, man is increasingly forced into the cages of a human zoo.

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Gehlen was likely drawn to Arendt’s work by the broad scope of her history of civilization. He was interested in where humanity came from and where it is going. Some of these aspects might seem speculative, and indeed Arendt’s celebration of the Greeks and criticism of modern life continue to be fiercely criticized while her more technical innovations in terms of action and judgment garner broader acclaim (even if they still lead to debates over specifics). From a certain point of view, Gehlen’s Arendt is an thinker of a grand narrative and his review makes us ask about the value of such stories even when we are skeptical of their ultimate validity.

Gehlen’s forgotten but broadly positive review of The Human Condition offers a balanced evaluation of the book and a snapshot of it long before scholars built up the Arendt we know today of “action,” “natality,” and “judgment.” In terms of method, Gehlen praises Arendt's "ideological abstinence." Her sobriety in relation to established political frames of reference tended to get her in trouble during her lifetime, especially from her Left- leaning friends for her critique of Marx (despite her explicit remarks on her appreciation of his work). While Gehlen’s phrasing may have something of the coy conservative in it, I think is it a fitting way to describe her point of view. The independence of her work can be seen as a commitment to analysis that resists getting carried away by the overblown and often underdefined notions of the day.

Positively, Gehlen refers to Arendt’s "magnificent and dire analysis of contemporary scientific-technological culture and its massive biological repercussions." If philosophical anthropology inquires into the connection between the human environment and life, Arendt offers an update by specifying the technological dimension of culture. Saying she connects it to biology per se is a provocation on Gehlen’s part though it is one worth considering. Much work remains to be done on Arendt’s use of philosophers of science and her critical contribution to this field. Her engagement goes well beyond the better known references to Heisenberg and Whitehead in the Human Condition, as her references to such thinkers as Adolf Portmann in the Denktagebuch shows.

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Towards the end of his review, Gehlen criticizes Arendt for placing too much emphasis on the power of philosophy to influence history (at the expense of social forces). Here I do not think he makes a fair criticism and suspect that his reading was unduly influenced by Arendt’s association with Heidegger. It’s interesting though that Gehlen’s conservatism also puts emphasis on the social, though without the progressive hopes of the Enlightenment tradition from Hegel to Marx and Habermas.

In a footnote to Chapter 5 of The Human Condition, Arendt appeals to Gehlen's major work Man: His Nature and Place in the World as the source of the scientific work that grounds her argument. There she directly engages essentialist anthropology and rejects it, but does not give way to mere metaphor. Instead, I argue that she develops natality as a concept that works from within rather above: it cannot do without real birth but isn’t limited or determined by this empirical reference.

-Jeff Champlin

See: Jeffrey Champlin, “Born Again: Arendt's "Natality" as Figure and Concept,” The Germanic Review 88(02), May 2012.

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
29Mar/133

Are We One of Them?

ArendtWeekendReading

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:

Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.

Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.

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Scientists may be surprised that animals can remember things or use tools to accomplish tasks, but any one raised on children’s tales of Lassie or Black Beauty knows this well, as does anyone whose pet dog opened a door knob, brought them a newspaper, or barked at intruders. The problem these studies address is less our societal view of animals than the overly reductive view of animals that de Waal attributes to his fellow scientists. It’s hard to take these studies seriously as evidence that animals think in the way that humans do.

Seemingly more interesting are experiments with self-recognition and also facial recognition. De Waal describes one Asian Elephant who stood in front of a mirror and “repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead.” Apparently the elephant recognized the image in the mirror as herself. In another experiment, chimpanzees were able to recognize which pictures of chimpanzees were from their own species. Like my childhood Labrador who used to stare knowingly into the mirror, these studies confirm that animals are able to recognize themselves. This means that animals do, likely, understand that they are selves.

For de Waal, these studies have started to upend a view of humankind's unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece. “Science,” he writes, “keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”

The flattening of the distinction between animals and humans is to be celebrated, De Waal argues, and not feared. He writes:

Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.

