Linda Zerilli | From Willing to Judging: What Arendt Found in Nietzsche

By Linda M. G. Zerilli

At the end of “Willing” (Volume 2 of The Life of the Mind), Hannah Arendt explicitly announces the need to write a section on “judging” in order to respond to the impasses in “every philosophy of the will,” especially as it bears on democratic theory and practice.[1] Why? Why move from willing to judging? What problem does the will raise that the turn to the “faculty of Judgment” (LMW, 217) might solve? And what on earth does Nietzsche have to do with it?

These are large questions, some of which have been raised by commentators before me, but allow me to suggest one possible line of response that takes into account Nietzsche’s place in Arendt’s political thought. In the philosophy of the will Arendt identified the central aporia of democratic action: how to think and affirm plurality and a nonsovereign concept of freedom. Indeed, aporia, which comes from the Greek aporos and means literally “without passage,” best describes what Arendt discovered in her reflections on the faculty of the will: There is no way to move from the idea of the will as free (which is to say, sovereign) to the idea of membership in a democratic community. For the freedom of the will, as Nietzsche on Arendt’s own telling recognized, is irreducibly bound to the logic of obedience and command: “What is called ‘freedom of the will’ is essentially a passionate superiority toward a someone who must obey. ‘I am free’; “he” must obey’—the consciousness of this is the very willing.”[2] It is “strange indeed,” she remarks, that “the faculty of the will whose essential activity consists in dictate and command should be [so it is said] the harborer of freedom.”[3] And not only strange but bearing “fatal consequences for political theory;… this equation of freedom with the human capacity to will,” she writes, is “one of the causes why even today we almost automatically equate power with oppression or, at least, with rule over others.”[4] Freedom as freedom of the will/freedom as sovereignty, she writes elsewhere, is bound up with the idea of power as rule/force—“making others act as I choose” (OV, 36).

Arendt’s writings attempt to break with the entire modern philosophy of the will in which the twin ideas of power as rule/force and freedom as sovereignty have been housed. This break is far more radical than anything proposed by either so-called agonistic democrats or the otherwise mostly neo-Kantian tradition of modern and contemporary democratic theory. Whereas the former celebrates the productive role of conflict in politics but more or less ignores the continuing influence of the philosophy of the will on democratic theory and practice, the latter would manage such conflict by rearticulating democratic will-formation as rational will-formation. This latter tradition, represented in different ways by Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls, questions not the faculty of the will as having a legitimate role to play in democratic politics but its mute, solitary character and groundless exercise or what is known as decisionism: a position that is associated with legal and political theorists such as Carl Schmitt but also with those who come under the sway of Nietzsche and his critical genealogy of values.

Arendt’s turn to Nietzsche is critical but also appreciative: he figures in her larger project to reveal the dangerous illusion of freedom as sovereignty, the idea that every “I-will” is also an “I-can” that has no need for others. And not only no need, but no tolerance of others, for they are mere obstacles to one’s freedom understood as the direct exercise of one’s will. “Nothing indeed can be more frightening than the notion of solipsistic freedom—the ‘feeling’ that my standing apart, isolated from everyone else, is due to free will” (195-196), she writes. It is this idea of freedom as sovereignty and not the problem of rational collective will-formation that is at the heart of Arendt’s critical democratic project. This project neither dismisses nor invites decisionism—that is, the notion that political actions and principles require no valid reasons but are simply the expressions of a groundless will—because, in breaking with the philosophy of the will, Arendt breaks with the very idea of democratic politics as will-formation tout court, rational or not.

Arendt breaks not only with the idea of the will that yields the permanent threat of decisionism (just as rationalism yields the permanent threat of skepticism; and objectivism yields subjectivism) but also with certain assumptions about human action, criticized but not thought through in any political sense by Nietzsche, that keep the possibility of beginning tied to the power of the will. Refuting the will as the origin of action and human freedom in the distinctively political sense that she understood the power of beginning (i.e., precisely not as Kantian spontaneity, which is the ambivalent achievement of “Man in the singular,” but as being with “men in the plural” in word and deed), Arendt goes on to refigure this possibility in relation to the power of judgment.[5]

Once we question, with Arendt, the idea that rational will-formation is the aim of democratic politics, decisionism ceases to present itself as a genuine political problem. Her often noted failure to generate the normative criteria according to which democratic politics involves the formation not just of a common will but a will that is rational could be read as part of a genuine innovation, an innovation, I suggest, that amounts to a virtual Copernican Revolution in political theorizing: namely, an unprecedented break with the philosophy of the will in the history of political thought. This break is Copernican in spirit because it reveals that the very claim to free action that the will arrogates to itself depends on the power of judgment. Although foregrounded in the work of philosophers such as Bergson, Heidegger, and especially Nietzsche, each of whom questioned the will as the locus of freedom, it was Hannah Arendt herself who first recognized the implications of such a break for our understanding of democratic politics.

