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I learned more about totalitarianism from Dostoevsky than by reading Hannah Arendt
Literature gives me richer insights than non-fictional philosophical abstractions
Disclaimer: I have just a bachelors degree in Philosophy and a formal journalism training credential. Being self-taught in everything else, you should take that into account when weighing the grains of salt to serve with this. If I come across as a dozy philistine, it might just be that I am.
My formal education was in western analytical philosophy. It was hard (formal logic fried my brain) and disciplined. Fluffy or nebulous ideas and speculations were frowned on. Empirical support (where possible) and tight reasoning were the benchmark of value and we didn't touch on the speculative ethical and aesthetic branches that are now mostly in vogue in British universities.
That study left me with a deep distrust for statements that cannot be falsified (see Popper) or rousing declarations of what's 'right' or 'wrong', how we 'should' live etc. Especially when famous passages are lifted from big bodies of work along those lines by those who haven't read beyond the quotation. I too have often been guilty of brandishing quotations from things I haven’t read because they sound good as a rhetorical flourish, which is perhaps why I'm so disdainful now when I see it happening.
Latterly I've grown deeply mistrustful of grand narrative accounts of human behaviour, so it was probably a mistake to try reading the book I just gave up on in favour of reading lots of stuff about it instead. But the experience has been helpful in realising that literature can often teach you (or at least me) more than scholarly non-fiction.
The kind of philosophy that is based primarily on opinion, personal belief, or subjective perspective, rather than evidence and rationale, is generally known as speculative or unsystematic philosophy. It involves the exploration of ideas, concepts, and questions without any or much emphasis on empirical evidence or a rigorous logical framework to support its claims.
Big claims that beg a thousand questions sweep past you, reading this form of philosophy, as if they are confident statements of obvious fact. And, if you aren't really thinking about it, you'll internalise these without further question.
Then there's what I think of as 'quantum rumination' in which the basic elements of a system, event or culture are dissected and deconstructed in ever tinier increments until they are entirely nebulous, but feel impressive by dint of the sheer attention to detail. And, if you aren't really thinking about it, you'll internalise the sense that ah, this must be it, without further question. (Test yourself by having someone ask you questions about that thing you were raving about. What seemed like a fantastic work of insight can suddenly dissolve into nothing more than a vague impression).
Then you'll remember some bits that did make sense and do some quote-dropping in the right places to show that you're across this. Yes, you've Done The Reading.
That feels like a trap to me and legendary political philosopher Hannah Arendt's The Origins Of Totalitarianism sucked me in for a while.
In this case, I was trying to Do The Reading and ended up quitting after a week or so.
Maybe I'm just not clever enough and gave up because her gargantuan brain was just too much for my feeble information sifting and processing capacity. It wouldn't be the first time.
For decades I've seen Arendt quoted in books and articles. It led to a sense that I'd missed a seminal work. I knew lots of the quotes from her, because people across the left-right spectrum wave them around all the time, but what about the working out? Surely that was going to be a rich discovery when I finally Did The Reading.
To be clear, this is neither a rebuttal nor a detailed critique of Arendt. After all, I've just given up trying to read her. Which is annoying, because I enjoy thinking about the underlying reasons - especially the innate or hidden forces - behind the way we are and how the world is. And I like talking about those things. A knowledge of Hannah Arendt's writing seems to be necessary for entry into that sphere.
I gave up because I hate this kind of philosophy. It makes assertions without the kind of evidence it seems to me you'd need to support them. An example in Origins is her repeated claim that Jews have carried a form of internal self-hatred throughout their history. It just leaves me thinking (perhaps naively - and that's the last of my throat clearing now) where is the evidence for this and what would it look like if we had it? Might there be a test for Jewish self-hatred?
Her distinction between how Hitler and Stalin operated and how their respective populations responded compared with other brutal leaders through history and their subjects seem overcomplicated, hair-splitting and - again - dependent on unevidenced assertions about the minds of millions of people who were inspired, cowed and victimised by them.
I was willing her to take more detailed account of externalities, such as communication technology, which might help to explain the amplification of energies underlying tumultuous turns of events, and do a lot less inferring of mass psychological changes in political being or existence. What seem to me all too ordinary public reactions to things like World War One and the Great Depression are coded as 'pathologies' rather than easily explicable responses to incentives and hope in the face of disaster, which charismatic and well-organised figures noticed they could exploit.
She might be right about everything, but I couldn't shake the suspicion that she's overcomplicating a lot of things that common sense does a perfectly adequate job on.
I can see the appeal though. Some of Arendt's thoughts are kind of comforting. Like the one about Adolf Eichmann and 'the banality of evil' because he only saw himself as running a project as efficiently as possible. Like he could have been renewing all the country's bridges, but he was actually overseeing the apparatus of the Holocaust and it made no odds to him. But wasn't Eichmann also the definition of a straight up sociopath? The sociopathy of evil doesn't have the same ring, does it.
And she's often referenced now in relation to the incentives and motivations of groups who seek to attain domination over other groups. Which is why I'm guessing she's quoted a lot by the Right when they're arguing how the leftish liberal hegemony leads to unfairness, loss of freedom and other undesirable outcomes.
