“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”
--Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda”
Who could forget the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? A pair of scheming tailors promise the ruler of a rich kingdom a suit of clothes woven with a magical property: only truly worthy individuals can see them. The Emperor accepts, but when the enchanted robes arrive he finds he cannot see them. Neither can his advisers. Neither can any member of his court.
Secretly ashamed, the Emperor and his retinue proceed to parade through the streets. The many subjects who have assembled there in order to catch a glimpse of the robes find their own proud hopes embarrassed. The farce reaches its peak when an uninhibited youth finally points out the obvious: the Emperor is wearing nothing.
Hans Christian Andersen’s fable skewers social pretension, not political domination. It cautions against face-saving falsehoods, not forced untruths. Nevertheless, the story of the Emperor’s new clothes highlights political hazards quite similar to those discussed by Hannah Arendt in her 1950 lecture, “Ideology and Propaganda.” In particular, both texts focus attention on the threat of pluralistic ignorance that arises whenever free public discourse is throttled by convention, or prohibited by law.
Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.
States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.
Arendt did not think that loneliness was exclusively a product of totalitarian modes of government. She believed this estranged state of mind could also be non-coercively induced by long exposure to commercial standards and patterns of life in liberal societies. To understand this view, we should distinguish loneliness from a similar concept to which Arendt assigned very different meaning, namely, solitude.
Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.
Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions.
If loneliness aligns with pluralistic ignorance by signifying a gap between belief and action, solitude provides a check on pluralistic ignorance by enabling individuals to revise their beliefs and prepare their judgments in isolation from forces that might repress or distort them. But solitude only fulfills this purpose when the isolated individual returns to political life and expresses a judgment or performs an action in which the connection between private belief and public undertaking is manifest. In this way the forces that sustain pluralistic ignorance are undermined, or overcome.
We might ask what the predominant causes of loneliness and pluralistic ignorance are today, seven decades after Arendt’s lecture. Recent revelations concerning the operations of the National Security Administration show that active, systematic surveillance of citizens’ personal communications is no Cold War relic, but rather a present reality. Within some communities, at least, awareness or suspicion of direct government surveillance will likely inhibit free expression, and bar open discourse.
At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows. Additionally, the tendency of participants in digital communications to cluster amongst like-minded peers, and to expose themselves only to opinions likely to match their own, limits the chances of encountering checks or dissensions from one’s judgments that could effectively alter one’s beliefs, or expose a gap between conviction and action. In light of such facts, we might alter Arendt’s phrase to speak loneliness and certainty as states of mind characteristic of our present age.
It would be a mistake to end on such a gloomy note, however. Digital technologies have also created powerful new means of expressing judgments, or organizing actions that are truly political, in the sense that their conclusion is not pre-determined, their progress not fixed in any one direction. Although the ‘Twitter revolutions’ of the last several years have disappointed the hopes of many of their proponents, their unanticipated paths of development have helped to make vivid the risks imposed by action, and the radical openness of politics. These are topics worthy of contemplation; they are also topics that demand debate.
“One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
- Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943
Hannah Arendt had lived for a year and a half in the United States when she noted in a letter to her friend Gershom Scholem: “One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
This entails, Arendt continues, a certain attitude of “permanent absence (by which I mean ‘absent-mindedness’), rendering human contact between people to be very difficult.” Scholem, who received Arendt’s letter from New York in Jerusalem, was familiar with this phenomenon. “All my friends in the U.S. are muted by this ‘public isolation’,” hence communicating with them became very difficult, he writes in December 1943, “unfortunately you are not an exception in that regard.”
Scholem’s response is noteworthy, for he addresses the political implication of Arendt’s (self-) observation. In general, being busy and leading a public life is not a contradiction. “One can be occupied by his daily work, and when this period of work in the private realm of a factory or an office space has ended, one can enter the public sphere by being a citizen – or a friend” (Jerome Kohn). Arendt had a political understanding of friendship; for her, friendship consists of the world that appears between friends who are diverse and embody plurality rather than an imagined or imposed ‘unity’. In a state of “absent-mindedness” though, one cannot be in public, nor political, nor with friends in a meaningful way.
The problem starts with the absent need for “leisure,” Arendt states. In her letter to Scholem she uses a particular (untranslatable) German term for leisure: “Musse,” which is the German version of the Latin concept of otium. It denotes the free time I have for contemplation when I’m not busy (opposed to neg-otium, the time when I’m not free for contemplation, i.e. when I’m busy).
