“The wonder that man endures or which befalls him cannot be related in words because it is too general for words….That this speechless wonder is the beginning of philosophy became axiomatic for both Plato and Aristotle.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Philosophy and Politics"
Aristotle had told us that philosophy begins in thaumázein-- θαυμάζειν –“to wonder, marvel, be astonished.” In the New Testament, the word appears only twice. In the parallel occurrences (Matthew 27:14 and Mark 15:5), Pilate marvels at the fact that Jesus says nothing. What is significant is that thaumázein is associated there with an experience for which there were no words. The word means a kind of an initial wordless astonishment at what is, at that that is is. For Aristotle, thaumázein is the beginning of philosophy as wonder. It is not for the Greeks, therefore, the beginning of political philosophy.
Key here is the fact of speechlessness. This wonder “cannot be related in words because it is too general for words.” Arendt suggests that Plato encountered it in those moments in which Socrates, “as though seized by a rapture, [fell] into complete motionlessness, just staring without seeing or hearing anything.” It follows that “ultimate truth is beyond words.” Nevertheless, humans want to talk about that which cannot be spoken. “As soon as the speechless state of wonder translates itself into words, it … will formulate in unending variations what we call the ultimate questions.” These questions – what is being? Who is the human being? What is the meaning of life” what is death? And so forth “have in common that they cannot be answered scientifically.” Thus Socrates “I know that I do not know” is actually an expression that opens the door to the political, public realm, in the recognition that nothing that can be said there can ever have the quality of being final.
According to Arendt, Socrates has three distinct aspects. First he arouses citizens from their slumber – this is the gadfly who gets others to think, to think about those topics for which there is no final answer. Secondly as “midwife” he decides – he makes evident – whether an opinion is fit to live or is merely an unimpregnated “wind-egg” (cf Theateatus 152a; 157d; 161a): Greek midwives not only assisted in the delivery but determined if the new-born was healthy enough to live. Socrates concludes his discussion in the Theateatus (210b) by saying all they have done is to produce a mere wind-egg and that he must leave as he has to get to the courthouse for his trial. Lastly, as stinging ray, Socrates paralyzes in two ways. He makes you stop and think; he destroys the certainty one has of received opinions. Arendt is clear that this can be dangerous. She goes on to say that “thinking is … dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed,” but she is equally clear that “non-thinking … has its dangers [which are] the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.” To think is dangerous: but to think is to desire wisdom, what is not there. It is thus a longing; it is eros and, as with all things erotic, “to bring this relationship into the open, make it appear, men speak about it in the same way that the lover wants to speak of his beloved.” Where does this leave one? For the most part, in normal times, thinking is not of political use. It is, however, of use, in times when the “center does not hold,” in times of crisis.
At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters. When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by whatever everyone else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conscious and thereby becomes a kind of action. The purging element … is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgment, … the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until the grow into habits.
Suppose we read Arendt as saying that political philosophy must now turn and thaumázein – and wonder – not at that what is, is, but at the human reality, at the world of human activity. This would involve a change in philosophy – for which she says philosophers are not particularly well equipped. She thinks such a turn would rest on and derive from several elements – she mentions in particular Jaspers’ reformulation of truth as transcending the realm that can be instrumentally controlled, thus related to freedom; Heidegger’s analysis of ordinary everyday life; and existentialism’s insistence on action. It will be an inquiry into the “political significance of thought; that is into the meaningfulness and the conditions of thinking for a being that never exists in the singular and whose essential plurality is far from explored when an I-Thou relationship is added to the traditional understanding of human nature.”
What is problematic with purely philosophical thaumázein? The Thracian maid who appears in the title to Jacques Taminiaux’s book and stands for Arendt in his analysis derives from an account in the Theateatus. Upon encountering Thales who, all-focused in his wondering, had fallen into a well, the maid notes that the philosopher had “failed to see what was in front of him.” Mary-Jane Robinson notes four elements to Arendt’s suspicion of excessive wonder, a suspicion one assumes was directed at Heidegger. First, such wonder allows avoidance of the messiness of the everyday world; secondly, such “uncritical openness” leads philosophers to be “swept away by dictators.” Thirdly, such wonder alienates the philosopher (as with Heidegger post-1945) from the world around him, and lastly, such openness to the mystery of the world, “disables decision making.”
