A Shared Epistemology: The Human Pathology of Totalitarianism in the Thought of Hannah Arendt
A Shared Epistemology: The Human Pathology of Totalitarianism in the Thought of Hannah Arendt
In mid 1945 the Allied troops moved through Germany toward victory at the twilight of the Second World War, liberating those imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps along the way. One can only imagine the shock and horror of a young American man as he entered one of these camps to discover the most vile atrocities in human history. He saw the torture and destruction of those people who were deemed unfit to live, the emaciated survivors whose every bone was visible, and the mass graves and the piles of corpses decaying. It must have been hard to believe his own eyes. “How was this possible?” “Hadn't Germany been a Christian country?” “Weren't they just like us, Western civilized men?” An American soldier, Charles Elmer, who later became a Catholic priest, recounted how he walked through a German town with his unit, and in the town square found a large statue of the pieta, of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus with a dead German soldier draped over her lap as well. He recounted a realization that struck him at that moment, “This man is no different from me.” But was he, though? How was it possible to get seemingly average citizens to be transformed into the heralds of genocide? What must have taken place within Germany in the decades leading up to the Second World War?
Studying epistemology in the history of philosophy, one may tend to think of epistemology as something personal and private. “How do I know the world outside me with certainty?” “How do I transcend my own subjectivity?” The traditional Cartesian and Kantian questions. But given the events of the 20th Century, maybe it is necessary to conceive of epistemology in a new way. The goal of this presentation is to show that epistemology, in regards to living and functioning in the world, is not primarily personal, but is shared with others as something communal, something expressed in a shared view of the structure of the world. This claim will be demonstrated by looking at the thought of Hannah Arendt and her description of the historical origins of the Totalitarianism in Germany and Russia as a corruption of epistemology which took place in three fundamental stages; First, there is the manufactured collapse of the old belief structures of society. Second, in the vacuum of belief left behind, there is a openly brazen grab for power regarding the cultural narrative. The third part, having taken power, consists in a physically and ideologically forced reconstitution of society as part of a new worldview, a "new world order."
Why is Epistemology Shared? The Problem of Acting in the Face of the World’s Complexity
If the disciplines of ethics and morality deal with action and the attainment of what is good, they are able to achieve this end only with the help of first experiencing the world, and the realm of value, through a knowing subject. Epistemology, then, is at the foundation of action and all other philosophy. If one cannot know or perceive the world, then one cannot act. Likewise, if one cannot know or perceive the world in a coherent way, then one cannot act. Thus, here lies the fundamental problem for every knowing subject: How does one properly know the world such that one is able to perceive and operate in the world and achieve the happiness which one desires? There are so many levels of abstraction by which one could perceive even the simplest of “objects.” It begs the question, what exactly is any “thing?” Is a chair the type of wood that makes it up? Or the atomic structure? Or its fundamental particles? Or the abstract arrangement of parts conceived by the mind?
The answers to all the questions that one can raise about the world are not possibly obtained with certainty by any one individual. The world is simply too complex. There is too much to be known. The ratio of the unknown compared to the known is completely lopsided. But then think, not only is there the problem of looking at objects at the correct level of perception to function in the world and not die, but there is also the problem of the complexity of living together with other human beings. What is a human being? Is a human a collection of atoms, a social construction, or an incarnate spirit? What is the meaning of human life? Attaining the satiation of one’s physical appetites, having earthly success, or is it a transcendent goal? How should one treat others? What is the right way of conceiving of the dignity of other people? What does it mean to perceive social relations and interactions? Just like physical objects, every moral or social action can be potentially infinitely divided, to use Aristotle’s formulation, into smaller subunits or parts. At what level of abstraction should we attempt to live? Do I worry about the car crash across the country seen on social media, or just what's happening in my life? Therefore, faced with another near infinite set of questions, the complexity becomes overwhelming.
What is one supposed to do in the face of this nearly infinite set of questions that cannot be fully answered if one is supposed to act in the world and not be completely paralyzed by doubt and the unknown? If there are no answers to the overwhelming complexity, action becomes impossible. If one had to understand the workings of physics before they navigated walking or building a shelter, survival would be impossible. What humans have had to do is to create ways of simplifying this complexity. Not just as an individual functioning in the world, but together as a group. Humans must outsource the complexity of these problems to one another. If a group of people can agree on certain fundamental truths regarding the biggest questions of life, even though they cannot fully prove or demonstrate those truths, the common beliefs will simplify their shared world. This is the beginning of belief systems or worldviews. These belief systems take for granted certain truths, such that action is then actually possible together as a group.
Professor Jordan Peterson expresses this Jungian idea as “inhabiting a story.” As a society, as well as individuals within that society, there is a cultural story that is shared about the ultimate questions of reality which then have consistent parallels in the smaller realm of day to day interactions. This story is often religious in nature, and is connected to the origin and core of a given society. It’s at its foundations, so to speak, as it is that shared view of the world that allowed those humans to live together and cooperate together to build that very culture. These religious stories then are translated into political structures which regulate life within that society. These political structures are then expressed in laws. These laws allow for a common sphere of interaction that is understandable, predictable, bounded. It makes the "other" in the society similar to oneself because they embody the same view of the world. To interact with people that do not share that cultural narrative is to interact with the unknown. One does not know what fundamental axioms guide their being in the world, and thus they produce anxiety and anomalies. If there is too much change, or a large scale rejection of the cultural story, then the “common world,” as Arendt will call it, begins to break down. This idea, so aptly expressed by Jordan Peterson, is also at the heart of Arendt’s theory, though in slightly different terminology. Thus, in summary so far, one can say that all of human social interactions must be grounded in some epistemological belief or framework that guides and regulates one’s interactions on every level.
Arendt talks about belief systems in the West as a type of “common world” which is shared by its citizens and allows for the communion and cooperative action between people for a life together. The structures that make up this common world for man today Arendt identifies as having been around since Roman times. Since these structures have been successful in allowing the West to flourish, they can be considered a valid “authority” for man. Fundamentally, she mentions both the cultural traditions and religion of the West as the aspects of this authority. Tradition in the sense of a type of Roman piety towards what has come before oneself, what is ancient and stable. Religion as well is just as important in forming this common world and belief structure of the West. At a certain point in Western history, though, these structures began to wane and, instead of being seen as helpful and life giving, were seen as a type of violence against man. The traditions of the past were replaced by science and became something studied in a book rather than lived out together. The common belief structure of religion was no longer a uniting factor of the common world, but became something of one’s private life.
Even though faith in the ancient belief systems of the West began to fade, Arendt mentions that there was still a “common sense” that was left between men in the realm of their interactions. Like a car that is out of gas but coasting on fumes for a few more miles, the shared world left over from Christianity hung on even after belief had waned. These fumes, though, could not continue for very long. Soon even a common sense of how one should act towards his fellow neighbor began to break down. What then will take the place of these structures? It is impossible to operate together with anyone outside of some framework of belief, so something must end up filling that void.
Manufacturing the Collapse of Traditional Belief Structures in Society
Arendt identifies the Marxist and Darwinian "Philosophies of Nature and History" in the 19th Century as the cause of the final destruction and replacement of the traditional belief structures of the West. These philosophies, being Materialist, explicitly denied the reality of anything transcendent, holding that earth is man’s final end and utopia. Likewise, there is no objective nature to anything, rather nature itself is a process of continual flux and movement. This shift represents a whole new way of looking at the world. In the implementation of this new belief structure there was a completely radical break with the past, which Arendt says even included the redefinition of words, and the rejection of logic as a requirement for coherent beliefs. Karl Marx, with his understanding and explanation of the process of history, and Charles Darwin, with his new theory of the evolutionary process of nature, supplied the axioms of the new belief structures. The replacing of a belief structure, though, doesn’t happen without consequence. A good worldview and bad worldview are the same in that they take possession of a kind of common personality of man, but are as different in actual reality as demonic possession is in contrast to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. To part with the past that brought about the success of a society is something dangerous. Arendt talks about this in the way she describes authentic “understanding.” To understand something is to have a perspective of it that is itself greater than the thing you’re trying to measure or understand. How can one understand the present without understanding the past? How can one understand the material and earthly without the transcendent. History is not just a simple set of events, it is an identity for a society. It is the origin of its very structure and beliefs. In Arendt's words, “Without a past, we are no longer human.” Thus to destroy the past is to attempt to remake man in a new image.
The attempt to remake man in a new image would have a ripple effect through the whole of the structures that make up his world, from political structures, to the laws of a society, to the interactions of its citizens in the common sphere. The transcendent foundation of law in the West which had expressed itself in the “Ius Naturale” ("Natural Law") had provided a rationale for the positive laws of man, and his equality under that law. This being replaced with the “laws of nature,” in the Darwinian sense, only then left room for the powerful as a law giver. Power, though, cannot be a shared vision of human cooperation. What happens when the old belief structures break down and a new philosophy of power replaces it? This leads to the emergence of a crisis. Arendt identifies World War I as the crisis of that time. If the decay of a society begins by the undermining of its belief structures, the transformation is catalyzed by the impending crisis to soon follow. The elite of society were looking for something like a catalyst for the destruction of the structures of the past. “The elite went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in its ‘storms of steel.’” A generation of men returned from that war having been brutalized by death on a mass scale, trench warfare, and all in the name of a cause that had no ostensible purpose. In fact, there was a movement among the German intelligentsia to understand war as a healthy mechanism of the Darwinian process of the survival and development of the fittest. “This generation remembered the war as the great prelude to the break-down of classes and their transformation into masses. War, with its constant murderous arbitrariness, became the symbol for death, the ‘great equalizer’ and therefore the true father of a new world order.” Arendt continues, "The anti-humanist, antiliberal, anti-individualist, and anticultural instincts of the front generation, their brilliant and witty praise of violence, power, and cruelty, was preceded by the awkward and pompous 'scientific' proofs of the imperialist elite that a struggle of all against all is the law of the universe, that expansion is a psychological necessity before it is a political device, and that man has to behave by such universal laws."
The crisis that followed the collapse of belief then transformed the generation that endured it. The war created, what Arendt terms, the “mass man.” This mass man is in distinction from the previous “mob” of the 19th Century. The majority of the lower and working classes in the 19th Century, Arendt says, though surely in conflict with the bourgeoisie, still embodied the traditions, values, and structure in society that they represented. In the collapse of this view of the world, the mob is transformed into the masses because there are no longer any valid structures through which to view the individual, the class, or politics that were still valid. "In this atmosphere of the breakdown of class society the psychology of the European mass man developed." The average man had been caught up into the Darwinian and Marxist wheels of the Laws of History and Nature, and his personal identity as an individual was lost as he was spit out the other end. The bourgeoisie itself as a class was also beginning to collapse with their ruling authority over the masses, as resentment for everything the bourgeoisie represented began to grow through the alienation of the masses. In fact, having lost their identity anyway, what did the masses have to lose anymore on a personal level? "The survivors of the trenches did not become pacifists. They cherished an experience which, they thought, might serve to separate them definitely from the hated surroundings of respectability. They clung to their memories of four years of life in the trenches as though they constituted an objective criterion for the establishment of a new elite. Nor did they yield to the temptation to idealize this past; on the contrary, the worshipers of war were the first to concede that war in the era of machines could not possibly breed virtues like chivalry, courage, honor, and manliness, that is imposed on men nothing but the experience of bare destruction together with the humiliation of being only small cogs in the majestic wheel of slaughter."
Unmasking the Desire for Power in the Vacuum Left Behind
With the implosion of the class structure comes the implosion of the authority of the political system and a vacuum of power which is left in its wake. The same fringe elites who pushed for the alienation of the average man against his own society in order to tear it down, sought then to be the ones who came to power over the mass man in this new society. They sought to manipulate man. One way in which they succeeded in doing this was through the retelling of history with lies. Having nothing left to hold on to from the past, the elites tried to convince the masses that traditional telling of history was there to trick them. “They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind. ... To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure an infinite repetition. ... Simple forgeries in the viewpoint of scholarship appeared to receive the sanction of history itself when the whole marching reality of the movement stood behind them and pretended to draw from them the necessary inspiration for action."
A New Story, Ideological and Physical Coercion of Society into Totalitarian Pathology
The next stage of the take over of power was to create a new story or narrative for the mass man to embody. The word that Arendt uses is “Weltanschauung,” a whole milieu, framework, or structure of existence. "...the totalitarian movements asserted their 'superiority' in that they carried a Weltanschauung by which they would take possession of man as a whole." This was done by the elite in order to create an acceptance of the making public their private manipulations and control over society. Arendt says, "... in Russia 'the revolution was a religion and a philosophy, not merely a conflict concerned with the social and political side of life.' ... not to change in social or political conditions, but to the radical destruction of every existing creed, value, and institution." If this is done in the right way, even the everyday person could be corrupted into doing their bidding. By ignoring the crisis that was going on in the public sphere, and attending only to one’s private life, the time began too late to do anything at all except to take one’s position within the movement.
"Absence of scruple ... was not restricted to the mob either and, in any event, could be taught in a relatively short time period for the ruthless machines of domination and extermination, the masses of coordinated philistines provided much better material and were capable of even greater crimes and so called professional criminals, provided only that these crimes were well organized and assumed the appearance of routine jobs." The last step in the assumption of power was to then kill off the original intellectuals that drove the movement in the first place, leaving only the obedient masses, disabled to the point in which all they could do was to obey. A term that former KGB propaganda agent, Yuri Benzemov, uses for this type of person is that of a “useful idiot.” Now that these new elites of the new society have successfully destroyed the old culture and obtained power over beliefs of the masses, the truths of history and nature could begin to be enacted in earnest, the utopia of man could be ushered in.
Seeing this process of transformation take place, one might wonder, why didn’t anyone ever fight back or stand up to those enacting these evils? How were they able to successfully recreate a society in a whole new image? Alexander Solzhenitsyn talks about this in his work the Gulag Archipelago. He mentions how citizens could be whisked away from their daily tasks into prison in broad daylight, and no one would say anything. One would think they were calling for a taxi, only to get in and realize they were being taken to Lubyanka. He said if only people would begin to call out, to make a scene, to band together maybe something could have been done. But they did not, they remained silent. To fight back against such evils requires the coordination of action between individuals. People must act together, and common action presupposes common belief and epistemology. As Arendt pointed out, they must have a common world in which to act in together. And as has already been demonstrated, the shared world of authority, tradition, and belief had already been destroyed. In order to bring about total submission and prevent people fighting back, the totalitarians enacted the use of physical terror in order to cause what Arendt calls the “atomization of man.” The use of random acts of terror achieved this atomization in a physical sense. But man must be “isolated,” not only physically, but epistemologically and spiritually. Any common values, beliefs, or structures which might unite man against the new world order must not be allowed. This is then to be atomized into a state of “loneliness.” The human sphere of the individual man is hollowed out such that even social relations become impossible. This is the destruction of the Western man himself.
"How would it be even possible to destroy family relations? This is done through guilt by association. People don't want to be found guilty so they will turn in their family and friends with false evidence to save themselves. Therefore, no one feels safe around anyone, not even their family. Mass atomization in Soviet society was achieved by the skillful use of repeated purges which invariably precede actual group liquidation. In order to destroy all social and family ties, the purges are conducted in such a way as to threaten with the same fate the defendant and all his ordinary relations, from mere acquaintances up to his closest friends and relatives. The consequence of the simple and ingenious device of 'guilt by association' is that as soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him; this obviously is the only way to prove their own trustworthiness. Retrospectively, they will try to prove that their acquaintance or friendship with the accused was only a pretext for spying on him and revealing him as a saboteur, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, or a Fascist. Merit being 'gauged by the number of your denunciations of close comrades,' it is obvious that the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible ..."
What can be done by a man who has no roots, no social ties, no power to fight back, no beliefs? Having nothing to shield himself, he must succumb to the inevitability of ideological possession. And having been brought into the new Weltanschauung, man is bequeathed a “sixth sense.” This sixth sense is the ability to apply the new belief structures that he has been given to everyday life. The belief structures of the new order were those of dialectical materialism and the survival of the fittest. These were the inevitable forces that drive nature and are the belief structures that now buffet man from the complexity of the world. Without any belief structures from the past, he must submit to the demands of these new forces. His personal experience means nothing because these are the laws of nature, and what is one isolated man’s experience in the face of the forces of history and nature? "...in this capacity ideological thinking becomes independent of all experience from which it cannot learn anything new even if it is a question of something that has just come to pass. Hence ideological thinking becomes emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a ‘truer’ reality concealed behind all perceptible things, dominating them from this place of concealment and requiring a sixth sense that enables us to become aware of it." Man is left with the cold deductive reasoning that is given him by these laws of nature. If premise one is true, then premise two must be true. Once these laws and deductive logic have been established as a new sense within man, nothing can break into this totalitarian logic. Man has not only been controlled from without by physical power, but now possessed from within from ideological and epistemological power. In its fullest expression, man must even be isolated from himself within his own mind. His inner life of dialogue with himself must be shut down. No new ideas or creativity that challenge the new Weltanschauung can be allowed to have any power.
Now that the new structures of terror and ideological possession have been implemented, society as a whole is ready to welcome in, and embody, its most fundamental beliefs, which as has already been stated about these totalitarian governments, are the Darwinian and Marxist Laws of Nature and History. For example, history is simply the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Therefore those who stand in the way of the worker's utopia is standing in the way of history and should be removed. Nature is simply the process and refinement of the survival of the fittest. Therefore inferior races drag down the purity and greatness of the higher race and should be eliminated. These are the inevitable processes of nature that can never stop or be stopped. There is no final terminus, they must be continually fed and sustained. If it seems as though there are no more people to play the role of victim for those who play the role of the executioner of these immutable laws, then new groups must be found. The dialectic must never stop continuing to perfect itself. It is the process of history and nature above all which must be appeased, not any individual man or woman. The individual is not important, it is "mankind" which is important. In fact, the individual has no value compared to the collective embodiment of these systems. The individual, in Arendt’s words, is “superfluous.” It is man as a whole that’s important, the mass man that was developed in the destruction of the classes.
Having seen the results of this new world when the Allies entered those concentration camps in 1945, or when accounts of the Soviet gulags finally slipped through the Iron Curtain, there can be no doubt as to the importance of belief systems which regulate and govern the epistemology and mind of a society. Epistemology is fundamentally a shared reality, not an individual one. The world is simply too complex to function as an isolated individual. Arendt, at the end of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, mentions that this was probably the first time in history that this pathology of human nature manifested itself into a form of actual government, but now that it has, it is clear that there is something about human nature from which is sprung and thus it may well return again in the future. What then can we learn from Arendt’s analysis in order to prevent the spread of pathological belief systems?
First, the transcendent aspect of reality is at the heart of what has brought about the traditional flourishing of Western society. The natural law written in man’s nature by God provides an authentic and universal law on which to create positive laws. It upholds the dignity of every individual as having an eternal soul. It holds on to the idea that ultimate justice will be served in the hereafter. These beliefs, embodied, for example, in a document like the Declaration of Independence have brought about the most prosperous society ever to have existed. They also provide a common world in which humans can flourish and act together in communion as each individual has dignity and equality under that transcendent law. Second, the traditions and customs of local communities or societies are not bad. They must be protected from something like a mass globalization which seeks to destroy old structures and replace them with one’s that may be pathological in nature. Third, logic and reason must be protected against the survival of the fittest view that all that exists is power and dominance. If there is a transcendent creator and law giver, then nature itself has been given intelligibility and a nature which can be understood with reason. There are certain objective ways of being that are logical and others that are not. Fourth, the individual must be protected as looking at the world for himself, allowed to experience the world for himself. Though belief structures are important, the ability to use reason and engage with the world inductively is also important. Both faith and reason make up a valid way of knowing the world. Lastly, the individual man in a society must be positively engaged in the story or narrative of that society. When there are large parts of a community which are alienated from the narrative in which they live, a crisis is impending.
In summary, the world is far too complex to comprehend everything about it, or even barely anything about it. This overwhelming complexity, though, causes paralysis in human action and therefore belief systems or axioms must be posited on faith in order to simplify the world into a place where action can happen. These belief systems are a type of epistemology and are shared together with those in one’s society through the traditions, political structures, and religious beliefs that make it up. When those structures decay or are actively destroyed, it leads to the loss of a common world with one’s neighbor and a vacuum is left which must be filled. If faulty belief structures are put in place, such as dialectical materialism and Darwinism which deny any transcendent being or ethic, logic and experience, and uphold power at any cost as the survival of the fittest, there can be disastrous consequences such as were seen in the 20th Century. Therefore, it is necessary to protect the traditions, political structures, and religious beliefs that have worked in the past, while being open to new experience and beginnings, as well as to protect the individual man in that society and keep him positively engaged in a shared experience with others.