The Moral World in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now
Nothing is helping us more right now, as we watch human tragedies unfold on the U.S.-Mexican border and elsewhere, than a conversation Krista had last year with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge — on thinking and friendship in dark times. She applies the moral clarity of the 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt to now — an invitation to dwell on the human essence of events we analyze as political and economic. Our dramas of exile and displacement are existential, she says — about who we will all be as people and political community. What Arendt called the “banality of evil” was at root an inability to hear another voice.
Lyndsey Stonebridge is a professor of modern literature and history at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, England. She’s the author of The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg as well as the essay “Thinking Without Banisters” for Jewish Quarterly magazine.
Ms. Tippett: Nothing is helping me more right now, as I watch human tragedies unfold on the U.S.-Mexican border and elsewhere, than a conversation I had last year with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge — on thinking and friendship in dark times. She applies the moral clarity of the 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt to now — an invitation to dwell on the human essence of events we analyze as political and economic. Our dramas of exile and displacement are existential, she says — about who we will all be as people and political community. What Arendt called the “banality of evil” was at root an inability to hear another voice.
Ms. Stonebridge: I think she might say very politely, “I did tell you.” [laughs] And I think, for me, the so-called “refugee crisis” is actually part of a continuous history that Arendt gives us the tools to understand, partly because of her thinking, and partly because she lived it.
Ms. Tippett: She was an “enemy alien,” as we said.
Ms. Stonebridge: She was an enemy alien. She was a refugee. She was stateless for 18 years of her life. She said very famously, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Hannah Arendt — a German-Jewish philosopher, journalist, and political theorist — was born in in 1906 and died in 1975. She fled Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler and ultimately became a U.S. citizen. Lyndsey Stonebridge teaches modern literature and history at the University of East Anglia, but she was in southern France when we spoke.
Ms. Tippett: Are you on sabbatical?
Ms. Stonebridge: No. We have a slightly longer Easter vacation in Europe. And I spend as much time as I can down here because I have family here, and we have a house here. And it’s where I get to write and think. I’m also about an hour away from where Hannah Arendt was in a detention camp in Gurs.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, really?
Ms. Stonebridge: So every time I’m around here, I always have a moment where I think about that and think about the people who came through Montauban, which is about an hour from here, which is a big refugee town, and Toulouse. So this area has got lots of Arendt in it, in some ways, for me.
Ms. Tippett: I wanted to ask you what, in the background of your life, inclined you to be captured by her passions and ideas? Are there points of resonance that go back for you as well?
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah, I think it took me a long time to come to Arendt, because when I first read her as an undergraduate, and we all read The Origins of Totalitarianism, and it seemed like history. And it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War when I started working on a book called The Judicial Imagination. And in that book, I wanted to understand how people judged the Holocaust, how people judged what had happened in World War II.
And it was a sense of moral and historical clarity that she had. I was thinking about this this morning: the other figure who’s very important to me, who’s also a very strong Jewish woman, was Melanie Klein, the psychoanalyst. And Klein had a question, which was, “Where does evil come from?” And Hannah Arendt asked another question, which I think is uniquely important, which is, “How, in modern times, is evil organized?”
Because we can’t stop where evil comes from, but we can talk about how it’s organized. We can try and understand that. So there’s that. There’s also — she was very committed to the idea that people who felt like they were outsiders and spectators in their worlds could have a contribution to make to that world, could understand that world from a certain perspective, and could engage with it. And actually — or being a pariah, being that you know you’re coming from the outside, you know you’re not quite right, and seizing that and running with it and working with it. And she also had that angle for me.
Ms. Tippett: I think, for me, rereading The Origins of Totalitarianism, dipping back into her after quite a few years, that she wasn’t just — this is not historical. It’s not history-telling. It’s really delving into the human essence of what we experience and analyze as political, historical events.
But something that struck me so much that I’d forgotten is this idea about the isolation of — that she wrote, “What prepares men for a totalitarian domination” — and here, again, is what happens in the human heart and psyche and society that makes these things possible — “is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience, usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”
And if I think about the Brexit experience in the U.K., and I think about this last presidential election in the U.S., so much of the dynamic were human beings who had felt unseen and feel disconnected. It’s that language, she says, “atomized, isolated individuals.”
