Hannah Speaks

Below are 25 quotes from the writings and talks of the German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), whose birthday is tomorrow, Oct. 14. I decided to take a break from reading the remarkable new book Unanswered Questions: What the September Eleventh Families Asked and the 9/11 Commission Ignored, by Ray McGinnis, to add them to the blog because they’re particularly appropriate in this day and age. — MCM)

   

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.

   

I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances, a sense of humor is a great help.

   

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.

   

Evil thrives on apathy and cannot exist without it.

   

Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.

   

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

   

When evil is allowed to compete with good, evil has an emotional populist appeal that wins out unless good men and women stand as a vanguard against abuse.

   

Politically speaking, tribal nationalism [patriotism] always insists that its own people are surrounded by ‘a world of enemies’ – ‘one against all’ – and that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.

   

We are free to change the world and start something new in it.

   

The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.

   

This is the precept by which I have lived: Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes.

   

The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.

   

This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.

   

One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.

   

There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.

   

The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error.

   

Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.

   

To think and to be fully alive are the same.

   

Political questions are far too serious to be left to the politicians.

   

Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.

   

One must think with the body and the soul or not think at all.

   

I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society, where one then runs the risk of starving or being stoned to death. In these circumstances, a sense of humor is a great help.

   

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

   

I’m completely against [feminism]. I have no desire to give up my privileges.

   

Violence is an expression of impotence.

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