DeWaal has long championed the intelligence of animals, and now his vision is gaining momentum. This week, in a long essay called “One of Us” in the new Lapham’s Quarterly on animals, the glorious essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan begins with this description of similar studies to the ones DeWaal writes about:

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”

With nuance and subtlety, Sullivan understands that our tradition has not drawn the boundary between human and animal nearly as securely as de Waal portrays it. Throughout human existence, humans and animals have been conjoined in the human imagination. Sullivan writes that the most consistent “motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago,” is the focus on “animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear.” In these paintings and sculptures, our ancestors gave form to a basic intuition: “Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom.”

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Religious history too is replete with evidence of the human recognition of the dignity of animals. God says in Isaiah that the beasts will honor him and St. Francis, the namesake of the new Pope, is famous for preaching to birds. What is more, we are told that God cares about the deaths of animals.

“In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29.

What changed and interrupted the ancient and deeply human appreciation of our kinship with besouled animals? Sullivan’s answer is René Descartes. The modern depreciation of animals, Sullivan writes,

proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants.

Too easy, however, is the move to say that the modern comprehension of the difference between animal and human proceeds from a mechanistic view of animals. We live at a time of the animal rights movement. Around the world, societies exist and thrive whose mission is to prevent cruelty toward and to protect animals. Yes, factory farms treat chickens and pigs as organic mechanisms for the production of meat, but these farms co-exist with active and quite successful movements calling for humane standards in food production. Whatever the power of Cartesian mechanics, its success is at odds with the persistence of the religious, ancient solidarity, and also deeply modern sympathy between human and animal.

A more meaningful account of the modern attitude towards animals might be found in Spinoza. Spinoza, as Sullivan quotes him, recognizes that animals feel in ways that Descartes did not. As do animal rights activists, Spinoza admits what is obvious: that animals feel pain, show emotion, and have desires. And yet, Spinoza maintains a distinction between human and animal—one grounded not in emotion or feeling, but in human nature. In his Ethics, he writes:

Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.

Spinoza argues against the law prohibiting slaughter of animals—it is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason”—because humans are more powerful than animals.  Here is how he defends the slaughter of animals:

The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.

Spinoza’s point is quite simple: Of course animals feel and of course they are intelligent. Who could doubt such a thing? But they are not human. That is clear too. While we humans may care for and even love our pets, we recognize the difference between a dog and a human. And we will, in the end, associate more with our fellow humans than with dogs and porpoises. Finally, we humans will use animals when they serve our purposes. And this is ok, because have the power to do so.

Is Spinoza arguing that might makes right? Surely not in the realm of law amongst fellow humans. But he is insisting that we recognize that for us humans, there is something about being human that is different and, even, higher and more important. Spinoza couches his argument in the language of natural right, but what he is saying is that we must recognize that there are important differences between animals and humans.

At a time that values equality over what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “pathos of difference,” the valuation of human beings over animals is ever more in doubt. This comes home clearly in a story told recently by General Stanley McChrystal, about a soldier who expressed sympathy for some dogs killed in a raid in Iraq.  McChrystal responded, severely: “"Seven enemy were killed on that target last night.  Seven humans.  Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died?  The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."” Many, no doubt, are more concerned, or at least are equally concerned, about the deaths of animals as they are about the deaths of humans. There is ever-increasing discomfort about McChrystal’s common sense affirmation of Spinoza’s claim that human beings simply are of more worth than animals.

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The distinctions upon which the moral sense of human distinction is based are foundering. For DeWaal and Sullivan, the danger today is that we continue to insist on differences between animals and humans—differences that we don’t fully understand. The consequences of their openness to the humanization of animals, however, is undoubtedly the animalization of humans. The danger that we humans lose sight of what distinguishes us from animals is much more significant than the possibility that we underestimate animal intelligence.

