On May 31, 1887, William James gave a speech dedicating a monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment that he led. The Massachusetts 54th was the first black regiment in the United States. Gould, an abolitionist, led the regiment into battle and he, along with many of the soldiers, was killed during an assault in 1863 on Fort Wagner in South Carolina.
James’s speech deserves a full reading and account. He celebrates the black soldiers of the regiment, “the men who do brave deeds are usually unconscious of their picturesqueness.” He speaks of the “one meaning” that the Massachusetts 54th has for history, that slavery was the great evil of the American Republic and “the lesson that our war ought most of all to teach us is the lesson that evils must be checked in time, before they grow so great.” For James, a republic must not only be founded, it must be defended and acted upon. “The republic to which Robert Shaw and a quarter of a million like him were faithful unto death is no republic that can live at ease hereafter on the interest of what they have won. Democracy is still upon its trial.”
What is most striking in James speech, and speaks so clearly to the attack on our democratic and republican traditions yesterday in Washington, DC, is his articulation of what he calls the “inner mystery” of the civic genius of the American people. This civic genius, he announces at the end of his speech, is the “only bulwark” against tyranny and corruption. “Neither laws nor monuments, neither battleships nor public libraries, nor great newspapers nor booming stocks; neither mechanical inventions nor political adroitness, nor churches nor universities nor civil service examinations can save us from degeneration if the inner mystery be lost.” Laws and institutions are important; they can help slow the march of tyranny and corruption. But in the end, the institutions of self-government will fall without what James calls the “inner mystery” of democratic life.
The mystery of our American democratic tradition — “at once the secret and the glory of our English speaking race,” — consists, he continues, “in nothing but two common habits, two inveterate habits carried into public life, — habits so homely that they lend themselves to no rhetorical expression, yet habits more precious, perhaps, than any that the human race has gained.” The two habits at the mysterious center of American democracy “can never be too often pointed out or praised.” They need to be spoken of, nurtured, and exemplified.
The first great glory of American democracy “is the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings.” Democracy is a process for picking winners and losers and limited self-government requires that we accept the process whether we win or lose. It means that we affirm our belonging to and sharing a common bond and common political world in spite of our differences. It means that we argue and strive to persuade our opponents, but we never see them as our enemies. The Civil War was a rejection of this habit of being a good loser. “It was by breaking away from this habit that the Slave States nearly wrecked our Nation.” Similarly, the insurrection in Washington on Wednesday was the fitting end to a Presidency defined by a President consumed with winning at all costs, unable to accept defeat, intolerant of disloyalty, and obsessed by his enemies.
The second great glory of the American republic is the habit of “fierce and merciless resentment toward every man or set of men who break the public peace. By holding to this habit the free States saved her life.” …
Whether George Floyd died from asphyxiation or some combination of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression,” as the official Hennepin County autopsy has it, anyone can see that former police officer Derek Chauvin sat firmly on Mr. Floyd’s neck, left hand casually in his pocket as if bored, for over 8 minutes while three other officers calmly looked on. Even as observers on the scene screamed out the obvious — that former officer Chauvin was murdering George Floyd — the officers barely flinched in their slow-motion murder — murder of a gruesome kind. …
This essay was originally published in two parts in Amor Mundi the newsletter of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.
The European Journal of Psychoanalysis recently published a symposium “Coronavirus and Philosophers.” It begins with an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish about the quarantine of a town during the plague in the 17th century.
The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of the evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions. It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him. …
In “Regarding the Cave” the Italian feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero offers a reading of Plato’s allegory of the cave that expands on an interpretation of that same narrative by Hannah Arendt. Cavarero is perhaps the first to notice how Arendt’s remarks in “Tradition and the Modern Age,” “What is Authority?,” and The Human Condition connect, how together they form a spirited critique of Western philosophy, and how indispensable they are for a feminist reckoning with what might be called masculinist ontology. This last project is further developed by Cavarero in her monograph In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy (1995), which presents Arendtian natality alongside the philosophy of sexual difference to bend ancient myths toward their slighted female heroines. In her discussion, the question whether Hannah Arendt was a feminist is immaterial to Cavarero, and yet in reading Cavarero and Arendt together I am left with the sense that any feminism worth arguing for would centrally be concerned with the possibility of women-as-philosophers, and with their dialogue. …
This essay was first published on November 7, 2011
“While strength is the natural quality of an individual seen in isolation, power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (200).
To read this line from The Human Condition in the wake of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, or in the midst of the Occupations that have radiated from Zuccotti Park across the United States and beyond, might be invigorating: aren’t both of these events expressions of power in Arendt’s sense, instances of the unpredictable human capacity to break out of the daily mire of authoritarianism or of capitalism and, acting in concert, to begin something new? …
“I am not at all disturbed about being a woman professor because I am quite used to being a woman.”
— Hannah Arendt, at Yale University 1968[i]
More often than I would like, my work on Hannah Arendt and my work as a feminist theorist and activist seem to pull in different directions. I sometimes find myself frustrated not only by Arendt’s relative silence on questions of gender and her occasional sexist remarks (among other things, she once remarked that it was unbecoming for women to occupy positions of authority),[ii] but also, like many feminist readers before me, I am frustrated by her seemingly rarefied vision of politics, which makes scant room for examining the politics of power inherent in human interactions and institutions.[iii] …
It is well-known that Hannah Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist who dedicated her life to understanding the meaning of political action in human life. During the interview “Zur person” with Günther Gaus, Arendt points out that her interest in history and politics started in 1933. She took part as a political actor recompiling antisemitic statements; she was arrested and forced to emigrate from Germany the same year. …
Underlying beliefs that most of us share
“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”
— Alasdair Gray
This phase of the U.S. Civil War was not of our choosing. But we’ve been complicit. First, by accepting many indolent assumptions, then by ignoring history.
Take the lesson of the Greatest Generation. …
“To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others… “
— Hannah Arendt
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt laid out her concept of the polis — literally, an ancient Greek city state, but defined more broadly in Webster’s as “a state or society especially when characterized by a sense of community” — as a departure from the ancient understanding of the term:
The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be. “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”: these famous words became not merely the watchword of Greek colonization, they expressed the conviction that action and speech create a space between the participants which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere. It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appearance explicitly. …
Hannah Arendt and World War I: on statelessness and the rise of totalitarian regimes
100 years ago on this day, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a message to address his “fellow countrymen” reflecting on World War I:
A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and juster set of international relations.
Hannah Arendt was thirteen years old at the time. Her analysis of the people who had become stateless — the masses of refugees in Europe after the war ended in 1918 — remains outstanding to this day as she placed the problem of stateless people and refugees in the center of her analysis of totalitarianism. In the homeless and stateless she saw a massive failure of the nation states as these “superfluous” people did not belong to any political community and were therefore outlawed. This marked the beginning of the disastrous rise of a totalitarian movement that reached its peak in the annihilation of “superfluous” people. The mass phenomenon of statelessness 100 years ago revealed the impotence of human rights protection. In “Origins of Totalitarianism”, first published in 1951, Hannah Arendt…