Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Crackpot Posing as a Genius

I've been noticing many articles, recently, about the plight of loneliness. It's now linked to anxiety and depression, and addiction, and a former US Surgeon General calls it the most common threat to public health.

We blame the internet and social media for a loss of connection between people, but this piece was written in the 1940s:
"Loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others. . . . it seems that Epictetus, the emancipated slave philosopher of Greek origin, was the first to distinguish between loneliness and solitude. . . . As Epictetus sees it the lonely man finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact or to whose hostility he is exposed. The solitary man, on the contrary, is alone and therefore "can be together with himself" since men have the capacity of 'talking with themselves.' In solitude, in other words, I am 'by myself,' together with my self, and therefore two-in-one, whereas in loneliness I am actually one, deserted by all others. . . . The problem of solitudes is that this two-in-one needs the others in order to become one again: one unchangeable individual whose identity can never be mistaken for that of any other. For the confirmation of any identity I depend entirely upon other people. . . .  
Solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self. Solitary men have always been in danger of loneliness, when they can no longer find the redeeming grace of companionship to save them from duality and equivocality and doubt. Historically, it seems as though this danger became sufficiently great to be noticed by others and recorded by history only in the nineteenth century. It showed itself clearly when philosophers, for whom alone solitude is a way of life and a condition of work, were no longer content with the fact that 'philosophy is only for the few' and began to insist that nobody 'understands' them. . . . Conversely, there is always the chance that a lonely man finds himself and starts the thinking dialogue of solitude" (476-7)."  
It's from Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism.


I like the somewhat novel idea she suggests that we can decrease our own loneliness by being better company for ourselves through our own engaging internal dialogue. It's far more commonly suggested that we stave off pangs of isolation by being a joiner: join all the clubs and teams and go to the events and then, surrounded by people, we'll somehow feel connected. But we know that doesn't work like that. Apparently, we've known that for almost two thousand years.

Back here I suggested that maybe loneliness should just be accepted as part of the human condition, and maybe this acceptance could diminish the stigma around it, and it wouldn't be as difficult to endure. But Arendt has a much more urgent understanding of loneliness:
"It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together" (474).  
"While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man" (475).  
"What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality" (478). 
Her concern was that loneliness was so common because it was politically manufactured. It's a useful condition if enough people are disillusioned enough that a group of racists welcoming you is "a last support in a world where nobody is reliable." She claims it starts with extreme individualization and the loss of organic groups people previously joined because of shared beliefs rather than as a means to attempt connections. Without these affiliations, there runs a danger of the seemingly neutral masses being easily swayed. She describes them as people who,
"because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially, they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls" (311).
And then she has this to say this about Hitler,
"Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and 'the conviction that everything is balderdash' could best be avoided by adhering to one of the many current opinions with 'unbending consistency.' The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates" (305).
Yikes.

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