Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Arendt's Apology

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Arendt's Apology

Article excerpt

This essay is dedicated to J. Peter Euben, a great teacher of human wisdom.


In 1967, Hannah Arendt published an essay with the deceptively simple title, "Truth and Politics."1 Most scholarly discussions of her essay consider her distinction between a traditional political art of limited, deliberate, strategic lying and modern, organised, global lying and self-deception and then evaluate her qualified defence of the virtues of mendacity.2 They focus on the normative issue of the legitimacy of lying in politics. This article suggests, however, that Arendt's essay has a much broader ambit: viz., to defend the political value of truth-telling. Its central importance, I argue, resides not in its conventional defence of limited, strategic lying, but in its rich account and defence of various types of truth-telling in the political domain. Arendt's essay is her apology of the truth-teller in politics and of her own truth-telling in her controversial report of the Eichmann trial. Arendt's political defence of frank speech identifies three different types of truth-teller: the exemplary, representative, and cathartic truth-teller, each of whom performs different political functions. Arendt conceives Socrates as the model of an exemplary truth teller who aims to transform the values of his political community by embodying them in a way of life. In an early sketch of her quasi-Kantian account of political judgement she identifies a model of representative "truth-telling" or judgement that serves the integrative role of creating a sensus communis. Finally, Arendt briefly also identifies historians and poets as truth-tellers whose account of the past aims to purge citizens of emotions that, so she claims, make them reactive rather than active. Framed in this way, her analysis implies that truth-telling has been many different things since its inception and that we can investigate the great variety of divergent conceptions of the activity in question and what kinds of personae these models cultivate.3

Yet Arendt compromises her political defence of truth-telling through her denial of the epistemic and political value of the emotions. In a published letter imploring Arendt to reconsider the central historical claims and tenor of her Eichmann report, Gershom Scholem suggested that responses to the "scene of that tragedy" demand what he calls "Herzenstakt"4 Scholem's plea for a heartfelt sensibility or compassion, I argue, astutely identifies a significant flaw in Arendt's broader apology of truth-telling.

In her account of both representative judgement and cathartic truth-telling she argues that we must purge our sympathy and pity because they jeopardise our capacity to form sound political judgements and to properly reconcile ourselves to the past.5 Ironically like Plato, whose political philosophy she rejected as the progenitor of an antipolitical tradition, and like Kant, whose moral philosophy she rejected as politically unsound, Arendt's own notion of political judgement also maligns the emotions of pity and fear as impediments to political judgement and action. Yet, as Aristotle and the moral sentiment theorists argue, the sympathetic emotions do not necessarily conceal the truth: they can also reveal it. Arendt compromises her defence of truth-telling by failing to see how political judgements necessarily require the exercise of the emotions. She systematically eliminates from her account of political judgement the recognition of the cognitive value of the emotions that is central to the tragic tradition. In this respect, one could argue, Arendt falls short of the tragic political perspective she sought to revive.

Section 1 shows how in response to the charges brought against her efforts to tell the truth about Eichmann and the Holocaust Arendt formulated her 1967 article as an apology of truth-telling. Section 2 identifies and explains the different types and figures of truth-telling that emerge from her apology. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.