Another month, another class at BISR. My education continues, this time with Samantha Hill. How could I miss the chance to be introduced to Arendt (and political theory, for that matter) by the Assistant Director of the Hannah Arendt Institute at Bard College? Arendt is often quoted these days for her observations on totalitarianism and the nature of evil. The ‘banality of evil’ is her phrase. Samantha led us on a tour of her ranging ideas via the recent compilation, Thinking Without a Banister, with humor, patience, sensitivity, and a formidable command of Arendtian scholarship. I feel equipped with new language and ideas to augment some thoughts that I couldn’t articulate before, which is what makes BISR classes so worthwhile. We covered quite a lot, so I’ll just share a few highlights.

  • Private, social, public realms: For Arendt, ideally our sentiments, family affairs, and thinking occur in the private realm; commerce and matters of group reason occur in the social realm; politics and matters of public discourse occur in the public realm. Importantly, we want these to be separate. Love as you want to love in private. Debate in public, but debate dispassionately. It is the hallmark of totalitarianism that the three realms blur together as concerns of the state. You don’t want the law to dictate what you may think.
  • Plurality: The fundamental principle of humanity. We are not all born the same. We are not clones with equal potential in all things. The implication is not that some groups of people deserve fewer rights. No! That would be to flatten a diverse group into members of a simple class. Othering violates the principle of plurality. We must recognize and celebrate our differences. If we cannot allow others to live as they exist, then what right do we have to live?
  • Judgment: Following from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Arendt argues that when we make aesthetic judgments, we wish for others to share that judgment, and the way to accomplish that is through dialogue. I make a case that you, too, should be moved by Beethoven’s Eroica by pointing to its history, its architecture, my experience listening to it, etc. But appeals to authority or logic hold no sway here. In this, aesthetic judgments are of a kind with moral judgments and aesthetic arguments are of a kind with moral arguments. Skill in engaging in these sorts of dialogues is learned, and it occurs to me that today’s emphasis on STEM educations at the expense of the arts and humanities is depriving a generation of this skill. STEM trains us to expect every question to have an answer, so we try to force answers where there are none, to apply logic where it doesn’t apply. I worry that we’re producing good laborers and workers, but poor citizens.
  • Bureaucracy: When we think of bureaucracy, we think of standard forms, process, and satirical movies. But as Arendt points out, bureaucracy literally means “rule by the bureau”. Some level of bureaucracy is necessary for large systems to function, but we must recognize a sort of inhuman tyranny imposed by an unthinking, unforgiving, incorporeal office. Recent attention on passports denied to non-gender-binary citizens for the sole reason that they could not select one or the other option is an example of how an inflexible reliance on bureaucracy leads to injustices. Those in the tech industry would do well to consider how to allow ambiguity and flexibility into the systems they design lest their elegant systems serve as efficient tools for dehumanization.
  • Poetry: Arendt cites Emerson’s assertion that poets are the inventors of our words, which were each once a stroke of genius. “Language is fossil poetry.” She also offers a beautiful eulogy to W. H. Auden, whose final years were so miserable, perhaps the price paid for his greatness as a poet. A few piercing glimpses of Arendt’s own poetry has me eager for Samantha’s forthcoming volume, “Into the Dark: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt”.

I take full responsibility for any misinterpretation or editorializing.

Arendt implores us to Think, to engage in an internal debate which can only happen in solitude (not in loneliness which makes us uncritical and susceptible to ideologies). She wants us to debate rigorously with ourselves as if continually pacing up and down stairs without the support of a banister, even if that leads us away from her ideas. Indeed, we’d better have disagreements with her, or else she becomes the end of thought. “I do not want anybody to accept whatever I may think.” I’m reminded of Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” The toils of Thinking, Laboring, or Acting never end, and when we can accept that fact, they are reliable sources of happiness.