I fully agree with DeWaal and Sullivan that there is a symphony of intelligence in the world, much of it not human. And yes, we should have proper respect for our ignorance. But all the experiments in the world do little to alter the basic facts, that no matter how intelligent and feeling and even conscious animals may be, humans and animals are different.

What is the quality of that difference? It is difficult to say and may never be fully articulated in propositional form. On one level it is this: Simply to live, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a human life. In other words, human life is not simply about living. Nor is it about doing tasks or even being conscious of ourselves as humans. It is about living meaningfully. There may, of course, be some animals that can create worlds of meaning—worlds that we have not yet discovered. But their worlds are not the worlds to which we humans aspire.

Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. Man, Sophocles tells us, can travel over water and tame animals, using them to plough fields. He can invent speech, and institute governments that bring humans together to form lasting institutions. As an inventor and maker of his world, this wonder that is man terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. As he invents and comes to control his world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?

Sophocles knew that man could be a terror; but he also glorified the wonder that man is. He knew that what separates us humans from animals is our capacity to alter the earth and our natural environment. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment…” Not only by building houses and erecting dams—animals can do those things and more—but also by telling stories and building political communities that give to man a humanly created world in which he lives. If all we did as humans was live or build things on earth, we would not be human.

To be human means that we can destroy all living matter on the Earth. We can even today destroy the earth itself. Whether we do so or not, it now means that to live on Earth today is a “Choice” that we make, not a matter of fate or chance. Our Earth, although we did not create it, is now something we humans can decide to sustain or destroy. In this sense, it is a human creation. No other animal has such a potential or such a responsibility.

There is a deep desire today to flee from that awesome and increasingly unbearable human responsibility. We flee, therefore, our humanity and take solace in the view that we are just one amongst the many animals in the world. We see this reductionism above all in human rights discourse. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of a politics of life—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the meaningful life, human rights rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.

Hannah Arendt saw human rights as dangerous precisely because they risked confusing the meaning of human worldliness with the existence of mere animal life. For Arendt, human beings are the beings who build and live in a political world, by which she means the stories, institutions, and achievements that mark the glory and agony of humanity. To be human, she insists, is more than simply living, laboring, working, acting, and thinking. It is to do all of these activities in such a way as to create, together, a common life amongst a plurality of persons.

I fear that the interest in animal consciousness today is less a result of scientific proof that animals are human than it is an increasing discomfort with the world we humans have built. A first step in responding to such discomfort, however, is a reaffirmation of our humanity and our human responsibility. There is no better way to begin that process than in engaging with a very human response to the question of our animality. Towards that end, I commend to you “One of Us,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
11Jan/130

Infinitely Intoxicating

Louis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.

All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.

The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.

David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? 

Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.

What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.

Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do?  Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.

The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.””  And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.

 Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.

Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.

I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.

As Birkirts writes:

For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.

Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.

Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.

Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.

And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
9Nov/120

The Destiny of Freedom from Kant to Heidegger

The modern era is the age of the enlightenment, in which man throws off the shackles of religion and tradition and stands on his own feet. And yet it hardly seems as if we are living in the age of freedom. In an age of mass bureaucracy and scientific determinism, we are more wont to hear of helplessness and despair than of self-rule. For Hannah Arendt, freedom, like politics, is endangered by the rise of a social realm of government, scientific rationality, and bureaucratic administration. For Max Weber, the modern age is marked by a Herrenlose Sklaverei, a servitude without a master. The enlightenment, it seems, has taken an unexpected turn.  What then is the Destiny of Freedom?

That is the question Professor Philippe Nonet poses in a two-part lecture he gave recently at the Hannah Arendt Center.

 We are, Nonet argues, before the necessity of a decision regarding freedom. Until now, freedom has been thought as an attribute of the will. But freedom of the will leads, Nonet argues, to the rise of modern technique that threatens to extinguish the freedom of man. Freedom of the will thus threatens to transform itself into utter servility—the Herrenlose Sklaverei of Max Weber's famous formulation. This is the destiny of freedom insofar as freedom is thought from out of the will.

