Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/15/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upAmor Mundi

paris isis attacksIn 1955, Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers: "Out of gratitude, I want to call my book about political theories Amor Mundi." She suffered through antisemitism, totalitarianism, and even genocide. But somehow, she was determined to not lose hope. Arendt eventually called her book The Human Condition (and Vita Activa in German). But what was Arendt grateful for? The question arises in the wake of terror attacks by ISIS in France and Lebanon over the past two days. Our hearts go out to the hundreds who died and the hundreds more who were wounded, senseless violence which forces us to ask ourselves: can we still find the ability to "love the world"? And if so, how? Here we look to Arendt, who leads us to recall that evil first enables the good. She writes in her Denktagebuch: "The Path of Wrong--anti-Semitism--imperialism--world historically--totalitarianism--. How is it that only the paths of wrong have been accessible, have been relevant, above all still had a relation to the actual questions, difficulties and catastrophes and that there are never paths of right and cannot be? This is the cardinal question." Arendt's point is that horrific wrongs are, in the end, the only meaningful events of human history. She quotes Hegel's maxim that "a ripped stocking is better than a dirty stocking," which she glosses to mean, "being ripped first makes noticeable the original unity.... The stocking thus appears as a 'living unity' in the ripped stocking precisely then when it proves its uselessness for life." All unity and thus all being begins in negation. For Arendt, it is in confronting evil and knowing it as it is that we can imagine the good and the just. Tragedies are part of human history; without the depths of evil, we would not climb the heights of the good. This is neither to justify or excuse evil nor to accept it. Against Hegel, Arendt insists that reality may at times simply be irreconcilable, that there are some evils so horrific that they cannot be loved. But still, evil carries with in the seeds of greater good. Even as we condemn the ugliness of evil, we also affirm that with evil comes the possibility of the good. That is the beauty of the human condition: amidst the darkness, new light can shine forth. The conviction that human action will light up the dark is how and why Arendt took such pride in being able to love the world.--RB

Missing the Obvious

ben carsonAmy Davidson debunks the debunkers who are trying to find mistakes and inconsistencies in Ben Carson's biography. She considers two of the more widespread stories, first that Carson made up a story about being given a small cash award for being the only student in a psychology class at Yale to have proven honest, and the second that he had been offered admission to West Point. For Davidson, in each instance, Carson's stories hold up better than the debunkers'. What Davidson finds troublesome, however, is why the media is so obsessed with trying to debunk Carson's biography while it refuses to seriously question his inaccurate and false claims underlying his policy proposals. "The odd thing is that the Carson campaign is what might be called a target-rich environment for journalists--or it should be. He has been utterly dismissive of climate change, and he has fostered the idea that vaccines cause autism. The numbers for his tax plan, insofar as there are any, don't add up. He has said that Joseph, of the coat of many colors, built the pyramids in order to store the grain of the seven fat years--a statement that, as I've written, was troubling not because we expect our Presidents to be up on the distinction between Early and Middle Kingdom dynasties but because Carson presented it as an example of why one should reject the theories of experts and scientists and turn, instead, to the Bible. Similarly, his claim that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had experience in elective office, when a great number of them did, is significant not only because it is false but because it speaks to a particular view of history and politics. (Carson later amended the statement to say that none had federal experience. Of course, they couldn't have, because there was no federal government when the Declaration was signed.) He has suggested that President Obama might declare martial law, and that the 2016 elections might be cancelled amid scenes of untenable civil disorder. He has compared Obamacare to slavery and to Nazism. He has also made what PolitiFact judged to be outright false statements in the last Republican debate about his ties to a nutritional-supplement company. (In contrast, PolitiFact rated Carson's description of West Point's 'scholarships' as mostly true.) Perhaps the problem isn't that the media is too partisan but that, in looking at Carson, there was a hope that there might be a non-partisan way to address a campaign whose success is hard for observers of American politics to understand."

