Hannah Arendt's 1970 essay On Violence has stood the test of time
by Hannah Arendt
Harcourt, Brace & World
Hannah Arendt studied philosophy at the universities of Marburg and Heidelberg, but thought of herself as a political theorist rather than a philosopher. She was also a gifted phrase maker and is perhaps best remembered today for one she coined when writing about the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann: "The banality of evil".
Arendt, who died in 1975, published several highly readable books of political thought, beginning with 1951's The Origins of Totalitarianism and including The Human Condition, On Revolution, and On Violence.
In this extended essay, she explored the relationship between violence and power at a time when violent action was being volubly advocated by extremists on both left and right.
One of the objectives of the book was to discredit the positions of influential thinkers of the era such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who not only defended violent action but sought to glorify it.
"Sartre is unaware of his basic disagreement with Marx on the question of violence, especially when he states that 'irrepressible violence … is man recreating himself', that it is 'mad fury' through which 'the wretched of the earth' can 'become men'."
But her central concern was semantic. "It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our language does not distinguish between such key terms as power, strength, force, might, authority, and, finally, violence - all of which refer to distinct phenomena. To use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, which would be serious enough, but has resulted in a kind of blindness with respect to the realities they correspond to," she wrote. That "deafness", she argued, has led to a false perception that violence is an extreme expression of power. "Power and violence are opposites. Where one rules absolutely, the other is absent," she wrote.
Power, in Arendt's view, grows from consensus, and when that consensus breaks down, violence is the likely result. "We know, or should know, that every decrease of power is an open invitation to violence - if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands have always found it difficult to resist the temptation of substituting violence for it."
Forty-five years later, much of On Violence still has the ring of truth.