Seyla Benhabib: Preliminary Notes on an Exploration of Arendt and Nietzsche

By Seyla Benhabib

Hannah Arendt’s familiarity and engagement with Nietzsche’s work are deep and pervasive.  Nietzsche certainly belongs among the canon of philosophers that she most wrote about – the others being Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Machiavelli and Marx and to a lesser extent Plato, Hegel and Descartes.

Yet Arendt’s engagement with Nietzsche cannot be characterized as a whole-hearted embrace of his thought nor can it be adequately analyzed in terms of Nietzsche’s “influence” on Arendt. [i] Unlike the interpretation or recovery of Nietzsche in French thought by Bataille, Deleuze and Blanchot, Arendt’s reading is neither epochal nor melodramatic. It marks no caesura in her work of one kind or another.  If I may be permitted a musical analogy, I will say that Nietzsche was a major chord in Arendt’s orchestra of philosophers but neither the Konzertmeister nor the first violinist!!

Let me begin by recalling a number of broad themes against the background of which I will read Arendt’s most intense engagement with Nietzsche in The Life of the Mind, vol. 2, Willing.[ii]

  1. The Greeks – common appreciation of Greek celebration of great action (to kalon), immortality, agonism, focus on appearance and self-revelation; to be is to appear- Heidegger, “Being as Erschlossenheit” (as unconcealment). Rejection of two-world metaphysics in Plato and Kant.
  2. The Polis – Yet Arendt is an appreciator of the political order of the polis; while Nietzsche hearkens back to an earlier, archaic period when the Dionysian spirit has not been crushed by the rationalism of the life of politics. Nietzsche’s “public sphere” is not political but Dionysian – or the relation between the Dionysian and the Apollonian synthesis is contentious and unclear (at least to me). Arendt does not share the celebration of the Dionysian and remains a decided admirer of Socrates contra Nietzsche’s critique. Socrates is the paradigmatic moral thinker for  Arendt (see, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,”[iii]). The “dialogue of the soul with itself,” or “the two-in-one,” which the young Nietzsche considers to be the origin of guilt, self-repression and the ruse of the weak over the strong (Genealogy of Morals), is celebrated by Arendt as that activity of the soul without which a consideration of right and wrong would be impossible.  (Thinking is not moral judging and the relationship of thought to moral doing remains to be explored in Arendt).
  3. Modernity: Nietzsche’s claim that “Modernity is the Age of Suspicion” is shared by Arendt. She characterizes modernity as a process of “world alienation,” inaugurated by Cartesian doubt and also by the privatization of public life.  The second stage of modernity (the age of full automated technology) leads to “earth alienation,” when the process of human technology triumphs over and penetrates nature through the availability of the atomic bomb and the possibility of destroying life on earth. Nonetheless, the rise of modern, mass capitalist society and the dual processes of world- and earth-alienation do not lead Arendt to a speculative history of Being that sees the overall project of western reason as one of “Gestell,” as in Heidegger. Arendt is a reluctant modernist who still believes in retrieving “pearls” from the tradition such as to guide the human mind and action for the future.  Walter Benjamin’s influence on Arendt’s understanding of history and political thought as an activity of “pearl-diving” cannot be underestimated (See Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History). If there is a “transvaluation of values” for Arendt, it involves a rejection of nihilism through an affirmation of our capacities for “natality” and “building new institutions.” This calls attention to the remarkable ending of her discussion of Nietzsche in The Life of the Mind, with the Hebrew and Roman founding of news institutions – a novus ordo seclorum (pp. 195-207)

Let us now turn to The Life of the Mind, called “Conclusions,” (pp. 149-219). This section is also one of the most extensive commentary and re-engagement with Heidegger on Arendt’s part. Her rejection of Heidegger’s own interpretation of the “Kehre, (p. 181 ff ) is remarkable and repudiates the idea that Arendt simply “forgave” Heideger his mistake after her famous essay, “Martin Heidegger is achtzig Jahre alt” was first published in 1971 in the NYR.

In this volume, Arendt rejects the psychology of “faculties” which would see the will as one among the many faculties such as reason, desires etc. Her orientation is phenomenological: the question is not, “what” or “where” is the will but which human experiences lead us to believe in the “will”? – The Greeks had no concept for it (except possibly, thymos); the will  emerges with the experience of Christianity – St. Augustine – “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Two dimensions of the will: choice- liberum arbitrium (choice between means to ends; and alternatives); initiating the new, starting a “new series” in time and this appears either illusory (one thinks one is free to do or not to do) or impossible (whatever happens, happens for a cause).  Nietzsche, for Arendt, is the philosopher who is most acutely aware of the experiences that correspond or engender the human belief in the “will.”  Pp.20-21 from the Introduction are important here.

