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Comment II
Last Updated: 03/16/2007
On Violence: A Reappraisal of Hannah Arendt's General Theory of Violence
Sean English


In relation to the justifications and rationalizations that are generally and normatively used to legitimise some forms of violence and delegitimize other forms of violence, Arendt sets out to show in her book On Violence that these traditional justifications and rationalisations are false. She also dismisses the utilitarian arguments that are made for rationalizing violence in relation to its efficiency and the effectiveness of the use of violence in any conflict situation.  She identifies as false the idea that no alternative or substitute has yet been discovered for the use of violence.


What are the implications of her approach?  There are in my analysis two sets of implications.  The first set of implications of her belief is the following, she believes that no breakthrough in our understanding of violence will be possible unless and until we face up to these false justifications and false rationalizations.


The second set of implications arises from the narratives we tell ourselves about war and violence.  For example, the mega-narrative we tell ourselves about the Second World War as a crusade of good versus evil is false.  This matters, because most of the justifications that are given by political leaders and their ideologists for the pursuit of the culture of violence in the second part of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century are based on these genuine but false beliefs in such simple mega-narratives. 


On Violence by Hannah Arendt was published in 1969 and is in many ways a child of its time reflecting the issues of the 1960’s and questions, arising from the cold war, the nuclear arms race and the American war in Vietnam, but it should also be seen as a significant contribution to the debate on the understanding of the question of violence both in society and in man as individuals entities.   The work reflects the burning issues of the middle part of the twentieth century and is inspired by the energies of the student movements from the sixties.  But, her analysis of the nature of violence is as relevant to day as ever and even more so post 9-11 and the so-called ‘war on terror.’   The work itself is just over one hundred pages long including the appendices and is divided into three untitled sections. 


Arendt uses a quote from Connor Cruise O’ Brien which sums up her own approach to the question of violence, where she addresses ‘the debate on the legitimacy of violence in the theatre of ideas.’  The basic arguments put forward by Hannah Arendt in On Violence can be simply summarized but as many people will appreciate – simplicity can be a very deceptive tool.   The core of the argument, or at least my interpretation of what Arendt is saying in On Violence and much of her later work, is the following.


On the very first page of the written text, Arendt sets out the core of the problem as she sees it.  ‘The technical developments of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict.’ Arendt like most of her contemporaries sets the framework for her debate within the European Enlightenment tradition.  The very foundation of this tradition are set within the parameters of ‘rational analysis’ and ‘logical argument’.  This is the paradox that Arendt points out.  For example the concept of ‘deterrence’ must be seen as the ‘Emperor with no Clothes’.  She identifies what she calls the ‘obvious insanity of this position,’ but she sees no simple answer or easy way out of the paradox.  But this is the paradox that any general theory of violence must address or the theory itself is useless.  What she is asking is how is it possible to rationalize the irrational.  Arendt is not the first person to address this question, but it is still a central question of the paradox.  How can rational men and women adopt or support policies on nuclear extermination that should be seen as totally irrational.   According to Arendt, the logical flaws in the arguments that are used to support weapons of mass destruction of all sorts are so glaringly obvious that she is amazed that people accept these arguments.


Scientific developments in the technology of destruction and extermination have exposed the irrationalities in the basic arguments of the just war theory and other theories for justifying and rationalizing violence.  The question is how long will it take for this understanding to become effective in the affairs of man?  As others have already asked, will war put an end to man before man can put an end to war?  The jury is still out and the verdict may well be part of the sentence.  


Arendt starts by assuming that war in any rational sense is obsolete – at least among nuclear powered states.  She argues that war is only still rationally possible in 'the affairs of underdeveloped countries’ that have no nuclear or biological weapons.   So she then asks, why is this fact not accepted by those particularly in the western world who use logic and reason in their analysis of war and violence?   She specifically criticizes those “Scientifically minded brain thrusters in the council of governments…The trouble is not that they are cold-blooded enough “to think the unthinkable” but that they do not think  This, is just one of the logical flaws according to Arendt, in the arguments for war.  


It is not just nuclear weapons that her analysis should apply too.  One of the key arguments that is made in On Violence is that once science is applied to the technology of extermination (of violence) the problem becomes a zero sum game.  It is what Arnold Toynbee called in his classical work, A Study of History, “The Suicidalness of Militarism”.


