The philosopher who warned us about loneliness and totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt would be my choice as the most significant political thinker of the twentieth century.

You may make cases for other thinkers, such as John Rawls, but I always return to Arendt. She’s most known for her coverage of Nazi commander Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial, as well as coining the phrase “the banality of evil,” a contentious contention about how ordinary people may do exceedingly awful deeds.

Arendt, like all the great philosophers before her, had a deeper understanding of her reality than others, and she is still a relevant voice today. Arendt was born in 1906 into a German-Jewish family and resided in East Prussia until 1933, when she was forced to flee the Nazis. She subsequently spent the following eight years in Paris, until the Nazis occupied France, at which point she escaped once more to the United States, where she worked as a professor and public intellectual for the remainder of her life.

Refugee experiences and the horrors of the Holocaust impacted Arendt’s life and philosophy. She attempted to make sense of the political diseases of the twentieth century in immensely ambitious volumes like The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. It’s a bit unsettling to read her nowadays. On the one hand, the way she writes, the regimes she depicts, the technology she’s concerned about — it all feels very remote, as if she’s writing about a whole different world, and she does have blind spots, particularly in terms of race and identity, that are evident now.

Despite this, the risks she describes and her insights into our inner life appear to be as pertinent now as they were 70 years ago. Her 1951 book on totalitarianism was selling at 16 times its regular pace after Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

The philosopher who warned us about loneliness and totalitarianism

So, for a recent edition of Vox Conversations, I called out to Lyndsey Stonebridge, a humanities professor at the University of Birmingham. Stonebridge has authored two volumes about Arendt’s legacy and is nearing completion on a third about her life and views, which will be published early next year. We discuss the connection between loneliness and authoritarianism, what it means to truly think, and what happens when actual political engagement is no longer possible.

An extract has been included below, which has been modified for length and clarity. There’s a lot more in the whole episode, so check it out and subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sean Illing is a writer and a musician.

Arendt was a political theorist who spent a lot of time thinking about loneliness, which sounds like something that belongs in the realm of psychology rather than political theory. Why did Arendt think that loneliness was a political issue?

Lyndsey Stonebridge is a British actress.

It’s crucial not to isolate loneliness from the circumstances that cause it. She’s referring to topics like people’s dissatisfaction with Europe’s ruling elites, unemployment, the end of the bourgeois dream, inflation, and so on. And, like other intellectuals, she saw loneliness as a uniquely contemporary affliction. It’s an issue that arises from individuality. It’s an issue that arises as a result of capitalism. It’s an issue that modernity has brought with it.

Alienation will be discussed by Karl Marx. Disenchantment will be discussed by Max Weber. Simone Weil, another excellent woman thinker who is underappreciated, will discuss uprooting in the same manner that Hannah Arendt did. However, [Arendt] discusses loneliness as a separate modern issue.

She’s been in America for ten years and is gazing in two ways when she finally gets to loneliness. She considers both Nazi tyranny, which had just ended, and Soviet totalitarianism, which was still raging at the moment. She’s also thinking about her future home in America.

Loneliness is the result of a lack of a shared ground of experience, she observes everywhere she goes. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, in other words, the reality of experience, and the distinction between true and false… people for whom those distinctions no longer exist… people for whom those distinctions no longer exist,” she writes.

Sean Illing is a writer and a musician.

Arendt discusses the development of “the masses” in her book on totalitarianism, which is distinct from what we may conceive of as classes or interest groups, because they are groupings that are by definition fighting for a common goal. She’s referring to the emergence of a “unorganized mass” of “mainly enraged individuals” who have nothing in common except a dislike for the current system. This is what she refers to as “negative solidarity,” and it’s the raw material of tyranny because it’s a society without connection or friendship, where the only basis for collective action is some horrible mix of rage and despair.

How did the world become so lonely for her in the first place? Was it only the growth of capitalism and individualism that caused this?

Lyndsey Stonebridge is a British actress.

That’s true, but it’s also a lot more. When I was re-reading Origins of Totalitarianism a few months ago, I was struck by how frequently the term “hatred” appeared in her discussion of the mass’s development. She discovered that working with people’s anger and whipping up a mob is really easy, and she makes a fantastic point in the book about the mob’s partnership with the elite, and how the elite are extremely effective at identifying and using existing hatred.

She’s a historian, after all, so she’ll say stuff like unemployment. Things like not being able to keep your house are examples. And when you consider the early twentieth century’s rates of inflation and unemployment, as well as the World War and civil conflicts across Europe, as well as massive migration and other factors, we’re not just talking about a sense of boredom. This is the genuine deal. It’s simple to assemble a mob in these circumstances. You’re off to a good start with your rage.

