Book Review: Hannah Arendt On Violence

Figure 1A: Hannah Arendt's pithy work, On Violence. (photo courtesy of Amazon)

Figure 1A: Hannah Arendt’s pithy work, On Violence. (photo courtesy of Amazon)

After a read through the text On Violence, I do understand why Hannah Arendt dislikes violence. The two European Civil Wars that drug the rest of the world into unnecessary combat and choosing sides, the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution of China, Stalinist pogroms, Yugoslavian massacres, Moro rebellions that were ruthlessly crushed, the suppression of Tibetan Muslims and countless other atrocities leave any student of history like Miss Arendt with a throbbing in the heart.

Violence is never the answer. Political and diplomatic means have to be sought to resolve whatever the issue. “Violence begets violence,” Mrs. Oktober used to tell me when I would try to fight back as a nine year old against a horde of eleven year old white children at recess time because I would not pay the “playground tax” in order to play kick ball or sit on the swings. Then there are the long term consequences of violence.

This may have really played on Arendt’s time when she left Germany to escape and seek somewhere that the long arm of National Socialism did not reach. Within her text on the matter is a compliment to this position, namely that violence in some cases is necessary and in fact criminal if avoided in called for emergencies and dire circumstances. Her struggle with the two opposing views, that of political action and eschewing violence and the other with allowing it for war or national aims, can be seen in On Violence.

Within its’ pages, she seeks to layout the whens, whys and proportion of violence that can be used in these circumstances but then this leads back to questions of subjectivity and how can one be sure that the violence was proportional, that justice has truly been served or that the enemy has been repelled. Questions that came into my mind were things such as: suppose that upon attaining one’s political rights through elections the army cancels the elections and rolls back the result? Would violence in this case be valid?

If there was a break in and one of the burglars was prevailed upon physically by the homeowner but one escaped back through the window or door, would it be proportional to pursue him as well? What if the homeowner caught up with him after giving chase and the man put up a fight? Is the burglar in self-defense now as a man on the street or is this the continuation of the homeowner defending his house and loved ones even though he is now away from the property’s boundary lines?

I cannot help thinking that there is a touch of enlightenment thinking and idealism in this offering from Arendt and that the struggle within its’ pages is less to do with reconciling two opposing points but more to do with non-violence (how the world should be) and the reality (how the world is). It would have been really exciting to have met her and asked her how she squared her position with the Warsaw uprisings, the battles the State of Israel has been engaged in up until our time and its’ preemptive strikes based upon the belief that they are indeed always in the same imminent danger as the day the Final Solution was declared.

Although the great bulk of the work I do not agree with, I still find Miss Arendt to be a great intellect and as having possessed a refreshing lack of bitterness in the oppression that she underwent. Instead she made this part of her classroom of the school of life. Appearing as a mere 87 pages, I advise the reader to take a look at the book and give it a careful read.


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