You Like That?

critique of booksTim Parks wonders what it means that we don't all like the same books: "Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences? To have our contrasting positions emerge in response to these highly complex cultural artifacts? Not that superficial togetherness in celebration that the publishing industry, the literary festivals, and the interminable literary prizes are forever seeking to generate, the happy conviction that we have found a new literary hero and can all gloat together over his or her achievement. But all the heated debate that actually preceded the prize-giving; the shifting alliances as each book was discussed, the times you just couldn't believe that the fellow jurist who supported you over book A is now seriously proposing to ditch book B, and so on. In this view our reaction to literature becomes a repeated act of self-discovery. Our contrasting reactions to the books we read tell us who we are. We are our position in relation to each other as understood in the reaction to these books. Reading other peoples' takes on Primo Levi, or Murakami, or David Eggers, and comparing them to my own, I get some sense of who we all are and what we're up to. Sometimes this turns out to be far more interesting than reading the book itself. If this is the case, then, the important thing would be, first, really to understand one's own reaction, to observe it with great care; and, second, to articulate it honestly, without any fudging for fear that others might disagree. Though even a fudge is a declaration of identity. And nothing could be more common among the community of book reviewers than fudging."

amor_mundi_sign-upWhence Your Tomato?

farmer marketLouise O Fresco suggests that sustainable agriculture requires sacrificing a few sacred ideas but not just eating less meat: "The logic of farmers' markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That's fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it's a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well-organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours... our thinking about sustainability should not limit itself to technical optimisation or cost efficiency. There is a cultural dimension to factor in, too. Urban consumers in the US and other affluent countries might always respond to the humanity of small-scale, traditional farming. But we must reckon with the realities of current and future food production. The belief that only small-scale, non-mechanised agriculture without the use of chemicals respects biodiversity, and that tradition is key to the future, is illusory. In reality, small-scale unfertilised farming of annual crops or unregulated grazing in the tropics are major causes of destruction of soils and forests. In reality: an ever-declining number of farmers will need to feed rapidly growing megacities."  

Closing Frontiers

myanmarIn the wake of the elections in Myanmar, Francis Wade takes stock of the country's periphery: "To get something approaching an accurate reading of Burma today requires a process of telescoping in and out, of contrasting grand narratives with hyper-local experiences. The international fixation on Burma's transition, of which the November elections have been billed as the next step in democratization, if not the final leap to democracy, obfuscates the fact that processes begun decades ago in areas of the country little scrutinized by international observers will persist, regardless of whatever changes occur in government in the coming months. The manipulation of ethnic tensions has long been a principal strategy of Burma's rulers, for it locks ethnic groups in a state of perpetual instability that the military can profit by. The original Na Ta La villages were by and large built on land confiscated from the Rohingya, and therefore were deeply resented by Rohingya communities who could no longer work the soil and reap its produce. But these new settlers from central Burma and elsewhere in Rakhine State were also resented by local Rakhine who, while ideologically supportive of whatever strategy could weaken the Muslim population, knew that the scheme meant a further mixing of the Rakhine identity. And the Rakhine more recently resettled from Bangladesh have been gifted houses of a quality beyond the reach of most other Rakhine, thereby drawing ire from neglected communities among their own ethnicity, but also that of the Rohingya and of the older generation of resettled Bamar who, from their buckled wooden houses, wonder what became of their promises of a better life here. Burma's rulers have been able to triangulate communal tensions in Rakhine State, as they have elsewhere, in a way that keeps each ethnicity there in a state of persistent antipathy towards one another. Local tensions then distract from the workings of their real nemesis--the central state--and weaken any prospect of a cohesive front of persecuted minorities that could rally together against it. This has been the regime's crowning achievement, and its effects, both in Rakhine and all around Burma's periphery, have forever stunted the country's political and social development."   

The Right Feelings

yale universityJelani Cobb makes an important point writing in the New Yorker: "The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus--important but largely separate subjects--is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point." The shouts by many about the loss of free speech at Yale are overblown insofar as all the speech that has happened at Yale has been free and none of it has been punished or sanctioned (at least so far). The original letter from the Dean was a bland and bureaucratic missive sent to thousands of students. It represented a coherent if somewhat weak official plea. For many 18 year olds, such a plea might lead to a rebellious desire to do precisely what was counseled against. But the email itself was fine and affirmed the right of free speech. Similarly, the response by Erika Christakis was quite tame. It acknowledged the good intentions of the Dean's email, even agreed with them. Christakis simply raised an intellectual question, asking whether such good intentions were unintentionally having other negative impacts. In no way did Christakis incite students to uncivil or racist behavior. So too are the students within their rights to protest Christakis' email and to argue that they found it offensive. None of this raises free speech issues. Finally, the extensive discussions between Christakis, her husband, and the students have been exemplary models of impassioned speech, even if some of the students became uncivil at times. None of the speech crossed the boundary into hate speech. One should also note that there have been personal insults and even death threats hurled at a few of the students, all of which must be condemned. Even when students called for Christakis to be fired, that is protected speech. Overall, what we have seen throughout this controversy at Yale is quite hopeful. Unpopular speech was met with more speech. No one was censored. We should give the Yale administration, faculty, and students credit. Those involved have been engaged in a serious and difficult debate, one that has been waged vigorously and for the most part quite respectfully.

