There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:
At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.
There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:
Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
You can read the whole talk here.
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.
Clocking in as the longest article ever in Time (h/t Dylan Byers), Steven Brill’s cover story is the single-best account of the insanity and corruption of our current medical system. Why do we accept the skyrocketing costs of medical care? “Those who work in the health care industry and those who argue over health care policy seem inured to the shock.” Brill shows us why the bills are really way too high. Hint: it is not because the care is so good. There are so many excess costs in the system, that reforming it should be easy, if it weren’t so corrupt.
David Goldhill wants to give all working Americans $1,800,000, the amount he calculates a 23 year-old beginning work today at $35,000/year will pay, directly or indirectly, in health care insurance benefits. Goldhill argues that our health care system wastes most of that money because people have no incentive to attend to costs. He suggests a dual system. Give every American health insurance for truly rare and unpredictable illnesses. But for regular costs and smaller emergencies, he would refund workers the money they are losing and let them pay for healthcare themselves.
Oliver Sacks walks through his past and, with the help of his brother, discovers that a memory he had believed his own had actually been that of another. Starting from there, he gives a short account of the weakness of individual remembering, which allows us to take in something we've heard or seen and make it our own. He concludes, finally, that "memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds."
Michael Lewis writes of the rise of an unapologetic business class in the 1990s and early 2000’s, that they enjoyed the “upside to big risk-taking, the costs of which would be socialized, if they ever went wrong. For a long time they looked simply like fair compensation for being clever and working hard. But that’s not what they really were; and the net effect was… to get rid of the dole for the poor and replace it with a far more generous, and far more subtle, dole for the rich.”
Five women. “Two are wives and daughters in ordinary families unable to comprehend why such misfortune has overtaken them. A third is a young bride living in the household of a high party official. The last two are wives of the Master’s executioners. These stories are based on their memoirs—some written by themselves, others by close friends or by their children. These five women put a human face on the terror of Stalin’s purges and the Gulag in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.”
“Debt doesn’t look like much. It has no shape or smell. But, over time, it leaves a mark. In Spain, it manifested itself, first, as empty buildings, stillborn projects, and idled machines.” So writes Nick Paumgarten. To see how debt looks and smells, look at Simon Norfolk's surreal photographs of Residencial Francisco Hernando, an unfinished development near Seseña, Spain. Working his way through a half-finished city with few people in it, Norfolk's photography suggests that even beginning construction was an act of hubris; "everyone," he says, "wanted to get rich doing nothing."
The Arendt Center’s 2012 conference “Does the President Matter?” asked whether political leadership is still possible today. Guatam Mukunda believes that we can measure the value of a particular leader based on their behavior at the margins—what did that person accomplish over and above what another would have been able to do? In the accompanying video, Mukunda argues that leaders can only be great or terrible when the people selected for such roles are relatively unknown to those making the selection. In an age of information, the chances are slim.
This week on the blog
This week on the blog, we argued that American reformers should shift their efforts at reforming education towards high school and pointed towards Richard Kahlenberg's recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, adding that "poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America." We also continued the inquiry into the growing threat that entitlements pose to the next generation, highlighting Geoffrey Canada and Peter Druckenmiller's argument that entitlements are a generational theft that must be arrested. Elsewhere, Na'ama Rokem quotes from Arendt's only Yiddish-language article to explore the philosopher's language politics and her Jewish identity. Jeff Champlin looked at some similarities between Habermas and Arendt in their understandings of power. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz argues that we need to free federalism from its present partisanship and recall the important connection between federalism and freedom. Finally, if you didn't get around to our remembrance of Ronald Dworkin, you should take some time and give it a read.
Until next week,
The Hannah Arendt Center
“…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.
Read Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 essay, "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man".