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. And she makes a further distinction in the last chapter of Origins of Totalitarianism, which she wrote later, between uprootedness, which is what people — since the Industrial Revolution, this has happened, but obviously, it’s got worse — and in periods of economic crisis, it gets far worse — is not feeling recognized, not feeling at home. So it’s a kind of malaise of uprootedness. And then she contrasts and compares with superfluousness, which is not being not being treated like you’re in the world at all.
And that was the camps, and that is the refugee camps. So there’s this awful relationship between the uprooted of the world, in Europe, in the States, and the new superfluous of the world, which she understood very well because she was one of the superfluous of the world in the 1940s. So I think she was very interested in that relationship. And I think you’re absolutely right; the loneliness is absolutely crucial, but it’s the question of how we imagine a response to that. I discovered recently that Hannah Arendt taught George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to Berkeley undergraduates in 1955. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Another new bestseller.
Ms. Stonebridge: Exactly. And what would one give to have been in that classroom?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Ms. Stonebridge: If any of your listeners were in Berkeley in 1955 being taught Nineteen Eighty-Four by Hannah Arendt [laughs] I would love to hear. And she had read the novel earlier because she started rewriting the last chapter of Origins of Totalitarianism. So she’s getting that kind of analysis off Orwell. She’s in dialogue with Orwell, who’s, of course, dead by then. And yet he’s saying, “Actually, this is what happens.” The original title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. I mean, you can hear the Brexit resonances there: [laughs] “The Last Man in Europe.” And the loneliness. And the reason why Winston Smith is so drawn to Big Brother in the end is he cannot bear being alone. And I think you’re absolutely right. Listening to that cri de cœur, that cry of the heart, around not having a place to go. But, on the other hand — she would have been, I think, very cautious of having too ready answers to what you do with that dilemma.
She’d been very, very suspicious of throwing up another worldview or ideology to end the loneliness. I think she’d be very impatient with the way that those of us who are trying to react to our current scenarios, both in the U.K. and the U.S., are either turning on each other, or blaming the liberal elite, or blaming high capitalism, or blaming whatever. Making people un-lonely is a good project, but how that’s going to happen, what politics you need for that to happen is going to be a very, very hard question.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Or even if politics is the place where that would start, if it would be a political project, which is a different kind of question to raise in the 21st century than it was in the 20th century…
Ms. Stonebridge: Absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: And that is something I wanted to ask you also because she had this insistence that people should be more political, which meant one thing for her, and maybe this is a way in which the foundation on which that idea was based in her century is so different — because politics itself is called into question in a different way as part of our crisis.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. I was very interested by your question about imagination because I think we talk a lot today about empathy and suffering. And I’m like Arendt. I’m always a bit wary. It sounds like a terrible thing to say. I’m really a bit wary about empathy. [laughs] I really don’t know about this.
Ms. Tippett: I wanted to ask you about that because when we were talking about loneliness, as we’re discussing it in the context of her work, it’s clearly the human condition, and it can be a personal experience. But it’s not talking about loneliness as something that, if we can be compassionate towards each other’s loneliness, things will get better.
Ms. Stonebridge: Well, I think for her — she was critical of pity, and she wrote very famously in her On Revolution book that what she didn’t like about pity is it kept the power relationship. Other people’s suffering — the one who’s doing the pitying or the empathizing keeps the power.
And also, she didn’t like it because once you have suffering as your ground zero, you can allow for anything in the name to end that suffering. And that was the tragedy for her of the French Revolution. We have to be piteous in order to save the suffering people. And she’s thinking about what it’s like to imagine not being in the place you’re in, to imagine to be in the place of another.
And that’s slightly different from pity, and it’s a slightly different take from empathy, because it involves something a bit harder, actually. [laughs] So when she’s teaching to Berkeley students in 1955, she says, “Imagine what it was like to have the political experience of a European, which is an experience totally unlike yours.” And then she puts in brackets, “A bit like mine, but totally unlike yours.” [laughs]
Which I thought was very sweet given what she’d just been through. And what she says to do is not just to empathize, but to actually build blueprints, or worlds, or frames for understanding experience that is not ours, that cannot be incorporated into ours. So why I think it’s different from empathy or pity is, when you are imagining — because you’re imagining to be empathetic or to share suffering — you’re immediately incorporating that experience into a view of yourself and your own worldview.
What Arendt wanted was actually something a bit more radical than that, is to imagine something that’s not your world, that makes you feel uncomfortable. And that’s where the work has to start. And that’s why she was also very committed to thinking. [laughs] To the activity of thinking, which is how you do that.
