What are we fighting for?

Hannah Arendt doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, political or otherwise. I agree: no philosopher can be such a prose stylist. I read philosophy, too, but philosophy seems to be about tearing down and rebuilding foundations, and I stumble among all the forms and footers. I like the tone of Locke, Kant, and Hobbes, though. For all their precision and rhetorical rebar, I find a passion that gets below the frost line.

I’ve always read for tone even when comprehension escapes me. When I was thirteen, I read The Brothers Karamazov and Tom Jones for tone alone, I believe, because for years all I could remember of them was their respective tones. I liked the passion that pushed Dostoevsky’s tragic pen and Fielding’s comedic one, but I can’t say I could have analyzed them well, for what that would have been worth.

Arendt reads philosophers for tone, too. In a beautifully developed metaphor, she compares the tone in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and the rest of the big-name philosophers since Machiavelli to “children whistling louder and louder because they are whistling in the dark.” These men are a few steps ahead of us in this darkness, she believes: they understand before we do the ramifications of the loss of tradition and authority (the darkness is this loss) in Western politics due to the separation of church and state, itself due (in part) to the scientific revolution. (This separation ended a successful marriage of princely power and Papal authority that had begun in the fourth century. Of course, this marriage itself was one of convenience, coming as it did when Rome was losing its political authority, and I think for most of a millennium there were separate bedrooms.) In Arendt’s darkness metaphor, the break didn’t scare our big-name philosophers, but the darkness’s silence did. What will life be like when the silence gives way? We live after “the thunder of the eventual explosion” – Stalin and Hitler, presumably – so we can “hardly listen any longer to the overloud, ‘pathetic’ style” in the philosophers’ writing.1

What’s even more frightening for Arendt than Hitler and Stalin is what gives rise to them and what is still not addressed. She finishes her metaphor: the thunderous exigencies of the recent past – and of the present, we may now add – have “also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’”2 We are against bureaucracy, white supremacy, and plutocracy, nationalism and fascism, but confusion reigns whenever we ask ourselves the latter question, as we must. We have quick answers, but they’re the stuff of coalitions, not of foundations. To read Arendt is to join her in exploring the silence.

Arendt has taught me not to blame the philosophers, with the possible exception of Plato. (More on him, perhaps, in another post.) These men intuited the problem and explored solutions, all of which Arendt believes failed. But if one views their proposals as theories, and if one further defines “theories” as that term was understood before the scientific revolution (“a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses,” and not the later “working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works’”3), then the philosophers are helpful. I can’t blame Hegel for Hitler or Marx for Lenin and Stalin.

Nor can I blame Ivan on Smerdyakov, much as I still love The Brothers Karamazov. And I no longer blame Smerdiakov on German historicism, bad as it is. Arendt is a better political theorist than Dostoyevsky.

Arendt – not a philosopher but a political theorist – is the philosophers’ supporter and friend. (She was also, of course, for four years Martin Heidegger’s lover.) She takes in centuries of philosophy – and history and literature, concerning which she’s also no slouch – and explains how the philosophers call and answer one another over time and space. I would be as good at understanding these communications as I would be at decrypting whale talk. She may touch on current events – she may write a book on German and Soviet totalitarianism and another on Eichmann – but all of her books, topical or otherwise, synthesize theory and history and speak to our present political predicament better than do our own commentators.

Our news commentary is, of course, shallow and divided, and it’s worse for having for its never-changing subject such a figure as our president. If today’s political climate were as funny as those desperate sketches on SNL insist it is, I’d read Fielding again. Tom Jones, a protean force, illegally shoots a partridge in one chapter, and the entire next chapter is given over to Tom’s schoolmaster and his family’s friend contextualizing the killing within their narrow, longstanding, competing, and futile political worldviews. In the succeeding chapters, of course, Jones, oblivious to the subtleties of such debates, is off on more misadventures.

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Fielding’s two commentators, “Mr. Thwackum the Divine” and “Mr. Square the Philosopher,” roughly represent the views of today’s two-party system. One could read Tom Jones as an early warning about what Arendt calls “the rise of political movements intent upon replacing the party system.”4 And one can read Thwackum and Squire any time on any number of news outlets, left and right.

Arendt is above – or, rather, beneath – all that. She writes in the spirit of Goethe, who compared the West’s political world to a big city:

Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.5

If political philosophers create foundations, then Arendt inspects them. She nods when we’re together and I see more smoke.

I’ve had lots of literary companions over the years, mostly for my private sphere. Now that the night’s thunder is reverberating again in our public world, I’m finding new poets, historians, theorists, and spiritual writers to walk in the dark with me. My favorite literary companion, though, is Arendt.

If you take me up on reading Arendt – perhaps by giving up political commentary for Lent (and to that limited extent re-coupling church and state) – you might start with something more concrete and topical, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and On Revolution (mostly about the United States, Arendt’s new home after escaping Nazi Germany). Then move to Between Past and Future, the scariest and most hopeful book I may have ever read outside of scripture. The chapter on education is hardly worth reading, but I’ve read much of the rest of it four or five times so far. I’ve started another collection of Arendt essays cobbled together twenty years ago by Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary trustee, entitled The Promise of Politics. Promise serves as an understudy for Between Past and Future, and it fills in a lot of the historical and philosophical blanks the more lively and daring Between Past and Future leaps over.