The illusion that we are free derives “from a sensation of pleasure,” writes Nietzsche, because we believe that it is the I, the Ego that is “willing and performing, willing and acting” (quoted on p. 161). This is a trick of the “I” that enables it to “escape conflict by identifying itself with the commanding part…” (161) and to shift from I-will to the I-can.  Arendt interprets this “shift” from the “I-will and cannot” of Paulinian ethics to the “I-will” and “I-can,” “as an unqualified Yes to Life, that is, to an elevation of Life as experienced outside all mental activities to the rank of supreme value by which everything else is to be evaluated.” (163)

That life is the supreme value cannot be demonstrated; it is a mere hypothesis.  Arendt then turns to the second story in Nietzsche’s disquisition on the will, which she calls, following Nietzsche, a “thought-experiment.” (166)  On the whole, Arendt’s reading of Nietzsche is remarkable for its judicious and balanced tone and for her great sensitivity to the use of aphorisms, parables, metaphors and thought-experiments in Nietzsche. This avoids a certain naïve literalism in interpreting Nietzsche’s politics as well.

The most daunting thought-experiment of all, “das grősste Schwergewicht,” is that of “eternal return.” (166)  Let us read from Nietzsche.

Arendt discusses this passage at great length because the fact that “the will cannot will backwards,” that it cannot stop the wheel of time gives rise to a feeling of impotence and  from this impotence, “Nietzsche derives all human evil – resentment, the thirst for vengeance (we punish because we cannot undo what has been done), the thirst for power to dominate others.” (168)  If the will is shown to be an illusion, if one repudiates willing, one would be freed from an unbearable responsibility, “if nothing that was done could be undone.”

The time-consciousness of willing, which Arendt places at the center of her reading of Nietzsche here – (“the Will’s clash with the past”, 168) – is one that pre-occupies her throughout this volume. She also reads Heidegger’s concept of “Sorge” as a surrogate for “willing” and in terms of its future-orientation (176). Both Care and Willing are about what one intends to bring about but which one cannot control. In these processes of caring and acting one is delivered to forces which one cannot predict or wholly govern. For Arendt, this uncontrollability of the future is inherent in action’s creativity as well as its vulnerability. No one controls the narrative of their actions, the stories that will be told of one when one acts. The actor is both the doer and the victim.  In The Human Condition Arendt will develop her own theory of the temporality of action; its becoming part of a “web of narratives,” which are always plural and perspectival and conflictual. The same impotence that Nietzsche and Heidegger see as characterizing Sorge and the Will, Arendt reads as the risk and unpredictability at the heart of the human condition insofar as acting and speaking agents.  Inserted we are thrown into the “web or narratives” of the human life-world, but we seek to reduce their fragility through two activities: promising and forgiving.

Through the “mental exercise” of the “eternal return” Nietzsche seeks  to “recreate all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’,” and concludes “that alone should I call redemption.” (169)  Together with the celebration of the fullness of life (die Fülle des Lebens) in all its becoming, and a celebration of Being as sheer Becoming, this would lead, in Arendt’s view, to “an art of living one’s life,” in the tradition of the great Stoic, Epictetus.  She concludes that the “psychologically powerful trick consists in willing that to happen which happens anyhow.” (170).

Arendt’s coup de grace, however, consists in her conclusion that Nietzsche’s last aphoristic remarks, thought-experiments etc collected in The Will to Power, clearly spell out “a  repudiation of the Will and the willing ego.” (172) The internal experience of willing and its conflicts led one to think that there are such things as “cause and effect, intention and goal.”  For Arendt, these conclusions derive from the fallacy of thinking about “action” from the standpoint of the thinker rather than of the “men of action;” of thinking about freedom as a philosophical problem rather than as the experience of “political liberty.”

I will conclude these remarks by returning to Arendt’s own analysis of “promising” and “forgiving” as two human activities that counter the unpredictability of the realm of human affairs- not through a repudiation of the will- but through the capacity to bind oneself into the future via promising and to have the past lose its grip on one not through resentment but through forgiveness.



[i] I have to admit that my judgment is not shared by all Arendt scholars: there were intense disagreements among myself, George Kateb, Dana Villa, and Bonnie Honig in the 1990’s which concerned primarily situating Arendt’s thought in the spectrum between Kant and Nietzsche.  I emphasized and continue to do so, the “communicative” versus the “performative” model of action in Arendt’s thought, and the democratic/deliberative vs. the “agonistic” conceptions of the political.  There is little question, however, that both dimension are present in her thought and it is a matter of hermeneutic strategy to choose which perspective permits us to render coherent Arendt’s work as a whole, and in particular, her much-neglected Jewish writings, which are hard to reconcile with the agonistic paradigm.

See George Kateb,  Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil (New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984); Dana Villa, “Beyond Good and Evil: Arendt, Nietzsche and the Aestheticizaton of Political Action,” Political Theory, 20, no. 2 (1992): 274-309; Dana Villa, Arendt and Heidegger. The Fate of the Political (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Bonnie Honig, “Arendt, Identity and Difference,” Political Theory, 16, no. 1 (1988): 77-99; Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996; reissued with a new Introduction and Afterward [New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)

[ii] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind. Vol. 2, Willing (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1978).

[iii] H. Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Social Research (1971); reprinted in the 50th Anniversary issue of Social Research (Spring/Summer 1984)

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