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Contemporary American discourse is saturated with worries about, or hopes for, America's decline. However, fears of America's decline have been a persistent theme of American writing since the second generation of New England Puritans, worries contained in the genre of the Americanized jeremiad. I will argue that Arendt's On Revolution should be read as a jeremiad that both repeats and problematizes the spiritual/material opposition of the classic American decline narrative. Seeing On Revolution as a jeremiad—a literary form central to American writing and dominated by a mood of despair and lamentation over decline that also issues in a positive call to remembrance and action—enables us to better account for a persistently misunderstood feature of Arendt's argument and to use the text as a political and theoretical resource for responding to powerful and unsettling political movements dominating American politics.
Collective memory is an important source of social stability, allowing human beings and political communities to integrate new experiences into existing narrative frameworks. In addition to sustaining individual and group identities, remembrance can also maintain cycles of hatred. Building on Arendt's political theory, I present an alternative interpretation of memory as a resource for political change following historical ruptures. This constructive reading focuses on the ability of communities to create new futures out of the shattered pieces of the past. For Arendt, the experience of totalitarianism was a caesura that made nationalist histories, and the nation-state that came with these interpretations of the past, untenable. Following such breaks, communities must reconstruct the past into new narratives. Arendt's unexpected early support for European integration—despite its supranational, technocratic, and economistic qualities—is an example of how memory can function as a resource for political transformation in the aftermath of historical ruptures.
Hannah Arendt argued that the American Revolution revealed for the first time that all regimes require a reference to an absolute, while the French Revolution revealed that not all absolutes are equal. The American Revolution took as its absolute the act of founding itself, upon which the authority of the constitution could be grounded. By contrast, the failure of the French Revolution to establish an authority stemmed from its reference to the transcendental absolute of the nation. Beginnings, for Arendt, are historically determining. How then are we to explain the present view of authority in Germany which takes as its absolute referent the Holocaust? And how does this inform our understanding of the relationship between absolutes and new foundations? We argue that the key to understanding the German case is found in the particular nature of postwar German memory politics and that authority is not statically related to positive foundations.
Nietzsche and Tocqueville share a common concern with the tendency to mediocrity and loss of human greatness in democratic life. This essay explores the many similarities in their diagnoses of this problem, which they both view from the distinctive standpoint of aristocracy. Both thinkers focus on the way in which the individualism, preoccupation with material comfort, restlessness, and valorization of compassion that belong to democracy undermine human aspiration, intellectual excellence, and spiritual depth. Nevertheless, they differ sharply in their responses to the problem of human greatness in democracy. Tocqueville calls chiefly upon religion to elevate democratic citizens but otherwise resigns himself to the mediocrity that comes with democratic life. Nietzsche starts from the pessimistic premise that God is dead but more optimistically affirms the possibility of reestablishing aristocracy and finding a new greatness for human beings. The essay ultimately finds Nietzsche's solution more convincing but not without difficulties.
Tocqueville's juxtaposition of aristocracy and democracy as the regimes characteristic of different historical periods gives rise to the question whether he accepts or rejects the category of human nature. In the juxtaposition of the distinct “worlds” of aristocracy and democracy and their respective conceptions of “man,” some perceive an implicit rejection of the idea of a universal human nature. Others, however, see an attempt to portray human nature comprehensively by highlighting the truth of both aristocratic inequality and democratic equality. While generally endorsing this latter interpretation, the essay maintains that most of its variants are too “democratic” in two respects. First, they underestimate the difficulties Tocqueville must confront in establishing the naturalness of the equality principle, and second, they wrongly insist that he understands nature to privilege the democratic principle. Tocqueville ultimately defends the naturalness of equality, but his claims about the greater justice of the equality principle should be understood as rhetorical rather than as reflective of his conclusions about nature.
Book Reviews: DEMOCRATIC MAN: “LONELY, DELINKED, HOMELESS”