Swift as Thought


This parenthetical remark appears in the essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” which Hannah Arendt published in 1971 in Social Research...

The immediate context is her account of how concepts function as a kind of “shorthand” for thinking, which she says has a “characteristic swiftness.

Now, when one thinks of things that Homer used to say, the phrase “swift as thought” may not come immediately to mind. It is well known that Homeric epics are replete with formulas, phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” or “swift-footed Achilles” that are often repeated. To my knowledge, however, there are only three instances in the Greek texts traditionally ascribed to Homer that approximate the English “swift as a thought”: one each in the Iliad and the Odyssey, respectively, and one in the Hymn to Apollo.

To what, then, is Arendt referring? And for what purpose? I shall answer the first question with some degree of confidence. The second I pose not in order to answer it, but to take it up in thought, and to suggest some ways to think about it.

These questions have arisen in the context of my work on the The Life of the Mind, a book project left unfinished at the time of Arendt’s death, which incorporates in its third chapter much of the published essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” (I am co-editing The Life of the Mind with Wout Cornelissen for the Critical Edition of Arendt’s writings.) Arendt weaves into this text, as she does elsewhere, many quotations — like “swift as thought” — and allusions, often without specifying their sources. It is unclear whether and to what extent she assumed her readers would know these sources well enough, or would bother to find and read them, and so anticipated that the echoes and interlocutors would be present to the readers’ minds when encountering her texts. It is, in any event, the aim of the editors of the Critical Edition to provide citations to these sources in the commentary whenever they can be determined with reasonable confidence, and while the value of that undertaking will ultimately be borne out, or not, over time by the community of readers, initial experience has been auspicious.

One invaluable resource for tracking down Arendt’s sources has been her personal library, which is housed at Bard College. The collection, while not comprehensive, is extensive, and Arendt frequently underlined and annotated her books, so for any given citation or allusion, there is often strong documentary evidence by which to identify the source.

Returning to the passage from Homer, Bard’s Arendt collection holds various editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek, English, and German, and one Greek-English edition of the Homeric Hymns. Some are annotated in Arendt’s hand, others not, but as far as I have been able to determine, no annotated passages would yield the English phrase “swift as thought,” so in this case we lack that kind of evidence. The phrase does, however, appear in English translations of both the Hymn to Apollo and the Odyssey that are in Arendt’s library. To be precise, the phrase appears once in each text. In the 1914 Evelyn-White translation of the Hymn, the narrator recounts how Apollo has been playing his lyre on the island of Pytho and “thence, swift as thought [hôste noêma], he speeds from earth to Olympus.” This is an over-translation; a more literal rendering would be, “thence, like thought, he goes from earth to Olympus (186–87).” So while swiftness may be implied by the simile, and as we shall see, while a reader familiar with Homer might effectively read that resonance into it, speed is not explicitly referenced in the Greek.

When the phrase appears in Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey, however, speed is both explicit and of the essence. The scene is Odysseus’s arrival on the island of Phaiakia, when a disguised Athena explains to him that the native inhabitants are confident in “the speed of their running ships,” which “move swift as thought or as a winged creature [tôn nees ôkeiai hôs ei pteron êe noêma]” (7:34–36). The link between speed and thought is underscored later in the episode, when the king of the Phaiakians boasts that his ships move with “greatest speed” and that they need no pilots because “the ships themselves understand men’s thoughts and purposes” (8:555–560).

On a narrative level, there is pronounced irony in this emphasis on speed, since the Phaiakians keep promising Odysseus rapid transport home and then repeatedly delay his departure to the point of comic retardation. There is also a symbolic contrast between the plight of Odysseus, whose thoughts of homecoming are perpetually frustrated by material obstacles, and the ethereal freedom of the Phaiakians, who are so unencumbered by the physical world that, in the iconic activity of piloting ships, they need only think a thing to make it so.