If politics is the realm of how humans appear to each other when they act and speak, from whence does it come? The only possible answer is that politics is an emergence from a realm which is neither that of action nor that of speech. The political emerges from nothingness. Perhaps this is the realm to which poetry can call us – and some of Arendt’s most moving essays are on poetry and literature – but such a realm is not political. In this sense there is a limit to political science, as there is to all science. For Arendt, there are no underlying causes out of which that which is political must emerge. This is why political action is always for her a beginning and a marvel for which we have to try to find words.
James Dean reading James Whitcomb Riley in his Aunt's kitchen in Indiana, 1955.
“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands...Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship...But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse...The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”
-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24
As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”
Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.
When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result...is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”
But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner--‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle...in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life--those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.
Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.
When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal...mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’--as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”
A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost...I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself--free like a leaf in the wind...And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere...Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten--And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’--In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”
“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
“And wonder what you’ve missed”
- W. H. Auden, as quoted in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind
At the end of the second-to-last chapter of the Thinking section of The Life of the Mind , Hannah Arendt quotes two stanzas from W. H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening, the first of which is the following:
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
Arendt thus ends a chapter containing no prior reference to Auden with two significant quotes by him, offering no further comment of her own. This lies in stark contrast to her treatment of the quote from The Tempest, which directly precedes the Auden quote; she relates Shakespeare’s metaphors very clearly to the subject matter of the chapter. Why, then, do Auden and his quotes have free rein?
In her essay “Remembering Wystan H. Auden,” written shortly after Auden’s death, Arendt describes their relationship as “very good friends but not intimate friends.” The rest of her tribute reveals her profound respect for Auden not just as a friend, but also as a writer and thinker. This respect is further indicated by their letter exchanges and the vast collection of Auden’s books in Arendt’s personal library; and it is reciprocated by Auden, who in 1959 reviewed The Human Condition for the magazine Encounter, describing within it the “jealous possessiveness” he experienced due to the close connection he felt with the book. Years later, Arendt dedicated her lecture Thinking and Moral Considerations to Auden. Shakespeare’s presence is to be noted in both this lecture and Auden’s essay The Fallen City. Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, upon which Arendt voiced her opinions in a letter to Auden. Arendt’s placement of the Shakespeare and Auden quotes in close proximity to each other in The Life of the Mind creates an illumination of each text by the other, as we will see later.
In order to unfold the meaning of the quote from As I Walked Out One Evening, however, one should consider the poem in its entirety. As two stanzas excerpted from a 15-stanza whole and presented without context, their meaning appears at first glance to be rather abstract. The poem focuses on humankind’s fight against time, explored mostly through a song sung by “a lover,” which the speaker of the poem overhears. This bears strong relation to one of the main questions explored by Arendt in her chapter: that of the position of the thinking ego in time, and its constant battle against both the past and the future. However, while Arendt concentrates on temporal freedom within the present realm of thought, which exists in an area bound to but not trapped in the midst of this battle, Auden’s focus is on the inevitability of “Time”, which is capitalized as such and portrayed as an ever more malignant force of nature. The description of the “crowds upon the pavement” as “fields of harvest wheat” in the first stanza already hints at death, evoking the Grim Reaper and time as a sickle on its way to sever our lives. The first explicit reference to Time appears in the sixth stanza:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
This context sheds light on the two stanzas quoted by Arendt. Even the exclamation “O” increases in its significance; one hears in the background of one’s mind odes from literary practices of centuries past, and ruminates on the continuity of traditions, considering Time’s role in it as both a destructive and constructive force, especially in light of Arendt’s own ruminations regarding the discontinuity of “the Roman trinity that for thousands of years united religion, authority, and tradition.” Her related notion of a “fragmented past” resonates with the second of the two stanzas by Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”
The reiteration of the words “plunge” and “stare” in the first quoted stanza leads one to consider the significance of repetition, a technique that Auden employs throughout the poem, in the context of time. Repetition can be perceived as a loop of time, giving it a plurality (for example, describing the word as being used two times) while also somewhat of a stationary character, since physical time has elapsed but mental time has not, instead revolving around itself and meditating on the same idea in a suspended state. Auden’s poem thus offers us another way of approaching Arendt’s consideration of time as experienced by the thinking ego.
The physical imagery employed by Auden reveals water to be an especially powerful metaphor for time. The poem concludes with: “The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on,” portraying the constancy of time, ever running, even when our own human efforts to measure or control time have stopped or failed. The eighth stanza also contains a subtle evocation of water: “In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away”; in this context, our personal lifetime is the water that we cannot imperviously contain. This aids our understanding of the image of water in the basin in the first quoted stanza. Containing water in the basin represents our attempts to control and preserve time in a human construct, but, despite all these efforts, we cannot grasp time in our hands, no matter how deeply we “plunge” our hands into the water. Instead we can only “stare, stare” at our reflection, and “wonder what you’ve missed”. These four words are possibly the key to unlocking the relationship between this poem and The Life of the Mind. The physical reflection of oneself in the basin’s water prompts a mental reflection on the passage of time; time is once again suspended as our thinking ego considers our past. But perhaps Time is even more malevolent, in that while we stare at our reflection (the verb “stare” itself having rather stern connotations, in contrast to words such as “look” or “gaze”), physical time is still passing, and we are consequently “miss[ing]” even more of or from our lives as we try to deduce what the past has already robbed from us.
In her interpretation of the Tempest quote preceding the Auden citation, Arendt presents a rather different view of the water-time metaphor. The sea here represents an infinite expanse of time containing “fragments from the past”, the “pearls” and “coral” that do not pass away but are modified by the time they spend in the sea. As two stanzas extracted from an entirety of fifteen, Arendt presents Auden’s words as “pearls” and invites us to play a part in the continuity of this poem and the thinking ego within it, saving it and treasuring its “sea-change” through the generations.
The New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.
I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did. There are huge numbers of talented people who are simply not intellectuals and don’t enjoy or get much out of college. This is not destiny. A great or good teacher might perk them up. But largely it is a waste of their time and money for them to struggle through (or sleep through) classes that bore them. If anything, the forced march through Shakespeare and Plato make these students less engaged, cynical, and self-centered as they turn from common sense to the internal pursuit of self interest in partying and life in private.
The story should raise the big question that everyone tiptoes around in this current debate about college: Who should go to college?
The obvious answer is those who want to and those who care about ideas. Those who see that in thinking and reading and talking about justice, democracy, the scientific method, and perspective, we are talking about what it means to live in a large, democratic, bureaucratic country at a time of transition from an industrial to a information-age economy. College, in other words, is for those people who want to think about their world. It is for people who are willing and eager to turn to the great thinkers who came before them and, also, the innovative scientists and artists who have revealed hidden secrets about the natural and the human worlds. It is, in other words, for intellectuals. And this of course raises the “E” question: the question of elitism.
It is folly to think that everyone is or should be interested in such an endeavor. In no society in history have intellectuals been anything but a small minority of the population. This is not a question of privilege. There is no reason to think that those who love ideas are better or more qualified than those who work the earth, build machines, or engineer websites. It may very well be otherwise.
Hannah Arendt was clear that intellectuals had no privileged position in politics. On the contrary, she worried that the rise of intellectuals in politics was specifically dangerous. Intellectuals, insofar as they could get lost in and captivated by ideas, are prone to lose sight of reality in the pursuit of grand schemes. And intellectuals, captivated by the power of reason, are susceptible to rationalizations that excuse wrongs like torture or suicide bombing as means necessary for greater goods. The increasing dominance of intellectuals in politics, Arendt argued, is one of the great dangers facing modern society. She thus welcomed the grand tradition of the American yeoman farmer and affirmed that there is no need to go to college to be an engaged citizen or a profound thinker. The last of our Presidents who did not attend college was Abraham Lincoln. He did just fine. It is simply ridiculous to argue that college is a necessary credential for statesmanship.
While intellectuals have no special claim to leadership or prominence, they are nevertheless important. Intellectuals—those who think— are those people in society who stand apart from the mainstream pressures of economy and influence and outside the political movements of advocacy and propaganda. In the Arendtian tradition, intellectuals are or can be conscious pariahs, those who look at their societies from the outside and thus gain a perspective from distance that allows them to understand and comprehend the society in ways that people deeply embedded within it cannot. Those who stand apart from society and think are important, first because they preserve and deepen the stories and tales we as a society tell about ourselves. In writing poetry, making art, building monuments, writing books, and giving speeches, intellectuals help lend meaning and gravity to the common sense we have of ourselves as a people.