And yet, there is the possibility of a new opening of freedom, understood as freedom from the will, that Nonet finds in the thinking of Martin Heidegger.

We hope you enjoy these extraordinary lectures. You can watch them here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
30Oct/121

The Burqa and the Political Realm

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

-Hannah Arendt,  The Human Condition

Over the past decade, European public opinion has roiled with controversy over the full face covering – the niqab or burqa - of Muslim women. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, conducted between April 7th and May 8th 2010, the majority of citizens in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain approve of banning veils that cover the whole face. Subsequently, France and Belgium have implemented national laws that ban the full veil in public places.

Municipal bans are sprinkled across Europe as a whole. Is there an Arendtian angle on the discomfiture that one finds in Europe over the niqab and the burqa (hereafter N/B), a properly political angle that avoids pathologizing the response as simply Islamophobic or xenophobic?

Arendt claimed that the word public evokes two “interrelated phenomena”. First:

everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves – constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life – the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses – lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves…

The second referent of public is “the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.”

Arendt captures an idea prominent in Western traditions: the notion, both intuitive and articulated, that being visible to one another is an integral part of politics. This expectation is registered in theories of judgment (consider the role played by the “spectator” in Adam Smith and Kant’s theories of judgment) and in some of our most potent democratic metaphors: enlightenment, openness, transparency, illumination, recognition, social legibility, accountability, “publicity” and, not least, public. Liberals trumpet the virtue of the Open Society and liberalized Marxists idealize the translucent speech-situation. Socialists and radicals extol debunking, the heir of Rousseau’s crusade to remove the “deceitful veil of politeness” which conceals “fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud”. Negating these images are opacity, the Dark Ages, the dark arts, dark times, heart of darkness, artifice, living in the closet, a shadowy realm, cave-like illusion,  Stygian gloom, moral blindness, the id, concealment, inscrutability, subterfuge, murkiness, obscurantism, and backroom deals - notions which variously imply various states of ignorance, menace and deceit. True, prominent French intellectuals of the last century sought to demote vision’s status in the pantheon of sensibility, while conservatives still remain attached to the “decent drapery of life” (Burke). Yet these perspectives have done little to impede the centrality of seeing within the Western, Apollonian political aesthetic.

This formulation suggests what is discordant about the N/B’s existence in the Western political space. While for its bearer the N/B may be understood as a badge of tradition and piety, from the standpoint of a constitutional pluralist citizenry it is a mode of concealment incompatible with public recognition in which visibility of face is central. The N/B denudes facial and, to a degree, vocal recognition. It standardizes human features and hence contributes to the very stereotyping that N/B wearers themselves deplore.  Faces and voices are all different, evidence of human plurality. The N/B literally effaces these variations, with the partial exception of the eyes that may sometimes be seen. The N/B also symbolically ruptures the bond of citizenship reciprocity because while its wearer can see her real or potential interlocutor, can take advantage of the visibility of others, non-wearers are denied such access.

Consider two objections to this line of reasoning.

Users of the Internet are often obscured from view and no one assumes that their being invisible is uncitizenly.  Indeed, under some definitions of politics, the internet might be considered the quintessentially modern medium of political life: informing the public of political events, orchestrating voting, requesting or inciting people to participate in demonstrations, directing attention to abuses of rule, mobilizing citizens for collective action.  Search engines like Google ever more assume traditional government functions. Its engineers claim that the company’s predictions of flu epidemics and employment trends are already more accurate than those of the Centers for Disease Control and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, in Western societies the Internet is an ancillary to public display not a substitute for it, a tool to expand communication, rather than an obstacle to constrict it. Computer webcams are employed between interactants and in web chat rooms; interviews of foreign job applicants conducted via Skype grow daily in popularity. And it is no coincidence that the world’s most prominent social networking site is called Facebook. Moreover, where Internet use takes place without face recognition (as with email or instant messaging) it typically does so reciprocally: both users are in the same position and hence issues of visibility imbalance and citizen asymmetry do not arise.

