Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.
-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem
Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.
The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.
In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.
According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking. This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.
The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.
The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.
Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Arendt’s conception of power is one of the most subtle and elusive features of her political theory. Here Arendt poses the problem of power in terms of power’s loss, of powerlessness, which is also what she calls “the death of political communities.”
What is powerlessness? What, exactly, is lost when power is lost?
There are many ways to become powerless in the world of twenty-first century politics. In the United States we often imagine that citizens would be powerless without their constitutional rights – the vote, free speech, due process. In and around the world’s many war zones, the loss of military protection seems to produce a very different kind of powerlessness, one that is linked to both our physical vulnerability to violence as human beings and the persistence of violence between sovereign states (and within them.) There is also the powerlessness that seems to follow from the dislocations or migrations of peoples, a condition that Arendt calls mass homelessness, which may come from the movement of peoples across borders or the redrawing of borders across peoples. Poverty appears to be another form of powerlessness altogether, one that disrupts our capacity to appropriate nonhuman nature through labor and work and thereby sustain our lives. Arendt argues that mass destitution, alongside mass homelessness, is a form of powerlessness that is peculiar to the political condition of the modern age.
Many other kinds of powerlessness can be added to this list. The list is disturbing not only for its variety and length, but also because the felt urgency of each danger invites us to elevate one or two above the others, so that we risk settling for powerlessness of several kinds in order to secure power in one or two “emergency” domains. We choose between the power of kill lists and drone strikes and the power of due process for Americans accused of terrorism. We weigh our powerlessness in the face of global warming against the powerlessness caused by the Great Recession, where the hoped-for “recovery” will be defined by consumption-led “growth,” rendered tangible by lower gas prices and more crowded shopping malls. Or, we may think that US power in the globalizing world of free trade and faster capital flows is dependent upon “securing our national borders,” achieved through the quasi-militarization of immigration enforcement. Hard choices are the stuff of politics - they are supposed to be what power is all about - but the dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world. Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.
The death of the body politic, which can only occur by way of the powerlessness of politics itself, is Arendt’s main concern in the above quote. In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau, Weber, and Habermas, among others, Arendt distinguishes power from domination, strength, rationality, propaganda, and violence. Located within the open and common world of human speech and action, power reveals its ethical and political limits when it is overcome by deception, empty words, destruction, and “brutality.” Rooted in the human conditions of natality and plurality, and constituted by the gathered actions of many in a public space of appearance, power exists only in its actualization through speech and deed. Like action, power depends upon the public self-disclosure of actors in historical time. Actors acting together with other actors generate power. Yet because we do not know “who” we disclose ourselves to be in the course of collective action, or what the effects of our actions will turn out to mean in the web of human stories, power itself is always “boundless and unpredictable,” which in part explains its peculiar force. Given its boundlessness and unpredictability, power cannot be stored up for emergencies, like weapons or food and water, nor kept in place through fixed territories, as with national sovereignty. Power therefore co-exists only uneasily with machpolitik. Power can overcome violence and strength through the gathered voices and acts of the many; it can also be destroyed (but not replaced) through the dispersal of the many and the dissolution of the space of appearance. In-between gathering and dispersal, power is preserved through what Arendt calls “organization,” the laws, traditions, habits, and institutions that sustain the space of appearance during those interims when actors disperse temporarily and withdraw back into the private realm, only to reappear later.
For Arendt, the loss of power is the loss of our capacity to act with others in a way that generates, sustains, and discloses a common world. Powerlessness is marked by the receding of public spaces. This may occur, for example, through the gentle decline of a formally constituted public realm into the technocratic shadows of the social, or through the brutal sovereign repression of spontaneously emergent spaces of appearance. In both cases, our ethical and political incapacities to act together, and the philosophical inability to recognize power when we see it, are at the root of modern political powerlessness. Power-seekers, on Arendt’s view, would be well advised to cultivate a deeper political appreciation for both the immaterial force and fragility of human natality, plurality, and public space, which will be lost when power is mistaken for its rivals, like reason, strength, violence, or sovereignty.
Freeman Dyson, the eclectic physicist, took good aim at philosophy last week in a review of the silly book by Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?" An Existential Detective Story. Holt went around to "a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers," and asked them the Leibnizian question: Why is there something rather than nothing?" The book offers their answers, along with biographical descriptions.
