This Quote of the Week was originally published on September 3, 2012.
It can be dangerous to tell the truth: “There will always be One against All, one person against all others. [This is so] not because One is terribly wise and All are terribly foolish, but because the process of thinking and researching, which finally yields truth, can only be accomplished by an individual person. In its singularity or duality, one human being seeks and finds – not the truth (Lessing) –, but some truth.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Book XXIV, No. 21
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines when she was confronted with the severe and often unfair, even slanderous, public criticism launched against her and her book Eichmann in Jerusalemafter its publication in 1963. The quote points to her understanding of the thinking I (as opposed to the acting We) on which she bases her moral and, partly, her political philosophy.
It is the thinking I, defined with Kant as selbstdenkend (self-thinking [“singularity”]) and an-der-Stelle-jedes-andern-denkend (i.e., in Arendt’s terms, thinking representatively or practicing the two-in-one [“duality”]). Her words also hint at an essay she published in 1967 titled “Truth and Politics,” wherein she takes up the idea that it is dangerous to tell the truth, factual truth in particular, and considers the teller of factual truth to be powerless. Logically, the All are the powerful, because they may determine what at a specific place and time is considered to be factual truth; their lies, in the guise of truth, constitute reality. Thus, it is extremely hard to fight them.
In answer to questions posed in 1963 by the journalist Samuel Grafton regarding her report on Eichmann and published only recently, Arendt states: “Once I wrote, I was bound to tell the truth as I see it.” The statement reveals that she was quite well aware of the fact that her story, i.e., the result of her own thinking and researching, was only one among others. She also realized the lack of understanding and, in many cases, of thinking and researching, on the part of her critics.
Thus, she lost any hope of being able to publicly debate her position in a “real controversy,” as she wrote to Rabbi Hertzberg (April 8, 1966). By the same token, she determined that she would not entertain her critics, as Socrates did the Athenians: “Don’t be offended at my telling you the truth.” Reminded of this quote from Plato’s Apology (31e) in a supportive letter from her friend Helen Wolff, she acknowledged the reference, but acted differently. After having made up her mind, she wrote to Mary McCarthy: “I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make, not an answer, but a kind of evaluation of this whole strange business.” In other words, she did not defend herself in following the motto “One against All,” which she had perceived and noted in her Denktagebuch. Rather, as announced to McCarthy, she provided an “evaluation” in the 1964 preface to the German edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem and later when revising that preface for the postscript of the second English edition.
Arendt also refused to act in accordance with the old saying: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus(let there be justice, though the world perish). She writes – in the note of the Denktagebuchfrom which today’s quote is taken – that such acting would reveal the courage of the teller of truth “or, perhaps, his stubbornness, but neither the truth of what he had to say nor even his own truthfulness.” Thus, she rejected an attitude known in German cultural tradition under the name of Michael Kohlhaas. A horse trader living in the 16th century, Kohlhaas became known for endlessly and in vain fighting injustice done to him (two of his horses were stolen on the order of a nobleman) and finally taking the law into his own hands by setting fire to houses in Wittenberg.
Even so, Arendt has been praised as a woman of “intellectual courage” with regard to her book on Eichmann (see Richard Bernstein’s contribution to Thinking in Dark Times).
Intellectual courage based on thinking and researching was rare in Arendt’s time and has become even rarer since then. But should Arendt therefore only matter nostalgicly? Certainly not. Her emphasis on the benefits of thinking as a solitary business still remains current. Consider, for example, the following reference to Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at MIT and author of the recent book Alone Together. In an interview with Peter Haffner (published on July 27, 2012, in SZ Magazin), she argues that individuals who become absorbed in digital communication lose crucial components of their faculty of thinking. Turkle says (my translation): Students who spend all their time and energy on communication via SMS, Facebook, etc. “can hardly concentrate on a particular subject. They have difficulty thinking a complex idea through to its end.” No doubt, this sounds familiar to all of us who know about Hannah Arendt’s effort to promote thinking (and judging) in order to make our world more human.
To return to today’s quote: It can be dangerous to tell the truth, but thinking is dangerous too. Once in a while, not only the teller of truth but the thinking 'I' as well may find himself or herself in the position of One against All.
