Modern secular-liberal sensibilities commonly presume that a fundamental opposition exists between freedom and authority, and they often equate freedom with autonomy of the will. That is, they associate freedom with an individual’s capacity to exercise a form of independent self-governance that does not bow to political dictates, religious injunctions, and other social constraints.
Hannah Arendt takes issue with this conception in her essay “What is Freedom?” Among her other objections, she insists that such a preoccupation with the autonomous will leads us to equate freedom with sovereignty (rather than, as in her argument, with the human penchant for making beginnings and bringing novelty into the world). “Within the conceptual framework of traditional philosophy,” she writes, “it is indeed very difficult to understand how freedom and non-sovereignty can exist together or, to put it another way, how freedom could have been given to men under the condition of non-sovereignty” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 455).
Although Arendt had something somewhat different in mind, her remark aptly addresses many of the issues raised by recent anthropological work on the Islamic revival, including Mayanthi Fernando’s research on pious Muslim women in France. As Fernando relates in “Reconfiguring Freedom,” a 2010 article that appeared in American Ethnologist, many Muslim women regard their piety as an expression of their desire for a full and authentic relationship with God. On the one hand, they assert that they seek this relationship voluntarily and on the basis of their own reasoned convictions, not because it has been imposed on them by imams or male relatives. In this respect, they invoke a sense of personal autonomy that resonates with French secular-liberal sensibilities.
On the other hand, these women regard their pious practices, including their adoption of the headscarf, as the means to realize true ethical selfhood through, rather than against, the authority of the Islamic tradition. In their understanding, veiling and other forms of Islamic devotion are not optional signs of their faith, but necessary and even obligatory modes of cultivating a Muslim subjectivity.
While the believer decides to pray, fast, and veil, she is also guided by authoritative texts and arguments that prescribe the norms to be adopted. In the process, these women “subtly but fundamentally reconfigure secular notions of personal autonomy and modern religiosity such that normative religious authority and inner, individual desire are not constituted by a relationship of opposition, but rather are inextricably linked” (Fernando, p. 26). They thereby challenge the notion that freedom is necessarily located within, and enacted by, a sovereign self.
Significantly, this conception and practice of devotion is largely unintelligible within French law and wider public discourse. French legal thought draws a basic distinction between the believer’s “inner” conscience and the “outward” manifestation of that conscience, and it insists that limitations on the public expression of religious conviction do not fundamentally violate constitutionally guaranteed rights to religious liberty. This distinction was central to the 2004 law that banned the headscarf and other “conspicuous religious signs” in French public schools, but as I have already suggested, many French Muslim women (and men) do not regard their pious practices as merely contingent and dispensable expressions of their religious beliefs.
At the same time, secular-liberal critics of veiling continue to presume that the notion of religious obligation negates any claim that a pious practice is (also) the result of personal desire and decision-making. In this perspective, “individually inspired choices emerge in the absence of authority (religious or otherwise), and religious obligations (or ‘requirements’) are understood as non-autonomous behavior defined and compelled by normative authority” (Fernando, p. 27). Such an understanding fails to acknowledge many Muslim women’s avowal that they are genuinely following their conscience in a manner that aligns with secular-liberal sensibilities. Moreover, in its more pointed formulations, this conception presumes that women who veil limit other (non-veiling) women’s autonomy by effectively pressuring them to conform to authoritative religious norms.
In the face of such entrenched skepticism, many Muslim opponents of the 2004 law have sought to defend veiling as a matter of women’s personal choice and individual freedom. They have also avoided most references to religious obligation for fear of being disqualified from public debate as a “fundamentalist.”
To my mind, the preceding discussion illustrates the ongoing relevance of Arendt’s thought, but it also suggests that we should read her work with care. After all, she contends in her essay “What is Authority?” that the modern world has witnessed the thorough-going breakdown of established forms of religion, tradition, and authority. This claim is not borne out in Fernando’s work: indeed, many French Muslims continue to orient their lives toward a tradition “[handed] down from one generation to the next [through] the testimony of the ancestors, who first had witnessed and created the sacred founding and then augmented it by their authority through the centuries” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 488).