In the volume on willing, Arendt explicitly addresses what Kant called “the embarrassment of ‘speculative reason in dealing with the question of the freedom of the will . . . [namely with] a power of spontaneously beginning a series of successive things or states” (LMW, 20). In the third antinomy of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant sets this power of spontaneously beginning against the idea that “there is no freedom in the world; everything in the world takes place in accordance with the laws of nature.”[6] “What is so very troublesome is the notion of an absolute beginning,” writes Arendt citing Kant, “for ‘a series occurring in the world can have only a relatively first beginning, being always preceded by some other state of things” (LMW, 29). Save divine creation ex nihilio, beginning must always be relative: it is a beginning only in relation to something that came before it. This is another way of saying that beginning, at least for human beings, is always conditioned. The problem is how to think of beginning as conditioned but not determined.

Arendt insists that “[a] characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new, and this does not mean that it is ever permitted to start ab ovo, to create ex nihilio[7] This point has been lost on many of her interpreters, who tend to read her theory of action as an attempt to redeem the idea of spontaneity that Kant found “embarrassing” and to make it relevant for the political realm. And once you make Kantian spontaneity, which is the act of a groundless will, the model of Arendtian action, it is easy to see how you might begin to think about action in terms of the problem of rational will-formation. The task would be to make what is spontaneous and groundless (decisionistic) into something rational.

But the main problem with “the politics of the will as politics of unconstrained creatio ex nihilio,” as Nadia Urbinati explains, “is that it assumes constitution-making as an act of freedom renunciation rather than freedom constitution or the institution of the space and time of politics.”[8] According to the idea of politics that equates freedom, the will, and sovereignty, freedom is a prepolitical condition that coexists with politics only in the moment of founding or constitution-making. Whatever comes later is by definition not political action in the strong sense. We are left with the impossible choice of the “authentic” extra-ordinary politics of permanent revolution or the “inauthentic” ordinary politics of electoral democracy.

Although he does not directly address the will, Patchen Markell has suggested that the dilemma just described can be addressed by rethinking the relationship of democratic rule to political freedom.[9] In a close reading that I cannot reproduce here, Markell persuasively argues that, for Arendt, “novelty inheres in all events, even those that are expected or predicted” (2). This interpretation turns on thinking about beginning less as a radical break with all that came before (e.g., the instituted political forms and practices of democracy) and more as a certain responsiveness or attunement to the irrevocability of an event. What has happened and cannot be changed—the event itself–becomes “a new point of departure,” writes Markell (7).

What would it mean to think about beginning as “a feature of all events” (6), rather than as a “particular subset of human acts” (6) such as founding or constitution making? Surely Markell does not want to counter the idea of beginning as a rarified feature of some events with the idea of beginning as a property that inheres in all events qua events. How do we determine whether something counts as a beginning? Markell’s answer lies in the idea of “attunement,” which he describes as a certain perspective or stance one takes towards what has happened.[10] Beginning may be “a feature of all events,” but it is more in the way of a potential that must be actualized by democratic citizens than a substance that inheres in all events. What makes one occurrence count as an event that calls for our response is how citizens take it up. Beginning as a feature of all events must be actualized, and this turns on whether others take up any particular event as an occasion for response. “There is no way to undo what has been done, no way not to suffer it—but you can do more than merely suffer it: you can take it as your point of departure” (10), writes Markell.

This attempt to undo what has been done is the option that Nietzsche diagnosed as belonging to the experience of the will as it confronts the “It was.” The will’s relationship to the stubborn “It was” takes the destructive because impossible form of a wish to will backwards, which treats events not as points of departure but as occasions for rancor. I agree with Markell that “the novelty of beginning . . . turns on an agent’s attunement to its [the act’s or event’s] character as an irrevocable event, and therefore as a new point of departure.” But, if Nietzsche is right, such attunement is quite difficult. If we want to avoid treating attunement as a kind of mental state and think about it rather as an activity or a practice, then we must ask: what kind of activity or practice enables me to treat an event as “irrevocable” and as a “point of departure,” rather than as undoable and as an occasion for what Nietzsche called ressentiment?

Whether something counts as an instance of beginning depends not on some intrinsic property of the event qua event, then, but on how we respond. Whether we respond in a way that affirms an event as irrevocable and as a beginning, rather than, say, as an occasion to try to undo what has been done—as I would now interpret Arendt’s critical but also appreciative reading of Kantian spontaneity via an equally critical but also appreciative turn to Nietzsche’s notion of Eternal Recurrence—depends on the capacity to judge or, more specifically, to judge an event in its freedom. In such a judgment an event calls forth an acceptance of the “It was” (what has been given and cannot be changed), rather than the impossible wish to will backwards. For Nietzsche, to be genuine the acceptance must take the form of an affirmation: “To redeem what is past and transform every ‘It was’ into ‘Thus I would have it”—that’s what I take to be redemption.” To redeem the past (Nietzsche) or to treat it as a point of departure rather than merely suffer it (Markell’s Arendt) is not to discover something that inheres in the event qua event but rather to alter one’s relationship to it.