The term “Musse” that Arendt uses also appears in the title “Musse und Müssiggang” (Leisure and Idleness) of section no. 329 in Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Nietzsche, who is not known for having great interest in the New World, in this very passage talks explicitly about America, and in particular about the Americans’ “distinctive vice”: “the breathless haste with which they work,” so that “one no longer has time or energy […] for otium at all.” Arendt read this passage thoroughly: her private (German) copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science has marked up not only this sentence, but shows underlinings and marginalia throughout the entire entry on “Leisure and Idleness.”
One would think with a watch in one’s hand, Nietzsche continues in his depiction of America’s oblivious take on “Musse,” and the common principle "Rather do anything rather than nothing," would throttle all culture and good taste. In effect, all forms and “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements” were visibly perishing because of the haste of the busy people. Before the takeover of the protestant work ethic, it actually was ‘busy action’ that suffered from a bad consciousness, Nietzsche recalls, and Arendt underlined the related sentence: “the desire for enjoyment already calls itself ‘need of recreation,’ and even begins to be ashamed of itself.”
Arendt’s underlining, with regard to her letter to Scholem, outlines – at a very early stage – her larger political and theoretical project: the modern problem of world-alienation and its threat to the human faculty of judgment.
Thinking needs solitude, according to Arendt, not loneliness or isolation (another distinction inspired by Nietzsche).
World-alienated loneliness or isolation precludes the thinker from the common world; yet, out of the state of solitude he can reenter it once he has ended his act of thinking. Judging relates abstract thoughts back to the world by giving them a concrete form perceivable and disputable in public, in company with others. Absent-mindedness is oblivious of this company. That’s why the perished “feeling for form itself,” deriving from a common lack of “Musse,” may entail a crisis of political judgment: in other words, a disconnection between vita contemplative and the public sphere. Nietzsche, in the passage intensely marked by Arendt, offers a form of counteracting this disconnect: “to take a stroll with thoughts and friends.”
"It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live together with a murderer? Not even a murderer. What kind of dialogue could you lead with him? Precisely the dialogue which Shakespeare let Richard III lead with himself after a great number of crimes had been committed:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What from myself?"
-Hannah Arendt, ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’
‘Thinking and Moral Considerations’ is one of the most perfect examples of Arendt’s late writing. A distillation of her career-long thinking on thinking, the essay performs what it so elegantly urges: it is an essay on thinking that thinks.
For Arendt, the moral considerations that follow from thinking and, more grievously, from not thinking are profound. Adolf Eichmann’s “quite authentic inability to think” demonstrated to Arendt the arrival of new kind of evil in the world when she attended his trial in 1961. The airy emptiness of his speech was not the stupidity of a loathsome toad: his jabbering of cliché falling upon cliché sounded totalitarianism’s evil in a chorus of thoughtlessness. Shallowness as exemplified by Eichmann cannot be fixed or given depth by reason; no doctrine will argue the thoughtless into righteousness. Only through the experience of thinking, Arendt insisted, of being in dialogue with oneself, can conscience again be breathed into life. Thinking may be useless in itself; it may be a solitary activity that can often feel a little bit mad. Yet thinking is the precondition for the return of judgment, of knowing and saying: “this is not right.” By 1971, Arendt saw no evidence of a resurgence of thinking in the wake of atrocity.
Writing an essay on thinking that thinks and thus performing the experience of thinking is itself an act of defiance. Performing is the right verb here: Arendt knows she is staging her argument as a public spectacle. Her hero is Socrates: gadfly, midwife, stingray, provoker, deliverer and galvaniser of thinking in others. Socrates democratises perplexity. And when he has finished chatting with others, he carries on talking at home, with his quizzical, critical companion, that ‘obnoxious fellow’ with whom we are forever in dialogue -- the two with whom we make a thinking one. Arendt is fully aware that she is making a character out of Socrates. His inveterate dialogism is a model. Just as Dante’s characters conserve as much historical reality as the poet needs to make them representative, so too, she says, with her Socrates. Against the vacant image of Eichmann inanely mouthing his own eulogy in front of the hangman’s noose which opens the essay, we have Socrates: thoughtlessness versus thoughtfulness.
But what of the third character in Arendt’s essay—Shakespeare’s Richard III? The murderer who nobody wants to befriend? The villain who despite his best efforts cannot stop talking to himself?
