Word on fire
Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism and the distinction between fact and fiction
Bishop Robert Barron
We could define totalitarianism as the control of every aspect of life by the arbitrary will of a powerful individual or group. If this is correct, we see why Arendt worried about blurring the distinctions between the real and the unreal, between the true and the false.
I am currently browsing DC Schindler’s wonderful book “The Politics of Reality: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism”. This text will be of interest to anyone passionate about the controversial and much debated question of the relationship between religion and politics. But I would like to draw particular attention to the epigram that Schindler chose for his book, an observation that is meant to haunt the minds of his readers as they examine his particular arguments. It is drawn from the writings of Hannah Arendt, the 20th-century German Jewish scholar most famous for her ranting about the phenomenon of totalitarianism, and it is of remarkable relevance to our current cultural conversation. She said: “The ideal subject of the totalitarian regime is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience ) and the distinction between right and wrong (ie, standards of thought) no longer exist. “
We could define totalitarianism as the control of every aspect of life by the arbitrary will of a powerful individual or group. If this is correct, we see why Arendt worried about blurring the distinctions between the real and the unreal, between the true and the false. The objectively good and the objectively true have their own intrinsic authority, that is, they command, by their very excellence, the obedience of the receptive mind and of the receptive will. So, for example, in the presence of mathematical truths, scientific data, and philosophical arguments, the mind surrenders and rejoices in its surrender. It does not impose itself arbitrarily on things like totalitarianism; on the contrary, the intrinsic truth of things imposes itself on the mind and thus awakens it to its goal. In the language of Thomas Aquinas, the intelligibility of the world actualizes the mind.
Likewise, the intrinsic goodness of things engages, excites, and actualizes the will. Thomas Aquinas said that the will is only the appetitive dimension of the intellect, by which he meant that the good, understood as such, is automatically desired. This is because, once again, the subjective faculty does not impose itself on reality, doing good what it wants to be good; on the contrary, what is dense and objectively good commands the will by its own authority. And as I have often argued before, this acquiescence of the will is not a negation of freedom but the discovery of genuine freedom: the same Saint Paul who said he was a slave of Christ Jesus also said that it was for freedom that Christ had freed him. This apparent contradiction is in fact the paradox produced by the fact that the will is more itself when it accepts the authority of the objective good.
Now, does anyone doubt that we live in a society that places such emphasis on the feelings and desires of individuals that it effectively undermines any claim to objectivity with regard to truth and goodness? ? Does anyone doubt that the default position of many in our culture is that we are allowed to determine what is true and good for us? A few years ago, as part of a social experiment, a five-foot-nine white man walked to a college campus and randomly asked students passing by if they would consider him a woman if he said he felt like a woman. A number of students said they were okay with this. Then he asked if they would accept him to be a Chinese woman, if that is what he claimed to be. One student replied, “If you identify with yourself as Chinese, I might be a little surprised, but I would say it’s good for you – be who you are. Finally, he wondered if they would agree that he was a six foot five inch Chinese woman. This last suggestion seemed to destabilize his interlocutors a little. But a young man replied, “If you … explained why you thought you were six feet five inches tall, I would feel like I would be very open to saying that you were six feet five inches, or a Chinese, or a wife. Do you remember the Oscar winning film “The Shape of Water”, in which a woman falls in love with an aquatic creature? The title of this film reveals the game: A discouraging number of people in our culture think that the only form is the form of water, meaning no form except the one we choose to provide.
With all of that in mind, back to Hannah Arendt. What opens the door to totalitarianism is, she thought, radical indifference to objective truth, for once objective value has been relativized or entirely set aside, then all that remains is competing wills. for domination. And since the war of all against all is intolerable in the long run, the stronger will will eventually emerge – and will inevitably prevail over other wills. In short, totalitarianism will reign. Please note that one of the hallmarks of all totalitarian systems is strict censorship, as an authoritarian regime must suppress any attempt at real argument – that is, a call for objective truth. which could go against what the regime is proposing. The great Václav Havel was the first president of the Czech Republic after the breakup of the Soviet bloc and a famous dissident poet who had been imprisoned for his positions against communism. He commented that through his writings he had opened up a “space for truth”. Once that clearing was made, he said, others started to stick to it, which enlarged the space, and then others were able to join. This process continued until so many people found themselves in the space of truth that the regime, based on denial of the truth, collapsed under its own weight.
I believe that today we are in a precarious situation. The grossly exaggerated valuation of private feelings and the concomitant denial of objective truth and moral worth has introduced the relentless war of wills – and proof of this is exhibited in virtually every aspect of our culture. Unless some of us open up space for the truth and boldly stand by it, despite fierce opposition, we are on the verge of succumbing to the totalitarianism dreaded by Hannah Arendt.
– Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of the world ministry, Word on Fire, and is Auxiliary Bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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