Saturday, April 20, 2024

#111 / For The Purpose Of Action

The above photograph of Hannah Arendt, in triplicate, accompanies an article that appeared on the "Literary Hub" website. The article is titled, "Why We Should All Read Hannah Arendt Now." The article is an extract from a book by Lyndsey Stonebridge, a professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, in Great Britain. 

Those who follow this blog will perhaps remember my previous mentions of Stonebridge, and of her new book, We Are Free To Change The World. To revisit my earlier commentary, click right here. I am still enthusiastically recommending the Stonebridge book, and that we "Listen To Lindsey," but the Literary Hub article is a nice shortcut.

That said, I did not sit down to type out this blog posting in order to talk again about Stonebridge's book. Instead, I was prompted to the keyboard by my recent reading of an article by Roger Berkowitz, entitled, "Hannah Arendt: Power, Action and the Foundation of Freedom." If you click on that link, I think you should be able to read the article (or download it, should you want to do that). It is only eight pages long, and Berkowitz' article is well worth your time and trouble. 

In short, Berkowitz' article asserts that "an inquiry into the 'nature of human power' is at the very center of Hannah Arendt's political thinking." 

It is common sense today that power is dangerous, a sentiment heard in the saying: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Against this cautionary view, Arendt argues that power is a necessary and salutary quality of politics, one that should rather be augmented than limited. 

Arendt goes on to say:

There is no legitimate government without power, [and that kind of legitimate] power emerges from the action of citizens in concert. Power involves citizen participation in public affairs, and power is the root of all self-government (emphasis added).

Power, in Arendt's view, "comes into being only if and when men join themselves together for the purpose of action, and it will disappear when, for whatever reason, they disperse and desert one another. Hence, binding and promising, combining and covenanting are the means by which power is kept in existence (emphasis added)."

"Dictators," authoritarian personalities, and ultimately totalitarianism itself, are called into existence as a response to the felt powerlessness of ordinary people. Many, today, are worried about the possibility that the United States might be on the brink of choosing such an authoritarian path. To the extent that we see ourselves as "powerless," the chances of such a thing happening are magnified.

We are not, however, powerless, as we will find when we "join together for the purpose of action." Coming together in small groups of friends, who decide to take it upon themselves to initiate the actions needed properly to address the dangers and the opportunities of the moment, is how we can, and will, build the power that will sustain self-government. 

If we are serious, we can help build that kind of power with a mutual pledge. I recited such a pledge in an earlier blog posting. Arendt, as a knowledgeable and discerning student of the American Revolution, knew all about it. 

When we find ourselves in dangerous times, that is precisely the moment when we most need to come together and to ally ourselves, as friends, joining in a common effort "for the purpose of action." 

When we do come together this way - and this is, really, the task before us now - let us pledge to each other, and to ourselves, that we will dedicate "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" to the tasks to which we are called. 

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