Distinctions, Depth, and Memory12-13-2015
By Richard Barrett
“We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost—would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.”
--Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”
Toward the beginning of her essay on “What is Authority?,” Arendt warns of the danger of forgetting. She cautions not out of fear that if we forget the meaning of authority, we hazard being enslaved by an authoritarian government. To the contrary, she reminds us just how authoritarian regimes preserve freedom when compared to a tyranny or a totalitarian government. The peril is that of becoming shallow--perhaps a fate worse than enslavement, or at least so it is portrayed by Aldous Huxley, a fellow author devoted to considering and preventing totalitarianism. Yet what is the connection between authority and depth? And does Arendt seek to resuscitate authority to save us from shallowness, or is she up to something else?
To distinguish among these anti-liberal regimes, she uses not the well-worn and perhaps overused image of the cave but one far older, standing temporarily to Plato as he does to us. Authoritarian rule is a pyramid with the seat of power at the top and stratified, each successive level with less authority than the one above it, yet the whole fully integrated. What people tend to forget is that authoritarian regimes draw on a source of authority resting outside or, in the case of the pyramid, above it, so rule remains bound by laws, whether derived from God, nature, or Platonic ideas.
By contrast, a tyranny is egalitarian because the tyrant rules guided only by his own will and interest, and everyone else remains equal in their lack of freedom and political space. Here, Arendt uses the image of a pyramid of bayonets “over a mass of carefully isolated, disintegrated, and completely equal individuals.”
To depict a totalitarian rule, she is forced to reach for a new image: that of an onion, an image older than the pyramid and from nature but not of something natural since onions are bred unnaturally, cultivated to serve human desires. The leader is located in the center and does everything from within, and Arendt seems to have in mind something like a red onion because all the different parts of the movement “form a facade in one direction and the center in the other,” representing “formal outside world for one layer and the role of radical extremism for another.” Thus each layer provides “the fiction of a normal world along with a consciousness of being different from and more radical than it.”
[caption id="attachment_17105" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Source: Senior Gardening[/caption]
Why would an author known for autonomy want to parade before us such images? It is not simply to aid in seeing danger as it approaches but also to enrich our understanding of human possibility in part by allowing us to better appreciate liberty and to deepen our experience itself.
Arendt begins her essay stuck in time between the past and present, having once penned this work under the name “What was Authority?” only to alter it two years later to “What is Authority?” This ambiguity and rapid shift itself conjures her description of the world without authority because its “loss is tantamount to the loss of the groundwork of the world, which indeed since then has begun to shift, to change and transform itself with ever-increasing rapidity from one shape into another, as though we were living and struggling with a Protean universe where everything at any moment can become almost anything else.” While scholars tend to think of Arendt as someone content to think about the world without authorities, without a bannister, she fears the loss of authority will lead to a world in which each person retreats into his own isolated world of meaning without common terms and shared understanding.
Arendt turns from her image of authority to a genealogy of authority. She contends that authority arose when Plato sought a substitute for persuasion. Having grown mistrustful of persuasion's ability to guide human affairs, Plato sought another means to order human life without resorting to the external means of violence used by tyrants. He discovered that truth compels the mind with a coercion that lacks violence. “The trouble with coercion through reason, however, is that only the few are subject to it, so that the problem arises of how to assure that the many, the people who in their very multitude compose the body politic, can be submitted to the same truth.”
[caption id="attachment_14561" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Source: Seven Oaks Philosophy[/caption]
Plato's solution was authority: those with whom one could not reason could accept the compelling element embedded in the relationship between people where obedience occurs before commands have been issued. A patient who is sick voluntarily submits to the orders of his doctor. As Arendt explains, “the compelling power does not lie in the person or in inequality as such, but in the ideas which are perceived by the philosopher. These ideas can be used as measures of human behavior because they transcend the sphere of human affairs in the same way that a yardstick transcends. . . all things whose length it can measure.” Ideas became standards for political and moral behavior, but this ultimately led to a new form of domination in which ideas were used to impose order on the world with human beings as the matter with which it was formed, just as the blueprint for a building imposes itself upon the timber used to construct the house.
