Contours of Dread

Originally Appeared in: American Literary History: Volume 35, Number 1 | Published Spring 2023

Donald Trump’s 2016 election provoked an intense sense of crisis across a spectrum from traditional conservatives to liberals and leftists. Angst in the strong sense of dread has been continually amplified by Supreme Court decisions, assaults on decades of fairminded supervision of elections by dedicated elected officials and countless civic-minded volunteers, the fading of global democracy promotion and rise of elected autocrats, waves of working-class voters turning to the far right, the weakening or outright demise of center-left parties along a path from Israel to Germany and France and on to Britain and the US, public opinion addled by separated echo chambers and conspiracy theories, and an upsurge of xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and racist agitation and policy. 

The authors of the books under review brush against the grain of foreboding in fresh reflections on traditions in Western political thought, putting concepts to the test under the stress of the current crisis and, conversely, mining those concepts for their power to grasp the crisis. Shunning prophetic exhortations on how democracies die, these political thinkers nevertheless take the fragility of democracy seriously. Americans take pride in the durability of our constitutional democracy, but in fact it has at least twice had to be saved and renewed through harrowing ordeals. The country’s darkest decade, the 1850s, threatened an unlimited expansion of slavery, the institution that openly violated the nation’s founding principle that “All men are created equal”; the Civil War saved the republic at terrible cost, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments launched democratic renewal, a renewal whose unraveling after Reconstruction culminated when the Supreme Court undid the Fourteenth Amendment and declared segregation constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson; not until the civil rights movement’s court cases, protests, and civil disobedience in the 1950s and 1960s was the promise of the post–Civil War Amendments revived. A half century later the Alito-Thomas Supreme Court, buoyed by the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s disdain for the Fourteenth Amendment, has eviscerated enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and, wittingly or not, inspired Trump supporters’ nationwide effort to delegitimize elections and suppress voting. Such are the contours of dread. 

Political theory’s account of democracy often calls itself democratic theory, and the terms point to the ambidextrous, often ambiguous nature of the undertaking. They mix analysis and advocacy, facts and norms, diagnoses and aspirations, concepts and opinions, objectivity and partisanship. The political realm itself is doubly animated by cooperation and strife. Democracy eludes definition because it is an intrinsically contested term and is itself the site and the stake of the contestation. It is useful to think of three primary conceptions of democracy: the liberal, the civic, and the socialdemocratic, which combine and conflict in various way. Liberaldemocratic and civic-democratic (or civic-republican) ideas and values stand in an agonistic relation to one another. The highest liberaldemocratic values emphasize individuals’ right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and extol constraints on the state’s power over the governed. The highest civic-democratic value is individuals’ participation on a par with others in the very processes and institutions of governing. 

I was excited to learn of the publication of Kei Hiruta’s Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity (2021) because I have long considered Arendt–Berlin to be one of the great missed dialogues in twentieth-century thought.1 She held to the civic values of participation and citizenship as tenaciously as he held to the liberal values of individuality and self-direction. For her, the political realm creates the public space that guarantees freedom; for him, freedom occurs in the space opened by the suspension of the political realm and the state’s power. The differences between Arendt and Berlin are often cast in the terms that Berlin himself introduced as the two concepts of liberty, according to which he prizes freedom from and Arendt freedom to, negative liberty and positive liberty. 

Before he constructs their missed encounter, Hiruta’s research unearths why it didn’t happen. Berlin despised Arendt, and Arendt thought Berlin inconsequential! So much for one’s romance of a spirited, illuminating exchange between two impassioned exponents of freedom, two European Jews who escaped the ravages of totalitarianism and anti-Semitism, two charismatic teachers, two scintillating writers. They produced virtually no public acknowledgment of one another. Mentions in their private letters and notes, along with memoirs of mutual acquaintances, paint the picture of antipathy without engagement. The first document in Hiruta’s account is the savage confidential appraisal that Berlin gave to Faber & Faber in 1958 when asked to evaluate The Human Condition for British publication rights: “I could recommend no publisher to buy the UK rights of this book”; “it will not sell, and it is no good”; “inadequate command of English”; “her comprehension [of what she’s read] has too often been incomplete”; “obscurity”; “the author’s characteristic weaknesses” (209–10). By 1972, he confided in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr, “my allergy vis- a-vis Miss Arendt is absolute and her mere presence in a room gives me gooseflesh” (45). 

Their incomprehension of one another stems at least in part from the differing philosophical traditions in which they were schooled, European philosophy, phenomenology, and Martin Heidegger for Arendt and British empiricism and ordinary language philosophy for Berlin. Ironically, each of them rejected the designation of philosopher because of deep reservations about their own philosophical formation. Berlin approached political and social philosophy as a historian of ideas, which allowed him to engage a wide variety of thinkers by penetrating the existential drama of their thinking; his creative power of ventriloquizing thinkers in order better to grasp the circumstances in which their thought took shape is the very thing he cast aside when it came to Arendt’s thought and existence. Arendt called herself a political theorist rather than political philosopher because of the totalitarian impulses of philosophers from Plato to Heidegger who applied the philosophical aim of systematic thought to the political realm; had she taken Berlin seriously, she would have recognized in his concept of negative liberty a meaningful, perhaps indispensable bulwark against totalitarianism. In short, neither Berlin nor Arendt had adequate grounds for repudiating the other’s concept of freedom. That’s the core of the missed dialogue. 

Hiruta anchors his wide-ranging analysis of Arendt and Berlin in their differing concepts and convictions regarding freedom. It is a rich account. Regarding Berlin, he highlights that the concept of negative freedom is far more compelling and nuanced than Berlin’s critics recognize, and certainly cannot be reduced the sort of libertarianism associated with Friedrich Hayek or the “possessive individualism” criticized by C. B. Macpherson. Rather, it is founded on Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, according to which, as Hiruta puts it, “the number of ultimate and objective values that human beings pursue and live by is neither one nor infinite, but plural; and . . . those values are not always harmonious or commensurable with each other” (62). As Berlin put it in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” “the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom . . . as an end in itself, and not a temporary need” (169). The implication for political theory, then, is that a space must be secured where individuals can meaningfully exercise their value commitments. Berlin’s concept of negative liberty is as nuanced as his concept of positive liberty is limited and polemical. He thought of totalitarianism as the implacable outcome of positive liberty. Ancient Stoicism introduces the idea of freedom as self-mastery, control over one’s impulses and appetites, which then in Berlin’s scheme is taken up by modern rationalism in which self-mastery distinguishes the rational from the irrational self. “To conceptualize liberty as selfmastery,” as Hiruta encapsulates the argument, “entails the distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ ends of action, pursued by two corresponding selves, because the idea of one’s being a master of oneself would otherwise be unintelligible” (59). For Berlin, this opened the path for totalitarian ideology and power to lay claim to the rational self and higher ends, subjecting empirical individuals to a mastery outside themselves. True freedom as subjugation. Such a narrowing of positive liberty clearly had a Cold War provenance, especially in Berlin’s tracing of the intellectual genesis of totalitarianism to thinkers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Karl Marx. 

This is not at all the meaning that freedom to has in Arendt’s thought. Hiruta deftly touches on the three determining moments in Arendt’s concept of freedom. First, “[t]o be free is to exercise an opportunity for political participation. . . . Freedom, for her, is ‘a state of being manifest in action.’ . . . Citizenship makes people equal for political purposes, abstracting various natural differences that they have as human beings” (66). Second, the space in which such participation can take place is a legally guaranteed public realm, and as in her well-known image of a table around which equals gather together and face each other but with a civilizing degree of distance from one another, this public realm enables the manifestation of the plurality of unique yet equal individuals. In Hiruta’s words, “it is the politicised ‘in-between,’ or the ‘space of appearance,’ where men and women as citizens gather together, show the courage to speak and act in public, express the willingness to hear what others have to say, and form and exchange opinions about others’ words and deeds” (67). Third, the freedom of political participation is the highest form of realizing a unique feature of the human condition, which Arendt calls “natality” (in parallel with mortality); every new birth, every “newcomer,” brings the possibility of something new being introduced into the world shared with others. It is the principle of initiatives, undertakings, inaugurations, innovations. In her scheme, such is the nature of speech and action, word and deed, as distinct from behavior and of freedom as distinct from necessity. 

I don’t want to belabor the points of connection within the vast differences between these thinkers’ respective understandings of the human condition and the nature of freedom, except to note that both emphasize the individual and individuality. For Berlin, that emphasis lies in each person’s ordeal of choosing which ideals and values to live by; for Arendt, it lies in the possibility of manifesting one’s uniqueness within a field of words and deeds in relation to others. Freedom from and freedom to—two compelling and incompatible values, neither of which refutes the other….

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