Ms. Tippett: Which is how you do that. Right. And honestly, Americans have a very conflicted kind of relationship, historically and philosophically, with thought and ideas. It’s a different thing than it was, for example, in the Germany that Hannah Arendt was raised in. The power of ideas. But it feels to me like there might be a receptivity now precisely because we see that it’s not getting us anywhere to be meeting my emotion with your emotion. Her — as you say, you can only have moral imagination if you also think, if you are thinking.
You talked in this podcast I heard you in that brought me to you, In Our Time, about how she always talked about the dialogue we have in our heads, that we are constantly working out what it means to be human, to be a person, whether we realize it or not.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. She took this from Socrates and then from Heidegger, but her sense of what it meant to be a thinking person was always to be having the two-in-one dialogue in your head, that thinking wasn’t about mastery. It wasn’t about thinking about stuff in order to control it or to rationalize it. Thinking was a way of being.
The passion of being was in thinking. And that comes from that two-in-one dialogue in one’s head. And for her, that was the beginning of moral life, comes in that dialogue. There also follows — there is a notion of judgment that comes through thinking and dialogue. And the ability…
Ms. Tippett: Discernment. Reflection.
Ms. Stonebridge: Well, thinking, she says, is not the same as judgment, but it creates the right conditions for judgment. But also, she says, if you can’t have that inner dialogue, then you can’t speak and act with others either because it’s part of — if you’re already divided in yourself because you’re having this conversation with yourself, and that’s the passion of your being, people who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called “the banality of evil” was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.
[music: “Dance of Death” by Andrew Bird]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, exploring the present-day resonance of the 20th-century thinker Hannah Arendt. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her 1963 book about the Jerusalem trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann.
[music: “Dance of Death” by Andrew Bird]
Ms. Tippett: So one of her famous phrases is the “banality of evil,” which was an observation she made about Eichmann, and that was controversial. But you said something about the bureaucratization, which was part of that banality, a refuge for — instead of thinking, you are part of the system, and you follow the rules, and you enact the rules.
And again, I really would not compare Eichmann to anyone alive right now in full, but the revulsion and the sense of alienation people all over the place have from bureaucracy, which in our age is globalized, right? The way the phrase “the government” will be received in many places in the U.S., the way the phrase “the E.U.” is received in England, there are echoes of something that goes wrong in human societies that were still with us or we’re feeling again. I don’t know.
Ms. Stonebridge: One of the first things Arendt did when she finally got to New York, one of her first jobs was to help edit Kafka’s diaries. You remember the story of The Castle, the stranger — it’s certainly a migrant story. The stranger arrives in a new place, he comes for work, and then he can’t work out what’s going on, and he can’t settle, and he’s blocked by this bureaucracy that no one understands.
Anyone who’s worked with refugees or migrants in the last ten years will know all too well K’s experience as he tries to make good on the offer of work for the castle. I think it’s very interesting that she actually chose that. She chose it because it resonated with her experience. But it goes back to the earlier conversation. I suppose the more we become fearful for what we call life, the more we try to bureaucratize to keep other people out, the worse it gets. And also with the logic that is no logic. That’s the other thing. It’s the capricious nature of bureaucracy. If I think about the E.U.
Ms. Tippett: Even well-meaning bureaucracy takes on these dehumanizing characteristics.
Ms. Stonebridge: Well, this is the very interesting. Exactly. Humanitarianism is a very good example of — how do we administer for human life? And once you start to administer human life, you have very difficult decisions to make. And before you know it, you are in a situation where you’re running very close to not committing atrocities but getting very, very close to causing harm rather than doing good.
If you talk to people who work for big aid agencies, you talk to people who worked and then left big aid, the bureaucratization of human life brings with it this penalty, even when you think you are doing good. Which is why our home secretary, Amber Rudd, who was trying to explain why Britain would not be taking any more child refugees across from France, said it was a bad policy because it encouraged child refugees.
And I felt like one of those judges or someone sitting there in Jerusalem in 1961 thinking, “I’m sorry?” [laughs] “You’re not helping child refugees because it might encourage more child refugees to come? Really? Is this a moral position?” No, it’s an administrative position. And I don’t think these people are evil, but I think they run very, very close to the wind. [laughs] And that kind of — at best, I’m thinking; at worst, it’s cynical.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Let’s talk about refugees. It’s an important topic for you. With our news cycle, we kind of lurch from one drama to the next of what happened today that’s really important, right? What happened today that mattered? I often just kind of step back and think somebody looking back 100 years from now, looking at this day — what will they see was happening in the world that, in fact, was important?