In defending the students at Yale, however, Cobb diminishes the problem that current racial discourses pose to a free society. His central thesis is: "These [systemic racial tensions (rb)] are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one's liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another." Cobb turns the controversy around: those arguing for free speech are powerful bullies imposing on the liberty of the students to make their case about the damage that systematic racism is doing to their campus. But to see the students as "relatively disempowered" and to imagine the press as bullies is to look past the fact that the students' case is frequently articulated in the absolutist language of affect and trauma. This is part of a broad movement on campus that holds that students should not be forced to confront ideas or texts that remind them of traumas. Just as Cobb is right to bring in the racial context at Yale to help understand the situation, so too is it important to recall the pervasive rhetoric of trauma, trigger warnings, and Title IX bureaucratic procedures to understand the worries of those defending free speech.

Take for example Cobb's discussion of the student demand to change the name of Yale's Calhoun College. He writes: "Six weeks ago, I participated in a forum at Yale on the massacre in Charleston. When the historian Edward Ball pointed out that the shootings had occurred on Calhoun Street, named for the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy, students immediately pointed out that Calhoun was an alumnus and that a college is still named for him. One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun's name from the college. (Holloway, who previously served as the master of Calhoun College, indicated that he had not yet decided how he would handle the matter.) To understand the real complexities of these students' situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors." Cobb raises a question: What does it mean for students (presumably of all races) to live in a building named for such a man? Good question. What does it mean? I imagine it means many, many things. For the vast majority of students, it means nothing. Some may, as Cobb implies, be bothered that Yale named a building for a man who fought for and justified chattel slavery in the South. But others might find it fascinating that Calhoun originally was a defender of Federal power but over time developed a constitutional and political theory designed to protect minority voices. That the minority Calhoun sought to protect was Southern whites does not necessarily reduce the power and importance of his efforts to develop constitutional protections against the power and potential tyranny of the majority. Students interested in questions of government corruption might also find it interesting that Calhoun as Secretary of War helped develop a professional bureaucracy that replaced the corrupt system of patronage appointments. One might hope that students living in a building named for Calhoun might be prompted to think about the republican and democratic principles at the foundation of American democracy alongside the fact that our democratic republic somehow emerged from out of a people that was deeply divided by economic, philosophical, as well as racial opinions. Would some students living in Calhoun dormitory be uneasy to know that he strongly defended chattel slavery? Surely. Are there better people to name a residential college for? Undoubtedly. But does Cobb's rhetorical question do justice to the complex question of what to do with monuments and celebrations of great persons who were also flawed? Hardly. Instead, Cobb seems to suggest that since some students might be upset by living in Calhoun dormitory, their feelings are determinative, the complexities of the issue fall away, and it is an affront to these students that Yale has refused to rename the dormitory. It may be time to rename the College--we should hear how people feel--but the demand that some feelings necessitate action is hardly an argument.

Many at Yale are defending the student reaction as part of an overall context of racial problems at Yale. That is a good argument, and I am excited to see how quickly the original threats and demands have morphed into a serious discussion about race and justice. This speaks well for the fate of serious and difficult debate at Yale.  It is time to reject the discourse of trauma and the idea of a college is a "safe space." We must resist those who demand firing and disciplining others for nothing more than expressing their considered opinions. This is a truly corrosive idea. And it is depoliticizing in the extreme. As Cobb and others are arguing, we need to replace the language of trauma with the practice of politics.--RB

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

Critical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita BischofCritical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof

In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno's death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin's disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk's essays and Bischof's introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.

Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm



How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reminds us that while human natality can make freedom appear and disappear, the busy nobody also has the capacity to block the initiative that would manifest human freedom in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on the true and the right as expedients in the way of our thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Christo Datso shares an image of his personal Arendt library that attempts to convey how every thinker, including Arendt, comes into connection with others in this week's Library feature.

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.

Dianoetic Laughter


By Charles Snyder

“… laughter, a humorous excitement that permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.”

-- Hannah Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism

Enter Michael Rubin. Resident scholar of Mideast policy at the American Enterprise Institute and former Pentagon official during the first term presidency of George W. Bush. It is important to grasp the reality of this person. He has written as an expert on the mentality of Iranians, and he asserts that Iranians and Americans “think in very different ways.” Rubin worries aloud about projecting our values onto those who “think” differently. To great effect, Rubin cites his knowledge that most Iranians are imperialistic and nationalistic, even condescending to other states. The expert attributes to Iranians possession of the concept “near abroad.” With this concept, Iranians chalk up nearby states in the same manner Vladimir Putin considers the “near abroad” of Russia, that is, by assuming a right to exert major influence in that region. For dramatic illustration of how different Iranians “think,” the expert invokes the image of inexperienced Americans and Europeans being fleeced in Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square. That’s right. Rubin can also be funny.

Charles Snyder
Charles Snyder studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research (PhD 2014). He is a Fellow at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Hamburg, and Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. His current research addresses the reception of Plato’s dialogues in antiquity, with particular interest in the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period.

The Many Origins of Totalitarianism


On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Collection at Bard College, we came across this section of books seen below:

origins of totalitarianismDisplayed in the image are several different copies of Hannah Arendt's masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as a few other works. The leftmost books evident in the photograph are "Antisemitism," "Imperialism," and "Totalitarianism," or the three main parts of Arendt's Origins. These are followed by a tome entitled Elemente Totalitärer Herrschaft, which is German for "The Origins of Totalitarianism." Next up is another set of "Antisemitism," "Imperialism," and "Totalitarianism" printed by a different publisher, followed by several additional translations of Arendt's book as well as general works on totalitarian states. Three from the right, one can see a copy of Crises of the Republic, in which Arendt discusses some of the challenges posed to the American form of government during the 1970s and 1980s.

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we might feature them on our blog!

The Hannah Arendt Collection at Bard College is maintained by staff members at the Bard College Stevenson Library. To peruse the collection's digital entries, please click here.

For more Library photos, please click 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.

The Conditions of “Savages”

savages - heart of darkness

By Michiel Bot

“The danger is that a global, universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.”

-- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt argues in the final chapter of part 2 (“Imperialism”) of The Origins of Totalitarianism that the main problem of contemporary politics is not that existing political institutions may be insufficiently capable of accommodating people who do not belong to a nation-state that guarantees and protects their rights (stateless people, refugees, minorities). Instead, the problem is that the existing political institutions, i.e. a network of nation-states that covers the entire world without remainder, actively produce these people by excluding them. This is why people who are not citizens/members of a nation-state are not marginal to politics but are, as Arendt argues, “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”

Michiel Bot
Michiel Bot is a Hannah Arendt Center Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College, where he teaches in Political Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University in 2013.

The Nation Principle


Marburg, July 1952

Ad imperialism: Imperialism, i.e. the idea of empire carried by the nation, has perished because wherever the nation appears, it engenders nations according to its own principle. This is, concretely, how the “conquest” of the world by the West took place, except that it wasn’t a real conquest and that assimilation to the conquering people [Eroberervolk] was just as impossible as the introduction of its own law.

The real tragedy in this process lies in the fact that the West only set out on its triumphant course over the earth at the moment when expansion had become the only way out of the national problems that had become insoluble. The nation spread across the earth when it had been proven that nation-states do not have the potential of conducting world politics. Thus, Europe by definition not only exported the national idea but “nationalism” as a desperate flight from the collapse of the nation-state. In this process, or at its end, the “nation” separated itself from the “state,” hoping that the problem was with the concept of the state. With that began the tribal [völkische] stage of nationalism; one step further on this extraordinarily lopsided plain appeared race, in which the people [Volk] had also separated itself from the soil and had become a devastating [verwüstende] horde. Thus collapsed the holy national trinity of people [Volk]-state-territory. Today, after the collapse of the imperialist experiment and in light of the totally-totalitarian menace, we have states behind which the people [Volk] no longer stands; territories that will no longer be defended against foreign conquerors by their inhabitants; and peoples [Völker] that are neither organized and protected by the state nor “enrooted” in the soil. This is the space of the desert, in which the sand storms are unleashed.

(Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, pp. 216-7 (entry number 22), translation mine.)

Written three years after Arendt finished the original manuscript of The Origins of Totalitarianism, this very dense entry in Arendt’s Denktagebuch (“think diary”) revisits several of the main arguments developed in part 2, “Imperialism,” of that book. I will draw primarily on Origins to unpack it.