Richard plays an odd, yet pivotal, role in Arendt’s performance of thinking. On the one hand, he is Socrates’ evil twin. Richard rejects conscience. ‘Every man that means to live well endeavours … to live without it’, he says. This is easy enough to do, says Arendt, because ‘all he has to do is never go home and examine things.’ Except, in Richard’s case, this proves difficult. He may try to avoid going home, but eventually he runs into himself at midnight; and in solitude, like Socrates, Richard cannot help but have intercourse with himself. Alone he speaks with himself in soliliquoys (from the Latin solus – alone and loqui –to speak; Arendt’s beloved Augustine is believed to have first conceived the compound). And this is what makes this villain—one who many have wanted to claim for the calculating murderousness of the twentieth century—much more like Socrates than Eichmann.
Both Socrates and Richard have the capacity to think. True, Richard thinks himself into villainy—he ‘proves himself a villain’—but this is precisely his pathos in Arendt’s drama. If it is better to suffer than to do harm, it is also better to have suffered at the hands of Richard who at least thought about what he was doing, than suffered as a number in one of Eichmann’s filing cards, the pathetic loner who joins a murderous movement not because he’s frightened of who might await him at home, but because he doesn’t even suspect anyone might be there in the first place. For all the ham-fisted productions that want him to be, Richard is not a Nazi villain in early modern disguise. Better that he could have been, of course, because then we wouldn’t have to contemplate the particular thoughtlessness of contemporary evil.
Richard is no Osama Bin Laden, Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein either, despite comparable violent last stands (and the corpse lust that attended them). This is well understood by Mark Rylance’s recent performance of Richard in the Globe Theater production that played in London last year and that is rumoured to open on Broadway soon. Rylance’s performance of Richard is like no other. It is also a performance that makes Arendt’s thinking more relevant than ever.
Rylance understands that since the War on Terror, post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, after Guantanamo, rendition and drone wars, it would be a travesty to play Richard’s villainy as safely and exotically other (by contrast, in 1995 it was entirely possible to set the play in a 1930s Nazi context, and have Ian McKellen play the role for its cruel humour with a knowing nod to Brecht). Rylance’s Richard is plausible, pathetic even; he is compelling not in his all-too-evident evil but in his clumsy vulnerability. His creepy teeth sucking, and ever-twisting body mark a silent but persistent cogitation; he is a restless, needy, villain. Like a child, Rylance’s Richard grabs at his conscience— he thinks—and then chucks it away as one more ‘obstacle’, just as he spits in his mother’s face at the very moment he most desires she recognise him. In a neat echo of Arendt’s analysis of how the loneliness of totalitarianism feeds thoughtless evil, the loveless hunchback fights solitude in an effort to avoid the midnight hour; orchestrating collective murder is his defence against being alone with his thoughts. (This was observed by my theater companion who, being ten years old—and a British schoolboy—understands the connection between feeling left out and group violence well). Richard’s tragedy is that circumstances turned him into a serial killer, to this extent he is a conventional villain; his pathos, however, as this production shows, is to be poised between thinking and thoughtlessness, between Socrates and Eichmann.
‘No. Yes, I am/Then fly. What from myself?’ When Rylance speaks this soliloquy he stutters slightly, giggles and looks—as Arendt might have anticipated—a little perplexed. This is not a knowing perplexity; Richard does not master his conscience, nothing is done with the solitary dialogue, but the thinking is there even if Richard himself seems unsettled by its presence. In refusing to play Richard simply as one of the ‘negative heroes in literature’ who, Arendt argues, are often played as such ‘out of envy and resentment’, Rylance brilliantly captures the last moment before evil becomes banal.
To play Richard’s cruelty alongside his vulnerability is not to fail to recognise his villainy, as some have complained; rather, it is to dramatize the experience of thinking in the process of being painfully and violently lost. With pathos, we might think, is the only way to play Richard III today. The Globe’s production is a late, but utterly timely, companion to Arendt’s essay.
“In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch
In the back of a volume of letters between Louise von Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke, Hannah Arendt wrote in pencil: “253, 256, Einsamkeit.” On the corresponding pages, she marked out two passages from a letter from Rilke to Salome from January 10th, 1912. The first:
Can I, despite everything, move on through all this? If people happen to be present they offer me the relief of being able to be more or less the person they take me for, without being too particular about my actual existence. How often do I step out of my room as, so to speak, some chaos, and outside, perceived by someone else’s mind, assume a composure that is actually his and in the next moment, to my astonishment, find myself expressing well-formed things, while just before everything in my entire consciousness was utterly amorphous.
