A reader's journal sharing the insights of various authors and my take on a variety of topics, most often philosophy, religion & spirituality, politics, history, economics, and works of literature. Come to think of it, diet and health, too!
Thursday, January 26, 2017
A Tour with Commentary Through Hannah Arendt's "Truth & Politics"
Arendt with her ever-present cigarette
N.B. The following post is long. It contains long quotes from Arendt's essay. Her thought is complex. It isn't easy. It is worthwhile. The commentary presents my reflections on the portions of her essay that I quote. You should feel free to skip the commentary and read the quotes. The quotes are the jewels; the commentary mere window dressing.
Hannah Arendt's essay "Truth and Politics" was first published in the New Yorker in 1967 and then included in her collection of essays entitled Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought.Arendt reports the publication of her controversial book Eichmann in Jeruselum (1963) prompted her to reflect on the legitimacy of any mandate to always tell the truth and upon the immense number of lies written about what she had reported. (Eichmann was tried and executed for his role in the Holocaust, and Arendt's book is about the trial and about the actions of Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Masha Gessen referred to Arendt's work in Gessen's essay in the NYT about journalism in the Age of Trump. Gessen's reference sent me back to Arendt's essay that I first read in late 1974 or early 1975, and that I last read in the fall of 1978 when I sat in on a class on Arendt while in law school. Gessen's spur to another reading proved rewarding, which comes as no surprise. Arendt, more than any other person who writes about politics, influenced my thinking about politics. Her work stems from a learned philosophical mind confronted with the realities imposed on her as a 20th-century German-Jewish woman. She was forced to flee her homeland, and she after a stint in France, she migrated to America. Her writing about politics is unique. Some argue it's too idealistic, but I'm not convinced. While she skirts the mundane or seedier aspects of politics, she compensates for this with a political vision defined by a sense of nobility about those who enter the political arena, even at the most basic level. [Skip to the final quote below at the end for a summary of this attitude.] Arendt brings her unique perspectives into her essay about truth and politics.
Arendt begins with a bracing observation about the relationship between truth and politics, and she continues with a set of provocative rhetorical questions:
No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues. Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade. Why is that so? And what does it mean for the nature and the dignity of the political realm, on one side, and for the nature and the dignity of truth and truthfulness, on the other? Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent and of the very essence of power to be deceitful? And what kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm, which more than any other sphere of human life guarantees reality of existence to natal and mortal men – that is, to beings who know they have appeared out of non-being and will, after a short while, again disappear into it? Finally, is not impotent truth just as despicable as power that gives no heed to truth? These are uncomfortable questions, but they arise necessarily out of our current convictions in this matter.
In her first couple of sentences, she affronts a common sentiment found in her new homeland. Americans--quite naively--have a belief that truth and "transparency" should undergird all political discourse. Long ago Americans enshrined the myth of Parson Weems that young Washington "could not tell a lie." Arendt pokes naive American moralism in the eye in her opening.
But after this provocative opening, Arendt steers us in another direction.
[T]he sacrifice of truth for the survival of the world would be more futile than the sacrifice of any other principle or virtue. . . . What is at stake [in the preservation of truth] is survival, the perseverance in existence (in suo esse perseverare), and no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously – namely, λéγειν τα éoντα, to say what is. No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is.
In this Arendt rates the importance of truth--what is--as greater than justice and freedom. This is no small matter when you consider that we live in an age of climate denial and fake news. With so much said and asserted in our culture that's simply false (not to mention not-so-simply-false), one must appreciate the value of Arendt's assertion. Arendt turns her attention to the philosophical tradition embodied by Plato and Hobbes. For Plato, and to a lesser extent Hobbes, the problem for politics is not outright falsehoods, but the predilection of "the many" to become enthralled by "opinion," the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. Plato's cave should haunt us in our image-soaked media environment. The problem that Plato and Arendt perceive goes not to the morality of lying but to the willingness of "spectators" to accept falsehoods.Hobbes argues that some truths, for instance, the axioms of geometry, are unrelated to humankind's concern for "profit and pleasure." But as Arendt points out, even basic science has enemies. Consider the attacks upon Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin by many of their peers. The truths of geometry might receive a free pass, but not those of science. Cigarettes and climate change, anyone? Modern philosophy believes that knowledge arises from the human mind and is not pulled down from an archetypal vault. Since Leibniz, we have divided truth into rational truth and factual truth. Arendt acknowledges the problems raised by this tradition, but for the purposes of her essay she accepts the distinction as useful and focuses on factual truth. She writes.
