Live With Yourself & Choose Your Company (From the Archive)

Hannah Arendt's late work Responsibility and Judgment is a collection of essays from the last decade of her life, building on the concepts she raised in Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Human Condition.

Hannah Arendt's late work Responsibility and Judgment is a collection of essays from the last decade of her life, building on the concepts she raised in Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Human Condition. The book is organized in three parts: Responsibility, Judgment, and essays applying these to current events of her time.

Responsibility

In Eichmann, Arendt used the trial of the eponymous Nazi war criminal to delve into the psyche of the hundreds of thousands of mediocre men who made the massive crimes of Nazism possible. Those crimes, and the atrocities of the Soviets, indicate a catastrophic break in the tradition of western philosophy and history. This essay tries to reason towards a definition of personhood and responsibility that can build a new tradition, knowing what we do of the horrible capacities of man.

Arendt posits that to be a person requires the ability to live with oneself: "a quality of the highest order, diametrically opposed to loneliness." The quintessential experience of totalitarianism is loneliness: "being deserted by oneself, being temporarily unable to become the two-in-one of a thinking person".

I was reminded of the Stoics' daemon, but there is nothing metaphorical or divine about Arendt's conception. At its simplest, this ability to retain your own counsel can be demonstrated by an unwillingness to commit an ordered crime because it would leave you in the company of a criminal forever.  Socrates stands large in Arendt's estimation, as the forebear of this small and quiet brotherhood, and as its first and finest embodiment in our literature:

“That it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong became moral not by its paradoxical nature but by Socrates’ example to all men.”

Judgment

If most people go through life avoiding the decision of whether or not to be good, then their behavior is governed primarily by external norms and habits. These can be handed down by authority and reinforced by one's society. This implies that most people, most of the time, are susceptible to having their "ethics" upended from one month to the next: they hadn't decided on the previous mores, so they do not need to change their minds in order to behave in a completely different way. As long as the usurper provides new mores to adopt, people are likely to comply. Arendt likens this capacity for a society to dramatically change its ethical behavior to a change of table manners.

In the most extreme cases in history, the Nazis and the Stalinists were able to suborn the commandments "thou shalt not kill" and "thou should not lie" respectively, by creating a new public ethos that demanded and rewarded the opposite.

The antidote to this vulnerability is to exercise our judgment: to decide what kind of people we want to be, and Arendt is adamant that the way to do this is by choosing our mental company, our pantheon of role models:

"Our decisions about right and wrong will depend on our choice of company, of those with whom we wish to spend our lives. This company is chosen by thinking in examples, of persons dead or alive, real or fictitious, and in examples of incidents, past and present."

There is so, so much more here, and I highly recommend this book. Arendt is one of my great intellectual mentors and examples, and Responsibility and Judgment is the most thought-provoking book I have read in this new year.

Bonus Quotes

I recall these quotes on a weekly basis as I try to make sense of our public discourse (or lack thereof):

"If a man commands you to shoot your friend to save yourself, he is tempting you, that is all" - attributed to Mary McCarthy, Introduction

“Progressive education, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it.” - Reflections on Little Rock

Inefficiency has been elevated to a national purpose… we have the hectic and unfortunately highly successful policy of “solving” very real problems by clever gimmicks, which are only successful enough to make the problems temporarily disappear.” - Home to Roost