One problem we have in the current debate is that College has morphed into an institution designed to do many (too many) things. On the one hand, college has historically been the place for the education of and formation of intellectuals. But for many decades if not many centuries, that focus has shifted. Today College is still a place for the life of the mind. But it is also a ticket into the middle or upper-middles classes and it is equally a job-training and job-certification program. Of course, it is also a consumer good that brands young people with a certain mystique and identity. For many localities colleges are, themselves, job creation machines, bringing with them all sorts of new businesses and throwing off patents and graduating students that reinvigorate local communities. The university is now a multiversity, to invoke Clark Kerr’s famous term. When we talk about college today, the debate is complicated by these multiple roles.
It is difficult to raise such issues today because they smack of elitism. Since college-educated people think they are superior to those without a fancy diploma, their egalitarianism then insists that everyone should have the same experience. We are not supposed to entertain the idea that some people may not want to go to college. Instead, we are told that if they had a better education, if they knew better, if they just were taught to understand, they would all want to sit in classrooms and read great books or do exciting experiments.
We are stuck today with what Hannah Arendt called, in a related context, the “democratic mentality of an egalitarian society that tends to deny the obvious inability and conspicuous lack of interest of large parts of the population in political matters as such.” In politics, Arendt argued that what was needed were public spaces from which a self-chose “élite could be selected, or rather, where it could select itself.” Similarly, in education today, colleges should be the spaces where those who want to select themselves as an educated élite might lose themselves in books and experiments and amongst paintings and symphonies. There is simply no reason to assume that most people in society need to or should be interested in such an endeavor.
One reason the question of elitism is so present in debates about college is the disgusting and degenerate state of American public high schools. If high schools provided a serious and meaningful civic education, if they taught not simply reading and writing and arithmetic, but history and art—and taught these well—we would not need to send students to remedial education in college where they could be taught these subjects a second time. While many academics wring their hands about making college available to all, they might do much better if they focused on high schools and grammar schools around the country. If we were to redistribute the billions of dollars we spend on remedial college education to serious reform efforts in high schools, that money would be very well spent.
To raise the question of elitism means neither that college should be open only to the rich and connected (on the contrary, it should be open to all who want it), nor that the educated elite is to be segregated from society and kept apart in an ivory tower. When one reads Shakespeare, studies DNA, or dances with Bill T. Jones, one is not simply learning for learning's sake. Few understood this better than John Finley, Greek Professor at Harvard, who wrote General Education in a Free Society in 1945. Finley had this to say about the purposes of a college education:
The heart of the problem of a general education is the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition. Neither the mere acquisition of information nor the development of special skills and talents can give the broad basis of understanding which is essential if our civilization is to be preserved…. Unless the educational process includes at each level of maturity some continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance, it must fall short of the ideal.
What college should offer—as should all education at every level except for the most specialized graduate schools—is the experience of thinking and coming to engage with the world in which one lives. College is, at its best, an eye opening experience, an opportunity for young people to learn the foundational texts and also be exposed to new cultures, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. The ideas of justice, truth, and beauty one learns are not valuable in themselves; they are meaningful only insofar as they impact and inform our daily lives. To read Plato’s Republic is to ask: what are the value of the ideas of good and the just? It is also to meditate on the role of music and art in society. And at the same time, it is to familiarize oneself with characters like Socrates and Plato who, in the world we share, epitomize the qualities of morality, heroism, and the pursuit of the truth wherever it might lead. This can also be done in high schools. And it should be.
It is simply wrong to think such inquiries are unworldly or overly intellectual. Good teachers teach great texts not simply because the books are old, but because they are meaningful. And young students return to these books generation after generation because they find in them stories, examples, and ideas that inspire them to live their lives better and more fully.
As Leon Botstein, President of Bard College where the Hannah Arendt Center is located, writes in his book Jefferson’s Children,
No matter how rigorous the curriculum, no matter how stringent the requirements, if what goes on in the classroom does not leave its mark in the way young adults voluntarily act in private and in public while they are in college, much less in the years after, then the college is not doing what it is supposed to do.
