The Origins of Totalitarianism is on the US bestseller lists, while tweet-size fragments of her thoughts cascade through social media; Hannah Arendt is trending. As with George Orwell, people are looking again to the chronicler of dark times past to help us navigate the whirlwind of the present.
The points of comparison between Arendt’s famous account of totalitarianism and today’s political context are all there: the shameless global profiteering followed by slow burn economic crises, the cynical exploitation of the masses by the rich and powerful, organised lying, bureaucratised racial hate, jaw-dropping moral banality. As we bump down the stairs of our current calamity, Arendt gives us some historical banisters to grip onto. But for all the compelling analogies, maybe we should be looking to her writing not just for what it tells us about what happened before (after all, we know what was waiting at the bottom of the stairs), but for some lessons on how to survive the present?
It’s difficult to work out how to resist a political situation that often seems so senseless. Our incredulity has become well worn over the past year, as first Brexit and then Trump’s election turned the world strange. Getting to grips with a reality that appears so outsized, outrageous—so unreal—taxes minds and nerves. But resilience, Arendt insisted, also begins in our heads, with thinking, tirelessly and scrupulously about a politics that is, by its self-proclaimed nature, repellent.
Thinking was always Arendt’s first weapon against totalitarianism. By thinking, she did not simply mean thinking about things so as to master the world better. Although her relentlessly ironic tone has led many to think it so, Arendt’s is not the lofty thought of the philosopher for whom reason is all and the opinions and actions of others simply stupid. Thinking was a way of being for Arendt; it was her passion a long time before it became her weapon of choice. Thinking was what drew her to the existentialism of Martin Heidegger as a student, and the passion of being through thinking that led her to his bed. Perplexingly, the older Arendt managed to live with Heidegger’s Nazism; but she never stopped believing that if thinking is being then it is also a political and moral activity. Heidegger’s catastrophic failure as a thinking person simply proved her point.
Famously, it was Adolf Eichmann’s “curious, quite authentic inability to think” that sealed the connection between thoughtlessness and modern evil for Arendt. Eichmann was not stupid, she argued, he simply had no inner voice to whom he was willing to account for his crimes. If one has to be murdered, she suggested in her essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations”, it would be far better to be butchered by a villain such as Shakespeare’s Richard III who at least bothered to “prove himself a villain”; “Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am: Then fly. What from myself?” Richard ruminates to himself in his brilliant soliloquy. By contrast, Eichmann had no echo to his thoughts; there was no inner check on his deathly prattle. The fact that Donald Trump, today’s villain-in-chief, more closely resembles the pantomime personae of Nazi military leader Hermann Goering or Italy’s Benito Mussolini should not detract from the reality that the banality of evil is on the creep once more. And we need not go across the Atlantic to find it. Arguing, as UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did in February this year, that helping child refugees would simply encourage child refugees is just one example of a current moral thoughtlessness that Arendt would shudder to recognise.
Subscribe to read more.