Finally, I can’t recommend Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? enough, though I’ve never read it. It won’t be released until June. But considering the title and the author, it should be good. At only 110 pages, Why Read will be on my nightstand, the Lord willing, with Timothy Snyder’s diminutive On Tyranny, not to mention Arendt’s Between Past and Future, the holy scriptures, and by then who knows what else.

[Featured image: “Storm” by rod amaru. Used by permission.]

  1. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (1968), at 27.
  2. Id.
  3. Id. at 39.
  4. Id. at 91.
  5. Goethe, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Promise of Politics (2005), at 41.

Arendt on walking out that door

Why do some recent writers lump Hannah Arendt with the liberals? She castigates liberalism. She thinks twentieth-century liberalism’s wish to further divorce religion from politics works against its goal of freedom. Liberals see any setback to progress as a threat of totalitarianism, she says, while conservatives are more apt to care about distinctions among authoritarian regimes, tyrannies, and totalitarian states — distinctions that she also cares a great deal about.

Arendt is not even a Lockean liberal. She understands classical liberalism as she does Christian and Jewish teaching: life is the highest ideal. But she calls concerns about life “pre-political” — they must be addressed before we walk out the door each morning into a public realm in which “not life but the world is at stake.”

Arendt is pre-Locke, a democrat — small “d” — and she loves democracy in what she considers its purest expression, the Greek polis. She doesn’t advocate a return to the polis, which she concedes would be impossible. (She doesn’t often advocate a return to anything, thankfully, though she wants history and philosophy clearly heard and understood as we move in and out of politics, searching for it, as we do, like a receiver trying to pull in a long-lost signal.) But she understands from the polis that freedom is possible in politics alone, and the best politics involves a public space in which free men and women work at living together.

In such politics wisdom is possible and reason, despite its severe limitations within a given individual, wins over majorities. Her understanding of reason is Madison’s, and she quotes Federalist 49 with approval: “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.”

But pure democracy may not be liberal. The Athenian polis, of course, was underwritten by slavery, the system that allowed husbands and slaveowners to leave their domestic tyrannies and walk into the polis as free men, and the equal of other free men, all unencumbered by necessity. Without slavery, is a polis — a community of equals who can dedicate time to political speech and action — possible? And in what sense today can we consider necessity “pre-political”?

Does the first nonpolitical use of the word “freedom” — Jesus’ reference in John 7 to being free from sin — suggest a way to a polis of sorts among those who, like Jesus, have chosen to live a life without fear of necessity? Is this one reason Arendt advocates mining the Gospels for a theory of faith that would spur political action against our grinding world systems? Or are we doomed to put up with our corrupted version of the polis in which only the rich can afford to use our politics as their plaything?

[Featured photograph by Giorgio Raffaelli. Used by permission.]

Political religion & the prophetic

Buried in today’s local section, a Washington Post article reports that “a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence” has been unearthed. John Quincy Adams’s State Department had ordered two hundred copies printed, and this exhumed copy was one of two from Adams’s edition given to former president James Madison. This copy was first hidden and then forgotten – hidden during the Civil War by those who knew its value and forgotten since then by those who didn’t.

Its rediscovery – and past reports of rediscoveries of several other copies – remind me of the discovery of the Mosaic covenant while the Bible’s King Josiah was having God’s temple repaired.1 Today we’re missing the covenant’s public reading and the subsequent repentance, though, that would complete my analogy. Maybe in the future, the rediscovery of a rare copy of the Declaration might cause the kind of self-examination and action that good King Josiah models.

This is not impossible. In his 1854 Peoria address, Lincoln called for a Josiah-like rediscovery of the Declaration:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. . . .  If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

Lincoln’s initial notion of what he called “political religion,” as he had articulated it fourteen years earlier in his Lyceum address, had involved merely a call to obey law and to exercise reason. By 1854, though, Lincoln’s concept had grown to incorporate a biblical understanding of covenant.

American civil religion is based on covenants, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration, and it has its prophets, such as Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, and others. These prophets don’t predict things – or, if they do, they’re not functioning in their prophetic capacity, strictly speaking. Instead, prophets unearth covenants, which terrorize the powerful like the stalking corpses exhumed by Jesus’s crucifixion. Civil prophets practice what Walter Brueggemann calls “a historical imagination”:

The practice of imagination is a subversive activity not because it yields concrete acts of defiance (which it may), but because it keeps the present provisional and refuses to absolutize it. The practice of a historical imagination maintains the possibility of a future that is not continuous from the present. 2

Covenants give the phrase “historical imagination” – otherwise, a political oxymoron – its sense. America’s civil religion allows us to understand the past through covenants in order to imagine together a common future.

This relation of past and future confounds most political thinking today. A desired future is not a wholesale rejection of the past, as some progressives envision it, nor is a desired future a replica of a golden past, as some reactionaries envision it. A desired future is especially not the fixed continuation of the present, as authoritarians would have it.