Wanting to find out what injury political power is capable of inflicting upon truth, we look into these matters for political rather than philosophical reasons, and hence can afford to disregard the question of what truth is, and be content to take the word in the sense in which men commonly understand it.
And if we now think of factual truths – of such modest verities as the role during the Russian Revolution of a man by the name of Trotsky, who appears in none of the Soviet Russian history books – we at once become aware of how much more vulnerable they are than all the kinds of rational truth taken together. Moreover, since facts and events – the invariable outcome of men living and acting together – constitute the very texture of the political realm, it is, of course, factual truth that we are most concerned with here.
Ponder her phrase: "facts and events . . . constitute the very texture of the political realm. . . ." If "truthseekers" and "truth-tellers" are endangered, even killed for their work (Russia, Turkey, etc.), then the political realm is damaged. In Arendt's vision of politics that I share, speech is the essence of politics. And if our speech does not reference reality, then what value is it? Truth as facts and events exists, but if the truth of facts and events becomes unavailable to our discourse, our discourse becomes just so much babel. Arendt emphasizes the fragility of factual truth compared the rational truths of the mind:
The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms . . . . Once [factual truths] are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back. Perhaps the chances that Euclidean mathematics or Einstein’s theory of relativity – let alone Plato’s philosophy – would have been reproduced in time if their authors had been prevented from handing them down to posterity are not very good either, yet they are infinitely better than the chances that a fact of importance, forgotten or, more likely, lied away, will one day be rediscovered.
Having lived through the age that she did, Arendt has a keen appreciation of the precariousness of the factual record and of how power can attack it. In our time, we have the advantage of multiple sources of information from which we can create a record. Our age is not limited to print, film, and radio and the monopolies upon which they used to rest. But, we now have available a cacophony of sources capable of achieving the same limiting effect by drowning factual truth in a sea of deceptive information
Arendt pauses here to note how the problem of the relations between truth and falsehood were perceived by Plato and Hobbes.
It is the sophist and the ignoramus rather than the liar who occupy Plato’s thought, and where he distinguishes between error and lie – that is, between “involuntary and voluntary ψευ_δ_ς”– he is, characteristically, much harsher on people “wallowing in swinish ignorance” than on liars. Is this because organized lying, dominating the public realm, as distinguished from the private liar who tries his luck on his own hook, was still unknown? Or has this something to do with the striking fact that, except for Zoroastrianism, none of the major religions included lying as such, as distinguished from “bearing false witness,” in their catalogues of grave sins? Only with the rise of Puritan morality, coinciding with the rise of organized science, whose progress had to be assured on the firm ground of the absolute veracity and reliability of every scientist, were lies considered serious offenses.
Arendt goes on to argue that Plato sees "truth" in opposition to "opinion," not opposition to lying. Plato and his tradition imagined truth as unchanging and unerring principles as opposed to the fickle world of opinion.
Hence the opposite to truth was mere opinion, which was equated with illusion, and it was this degrading of opinion that gave the conflict its political poignancy; for opinion, and not truth, belongs among the indispensable prerequisites of all power. “All governments rest on opinion,” James Madison said, and not even the most autocratic ruler or tyrant could ever rise to power, let alone keep it, without the support of those who are like-minded. By the same token, every claim in the sphere of human affairs to an absolute truth, whose validity needs no support from the side of opinion, strikes at the very roots of all politics and all governments.
At this point Arendt transitions into a fascinating discussion of faith in the rational truth promulgated by the philosopher versus opinion championed by rhetoriticians. In the Platonic dialogues, Plato shows Socrates forcing his interlocutors into submission by the use of philosophical arm-bars and choke-holds. The point is to demonstrate the superiority of Plato's preferred (verbal) martial art, "dialogue," which champions reason, over rhetoric, the vehicle of opinion. But as anyone who's entered the public space will learn--if not having discerned it from the artifice of the Platonic dialogues themselves--there are no rules of engagement in struggles for power and right that favor dialogue. Arendt points out that over the course of time, and especially in modernity, the preference for philosophical dialogue and discourse lost favor. The free-form fighting of rhetoric became the primary vehicle of discourse. She quotes Madison, “the reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.” Thus, philosophical thought must enter into an arena that is more akin to a street rumble than the refereed wrestling match that Plato envisioned for his champion Socrates. Even philosophical thought must be put to widespread critique according to moderns like Kant and Madison, who became champions of free speech. Their arguments were not intended to claim a need for individual self-expression. Arendt remarks, "one may feel entitled to conclude from this state of affairs that the old conflict has finally been settled, and especially that its original cause, the clash of rational truth and opinion has disappeared. But we would be wrong.
Strangely, however, this is not the case, for the clash of factual truth and politics, which we witness today on such a large scale, has – in some respects, at least – very similar traits. While probably no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions on religious or philosophical matters, factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before.
. . . .
To be sure, state secrets have always existed; every government must classify certain information, withhold it from public notice, and he who reveals authentic secrets has always been treated as a traitor.With this I am not concerned here. The facts I have in mind are publicly known, and yet the same public that knows them can successfully, and often spontaneously, taboo their public discussion and treat them as though they were what they are not – namely, secrets. That their assertion then should prove as dangerous as, for instance, preaching atheism or some other heresy proved in former times seems a curious phenomenon, and its significance is enhanced when we find it also in countries that are ruledtyrannically by an ideological government. . . . What seems even more disturbing is that to the extent to which unwelcome factual truths are tolerated in free countries they are often, consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions – as though the fact of Germany’s support of Hitler were not a matter of historical record but a matter of opinion. Since such factual truths concern issues of immediate political relevance, there is more at stake here than the perhaps inevitable tension between two ways of life within the framework of a common and commonly recognized reality. What is at stake here is this common and factual reality itself, and this is indeed a political problem of the first order. And since factual truth, though it is so much less open to argument than philosophical truth, and so obviously within the grasp of everybody, seems often to suffer a similar fate when it is exposed in the market place – namely, to be countered not by lies and deliberate falsehoods but by opinion – it may be worth while to reopen the old and apparently obsolete question of truth versus opinion.
Consider what Arendt is telling us: the common American attitude that "everyone his entitled to her own opinion" as a way to walk away from an (often heated or futile) discussion is a cop-out if it involves issues of factual truth. For instance, the contention of a birther that President Obama was not born in the U.S. or that he is a Moslem is not "just his opinion" but a falsehood. A lie. And we should treat it as such. Arendt is correct; we often tend to bury such topics. Of course, anything about the future is not a fact; it's only a probability with a greater or lesser likelihood of occurring. However, because the past is fixed, we can gain knowledge. All knowledge comes from the past (history). But our finitude and the whole cloth texture of reality from which we attempt to take a swatch to identify a fact or event means that we can't know any piece of reality with perfect certainty. Also, in attempting to appreciate the past, a sense of probability must enter into our understanding. But implicit in Arendt's argument is the contention that some facts are probable to the extent that they are, as our law says, true beyond reasonable doubt
Arendt explains that by making the truth about facts and events into a matter of opinion we created a problem that Plato's method cannot solve: there is no recourse to a more certain world or way of thinking that the truthteller can call upon.
If his simple factual statements are not accepted – truths seen and witnessed with the eyes of the body, and not the eyes of the mind –the suspicion arises that it may be in the nature of the political realm to deny or pervert truth of every kind, as though men were unable to come to terms with its unyielding, blatant, unpersuasive stubbornness. If this should be the case, things would look even more desperate than Plato assumed, for Plato’s truth, found and actualized in solitude, transcends, by definition, the realm of the many, the world of human affairs.
Arendt addresses the crucial issues surrounding the relations of facts, opinions, and interpretations. (Anyone acquainted with the workings of a court of law will recognize the practical issues that these concepts address). Arendt acknowledges the role that opinion and interpretation play in establishing facts, especially in the practice of writing history, but she stands by facts as bedrock concept and reality.
Factual truth, on the contrary, is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstances in which many are involved; it is established by witnesses anddepends upon testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even if it occurs in the domain of privacy. It is political by nature. Facts and opinions, though they must be kept apart, are not antagonistic to each other; they belong to the same realm. [. . .] But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility ofascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in a certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence? No doubt these and a great many more perplexities inherent in the historical sciences are real, but they are no argument against the existence of factual matter, nor can they serve as a justification for blurring the dividing lines between fact, opinion, and interpretation, or as an excuse for the historianto manipulate facts as he pleases. Even if we admit that every generation has the right to write its own history, we admit no more than that it has the right to rearrange the facts in accordance with its own perspective; we don’t admit the right to touch the factual matter itself.
Arendt uses the example of Germany invading Belgium in 1914. It was thus and not the other way around. Arendt argues that truths--whether rational or factual--both stand in contrast to opinion. For instance, the number of persons who attended President Trump's inauguration and the number of persons who attended President Obama's first inauguration are both questions of fact. How we arrive at the numbers may be a matter of dispute (photos, subway riders, crowd expert estimates, etc.), but at a certain point, the result becomes a matter of fact: more people attended Obama's first inauguration than attended Trump's. Of course, then the assertion becomes interesting because we can hypothesize why this was so; for instance, was it the weather, fear of terrorism, or a gauge of the relative popularity of the two new presidents? And, for that matter, who cares? (President Trump.) Becuase facts are slippery and hard to pin to the dissection table does not mean they are not real.
All truths – not only the various kinds of rational truth but also factual truth – are opposed to opinion in their mode of asserting validity. Truth carries within itself an element of coercion, and the frequently tyrannical tendencies so deplorably obvious among professional truthtellers may be caused less by a failing of character than by the strain of habitually living under a kind of compulsion.
Statements such as “The three angles of a triangle are equal to two angles of a square,” “The earth moves around the sun,” “It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong,”“In August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium” are very different in the way they are arrived at, but, once perceived as true and pronounced to be so, they have in common that they are beyond agreement, dispute, opinion, or consent. For those who accept them, they are not changed by the numbers or lack of numbers who entertain the same proposition; persuasion or dissuasion is useless, for the content of the statement is not of a persuasive nature but of a coercive one.
As one can foresee, the durability and stubbornness of facts will chaif against the will of any tyrant who wants to impose his desires upon the reality by which we are all governed.
[T]ruth looks in the purely political perspective, from the viewpoint of power, and the question is whether power could and should be checked not only by a constitution, a bill of rights, and by a multiplicity of powers, as in the system of checks and balances, in which, in Montesquieu’s words, “le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir” – that is, by factors that arise out of and belong to the political realm proper – but by something that arises from without, has its source outside the political realm, and is as independent of the wishes and desires of the citizens as is the will of the worst tyrant.
Seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize, and it enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion. Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them – all exchanges of opinion based on correct information – will contribute nothing to their establishment. Unwelcome opinion can be argued with,rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies. The trouble is that factual truth,like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.
Arendt turns back to opinion, and describes it (ideally) as a form of disinterested judgment, a way of attempting to make sense of the world of hard, opaque facts, both factual and rational.
No opinion is self-evident. In matters of opinion, but not in matters of truth, our thinking is truly discursive, running, as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality. Compared to this process, in which a particular issue is forced into the open that it may show itself from all sides, in every possible perspective, until it is flooded and made transparent by the full light of human comprehension, a statement of truth possesses a peculiar opaqueness. Rational truth enlightens human understanding, and factual truth must inform opinions, but these truths, though they are never obscure, are not transparent either, and it is in their very nature to withstand further elucidation, as it is in the nature of light to withstand enlightenment.
Arendt continues and pens a phrase that might serve as a summary of her entire outlook on politics and the significance of this essay.
“it might have been otherwise” (which is the price of freedom) . . . [is] the only realm where men are truly free.
In words that a lawyer like me, a historian, or anyone who attempts to wrangle with the truth can appreciate, Arendt's states
Factual evidence, moreover, is established through testimony by eyewitnesses – notoriously unreliable – and by records, documents, and monuments, all of which can be suspected as forgeries. In the event of a dispute, only other witnesses but no third and higher instance can be invoked, and settlement is usually arrived at by way of a majority; that is, in the same way as the settlement of opinion disputes – a wholly unsatisfactory procedure, since there is nothing to prevent a majority of witnesses from being false witnesses. On the contrary, under certain circumstancesthe feeling of belonging to a majority may even encourage false testimony. In other words, to the extent that factual truth is exposed to the hostility of opinion-holders, it is at least as vulnerable as rational philosophical truth.
Ponder for a moment how often this occurs. Who wants to serve as the lone person that calls out the facts? Who wants to be the lone juror who creates a mistrial and keeps fellow jurors locked together in a closed room when the rest of them believe they have reached a "true and just" verdict? Placing yourself in such a position risks subjecting yourself to derision, resentment, and ostracization both in the jury room and in the public arena. Threats and violence can result.
The hallmark of factual truth is that its opposite is neither error nor illusion nor opinion, no one of which reflects upon personal truthfulness, but the deliberate falsehood, or lie.
The opposite of a factual truth is not error or illusion, but a lie, "a deliberate falsehood." Consider how often we hear lies in the course of day-to-day transactions between our government and its citizens. The implications of this are frightening.
But the point is that with respect to facts there exists another alternative, and this alternative, the deliberate falsehood, does not belong to the same species as propositions that, whether right or mistaken, intend no more than to say what is, orhow something that is appears to me. A factual statement – Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914 – acquires political implications only by being put in an interpretative context. But the opposite proposition [that Belgium invaded Germany] . . . needs no context to be of political significance. It is clearly an attempt to change the record, and as such, it is a form of action. The same is true when the liar, lacking the power to make his falsehood stick, does not insist on the gospel truth of his statement but pretends that this is his “opinion,” to which he claims his constitutional right. This is frequently done by subversive groups, and in a politically immature public the resulting confusion can be considerable.
The two contentions made above are crucial. First, a deliberate lie--such as my opponent won the popular vote because of millions of illegal voters--constitutes a (perverse) form of political action. Lying is a political act. Second, the defense that might appeal to the unwary if for the liar or his minions to claim that his fabrications are mere "opinion," to which he has a "constitutional right"--"everyone has a right to his opinion." But Arendt calls this out for the subversion that it is. When a person in power lies, that person becomes a subversive that threatens the integrity and effectiveness of the government. We're not talking about mere puffery and pandering, but something much more egregious.
Arendt identifies the importance of the truthteller, who is the converse of the liar; to wit, the truthteller restores political discourse.
Where everybody lies about everything of importance, the truthteller, whether he knows it or not, has begun to act; he, too, has engaged himself in political business, for, in the unlikely event that he survives, he has made a start toward changing the world.
Arendt returns to the crucial distinction that she established earlier about the traditional use of lies in statecraft (relations between states) and the lying that she addresses in this essay.
We must now turn our attention to the relatively recent phenomenon of mass manipulation of fact and opinion as it has become evident in the rewriting of history,in image-making, and in actual government policy. The traditional political lie, so prominent in the history of diplomacy and statecraft, used to concern either truesecrets – data that had never been made public – or intentions, which anyhow do not possess the same degree of reliability as accomplished facts; like everything that goes on merely inside ourselves, intentions are only potentialities, and what wasintended to be a lie can always turn out to be true in the end. In contrast, the modern political lies deal efficiently with things that are not secrets at all but are knowntopractically everybody. This is obvious in the case of rewriting contemporary history under the eyes of those who witnessed it, but it is equally true in image-making of all sorts, in which, again, every known and established fact can be denied or neglected if it is likely to hurt the image; for an image, unlike an old-fashioned portrait, is supposed not to flatter reality but to offer a full-fledged substitute for it. And this substitute, because of modern techniques and the mass media, is, of course, much more in the public eye than the original ever was. [. . .]