And I feel like this refugee crisis that is so huge, and ongoing, and unresolved, and no vision for resolving, or even a sense of what that would mean, might be that thing. And I know that’s more present in Europe. And I wonder if you think if Hannah Arendt could come back with her cigarette in hand today, how she might ask us to be looking at this thing that is also happening kind of between and above and below and behind all the politics that we are paying attention to.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. I think she might say very politely, “I did tell you.” [laughs] And I think, for me, the so-called “refugee crisis” is actually part of a continuous history that Arendt gives us the tools to understand, partly because of her thinking, and partly because she lived it, so it’s a really clear example of her living through thinking.
Ms. Tippett: She was an “enemy alien,” as we said.
Ms. Stonebridge: She was an enemy alien.
Ms. Tippett: Stateless person.
Ms. Stonebridge: She was a refugee. She was stateless for 18 years of her life. One of my favorite essays from Arendt is an essay she published in 1943 for The Menorah Journal called “We Refugees,” and it’s very, very biting. And she understood very well. She said before, the word “exile” used to be — exiles used to be treated as sort of sacred figures or — she said “hospitality in a war.”
Ms. Tippett: I read that. That’s so interesting to think about. “Everywhere the word ‘exile,’ which once had an undertone of almost sacred awe, now provokes the idea something simultaneously suspicious and unfortunate.”
Ms. Stonebridge: That’s right. Yeah. I think she said that in ’43 as well. And what she’s very, very good on is saying, “Actually, this isn’t a problem for refugees. This isn’t a refugee crisis. This is a crisis for the European nation states. It’s a crisis for what we think we’re doing. OK?” And I think that really needs to be put firmly — the refugee problem isn’t just a problem for people who happen to be refugees. It’s a problem for everybody because it’s a problem about how we’re deciding to run our countries and our politics.
Why I think she’s very, very good today is she understood that humanitarianism or human rights would not be the answer to the question that was posed by people who, for whatever reason, found themselves outside the nation state. And one of the first things she pointed out is that what was exposed by the refugee crisis of the last century was how so-called human rights were actually political and national rights. So you were only — you only had as many rights as were guarded by the country in which you happened to be born.
Once that country decided to decitizenize you, once it decided that you were no longer a citizen, once it decided that it had no more responsibilities towards you, you were rightless. She said very famously, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”
So then the question is, well, OK, so how are we going to have a political community that is hospitable, that is going to work in terms of protecting rights? And one thing is, she said, after the war, refugees themselves didn’t tend to call for human rights. They tended to call for their own nation.
Ms. Tippett: They called for what? Their own nation.
Ms. Stonebridge: Their own nation. Because people know that they will be protected.
Ms. Tippett: And that’s going to be such a different set of questions, again, in the 21st century.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yes, it is.
Ms. Tippett: It’s just not the proposal anyone would make.
Ms. Stonebridge: Exactly. But she did. And I think she would have predicted — she had this expression — and you’ll remember because you’ve read it recently in The Origins of Totalitarianism — called the “dark background of difference,” where you no longer have entitlements or presence. You no longer have rights as you disappear into the dark background of difference, where, she said, the more interconnected the world gets, the more global it gets, the bigger the dark background of difference is going to get.
And therefore, the more threatened people who consider themselves to be in political nation states, the more threatened they’re going to be. So you’re in this scenario that is like a zero-sum game, so to speak.
Ms. Tippett: And that is where we are, and it’s interesting — interesting in a terrible way — I think that with globalization, which is not necessarily a word she would have used or predicted — but with globalization, there was this assumption, which actually didn’t rest on a very sophisticated examination of the human condition — but there was this assumption that we would just grow out of that, right?
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: But what she understood, because she was looking at the human condition, and taking that seriously, is that, as you say, that “dark background,” that this would become a crisis again.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. And she was also — if you read The Human Condition, which is — I recommend to cheer you up, actually in these dark, dark times. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Thank you. [laughs] I have not read that one.