The level of sophistication of the arguments for war only hides the string of non-facts on which it is built.  This is the worse form of pseudo-science.  Arendt identifies the dangers of putting forward, as scientific, arguments for war, which are based on ‘pompous pseudo-science theories’ of which she suggests would be humorous if they did not have the potential to be so tragic.


Arendt identifies and acknowledges ‘the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs’.  But according to Arendt’s argument, there is a great shortage of real critical analysis on the role and function of violence in human society “no one engaged in thought about history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has played in human affairs, and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has been singled out so seldom for special consideration”.  She contrasts the approach taken by Clausewitz in his classical analysis On War with the approach taken by Engel’s in much of his writings.   She rejects what she calls these ‘nineteenth century formulas’


Arendt believes that the old arguments about the relationship between war and politics or between violence and power have become inapplicable in the post-World War II era.  These theories are not to be dismissed entirely but the establishment of the military-industrial-labour complex reflects new realities on the ground.  Engel’s definition of “violence as the accelerator of economic development” cannot be entirely ignored.  Mao Tse Tung’s belief that “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ is still a very good working theory for most revolutionaries and reactionaries.  On the other hand, Marx has clearly regulated violence to a very secondary role in revolutionary change.   For Marx, it was “the contradictions inherent in the old society brought about its end”.   According to Marx, the emergence of a new society would proceed but not caused by violence.  Both governments and revolutionary groups could use violence to win particular battles but the war would be won or lost under different criteria.


In trying to outline and explain any particular theory of human social phenomenon, it is important to have some agreement on the relationship between “the means and the ends” and “the cause and the effect”.  As Arendt notes in her analysis of violence within the tradition of the enlightenment, the “means-ends” and “cause-effect” debates pose one of the central paradoxes for her.


The very substance of violent action is ruled by the means-ends category, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affair, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means which it justifies and which are needed to reach it.


Arendt believes that in human affairs the means-ends debate is always open to unpredictability.  The ends are always in danger of being overwhelmed by the means.   But she believes that once you introduce violence into the debate then it becomes totally unpredictable:


Since the end of human action as distinct from the end product of fabrication can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.


Within the traditional rationalizations and justifications of violence the dangers from the use of violence particularly within a cultural context have been almost ignored or have only been given a cursory analysis.   Even Arendt, while identifying the problem only, gives it a brief analysis.   She states “the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non extremist framework of shot term goals will always be that the means overwhelm the end”.


What Arendt tries to do in the second part of the book is  the near impossible task of connecting the language to the concepts in some agreed format.   She tries to define what she sees as the key concepts that must be understood for the construction of any “theory of violence”.  Concepts such as power, authority, force, legitimacy and other related concepts.  There are a number of general problems that arise in the definitions approach.  No concept stands alone and there are of course no watertight compartments that separate one definition from another.  The concepts that are being defined very often change their meanings when combined with each other.  Another problem and possibly the most important one as Arendt points out is the consistent gap that exists between theory and reality.


In part there of On Violence, Arendt looks more specifically at the nature and causes of violence.  Arendt recognizes that “not many authors of rank glorified violence for violence’s sake; but these few - Sorel, Pareto, Fanon – were motivated by a much deeper hatred of bourgeois society and were led to a much more radical break with its moral standards…”. Violence was and is seen by many reformers as the best and, in many cases, the only tool for smashing the old order.  For some actors, violence is also seen as the tool for creating a new society.


Arendt identifies many of the main areas of study that contribute to the understanding of aggressiveness and violence in human and animal behaviour and, in particular, she looks at what she calls ‘the riddle of aggressiveness’.  She identifies works in biology, zoology, psychology, sociology and many other areas of study.  She highlights the work of Konrad Lorenz, whose book On Aggression had only recently been published.  She looks at the arguments being put forward in the case of what is sometimes termed “natural violence” based on the theory of instinctual behaviour in the natural world such as the nutritive and sexual instinctive drives.  She looks at the debate in regards to the animal kingdom that most “natural violence” is a function of self-preservation and in that sense it has the rationale of self-preservation of the individual, the species or the gene.


Arendt believes that the study of “natural violence” is useful and has made a contribution to a certain extent to the study of violence in human society.  But, its contribution is limited for many reasons, not least because man is both the subject and the object of the rational drives that are part of the process of violence.  


