Hannah Arendt quotes on political lying

As I was rummaging through some of my old, college notes, I discovered a collection of quotes from Hannah Arendt, a 20th century, German Jew who wrote as a political theorist (read more about her on Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). I compiled the quotes for a research project I did on lying.

My project focused on how lies relate to freedom and action in society, particularly how they allow us to create a reality as we think it should be rather than as it is.

I’d forgotten most of the details of this project until I rediscovered some of these quotes. I hadn’t realized how much Arendt’s thoughts had influenced my own, so I thought I’d share some of the quotes here. I’ve tried to arrange some of them in context, but most are just thrown together from the pile. It’s up to you go read more from her if you’re interested.

Ideologies: How we form our theories

“Ideologies are systems of explanation of life and world that claim to explain everything, past and future, without further concurrence with actual experience.”

“Insofar as ideological thinking is independent of existing reality, it looks upon all factuality as fabricated, and therefore no longer knows any reliable criterion for distinguishing truth from falsehood.”

“[T]hey will be tempted to fit their reality… into their theory…”

“They needed no facts, no information: they had a ‘theory,’ and all data that did not fit were denied or ignored.”

“[T]hey have received the twofold gift of freedom and action [and as a result] can establish a reality of their own.”

Lying: How we create our reality

“Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.”

“[L]ies, since they are often used as substitutes for more violent means, are apt to be considered relatively harmless tools in the arsenal of political action.”

“Critics of… Immanuel Kant attacked his extreme perfectionism because ‘it would make any society impossible’ as it was not practical always to tell only the truth; furthermore, it was perverse to tell the truth when this harmed others.”

“[T]hey lied not so much for their country… as for its ‘image’…”

“”The more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.”

“No factual statement can ever be beyond doubt… It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as th liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality…”

“The government lies to gain credibility. Interestingly enough, it often works.”

“…as though a fact is safely removed from the world if only enough people believe in its nonexistence.”

Facts: How we interact with truth

“The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.”

“Factual truth, on the contrary, is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstances in which many are involved; it is established by witnesses and depends upon testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even if it occurs in the domain of privacy. It is political by nature.”

“Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies. The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”

“Facts inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth.”

“Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not dispute. In other words, factual truth informs political thought just as rational truth informs philosophical speculation.”

“Calling this filter a barrier to action is as misleading as calling the structure of language a barrier to communication.”

“The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever.”

Action: How we act freely

“The society that gives one the freedom to define one’s alternatives is, in particular, a society in which political action is possible. When one exercises control or major influence over the pattern or rules of interaction, thus altering the social maze rather than running it, one acts politically.”

“Action insofar as it is free is neither under the guidance of the intellect nor under the dictate of the will – although it needs both for the execution of any particular goal – but springs from something altogether different which… I should call a principle.”

“[T]here are political possibilities that go beyond the menu of choices conceived by the participants.”

“A truly free act should transcend the publicly defined choices.”

“[A]ll our theories in these matters are dominated by the notion that freedom is an attribute of will and thought much rather than of action.”

“Men are free – as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom – as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

“[B]y setting an example and ‘persuading’ the multitude in the only way open to him, he has begun to act.”

The 3 quotes that probably influenced me the most

“A characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new… In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed… Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are.”

“The deliberate denial of factual truth – the ability to lie – the capacity to change facts – the ability to act – are interconnected; they owe their existence to… imagination.”

“We are free to change the world and start something new in it.”

Your thoughts on this?

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