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Arendt's Jeremiad: Reading On Revolution in a Time of Decline

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2014


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.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2014 

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1 See, for example, Anne Gearan, “Rice Rejects American Decline,” Associated Press, June 8, 2007; Victor Davis Hanson, “No Decline Here,” National Review Online, May 24, 2007; Ikenberry, John G., ed., America Unrivaled (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; Jacobs, Jane, Dark Age Ahead (New York: Random House, 2004)Google Scholar; Johnson, Chalmers, The Sorrows of Empire (New York: Owl Books, 2004)Google Scholar; Kupchan, Charles A., The End of the American Era (New York: Knopf, 2002)Google Scholar; Murphy, Cullen, Are We Rome? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007)Google Scholar; Nye, Joseph S., The Paradox of American Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)Google Scholar; Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Eagle Has Crash Landed,” Foreign Policy, July 1, 2002, 60–68; Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Decline of American Power (New York: New Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

2 Murphy, Andrew, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

3 See Benhabib, Seyla, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996)Google Scholar, 160; Feher, Ferenc, “Freedom and the Social Question (Hannah Arendt's Theory of the French Revolution),” Philosophy and Social Criticism 12, no. 1 (1987): 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hansen, Philip, Hannah Arendt: Politics, History, Citizenship (Cambridge: Polity, 1993)Google Scholar, 181, 251; Jacobson, Norman, “Parable and Paradox: In Response to Arendt's On Revolution,” Salmagundi 60 (1983): 131Google Scholar; Kateb, George, “Death and Politics: Hannah Arendt's Reflections on the American Constitution,” Social Research 54, no. 3 (1987): 607Google Scholar; Landes, Joan, “Novus Ordo Saeclorum: Gender and Public Space in Arendt's Revolutionary France,” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, ed. Honig, Bonnie (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995): 195220Google Scholar; Miller, James, “The Pathos of Novelty: Hannah Arendt's Image of Freedom in the Modern World,” in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Hill, Melvyn A. (New York: St. Martin's, 1979), 193–96Google Scholar; Moruzzi, Norma, Speaking Through the Mask: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Social Identity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 2325Google Scholar; Nisbet, Robert, “Hannah Arendt and the American Revolution,” Social Research 44, no. 1 (1977): 6470Google Scholar; Sitton, John, “Hannah Arendt's Argument for Council Democracy,” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays, ed. Hinchman, Lewis and Hinchman, Sandra (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 307–29Google Scholar; Soni, Vivasvan, “A Classical Politics without Happiness? Hannah Arendt and the American Revolution,” Cultural Critique 74 (2010): 3247CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sheldon Wolin, “Hannah Arendt: Democracy and the Political,” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays, 289–306.

4 Pitkin, Hanna, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt's Concept of the Social (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 225Google Scholar. Two more recent attempts to respond to the “social question” in Arendt's work focus on returning us to the historical context of the emergence of the social, especially in light of the fact that Arendt herself is, as Kirstie McClure puts it, narrating an “alternative account of the historicity of the modern age.” In contextualizing the social in this way, arguments are given for why this problematic concept plays an important, and perhaps justified, role in Arendt's work. My interest here, however, informed by these historical contextualizations, is in the clarity of the concept of the social itself vis-à-vis other Arendtian categories against which it is pitted and the phenomena it is trying to explain, phenomena McClure calls events “on the ground.” See McClure, Kirstie, “The Social Question, Again,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 28, no. 1 (2007): 85113CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Owens, Patricia, “Not Life but the World is at Stake: Hannah Arendt on Citizenship in the Age of the Social,” Citizenship Studies 16, no. 2 (2012): 297307CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Concern with this and other ambiguities was a constant in the revolutionary period. See Wood, Gordon, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998)Google Scholar, 65, 93–97, 107–14; Kammen, Michael, People of Paradox (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 233–38Google Scholar.