This isn’t simply fascism; it’s the formation of the masses. This isn’t simply populism at work. In Arendt’s opinion, this is true totalitarianism. “The masses’ flight from reality is a judgement against the world in which they’re forced to live,” she says at one point, and this is a sentence that has stuck with me for a few years now. How can people be so foolish, is a common question. I’m not sure how somebody could fall for this. That is the incorrect way of thinking about things. Totalitarian politics is a declaration of war on the world in which individuals are compelled to live. It’s a smack in the face to the face. It’s a prod in the direction of the realities of life.

People sometimes refer to the general public as gullible and stupid, which is, on the one hand, horrible politics. On the other side, it’s a complete blunder. People aren’t dumb, after all. Cynicism is a phrase that is equally as fundamental as loneliness. Totalitarianism is based on cynicism. It’s important because it permits people to say things like, “They’re all the same, isn’t it?” Isn’t it everything simply politics?” Cynicism enables you to be both naïve and skeptical at the same time.

Sean Illing is a writer and a musician.

Before a totalitarian ideology to overcome reality, Arendt believed that it had to first destroy people’s relationships with themselves and others by making them so distrustful and cynical that they couldn’t trust their own judgment. That’s all there is to it.

Then she imagines thinking as anything more than a task. It’s a manner of being, she imagines. The actual gift of thinking isn’t all the big ideas and lofty theories that intellectuals come up with; it’s something we do with ourselves. The beauty of thinking is that you can assess anything you’re thinking about as long as you’re doing it. Why is this so important?

Lyndsey Stonebridge is a British actress.

So let’s start with thinking, because Arendt makes it difficult to go from thinking to judgment. For her, thinking is profoundly democratic. Everyone, she claims, has that internal discussion — but not all of the time, since if you stopped to think about what you’re doing all of the time, you’d never get out of bed. However, we all have the ability to think most of the time.

We take a stroll along the street. We lose ourselves in our ideas, and Arendt considers this to be a blessing. She claims that this isn’t a waste of time. This isn’t a joke. This is what thinking entails, and we must treat it as such. “What makes loneliness so agonizing is the loss of one’s own self, which may be recognized in isolation but reinforced in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals,” she adds in a wonderful quotation.

Loneliness is not the same as solitude. Because I’m not clicking on a bloody “like” or “dislike” or following another pattern, solitude is where I go to hear myself think, where I re-gather my ideas, which makes me fit to return to the world. I’m thinking for myself, which is all we have when things are truly horrible.

But, returning to judging, she claims that there can be no judgment without the ability to think. When she looked at Nazi commander Adolf Eichmann in the courtroom in Jerusalem in 1961, she saw a self-important guy chatting on, talking self-importantly, without even recognizing who he was speaking to – the relatives and survivors of people he had murdered — and he simply spoke in clichés. The longer she listened to him, the clearer it seemed that his incapacity to talk was inextricably linked to his inability to think, namely, to think from the perspective of another person.

Sean Illing is a writer and a musician.

Arendt escaped Nazism twice before landing in New York in 1941. When she first arrived in America, what did she think of the country? Do you think she thought we were lonely? Did she believe that Americans were thinking in ways that would enable them to escape the totalitarian horrors she had witnessed in Europe?

Lyndsey Stonebridge is a British actress.

She saw two views of the United States of America. Hannah Arendt was often referred to as having pigeon eyes because she had a proclivity for seeing all sides of a situation. On the one hand, she was concerned about American society because she perceived a propensity toward social uniformity that had already existed in the growth of consumer culture.

“It’s great,” she wrote to her former instructor, Karl Jaspers, when she landed in America. I’m baffled as to how a society with such a strong political base could be so socially conservative.” The more she stayed in America, the more concerned she became about public relations and consumer capitalism, and how they were leading America further away from its revolutionary tradition.

Sean Illing is a writer and a musician.

Isn’t it true that she lays out all of this in a speech just after the Vietnam War ended?

Lyndsey Stonebridge is a British actress.

Yes, her most recent publication was based on a presentation she delivered in 1975. “This is what America has to confront,” she continues, just a few weeks after the fall of Saigon. “It’s gone farther and more away from itself into a society in which politics is marketing, in which politics is PR.” The fall of Saigon indicated to her that America had just been humiliated and defeated utterly.

Then she went over the events that had built up to that point. She discussed the Pentagon Papers, which proved that the war had no purpose other than to sustain the myth that America was an all-powerful, free nation — a deception that was good enough for other people’s children to die for. This whole operation was made up by a group of second-rate criminals, as Watergate demonstrated. This was all about politics. This was politics in the United States of America.

We have to accept that fact, she argued. And the truth was that America was not great, free, or glorious, and it lacked power. We had just suffered a devastating loss while also jeopardizing our political future. That’s what she dubbed the “big lie,” a word Trump used again as he promoted his own election-related great lie. This, she explained, is how tyranny works. You simply concoct a really large falsehood and stick to it.