People blame [übel nehmen] me for one thing—and I can understand that to some extent, outwardly—namely that I can still laugh [about it], right? And I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a clown [ein Hanswurst], and I tell you, I read this police interrogation, 3600 pages, very carefully, and I don’t know how often I laughed, but loudly. Now, this reaction is what people blame me for. I can’t do anything against that. But I know one thing. I would probably still laugh three minutes before [certain death]. And that, you say, is the tone. The tone is widely ironic, of course. That is completely true. That is exactly, the tone is in this case really the human being. When people [reproach] me, then, in this story that I supposedly accused the Jewish people, that is a malicious propaganda lie, and nothing more. The tone, however, is an objection against me as a person; I can’t do anything against that.
Interview with Günter Gaus, October 28, 1964, trans. mine.
The reproach addressed by Arendt in this quote had been expressed, most importantly, by Gershom Scholem in an open letter to Arendt a year earlier, in which he wrote:
So why does your book then leave behind such a feeling of bitterness and shame, and not with respect to that which is reported, but with respect to the reporter? Why does your report cover over to such a large extent that which is brought forward in that book, which you rightly wanted to recommend for reflection? The answer, insofar as I have one, and which I cannot suppress, precisely because I esteem you so highly, (…) [is] what stands between us in this matter [Sache]. It is the heartless, often even derisive [hämische] tone in which this matter that concerns us in the real center of our life is dealt with by you. There is in the Jewish language something that can in no way be defined and is entirely concrete, which the Jews call Ahabath Israel, love for the Jews. Of that, dear Hannah, nothing is noticeable, like with so many intellectuals who have emerged from the German left. (…) I don’t have sympathy for the style of lightheartedness, I mean the English “flippancy,” which you muster all too often (…) in your book. It is unimaginably unbefitting for the matter of which you speak. [Es ist auf unvorstellbare Weise der Sache, über die Sie sprechen, unangemessen]. Was there really no place, at such an occasion, for what one might name with the modest German word Herzenstakt? [“tact of heart”] (June 23, 1963)
Arendt had responded to Scholem’s letter in a letter of her own, dated July 24, 1963. In this letter, Arendt suggests that Scholem failed to get the irony in her writing: “I never made Eichmann out to be a ‘Zionist.’ If you missed the irony of the sentence—which was plainly in oratio obliqua, reporting Eichmann’s own words—I really can’t help it.” But if Scholem may have missed the irony in this particular instance, Scholem’s objection, as Arendt implicitly recognizes in her interview with Günther Gaus one year later, is that it is precisely her ironic tone that is “unimaginably unbefitting.” The interpretation that I want to explore briefly in this blog post is that Arendt’s irony might be precisely the most “befitting” response to the Sache or subject matter, which Arendt analyzes as Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness.”
A free translation of what Arendt lacks, according to Scholem, Herzenstakt, could be “thoughtfulness.” Arendt’s choice of the word “thoughtlessness” was already contested by Mary McCarthy, because Arendt clearly does not mean that Eichmann was not thoughtful (McCarthy’s alternative suggestion, “inability to think,” is not quite right either, because Arendt does not argue that Eichmann could not think but that he did not think). What is at stake for Arendt is thinking.
Amos Elon suggests in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt’s sarcasm was “often self-defeating.” According to Elon, “Arendt’s biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has wisely written that Arendt posed the true moral issue but obscured it with needless irony. With chutzpah too, perhaps.” The question, however, is whether Arendt’s posing of the “true moral issue” can be separated from her irony, that is, whether the irony merely adds (possibly counterproductive) flourish to her “posing” of an “issue.” Is her rhetoric nothing but an ornament that obscures the “content,” or a vehicle that fails to deliver the “message”?
(It should be noted that towards the beginning of her discussion of the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem, Young-Bruehl mentions a citation from Bertolt Brecht that Arendt’s husband found years after the trial that “gave him and Hannah Arendt the courage of their convictions.” The beginning of the citation reads: “The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.”)