Michiel Bot
Michiel Bot is a Hannah Arendt Center Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College, where he teaches in Political Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University in 2013.

Video Archives – “Lying and Politics: Democracy and Lying” (2011)


Friday, March 4, 2011: “Lying and Politics: Democracy and Lying”


-- George Kateb, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, Emeritus at Princeton University.

-- Jerome Kohn, Director Hannah Arendt Center The New School for Social Research

George Kateb is a prominent political theorist who has written on Arendt before, including in his book Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil. In his 2011 talk at Bard’s Graduate Center in New York City, Kateb speaks at length on the effect of an imperialistic foreign policy on the state of a democracy. He frames his lecture around the ideal of governmental transparency. Most fundamentally, Kateb argues against reliance on what he calls “untruth” in politics: secrets, propaganda, exaggeration, denial, and outright lying.

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.

Video Archives – Lunchtime Talk with Bill Dixon (2010)


(Featured Image Source: Catholic Social Teaching in Action)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010: Lunchtime Talk with Bill Dixon

Participants: Bill Dixon, then a post-doctoral fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

In his Lunchtime Talk, Bill Dixon outlines a new critique of globalization.

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.

Video Archives – Panel One of “The Burden of Our Times” (2009)


A new weekly feature on the Blog, the Arendt Center uses its video archives to remember all of the exciting events it has hosted over the years. This week, it revisits the first panel of its second annual fall conference, "The Burden of Our Times."

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.

Loneliness and Expansive Writing



In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt asks after the “elements” of totalitarianism, those fundamental building blocks that made possible an altogether new and horrific form of government. The two structural elements she locates are the emergence of a new ideological form of Antisemitism and the rise of transnational imperialist movements, which gives the structure to her book: Part One (Antisemitism) and Part Two (Imperialism) lead into Part Three (Totalitarianism). Underlying both Antisemitism and Imperialism is what Arendt calls metaphysical rootlessness and metaphysical loneliness.


Totalitarian government, Arendt writes, “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The loneliness of modern humanity is multifaceted. It is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have become acute with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of political institutions and social traditions in our own time.” The image of the factory worker laboring repetitively on a conveyor belt is forever associated with Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, David Reisman describes how middle class Americans had lost their meaningful connections to religion, to class, and to family. They take their values increasingly from a mass culture and they become malleable and subject to the influence of propaganda and advertising.

“Metaphysical rootlessness,” Arendt argues, is both the “basic experience” of modern society and also the generative impulse behind ideological racisms (which Arendt distinguishes from older non-scientific versions of racism). Without a core of personal and collective identity, the lonely mass man is “the common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology or logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” Racism is based in hatred of a world in which lonely and rootless people are confronted with their meaninglessness, their belonging to no place, and their superfluousness. It is these masses that seek to build an imaginary and coherent togetherness based on race. Thus is rootlessness characteristic of all racism and all totalitarianism.

In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

The question underlying so much of Arendt’s work is how to respond to what she calls “the break in tradition,” the fact that the political, social, and intellectual traditions that bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks have frayed beyond repair. The customs and traditions that for millennia were the unspoken common sense of peoples can no longer be presumed. Stripped of these meaningful institutions of transcendence, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. Arendt ask repeatedly, how are we to make life meaningful, how are we to inure individuals from the seduction of ideological movements that lend weight to their meaningless lives?

If metaphysical loneliness is the basic experiences of modern life, then it is not surprising that great modern literature would struggle with the agony of such disconnection and seek to articulate paths of reconnection. That, indeed, is the thesis of Wyatt Mason’s essay “Make This Not True,” in this week’s New York Review of Books. Modern fiction, Mason argues, struggles to answer the question: How can we live and die and not be alone?

In the guise of a review of George Saunders Tenth of September (a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award), Mason suggests at least three paradigmatic answers to this question “How do I die?” The answers are represented alternatively by three of the greatest contemporary writers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Saunders. In brief, Wallace combats the loneliness and inattention of the distracted masses by writing prose that is so seductively difficult that it demands attentiveness and thus membership in a community of readers. Franzen seeks the antidote to loneliness in palpable scenes of connection amidst the wreckages of modern relationships. For both Wallace and Franzen, connection is to be found in the cultivation of quintessentially modern relationships.

Flickr - Manky M.