Ms. Stonebridge: It is a model of — she’ll talk about the importance of new beginnings, the importance of natality, the importance of action, the importance of speaking. And she’ll talk about the world. It’s a book that’s concerned with worldliness. And she’ll talk about the storybook of mankind, like we’re all connected, and we’re all part of the world.
But she says globalization is about the accumulation of capital. It’s expansion for expansion’s sake. It will not produce more equality. It will produce more inequality, hence the background of difference. So trying to work for a worldliness that’s genuinely worldly, as against a worldliness, which is actually about accumulation and expansion for expansion’s sake, which will increase the divides between people. She would have understood that. She would’ve been so impolite to say, “I told you so.” which I don’t think she would have done. [laughs] She would’ve been thinking it.
[music: “Choanal Imperforation” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Lyndsey Stonebridge through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Choanal Imperforation” by Melodium]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, exploring how the 20th-century philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt might speak to us now. Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” and wrote towering works like The Human Condition and The Origins of Totalitarianism. She was concerned with the human essence of events that we analyze as historical and political. Arendt was a German Jew who fled the Holocaust and spent 18 years as a refugee, a “stateless person,” before eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.
Ms. Tippett: Before we kind of leave the refugee crisis behind, obviously, we’re not going to come up with a game plan right here and — could we say what Hannah Arendt — maybe you can — what she would direct us to do right now. I just want to underscore a point you make in your writing, that we need to be pondering this, and we need to be having a kind of conversation including that inner conversation.
You say — and you’re channeling Arendt — “When you have a refugee crisis, what you also have is a political, existential, and moral crisis about what a country is and who its citizens are.” And you also point out that possibly the reason this makes us panic is because what it puts before our eyes is, as you say, that if human rights are contingent that we in fact are all vulnerable. And of course, that is a terrifying thing. It’s a terrifying specter. But then we retreat. We respond to that vulnerability in a way that is punitive.
Ms. Stonebridge: I do think there’s a lot of truth in that vulnerability. So if you stop to think about it with refugees — when you’re a refugee, you become a refugee just by where you happen to be born and when you happen to be born. That’s it. [laughs] It’s the accident of birth. It’s the accident of birth that makes you either American or European or British or English, as well. So it is purely contingent. And I think there’s something about that that people really do find threatening. So that’s why we’ll get people sort of somehow imagining where they happen to be born entitles them to more than someone else who happens to have been born somewhere else.
In The Human Condition, Arendt borrows a phrase that she takes from Herodotus called isonomia, which is the principle of equal liberty. And she says you need to have a political community which is capable of responding to isonomia, or this principle of equal liberty. And basically, the principle of equal liberty says, “Well, how come I’ve got total freedom of movement and you haven’t? How come my child gets a really good education and yours doesn’t? How come my mom can grow vegetables in her garden, and your mother’s garden’s just been blown to bits? That’s not good enough.”
And she says there needs to be enough in the way we think about political democratic life to allow citizens and people to act on the principle of equal liberty. And on the one hand, the situation we have now is a kind of phobic repudiation of vulnerability, everyone’s vulnerability, which is very, very bad. But on the other hand…
Ms. Tippett: It’s a rejection of vulnerability as though it is something we could reject or say, “We will not be vulnerable.” [laughs]
Ms. Stonebridge: Exactly. “We will not be vulnerable. And we can prove this.”
But on the other hand, I mean, remember the biggest refugee populations now are not actually in Europe, they’re in Jordan, they’re in Lebanon, they’re in Turkey. They’re in communities which quite often are refugee communities themselves. Some of the biggest people have hosted refugees are existing either Palestinian or Kurdish or the Christian communities in the Middle East, who are literally making space for a new generation of refugees. That’s not always an easy relationship.
I don’t want to idealize the local. I don’t want to idealize the idea of refugee-to-refugee humanitarianism because it comes with all those difficulties. But it does seem to me that the principle of equal liberty or isonomia, is working effectively elsewhere in the world. So it should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of the rest of us to use a bit more moral imagination because it’s not as if it’s not happening. It is. And it also is happening, both in Europe and in the States, with the people who Arendt would have called the new people with a new generation of activists.
Ms. Tippett: You said something so important just a minute ago, and I want to dwell with that a little bit. So there’s a danger in invoking somebody like Hannah Arendt that — here we’re bringing in this great intellectual, and that somehow that implies abstraction or that this is not thinking, or even the way she thought about thinking is not for ordinary people. But what you just said about her validation of the the actual power and freedom of a human being to keep idea and possibility alive. But her insisting that our power to say “I don’t want to live this way, I don’t want my children to have opportunities that are simply unthinkable for children in that neighborhood over there.” And the power of putting those questions and those longings, and that kind of insistence out in the world.
