Sunday, 28 October 2012

Hannah Arendt’s conception of Sovereignty

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn

The original dialogue was published in French in a volume entitled Hannah Arendt: Crises de l’Etat-nation (2007).

JK. A word about the backstory to the following conversation may be in order. Elisabeth and I met in 1968 in Hannah Arendt’s seminar on “Political Experiences in the Twentieth Century.” Studying under the guidance of a woman who had lived through the worst of those experiences, and probably better than anyone understood their unprecedentedness, was itself a remarkable experience – one we’ve talked and written about before. In Arendt’s seminar we also learned something no less remarkable about the art of thinking. If in its purest form thinking is a world-withdrawn activity, a swift, silent dialogue conducted by the thinking ego with itself, Arendt showed us by her own example that thinking also can be active in a conversation between people who, while not withdrawn from the world, find themselves in a space defined by a kind of decorum. The space of Arendt’s seminar was strictly bounded by the political narratives and testimonies she selected for us to read and discuss, where she, as first among equals (primus inter pares), was somehow able to establish equality as the common desideratum of everyone participating in the seminar. 

Which is to say that for a few hours each week we came together in a sort of public space, or at least in an ambience of political friendship, of philia politik , as Aristotle called it. There the self did not divide into the two-in-one of the thinking ego, but on the contrary, we strove to become each other’s other self, which, again according to Aristotle, is the consummation, the telos, of friendship. One could say, metaphorically, that the seminar was like the rehearsal and occasionally the performance of a concerto, in which, under Arendt’s direction, the solo parts were passed back and forth in a community of friends. Elisabeth and I so much enjoyed this manner of speaking, which by no means precluded contestation or debate, but was founded and depended on an underlying harmony or agreement, that for forty years we’ve relished every opportunity to revive it. Therefore, following Arendt as best we can, we will attempt to engage not only each other but also you in the spirit of Aristotlean friendship. Our topic is the controversial one of political sovereignty.

If Arendt had written a single essay on sovereignty rather than writing about it in a number of different places, she might have given it the title: “What Was Sovereignty?” So it seems consistent with her mode of thinking, which was also Aristotle’s, to begin by briefly looking back to the primary historical manifestation of national sovereignty in sixteenth century France. There is an Italian background to its French development, insofar as Niccolò Machiavelli at the beginning of the century, around 1513, first used the word “state” (il stato) to refer to what emerged – though in Italy not before more than three hundred years had passed – as the modern nation-state. In 1576 Jean Bodin’s Six livres de la république, which was written during the divisive religious wars in France, called for both a fully sovereign monarchy and religious toleration. The two appeals were interrelated: the need Bodin saw for sovereign political power to put an end to the chaos of civil war in France was likewise the condition under which Catholics and Protestants would come to tolerate each other. Bodin’s theory came to life, so to speak, when in 1593 Henri of Navarre, who was raised a Huguenot, on his march to sovereign power suddenly converted to Catholicism, saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” (“Paris is well worth a mass”). But then in 1598, as Henri IV, the first Bourbon king of France, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, which granted Huguenots the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. The sovereign power of the state, a power above any other power, not excluding that of religious institutions, brought to an end, at least for a time, the devastation of France by Frenchmen. It is no wonder that Arendt always referred to France as “the nation-state par excellence,” for France was the first and foremost national state to emerge from medieval feudalism.   
There is much more, of course, to be said about the history of the concept of sovereignty than can be gone into here. Already in the next century the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius set forth a body of laws between single nations – laws of nature, as he called them – whose scope, being international, set limits to sovereign power. His laws of war, for example, respected the lives and protected the property of private persons whose lands were invaded by foreign armies. His theory of international law would be examined in later centuries and today, after the twentieth century’s two disastrous World Wars, is the subject of renewed interest; but in the seventeenth century neither actual sovereigns or Thomas Hobbes, Grotius’s near contemporary, paid it much heed. 

Hobbes was the first modern political philosopher and the staunchest, subtlest, and perhaps most prescient of all exponents of political sovereignty. His basic insight is that the equality of men lies in the ability of the weakest to kill the strongest, “either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.” Since they live in “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” men in their natural or pre-political state “have no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company.” In Hobbes’s well known words, their lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 13), even if the word “short” might seem to someone less fearful than Hobbes perhaps misplaced. Be that as it may, it is their political organization into sovereign states that alone removes men from their natural state and relieves or prevents them from behaving like wolves to their fellow men (homo homini lupus). But in a world that has witnessed political crimes exceeding anything Hobbes imagined in the state of nature, some contemporary Hobbesians think he would admit the right of an international body to intercede in the internal affairs of a sovereign state that fosters genocide or the so-called “ethnic cleansing” of a minority within its borders. Perhaps, but it is also possible that these Hobbesians, in their effort to adapt the past to the future, have forgotten the structure and even the delimited purpose of the commonwealth Hobbes constructs.

The fear of violent death is the ground from which Hobbes’s’ commonwealth arises. His commonwealth, which he calls Leviathan, is an “artificial man,” a “mortal God,” that “overawes” its subjects, who willingly forfeit what we call political rights, retaining only the “natural” right to preserve their lives by any means available to them in cases of prosecution and war. What Hobbes calls “mixed government” or “diversity of opinions” – which Aristotle mentions favorably – can only weaken the “absolute power” of Leviathan (Ibid., 29), an artifact forged from distinct individuals who want and need its protection so they themselves can flourish and further their private, chiefly economic, interests. It is in exchange for security that they willingly forego the public expression of their opinions and forfeit their ability to join in concerted action. The “absolute” or “sovereign” power of Hobbes’s commonwealth means that justice and law are what it decrees them to be – and not what any international body deems them to be. With his relentless logic, Hobbes does not shy away from the fact that Leviathan is a tyranny, for “tyranny, signifieth nothing more, nor less, than the name of sovereignty.” Read the full text: