Hannah Arendt and the Constants of Human Nature


[Movements] of the totalitarian type on the level of social situations and change, as well as of types of conduct determined by them, [are] apt to endow historical causality with an aura of fatality. Situations and changes, to be sure, require, but they do not determine, a response.

The character of a man, the range and intensity of his passions, the controls exerted by his virtues, and his spiritual freedom, enter as further determinants. If conduct is not understood as the response of a man to a situation, and the varieties of response as rooted in the potentialities of human nature rather than in the situation itself, the process of history will become a closed stream, of which every crosscut at a given point of time is the exhaustive determinant of the future course.

Dr. Arendt is aware of this problem. She knows that changes in the economic and social situations do not simply make people superfluous, and that superfluous people do not respond by necessity with resentment, cruelty, and violence; she knows that a ruthlessly competitive society owes its character to an absence of restraint and of a sense of responsibility for consequences; and she is even uneasily aware that not all the misery of National Socialist concentration camps was caused by the oppressors, but that a part of it stemmed from the spiritual lostness that so many of the victims brought with them. . . .

The spiritual disease of agnosticism is the peculiar problem of the modern masses, and the man-made paradises and man-made hells are its symptoms; and the masses have the disease whether they are in their paradise or in their hell. [Dr. Arendt], thus, is aware of the problem; but, oddly enough, the knowledge does not affect her treatment of the materials.

If the spiritual disease is the decisive feature that distinguishes modern masses from those of earlier centuries, then one would expect the study of totalitarianism to be delimited, not by the institutional breakdown of national societies and the growth of socially superfluous masses, but rather by the genesis of the spiritual disease. . . . and the totalitarian movements would not be simply revolutionary movements of functionally dislocated people, but immanentist creed movements in which medieval heresies have come to their fruition.

CW VOL 11,
The Origens of Totalitarianism ,pp 20-21.

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