Ms. Stonebridge: And I think also, I do my thinking on the ground, which I think is what you’re saying there. Thinking is not abstraction, it’s not just something that happens in the universities or for the liberal elite, between the covers of The New Yorker. We’re all thinking, all doing it all the time, but in a concrete way.
Ms. Tippett: One thing I’ve heard you say about her thinking that felt very resonant for me is — and also in terms of this equal liberty idea, that “what we need are vibrant communities that can change without risk, a community that is OK with promising and a culture of forgiveness.” Can you talk about those ideas?
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. She says that in The Human Condition.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Ms. Stonebridge: She says, modern life, the human condition, is unpredictable. Since the advent of modernity, we’ve had rapid change. The world has become unpredictable in new ways. So I think she says for the first time ever, she’s writing this in the late ’50s the pace of technological change has outstripped man’s ability to adapt to change. So there’s a whole set of things that…
Ms. Tippett: I mean, that’s more true now than it was then.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. Oh, exactly. We thought Star Trek looked scary. That’s far truer. Post-reformation, we’ve got the turn to the self, we’ve got new technology that’s just outpacing our ability to be, we’ve got a kind of sense of the world slipped off its axis. So how does the human condition function in a world like that? How would anything like a political community help? And she says the two things you need is on the one hand the ability to make and honor promises. Anyone who’s a parent knows how this works.
You have to say this will happen, and it will happen. I will make sure it happens.
Ms. Tippett: Right. And every once in awhile it won’t, but you’re saying that there needs to be a foundation of that, that we trust each other.
Ms. Stonebridge: There needs to be the faith. Someone, who is going to promise you that this will happen.
But in order to keep good on that, you also — and it took me ages to understand this — you need a culture of forgiveness. And it took me quite a long time to understand this, because I’m not a very naturally forgiving person, if I’m totally honest with myself. [laughs]
And also, my image of Arendt was always, oh she’s kind of really tough and she talks truth to lots of things. What’s this stuff about forgiveness? It sounds a bit meh. And what she means is if you’re going to have a culture that takes risks, if you’re going to embody risks, and if we’re going to get to anything like equal liberty or a better political culture, or at least a culture of ideas, you’re going to have to take risks. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to get things wrong. [laughs] And you’re going to make errors.
And so, a mature political community needs the capacity for forgiveness to accept that things go wrong. People make mistakes. And I think that again if you turn back to your earlier point about the culture in Great Britain and the U.S. at the moment, one of the responses to that loneliness is people want an alternative, which is a fantasy, where everything will be looked after. “We’re going to do this, and it will be fine.” So the capacity to have a kind of political community based on — well, it’s going to be imperfect. The way both our recent elections were fought were on absolutes.
Ms. Tippett: There are promises being made that can’t be kept.
Ms. Stonebridge: Promises that can’t be kept, and watch and wait. But also a kind of infantilization of electorates, which goes: “We will make the world safe.” And you think, “Are you kidding? I’m 52 years old. I know you’re not going to make the world safe. Feed me another line.” [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. But also, the “culture of forgiveness” to me feels very important to put out there. It feels also very countercultural right now. I mean, there’s also this hardening of lines, you know? You were for that, or you voted for that candidate, or against that, or against that candidate. And then there’s this whole world of assumptions made about you. And even at the same time that we’re very frustrated with people on the other side, whatever the other side is, we will not let them change, right? [laughs] The minute anything shifts or there’s some kind of conciliatory move made, authentic or not, it’s immediately swatted down. I mean, this idea of — what did you say — a mature culture of forgiveness that means — kind of a pact in the middle of our life together that says we want to change, we will extend some modicum of openness.
Ms. Stonebridge: It’s also a question of where that happens, though, because I think in big politics, the cynicism — and it’s a cynicism that’s utterly deserved — is, “I’m not going to play that game because I know you’re just playing a game. I know this is a game.” And when Arendt talks about — I think it’s one of the moving passages of Origins of Totalitarianism — she invokes Augustine, who she wrote her dissertation on.
