Academic journal article New Formations

Hannah Arendt: A Question of Character

Academic journal article New Formations

Hannah Arendt: A Question of Character

Article excerpt

The trouble with the Nazi criminals was precisely that they renounced voluntarily all personal qualities ... The greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.

Hannah Arendt, 'Some Question of Moral Philosophy'

Philosophy constantly brings conceptual personae to life; it gives life to them.

Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?

This chapter is about the ethical importance of 'character' or 'personality' in Hannah Arendt's political philosophy. I argue that Arendt's interest in the 'valid personality which once acquired, never leaves a man' (Men in Dark Times) is of axiomatic importance for her attempt, after the atrocities of the Second World War, to overturn the philosophical privileging of contemplation and eidetic intuition, and evoke thinking and judgment as quintessentially worldly human activities. By exploring what it means to have a principled character or morally significant personality capable of resisting totalitarianism, Arendt offers an ethical alternative to moralistic and parochial explanations of the Holocaust. On the one hand Arendt eschews the explanatory narrative, recently typified by the work of Zygmunt Bauman, which blames the Holocaust on the instrumental, taxonomic rationality of post-Enlightenment modernity. (1) On the other hand Arendt does not locate the origins of the Holocaust in a Sonderweg thesis which points to the exceptional, anti-modern course of German nationalism and the pervasive anti-Semitism, romantic nationalism, and authoritarian tendencies of the German people themselves. Instead Arendt's interest in the 'representative significance' of personality, and the disastrous ethical consequences of not having one, reflects her postwar commitment to thinking history and politics from the cosmopolitan standpoint of a 'citizen of the world'. Arendt refrains from facile, self-exculpatory rationalisations of the causes and significance of the Holocaust, instead submitting that capitulation to fascism is a constant possibility for the great majority of us who do not have a distinctive character which animates and unifies our comportment toward the world. While to some extent Arendt shares Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School's contemporaneous interest in analysing the 'authoritarian personality' or 'fascist character', she disdains psychoanalytic taxonomies and adjudges personality discursively, as the capacity or otherwise for performative self-constitution or worldly 'display', incessant self-dialogue, and the imaginative refusal of cliched thinking. While Arendt's interpretation of the ethical personality shares Fromm's concern with the 'realization of man's total personality' as an affirmative response to modernity, I argue that her characterological pluralism, in conversation with Immanuel Kant, Georg Simmel, and Walter Benjamin, places greater emphasis on resistant and refractory versions of moral character. (2)

To be a 'citizen of the world' in Arendtian terms is in one sense a subject position acutely responsive towards the contemporary ills and future prospects of humanity as a whole. (3) The citizen of the world desires a 'compact' with all of mankind as a potential audience to which she or he would like to communicate her or his perceptions, ideas, and judgments. Interacting with a diverse human cosmos, the citizen of the world acquires a 'valid personality', a distinctive character that is generously humane but also stubbornly resistant to ideological fashion. Arendt's citizen of the world displays an exemplary validity in a world attempting to overcome nationalism, racism, militarism, and genocide. As we shall see, Arendt evokes intellectuals as diverse as Socrates, Kant, and her friend Karl Jaspers, as having representative significance in this regard.

For Arendt, reflection on character and personality is politically and ethically important, because it enhances judgment, the consideration of particulars that cannot be subsumed under a general rule. …

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