The question that Arendt addresses is what has made man the most aggressive and dangerous animal on the planet.  The answer according to Arendt is that man is the most dangerous animal because he is an “animal rationale” and it is the use of reason that Arendt says makes us, as a species, “dangerously irrational”.  Rational man can turn the role of “natural violence” with it life-promoting functions into something which is characterized by self-destruction and devoid of any life promoting function.


Under the study of “natural violence”, Arendt accepts the roles of aggression, rage, and frustration and the violence that springs from them as part of the natural ingredients of the human psyche.  She says “In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes – not always – goes with it belongs among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanise or emasculate him”.  Arendt accepts that “the resort to violence when confronted with outrageous events or conditions is enormously tempting because of its inherent immediacy and swiftness.” She accepts that some of the characteristics of violence have an attraction for people everywhere and that violence has an intoxicating spell that man repeatedly falls under.


To sum up her argument on this part of the question of violence it is possible to say that she recognizes certain positive functions of ‘natural violence’ however defined.  This natural violence has a positive function in self-preservation both intraspecies and interspecies and has on balance a life promoting function.  Arendt is not the first to argue the importance of such a distinction but many of the theories on human violence seem to have a problem with this distinction.  When we come to analysis human violence within its cultural context we must recognize that any theory of natural violence will only have a very limited creditability.  Even at the level of natural violence there would seem to be a dichotomy between “rational violence” and “irrational violence”.  The rationale for violence is basically its function in self-preservation.  But one man’s rationality may well be another man’s irrationality.


Is it possible to trace and identify the evolution of violence from its natural and primitive functions to the cultural manifestations of violence that had become so widespread in the 20th Century?  Arendt seems to believe that it is possible and useful to our understanding of violence to try and identify some middle stage in the evolution process. 

War is the basic institutional form of traditional violence.  In historical terms, war, fighting and related cultural concepts have been seen as the creator and defender par excellent of the statue quo.  History has been generally written with the assumption that war is one of if not the major form of human activity.  Quincy Wright in his classic, A Study of War, identified many of the functions of war in modern society.


The genocidal nature of many of the conflicts of the 20th should be according to Arendt a wake up call for our understanding of violence.  Arendt is critical of the nihilist approach taken by Sartre and others and she is critical of the kind of Hegelian explanation for his espousal of violence.  “Needs and scarcity determine the Manicheistic basic of actions and morals…and must manifest itself in antagonistic reciprocity between classes”.


Arendt summarizes many of the arguments that try and understand the phenomena of violence and the arguments that try and justify the use of violence in human society.   She calls than ‘apologies for violence’ and believes that many of the explanations go back into antiquity with some modern interpretations glossed over them.   Some of the explanations are of course relatively new based on the knowledge arising from the new sciences of biology and psychology among others.   She is not that impressed with the newness of the thinking, she says ‘the seemingly so novel biological justifications of violence is again closely connected with the most pernicious elements in our oldest tradition of political thought.’


Nietzsche may have thought that he had discovered something new when he declared violence as a life promoting and creative force.   The biological justifiers for violence felt that they were on sure grounds when they could appeal to ‘the undeniable fact that in the household of nature destruction and creation are but two sides of the natural process.’ Many of the political philosophies of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries saw violence as unfortunate but necessary harbingers of social change and social progress.   At the same time a new elite, a new priesthood of power under the general name of scientists were emerging and making their contribution to the question of violence.  


Arendt holds this new priesthood elite of scientists responsible for creating what must be the greatest paradox of all as she says they have created ‘the real possibility of constructing a doomsday machine and destroying all life on earth.’   Oppenheimer and his gang of scientific warriors were not driven by any of the demented ideologies of the 20th century and they generally could not be considered as evil individuals.   Oppenheimer had it would seem some sense of humour when he quoted the famous lines form the Bhagavad-Gita ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’.  But the Cuban missile crises and the other crises of the cold war instilled in Arendt and some of her contemporaries the belief that the old explanations or apologies for violence were childishly irrelevant just as Albert Einstein has already discovered.   Einstein was very clear in his thinking about this when he said ‘The developments of science and technology have determined that the peoples of the world are no longer able to live under competing national sovereignties with war as the ultimate arbitrator’

This paper is a shortened version of a paper given at the IPRA conference in Calgary 2006 in the Peace Theories Commission.
Sean English teachers the Study of Peace at the Free University of Ireland.