6 Bernstein, J. M., “Promising and Civil Disobedience,” in Thinking in Dark Times, ed. Berkowitz, Roger, Katz, Jeffrey, and Keenan, Thomas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 115Google Scholar. Patchen Markell, notably, has already begun the process of rethinking the interwoven Arendtian categories, especially the relation of labor to work and work to action in response to both critics and supporters of Arendt. See Markell, Patchen, “The Architecture of the Human Condition,” College Literature 38, no. 1 (2011): 1544Google Scholar.

7 My choice of Miller and Bercovitch is solely due to limitations of space and focus. I have learned much from Hammer, Dean, The Puritan Tradition in Revolutionary, Federalist, and Whig Political Theory (New York: Peter Lang, 1998)Google Scholar; McKenna, George, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Stout, Harry, The New England Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

8 Among many others interested in Arendtian storytelling see Disch, Lisa Jane, Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Seyla Benhabib, “Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative,” in Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays, 111–42; Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt.

9 Much of the evidence I provide is drawn from the formal structure, narrative, and thematic content of the text. However, there is one footnote in On Revolution suggesting Arendt's consciousness of the structure, content, and aims of a jeremiad. In a footnote dealing with postrevolutionary historiography, Arendt describes the Puritan project of remembrance and historical writing in the exact terms she uses for her own project, even citing Cotton Mather's jeremiadic history Magnalia Christi Americana: “the Puritans, in contrast to the Pilgrims as well as to the men of the Revolution, were deeply concerned with their own history; they believed that, even if they should lose, their spirit would not be lost so long as they knew how to remember. Thus Cotton Mather wrote: ‘I shall count my Country lost in the loss of the Primitive Principles, and the Primitive Practices, upon which it was at first Established: But certainly one good way to save that Loss would be to do something . . . that the Story of the Circumstances attending the Foundation and Formation of this Country, and of its Preservation hitherto, may be impartially handed unto Posterity’ (Magnalia, Book II, 8–9)” (Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution [New York: Viking, 1965]Google Scholar, 319; hereafter OR). This is hardly conclusive, but it does at least suggest that Arendt was imagining her own project in terms borrowed from at least one jeremiad.

10 Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 40Google Scholar.

11 Miller, New England Mind, 51; Cotton, John, “Christian Calling,” in The Puritans, ed. Miller, Perry and Johnson, Thomas H. (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001), 319–27Google Scholar.

12 Delbanco, Andrew, The Puritan Ordeal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 13Google Scholar.

13 Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 67Google Scholar.

14 For example, Stoughton, William, New-England's True Interest (Cambridge, MA, 1670), 1517Google Scholar; Samuel Danforth, A Brief Recognition of New-England's Errand into the Wilderness (1670),

15 Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 12.

16 Miller, Perry, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1956), 185203Google Scholar; Bercovitch, American Jeremiad, 176–210; Delbanco, Puritan Ordeal, 235–52.

17 See especially Whitman, Walt, Democratic Vistas (Amsterdam: Fredonia Press, 2002), 815Google Scholar.

18 Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar, italics added.

19 Arendt, OR, 37, italics added.

20 Arendt, The Human Condition, 5–6.

21 Benhabib's claim that Arendtian storytelling practices a “fragmentary history” that is not a “history of decline” is valid; except for the fragmentary decline narrative she gives of the American Revolution. See Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, 94.

22 For just one of many examples see Increase Mather's “Man Knows Not His Time,” which responds to the deaths of two Harvard students who fell through some ice (Miller and Johnson, The Puritans, 340–48).

23 Arendt, OR, 2.

24 Ibid., 8.

25 Ibid., 285.

26 Pirro, Robert, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Tragedy (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001), 1727Google Scholar.

27 Arendt, Hannah and Jaspers, Karl, Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers Correspondence, 1926–1969 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 504–6Google Scholar.

28 Arendt, OR, 238.

29 Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 140Google Scholar; see Pirro, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Tragedy, 88.

30 Arendt, OR, 37. Incidentally, if this image suggests any particular tragedies to which Arendt should have turned, surely it would be to the Oresteia.

31 This, however, seems false: surely slavery and the genocide and expropriation of native peoples can be understood as America's tragic, traumatic violent act.

32 Arendt, OR, 45–46, 53.

33 Pirro, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Tragedy, 79–89.

34 See White, Hayden, Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 5180Google Scholar; and White, Hayden, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 9Google Scholar. For White, tragedy (unlike comedy) does not reconcile societal divisions or reconstitute the hero as a sovereign agent, but it does demonstrate to the spectator the crucial importance of, for example, the limitations of human action and intelligence in a world dominated by gods, fate, and a resistant natural world.

35 Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. Nisbet, H. B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §140Google Scholar.

36 Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, 6–10, 23.

37 Arendt refers to Weber several times in The Human Condition (although, oddly, never in On Revolution), and most of the references are to his work on the spirit of capitalism, not to his analyses of modern law and government.

38 Heidegger, notoriously, argues that if Dasein is necessarily Mitsein, then our historizing is always co-historizing, and thus our individual Fate is, with others, a Destiny, one for which each generation must struggle to free itself. For Arendt, such a conception of an authentic community is not only apolitical, but dangerously antipolitical. See Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, John and Robinson, Edward (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1962), 436Google Scholar. Nor could Arendt possibly find anything but dangerous error in Heidegger's description of the polis and ruler that emerges from his reading of the choral ode to the wondrousness of man in Antigone. See Heidegger, Martin, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Manheim, Ralph (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 148–65Google Scholar.

39 It is not hard to find in Arendt's work, even in On Revolution, parallels between Arendt's interpretation of Benjaminian quotation as “interrupting the flow of the presentation with ‘transcendent force’ . . . and at the same time of concentrating within themselves that which is presented,” as well as the assumption of the identity of the historian as an “heir and preserver” who “unexpectedly turns into a destroyer.” However, this “mode” of historical investigation does not entail a particular emplotment. One can be a pearl diver and write a jeremiad. See Arendt, Hannah, Men in Dark Times (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 193206Google Scholar.

40 Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power, trans. Kaufmann, Walter (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), Preface and §§16Google Scholar.

41 For Arendt's—at moments quite ironic—reading of Heideggerian Seinsgeschichte and the notion of “errancy” see Arendt, Hannah, The Life of the Mind: Willing (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1971), 172–94Google Scholar. On her reading of later Heidegger, it is obvious that the History of Being can play no role in her account of the American Revolution (or the French, for that matter). Nor could any idea of a return to or creation of an “other beginning.”

42 Arendt, OR, 82.

43 Ibid., 86.

44 Shulman, George, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 810Google Scholar.

45 Arendt, The Human Condition, 183.

46 Arendt, OR, 53.

47 Ibid., 54.

48 Ibid., 62, italics added.

49 Arendt adds, in a few too-brief pages, that the fact of slavery proves the deceptiveness of the image of America as free from abjection. See Arendt, OR, 65–66 and Anne Norton, “Heart of Darkness: Africa and African Americans in the Writings of Hannah Arendt,” in Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, 254. The irony is that Arendt's jeremiad would be even richer, more powerful, if it attended closely not to the hypocrisy of the founders but to the multitude of ways in which America has betrayed its other founding aspiration and, for Arendt, the precondition of political action: the dream of material satisfaction. That Arendt's image of colonial America is misleading (but not, from what I have read, altogether wrong) and that matters were far more complex can be verified by turning to various social histories of colonial America. See, for two relatively brief examples amongst a whole literature, Smith, Billy G., “Poverty and Economic Marginality in Eighteenth-Century America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 132, no. 1 (1988): 85118Google Scholar; Nash, Gary B., Smith, Billy G., and Hoerder, Dirk, “Labor in the Era of the American Revolution: An Exchange,” Labor History 24, no. 3 (1983): 414–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the other hand, see Wood, Gordon S., The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 122Google Scholar.

50 Arendt, OR, 86–87.

51 To be sure it is also true, as Andreas Kalyvas has argued, that Arendt laid much blame for the failures of the French Revolution (and the relative success of the American Revolution) on the resuscitation of a political-theological sovereignty in France in the form of the People, whereas in America sovereignty was consistently abolished. See Kalyvas, Andreas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 213CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Arendt, OR, 123–25.

