Gotham Diary:
The Courtly Hiatus
9 April 2014

It is probably somewhat premature, in the course of my tutelage, to object to this or that point in Hannah Arendt’s writing, but all that I’ve learned in my longish life is to begin with such observations. The objections themselves flow on regardless. There aren’t many; in fact, there are only three. They have been provoked not by Arendt’s passing remarks but by views to which she has recurred in the three meaty books that I’ve read this year, The Human Condition, On Revolution, and Between Past and Future. (Proof of prematurity: I haven’t quite finished the middle title.)

First of all, there is the problem of Arendt’s ideas about “society” — something that, to her mind, warrants a ten-foot pole to deal with. She hates “society.” I can see why, having digested her comments, but I remain puzzled by her de-validization of a concept that is generally thought to be quite basic. Puzzled enough to jump at the discovery of a brilliantly titled book, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, by Hannah Fenichel Pitkin. I found the book, “new” (sold by the Friends of the Santa Fe Library), at Amazon, and was able to take a peek at its opening.

This book traces the career of one problematic concept in the thought of one major political theorist of our time. The concept merits attention not because the theorist got it right and used it to teach an important truth, but quite the contrary, because the concept was confused and her way of deploying it radically at odds with her most central and valuable teaching. If studying it is nevertheless worthwhile, that is because its significance transcends the technicalities of textual interpretation and the critique of a particular thinker’s work. If the concept was a mistake, that mistake was not just idiosyncratic or careless, and the problem that the concept was intended to address remains problematic.

The thinker is Hannah Arendt, arguably the greatest and most original political theorist of the mid-twentieth century, the concept is what she called “the social.”

I ordered it immediately. I can only hope that it lives up to this exordium. Even more, I hope that Pitkin restores the words “society” and “social” to me; Arendt has put them in detention.

Another matter that strikes me, the more I read Arendt, as ever more undigested, not properly worked out, has to do with Arendt’s statement, repeated in all three books, that political power comes into being when men come together to work for a common purpose, and it ends when they disperse. I agree, heartily; but the thought is sidelined in On Revolution whenever Arendt falls into one of her raptures (as they must be called, although to do so is hardly meant to cheapen her thinking) about the Founding of the American Republic. She insistently takes the view that the Founding was irreversible, that it could not be undone no matter what circumstances might prevail subsequently. This was the view of Abraham Lincoln, and it has been the view of all established scholars of the subject. I do not agree with it, and I believe that Arendt was inconsistent to do so. It seems contrary to her understanding of political power to hold that the failure of men to join in common cause represents any kind of power at all. I can well understand that a woman in her position, stateless for more than a decade and quite at home in the country that granted her both asylum and citizenship, would be inclined to assert the paramountcy of her government. But her position on the Civil War — a crisis not, so far as I know, confronted directly in her writing; the position is nevertheless implicit in what she says about the Founding — remains inconsistent with her articulated ideas of political power.

The larger point in which my objection rests is something to which Arendt repeatedly attested: the death of the old traditions in the paroxysms of the last century. It was a strange death, because traditions don’t just die. They lose authority. Arendt devotes an essay in Between Past and Future to this problem, but it is more descriptive than prescriptive. It does not end by locating a source of contemporary authority — as I recall. (As I say, I intend to review this topic with rigor; right now, I wish merely to flag it.) Her failure to do so does not surprise me, given the time in which she was writing.

The first inkling that I had of where authority might rest in today’s world was presented by David Denby’s wonderful book, Great Books (1996). This is the account of a middle-aged journalist who returns to his alma mater, Columbia University, to audit a course that he was required to take for credit as an undergraduate. What he discovered, of course, was that the books had changed. Their titles were the same, but they resonated very differently, proving that Denby had grown since graduation — something that few college graduates manage, in my experience, to do. The point about authority is almost an aside, but it knocked me over the moment I read it, because it was made in reference to a writer who is certainly the most sacred of my sacred cows, Jane Austen. In the course of talking about one of her novels (I forget which), Denby asserted that each generation must rediscover and reclaim the masterpieces of the past — it must reauthenticate them, as it were. Now, it’s clear that the role of teachers is to help students with this task, and also that it is forgivable if teachers inculcate their own preferences. If a teacher is persuasive, that’s authority. But the teacher cannot simply say, “this is a book that you must not only read, but respect, and if you don’t respect it, you’re a dummy.” That,  I’m afraid, was the ethic of all education prior to World War II; teachers saw students not as future teachers but as inferior human beings. They didn’t have time for student preferences. Nor do I. But I saw the truth of Denby’s assertion instantly, no matter that it meant putting Jane Herself on probation even for an instant.

This idea, that standards must be passed on from generation to generation persuasively, is an exact fit with Arendt’s understanding, repeated again and again in The Human Condition, that political power in the polis — the Greek unit of government — operates not by violence or any other kind of coercion, but by persuasion. And it spreads from Denby’s discussion of the study of the humanities to the center of the political arena. Every political decision must be ratified by every generation, and so must every Founding — even if the bar for testing a Founding necessarily be raised significantly higher.

The third point is the case about which, I am certain, Arendt wrote more out of prejudice than from understanding, and that is the rottenness of the French royal court in the last centuries of the ancien régime. This contemptuous view was an easy winner among smart people from the Second Empire (and perhaps earlier) to the day before yesterday. In a paragraph close to the end of her chapter on “The Social Question,” in On Revolution, Arendt writes,

The Reign of Terror, we should remember, followed upon the period when all political developments had fallen under the influence of Louis XVI’s ill-fated cabals and intrigues. The violence of terror, at least to a certain extent, was the reaction to a series of broken oaths and unkept promises that were the perfect political equivalent of the customary intrigues of Court society, except that these wilfully corrupted manners, which Louis XIV still knew how to keep apart from the style in which he conducted affairs of state, had by now reached the monarch as well. Promises and oaths were nothing but a rather awkwardly construed frontage with which to cover up, and win time for, an even more inept intrigue contrived toward the breaking of all promises and all oaths. And though in this instance the king promised to the extent that he feared, and broke his promises to the extent that he hoped, one cannot but marvel at the precise appositeness of La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism. The widespread opinion that the most successful modes of political action are intrigue, falsehood, and machination, if they are not outright violence, goes back to these experiences, and it is therefore no accident that we find this sort of Realpolitik today chiefly among those who rose to statesmanship out of the revolutionary tradition. Wherever society was permitted to invade, and eventually to absorb the political realm, it imposed its own mores and “moral” standards, the intrigues of the perfidies of high society, to which the lower strata responded by violence and brutality.

It will be seen that this case, as I put it, overlaps the first one that I mentioned, but I don’t think that it does so to the point of identity. The heart of the case is not society but high society, the “Court society” instituted by the Bourbon kings of France and their two most eminent ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. Court society was perfected by Louis XIV, in the building of Versailles, its palatial habitat. The wickedness of this society and the monstrosity of its palace were taken for granted by almost all thinking people in the later Nineteenth Century.

What interests me isn’t so much that Arendt shares this commonplace outlook, and even manages to incorporate it into the structure of her argument about the failure of the French Revolution (doomed from the start by the perfidy of “high society”!), but rather that, in order to do so, she must overlook two historical matters, both linked in a much longer-termed revolution in human manners. Just as she identifies the “wandering in the wildnerness” periods that separate “then” from “now” in the two foundation legends that were known to classical antiquity — the Hebrews, led by Moses, out of Egypt, and the Trojans, led by Aeneas, into Rome — so she might have seen that court society constitutes just such a hiatus between the brutal “then” of medieval society and the peaceable “now” of modern Western life — a “now,” moreover, in which a woman such as Hannah Arendt might speak out and be heard, respected even. Such a woman would have been burned as a witch in the medieval “then.”

It was within the framework of court society that the transition occurred. The rulers of France, determined to put an end to all unofficial violence, relied only partially on official violence or coercion to achieve this aim. They also offered an alternative way of life, lavishly accoutered and, for favored subscribers (courtiers), materially rewarding. Why spend money beating up your aristocratic neighbor when you can show him up by making money at court? Concealing the impulse to fight behind the wreaths of courtly smiles inevitably encouraged a culture of hypocrisy, but, over the long term, pretense in many instances was transformed into sincerity, as witnessed in the orgy of renunciation on 4 August 1789.

Although it can hardly have been a conscious objective of the reforming Bourbons, the alternative way of life that they developed also created a growing space for the autonomous woman. Women had always graced royal courts, but now they did more, as we see in the miraculously long career of Mme de Pompadour (cut short only by her illness and death). The abatement of violence conduced to the safety of women, by which I mean that men were transformed from the weaklings who in semitic societies can so expect to be undone by the slightest display of female allure that women must be covered up whenever in public into self-controlled individuals prepared to regard women as human beings and to negotiate, not to compel, sexual favors. Court society created opportunities for women to express themselves, and the quite different salons that arose after the death of Louis XIV, led by women, became nurseries of social equality to the extent that aristocratic titles were obviated by urbane appearance.

The transformation of the elite — Arendt’s “high society” — was complete by 1789. This was manifest in the American Revolution. True, women’s suffrage would wait another century or more, but the most important precondition of women’s suffrage was firmly in place: women were safe in good society.

The problem that arose when the courtly hiatus came to an end was, precisely, one of extending the abstention from violence and the respect for women to the previously shackled masses, who now, for the first time, were free to be as violent and as misogynistic as they liked.

As always, Arendt’s silence on anything to do with the position of women in the world is fascinating.