A second objection to the claim that N/B attire in public places is uncitizenly turns the tables on the author: it draws on the Graeco-Roman tradition itself, the origins of Western notions of citizenship. In that tradition, being a public person was considered a kind of theatricality in which an agent adopts a persona, a mask. But the comparison between the N/B and the persona is superficial and not only because one mask is made of cloth while another is a metaphor. In antiquity, the function of persona was not to conceal public visibility but precisely to do the opposite: to shine the light of the ­polis on the political actor, to dramatize the fact that the individual had entered the public stage and that, as such, had left the private world of intimacy so as to consort freely with his peers and deliberate on political affairs. The political persona was, then, an addition to, or rather a rupture with, private life, not a replication or extension of it, a vehicle of distinction, not a mantle contrived to expunge from public view the unique personality of the woman beneath its folds. Politics, in Western traditions, entails a split within the being that engages in it, the construction of a second self: as an equal of others who are familial strangers bound together by the common tie of citizenship; a self able to cooperate with these strangers, to “see” things from multiple points of view and be seen seeing.

The N/B, however, is not a fictive mask designed to open up its wearer to the public recognition of peers acting in concert or in conflict; it is a carapace projected into the public space, a material mask that signals exclusivity, an emblem of segmental occlusion, of what Durkheim, discussing the primacy of resemblance in tribal societies, called the politico-familial.

Nor is the N/B artificial or dualistic. On the contrary, it signifies Sharia’s total claim on the individual in all her activities, the type of claim that the public-private distinction expressly repudiates. It transpires that the classical concept of the mask and the N/B have nothing substantively in common.

These brief reflections, prompted by my reading of Arendt, are not a rationale for banning the full veil but they do allow us to think of the European response to it in a political way. Readers who are interested in the more extensive argument that Dan Gordon (UMass Amherst) and I have developed on this topic, contrasting American and European legal regimes, may wish to read our “On the Edge of Solidarity: The Burqa and Public Life,” and “From the headscarf to the burqa: the role of social theorists in shaping laws against the veil,” Economy and Society 2012 (forthcoming).

-Peter Baehr, Lingnan University Hong Kong

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Sep/122

History and Freedom

The history of humanity is not a hotel where someone can rent a room whenever it suits him; nor is it a vehicle which we board or get out of at random.  Our past will be for us a burden beneath which we can only collapse for as long as we refuse to understand the present and fight for a better future.  Only then—but from that moment on—will the burden become a blessing, that is, a weapon in the battle for freedom.

-Hannah Arendt, "Moses or Washington" (March 27, 1942)

This eloquent quote from Hannah Arendt moves through a series of metaphors for historical consciousness.  The first two, history is a hotel, and history is a vehicle, are rejected as misleading.  Hotels and vehicles are both transitional spaces, areas inhabited on a temporary basis, not permanent dwellings.  History is not a place we visit for a short period of time, or a place we merely use to get from point A to point B.  Arendt further implies that history is not a commodity to be bought and sold, used and disposed of according to our mood.  But this is less a statement of fact than an admonition, in response to the fact that it is indeed possible for individuals to reject and deny their past, to ignore and abandon their history.  It is a commonplace to say that we cannot choose our parents, and the history of humanity that Arendt is concerned with is, after all, an extension of our personal and family histories.

