Thinking Everything the Worst02-03-2024
The Hannah Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group will be finishing our reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism on February 16th and 24th with discussions of the famous Epilogue to the book Ideology and Terror. In this epilogue, Arendt argues that the fundamental ground for the rise of totalitarianism is prepared by a specifically modern form of loneliness. I invite you to join our discussions of the epilogue. In preparation, it would be good to read Lee Siegel’s reflections on American loneliness. Siegel ends his essay thinking about Arendt. He writes:
She arrestingly concludes her magnum opus by quoting Martin Luther, who said that “a lonely man always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst”. She adds: “The famous extremism of totalitarian movements… consists indeed in this ‘thinking everything to the worst,’ in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions.” She warns about the “ice-cold” reasoning of fascism and communism, which serves as “a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon”.
America is now in the grip of an ice-cold algorithm of catastrophic thinking on the left and the right. On the left, rational and humane worry about injustice and climate has devolved into an iron apocalypticism, in which nearly all authority is unreliable and malign, an apocalypticism that is nevertheless cheerfully and lucratively promoted by the liberal media. On the right, rational and humane worry about crime and disorder descends into calls for revenge against unreliable and malign authorities, for violence and even civil war.
Contrary to American problem-solvers, loneliness, as part of the human condition, is not going to be bullet-pointed and policied away. But one effective way to push back against the gravitational force of loneliness might be for what remains of America’s democratic culture to resist the deducing process of catastrophism, and to start representing the world, for all its deformities and depravities, as not just a habitable, but a beloved place. A place where it feels safe, and good, to be alone.