Arendt picks up on this implication when she cites the simile in Chapter One, §6 of The Life of the Mind: Thinking. She is arguing there that for Kant, the “thinking ego,” as distinct from the “self,” is the “thing-in-itself”: “it does not appear to others and…it does not appear to itself, and yet it is not nothing” (I:30). Attempting to convey the “sheer experience of the thinking ego” as Kant understood it, Arendt turns to the early text Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, in which “Kant stresses the ‘immateriality’ of the mundus intelligibilis.” Arendt maintains that Kant’s depiction there of the dreaming ego, entirely free from the physicality that conditions the experience of the “self,” is an attempt to account for the experience of “the mind’s withdrawal from the real world” in the activity of thinking (I:30a). “One of the outstanding characteristics of thought,” she writes, “is its incomparable swiftness — ‘swift like a thought’ said already Homer…and this swiftness is clearly due to its immateriality” (I:30b). Arendt is suggesting that the experience of the dreaming ego, as Kant envisioned it, like the piloting of the Phaiakians as Homer imagined it, is possible for Odysseus (and for “everyman”), only when and insofar as he is thinking.

We have still to consider the third instance of the simile. The phrase “swift as thought” does not appear in the 1938 Rouse translation of the Iliad that Arendt had in her library, but the image certainly does:
He spake; the white-armed goddess willingly / Obeyed him, and from Ida’s summit flew /To high Olympus. As the thought of man/ Flies rapidly [hôs d’ hot’ an aiksê noos aneros], when, having travelled far, /He thinks, “Here would I be, I would be there,” / And flits from place to place, so swiftly flew / Imperial Juno to the Olympian mount (Iliad, XV, 99–107).

Here the poet offers a more expansive version of the simile that points up the rapidity of physical movement by likening it to the swiftness of immaterial thought. As scholars of Homer have noted, the abbreviated version of the simile that occurs in the Odyssey, discussed above, may well have been evoked for an ancient audience when hearing this more elaborated conception of how thought moves. Certainly that would be consistent with the reading I have offered above, highlighting the contrast drawn between Odysseus’ thoughts of home — he can go there swiftly in his mind — and the incessant delay and detour he suffers as a bodily self in the physical world.

Surely the image in its fullness also resonates with Arendt’s project. As we have seen, in The Life of the Mind she alludes to the image directly at two crucial points, both moments at which she is attempting to conjure a sense of the very experience of thinking that lies at the heart of Part I of this (unfinished) tripartite book. Moreover, as the passage from the Iliad makes clear, the phrase “swift as thought” is directly associated, in Homer, with the capacity of thought to “flit from place to place”: “Here would I be, I would be there.” “Where are we when we think?”, asks Arendt in the title to the fourth and final chapter of Part I: Thinking (IV:1).

To think further on this matter with Arendt, one would of course want to turn to the passages in Chapter II of Thinking in which she takes up directly the question of how poetic metaphor bridges “the abyss between inward invisible mental activities and the world of appearances” and in which she discusses in some detail the way that poetic images — “swift as thought” — bridge that gap, or help us to bridge that gap. But that must be the work of another week (II:45–46).

  1. Arendt, Hannah, Thinking and Moral Considerations , Social Research, 38:3 (1971: Autumn) p.431.
  2. Citations from The Life of the Mind are from the typescript labeled Set II in The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress, which, thanks in large part to research conducted by Wout Cornelissen, we have determined to be typescript that contains the last edits made by Arendt prior to her death. Currently this typescript is only available through the Library of Congress via the following locator: Books — -The Life of the Mind — -”Thinking” — -Drafts — -Set II. See http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/arendthtml/mharendtFolderP05.html. Citations above refer to chapter and typescript page number.

Thomas Bartscherer is the Peter Sourian Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at Bard College and Senior Fellow at Bard’s HAC. In the fall of 2018 he was appointed Research Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University, and in the Spring of 2019 he will be a fellow in residence at the Cinepoetics Center at the Freie Universität, Berlin.