In her response to Scholem, Arendt makes two frequently cited claims. First, Arendt writes: “(…) in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.” Second, Arendt states: “What unsettles [verstört] you is that my arguments and my approach are different from what you are used to; in other words, what is irritating [das Ärgerliche] is that I am independent. By this I mean, on the one hand, that I do not belong to any organization and always speak only for myself, and on the other hand, that I have great confidence in Lessing’s Selbstdenken, for which, I think, no ideology, no public opinion, and no ‘convictions’ can ever be a substitute.” It might seem from these two claims that Arendt is opposing the thinking of an independent self to the feelings (love, sympathy, Herzenstakt) of the collective. Irony could then be seen as the means by which the independent individual distances herself from the collective. However, it is important to remember that for Arendt, thinking never happens in isolation. Therefore, a better reading of Arendt’s tone might be that Arendt attempts to position herself, through irony, as a person in public or in a public. If Eichmann’s thoughtlessness reduces language to rationalization and calculation devoid of any orientation towards publicness, Herzenstakt is not going to remedy this problem. Arendt’s irony, on the other hand, might call into being a public, opening up space for publicness where thinking might become possible again.
According to this reading of Arendt’s tone, the idea that Arendt was right about Eichmann but should have communicated her “message” differently for it to be “effective” misses the point. Instead, what is called for is an attunement to Arendt’s writing that does not separate “content” from rhetoric, a responsiveness in the interest of a publicness that does not require tact, sympathy, or agreement, but thinking.
Irony in Eichmann in Jerusalem has recently become a central topic in Arendt scholarship. For further reading, I particularly recommend the chapters on Eichmann in Jerusalem in Lyndsey Stonebridge’s The Judicial Imagination (2011) and in Judith Butler’s Parting Ways (2013).
“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”
--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”
Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute our common world. A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political. It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.
The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects. The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself. The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need. The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.
Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process. She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form. Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.
However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food. We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.
The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise. They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution. And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.
We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us. Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks. Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.” The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.” Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:
In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.
The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience. Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry. Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.
In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.
When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together. The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out. The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude. Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.
“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name. The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality. This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues. It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image: Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix. “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”
For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments. Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics. In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.” Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.” Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared. She writes:
Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.
That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals. The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out. In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.
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.
In the Weekend Read on Friday, Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs. While MOOCs can be valuable, we need to distinguish the practice of education from the business of knowledge dissemination. “At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.”
Emma Green considers a recent study that suggests that widows and widowers are less likely to vote than others in their respective demographics. In so doing, she provokes us to reflect on Hannah Arendt’s insistence that an engaged public sphere depends upon a vibrant private realm. Green concludes: If “public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it's also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens? It's well established that people who are married vote more than those who are not, said the authors, and this study provides evidence that this isn't a coincidence of age or stage of life -- influence from a spouse is part of the reason people vote." Green shows that the crisis of the educated citizen—which is the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center’s Oct. 3-4 Conference at Bard College—flows at least in part from a related diminishment of private life.
“Over the Abyss in Rye.” That is the traditional title of The Catcher in the Rye in Russian. Reed Johnson writes that the Communist “Party authorized the novel’s translation believing that it exposed the rotting core of American capitalism.” In the New Yorker, Johnson explores the outrage caused by Max Nemtsov’s new translation of The Catcher in the Rye into Russian. Nemstov’s title, “Catcher on a Grain Field” begins with this first paragraph: “If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ’rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth.” According to Johnson, “Nemtsov employs a mélange of English-language calques, Russian provincial speech, neologisms, slang originating in Soviet prison camps, and contemporary hipsterish lingo. The mixture of unconventional speech is deliberate: advocates of foreignizing like to claim that such “marginalized” language, through a bizarre sort of syllogism, best represents the absolute difference of the foreign original. In other words, the Soviet prison slang in Nemtsov’s translation is actually meant to stand in for the original’s foreignness—its Americanness—for the Russian reader."