The basic question being asked today is: Is college worthwhile? It is a good question. Too many colleges have lost their way. They no longer even understand what they are here to offer. Faculty frequently put research above teaching. Administration is the fastest growing segment of university education, which is evidence if anything is that universities simply do not know what their mission is anymore. It is no wonder, then, that many of our brightest young people will begin to shy away from the thoughtless expectation that one must attend college.
All around us, people are opting out of college. The mania for online education is at least in part fueled by the hunger for knowledge from students and others who do not want or need to attend college. The Times highlights Uncollege and other organizations that advocate “hacking” your education. Recall that Lincoln was better schooled in the classics of poetry and politics than most every college educated President who followed him. At a time when many colleges are so confused and trying to do so many things, they often do none well. It may be the case today that we need to evolve new networks and new organizations where intellectualism can flourish. And it may be small liberal arts colleges that are more flexible and more able to make that transition than large, bureaucratic research institutions.
The real question this debate needs to raise, but avoids, is: Who should get a college education? The answer, “not everyone,” is one few want to hear. And yet it might be the beginning of a real conversation about what a college education is for and why we are today so often failing to provide it to our students.
“The accusative of violence, like that of love, destroys the in-between, crushes or burns it, renders the other defenseless, strips itself of protection. In contrast to this stands the dative of saying and speaking, which confirms the in-between, moves within it. Then again there is the accusative of the singing poem, which removes and releases what it sings from the in-between and its relations, without confirming anything. When poetry and not philosophy absolutizes, there’s rescue.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, p. 428 [August 1953], (my translation.)
When I was in college, puzzling over Arendt’s work for the first time, I read Hanna Pitkin’s famous essay “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” which contains some of the most-quoted words ever written about The Human Condition: “What is it that they talk about together, in that endless palaver in the agora?” This question grew in part out of Arendt’s love of the troublesome phrase “for its own sake,” which, when used to characterize political action, seemed to imply that genuine action had to be about nothing but itself, gloriously pointless: praxis as peacock-feather. Yet at other times Arendt took the edge off of this austerity: “Most words and deeds,” she says, almost offhandedly, “are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent.” They talked about a thousand mundane things.
This week’s passage, drawn from Hannah Arendt’s notebooks from 1953, elegantly uses a grammatical idea to hold these two thoughts together. As readers of German will know, the “accusative” and the “dative” are two of German’s four grammatical cases, in which pronouns and nouns are changed, or given specific endings, to signal their relationship to another part of a sentence. The accusative case is used, roughly, when something is the direct object of a verb—when we are in the register of cause and effect, you might say, in which one thing “accuses” another through the linguistic mark it bears of an action that was taken upon it. The dative case, by contrast, is used for indirect objects, and originally with objects to which or to whom something is given. (And that means, incidentally, that acknowledging givenness isn’t a matter of submitting to the brute, determining force of things as they are: to be given something is not to be struck with it, no matter how unalterable it may be.)
These are very different kinds of relationship, as Arendt emphasizes by tying this grammatical distinction to her oft-repeated contrast between violence and speech; but they are also relationships that can exist, side by side or even hand in hand, in a single course of action. It happens all the time in language: we give something (accusative) to someone (dative); or, as Arendt says elsewhere in her notebooks, we speak about something (über, accusative) with others (mit, dative). She also suggests that speech that isn’t about anything—speech that has lost its “Über”—isn’t an admirable exemplar of human freedom, but merely the “last residuum” of speech; bare, formal logic; on its way to silence.
And, although Arendt herself doesn’t make this point explicitly, we might also notice that the phrase “for the sake of” (um...willen in German) indicates yet another kind of relationship, for it takes the genitive case, the case of possession (for God’s sake). The “sake” in “for the sake of” is also a cause, but not in the sense of efficient causality, nor even in the sense of an ultimate purpose, if that is understood as the final term in a linked chain of means and ends. It is more like a “cause” in the sense of a legal issue, a dispute that bears on or is relevant to certain parties—both their cause and their case. To say that action is for its own sake, from this grammatical perspective, is not incompatible with action being about some particular object, nor with action establishing indirect relations between people that are mediated by that object. It means only that nothing outside the field of action itself determines the range or sustains the intensity of its relevance.