Flickr - Manky M.

Saunders is notable for pursing a different path through the wilderness of contemporary isolation. Instead of external connections, Saunders is a master of the inward journey we must make alone. For Mason, there is an important link between Saunder’s Buddhism and his writing:

In Buddhist practice, through sitting meditation, the mind may be schooled in the way of softness, openness, expansiveness. This imaginative feat—of being able to live these ideas—is one of enormous subtlety. What makes Saunders’s work unique is not its satirical verve or its fierce humor but its unfathomable capacity to dramatize, in story form, the life-altering teachings of such a practice. … [I]f fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.

Mason’s essay is subtle and profound. It is your weekend read. And if you have the time, read Saunders’ masterful short story, "The Falls", which Mason discusses at length in his essay. Best of all, order Tenth of December. I spent a few rapturous days reading Saunders’ stories this summer. They can warm your January as well.


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.

Geography is not Destiny


How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.

Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.

Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.

There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.

He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.

Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.

Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.

-Jeffrey 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.

The Euro-Crisis, Seyla Benhabib’s Cosmopolitanism, and Arendt’s Defense of Politics


From Athens to Madrid, the European crisis has entered yet another of its "decisive" phases —how many decisive phases can one crisis have?  Reflecting on Europe has brought to mind Seyla Benhabib's 2004 Tanner Lectures on cosmopolitan universalism, which itself was inspired by Hannah Arendt's comments on international law in the epilogue and postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe might seem to have little to do with Benhabib's discourse ethics or Arendt's affirmation of the limits of international law, but it does. Let me explain.

The debt crisis in Europe is not an economic crisis. It is a political crisis. The Euro-zone created a common currency without a common political system. This worked great for a while as countries benefitted from integration and stability of the Euro. But now that debt and recession plague Europe, indebted countries like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal are losing control of their politics.

The typical response to over-indebtedness in democratic countries is to devalue one's currency. This causes massive inflation, allowing the debts to be paid. It is painful in the short term and everyone's buying power decreases and the standard of living suffers. But devaluation resets the economy and allows for growth free from the straight-jacket of debt.

It is of course possible to achieve the same effect of devaluation within the Euro zone. The Euro zone could issue Euro bonds, which would be inflationary and allow the indebted countries to pay off their Euro-debts with plentiful and cheap Euros. This is the solution that French President Francois Hollande and others are pushing.

The problem in the Euro-zone is that countries without debt problems don't want to devalue the Euro and thus lower their purchasing power. Without the political sense of a common fate, Germans do not want to suffer for the sake of the Greeks. What is more, the Germans have no faith that if they bail the Greeks out now, the Greeks will reform their profligate ways and not come back for another bailout in a few years. The result is the current crisis of austerity. Or so it seems.

Behind the scenes there is another debate that few are paying attention to. Amidst the repeated rejection of Euro bonds by Germany's leaders is the insertion of a caveat. Euro bonds would be possible if they came with treaty reform, say Germans like Joshcka Fisher and economic leaders like European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. In essence, Germany is willing to bail out Europe, but only if the countries in the Euro zone agree to give up a substantial amount of their sovereignty over economic policy. What Germany wants is for decisions about budgets and deficits and tax policy to be set by European bureaucrats not by democratically elected leaders. If the struggling Euro zone countries agree to those conditions, there is a good chance Germany will agree to bail them out with Euro bonds. And Europe will move closer to a United States of Europe, but one dominated by economic bureaucrats rather than a democratic legislature.

The connection between European politics and Hannah Arendt is important. What Germany is demanding is that Europe abandon its decentralized political control over economic matters and cede decision-making to an apolitical centralized European bureaucracy.  Behind such a desire is the subordination of politics to economics that Hannah Arendt saw as one of the defining features of the modern age.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics underlies imperialism. Imperialism has its economic roots in the “realm of business speculation”-specifically the bursting of an investment bubble in the 1870s. As national entrepreneurs sought new markets, they enlisted state support for economic expansion. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central idea of imperialism.” The rise of imperialism and the spread of economic thinking in the political sphere means, Arendt argues, that politics becomes subservient to economics.

Arendt fears the confusion of economics and politics and especially the elevation of economics over politics. Since politics demands the imposition of limits and “stabilizing forces that stand in the way of constant transformation and expansion,” she argues that imperialist expansion brought with it a grave and destabilizing threat to the political order. When politics under the sway of economic imperatives is forced to expand on the world stage, political leaders must offer ideologies that give meaning to an ever-larger, undefined, disconnected, and homeless mass, a population that replaces a citizenry. Under the economic imperatives of growth, politics becomes world politics. 