This passage actually refers to the relationship the ancient Romans adopted toward the establishment of Rome and their defining body politic. But the thought relates remarkably well to Muslim understandings of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation as the founding event of Islam as well as its later elaboration in the sunna, hadith, and other bodies of commentary. In the end, the Islamic revival in France and other countries reveals many Muslims’ active commitment to a mode of religious authority that rests, in Arendt’s words, on “an obedience in which men retain their freedom” (The Portable Hannah Arendt, p. 474). Such authority has not dissolved in the crucible of modernity. It has only been resituated and redefined.
Today marks the six month anniversary of our "Quote" of the week feature. We've had many wonderful scholars participate, and the contributing group continues to grow. However, this week we thought we would pause and look back at our very first "Quote" of the week from September 19, 2011. Aptly, Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, provided our first submission and chose a quote seminal to the Center and what we try to do. Enjoy.
What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.
No theme, no word, no action better captures the passion of Hannah Arendt than her insistence that we think what we are doing. The need to think was, as Alfred Kazin has written, an incessant refrain in Arendt's conversations with friends. It was also the force that breathes life into every one of her books.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt's first published book, locates the roots of totalitarian government in loneliness, rootlessness, and thoughtlessness. What is needed, she writes, is not to understand totalitarianism, but to comprehend it, by which she means "the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality—whatever it may be." Only once we admit that in our time "everything is possible," can we confront ourselves and see ourselves honestly for whom we are. And only then can we resist the dangerous reality that is our world.
In 1961, Arendt published a series of essays Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. The theme of these essays is, again, the activity of thinking, the activity that happens in the "gap between past and future."
"Only insofar as [man] thinks... does man in the full actuality of his concrete being live in this gap of time between past and future."
The trouble, Arendt writes, is that few people at any time in history have been equipped to and practiced in the art of thinking. For most of history, the widespread absence of thought was not a problem since the "gap was bridged over by what, since the Romans, we have called tradition." Because tradition, religion, and authority told us how to behave and defined our moral notions of right and wrong, the mass of humanity did not need to think for themselves; and the fact that most people at most times do not think was not a tragedy.
We are the first people in the history of the world who live without tradition and thus without well-worn guideposts that bridge the chasm separating man from his living together with others in a shared world. If tradition is that which hands down a common world into which we are born and educated, the loss of tradition means that we live increasingly without the bannisters that orient us in our living with one another.
Shorn of tradition and deprived of its authority that covers over the gap, the modern age faces the distinctive challenge that "the activity of thought"—once "restricted as an experience to those few who made thinking their primary business"—must now now become "a tangible reality and perplexity for all." In other words,
"[Thinking] has become a fact of political relevance."
Arendt pursued the political relevance of thinking everywhere in her work, but nowhere more doggedly than in her account of Adolf Eichmann. In her engagement with what she saw as Eichmann's thoughtlessness—his banality, his reliance on clichés, and his bureaucratic mentality—she understood that it was his inability to think that enabled his inhuman crimes. It was thus her experience of Eichmann that led Arendt to ask:
"Could the activity of thinking as such be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually 'condition' them against it."
What Arendt demands is that we think; we must, in other words, reconcile ourselves to the fact that in our world we can no longer rely on tradition, morality, or religion to chart our course or guide our actions. Adrift in a world in which everything and anything is possible, thinking is the only activity standing between ourselves and the most heinous of evils.
In The Human Condition, Arendt insisted that we must think what we are doing, by which she meant the thoughtless way that humanity was embracing science, technology, and automation to an extent that threatened the basic conditions of human life. If automation replaces labor, consumption displaces work, and scientific rationality replaces action, thought, and judgment, then the primary activities of human life will, she argues, be sacrificed to the desire for certainty, security, and happiness. Arendt never condemns this tradeoff, but she does insist that we think about what we are doing.
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