The other striking part of this passage, of course, is its suggestion that, at least sometimes, human activity can stand between, or straddle, the accusative of violence and love and the dative of speaking and saying. Arendt’s example is “the accusative of the singing poem,” which has a direct object, but acts upon it in a distinctive way: not violently or absorptively, but by “releasing” it, she says, from the in-between and its relations. Arendt presents this release as a kind of “absolutization,” but not the kind performed by philosophy—or at least some kinds of philosophy—where, as she had put it in her notebooks a few months earlier, an object is abstracted or isolated from all worldly relations in order to be measured according to a standard that comes “from outside,” that is, which is itself also grasped in isolation.
What happens in the “singing poem,” then, is not absolutization as universalization, as a stripping-away of muddying particularities, but absolutization as the creation of something particular that can subsist, for a while, as its own world, that can be encountered as an appearance and not, or not yet, as a means to an end. This is what Arendt, in one of her essays on Bertolt Brecht, called the “precise generality of the literary art.” The poem places a dark, silent margin around its object, a horizon that turns us back to the specificity of its words—of its own words, for its own sake. Yet its removal of itself and its object from the in-between is only provisional, for what it releases from the world it then releases into the world, transfigured in what—in a few years—Arendt will call “a veritable metamorphosis in which it is as though the course of nature which wills that all fire burn to ashes is reverted and even dust can burn into flames.”
These flames do not destroy the world, but braze together its cases.
 Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” Political Theory 9, no. 3 (August 1981): 336.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958),
 Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 214; 345.
 Ibid., 339.
 Hannah Arendt, “The Poet Bertolt Brecht,” in Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Peter Demetz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 45.
 Arendt, The Human Condition, 168.
One of my favorite images in Arendt's writings comes not from Arendt herself, but her citation of the poem "Magic" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke's poem reads (in an approximate translation):
From indescribable transformation originate
Amazing shapes. Feel! Trust!
We suffer often: To ashes turn our flames;
Yet art can set on fire the dust.
Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment
The ordinary word appears elevated
But sounds as real as if the dove called
To seek its invisible mate.
Arendt cites Rilke's poem in the final section of the chapter of the Human Condition on Work. It is part of her discussion of art and her claim that "the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought."
Art, Arendt writes, has its foundation in thinking. Works of art, she writes, are "thought things." They are thingifications of thoughts, or to use a word that is so often abused, they are reifications of thoughts—The making of thoughts into things. It is this process of transformation and transfiguration that Rilke captures in "Magic": To "set fire to the dust" and bring beauty and truth to the real world. That is what art does.
My mind turned to Rilke's poem as I watched the great South African artist William Kentridge deliver the first of his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Kentridge spoke in praise of shadows, and situated his talk within a reading of Plato's allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic. The story of the cave begins with prisoners shackled and unmovable who see shadows along a wall projected by a fire. First one sets himself free and climbs out into the light of the sun and, slowly, painfully, comes to recognize in the light of the sun that the shadows were indeed shadows, untrue. The parable illustrates the error of sensible things and is one part of Plato's illustration of his theory of ideas. The ideas, supersensible truths of reason and logic, do not deceive and change like the shadowy things of the world. Only what lasts eternally is true; all that is sensible and fleeting is false.
Kentridge tells the story of Plato's cave to explain why he sees art, and especially his art, in opposition to the Platonic idea of truth. If Plato celebrates the primacy of the eternally true over the shadows, Kentridge argues that art elevates the image above the truth. For this reason, at least in part, Kentridge's art works with shadows. Shadow figures and shadow puppets.
Kentridge lauds shadows. In the very limitations of the shadows, in the gaps, in the gaps that inspire in us leaps to complete an image, that is where we think and learn. The leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition. It is in shadows that we find our agency in apprehending the world.
Shadow art is, for Kentridge, political. Plato's politics depends on a truth known and understood by the few and then imposed on the many. In this sense philosophy is, in Arendt's words, opposed to politics, and the philosopher either must seek merely to be left alone by the people (which is difficult because philosophers are dangerous), or they will always seek to dominate and tyrannize the polity with their reason. Arendt's lifelong battle is to free politics from the certainty of rational and philosophical truth, to open us to a politics of opinion and openness.
