Amor Mundi, July 3rd 2016

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.

The Return of American Politics

The rise of anti-politics is going mainstream. David Brooks penned a column this week bewailing the disregard of politics in the U.S. and around the world. His opening gambit makes sense, arguing that politics is about the engagements among plural people who have different opinions in a common public sphere. He writes:

“Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.

But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.

As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.””

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unionjack and eu flags

Amor Mundi, June 26th 2016

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.

The Expert Meets Reality

Brexit icon

There are many interpretations of the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It is undoubtedly a story of the rise of nationalism and even xenophobia and racism around the world. The campaign also was notable for the brazen dissemination of misinformation and outright lies. The “Leave” voters in England clearly deviated from the usual script of putting their pocket books first as they voted against their economic self interest. But most observers have by now understood that the Brexit vote is above all about the rise of populism and the distrust of elites and experts.

In the Financial Times, Philip Stephens argues that an anti-expert populism was the driving force for Brexit: “One of the more revealing moments of the Brexit campaign came when Michael Gove, a Conservative Outer once close to Prime Minister David Cameron, said: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” There it is: a celebration of ignorance that writes the opening line of the populists’ playbook. How long before Mr. Gove, a former education secretary, is piling books on to bonfires? Modern democracies operate within a framework of rationalism. Dismantle it and the space is filled by prejudice. Fear counts above reason; anger above evidence. Lies claim equal status with facts. Soon enough, migrants — and Muslims especially — replace heretics and witches as the targets of public rage.”

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By Sage Ross - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


By Hans Teerds

“Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; these are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Within architectural theory, the debate on public space has been highly affected through an ideal beyond these spaces: the ideal of encounters between strangers and the exchange of ideas, convictions, and beliefs. This ideal is linked to an ideal Western Democracy: the ideal of citizens discussing together things that matter, exchanging positions and through that developing a public opinion and ideally also making decisions. This of course is the ideal of the Agora in the Greek and Roman Polis, the Townhall meetings as were familiar to the American citizens.

Within architectural theory this idealized encounter of citizens finds its theoretical underpinnings in Jürgen Habermas 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The translation of this book in English in 1989 actually provoked the debate around public spaces amongst architects and architectural theorists, specifically through a pessimistic reading of the rise of gated communities, shopping malls, and theme parks. These new typologies in the urban landscape were understood as the concrete outcomes of the opposite movement in society: the urge to exclude strangers from the immediate domestic and leisurely environments.

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A Higher Understanding of Freedom

By Richard A. Barrett

“Freedom. . . is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action. . . . I think the reader may believe he has read only an old truism when I said that the raison d’être of politics is freedom and that this freedom is primarily experienced in action.”

—Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”

Politicians, despite their divergent views and their distaste for each other, share at least this common ground: they believe in the vigorous pursuit and defense of freedom. In campaign speeches and party platforms freedom is one of the most frequently used terms. Freedom is set forth as a goal, as something that goes hand and hand with democracy.

Yet if we pause to think what we are doing, if we ask what precisely we want, what is it that we value enough to risk life and national wealth? What is our answer? When I ask this question of college students—students who are bright, engaged in their studies, and interested in politics—they are at loss. To be sure, they can list things they would like to be free to do, but why freedom is among the highest goals, why it is worth great sacrifice to achieve or maintain, they have difficulty articulating. To be fair, adults typically have the same difficulty, even when they happen to be professors of political science. Some will argue that the guarantee of individual freedoms is necessary to avoid Continue reading


Amor Mundi 04/10/16

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.

The Cynicism of Paraphrasing

vita activa film bannerRoger Berkowitz reviews the new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. He finds particularly impressive is the choice to employ Arendt’s own words. “While the film features interviews with excellent scholars, the overwhelming majority of the film is dedicated to Arendt’s words. Long segments show Arendt speaking in television and radio interviews. And when Arendt’s recorded voice is unavailable, the Canadian actress Allison Darcy gives voice to Arendt’s written words. In more than 30 extended quotations, Darcy reads Arendt’s sentences to us, quoting Arendt in extended arguments about refugees, totalitarianism, ideology, and evil. The film, Vita Activa, begs to be taken seriously as a sustained and passionate essay.” And yet, the movie has a problem. The director, Ada Ushpiz, changes Arendt’s words in every single quotation used in the movie. While many of these changes are cosmetic and minor, some are not. “Why does Ushpiz reorder Arendt’s sentences without alerting us to the change? Why does she change “fortuitousness” to “random nature”? And why does she change Arendt’s phrase “totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency”—one of the most iconic and felicitous of Arendt’s many quotable aphorisms—to read “totalitarian movements conjure up a false ideological and consistent world”? Ushpiz had an editor go over Arendt’s text to make it read better, to simplify it, to make it more accessible to a film audience. Doing so would be understandable in a fictional film, but it is dishonest in a documentary. Continue reading

Leading Students Into the World

Leading Students Into the World

**This post was originally published on November 12, 2012**

By Ellen Rigsby

“The teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-à-vis the child, it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world.”

— Hannah Arendt, “A Crisis in Education”

Teachers must lead their students into the world. They are qualified to do so because of their knowledge of the world as well as their ability to teach others that knowledge. There is an inherent conservatism enmeshed in the activity of teaching. That conservatism comes from simultaneously needing to protect children who are learning care for the world from being damaged by it and from needing to protect the world from representation by the child who does not yet understand it. Continue reading

field of depth

Distinctions, Depth, and Memory

By Richard Barrett

“We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost—would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.”

–Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”

Toward the beginning of her essay on “What is Authority?,” Arendt warns of the danger of forgetting. She cautions not out of fear that if we forget the meaning of authority, we hazard being enslaved by an authoritarian government. To the contrary, she reminds us just how authoritarian regimes preserve freedom when compared to a tyranny or a totalitarian government. The peril is that of becoming shallow–perhaps a fate worse than enslavement, or at least so it is portrayed by Aldous Huxley, a fellow author devoted to considering and preventing totalitarianism. Yet what is the connection between authority and depth? And does Arendt seek to resuscitate authority to save us from shallowness, or is she up to something else? Continue reading

busy nobody

Busy Nobody

By Charles Snyder

“The reality is that ‘the Nazis are men like ourselves’: the nightmare is that they have shown, have proven beyond doubt what man is capable of.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Nightmare and Flight” in Essays in Understanding 1930-1954

It was Aristotle who first developed the idea that human beings have a capacity for the greatest good and the most terrible acts of wickedness. On this view, humans represent both the best and worst of animal life (Politics). Human wickedness emerges out of the very same capacity for excellence. The spontaneity that causes human beings to create and preserve through the ages the communal space of the polis, and exercise freely therein the capacity for the political excellence of phronēsis (practical wisdom), is “open to being used for contrary ends.” In view of the atrocities of the previous century, in particular, the murderous momentum of totalitarian governments, we certainly don’t require today a logical demonstration that humans are capable of becoming an unprecedented sort of beast. We know that we beasts have the strange capacity to maintain perverse relations with the polis, relations which facilitate new forms of terror and criminality that animals other than human will surely remain forever incapable. Continue reading


The Dangers of Cynicism

By Jeffrey Jurgens

“In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias—God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils—and they had turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly. What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations”

Hannah Arendt regards Socrates as an apt model for the kind of thinking she admired and championed. He was, in her words, “a citizen among citizens,” a man who thought “without becoming a philosopher.” For rather than imparting a substantive notion of virtue or truth, he sought to “unfreeze” sedimented concepts like justice, courage, and happiness so that his interlocutors might examine them anew. Continue reading

The Singularity - Ray Kurzweil (Source: Futurebuff)

Video Archives – Lunchtime Talk with Laura Ephraim (February 2011)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011: Lunchtime Talk

Participants: Laura Ephraim, a 2010-2011 Post-doctoral fellow at the HAC and a 2011-2012 Associate Fellow at the HAC. She is now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Williams College.

In February of 2011, Laura Ephraim gave a brief Lunchtime Talk in which she presented an Arendtian critique of Ray Kurzweil’s writings on ‘the Singularity.’ Kurzweil himself spoke at Bard that winter, elaborating on his theory of the Singularity, which states in short that human technological progress has advanced, historically, on an increasing curve of complexity such that in the near future, it can be expected that the intelligence of machines will surpass the biological intelligence of the human brain. At that point, ‘Version 1.0’ of humanity—purely biological in form—will be supplanted by a humanity augmented by and in symbiosis with technology. Continue reading

eric garner protests

Violence, Art, and Our Crisis in Culture

“The common element connecting art and politics is that they are both phenomena of the public world. What mediates the conflict between the artist and the man of action is the cultura animi, that is, a mind so trained and cultivated that it can be trusted to tend and take care of the world of appearances whose criterion is beauty.”

“The Crisis in Culture,” in Between Past and Future (1993 [1961]) 218-219

The survival of culture is not assured. In her exploration of culture and crisis, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between objects that are produced for use and those that are produced as art in order to endure. Consumptive life is a part of leisure, a “necessity” of life, whereas art, as Arendt often discusses, partakes in the humanistic task of cultivating a world that doesn’t collapse all distinctions – among people, among realms of experiences, among spaces of collective encounter, and among the ways in which we see violence whether in the hands of fellow human beings or state authorities. This note about violence is not a theme in Arendt’s “The Crisis in Culture.” But it very well could be, and as I’ll assert here, it should be. This is part of our “crisis of culture,” after all, a dilemma for which art may offer some chance of cultivating a humanistic sensibility that is much needed in light of persistent violence within liberal democratic republics today. Continue reading


Freedom, “Betweenness”, and the Meaning of Politics

“Politics arises between men, and so quite outside of man. There is therefore no real political substance. Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.”

The Promise of Politics 95, emphasis in original

What is politics? Ask around, and you may get answers such as government, the state, political parties, corruption, “something I don’t care about” and “something that is a threat to my privacy and my freedom.” Hannah Arendt probably wouldn’t be surprised. Arendt notes: “Both the mistrust of politics and the question as to the meaning of politics are very old, as old as the tradition of political philosophy.” Moreover, she continues,

Underlying our prejudices against politics today are hope and fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal, and, linked with this fear, the hope that humanity will come to its senses and rid the world, not of humankind, but of politics.

In The Promise of Politics, we see Arendt wrestling with questions on the meaning of politics, particularly as it has been inherited in our modern world. Continue reading


Video Archives – Lunchtime Talk with Robert Pogue Harrison (2011)

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011: Lunchtime Talk

Featured Speaker: Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Literature at Stanford University

Robert Pogue Harrison’s Lunchtime Talk at the Arendt Center focuses on a particular aspect of Arendt’s concept of thinking, which is thinking’s relation to phenomena not traditionally associated with it, such as friendship, and the role of thinking “in these domains where it has different registers, motivations, and outcomes” than what one might assume. Continue reading

A Common Language


“Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence…for as long as we use the word ‘politics.'”

-Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940”

Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”

The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.

The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”  For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.

This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”

Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.

In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”

At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”

Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”

At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”).  For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.

What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:

“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”

Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.


But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin’s study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.

-John LeJeune