For Dyson, Holt's book "compels us to ask" these "ugly questions." First, "When and why did philosophy lose its bite?" Philosophers were, once important. In China, Confucius and his followers made a civilization. So too in Greece did Socrates and then the schools of Plato and Aristotle give birth to the western world. In the Christian era Jesus and Paul, then Aquinas and Augustine granted depth to dominant worldviews. Philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz were central figures in the scientific revolution, and philosophical minds like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Arendt (even if one was a philologist and the other two refused the name philosopher) have become central figures in the experience of nihilism. Against these towering figures, the "leading philosophers" in Holt's book cut a paltry figure. Here is Dyson:
Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly and silently vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.
There are many reasons for the death of philosophy, some of which were behind Hannah Arendt's refusal to call herself a philosopher. Philosophy was born, at least in its Platonic variety, from out of the thinker's reaction to the death of Socrates. Confronted with the polis that put the thinker to death, Plato and Aristotle responded by retreating from the world into the world of ideas. Philosophical truth separated itself from worldly truths, and idealism was born. Realism was less a return to the world than a reactive fantasy to idealism. In both, the truths that were sought were otherworldly truths, disconnected to the world.
Christianity furthered the divorce of philosophy from the world by imagining two distinct realms, the higher realm existing beyond the world. Science, too, taught that truth could only be found in a world of abstract reason, divorced from real things. Christianity and science together gave substance to the philosophical rebellion against the world. The result, as Dyson rightly notes, is that philosophy today is as abstract, worldly, and relevant as it is profound.
What Dyson doesn't explore is why philosophers of the past had such importance, even as they also thought about worlds of ideas. The answer cannot be that ideas had more import in the past than now. On the contrary, we live in an age more saturated in ideas than any other. More people today are college educated, literate, and knowledgeable of philosophy than at any period in the history of the world. Books like Holt's are proof positive of the profitable industry of philosophical trinkets. That is the paradox—at a time when philosophy is read by more people than ever, it is less impactful than it ever was.
One explanation for this paradox is nihilism—The devaluing or re-valuing of the highest values. The truth about truth turned out to be neither so simple nor singular as the philosophers had hoped. An attentive inquiry into the true and the good led not to certainty, but to ideology critique. For Nietzsche, truth, like the Christian God, was a human creation, and the first truth of our age is that we recognized it as such. That is the precondition for the death of God and the death of truth. Nihilism has not expunged ideas from our world, but multiplied them. When speaking about the "true" or the "good" or the "just," Christians, Platonists, and moralists no longer have the stage to themselves. They must now shout to be heard amongst the public relations managers, advertisers, immoralists, epicureans, anarchists, and born again Christians.
Dyson ignores this strain of philosophy. He does point out that Nietzsche was the last great philosopher, but then dismisses Heidegger who "lost his credibility in 1933" and even Wittgentstein who would remain silent if a woman attended his lectures until she would leave. And yet it is Heidegger who has given us the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century philosophy.
His work on technology (The Question Concerning Technik) and art (The Origins of the Work of Art) has been widely read in artistic, literary, and lay circles. It is hard to imagine a philosopher more engaged with the science and literature than Heidegger was. He read physics widely and co-taught courses at the house of the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss and also taught seminars with the German novelist Ernst Jünger.
It seems worthwhile to end with a poem of Heidegger's from his little book, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens/From Out of the Experience of Thinking:
Drei Gefahren drohen dem Denken
Die gute und darum heilsame Gefahr ist die Nachbarschaft des singenden Dichters.
Die böse und darum schärfste Gefahr ist das Denken selber. Es muß gegen sich selbst denken, was es nur selten vermag.
Die schlechte und darum wirre Gefahr ist das Philosophieren.
Three dangers threaten thinking.
The good and thus healthy danger is the nearness of singing poetry.
The evil and thus sharpest danger is thinking itself. It must think against itself, something it can do only rarely.
The bad and thus confusing danger is philosophizing.
Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, lectures to the National Endowment of the Humanities Seminar on Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. Specifically, his lecture focuses on the first chapter of the Imperialism section of Arendt's inquiry into the "Burden of Our Times," as she originally titled the book.
The talk moves from Arendt's discussion of Cecil Rhodes's quotation, "Expansion is everything,"--which Arendt argues defines the character of Imperialism, the explosion of limits and the breach of the nation-state--to Thomas Hobbes' claims that "Reason is reckoning" and that man is a "power-thirsty" being--which Arendt sees as the bursting of human limits that underlies the appearance of totalitarianism.
You can hear some of the Questions and Answers session addressing Arendt's discussion of Hobbes here:
You can hear some of the Questions and Answers session addressing Arendt's discussion of the birth of racism here: