Totalitarianism - Lecture at Oberlin College - Hannah Arendt (SUMMARY)

In this lecture given by Hannah Arendt as Oberlin College in the 1950's she describes the breakdown that happens in a society which can give birth to Totalitarianism. 

The Breakdown of the Structures of the "Common World"

Arendt starts by saying that in the Western world there have been structures in place since Roman times that have allowed for its flourishing. These structures are termed by Arendt as a valid "authority" in it's

proper sense. She gives the example of both tradition and religion. Tradition refers to the cultural structures and modes of being that have been built by the past and handed down to future generations as successful ways of existing. To have respect for these structures, like in the Roman world, was at the heart of piety. Similarly, religion was another structure which allowed for a "common world" to emerge in the West. By common world she seems to mean something like a shared way of being by those who lived within the society that allowed for communion and common action together towards flourishing. 

But at a certain point in Western history, tradition is replaced by science and becomes something just to be studied instead of lived out. Religion too goes from "common accepted systems of belief" to something hidden and private. This is the loss of the common world that allowed the Western world to flourish. Instead these structures begin to be see as a type of "violence" against the people. 

Loss of the "Common Sense" and Common Lived Experience

When these structures failed, society continued to function on the fumes, so to speak, of those structures. There was still a common lived experience and thus a "common sense" which like-people shared together and which regulated the particular actions of their lives in a comprehensible way. 

But eventually this too breaks down. The common rules are no longer common. The common experience is no longer shared by those living it. This is a dangerous state to be in as it leads to the confusion that breeds a desire for the Totalitarian. "Authority" then is replaced by pathology. "The truth is that nobody can live outside a common world..." so what is it that brings us together into a new "common world?" 

The Futility of Man, and the Inevitable Laws of History and Nature

When a Totalitarian structure takes over, it doesn't necessarily show itself in outward signs. Rather, it
can outwardly hold up the previous structures because it believes that they are meaningless and impotent. The work of man has no value, the individual can be exterminated. The laws of the country are powerless, they don't even need to be changed. The authority structures on the outside are not where the true power lies. 

Rather, all there is are the laws of history and nature, of which the totalitarian government is the expression. The goal is inevitable. It's allowing nature to work itself out. There is no need for voluntary agreement or adherence because they could change their mind. Those involved must not think, must not choose, just let it happen. To them this is not propaganda, but a new reality that is "created" into being. A new "truth". This truth has no need of experience, as though it could form itself from inductive particulars to general conclusions. Rather it lives from general conclusions to knowing all the particulars. 

Terror and Ideology as New "Structures"

How is this enforced on a population? Well through acts of terror individuals are physically isolated from one another. This is the term "isolation" that Arendt uses. This isolation and cessation of individual action is furthered by what Arendt terms "loneliness." This is the loss of the common structures of society and the common sense that brought people together in communion. Now, they are not just physically isolated, but their mode of being in a common world with others is stripped form them. Their epistemological framework of value is stripped from them. They cannot act because they don't know how to act or what to do. The people have now been "uprooted." 

All that's left is the logically self-evident which is known without experience. The epistemological framework for value and action within a society/culture is then replace with the deductive conclusions from the laws of nature. "Terror brings lonely individuals together, ideology compels them with the force of inner logicality." Terror keeps me together though separated from everyone. It's the force from outside. Ideology is the force from within that takes over the mind. 


Clear in Arendt's work is the assumption that our mode of being in the world is not individualistic, but rather is something that we share with others in a culture and religious milieu. When this is stripped from people they have no way to fight back and then their own modes of being can be replaced with ideological and totalitarian ones. 


Arendt, Hannah. Totalitarianism. Library of Congress: Speeches and Writings File, 1923-1975, N.d. Https:// Address presented at the Lecture Oberlin College, 1954.