Hannah Arendt and the politics of dignity

John Douglas Macready, Hannah Arendt and the Fragility of Human Dignity, Lexington Books (Rowman and Littlefield), Lanham MD/ London, 2018, pp. xvi and 135

Our uncertain times are shaped by multiple violations of human rights; populisms which either reject democratic norms and the need to respect minorities, or urgently assert claims for recognition and fairness in response to oppression and inequality; and large-scale migrations of people whose impetus and movements are caused by conflicts, wars, environmental crisis and severe economic pressures.

In this troubling context, Hannah Arendt’s work is gaining significant new cohorts of readers. Her concerns about how democratic systems can be displaced by totalitarianisms, the connections and contradictions between violence and politics, the forms and dynamics of antisemitism (and the wider lessons of this in a multicultural world), and the philosophical basis for establishing meaningful human rights are as urgent and relevant now as when she explored them in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

John Douglas Macready’s new book is therefore timely and welcome. It is a clear and thought- provoking exploration of key aspects of Arendt’s thought, explaining some of her central concepts and arguments, and stating and discussing an Arendtian conception of human dignity.

This is important and useful because, as Macready points out, ‘Arendt assumed without argument throughout her published works that human dignity is the philosophical justification for human rights’, but she never systematically set out her understanding of these concepts [pp3 – 4]. Her understanding, in all its richness, is ‘latent … throughout her work’: Macready’s aim is to recover and make it explicit.

In his introduction, Macready locates Arendt’s writing in the period of ‘the failure of human rights during the genocidal madness of the Holocaust’ and the ‘opacity’ and ‘quarrels’ which shaped the ‘mere assertion of human rights’ by the United Nations in the years after the Second World War.

His first chapter details Arendt’s response to two very different thinkers – Karl Marx, whose theories informed the twentieth-century communist movement, and Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who joined the Nazi party in 1933 and remained an enthusiastic member until 1945 (Heidegger and his young left-leaning Jewish student Arendt had been lovers in the 1920s, and, controversially, re-established significant personal connections in the post-war years).

Macready evidences Arendt’s ability to extract and ‘rehabilitate’ productive concepts from other thinkers, even where she disagrees with how they themselves make use of those concepts. During the 1950s, Arendt ‘appropriated key insights from Marx and wove them into the fabric of her political theory’, including the ‘principle of conditionality’ [pp 12-13]. Macready’s view is that she ‘extended Marx’s uni-directional notion … reconceiving it as bi-directional’, through developing a ‘theory of action … by which we “insert” ourselves into the world through our own initiative and begin something that is new … action is not the product of necessity … it is the product of freedom’ [pp 18-19].

Arendt’s treatment of Heidegger’s thought, with her deep, personal awareness of how it had proved consistent with fascism, was similarly critical. She identified limits and confusions in Heidegger which helped her to establish and explain the importance of ‘the public realm, where human beings conditioned their world through speech and action and were in turn conditioned by the speech and action of others’ [p 28].

The book’s second chapter tracks Arendt’s thinking about dignity and rights through her substantial ‘historical surveys of other key political concepts’: freedom, authority and revolution [p 43]. The contextual significance of ‘the horrors of twentieth-century totalitarianism’ is emphasised: these confirmed that the philosophical and cultural traditions (including from the Renaissance and Enlightenment) which had generated the concept of human dignity were compromised and ‘had become inadequate … the concept needed to be thought anew’, ‘without traditional horizons’ [p 44 and p 63].

Chapters three and four set out Arendt’s understanding of human dignity, as systematically recovered by Macready. He shows how – and why – she rejects the ‘common misperception’ that it is ‘an intrinsic, universal principle’. Instead, we must make the choice – and take action – to fix human dignity to the real variety and particularity of individual, and different, human beings. This argument applies Arendt’s careful thinking on Jewish experience, and the resulting importance of insisting on ‘specificity, distinction and distinctness’: ‘It is precisely this distinctness of human beings that the Enlightenment answer of assimilation to the Jewish question did not provide. Assimilation required Jews to abandon their Jewishness (the truth of their particular existence) in exchange for admission into society merely as rational human beings (their general humanity)’ [p 73].

For Arendt, an ‘essential characteristic’ of human dignity is that it recognises, respects and enables us all to live in our particularities. In contrast, ‘as Arendt was keenly aware, it is possible for political regimes’ to ‘justify … political violence against individuals … by appealing to surpa-political notions of the dignity of humanity’ [p 109].

To counter such risks, we should recognise that human dignity is not a ‘natural’ thing which result from something inherent in our simple existence as human beings, or in any abstract ‘status’ or unchanging ‘stature’ which we enjoy.

The Arendtian conception is that human dignity is ‘a purely political concept’ [p3]. It has ‘its origin in political thinking and experience’ [p6], and is ‘“bestowed” upon individuals by their fellow human beings within a political community’ [p 76]. Human dignity is located in ‘the intersubjective space between individuals – the space of politics’ [p3].

Though its political nature means that human dignity is contingent and the rights that are based on it are therefore fragile, and although it may thus appear weaker and less certain than a conception of rights based on something ‘absolute’ such as our ‘essential’ being, Macready convincingly argues that Arendt’s approach is hard-headed and promising. This is because it insists on putting full responsibility onto us as members of political communities, able to make choices and take deliberate action about how we live together. ‘By reconceiving human dignity as a political concept, Arendt moved the discussion of dignity beyond questions of the status of humanity in general or the stature of individuals and resituated the discussion … in terms of stance – how human beings stand in relationship to one another’ [p 35].

The issues and concepts which shape Macready’s book are complex, and laden with contested philosophical and political histories. It is therefore impressive that he has stated and navigated them so clearly and concisely: an achievement which reflects long and careful scholarship.

One expression of Macready’s control of his material is the particular way in which some arguments are repeated at different points in the book. This, however, is no sign of lazy repetitiveness or careless editing. Instead, by returning to the same key points in relation to different arguments and contexts, Macready demonstrates how these points structure Arendt’s overall thinking. He effectively communicates the consistency of her critiques of traditional philosophy, her politics, and her understanding of the case for and the nature of human rights.

A short closing chapter summarises key points and indicates how they could be applied to current crises. Macready concludes with a moving consideration of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who was photographed, dead from drowning, on a Turkish beach in 2015, and became a defining symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis: his desperate family had been seeking asylum in Greece, having fled the political violence and war which was tearing their country apart. Macready carefully and respectfully suggests how Arendt might have regarded and responded to the child’s horrifying end.

Macready’s arguments deserve repeated consideration and promotion. ‘The conditional dignity of human beings’ depends on both ‘the preservation and expression of dignity by the person who bears it’ and ‘on the recognition of others’ [p7]. This means that political leadership and culture is crucially important, so as to create social settlements in which human dignity can ‘appear in the world’ and ‘human beings [can] assert their worth and fundamental dignity … through speaking and acting in a responsible and collaborative way … under the best conditions, human dignity appears when the plurality of the human condition is given the space to appear. However, as history has shown and continues to show, these conditions are not always maintained, even in the most civilised nations’ [p 33].


Review published January 2019