I Choose Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt
(image source)

Yesterday Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin asked the following question on twitter:

Name your top three public figures you wish were still alive right now to comment on what’s happening in our country. I’ll go first (in no particular order): John McCain, Christopher Hitchens, Hunter S. Thompson. [1]

A lot of people were making fun of Rogin’s answer: we can have anyone from history, and these are three we choose? You choose Christopher Hitchens over Jesus?

I would not choose Jesus. I don’t dispute the pressing need to take the ancients seriously. Evaluating our lives in terms of what Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, Al-farabi, Aquinas, Mencius, Du Fu, Sima Guang, or Zhu Xi would have thought about it is an exercise I advise every reader to try (see my earlier post on this topic, “Escaping the Echo Chamber of Modernity“).  But Rogin wants to bring back three people to hear their comments on Trump and impeachment. Great minds resurrected from so far a remove would not be good for this. Plato and Confucius would not want to talk about what the public should do with President Trump—they would want to talk about whether it is a wise idea to have a democracy at all. Trump and his problems would seem like minor squabbles when arrayed against the macro-trends that have transformed human life over the last two millennia.

For a similar reason I would not want to resurrect many figures from the cusp of modernity. Enlightenment philosophers, American’s founding fathers, brilliant observers like Tocqueville or Tolstoy all would have useful things to say about our times, but I doubt they would care so much about the political decisions of 2019. If you are Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, the most alarming thing you could learn about 21st century America is that the vast majority of its citizens work as wage laborers. By this fact alone almost every American statesman between Franklin and Lincoln would condemn modern America as a land stripped of its liberty—regardless of the result of impeachment proceedings. They would be correct, in their own way: our political economy is incompatible with their understanding of what republican life and liberty meant. But that political economy has been firmly in place since the 1920s. It will not change now.

Choosing someone like John McCain has the opposite problem. John McCain is not far enough removed from the current moment to offer anything uniquely valuable to us today. We can easily guess what John McCain would be saying about every issue of public import in 2019. They would not be that different from what he was saying about all of these issues in 2018. Josh Rogin’s own views are not that different from what we must imagine McCain’s being. This perspective is not missing.

That is the challenge. Ideally you would want to resurrect someone who is familiar enough with shapes and shadows of modern society that they could offer intelligent comment on the issues being debated, but far enough removed from the present that they could offer surprising insights into the contemporary moment. In my mind that means someone who is already familiar with mass democracy, professional media, industrialized society, and the intellectual origins of today’s partisan divides—or at least familiar enough that they will think these things do not deserve special comment. We want a person familiar with the social conditions of post-modernity, but not party to current political debates. The obvious era of interest then is that which belonged to the public intellectuals whose public presence peaked in between 1940 and 1970.   In essence, the era of letters that people like George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir took part in.

This is the logic behind my choice. If I were to resurrect one person to comment on our current dilemmas, that person would be Hannah Arendt. 

What issue of importance today did she not ponder?  How should Western countries understand and respond to authoritarian states? What makes meaningful community possible? Does bureaucracy, technology, and settled life diminish our freedom?  Why do politicians lie—and what consequences should there be for lying in office? How do political institutions decay? Should we forgive our political enemies? When is violence justified, and when is it not? How can it be controlled or avoided? What should the ‘justice’ in phrases like ‘social justice’ actually mean? What role should guilt, rage, and fear play in our political lives? How should we translate abstract political principles into living realities?

Arendt wrote about all of these things and more. She would have the intellectual background needed to say something useful about the biggest political and social challenges we face today: America’s relationship with China, technology’s encroach upon democracy, the unsettled relation between the sexes, the collapse of American social capital and community life, the strengths and foibles of social justice campaigning, partisanship and ‘post-reality’ politics, and of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wish we could hear her opinions on these things. I wish this because I honestly do not know what her opinions would be. I recognize positions she would not adopt, but I can only guess what she would make of Facebook or consider the proper political grounding for impeachment.

Alas, Hannah Arendt will not revive to comment on American politics! From the gates of eternity none return. But if you have not read any of her work, I encourage you to do so now. Here is a passage I return to several times a year, a snippet of her thought, a sampler for those still deciding if she is worth their time:

The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.[2]

If you would like to read more about philosophers and historians I especially cherish, consider reading this piece on Ibn Khaldun, this one on Sima Qian, this one on Thucydides, or my 2014 post on Quantum Libraries.  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Josh Rogin, tweet, 3 October 2019. Accessed 5 October 2019: https://twitter.com/joshrogin/status/1179828363277549568 3 October 2019

[2] Hannah Arendt, HA Papers at the Library of Congress: Essays and lectures—“Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship,” lecture—1964 (Series: Speeches and Writings File, 1923-1975), p. 45.

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Milton Friedman, Bertrand Russell and Eisenhower.

Two flavours of liberalism close enough to our own to be relevant and a president who served through the old and modern incarnations of the presidency.


Arendt wrote in two modes. One was as a public intellectual, essays of long length (30-40 pages), usually published in the New Yorker or something similar. The second is in gigantic philosophical tomes of very dense prose. The first sort, having been edited for mass appeal, is by far the more approachable. Try her Eichmann in Jerusalem for an example, of this, or for something slightly more contemporary, any of the four essays in Crisis of the Republic.

Her big tomes are also interesting though; I suspect on the Origins of Totalitarianism which compares the Soviet and Nazi regimes, or On Revolution which tries to account for the success of the American Revolution and the failure of the French, will be of most interest to you.

(Totalitarianism is divided into three parts; some editions of the book only carry part III, as the first two parts, which are an intellectual archeology of important ideas that would resurface in totalitarian ideologies (e.g. anti-semitism, imperialism) are not strictly necessary to understand her theory of how totalitarian regimes work)

OK, here's 3:

Milovan Djilas, Enoch Powell, Eric Hoffer.

Orwell is my actual top pick, but I'm too much of a snob to pick someone too obvious.

Eisenhower is a good suggestion. A great and under-rated man.

I have not read Arendt. Life is short, worthy books limitless.

Agreed about your views about the older writers. Simply too far removed to have much to say about the details of today's politics.

I Responded to the original Tweet that brought this up. I choose Theodore Roosevelt, Shelby Foote, and John Paul Vann.

I think the why for each of them is fairly obvious, what do you think about their possible perspective?

By the way, what would have been your second and third choices, since he asked for top 3?

Will check out Arendt, thanks for the recommendation!

After Salamis-

I am not sure. I would likely end up choosing George Orwell, along with Lexington Green. Unlike him, I am not too much of a snob to admit it! ^_~

But the third choice is very hard. I would want an American–and someone who started out as an American, not someone, like Arendt, who became American for explicitly political reasons. I am tempted to go with Billings Learned Hand.

Hunter Thompson is actually a solid choice. His political analysis, while filtered through the lens of his "gonzo" personality, was pretty spot on (see, e.g., Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail). I suppose H.L. Mencken would be acceptable for many of the same reasons.

Arendt is a stellar pick, for the reasons cited in the post, as well as for her fearlessness.

I think Edith Wharton would be a good third. As an expat who examined extensively the passing of her New York, she would be an outstanding appraiser of Trump as the avatar, before the Presidency, of the outer borough nouveau riche.