“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.
Thanks to Bruce Barnhart for submitting this quote:
"...thinking consists in knowing that the objective world is in reality, a subjective world, that it is the objectifcation of the subject."
‘They must remember that they are constantly on the run, and that the world’s reality is actually expressed by their escape.’
-Hannah Arendt, ‘On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing’
Hannah Arendt never forgot that she was on the run from totalitarianism. Neither did she cease to express its reality in her work. She is the late twentieth-century’s most politically articulate refugee writer: an escapologist who taught us about the real nature of our chains. But the ‘they’ who must remember that they are ‘on the run’ in this quotation are not refugees from persecution. They are fugitives of the mind, the ‘inner emigrants’ who retreated from totalitarianism in their heads.
Two of Arendt’s most elegant and characteristic ironic gestures are present in this sentence. First, addressing the inner emigrant using language that more properly belongs to the refugee (running, escaping) performs the intimate and uneasy relation between existential homelessness and political and historical homelessness that is at the heart of her work. Don’t think all your lofty freethinking somehow allows you to rise out of the world’s darkness; don’t forget that your contemplation is as much a symptom of your political times as it is an escape from them. The inner emigrant must learn her lessons from the refugee, from the one, indeed, who is never allowed to forget she is on the run.
The imperative for the inner emigrant to listen to the refugee is what also makes the irony of this sentence situational. The occasion is Arendt’s acceptance of the Lessing prize in Hamburg in 1959. Her theme, ‘thinking in dark times’, would have held few initial surprises for her audience who would have anticipated the reference to Lessing’s famous Selbstdenken, self-thinking as the perquisite of freedom. But Arendt offers scant comfort to those thinkers in her audience who might have counted themselves as inner emigrants under the Reich. Thinking in Lessing doesn’t mean retreating into self-absorption, she reminds them, but anticipating what we say with others. No point in being one’s own angry comedian. There is little to be gained by muttering alone in the dark. The real scandal of totalitarianism is that it condemns the humanity that comes from this kind of exchange to worldlessness. Running directly parallel to ‘the invisibility of thinking and feeling’ into which inner emigrants escape, therefore, is the invisibility of totalitarianism’s superfluous people, the refugees, the inmates of work and death camps, who take refuge together, she says, quietly, in the weird companionability of the ‘closely packed human beings.’
Few in Arendt’s Hamburg audience would have missed the fetid historical referent behind those ‘closely packed human beings’. The point she was making was not that the experiences were comparable (compassionate empathy for Arendt was always besides the political point), but rather that under Nazi totalitarianism there was no more place for the thinking mind than there was for the Jew. And this is the reality that the inner emigrant must keep in mind: the irreality to which so many were condemned. With characteristic understatement and rhetorical control, Arendt uses the historical occasion of her lecture to demonstrate her argument: the Jewish refugee comes out of the darkness into the very public space of the Free City of Hamburg to think about what happens when thoughts and persons are expelled from humanity. She then expresses the reality of her journey in the ironic dialogism of her prose. The full quote reads:
Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is constantly acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped. When people chose this alternative, private life too can retain a by no means significant reality, even thought it remains impotent. Only it is essential for them to realize that the realness of this reality consists not in its deeply personal note, any more than it springs from privacy as such, but inheres in the world from which they have escaped. They must remember that they are constantly on the run, and that the world’s reality is actually expressed by their escape. Thus, too, the true force of escapism springs from persecution, and the personal strength of the fugitives increases as the persecution and danger increase.
As much as the distinctions between different kinds of emigration, it is the movement of flight, and everything that can be expressed in it, that Arendt is conveying here. In his translation of Rilke’s Die Tauben, which he dedicated to Arendt, Robert Lowell, re-casts homesickness as a feeling for ‘flight’s lost moment of fluttering terror.’ Fluttering between registers and contexts, between the mind and what it must remember, between inner and outer emigrants, Arendt’s writing keeps that terror in worldly view.
To talk about Arendt as a refugee writer, then, is not just to acknowledge her biographical circumstance or her major importance as one of the first theorists of modern statelessness. ‘Refugeeness’ cuts straight through her work like, she might have said, a thin red thread. She does not so much think from the position of a refugee, as think through the experience of exile to the extent that it becomes the paradigm rather than the exception. Thinking itself, indeed, becomes a refugee art in her later work. In this, perhaps, she offers a model for how we might approach the often hybrid and hard-to-place writing of some of her contemporaries in exile. In fact, we might even say, Arendt teaches us to look at the reality of totalitarianism from the only perspective that can truly matter, from one remove from that reality.
The late Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was one of the first to grasp the significance of Arendt’s refugee method. Her still unsurpassed biography is bisected by the chapter, ‘Stateless Persons’, which describes Arendt’s flight from Europe and the origins, biographical, political and historical, of her work on totalitarianism. When Young-Bruehl next came to write the life of the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, she repeated the gesture: the chapter ‘On Losing and Being Lost’ describes the self-analysis Freud underwent after her escape to England. Mourning both her father (Sigmund Freud died in exile in 1938) and her lost home (‘How strange it is to carry a past within oneself which can no longer be built upon’), the experience of emigration shifts not only the thinker, but also the ground on which she thinks. For Freud, as for Arendt too, the new threat is about a reality in which it is possible to totally disappear; of retreating into the mind to the extent that one becomes as lost as the object, person, past, or country, one mourns. In a world shadowed by the dark, writes Freud in ‘About Losing and Being Lost’, the temptation is ‘to follow the lost object into death.’