A covenantal future, instead, is promising: it can be the result of actions taken consistent with commitments to one another. After all, a covenant by definition involves two or more people and nourishes their relationships in the future. A covenant acknowledges a society, it creates responsibility, and it offers a realistic future of both promise and contingency among its members. Above all, covenants allow us to participate in the freedom of God since the future is unknowable to all but him. Covenants in which God participates thereby give us the confidence to act as if actions matter.

The best American covenants are both normative with respect to the present and aspirational with respect to the future.  The most easily recognized American covenant is the Constitution, which in its primarily normative capacity serves as a legal yardstick. The Declaration, by contrast, is a covenant with a more primal and spiritual normative function. With it we can take a more essential measure of our candidates, our leaders, and their policies, as I did in an exercise involving candidate Trump over a year ago.

The most aspirational aspect of either of these two covenants is the Declaration’s Equality Clause. Compared to this clause, Lincoln said with a certain irony, the rest of the Declaration is “merely revolutionary.” “All men are created equal,” Lincoln asserted, was “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” though it certainly wasn’t in practice when he spoke those words about it in 1859. The Equality Clause is both a yardstick and an aspiration.

How do civil prophets move from a normative assessment of the present to an aspirational view of the future? (As I understand it, timing means a lot in prophetic speech and action.) My question may be part of a larger one: once the powerful succeed in making the future into a frozen present, how can the future – and with it the present – be thawed? How can political time resume?

This prophetic movement from the normative to the aspirational – using Brueggemann’s terms, the movement from “gestures of resistance” to “acts of deep hope”3 – mirrors a covenantal view of American history. In this view, Americans make a compact, fall away from it, and return to its spirit to either renew the old compact or to cut a new one. The prophetic voice during the slow slide from a covenant is normative – it is resistance arising from lamentation. As Brueggemann says, “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve.”4

While our present politics are not at the stage in which “acts of deep hope” would serve anything more than what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” or “the false consciousness,” the time for such acts will come. But whether our actions stem from legitimate grief or legitimate hope, they create political space that has never existed before.

In politics, to move from the claustrophobic present to a desired future takes what Hannah Arendt calls “the work of faith.”5 Against such works are arrayed “historical processes” that “can only spell ruin to human life.” Because human action, over time, always devolves into this future-denying “automatism,” Arendt sees no event that can ever, “once and for all, deliver and save a man, or a nation, or mankind.”6 In this sense, the need for political acts of faith is more obvious in some times and places than in others. History, to Arendt, amounts to long “processes of stagnation” interrupted by “human initiative.” 7  This human initiative creates “freedom,” a word that Arendt, like Brueggemann, associates with deliberate action that creates public space.

This post is an outline of my still-early understanding of the prophetic in civil religion. My view of today’s news about the recently discovered Declaration copy is itself perhaps a small prophetic exercise, one that finds the spiritual side of American covenant peeking through our consciousness as something like what the New Testament calls a “shadow.” A “shadow” is something concrete serving as an analogy for something more abstract, and it is something from the past serving as an analogy for something in the present or future. (Examples of Biblical “shadows” are in Hebrews chapters 8 and 10.) Some friends and I have broadened our concept of “shadows” to include things in the cultural sphere that serve as analogies for something current in the political or spiritual spheres.

There is one further detail from today’s “shadow” that I should explore, the one that I started with: the Post buried today’s story by putting it in its local news section. I speak facetiously, however, since I am beginning to understand the local’s importance to national concerns. I agree with both Brueggemann and Arendt that an effective response to an ignored covenant must start with recreating the local. Brueggemann speaks of the necessity and difficulty of creating a “subcommunity,” which he defines as “a community of peculiar discourse with practices of memory, hope, and pain that keep healthy human life available in the face of all the ‘virtual reality’ now on offer in dominant culture.”8 One of Arendt’s major theses in her 1963 book On Revolution is that the American Founders erred in not structuring local political participation into the Constitution. Action, she believes, is the essence of politics, and my watching the news and voting each year isn’t sufficient action to create the public space necessary for a healthy democracy over the long term. Instead, smaller local communities must be created or re-purposed to involve us socially and politically.

Social media, which economic and now political powers have begun to control and use for their own aims, is no substitute for public space.9 If you use social media, you may find it expedient not to look at it as a substitute for public space. The Pilgrims entered into a compact face to face on a small ship heading to America. Communities like that came together two centuries later in Philadelphia to, in Lockean terms, move from a state of nature into a national community. To realize the Equality Clause, we may have to do the kind of hard, face-to-face work that preceded the Founders’ covenant on July 4, 1776.

  1. 2 Kings 22
  2. Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Kindle loc. 2503.
  3. Brueggemann, loc. 178
  4. I have seen an example of this capacity to grieve at an exhibit by Teju Cole in Chelsea last summer entitled “Black Paper.” The exhibit featured a black wall covered with small photographs suggesting the process of grief Cole undertook following the 2016 elections in the United States.
  5. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, 166.
  6. Id. at 167.
  7. Id. at 169.
  8. Brueggemann, loc. 178.
  9. As Timothy Snyder says, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 83.