When he wrote this letter, Rilke had been alone for several days after the departure of a guest. He thanks Salome for her letter, and describes the comfort and enrichment he got from it. (He uses a strange and vivid simile about a single ant that has lost the anthill.) He only knows himself through others, and when left alone, he feels völlig amorph, completely formless. Arendt may be able to create two out of her own one, but Rilke makes Salome into a dummy “second,” to whom he addresses his private thoughts for the purpose of ordering himself in a way that only happens in the presence of others.
What I find interesting is the use of the word Einsamkeit by both Arendt and Rilke, who explains in the second marked passage:
I merely want you to know what I meant by “people”: not any forfeiting of my [Einsamkeit, here translated as “solitude”]; only that if it were a little less suspended in mid-air, if it were to find itself in good hands, it would lose all its suggestions of morbidity (that is bound to happen eventually), and I would finally achieve some sort of continuity within it instead of carrying it around like a pilfered bone from one bush to the next amid loud hallos.
Einsamkeit could mean the deeply personal and negative feeling of the English “loneliness,” the more neutral, artistic state of “solitude,” the intentional “reclusion” or (often externally) imposed “isolation.” Each of these options would give a different taste to Rilke’s letter. It is interesting and slightly odd that Arendt chose to bracket these two passages in her book, since they illustrate an instance of Einsamkeit which seems to contradict her ideas on that subject.
She makes a great deal of entries in her “Thinking Diary” about Einsamkeit (in these cases she clearly means “solitude” as a tool for thought), especially in the early nineteen-fifties. Arendt argues that we live our whole lives in plurality, either in public, in private, or in solitude. She defines Einsamkeit as “Alone with myself: thinking,” and writes, “In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.” But even in the case of Verlassenheit, her preferred word for “loneliness,” she sees a positive: “Thinking or thought is the only positive side of Verlassenheit.”
In the case of Rilke’s solitude specifically, Arendt writes in her essay on his Duino Elegies that solitude is necessary for Rilke, given the transient nature of the world. We simultaneously are abandoned by things and abandon them ourselves, and this double act, active and passive, is known as solitude.
She argues that love is an exceptional emotion because it does not attach itself to only one person or thing, thus abandoning and being abandoned. In fact, according to Arendt, “love lies in this abandonment alone.”
However, given the way Rilke discusses his Einsamkeit in the letter, it seems that he cannot always put his solitude to good intellectual use as Arendt would like; rather, it owns him. It morphs into a loneliness he cannot control.
Rilke usually treasures his solitude; he wrote a dark yet reverent poem titled “Einsamkeit” in 1902, and the final stanza of his poem “Herbsttag” (also from 1902) is similarly comfortable in its loneliness:
Whoever has no house now, will never have one,
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restless, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Rilke, in his earlier poems, is able to relish his Einsamkeit, but in his letter to Salome of January 10th, 1912, he is not just alone; he is lonely.
- Louise Brinkerhoff
At a recent conference held at Stanford University, Professor Robert Harrison spoke about the relationship between thinking and solitude in Arendt's own thought. Harrison rightly argued that the loss of thinking has much to do with the loss of solitude.
"Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. . . . Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare" in the "thoughtlessness of the age."
Gerhard Casper, a friend of Arendt's and former Provost of Stanford, described Arendt as guarding dearly her own solitude. She attended conferences infrequently and was "always thinking … always fiercely independent," protecting her "private time, time for study, time in her apartment on Riverside Drive."
For a report on the Stanford Conference, read more here.
For more on Arendt and Solitude and the Activity of Thinking, Read here:
Abstract: This paper reflects on the political importance of the activity of thinking and suggests that Arendt's space of politics may not be limited to its traditional abode within the public realm. Beyond the public realm of politics, Arendt's defense of political action requires attention to the private as well. What has been overlooked amidst all the attention to Arendt's defense of the public realm of politics over and against the rise of the social is her equally strong insistence upon a vibrant and secure private realm where active thinking is possible. Arendt's private realm is a space of solitude that is the necessary prerequisite for the activity of thinking. Indeed, it is solitude that nurtures and fosters thoughtfulness and thus prepares individuals for the possibility of political action. To create a meaningful politics amidst the loneliness of the modern world, Arendt suggests, requires solitude, which she sees as the cradle of thinking. Read the Paper