Category : Continental Philosophy.
The sources used for this article refer predominantly to UoN lecture notes. For more information I would highly recommend Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (specifically part 3.)
Hannah Arendt, Introduction.
Arendt’s Philosophy is heavily rooted in continental philosophy, and draws from her own personal experiences. Born a Jew in Germany, she wisely left in 1933 as an escape from the Gestapo – her works draw on modern/important topics of debate, including both Nazi Germany and Propaganda.
It is also important to note that her method took influence from Heidegger – believing that we should draw theories after assessing the evidence and data available, rather than theorising before (as this can distort the data through biases.) Heidegger refers to this as lived experience.
Arendt’s work importantly discusses issues of obedience and propaganda and draws theories from the evidence available – making her conclusions valuable and insightful to society.
In The origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt discussed the conditions that led to Nazi and Soviet regimes, including :
- Human vulnerability to propaganda in circumstances of uncertainty.
- The newly introduced modern, or industrial communication systems which act as tools for manipulation.
These tools lead to us being extremely vulnerable to these regimes, and Arendt believed we needed a framework of the human condition to guard us against such atrocities.
Arendt’s example of blind obedience.
Her example of obedience can be found in her controversial “Eichmann in Jerusalem” where she discussed the case of Adolf Eichmann : who had helped with the “extermination” of Jews in Nazi Germany.
When questioned, his response was : “I was following orders.”
Arendt accepted such a response, not as a justification but rather an explanation. It is a prime example of how humans can sleep walk into blind obedience if we do not rationally consider the political environment which we are in. So Eichmann’s actions are nothing more than a clueless, irrational willingness to obey.
The key thing to take away from this discussion is that rather than assuming the worst of “evil” individuals – we must consider a deeper understanding of the human condition – which is easily manipulated into blind obedience and everyone is vulnerable to it.
Other examples that support such theorising is found in Milgram’s findings – even a normal American would blindly follow orders to harm someone despite no reasoning or justification. This individual is not inherently evil, and yet displays evil tendencies. So it is wrong to theorise about the individual before you have delved into a deeper understanding of the human condition, and the conditions that caused such acts.
This segment has outlined how susceptible to blind obedience we are : so Arendt’s next discussion aims to find methods to protect us from such manipulation.
Protecting yourself from manipulation.
In the Human Condition Arendt makes important distinctions about human behaviour. By doing so allows her to theorise methods on how to protect yourself.
She states that our private life is nothing more than a pre – condition for our active public lives. So for our private lives to be self-determined rather than the result of blind obedience, we must first examine and change our public life to match.
Arendt coined, and emphasised the importance of an active life (vita activa) – and it is only through this that we can enjoy genuine freedom as rational agents. An active life occurs when someone is engaged with the realm of politics, for example actively discussing political reasoning and views. This differs slightly to prior Philosophical emphasis of vita contemplativa which focuses more on internal reasoning. Nonetheless, Arendt states that both are of equal importance when trying to achieve genuine freedom.
So – Arendt emphasised that we should actively discuss, negotiate and agree on ideas in the political/public realm, and by doing so will influence the private sphere.
Not only that, Arendt also emphasised cultivation, meaning we should actively and rationally consider the reasoning behind our actions, instead of blindly obeying. By doing so will allow us to determine genuine and meaningful goals. And both this along with vita activa will act as strong protection from manipulation.
The main thing I have alluded to in this essay is that :
- As humans we are vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation, and it is wrong to theorise an opinion on someone without considering the reasons for their actions. Similar to Eichmann we are all vulnerable to committing actions on the basis of thoughtless obedience.
- There are methods to protect ourselves from such manipulation. Including actively engaging in our political/public sphere; by doing so our private opinions will be our own rather than that of Propaganda.
- We must also undergo cultivation, considering reasons for our actions; rather than blindly following orders.
Thank you for taking the time to engage with me,
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