11 May, 2015Issue 28.2EuropeHistoryPhilosophyPolitics & Society

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Arendt’s Crisis of Modernity

Nathan Pinkoski

The Political Humanism of Hannah Arendt
Michael H. McCarthy
Lexington Books, 2014
322 pages
ISBN: 9780739192870


In the thinking of Hannah Arendt, modernity is a crisis. Her thought is a response to the threats posed to human dignity by the defining events of the 1930s and 1940s: the rise of totalitarian movements. According to Arendt, those events cannot simply be set aside after the demise of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the death of Stalin in 1953, and Europe is not in a position to breathe a sigh of relief after the nightmare. Considered reflection on modernity shows that totalitarianism is not an isolated phenomenon, but one with origins in earlier cultural events and ways of thinking about politics. Arendt’s reflections on modernity conclude that humanity is presently facing a political crisis, a tenacious threat to human dignity.

In Arendt’s view, this political crisis implicates “our tradition of political thought,” which lacks the resources to address this threat effectively and is partly complicit in creating the crisis of modernity. But paradoxically, Arendt insists that the resources for the activity of thinking about politics must come from this past tradition, rather than in ideological speculations about the future. The necessary but critical engagement with “our tradition of political thought” defines the way Arendt thinks. However forceful Arendt’s deconstruction of the tradition may be, one must correspondingly consider her deep respect for the great thinkers of the tradition.

Michael McCarthy’s work very successfully preserves this balance. Unlike many interpreters of Arendt, who either collapse Arendt into a nostalgic laudator temporis acti, or ignore her wider conversation with the tradition and instead extract select themes, McCarthy enables Arendt’s overriding concern—the political crisis of modernity—to emerge from this critical conversation with the tradition. McCarthy provides penetrating accounts of Arendt’s conversations with the pre-Platonic Greek tradition, Plato, Aristotle, and finally Marx. Through these conversations, Arendt crystallizes her developed theoretical insights about politics. For Arendt, what is genuinely political are a person’s actions—their memorable words and deeds—which take place in a public world held in common with other human beings. It is this kind of action that, not being bound by anything, initiates unpredictable and utterly new things in the world. From these reflections on action, Arendt highlights two themes as crucial to the meaning of politics: the importance of human freedom, and the persistence of plurality, the absolute distinctiveness of one human being from another. Political action lends dignity, aspiration, and meaning to human life.

But the tradition of political theory, from its origins in Plato, opposes that account. From its beginning, all the way through modernity, philosophy challenges the value of politics. Arendt’s thinking about modernity proceeds by identifying where the tradition of political thought has devalued the meaning of political life, and by sketching a model of the human being, representing a certain way of life which is derivative of the theoretical principles at hand. Arendt takes her understanding of political phenomena from the model of the citizen of the polis that preceded Platonic philosophy, outlined in Pericles’ famous funeral oration. But Plato objected to that model of the citizen lending such high dignity to human life. In thinking about politics, Plato thought that the life of philosophical contemplation was more valuable than the Periclean life of action. Moreover, Plato interpreted political action (praxis) as making or fabrication (poesis). Fabrication, unlike action, presumes a particular outcome from the start; the carpenter sets to work with the goal of making a table. If politics is analogous to fabrication, it already presupposes a given result from the action of citizens. It removes the chance for initiating unpredictable things in the world, removes any consideration of a relationship to other human beings, and turns politics into a process of finding the right means for satisfying already provided ends. It is the triumph of utility over freedom.

In modernity, these distorted interpretations of political action coalesce as the human model of homo faber, a producer of economic goods. This reverses the Greek priority of political life for the sake of the ideal of the utilitarian craftsman. Being economically productive is more important than being a good citizen. Marx’s reductive explanations of economics and human history emphasize these aspects of economic production deriving from labour, generating animal laborans. This model of the human being, acting for basic economic necessities, is not concerned with how he might relate meaningfully to other human beings. McCarthy recognizes the result of this development. “There has been an undeniable increase in cumulative wealth, but the cost in human aspiration and self-understanding has been immense.” Greater still, the cost is political alienation: alienation from the source of meaning that is only found by acting with other human beings in the public realm. Animal laborans is lonely, and that loneliness spurs his interest in the mass social movements that characterize totalitarianism.