And she wrote her dissertation on Augustine’s notion of love. And he would talk about worldly love, appetite, desire, which is love of the future, transcendent love, which is the love of God, which is the past. And the love that she was really interested in was neighborly love, which is neither wanting transcendence nor wanting something or someone. It’s just the love that says, “I want you to be.” And she returns to that saying of Augustine, the idea of neighborly love in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but she says that’s the kind of love that’s available in the dark background of difference.
It’s not the love that you’re going to find on the political stage. Because that’s all you’ve got in the dark background of difference is neighborly love, in her phrasing. And it’s very interesting to me that she doesn’t try and find it in the political, which was the sine qua non for her. The political theater was everything to her. But she said, no, actually, love, that kind of neighborly love, is in the dark background of difference. She’ll also say love is something, as soon as you bring it into the light of day, it kind of crumbles in the sunlight. It disappears. So I think if you were going to say something, if I had said to her now, “Let’s have a culture of political forgiveness,” and she’d look at me, and she’d say, “Oh grow up.” [laughs] “No. Look at these guys. Are you kidding me?”
Ms. Tippett: Right. So, politics is where it’s become a caricature, where we have a caricature of the opposite of that in fact. So I would never say a political culture of forgiveness, because that would not be reasonable or realistic but a culture of forgiveness, we don’t need our politicians, do we? [laughs] To start having a culture? To shifting our culture?
Ms. Stonebridge: And I think that will come back to what she says about creating a space where you can think, because once you start having these conversations with yourself and with others, and once you start imagining yourself in another place, then forgiveness does follow. Why she was very passionate about education, I think she did — she kind of idolized education in the sense that she would have liked the kind of great German idea of the Bildung to be available to everybody…
Ms. Tippett: It’s formation. It’s not just education. That word is “formation.”
Ms. Stonebridge: Exactly. It’s formation. And I think she was romantic about that, but she was also — we need spaces where we can think and try these ideas out. And you’re not going to have anything like even a local community or political culture of anything like that can keep its promises or forgive unless people are allowed to think. And that’s the thing about — going back to your earlier point about loneliness. In order to think, in a way, you need to be in a culture which allows you, which endorses that process of thinking.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, and creates space for it, even.
Ms. Stonebridge: And you need to make it a culture that kind of makes sense — when she says the final, late chapter of Origins of Totalitarianism and actually she’s responding to George Orwell here. She says two plus two will never make five. That’s not the problem. And George Orwell at the end, Winston’s being tortured, and he’s made to say two plus two equals five, and this is like totalitarianism makes us all lie. She said that’s not the power. It’s the fact that in a world where people are going to say it is even when they know it isn’t. [laughs] That is deeply estranging. That’s what creates those conditions of loneliness and despair. That, for her, is the wickedness of the political lie. People don’t believe that two plus two makes five. They don’t believe half of what’s said.
Ms. Tippett: But that we can get ourselves and others to the point where we might say something like that, some equivalent of that.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah.
[music: “Pulmonary Piano” by Origamibiro]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, exploring the present-day resonance of the 20th-century thinker Hannah Arendt.
[music: “Pulmonary Piano” by Origamibiro]
Ms. Tippett: We’re going to have to wind down here, but I’ve got so much else I want to talk about. But I want to talk briefly and this follows on that idea of lying. Which was one of those elements of totalitarianism, very much a subject alive in American politics now. But something I’m very intrigued getting a little bit deeper into this, and reading her — and I’ve thought a lot about — like a lot of things right now, it’s just out on the surface, what was already kind of fermenting. We already had a crisis of truth, or not being able to speak about truth in a complex way. And we’ve been relying on facts, and facts were never enough. And she makes these — like, here’s her essay “Lying in Politics.” She says that “factual truths,” here’s that. “Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life. It is always in danger of being perforated by single lies, or torn to shreds. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy domain of human affairs. From this it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” Take us inside that and what that means for us now.
Ms. Stonebridge: For Arendt, I think why the idea of thinking and speaking as a form of action are important to her is that what she’s saying there is, you can throw enough facts, you can throw all the facts you like at people, and they will not stick. We had this, in the U.K., and I know you have, too, that it’s — “OK, against the false news we’ll have fact-finding, and we’ll tell you.