53 Soni, “Classical Politics without Happiness,” 39.

54 Ibid., 36 and n20. For the broader context of Soni's argument see Soni, Vivasvan, Mourning Happiness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

55 Arendt, OR, 129. What Soni ignores is a key Arendtian distinction between freedom and liberty that maps onto the “twofold” meaning of happiness in the Declaration. See Arendt, Between Past and Future, 148.

56 Arendt, OR, 125.

57 Ibid., 133.

58 Ibid., 135.

59 Ibid., 135.

60 Ibid., 275, italics added.

61 Ibid., 265; see also Arendt, Hannah, Crises of the Republic (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1972), 231Google Scholar.

62 Arendt, OR, 275.

63 Frank, Jason, Constituent Moments (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 44Google Scholar. Lisa Disch argues not only that Arendt's text is “fabulous” and factually inaccurate, as most agree, but that Arendt uses and redeploys Federalist history and ideology even though her argument for council democracy is in many respects decidedly Anti-Federalist (and would have found better support in the political practice of the Girondins). Disch presents a strong case. See Disch, Lisa, “How Could Hannah Arendt Glorify the American Revolution and Revile the French? On Revolution in the Historiography of the French and American Revolutions,” European Journal of Political Theory 10, no. 3 (2011): 350–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 Arendt, OR, 8.

65 Ibid., 222, 223.

66 Ibid., 222.

67 Ibid., 226.

68 Ibid., 234–35. Whatever one makes of the Jeffersonian ward system, or council democracy, New England–style townships, bottom-up federalism, and so on, I would argue that the basic problem haunting the institutionalization of the political is precisely that it is not the establishment of relatively permanent spaces for political action that is required—in most modern liberal democracies such laws and spaces exist—but the reactivation of the revolutionary spirit, a spirit that the founders, with the exception of Jefferson, “took for granted.” See OR, 241. Thus, the spontaneous formations of the councils in revolutions, even if institutionalized, would only be used by those who were willing or compelled by revolutionary circumstances to take on the burdens and potentials of public life. For Arendt, politics in its authentic sense is likely to involve a small minority of any population (see OR, 280–81). For this reason, I am less convinced, even on Arendt's own terms, that the problem is the failure to institutionalize the space of politics. Rather, the problem is that the desire to enter the political sphere is limited to a few and often ephemeral. In other words, the problem is not how to combine the revolutionary and the conservative ethos, but how to give to the contingent and ephemeral spirit or desire for revolution/political action the durability of the laws and material spaces that would house such action. This problem is as hard, if not harder, to solve, and it undermines even Arendt's later suggestion for institutionalizing civil disobedience within the American legal system. See Arendt, Crises of the Republic, 101.

69 Kalyvas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary, 241–48. My own tendency is not to read Arendt's principles as norms at all but as adverbial descriptions of what is manifest by the “style,” the virtù, of the action.

70 In particular, Arendt's argument that we need deliberately to think together revolution and conservation only makes her “decision” to think the material and the spiritual apart more suspect, especially as her own descriptions of the phenomena are in contradiction to her conceptual distinctions. My own sense is that Arendt was not consciously deciding to confuse one set of oppositions while keeping distinct another set of oppositions. Arendt neither needs to be defended here from the charge of inconsistency nor reconstructed so as to be consistent. When Arendt argues that we should undo the revolutionary/conservative opposition as it has developed since the French Revolution and Burke's response (among others), it is for a precise reason: to save the revolutionary from itself, from its own tendencies to self-destruction, by showing how a revolutionary moment can be conserved in a revolutionary spirit. At no point does Arendt make a methodological statement committing her to either maintaining or “deconstructing” conceptual oppositions. My interest here is critical: we should ask whether and to what extent maintaining or making ambiguous a conceptual opposition serves a political or narrative purpose, and what is at stake for us as readers and theorists in the answers we give to those questions.

71 See especially Stoughton, New-England's True Interest.

72 Kammen, People of Paradox, 100.