I’m teaching an Arendt seminar this semester and well, this is all happening, so I’ve been thinking a lot (see here) about what it means to be natural living beings and what it means to treat those beings as human. I have no interest in weighing in on the Agamben public statements, but I do think that he is thinking about the Arendtian question of the dangers of reducing human life to mere questions of survival and living. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, “There are more important things than living,” and the thing is, he isn’t wrong. Aristotle suggests that some acts we should be unwilling to do even in the face of death (EN 1110a25-26). What Patrick is wrong about is what those things are. He thinks that workers should be willing to die for the economy, ie., the production of wealth for others.
But maybe what is worse than death is reducing the other to biological life who is here only for the production of increased life of others, or who as biological life is expendable. My husband and I have been having a long-running debate about cannibalism. My initial response to it is that I don’t really have a problem with the idea that in dire straits, one might have to eat another human. He keeps insisting that there are some things worse than death, and that we should be willing to die for the idea of the dignity of the human. This flusters me and makes me worry that I’m more invested in living than dignity. But I have watched his concern about the loss of the chance to mourn the dead that seems to be really happening in New York and around the world. And I’m reminded how fragile is the line between treating other life as for us and treating it as for itself. The line depends on the treating.
Is “social distancing” a step on the road to tyranny? Arendt captures the concern of many that forced isolation and empty public spaces during the current shelter-in-place orders that most U.S. state governors have issued serves tyranny when she writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical governments is to bring this isolation about. (474)
Isolation seems to make tyranny possible because it allows governments to replace the shared understanding that citizens can achieve by judging a world that appears in common to all with an ideology that fits the ends of the tyrant.
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as with the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. 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. (474)
Arendt argues in The Life of the Mind that the end of metaphysics–of the idea that a world beyond this one can be accessed, or that any access to it can be judged by one who has can stand outside this world (or that we could have access to such a judge)–requires things to appear and beings to whom the world can appear, “guarantee[ing] their reality” (19). Or as she writes in The Human Condition, “For us, appearance–something that is being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves–constitutes reality.”
I spent the afternoon gardening. Last Monday it snowed, so this might have been foolish. But it’s almost the end of April, and I just decided I would act like it was Spring, whether the weather thought so or not. It was a nice day for it. Cloudy at first and then the sun came out. Last fall, I raked leaves into the flower beds, so this spring I raked some up and tried to turn some of the beds over to keep the nutrients from the leaves. I bought flowers and planted some in the ground and put others in pots and put them along the porch steps. I put some new plants in the garden bed in the back and spent some good time with my hands in the dirt.
I feel satisfied. But I’m wary. Last year I also planted things. Some plants returned. Others did not. I brought a bunch of plants into the house through the winter and was happy that most of them made it, but my hanging plants especially made it outside in the sun in the nick of time. Planting, I was thinking, requires hope.
I’ve been teaching a seminar on Hannah Arendt this semester. Much of the class has been working through her Life of the Mind treatment of the faculties of the mind, first of thinking, then of willing, and now, judging. The judging part didn’t make it into Life of the Mind, but she indicated she had plans for such a section and a seminar she gave on Kant’s political philosophy that focuses on how judgment is a political project, edited by Ronald Beiner, was published in 1982, soon after her death. In the first volume on “Thinking,” Arendt describes the project of thinking as a dialogue with oneself, a dialogue that she describes as one between an actor and spectator. In the second volume on “Willing,” she suggests that the will is what we call the faculty that begins something new. She spends considerable time addressing the critiques of the will in the history of philosophy and the ways that the will is saved by some thinkers only to have very little latitude or effect on human life, as when Epictetus counsels to will only that which you can control, which is to say, well, very little. And Nietzsche makes of the will the capacity to reaffirm what one might have regretted of the past in a way that serves to overcome the regret, if not the past. Arendt concludes by describing the will as that which allows for a new order, but she does not dismiss the great difficulty if the impossibility of a world in which chains of causes determine what is to follow. The will is what we call the specifically human capacity to break the chain. For something that was not expected, not determined by a previous series of events to occur, that is to say, for human beings to act. Read more
Trump spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos yesterday (full transcript here) about “America First,” saying, “I believe in America.” Trump seems to think it is obvious who he means by America, and many of his supporters think it is obvious too. Yet, increasingly, the policies of “America First” do not support those who support it. Last week, in an effort to protect American interests the Trump Administration slapped a tariff onto solar panels coming from China this week. Though Trump fancies himself a “job creator,” this move will likely result in the loss of 23,000 American jobs. Solar panel manufacturing will help FirstSolar, Tesla, Suniva, and SolarWorld, but manufacturing only makes up a small portion of the solar panel industry. Most of the work is in installation. Some analysts are even suggesting that foreign companies will see most of the benefit. Read more
This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.” The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well? A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths? I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.
First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled. Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus. The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border. People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces. Read more
Last week, I finally sat down with some friends and watched the 2012 film, “Hannah Arendt,” by Margarethe von Trotta. The film focuses on Arendt’s trip to Israel to watch the Eichmann trial and the writing of her article for The New Yorker on the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem. With nice timing, The New Yorker is making its archives including this article available for a limited time on its website so check it out here. Arendt argues in that essay that what was most appalling about the trial and about Eichmann and most frightening for a political environment tending more and more to totalitarianism was that Eichmann did not claim to think. Read more
Thinkers from Plato to Marx remark on the need for leisure–for leisure time won by having one’s expenses covered and necessities provided–to engage in the life of the mind. After the busy work of investigating Athens, we have now settled into the leisurely place of Nafplion where we have plenty of time to think. I’ve set two thinking projects for myself: one is a paper on Arendt and Aristotle that I’m giving at the American Political Science Association (APSA) at the end of the summer and the other is a piece on Aristotle’s conception of government, politeuma, which I have presented a number of times and am now ready to send it out for publication. Read more
The title of this post comes from Pericles’ Funeral Oration as recounted by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War. My very patient traveling companion read it aloud to me today in the Kerameikos District, the Classical-era cemetery where Pericles gave that oration after the first dead had been returned to Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides remembers Pericles speaking thus: They [the dead] gave their lives to her [Athens] and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres–not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or action. Read more
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. Melville, Moby Dick
On Monday, I get to sea. I am traveling to Greece for five weeks. First, a week in Athens and then south to Nafplio where most of June will be spent. Brief forays to Delphi, Corinth, Mycenae and Sparta will interrupt writing work all thanks to funds from the Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professorship that I hold at Wabash College. Read more
I spent the last two days attending the Faculty Workshop on Democracy and Civic Engagement at Wabash that was organized and facilitated mostly by members of the Rhetoric Department at Wabash. It’s been glorious to slow down and take some time to think about the teaching we spend so much time doing, so I’m feeling rejuvenated and enthusiastic about planning for civic engagement components in the classroom. One issue that kept recurring for me was the tension between, or at least, the question of whether there is a tension between, thinking and acting. Plato and Aristotle both distinguish between actions you do for themselves and actions you do for some end outside of themselves, and they argue that actions that you do for themselves are better than actions you do for some product or goal beyond the action. I found myself concerned that measuring the success of a course in terms of some action that might come of it beyond the thinking that takes place within it privileges action and makes thinking instrumental to action. This dispute reaches back to the ancients. In Politics VII.3, Aristotle remarks that some people think that politics is a better life than philosophy because they think that politics is action but philosophy is not. Aristotle accepts the view that a life of action is better than a life of inaction, but he rejects the idea that philosophy is not action in itself. Read more