And we’ll have a team of researchers, and you just have to look on our website, and we’ll tell you which of those are lies.” And you can scream facts at people until you’re blue in the face, and a lot of colleagues and universities and journalists have been doing exactly that very hard, working tirelessly. And it’s not making any difference. And I think what she’s talking about there is the ability through thinking and communal discourse, to make truth meaningful in the world, it has to happen between people. Which is not saying we just make up our own reality. She’s not saying that. It means that this is why…
Ms. Tippett: When she says testimony, it needs…
Ms. Stonebridge: Testimony.
Ms. Tippett: It needs experience. It needs human experience around it.
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. And so I think she — that was why testimony was important to her. It’s why history and the sense of a myth were all important to her because it’s what makes truth meaningful to people together in a community. If you want a culture that’s going to take on fake news, and the political lie, I say as someone who teaches literature and history, what you need is a culture of the arts and humanity. What you need is more storytelling. What you need is more discourse. What you need is more imagination. What you need is more creation in that way, and more of a sense of what it is that ties us to those words and ties us to those stories.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. We need three dimensional — we need stories and facts and conversations between people and all of that working together. Right?
Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. It reminds me very much of when Arendt went back to Germany to collect the Lessing Prize, which she was given. She gave a speech. And Lessing was this great humanist and great believer in dialogue. And one thing she said to her audience, “I’m talking to you as a Jewish person. You need to take that on board.” And what she said — what would not have been helpful during the Third Reich is to say, “Jews and Germans are part of the same humanity. We all love each other.” She said, because that would have been to totally disregard the reality that you’re living in a political system that says that one of you is not.
Far better, she says, to say a German, and a Jew, and friends. So you acknowledge the reality of the racial politics, that is making an idea of a shared humanism impossible. But you’re maintaining its possibility by acknowledging that reality and doing your stuff in spite of that. And I think that there’s something in your story and in Arendt’s story there which does resonate.
She would have been very suspicious of a false type of humanitarianism that tried to pretend that the politics of race weren’t violent and horrible and real — and real in a lot of ways that are unimaginable for a lot of people, but, you acknowledge that, and then you say, and still: and still we’re going to sit in this studio together, and still we’re going to read this text together, and still we’re going to do this together. The kind of toughie in me wants to say you stick with that reality.
Ms. Tippett: It was both/and, right? Again, it’s thinking. It is allowing the complexity of reality in. And it’s always messy.
The Origins of Totalitarianism ends with these words. It says, “But there remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning. This beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can never produce. Beginning before it becomes a historical event is the supreme capacity of man. Politically it is identical with man’s freedom.” And then she writes, “This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth. It is indeed every man.” Those are very lofty words, and really kind of surprising at the end of this book, which is about the darkest depths of humanity.
But I want to just — you reflecting on all of this are talking about — you just used the word “friendship” like very concrete on the ground ways to realize what she said. When you had this scenario that I read earlier: “She might conclude saying to us you’d be best advised and make some new friends so that together you can learn to think without bannisters.” [laughs] Is that a phrase of hers, “think without bannisters”?
Ms. Stonebridge: “Think without bannisters” is her phrase, yeah. Which is in response to the Holocaust in particular. It means, once the impossible has been made possible, how do we judge? How do we think? And that was her motivating question. But her concern with beginnings or what she called natality — Heidegger was always being towards death. She was always being towards the possibility of life. And I think it came through in two ways in her life. One is through friendship, because each new encounter, especially when you’re actually out of your bubble. She’s talking about — when I talk about people working refugee-to-refugee humanitarianism, that’s a difficult kind of friendship. It’s a friendship that has to work. But also, when I was looking in her teaching file, which really brought home to me the importance of her students, the importance of the people she called “the new people.”
And I don’t think we’re ever going to have the education, the political free education that Arendt dreamed of, that formation. But I think that kind of affirmation of teaching, of listening to students, of empowering students, of making it possible for students to create their new ideas of citizenship. Those are the things she believed in very strongly.
And the older I get, and the darker the times get, for me, and I know a lot of other people who work in universities and schools feel this, the place where I see new birth is in my students. And I think they are that is the beginning. Out of the darkest times there can be a new beginning. And we need to step back and shut up, sometimes, and do the most we can to make sure that happens.
[music: “Freeze” by Manu Delago]
Ms. Tippett: Lyndsey Stonebridge is a professor of Modern Literature & History at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, England. She’s the author of The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg as well as a wonderful essay, “Thinking Without Banisters” for the U.K.’s Jewish Quarterly magazine.
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Lilian Vo, Damon Lee, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
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