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.
Corey Robin, while considering the recent jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas, argues that Thomas’ attempt to expand free speech rights for advertisers owes a debt to Hannah Arendt.
“When the First Amendment protects political speech—including, importantly, political speech that is false—it is precisely, Thomas seems to be suggesting, this dimension of speech that lies at the boundaries between fact and fiction that it is protecting.
At the heart of this kind of political action, then, is a straddling of that elusive space between what is, what is not, and what might be. Machiavelli understood that; Hobbes understood that (Leviathan’s massive power is generated in part, as I’ve argued, by healthy and alternating doses of illusion and reality); Nietzsche did, too.
In the modern era, however, no theorist explored that dimension of political action—in both its toxic and tamer variants—more than Hannah Arendt. The toxic variant was to be found in all manner of totalitarianism, as well as in the lies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. The tamer variants, however, were found in that dimension of action that involved elements of novelty and initiation, in an appreciation that politics is not the realm of Platonic Truth, a deep structure of what is, beneath the surface or behind the scenes, but of multiple and dissonant perspectives on stage, which provide an occasion for persuasive speech and artfulness.
Though Arendt was not nearly as hostile to factual truth as some would have her be, she did offer, between the lines of some of her essays, an appreciation of the art of the liar, for she saw that art as related, in some ways, to the political arts more generally.
The liar is an actor, in the literal sense, and politics, as Arendt reminds us, is a theater of appearances.
But the liar is also an actor in the political sense: she seeks to change the world, turning what is into what isn’t and what isn’t into what is (this is the part that made Arendt so nervous, as it reminded her of the totalitarian ruler). By arraying herself against the world as it is given to us, the liar claims for herself the same freedom that the political actor claims when she brings something new into the world: the freedom to say no to the world as it is, the freedom to make the world into something other than it is.
It’s no accident that the most famous liar in literature is also an adviser to a man of power, for the adviser or counselor has often been thought of as the quintessential political actor. When Iago says to Roderigo, “I am not what I am,” he is affirming that the liar, the dramatic actor, and the political actor all subscribe to elements of the same creed.
The advertiser operates in a similar realm between truth and illusion. She, too, seeks to use the arts of illusion to create new realities. Thomas seems to be emphasizing that dimension of the advertiser’s art.”
Robin is correct that Arendt understands the political role of the liar. Politics for Arendt is about opinion and some opinions are absolutely essential to our liberal democratic world. For example, the idea that “All men are equal” is one of those lies, those fictions, that Arendt argues is a great achievement of modern politics. Of course not all men are equal in any factual sense. But the political conviction that we are politically equal underlies the possibility of politics. Such is the kind of political lying that Arendt recognizes as important.