The rise of the MOOC has forced college Professors to defend themselves against the charge that computers can do their jobs better than they can. Now, on the other side, a study at Northwestern concludes that lowly-paid adjuncts are more effective teachers than their highly-paid senior colleagues with tenure. "There are many aspects relating to changes in the tenure status of faculty – from the impact on research productivity to the protection of academic freedom," the study says. "But certainly learning outcomes are an important consideration in evaluating whether the observed trend away from tenure track/tenured towards non-tenure line faculty is good or bad. Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem," says the paper.” The trend to “full-time designated teachers,” in the turgid prose of this study, furthers the overarching trend of turning college education into high school education, with standardized tests, learning goals, and unending assessments. Anyone who cares about the life of the mind should be worried; but the culprit is the professoriate themselves, who continues to defend the status quo of jargon-filled research and overly-specialized teaching. If we don’t return universities to sites of intellectual fervent, the bureaucratic reformers will turn them into glorified high schools.
A Three Day Festival at FDR Library & Bard College
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The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Educated Citizen in Crisis"
Olin Hall, Bard College
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Hannah Arendt: A Film Screening, Lecture, and Discussion with Roger Berkowitz
One Day University
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John LeJeune gives us the Arendt quote of the week and considers the place of language education in the education of the citizen. Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs.
It requires courage even to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake.
-Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
This quote is a favorite among political theorists who study Arendt. Understandably, for it seems perfectly to capture Arendt as the figure whose principal concern is the public sphere and the politics that can occur only in this sphere. The private realm is characterized by protective walls that allow us blind ourselves to everything but our individual needs while the public opens us up to the grander concerns of the world.
Courage, in this reading, is largely a rhetorical flourish that affirms the grandness of the public realm and the smallness of private, bourgeois concerns with comfort and self-interest. But in reading the concept of courage solely through what has become the “characteristically” Arendtian opposition between the public and private spheres, one overlooks the profound significance of courage for understanding the character of the public realm as Arendt uniquely conceived of it. Arendt acknowledges that courage is necessary for individuals to leave the private sphere and its particular concerns: it takes courage to leave the protective security of private life. But she does not stop there and asserts that courage reflects a key feature of the public realm itself beyond and independent of individuals’ move out of the private. According to Arendt, we need courage not only to leave the private sphere, but also to confront the fact that in the public realm, the world itself is at stake in our own activity of politics.
What Arendt means by this statement that the world is at stake in politics is not clear without a clear understanding of the plurality is for her constitutive of the public realm. For Arendt, plurality is not a statement of difference; it does not summarize the fact that each occupies his or her own standpoint in the world. Rather, plurality reflects the fact that all individuals must show themselves and appear to other human beings. She writes in The Life of the Mind, “everything that is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet. Plurality is the law of the earth.” In other words, plurality reflects the fact that the human world is a function of relations of spectatorship. Our world is built upon individuals showing themselves to and being seen by others.
Politics for Arendt is that activity by which individuals reveal or disclose themselves to one another; it describes the activity by which we appear. But when we understand with Arendt that the world itself is constituted in an by these relations of spectatorship, we are forced to confront the fact that the stakes of choosing to appear in the public cannot be limited to individual life and the question of whether or not we choose to live this life courageously. In choosing to appear, in having the courage to appear, we accept the task of creating the world itself and become constitutive members of what is an objective home for all human beings.
This relationship to the world and the burdens and responsibility it imposes on individuals in the very basic task of appearing is for Arendt a necessary, inescapable feature of public life. And this fact that individual appearance is constitutive of the world is what ultimately makes the decision to enter the public realm a matter of courage. To show oneself to others—to say, as Cicero did, “[b]y God I’d much rather go astray with Plato than hold true views with these people”—is not just to reveal, however courageously and however contrary to established codes of behavior, oneself as an individual. It is to affirm and reconcile oneself to one’s responsibilities in a world that is created and sustained by nothing other than individuals showing themselves in their thoughts and judgments to one another. The courage that politics demands is the courage to take on the responsibility to make the world.
Courage might be one motivation behind the decision to leave the protective walls of the private. Others might be recklessness, pride, ambition, or, as Arendt said of the Nazis, merely the ruthless desire to conform to what others are doing. But the choice to engage in politics and appear in the world implicates not just questions about the individual’s character, good or bad, but grounds of the world itself and whether this is strong enough to sustain a world for all men. And one cannot take up this task of creating and sustaining the world with nothing more than one’s own human capacity to appear to others without courage.
"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.