It is an open question today whether politics can return to a political activity that sets moral, ethical, and economic limits on human action. The reason is that we are increasingly suspicious of action, which is, by its nature, free, spontaneous, surprising and unpredictable. Whether we are Germans seeking economic stability, Americans demanding that the Federal government limit the states in their right to deliver (or not deliver) education or healthcare, or human rights activists insisting that individual states conform to international cosmopolitan norms of behavior, the liberal and centralizing demand that people behave well according to cosmopolitan standards rubs against Arendt's democratic insistence that politics must leave space for local, bounded, and undisciplined action.

And here we can return to Seyla Benhabib's call in her Tanner lectures for a new cosmopolitan universalism. Benhabib has initiated an important engagement with Arendt and human rights, one that embraces Arendt's formulation of a "right to have rights" but also resists Arendt's efforts to limit the scope of that universal right. We should all be grateful for the clear-sighted way Benhabib raises this crucial question.

Arendt seeks her bearings in reformulating human rights from her experiences of the Jews and other minority peoples during and preceding the holocaust. The true “calamity of the rightless” in the middle of the 20th century, Arendt writes, is “not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion... but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.”  Human rights reflect the legalized exclusion of human beings from civilized communities and these human rights are “much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are the rights of citizens.” The rights of man, in other words, are not revealed by the deprivation of specific rights, but by the plight of those who are expelled from all rights; the truly rightless are those who are so oppressed that they are deprived of legal status so that no one will even oppress them. It is this total deprivation of rights that makes manifest the one truly human right, what Arendt calls the “right to have rights.”

In thinking about Arendt's enigmatic formula, Benhabib has worried that Arendt simply does not offer a full and philosophical elucidation of the right to have rights. The "right to have rights" partakes of a "philosophical perplexity"; to invoke the "right to have rights" is to give certain rights "a binding power over and beyond the moral obligation that they impose on moral agents." The rights in the "right to have rights" are not mere "oughts," but are universal, cosmopolitan norms. Or at least that is what Benhabib wants to argue, with and against Arendt.

If Arendt remained suspicious of international norms that would be applied in international courts, Benhabib argues that the last 50 years have witnessed an "evolution of global civil society that is characterized by a transition from international to cosmopolitan norms of justice." She embraces the term "cosmopolitanism," which she argues has rightly become one of the key words of our time. What cosmopolitanism means, for Benhabib, is the "carrying of universalistic norms" of a common truth that is inter-subjective rather than metaphysical. In short, Benhabib argues that cosmopolitan norms are emerging in our times that give basic human rights to individuals and can even bind state actors.

Benhabib’s interpretation of the "right to have rights" is appealing, especially in the face of, for example, the ongoing inhumane treatment of Shiites in Syria. Yet, as Benhabib herself recognizes, her reading complicates Arendt’s hard-minded characterization of the right to have rights as “a right to belong to some kind of community.” Arendt means the right “to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions.” In doing so, Arendt excludes the traditional civil rights of life and liberty that Benhabib wants to read into Arendt’s formula. Arendt is careful to distinguish human rights to the rights to be treated humanely that Benhabib seeks to encode in a newly emerging cosmopolitan institutionalization of human rights.  For reasons at the core of Arendt’s thinking, Arendt clearly limits the right to have rights and thus human rights to only two rights, the right to act and the right to speak.

The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”  Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act—to be effectual and meaningful in a public world—that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.

Benhabib has good reasons to want to expand the cosmopolitan basis of Arendt's "right to have rights." It is important to see, however, that the desire to strengthen a cosmopolitan foundation for human rights places stability and security above action in much the same as the present German desire to subordinate Greeks and Spaniards to a pan-European regime of responsible citizenship. Both are motivated by a desire for security, stability, and standards. And both elevate the institutional application of cosmopolitan universal norms (economic norms in Europe, human rights norms internationally) over the messiness of local political action.

At a time of economic crisis and humanitarian crises, the great uncertainty of our world will militate toward ever more centralization and thus ever less space for action. Benhabib is certainly alive to these tensions and has answers to many of them. You can read her account here. It is your weekend read.

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".

Roger Berkowitz on Arendt’s Reading of Imperialism


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: