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Posts tagged ‘Life of the Mind’

Arendt on Being in Public and Social Distancing

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.

Arendt explains:

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.”

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The New and Constant Gardener

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