Arendt would have been uncomfortable, to say the least, with keeping intellectual company with a psychoanalyst (she might have been wryly amused to know that her work was the subject of discussion at a conference on ‘Psychoanalysis and Totalitarianism’ in London in September). Psychoanalysis is precisely where the inner emigrant might forget the reality she is fleeing and vanish into a hole of private self-absorption. Read both Arendt and Freud as refugee writers, however, and they arrive in a very similar place: for both the task of the mind after totalitarianism is to become reconciled to a ‘seemingly unendurable reality’ (in Arendt’s words); a reality in which oblivion is an ever-present threat. ‘The best that can be achieved’ after Nazi totalitarianism, Arendt tells her Hamburg audience in 1959 ‘is to know precisely what it was, and to endure this knowledge, and then to wait and see what comes of knowing and enduring.’ ‘What is true for today can become nonsense in no time at all’, echoes Freud in a line quoted by Young-Bruehl: ‘So one lives just in the present and must get used to it.’ These are not the statements of women who have found a new home in the world, but rather of two thinkers who understand how emigration has transformed not only the earth, but the ways in which the mind inhabits it.
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 Jerusalem after 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 Denktagebuch from 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.
“…poetically speaking, [history’s] beginning lies…in the moment when Ulysses, at the court of the king of the Phaeacians, listened to the story of his own deeds and sufferings, to the story of his life, now a thing outside itself, an ‘object’ for all to see and to hear. What had been sheer occurrence now became ‘history.’” (“The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future, 1977, p. 45)
In the middle of text describing history as a project of historians and poets to memorialize the great deeds of actors so that these deeds can “remain in the company of the things that last forever" (p. 48), this quote about Ulysses seems out of place. It suggests that history has its origins not in the potential greatness of action, but in the almost private moment of hearing about and confronting one’s own deeds. Arendt describes this moment when Ulysses hears the story of his own life as a moment of “reconciliation with reality,” which moves Ulysses deeply (p. 45). Here, history has little to do with the greatness of his actions: Ulysses is not moved because he finds his actions glorious and worthy of eternal existence. In fact, the character of the deeds is irrelevant to Ulysses, for with respect to these deeds, he is at once “listener, actor, and sufferer” and therefore has no “curiosity” about them, nor does he have any “lust for information” (Ibid.).
Arendt’s description of the origins of history as the actor’s confrontation with his own acts is ever more puzzling because one of her main points about action and history is that the actor himself can neither realize the completion of his actions nor comprehend their significance. She writes, “…the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end, frequently when all the participants are dead” (The Human Condition, p. 192). Yet here, the founding moment of history is not the moment that others listen to the story of Ulysses’ deeds and give them meaning as a part of human history, but rather the moment that Ulysses himself hears it.
How is it that history’s origin lies in this moment when the actor confronts his own deeds? And what exactly is the reality which history forces us to reconcile ourselves to during this confrontation?
I submit that the reality Ulysses confronted in listening to the story of his deeds as an “object” outside of himself, then solidifies his presence in the everlasting timeline of history. This reconciliation is an acceptance of the fact that one is visible to all others in the world and that the world’s history—the character of its immortal existence—while not entirely a product of one’s own making, finds its origins in one’s own self and actions.
To tell a history of the world as a story of human presence, the individual as actor must give way to the individual as historian. The historian is not only an actor, but also an audience to his actions. In confronting his deeds as a part of the narrative of history, the historian appreciates that the innumerable stories that describe the world are nothing more than singular moments of the lives and actions of individuals, himself included.
Confronting this reality of one’s presence in the story of the world is not about recognizing our own greatness, be it potential or actual. In fact, when confronted with such reality, greatness becomes an external object, no longer within our control or part of our powers. It is only when viewing his greatness through a filter of detachment, that Ulysses’ deeds could move, rather than just bore him.
Reconciling ourselves to a reality in which individual human beings are its sole creative agents imposes on us a heavy responsibility.
And it should temper too great a commitment to, and love for, ourselves as actors whose potential freedom and power are boundless in their miraculous natality. History is a story not just of our greatness, but of our selves. It ensures that there is always a name and a face attached to actions. Ulysses could not help but be moved in the face of a world that, even in its vastness, appears to him as his own. He is moved—and a bit frightened—by the realization that what he does is constitutive of the reality in which he and everyone else must live.
What it is to live in a world whose history does not reflect a mirror of individual existence is dramatically illustrated in the totalitarian regime’s notion of historical progress. The Nazi and Soviet regimes conceived of history as a product of “Nature,” an inevitable progression of events in which individuals could, at most, enact a series of events whose meaning has already been determined. Totalitarian consistency requires that the past flow inexorably into the future, without any gaps created by individuals which might distract from its course. Totalitarian history thus goes beyond the dehumanization of turning men into “functionaries and mere cogs” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 289) and erases individual human presence indiscriminately and completely. History as a story of Nature might support a world of actors, but it cannot support a world of historians. And it is only as historians that we can create a space for ourselves, and not just our actions, in the world.