Loneliness, Imagination, & The Specter of Totalitarianism

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Earlier this month, as part of the Courage to Be Program hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center, Penny Gill gave an inspired talk on what it means to act courageously. Drawing from her timely work, What in the World Is Going On?, Gill asked us to think about the narratives we weave about the world and how those narratives prevent us from acting in the world.

The central argument underpinning Gill’s work is that while courage can seem heroic, it “is more likely to flow from our deep connections with and commitments to each other. In a culture marked by alienation, competitiveness, and loneliness, living with courage can seem impossible, but it surely isn’t. It’s a natural outcome of a life lived with depth and integrity.” The main obstacle to acting with courage is fear, and right now many of us feel as if we live in a world that is soaked through with fear. Society, the media, the endless news cycles create a constant sense of crisis. It is a feeling of loneliness, of being cut off from others and the world that leads us to contemplate a stream of nightmare scenarios, which turn us away from thinking and acting in concert. As soon as one fear is absolved another is born, and society and politicians use fear tactically in order to undermine our individual ability to act, and to separate fact from fiction. This manufactured fear, as Gill describes it, undermines our facility “to discern clearly and respond to things we know are not okay, things that require resistance.”

Dancing around the specter of Donald Trump, lingering only long enough for us to contemplate what it means for him to have the nuclear codes, Gill turned our reflective gaze away from public affairs toward the private life of the self. In order to act courageously in the world, to see the distinction between fact and fiction, we must first turn inward toward the life of the mind. If fear can isolate us from others by fueling negative thoughts, then how can we resist destructive trains of thinking? If our imagination can prevent us from acting in the world because we feel lonely and afraid, then how can we find a way to confront our imagination? Describing the endless webs of fear, envy, and anger we weave when we’re thinking alone, Gill touched upon the phenomena of loneliness in our contemporary world much in the same way Hannah Arendt does in her work on The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Loneliness by Hans Thoma (National Museum in Warsaw)

In the final pages of Arendt’s epic work, she comes to a discussion of isolation and ultimately, loneliness. Loneliness, she writes, is the common ground of terror. Whereas isolation “concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole.” Tyranny destroys the public realm of life by isolating individuals and destroying their capacity for political action, but totalitarianism also insists on destroying the private life as well. Totalitarianism “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” In loneliness we are unable to experience the world, unable to think, and unable to trust our own sense of self. In loneliness we are unable to realize our full capacity for action as individual beings.

If our power to act comes from “acting in concert,” that is with one another, then isolated individuals are powerless by definition. Totalitarian government rules by terror, isolating people from one another, while turning each individual in his lonely isolation against all others. The world becomes a wilderness, as Arendt describes it, where neither experience nor thought are possible. One way totalitarianism turns us into isolated, lonely individuals is through the systematic blurring of reality and fiction. And this blurring relies upon our inability to see or think discerningly when we are confronted with ideologies that rely upon spreading fear. Arendt writes,

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Drawing from Luther, Arendt highlights how loneliness leads us down rabbit holes to the worst possible outcomes, following chains of logic that are not rooted in reality, but the imagination. She writes, “Under the conditions of loneliness, therefore, the self-evident is no longer just a means of the intellect and begins to be productive, to develop its own lines of ‘thought.’ . . . The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists indeed in this ‘thinking everything to the worst,’ in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions.” In constantly responding to the news, which is being generated by the media, we are playing into the fear-manufacturing machine. We allow ourselves to take small pieces of information, which may or may not be true, and compose whole narratives following lines of thought that are not rooted in reality.

Right now it feels impossible to keep up with the endless streams of news, trying to discern what is real from what is not real. Who is being appointed? What executive order is Trump signing? Was that massacre real or false? And then the headlines: Is there going to be a coup? Civil War in America? Steve Bannon Wants to Start World War III, and on and on. Our general sense of fear, that this is not a good man, is being exacerbated by the multitude of voices that are constantly telling us just how much we should be afraid. The ideological apparatus of Trump’s machinery is succeeding in part because even we who wish to oppose him are losing sight of our ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagination run amok. That is, we are losing the ability to discern our own thoughts, to engage in a critical conversation with ourselves. And this is the real marker of totalitarianism. We become isolated from one another, and in our aloneness we allow our imagination to create tales of fear that turn us further away from one another, from our ability to discern what is a real threat and what is being conjured. What is a figment of the imagination and what is reflective of reality? We forget in some ways that our culture is marked by alienation, competitiveness, and loneliness. And if we allow ourselves to succumb to the darker side of our imagination, then we are playing into the hands of those who wish to quell our ability to resist.

Fortunately neither Arendt nor Gill leaves us with this thought of loneliness. For Arendt there is the promise of solitude, where we can engage in conversation with ourselves, in a two-in-one dialogue where all thinking is done. Unlike loneliness, in the space of solitude, where we are alone and yet in company with ourselves, we have the capacity to confront the lines of thought we create and follow. And similarly, Gill draws us toward the positive side of the imagination, so that when we begin to catch ourselves following these illogical trains of thought, trapped by fear, uncertain of reality, we can turn back toward the self, take a deep breath, and think about all of the people who are present in our lives, discerning what is real from what is false.

Perhaps the most political thing we can do right now is to find a way to be alone with ourselves without feeling lonely. To open up a place of solitude where we can take refuge in our sense of self, and draw strength from our ability to think, and courage from those we let into our inner circles.


Samantha Hill, Klemens von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

View Penny Gill’s lecture below:

“To Whom Do You Belong? Fear, Courage, and Community” a lecture by Penny Gill (with introductions by Roger Berkowitz, and Courage to Be student fellow, Annah Heckman)