All of this might lead a critic to conclude that Arendt is a strong historical determinist. It might suggest that the ideas of antiquity determine the whole course of modern political events, or that, in the manner of Karl Popper, Plato is responsible for totalitarianism. But McCarthy is too careful an interpreter of Arendt to fall into that trap.

McCarthy emphasises that for Arendt, the political events composing modernity are not caused by a set of ideas. Instead, what emerges, sometime in the 20th century, is a disastrous meeting point between the path of political thought and the tumultuous course of modern European history. McCarthy highlights Arendt’s description of modern European history as told through the story of three character types: the patriotic citizen, the capitalist bourgeois, and the mass man. Here, although there are similarities with Arendt’s account of the tradition of political thought, the narrative is not primarily about philosophical ideas and their consequences for human self-understanding. Drawing on the full breadth of Arendt’s work, McCarthy provides a systematic account of her views on modern European history. It is a story of the institutional collapse of the nation-state. The lofty revolutionary republican ideals of the 18th century—the ideals of the patriotic citizen—collapse into the class struggles of the 19th century. In this period, the capitalist bourgeois eventually convinces the government that his private interests are the interests of the nation as a whole, prompting imperial adventures. Imperialism culminates in competitive warfare, most disastrously in the First World War, and destroys the political and social bonds of the nation-state. The early 20th century, then, is when the nation-state becomes an institutional void. Within that void live the masses, without significant social ties to hold them together. Mass man, like animal laborans, is lonely. With the addition of some well-organized ideologues in the 1920s and 1930s, the catastrophe of totalitarian rule is at hand. But, in spite of the demise of Stalinism and Nazism, our civilization is still broken. As a result of the intellectual, social and political situation informing the modern situation, totalitarianism will not simply disappear. Our present crisis is a drawn-out struggle with totalitarianism, because our loneliness makes us so feeble before it.

By reading Arendt as a humanist, McCarthy guides us to a better understanding of how Arendt thinks about that crisis. Humanism is about the search for the source of human dignity, and rising to the defence of human dignity when it is attacked. Furthermore, McCarthy’s account of Arendt’s reading of modernity displays a considered mastery of her works and the thinkers with which she converses. He shows where Arendt may have erred in her critique of Plato, Aristotle, and Marx, and provides counterpoints on behalf of those thinkers. Those sections are stimulating and help further the conversation in a manner Arendt would have appreciated greatly, as a critical conversation between the present and the “old friends” of the tradition—as Arendt would refer to St Augustine.

McCarthy also offers his own unique thinking-out of the contemporary, 21st century political situation. As an act of thinking, the final section is in the spirit of Arendt’s own example and invitation to try to think in a distinct way. Nevertheless, one does wonder what precisely is distinct about it. On the contemporary situation of American liberal democracy, McCarthy repeats the kind of history of the 20th century found frequently amongst the American brand of liberalism. We are told to avoid the ideologies of capitalism and communism alike, while celebrating Roosevelt’s New Deal for developing the mixed economy. We celebrate Johnson’s continuation and expansion of New Deal programmes. We deplore Reagan’s assault on them, and highlight especially the rise in inequality since the 1980s.

It is, ultimately, a very safe conclusion, providing a familiar answer to some of the problems facing the present. But to the point of Arendt’s legacy as a thinker, there is an opportunity missed. The appropriate legacy of Arendt’s thinking would be to encourage us to go beyond conventional ways of thinking, in order to provide a unique perspective in an age of intellectual ossification, cliché, and doctrinaire ideas. In her lifetime, Arendt’s exercises in thought exhibited an unyielding challenge to orthodoxies of all kinds, whether to left-wing apologists for the Soviet Union or to right-wing proponents for hunting out communists in American society. Part of what makes thinking “dangerous”, as Arendt well knew, is that its results do not often sit comfortably with one’s own acquaintances.

Today, Arendt is more popular than in the past, and one occasionally finds that fashionable, conclusive statements are presented as answers to the question, “What would Arendt do?” This obscures the purpose in Arendt’s thinking. The intellectual underpinning of the question “What would Arendt do?” is wholly unlike that of a familiar question concerning morality, “What would Jesus do?” for that speculation invites conclusive certainty. But in Arendt’s terms, the terms concerning thinking, there can be no conclusive answer. There can only be, out of the resources of the past, a thoughtful exploration of the present: an urgent exploration, to be sure, but one always open for new beginnings in confronting the problems of modernity.

Nathan Pinkoski is a DPhil candidate in Political Theory at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.