Judgment is needed if events are not to serve as an occasion for rancor in the way Nietzsche diagnosed. “Clearly, what is needful is not to change the world or men but to change their way of ‘evaluating’ it” (LMW, 170), as Arendt describes Nietzsche’s solution to the rancor unleashed by an unchangeable “It-Was.” And though clearly critical of his Epictetian leanings and lack of the political conception of judgment that she would associate with Kant (and his third Critique), Arendt also sees that Nietzsche has identified a pathway that can lead beyond the philosophy of the will and its many aporias. Perhaps that is why she ends her discussion of him by concluding that “Nietzsche’s last word on the subject . . . spells a repudiation of the Will and the willing ego, whose internal experiences have misled thinking men into assuming that there are such things a cause and effect, intention and goal, in reality” (172).

Judgment, then, is necessary because the transition from “the not-yet” to the “already” that all events share brings with it the specter of causality. This is the illusion that Nietzsche so brilliantly diagnosed as animating the illusion of free will. Our ability to take an event as a departure point is related to our ability to see in it something that could have been otherwise, to see contingency rather than necessity.[11] If Eternal Recurrence cannot quite get us there in Arendt’s view, that is because, as a response to the aporias of the will, it remains the thinking man’s answer to a problem invented by “thinking men.” It has no more space for others than did the thinkers of “philosophic freedom” and its “freedom of the will, [a freedom that] is relevant only to people who live outside political communities, as solitary individuals” (LMW, 199). It is, after all, these others who take up our action in ways that we can neither predict nor control that lends action its contingent character and that leads the philosophers to turn away from the whole realm of human affairs. And so Arendt leaves Nietzsche and other “professional thinkers” aside and turns to “men of action” (199), though they too, as it turns out, cannot quite escape the spell of the philosophy of the will.


[1] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1-vol. edition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), vol. 2, “Willing,” 217, 23. Hereafter cited as LMW with page references. Philosophies of the will—which I shall refer to as belonging more generally to the philosophy of the will, though this should not be understood as composing a unified body of thought—do not emerge until the rise of Christianity, says Arendt, as “the faculty of the Will was unknown to Greek antiquity” (LMW, 3). Whatever their differences, most philosophers of the will—the first being Augustine in Arendt’s view—were entangled in denying that the will was free. Showing how the philosophers denied such freedom, Arendt can easily be taken to be defending the freedom of the will. In fact, she contests it, for freedom of the will is associated with sovereignty and politics as rule.

[2] Quoted in LMW, 161.

[3] Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?,” 145.

[4] Ibid., 162.

[5] Although Arendt invokes the Kantian notion of spontaneity understood as the ability to begin a new series in time in her account of freedom, she did not think that the idea of an absolute beginning was possible. More important, the Kantian idea of spontaneity was not political. She may have been led to invoke Kant’s idea of spontaneity as an alternative to the other idea of freedom as liberum arbitrium (the choice between two or more existing objects), which Arendt found to be the preferred idea in the philosophy of the will (which mostly denied freedom). By contrast with Kantian spontaneity, political freedom consists for Arendt in the exchange of word and deed and requires the presence of others, that is, plurality. Freedom understood in the political sense does not produce anything (as does the spontaneity of the artist) and it is not a property of the subject (as it is in the philosophy of the will). See Hannah Arendt, “Introduction into Politics,” in The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken, 2005), 93-200, esp. 127-128.

[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 484-485.

[7] Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972); quotation is from p. 5.

[8] Nadia Urbinati, Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 97.

[9] Patchen Markell, “The Rule of the People: Arendt, Archê, and Democracy, American Political Science Review 100, no. 1 (February 2006): 1-14; quotation is from p. 2. Hereafter cited as Markell with page references.

[10] “Recall that what makes a beginning a beginning for Arendt, what lends it its eruptiveness, is not its degree of departure from what preceded it, but rather our attunement to its character as an irrevocable event, which also means: as an occasion for response” (Markell, 10).

[11] It is precisely this affirmation of contingency that Arendt cites as one of the greatest challenges to thinking about occurrences as events and events as beginnings. Seen from the perspective of consciousness, Arendt writes, what is appears as “absolutely necessary.”

A thing may have happened quite at random, but, once it has come into existence and assumed reality, it loses its aspect of contingency and presents itself to us in the guise of necessity. And even if the event is of our own making, or at least we are one of its contributing causes—as in contracting marriage or committing a crime—the simple existential fact that it now is as it has become (for whatever reasons) is likely to withstand all reflections on its original randomness. Once the contingent has happened, we can no longer unravel the strands that entangled it until it became an event—as though it could still be or not be. (LMW, 138)

The power that enables us to affirm an event as at once irrevocable and contingent, an occasion for beginning, is the power of judgment.

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