Hannah Arendt on How to Spot (and Resist) Authoritarian and Totalitarian Leaders and Movements
During the upcoming year, I intend to study the authoritarian and totalitarian impulses that exist among portions of the Left and the Right in Western liberal democracies. I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book, Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. I’ll also read Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s The Age of Secularization and The Crisis of Modernity.
Most importantly of all, I’m reading The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, by Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt was born in 1906 into a secular German-Jewish family. In college, it became clear that she was a gifted intellectual. But with Hitler’s emergence, Arendt became a dissident and was arrested and interrogated, but eventually released. She fled to Germany and was stateless for nearly two decades until she became an American citizen.
As I’ve been reading Arendt, I’ve kept a running list of favorite quotes. I’ll list them here, with minimal commentary from me and in no particular order. At some point in the future, after I’ve finished processing what I’ve learned, I’ll publish an essay evaluating her thought and applying it to totalitarian temptations today. For now, here are the quotes categorized under headings:
Genuine politics depends upon the existence of public spaces where people can speak freely and show who they really are.
If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better or worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible government,” [i.e. speech codes] by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth in meaningless triviality. (Men in Dark Times)
Opinions are only formed in genuine encounters with other people. And authentic politics only exists when genuine encounters and opinions are involved.
I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different view points, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent…. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be the capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions, my opinion. (Between Past and Future)
The totalitarian temptation involves forced uniformity via suppressed speech.
Unanimity of opinion is a very ominous phenomenon, and one characteristic of our modern mass age. It destroys social and personal life, which is based on the fact that we are different by nature and by conviction. To hold different opinions and to be aware that other people think differently on the same issue shields us from Godlike certainty which stops all discussion and reduces social relationships to those of an ant heap. A unanimous public opinion tends to eliminate bodily those who differ, for mass unanimity is not the result of agreement, but an expression of fanaticism and hysteria. (The Jewish Writings)
Totalitarian regimes and leaders want total domination, which includes the eradication of individuality and spontaneity. This was revealed by the Nazi fascists and the Marxist Communists.
The camps are meant not only to exterminate people and degrade human beings, but also to serve the ghastly experiment of eliminating, under scientifically controlled conditions , spontaneity itself as an expression of human behavior and of transforming the human personality into a mere thing. (On the Origins of Totalitarianism)
When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family—how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder. (On the Origins of Totalitarianism)
What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionizing transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself. (On the Origins of Totalitarianism)
The suffocating, oppressive, and coercive environment created by totalitarian leaders can make ordinary citizens commit monstrous deeds.
Some years ago…I spoke of “the banality of evil” and meant with this…something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” (“Thinking and Moral Considerations”)
Authoritarian and totalitarian leaders are very good liars.
Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing, than reason, than reality, because the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. (Crises of the Republic)
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it. (On the Origins of Totalitarianism)
We must work very hard to comprehend the true nature of our social, cultural, and political situation. Then, instead of opting out of politics, we must act on what we’ve comprehended.
Comprehension…means…examining and bearing consciously the burden our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality. (On the Origins of Totalitarianism)
We should be very attentive to the fact that many human beings are stateless and thus have nobody to secure justice for them, nobody to fight for their rights.The Rights of Mans, after all, had been defined as “inalienable” because they were supposed to be independent of all governments, but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.” (On the Origins of Totalitarianism)