As an admonition, Arendt's remarks may seem to be a simple restatement of George Santayana's famous 1905 quote, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  And clearly, she shares in this sentiment about the importance of collective memory and the need to learn from the errors of previous eras.  But she goes beyond this simple formulation by invoking the metaphor of history as a burden.  History has gravity, history has weight, and the longer the historical memory, the heavier the baggage that accompanies it.  Historical mass accumulates over time, and also through innovations in communications.  In oral cultures, where writing is absent, history as we understand it does not exist; instead there is myth and legend, preserved through oral tradition by way of continued repetition via oral performance.  Given the limitations of human memory, details about the past are forgotten within a generation or two, and the main function of myth and legend is to reflect and explain present circumstances.  This collective amnesia allows for a great deal of cultural flexibility and social homeostasis, a freedom from the burden of history that literate cultures take up.  The written word first makes possible chronological recordkeeping, and later historical narrative framed as an ongoing progression of events; this linear conception of time replaces the cyclical past of oral tradition, and what Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return.  And so we hear the complaint of school children in generation after generation, that history is so much harder now than it was for their parents, because now there is so much more of it than ever before.

History is a burden, one that becomes too much to bear if all we are doing is living in the past, in rigid adherence to a fixed and unchanging tradition.  But Arendt adds the complementary metaphor of history as a blessing.  The burden can become a blessing if we use the past to understand the present, to serve the present, not to overwhelm or command the present.  The past can inform the present, history helps us to see why things are the way they are, why we do the things we do; being mindful of the past is a means to help fulfill Arendt’s goal of thinking what we are doing.  But it is not enough simply to live in the present, and for the present.  We also have to look towards the future, to work for progress in the moral, ethical, and social sense, to enlarge the scope of human freedom.  And in light of this goal, Arendt invokes her fifth and final metaphor for history:  history is a weapon.  It is a weapon not to destroy or dominate others, or at least that is not what Arendt intends it to be, but rather a sword of liberty, an instrument to be used in the fight against oppression.

This quote reflects Arendt's overriding concern with human freedom.  The battle for freedom that she refers to is a collective struggle, not an individual quest.  It can only be achieved by political cooperation and unity, not by solitary escape from tyranny.  The commonly used phrase in western cultures, individual freedom, while not without value, all too easily eclipses the necessity of freedom as a shared responsibility, and in excess becomes oxymoronic.  As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and "no one is free while others are oppressed."  Freedom for all, shared freedom, requires a sense of affiliation, kinship, connection, which in turn requires a sense of continuity over time. Just as individual memory is intimately related to individual identity, our collective memory is the key to group identity.  History is the foundation of community.

Historical consciousness, which is derived from literacy, did not become widespread until after the diffusion of typography.  In addition to making written history widely available, print media such as calendars and periodicals made individuals aware of their place in history as never before, down to the basic knowledge of the year, month, and date that we all take for granted, not to mention awareness of our date of birth and age.  And as the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, more than any other factor, it was the printing revolution that gave rise to modernity.  The irony is that as printing made the past more accessible, it also made it seem less valuable, resulting in modernity's ahistorical tendencies.  Focus shifted from venerating tradition to revering progress, from looking back to origins to looking forward for originality.  This is exemplified by the fact that printing gave us two new literary forms, the news, and the novel.

And so we get Henry Ford saying, "history is bunk," and dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 portraying future societies where history is either deleted or subject to constant revision.  Without a sense of the past, sensitivity to the future is undermined, and with the advent of instantaneous electronic communications beginning with telegraphy in the 19th century, more and more emphasis has been placed on the now, the present tense, leading us to lose touch with both the past and the future.  Conceptions of the past have also been affected by the rise of image culture, beginning with photography in the 19th century, so that a coherent sense of linear history came to be replaced by a discontinuous, and therefore incoherent collection of snapshots evoking nostalgia, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  What Arendt makes clear is that contemporary present-minded ahistoricism risks more than Santayana's Sisyphean purgatory, but a true hell of oppression and slavery.

So far, I have stressed a universal interpretation of this quote, and ignored its particular context.  Arendt's admonition originates in a column she wrote for a Jewish newspaper, Aufbau, published in New York for German-speaking Jews, as part of a critique of the Reform movement in Judaism.  The movement originated in 19th century Germany, as a response to the Enlightenment, and the Emancipation initiated by Napoleon, wherein Jews were released from ghetto confinement and given a measure of equal rights and citizenship.