In the course of recounting this history, Arendt brings into view the relationship of these forms of government to liberty. The tyrant limits freedom by abolishing the public realm, destroying the space that makes human action possible. Thus the tyrant represents more than a limit on what Isaiah Berlin would call negative liberty; he robs human beings of positive liberty, the capacity to engage in a particular and distinctively human form of life. Totalitarian regimes eliminate spontaneity by conditioning human beings, controlling their thoughts and instincts. Authoritarian governments, by contrast, limit by providing a standard outside of the regime itself which in turn limits the rulers. Thus in restricting liberty, they also create it. Without a common standard by which to measure, a world without authority also imperils our ability to engage fully in the public realm because we risk losing “authentic and undisputable experiences common to all.” This is why the loss of authority constitutes “a crisis.” “Authority, resting on a foundation in the past as its unshaken cornerstone, gave the world the permanence and durability which human beings need precisely because they are mortal--the most unstable and futile beings we know of.”
Arendt provokes us to wonder if she is content to allow authority to remain dead or if she will somehow resurrect it. The trick is to find a way to maintain a common world without dominating--even with ideas. Arendt's solution is something we find not in what she tells us but in the action she contributes to the public realm with her essay. She overcomes the potential shallowness of a world without authority by contributing distinctions, by adding depth to the world, by sharing her wonder at everything that is as it is. Rather than dominating with ideas, she proposes her distinctions for our shared acceptance or refusal. Her explanation of the differences among different forms of government is offered for the depth it adds to the world rather than for a claim to absolute truth, historical or otherwise: “the distinctions between tyrannical, authoritarian, and totalitarian systems which I have proposed are unhistorical.”
Arendt also abstains from using history as authority. She turns to it not to preserve the past by handing down from one generation to the next the testimony of the ancestors, as she describes the Romans doing, but as a resource with which to create. She deprecates the contemporary historian's attempt to understand the past as those living had understood it, instead encouraging us to allow “ the past to open up. . . with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear.”
The sole sense of authority Arendt wishes to resurrect is the one that no longer bears the name except in its Latin origin: augere, the authority of those who augment or add to the public sphere. The image she leaves us in lieu of the pyramid of authority is not an image but a memory; it is the distinctions that she in her own Machiavellian way contributes to the public realm. To live deep lives without authority, we need people to share distinctions that add to our common possession--one might even say our commonwealth--new words and ideas, the things that must populate the contemporary polis. These are contained in the world of our collective memory.
[caption id="attachment_17106" align="aligncenter" width="580"] Rosson Crow's “Ballyhoo Hullabaloo Haboob” (Source: Living Proof Magazine)[/caption]
It is this understanding that makes sense of the climax of Arendt's response to the loss of authority. Her prime example is Machiavelli, though not the Machiavelli we learn of in high school or popular culture. He stands apart for his ability to contribute new concepts, such as revolution, to our common understanding: the “greatness of his rediscovery lies in that he could not simply revive or resort to an articulate conceptual tradition, but had himself to articulate those experiences which the Romans had not conceptualized.”
Arendt accomplishes the same in her articulation of the American Revolution--in her mind the only successful response to the modern loss of authority. Far from wiping the slate clean, the American founders “confirmed and legalized an already existing body politic rather than made it anew.” The act of foundation was not the Declaration of Independence but the gradual colonization of the American continent. It was not so much revolution as accretion. The Declaration was successful because it drew on the colonists' common experience and reified it in the Revolution as the accepted standard by which to measure right. Thus we see that in her analysis of the past, Arendt does not intend to satisfy historians who would have us understand the people of the past as they understood themselves. She does not wish to resuscitate the past, but through providing articulations of it and adding new distinctions to maintain a depth in our memories, she contributes anew to the public sphere.
To use Arendt's own words, she is “thinking poetically,” a term she coined to describe Walter Benjamin:
“[T]his thinking, fed by the present, works with the ‘thought fragments’ it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past– but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things ‘suffer a sea-change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living– as ‘thought fragments,’ as something ‘rich and strange,’ and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.”
[caption id="attachment_17107" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Ama - The Pearl Diving Mermaids of Japan (Source: Pinterest)[/caption]
Arendt seeks to persuade by enriching the world and by having others embrace those riches in common. She accomplishes this by sharing with others her sense of wonder at the ideas she discovers, thus resolving the dichotomy “between seeing the truth in solitude and remoteness and being caught in the relationships and relativities of human affairs.” To share that world with her, we must contribute as well.
Featured image: "Field of Depth" by Zueuk; sourced from Deviantart.