Knowledge is power and there is, in Kentridge's words, a relation between knowledge and violence. Kentridge embraces shadows and silhouettes to oppose the philosophical and Platonic tyranny of reason. He writes elsewhere:
I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.
Optimism must be kept in check since any certainty about the destination can underwrite the need for violence to bring others to that end. For Kentridge, "There is no destination. all destinations, all bright lights, arouse our mistrust."
Kentridge offers us an image of the artist. He speaks from the studio and from his notebook to emphasize the source of artistic truth in the thought image rather than the logical word. An artist thinks. He sees. He makes art. He makes things that reflect not truth and certainty but gaps, misgivings, and questions. Kentridge gives reality to the questionability of the world in his shadow art. In this way his art reminds us of the magic of Rilke's fire that transfigures dust into flame.
Few modern artists work magic like William Kentridge. His Norton Lectures are a great introduction to his art and the thinking behind his art. If you are not graduating this weekend, take the time to hear and look at what Kentridge says and makes.
You can view Kentridge's First Norton Lecture here. Consider it your visual weekend read.
Arendt copied out this poem of Auden's when preparing her notes for an essay about him at the time of his death. The originals can be found in the The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress.
We stumbled upon an interesting video on YouTube yesterday. It is Robert Lowell reading a poem entitled, "Pigeons - for Hannah Arendt". Enjoy.
Independent thinkers are rare. Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers than the radical independence of her thought, her identity as a "conscious pariah," one who eschews all alliances and categories and thinks for herself. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.
So who are the independent thinkers today? Painfully few. But one candidate is Paul Berman, who will be speaking on Alexis de Tocqueville as a guest of the Hannah Arendt Center on Monday, November 14th, at 7 pm (RKC 103).
In the recommended weekend read for this week, we offer an interview of Berman by Alan Johnson, published in Dissent, a journal for which Arendt herself was a contributor. Berman tells of his break with the New Left and of how he found a spur radical independence in the anarchist communities of the period.
The old Anarchists in New York were brave. Anti-Castro on one hand, and opposed to the gangsters in their own unions on the other hand. They were indifferent to the rest of the left – really, to everybody: faithful only to their own judgments and opinions – and I found this really inspiring. I learnt a habit of independence of mind, or I like to think that I did.
Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism is a classic effort to think deeply and philosophically about contemporary political events. Berman sets the 9/11 terrorist attacks within the context of an internal struggle within liberalism, one that is epitomized by Albert Camus. In the rebellion against God, tradition, and order that one witnesses in paradigmatic modern figures like Camus' Rebel and Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov discover that in the name of freedom "everything is possible." This insight that in the name of liberation struggles "everything is possible" is the motto that Hannah Arendt ascribes to the essence of totalitarian movements, movements that will do literally anything and everything in the pursuit of a single and totalizing cause. Thus Berman, very much in the spirit of Arendt, argues that Islamic terrorism behind 9/11 is to be understood as the latest version of a western ideology of rebellion and totalitarianism. In his own words:
At one level I was trying to interpret the events of September 11. At a deeper level I was proposing an interpretation of modern history. And the whole of the interpretation is really contained in the title – there is a dialectic between terror and liberalism. I offer a theory of terror – I draw some aspects of this from Camus – that sees terror as an expression of a larger idea, which can be described as totalitarianism, admittedly a vexed label. Totalitarianism, of which terror is an expression, is a rebellion against liberal civilization and the liberal idea. It is an anti- liberal rebellion which is generated by liberalism itself. Sometimes the rebellion is generated by liberalism’s strengths and sometimes by liberalism’s shortcomings. The rise of liberalism over the last few centuries and the rebellions that have been inspired by that rise can account for the rise of the great totalitarian movements of one sort or another. That’s the theoretical idea expressed in the book. It’s a pretty simple idea, in the end. I don’t think that my simple idea explains everything in the world. But it does explain some things.
Berman's book is well worth a read. But so is this wide-ranging interview. Enjoy. And we hope to see you Monday at his lecture.
Click here to read the interview with Berman.