To accommodate their newly established status, the Reform movement sought to recast Judaism in the image of Protestantism, as just another religious sect.  Apart from a liberalizing and modernizing of worship and religious requirements, this meant abandoning Jewish identity as a people, as a nation in exile, so as to give full political allegiance to the new nation-states of the west, and embrace a new national identity as citizens of Germany, or France, or England, or the United States.  Consequently, the Reform movement rejected Zionism and made loyalty to the nation of one's birth a religious duty.  Jewish identity and tradition were thereby reduced, compartmentalized as only a form of religious belief and practice, their political significance abandoned.

Arendt's criticism is consonant with Jewish tradition, as the Torah repeatedly asks the Jewish people to remember, to remember the Exodus, to remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, to remember God's laws and commandments, to remember God's commitment to social justice.  Rather than make an argument for a return to Orthodoxy, however, Arendt's concern is characteristically philosophical.  Immediately before concluding her column with the passage quoted above, Arendt makes a more specific appeal regarding models of political leadership and moral guidance:

As long as the Passover story does not teach the difference between freedom and slavery, as long as the Moses legend does not call to mind the eternal rebellion of the heart and mind against slavery, the "oldest document of human history" will remain dead and mute to no one more than the very people who once wrote it.  And while all of Christian humanity has appropriated our history for itself, reclaiming our heroes as humanity's heroes, there is paradoxically a growing number of those who believe they must replace Moses and David with Washington or Napoleon.  Ultimately, this attempt to forget our own past and to find youth again at the expense of strangers will fail—simply because Washington's and Napoleon's heroes were named Moses and David.

Written in the dark times that followed Hitler's rise to power, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the establishment of Eichmann's concentration camps, Arendt's words are all the more poignant and powerful in their call for taking pride in the Jewish tradition of fighting for freedom and justice, and for an awareness that the cause of liberty and human rights have their roots in that most ancient of documents.

Arendt's criticisms of the excesses of Reform Judaism were widely shared, and the movement itself changed dramatically in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  Reform Judaism reversed its stance on Zionism, and remains a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, albeit with a willingness to engage in criticism of Israeli government policies and decisions.  At the same time, Reform religious observance, while still distinct from that of the Orthodox and Conservative branches, has gradually restored many elements of traditional worship over the years.  And the celebration of Jewish culture and identity has become normalized during the past half century.

For example, witness Aly Raisman's gold medal-winning gymnastic routine at the recently completed London Olympics, performed to the tune of Hava Nagila; Keith Stern, the rabbi at the Reform synagogue that Aly attends, explained that " it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew, I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way."

Raisman's musical selection made an important statement as well, in light of the International Olympics Committee's decision not to have a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in a terrorist attack.  I think that Arendt would be nodding in approval at the way in which the teenage captain of the United States women's gymnastics team, in her own way, followed the example of Moses and David.

Arendt's passage about history and freedom is a fitting one, I believe, for a Quote of the Week post scheduled to appear on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also said to be the birthday of the world.  The calendar year now turns to 5773, and 5,773 years is roughly the age of history itself, of recorded history, of written records, which originate in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.  And while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days, and are popularly thought to be the most important in Jewish tradition, in truth it is the Passover that is the oldest, and most significant, of our holidays, lending further support to Arendt's argument.  But even more important than Passover is the weekly observance of the Sabbath day, which is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  And in the new Sabbath liturgy recently adopted by the American Reform movement, there is a prayer adapted from a passage in the book Exodus and Revolution by political philosopher Michael Walzer, that is worth sharing in this context:

Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.

The message of this prayer is that only by working together can we transform the burden of history into a blessing, only by working together can we wield the shared history of humanity in the service of human freedom and social justice.  This is what Arendt wanted us to understand, to commit to memory, and to learn by heart.

-Lance Strate

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.