The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Evil: The Crime against Humanity
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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From "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship". The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

With the establishment of the state of Israel Jews were finally able "to sit in judgment on crimes committed against their own people"; they no longer needed "to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man." Arendt had long known that universal human rights are a chimera for those who lack the power to defend them. She knew from her own experience that despite any proclamation of their universality such rights are not "independent of human plurality" and are not possessed by human beings "expelled from the human community." (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, "Imperialism," chapter 9, "The Perplexities of the Rights of Man") She spoke, therefore, of "a right to have rights," a right "to live in a framework where one is judged by one's actions and opinions," and it was that right, denied by totalitarianism, that she hoped would be seen by all as the basic principle of human solidarity. The right to have rights, the right of a plurality of people "to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each," was for Arendt the minimum condition of a common human world. That right, the source of the rights of freedom and justice, would be "politically secured" if and only if it were set forth as the principal tenet of international law, a law "above nations," the enforcement of which would be legally binding on all peoples and all nations, transcending any "rules of sovereignty."6 (see The Origins of Totalitarianism, first edition, "Concluding Remarks") After having written of a "right to have rights" but before encountering Eichmann Arendt spoke of the "thunder" of the "explosion" of totalitarian crimes that nevertheless leaves us silent when "we dare to ask, not 'What are we fighting against' but 'What are we fighting for?'" (see "Tradition and the Modern Age" in Between Past and Future (originally in "Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought," long manuscript); cf. "The Difficulties of Understanding") She did not answer that question directly, presumably because she wanted her readers to think it through for themselves. It seems safe to say that Arendt herself considered the fundamental right to have rights something worth "fighting for."

The difficulty is that the right to have rights, as well as the rights of man, had never been "philosophically established." Here too the Eichmann trial, in particular the question of conscience, pointed the direction for the most challenging part of Arendt's late work. In a sense she deconstructed the phenomenon of conscience into something like the rules of a changing game or, better, the changing rules of the same game. She was not satisfied with that, however, and wanted to find out what we mean when we talk about moral phenomena insofar as they are not rules, customs, or habits. She found that what had traditionally been considered the voice of conscience was in fact the actualization of consciousness in the activity of thinking. Thus the relation of thoughtlessness to evil became concrete. What is most elusive and difficult to grasp is that Arendt meant literally the activity of thinking and not its results, not things thought, from which at best new rules might be derived which would either dissolve in further thinking or become unthought customs and habits.

What Arendt meant by the actualization of consciousness was not consciousness in the psychological sense but a knowing-with-oneself (con-scientia) that imposes limits when it is experienced. The crucial point is that the activity of thinking provides an intense and ineluctable experience of plurality. While thinking, i.e., while experiencing the silent dialogue of thought, the ego splits in two, disclosing an inner difference within an apparent identity. At lightning speed these "two-in-one," as Arendt called them, converse as long as the activity of thinking lasts. She found that these thinking "partners" have to be on good terms, essentially in agreement, because they cannot go on or resume thinking if they contradict one another. Arendt grounded, existentially, the logical law of non-contradiction in the congeniality of the two-in-one. By the same token it is in the activity of thinking that the explicitly human relationship between a plurality, though it be only of two, is first established. Again, it is not an "idea" but the experience of sheer activity that makes the one not only respect and relish but refuse to abrogate at any cost the right of the other to freely exercise the right to think. Socrates, who never wrote anything, preferred to die rather than live apart from his thinking "partner" and in Arendt's many references to him stands forth as the diametric opposite of Eichmann. Eichmann's contradictions indicated not that he had lost consciousness but that he had no experience of inner plurality, no contact with himself, and that therefore he could be relied upon to do anything, anything at all, that his "conscience" assured him was his duty.7

The foregoing amounts to no more than a glance at Arendt's late work. It should at least be added that thinking is only one of three mental activities that concerned her. Willing depends in a different way on inner plurality. It is a restless and inharmonious activity in which the willing ego is split two or more times and pulled in different directions. Willing generates power to affect the future, yet it is only with the cessation of the activity that the individuated self "springs" into action. Judging, on which we do not have Arendt's last word, is politically the most important of these activities. As its own witness it curbs the willing ego by manifesting in the world the justness implicit in the relationship of the two-in-one of thinking. Unlike either thinking or willing judging embraces the plurality of the outer world, of distinct men and women, of persons. The major texts that Arendt wrote following Eichmann in Jerusalem revolutionize the meaning of personal responsibility and the nature of moral judgment. Although with few exceptions they have played a minor role in the abundant secondary literature that has grown up around her work, today there are indications, especially among younger readers and scholars, of a new interest in these texts. In general Arendt's thought has proved stimulating because of the depth, passion, and independence of her mind and because she had the courage to write against the grain of accepted political prejudgments or prejudices. The later works that are here made accessible (see "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship," "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy," "Basic Moral Propositions," "Philosophy and Politics: What is Political Philosophy?" "Thinking and Moral Considerations," "Kant's Political Philosophy," and The Life of the Mind: "Thinking" and "Willing") add a different dimension to the attention that in all likelihood will be paid to Arendt in the future, a philosophic dimension that was there from the beginning, to be sure, but which she began to articulate only at the end of her life and did not live to fulfill. Hannah Arendt's legacy to the generations coming after her is not so much a teaching to be learned as a challenge to be met.


6. Arendt consistently opposed the idea of sovereignty as a power above law.

7. It was due to his flagrant contradictions, which were by no means restricted to moral matters, that Arendt saw Eichmann as a "buffoon." Speaking for the last time to the witnesses at his execution Eichmann "began by stating . . . that he . . . did not believe in a life after death [and] then proceeded: 'After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again.'" (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 15)


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought