Studying the History of Political Theory with Hannah Arendt02-14-2016
By Samantha Rose Hill
“The true author, in other words, does not augment some spiritual or bookish world, but the real world, because he responds to it. In other words, a true author never stands only in the history of ideas, he is part and parcel of History.”
-- Hannah Arendt, Lecture Notes for History of Political Theory, Library of Congress Archive, box 39.
Hannah Arendt’s syllabi and lecture notes shed light on her teaching style and methodology as a political thinker. Arendt is an original thinker, full of contradictions and provocations, and it is easy to become frustrated with the seemingly absent red-thread from her work. There is an impulse to try and chart the course of her thought, draw lines between spheres, craft constellations, but there is an irony in this attempt to know her work. This attempt at knowing, possessing and naming moves against the spirit of understanding. Arendt doesn’t fit into a pre-formed category; she deploys a methodology in her work that resists the routine utilization of primary and secondary sources. Instead, she treats each author as an interlocutor and augmenter, drawing them into conversation. And because of this, she is able to think anew.
Arendt never gave an account of her own methodology in political theory, but in her lecture notes, we see her offering a way to think about history, how concepts and categories are utilized in thinking and writing, and how we ought to approach texts. Arendt’s notes not only point students toward what they should look for when encountering Rousseau or Spinoza, but she also offers them, and us, a methodology for reading and engaging in the world of political thinking.
[caption id="attachment_17447" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Page one of the syllabus for "Political Science 116B - History of Political Theory", a course taught by Hannah Arendt at the University of California in the spring of 1955.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_17448" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Page two of the syllabus for "Political Science 116B - History of Political Theory", a course taught by Hannah Arendt at the University of California in the spring of 1955.[/caption]
At the beginning of her lecture on the history of political theory, Arendt tells her students that political theory is a kind of meeting ground that is ultimately born out of despair caused by historical experiences.
“Political theory is a kind of meeting ground of two types: we find the philosophers who turned to political theory out of despair about the unbearability of certain historical experiences. Such was the case of Plato, but also of Spinoza. Politics are not their chief interest; history has driven them into it. And we find the born statesmen and great men of action who again of out despair turn to philosophy. And we find finally the philosopher who out of despair of philosophy turns to politics. This is the case of Marx who wanted to ‘realize’ philosophy. The result in all cases is political theory.”
Political theory responds to historical experiences. We are driven from philosophy to politics--from pure thinking to the political realm. But there is also a counter movement where those engaged in the practice of politics turn back to thinking. Arendt writes: “Political theory between history and philosophy: Its experiences are all historical, but its terms are all terms which at one time have been coined by philosophy.” The political theorist is both within and outside--caught somewhere between the realm of ideas and the sphere of action. The historical experiences that cause despair reorient us toward the world and our place in it. Despair demands in-betweeness, causing us to turn away from what it is we are doing because the conditions, the experiences of history, make it impossible to continue.
Arendt’s body of work illustrates this. Her writing wrestles with the horrors of National Socialism in the 20th Century and the many losses incurred as a consequence. She responds to the historical experiences of her lifetime. When asked by Günter Gaus “Is there a definite event in your memory that dates your turn to the political?” Arendt responds, “I would say February 27, 1933, the burning of the Reichstag, and the illegal arrests that followed the same night. The so-called ‘protective custody.’ As you know, people were taken to Gestapo cellars or to concentration camps. What happened then was monstrous, but it has now been overshadowed by things that happened later. This was an immediate shock for me, and from that moment on I felt responsible. That is, I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”
Political theory must, needs be historically grounded, but this doesn’t mean that the political thinker owes fidelity to history. Arendt’s work employs a methodology that relies on historically guided narratives and dialogic thinking with a cast of authors. In her lecture notes, she tells her students that authors, or auctores, literally ‘augment’ the world. She draws a distinction between the authors themselves and the commentators who try to reason or make sense of their work through engagement and critique. We live in a world that is augmented by authors, who shape the very reality we inhabit. “The world in which the commentator moves is the world of books; the world in which the author moves is the same world in which we move, the real world. …Only the commentator is interested in political theory per se.”
In offering this distinction between political theory types, Arendt adds: “This again is not exhaustive. Many cannot be counted into either category. Warning against such categories and their facility. They can be used to illuminate something, they should never be used to build a theory on. These are not types, not even ideal ones.” Arendt is offering an account of the origins of political theory while acknowledging that there is no single spring from which the tradition flows. The affect of despair that opens space between the thinker and the world turns us to the work of political thinking so that we can understand the experiences of our worldly conditions. In other words, this is only one way of understanding what it is that political theorists do. Many political thinkers cannot be counted wholly into either category. Here, Arendt offers us an important lesson about the way we engage in the work of thinking: Concepts and categories only have so much facility. They are lampposts that illuminate and guide our thinking, but they should never be the foundation upon which we build a theory. This is a lesson contemporary political theory ought to take to heart. The categories are never ends in themselves; they are only meant to facilitate the work of political theory.
Arendt understands the work of the political theorist to be the work of the commentator. She writes, “The political writer loves the world, the world of the pragmata ton athropon, is the subject of politics in the broadest sense. Only the commentator is interested in theory, and loves political theory.” The world of the commentator is the not the same as the world of the author. When we read an author directly “we move into the same world”, we move into a world that was augmented by the author. Authors have the authority to expand our reality. The world of the commentator is the world of books; it is the world of political theory. “Commentators come and ago, the authors remain, we will read 100 years from now . . .” Arendt warns her student to “always return to the text” and not get lost in the twists and turns of commentary.
Arendt assures us that our job as students is not to make sense of or reason the writing of authors but rather to engage in the much more challenging work of understanding. Contradictions are a sign of greatness and thinking--a sign that in our struggle to love the world we remain engaged and connected to the moment that we are living in. She advises, “There are contradictions and the commentators make much of it. . . . Contradictions occur in great authors, not in second-rate ones. They always indicate some center of thought, that is if they cannot be resolved. The point is not to resolve them but to understand the experience behind it.”
Arendt never fit neatly into the political theory box, with all of her contradictions and categories, but she is a political thinker and a true author who has augmented the real world we live in. The best teachers always do.
Featured image: The original frontispiece to Hobbes' "The Leviathan." Credit: http://www.librarything.com/ (Source: Saint Peters List).