Hannah Arendt: Reason and Tyranny


I read a number of books by Hannah Arendt about 40 years ago as young lad in university. I continued to read after I left university because I enjoyed her insights so much.  I loved her books then; I love them now. She really understood tyranny, fascism and totalitarianism better than anyone. For quite a few years after that, I thought those issues were behind us. We had solved them. I was wrong. Unfortunately those issues have become important again.

Hannah Arendt was a brilliant political theorist/philosopher, born in Russia and a student of the legendary German philosopher Martin Heidegger. She wrote about what she had learned from the European political tyrants of the 20th century, particularly Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. I particularly enjoyed her book The Origins of Totalitarianism which she wrote in 1951. How could a book on political theory written 70 years ago be relevant to today? I think it is profoundly relevant.

Hannah Arendt understood die-hard fans. She understood fanatical zeal. She understood the followers of totalitarian rulers or populists. As she said, “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false no longer exists.”


To this the Canadian philosopher Henry Giroux recently said, “Today nothing could be more true than that.” Arendt also said, “thoughtlessness is the essence of fascism.” In a modern America where reason has been abandoned by so many, this is a deeply disturbing thing to consider. Is America on the path to fascism? It may not there yet, but is that where it is headed? More and more of us are convinced that they are well on the way to fascism if they are not there already.

Our species has impressive powers of reasoning. It is what sets us apart from most species. Yet we give up our advantage all the time. Why do we do that? Why do we allow reason to go to sleep? More importantly, why do we do that when it is clearly against our own interests to do that? That is a very big question. One I would like to answer.

It is crucially important not to  abdicate our power of reasoning. If ever we give up our rationale for beliefs we are doomed. In my opinion, we must always insist that all beliefs are based on evidence and reason.

Our reasoning power may be weak. It is certainly far from perfect. For each and every one of us our power of reasoning is flawed, but we never have a better tool to justify belief. Any belief.

Reason goes to sleep whenever we don’t base our beliefs on reason and evidence. For example, the bars to reason are many and varied and include the following among many others: faith substituted for reason, indoctrination, fear, prejudice or bias, laziness, ignorance, herd instinct or wish to conform, wishful thinking, ideological blinkers, and advertising or propaganda.

All of these substitutes for reasoning are dangerous. In politics, as we are finding out now again, as people did in Europe in the 1930s, when we abandon reason we put everything in jeopardy. Abandoning reason is an invitation to tyranny.

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