Moreover, the traditional lie concerned only particulars and was never meant to deceive literally everybody; it was directed at the enemy and was meant to deceiveonly him. These two limitations restricted the injury inflicted upon truth to such an extent that to us, in retrospect, it may appear almost harmless. Since facts always occur in a context, a particular lie – that is, a falsehood that makes no attempt to change the whole context – tears, as it were, a hole in the fabric of factuality.
In the above, Arendt makes a crucial argument that may strike some as hypocritical, especially those enamored by "openness" and "transparency." Not all untruths are the same; some serve a legitimate purpose while others tear at the very fabric of reality. While any government, like ours, will self-deceive and keep more secrets than it should, this does not make all such secrets or deceptions wrong. Did President Obama act wrongly when he pretended that things were business as usual when the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was in the offing? Did President Kennedy act wrongly when reporters were told that the president was leaving a function early because of an illness when in fact he was formulating a response in the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis? The risk of abuse is great, but the trade-off justified.
Arendt turns her focus on the challenges of keeping the rend in the fabric reality an open secret, and the importance of those who proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.
The main effort of both the deceived group and the deceivers themselves is likely to be directed toward keeping the propaganda image intact, and this image is threatened less by the enemy and by real hostile interests than by those inside the group itself who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image. Contemporary history is full of instances in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous and even more hostile, than the real opponents. These arguments against self-deception must not be confused with the protests of “idealists,” whatever their merit, against lying as wrong in principle and against the age-old art of deceiving the enemy. Politically, the point is that the modern art of self-deception is likely to transform an outside matter into an inside issue, so that an international or intergroup conflict boomerangs onto the scene of domestic politics.
Like the figure who escapes the cave in Plato's Republic, or Neo and his companions in The Matrix, those who resist the illusion are profoundly important and profoundly threatening to the authorities who promulgate the lie. They are often unwelcome to those who are content in their epistemic lethargy. Also in the above quote, Arendt reiterates the distinction between deceptions within the nation-state and those directed at foreign adversaries.
What happens if the purveyors of these lies prevail?
[T]he result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed. And for this trouble there is no remedy. It is but the other side of the disturbing contingency of all factual reality. Since everything that has actually happened in the realm of human affairs could just as well have been otherwise, the possibilities for lying are boundless, and this boundlessness makes for self-defeat. Only the occasional liar will find it possible to stick to a particular falsehood with unwavering consistency; those who adjust images and stories to ever-changing circumstances will find themselves floating on thewide-open horizon of potentiality, drifting from one possibility to the next, unable to hold on to any one of their own fabrications. Far from achieving an adequate substitute for reality and factuality they have transformed facts and events back into the potentiality out of which they originally appeared. And the surest sign of the factuality of facts and events is precisely this stubborn thereness, whose inherent contingency ultimately defies all attempts at conclusive explanation.
The images, on the contrary, can always be explained and made plausible – this gives them their momentary advantage over factual truth – but they can never compete in stability with that which simply is because it happens to be thus and not otherwise. This is the reason that consistent lying, metaphorically speaking, pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand. (In the words of Montaigne, “If falsehood, like truth, had but one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then take for certain the opposite of what the liar tells us. But the reverse of truth has a thousand shapes and a boundless field.”) The experience of a trembling wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality is among the most common and most vivid experiences of men under totalitarian rule.
Above, Arendt describes the sense of vertigo that develops in a sea of pervasive, systematic lying. We become "unmoored" from reality because fact provide our moorings to reality. Arendt believes that systematic mendacity becomes "self-defeating," but she is she too optimistic. The first two great totalitarian regimes collapsed, but not quickly and perhaps not at all inevitably. The Nazi regime was defeatedmilitarily at a horrible cost. The Soviet Union collapsed in the face of its exposure to a contrary narrative of facts that it could not control. But other regimes, less than totalitarian, operate for long periods based on lies. (The economic facts of life, however, do seem to catch-up with them, although that, too, seems to involve luck.) Thus, even in the most optimistic outlook, the collapse of a regime of systematic mendacity can take far too long.
Arendt continues her defense of the resiliency of factual reality, contending that it is more enduring and ultimately "superior" to "power."
Facts assent themselves by being stubborn, and their fragility is oddly combined with great resiliency – the same irreversibility that is the hallmark of all human action. In their stubbornness, facts are superior to power; they are less transitory than power formations, which arise when men get together for a purpose but disappear as soon as the purpose is either achieved or lost. This transitory character makes power a highly unreliable instrument for achieving permanence of any kind, and, therefore, not only truth and facts are insecure in its hands but untruth and non-facts as well.
Arendt's contention that "power formations" are "transitory" is true to some extent. But the examples suggest otherwise. For instance, Stalin's regime survived until his death and Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" could have survived longer if he'd been only slightly more successful early in the war. We tend to forget that Hitler could have won the war before the U.S. entered into it, thereby securing the Nazi domination of Europe. No doubt a regime based on systematic mendacity is weak in its foundations, but force and terror can keep it in power for far too long.
After contending again for the stubbornness of truth because there is "no viable substitute for it," Arendt praises those who find the truth and mold it into a narrative, a story, the task of both historians and novelists. As one reads the quote below, one can't help thinking of the role of Pasternak, Solozenitzen, Havel, and Kundera, along with Orwell, to name but a few whose stories helped bring down regimes built on lies. Without these stories, those living in such regimes would not have had the compasses necessary to make sense of their worlds and to see ways out.
Truth, though powerless and always defeated in a head-on clash with the powers that be, possesses a strength of its own: whatever those in power may contrive, they are unable to discover or invent a viable substitute for it. To the extent that the teller of factual truth is also a storyteller, he brings about that “reconciliation with reality” which Hegel, the philosopher of history par excellence, understood as the ultimate goal of all philosophical thought, and which, indeed, has been the secret motor of all historiography that transcends mere learnedness. The transformation of the given raw material of sheer happenings which the historian, like the fiction writer (a good novel is by no means a simple concoction or a figment of pure fantasy), must effect is closely akin to the poet’s transfiguration of moods or movements of the heart – the transfiguration ofgrief into lamentations or of jubilation into praise. We may see, with Aristotle, in the poet’s political function the operation of a catharsis, a cleansing or purging of allemotions that could prevent men from acting. The political function of the storyteller– historian or novelist – is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment – that, again in Isak Dinesen’s words, “at the end we shallbe privileged to view, and review, it – and that is what is named the day of judgment.”
Arendt concludes that while truth can be defeated, at least temporarily, it cannot be vanquished because it stands outside of politics; at one point, things and events could have been other than they are, but once that have come to pass, they stand outside the realm of politics, the day-to-day affairs of humankind.
Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it. And this applies to rational or religious truth just as it applies, more obviously, to factual truth. To look upon politics from the perspective of truth, as I have done here, means to take one’s stand outside the political realm.
We come now to Arendt's conclusion. After considering at length the struggle between truth and political regimes, and all the potentials for mendacity, she turns to the value of politics. Despite the terror of some political regimes that required her to flee her native land and led her to document and comment upon the ghastly toll these regimes took upon humanity, she remains a champion of politics. Despite the many failures associated with politics, Arendt encourages those who enter the arena and exercise freedom through deliberation and choice. In these dark times, her words provide inspiration that we should heed.
Since I have dealt here with politics from the perspective of truth, and hence from a viewpoint outside the political realm, I have failed to mention even in passing the greatness and the dignity of what goes on inside it. I have spoken as though the political realm were no more than a battlefield of partial, conflicting interests, where nothing counted but pleasure and profit, partisanship, and the lust for dominion. In short, I have dealt with politics as though I, too, believed that all public affairs were ruled by interest and power, that there would be no political realm at all if we were not bound to take care of life’s necessities. The reason for this deformation is that factual truth clashes with the political only on this lowest level of human affairs, just as Plato’s philosophical truth clashed with the political on the considerably higher level of opinion and agreement. From this perspective, we remain unaware of the actual content of political life – of the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new. However, what I meant to show here is that this whole sphere, its greatness notwithstanding, is limited – that it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world's existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will. And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.