Arendt seems to predict the current problems with politicised institutions. For example, anyone who isn't asleep is currently looking askance at the bourgeoisie's usurpation of western states to further their own specific interests. And how our idea of democracy feels calcified into polarisation rather than consensus. She's definitely right about the absence of conditions for harmonious public life bringing people together, while also leaving them free to be themselves.
But isn't this just how things work? How they always work? How people are and always were? Does a theory of understanding and political being really help to make better sense of how some people have ideas about what's best for everyone else and many of us like them enough to buy into it than what we all instinctively know about incentives, power and greed already?
The impression I often have is that you can theorise anything and if it sounds sufficiently scholarly hardly anyone will dare to say but what's the point of this?
Her concern that relying on scientific material abstraction to explain everything is antithetical to finding meaning in life is another thought shared by many today (including me) but the church has been saying that ever since the Enlightenment got under way.
What's the point of this?
What is the insight here?
How is this qualitatively different from any other critique of ordinary things that serves only to obscure the obvious by breaking it down and ascribing assumed but unevidenced psychological drivers all manifesting at scale?
It just seems to me that Arendt is writing for herself. For the pleasure of having ideas and making connections. Maybe even enjoying the reputation it brings, along with cool connections, like the affair she had with Heidegger.
I don't know. But as a skipped back again and again to see if I was missing something that everyone else seems to be able to see, I started thinking about the time Freddie deBoer wrote ‘Think Less, Agnes’.
Last year I read The Brothers Karamazov. It was the first time I really appreciated the power of fiction, not just to entertain but to broaden the mind and help make sense of the world. Like Anna Karenina, the relatability of the characters and what they reveal of human nature was a deeply informative and intellectually nourishing experience.
Dostoevsky is more abstract and conceptual than Tolstoy and my subjective experience of his long (very long) explorations of the tensions between faith and reason through the characters of Ivan and Alyosha was of a bright light being shone on what had long seemed an arcane debate.
Of course, many people would group novels like 1984 into the class of fiction that informs while entertaining. Everyone knows this is what good literature does, they might say. But Dostoevsky is so much less obvious in his warning and lecturing. To the point where he makes Orwell seem like a raving libertarian eternally grinding his boot into your face until you heed the warnings. Unsubtle and obvious. (Not being contrary here - I've read 1984 twice and love it).
If The Brothers Karamazov is on your intended reading list I would hate to ruin any of it for you, so proceed with caution.
Jesus comes back into 16th century Spain, gets arrested and interrogated. An entire chapter is devoted to one speech by his inquisitor, which happens to be quite closely related in subject matter to The Origins of Totalitarianism. The Inquisitor is making the case for saving people from themselves by controlling them. It is a chillingly brilliant advocation for a form of totalitarianism that vexes a lot of people today. A kind of for your own good totalitarianism that we see threatened everywhere.
Dostoevsky died in 1881, long before Hitler, Stalin or Mao stalked the world stage, let alone when everyone started cancelling each other in the 21st century andcame up with his exemplary and elegant theory of Luxury Beliefs.
But the Inquisitor seems to just know how these motivations arise. He exemplifies the benign face of unmitigated control freakery, dressed up as beneficence. Jesus doesn't bother arguing and just kisses him. Honestly, it's one of the most remarkable things I've ever read. But also instructive and - crucially - easy to understand.
Do not be put off reading Dostoevsky by anyone. There's nothing hard about it and you'll come away understanding more about human nature and some of the big questions we grapple with than you did before. Without deconstructing anything.
Just as I'm not qualified to write a rebuttal or critique of Hannah Arendt, nor am I fit to write any more of a detailed appreciation of Dostoevsky.
But, subjectively, I get so much more from The Brothers Karamazov than I do from The Origins of Totalitarianism and I just wanted to get that confession off my chest. However uncool it may seem to Arendt’s disciples.
Arendt's worries about scientific abstraction, meaning and wellbeing are also shared - or rather, anticipated - by Dostoevsky. But by instantiating one side of that binary in the character of Ivan and his poems and describing Ivan’s eventual unravelling, the human cost of that imbalance is laid out in starker ways than any I've seen elsewhere. This certainly includes Arendt's portrayal of the same themes.
A final thought is that it seems a shame that 'higher' fiction isn't more widely appreciated to be potentially as educational as a textbook. Most of us go through life thinking that the 'education' in reading Russian classics inheres just in having read them because they're considered 'great'. I certainly thought that, for most of my life.
Anyway, no regrets for having put Arendt down and picked up something more interesting. Which, for the record, is a book about the million white European slaves captured and sold in Africa by the Barbary corsairs. Unfashionable reading, I suspect, at this point. I may write about it eventually.
And on the subject of books, thanks to a reader of this and other stacks on which they make some of the best comments I see anywhere on this platform I'm also reading this.
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If you've read Arendt more closely than me and you violently object to my subjective take on the matter, share your thoughts in the comments. I might need schooling.