Arendt on thinking and the coronavirus pandemic

At a time when thought is more difficult than ever, the Coronavirus pandemic forces us to stop and do just that: think.

In her lecture “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Hannah Arendt suggests a link between the kind of banal evil she saw in Adolf Eichmann at his trial and an inability to think. By ‘thinking’ she meant not the application of principles and codes, but letting go of set ideas and observing the world in order to understand it as it is. Thinking, of the kind that she suggested might be incompatible with evil, is not helpful in attaining certainties or constructing systems of thought. That is because, unlike knowing, thinking is an activity that can never be finally accomplished. Instead, it undermines and demolishes established criteria and values. Arendt proposes that thinking could keep us from doing evil. While genuinely held systems of belief may lead us to conclude that callous and violent actions are sometimes necessary, thinking can keep us from this kind of ideologically motivated heartlessness.

The coronavirus pandemic calls for this kind of thinking. For one thing, it is a time of great danger, and we need to do what we can to mitigate harm. For another, it presents a challenge that our existing beliefs and values have not equipped us to navigate well enough. However, the problem with thinking is that it is never enough, and you can never be sure that you have finally happened upon the right thought.

A few weeks ago, most of us believed there was value in going to work, socialising with the people we loved, travelling, going to concerts, or walking around the neighbourhood. Suddenly, all that has changed. Our whole society has recognised that the current emergency requires us to suspend or modify these behaviours. Today, they do not have the value they had—instead they are dangerous, and in most cases it is irresponsible to engage in them. This is nothing trivial—nearly everything that we thought gave life meaning has now had to be given up for the sake of life itself. And what is worse, we do not know for how long. It will be months,and perhaps years, before we can reclaim the values that we lost. And that is if all the same values will still be there waiting for us to reclaim them after declining to exercise them for so long.

But it seems like as a society we have risen to Arendt’s challenge. Confronted with the harm of carrying on as we were, we have stopped in our tracks. We have thought about the pandemic and its threat, and uprooted our way of life. This does not mean that we have avoided the evil, though. The reason that thinking is incompatible with constructing established structures, is that as long as there is some doubt, or ‘on the other hand’ (and it seems there always is), there is more thinking to be done; “The need to think can be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts which I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I can think them anew,” Arendt writes (422).

Far from being a sure sign that we are thinking, the kind of revolution in values that we have performed nearly overnight may be only an indication of our ability to adhere to systems of thought and codes of conduct that keep us from thinking. Arendt warned that the strength of our commitment to rules can be stronger than our commitment to their content:

“The faster men held to the old code, the more eager will they be to assimilate themselves to the new one; the ease with which such reversals can take place under certain circumstances suggests indeed that everybody is asleep when they occur… How easy it was for the totalitarian rulers to reverse the basic commandments of Western morality-‘Thou shalt not kill’ in the case of Hitler’s Germany, ‘Thou shalt not bear false testimony against thy neighbor’ in the case of Stalin’s Russia.” (436)

Our ability to undergo a revolution in values nearly overnight only proves that we are good at subscribing to values, it does not prove that we are thinking in the kind of unremitting, insatiable way that is inimical to evil. But then, those holdouts who refuse to give up the old values—Florida spring-breakers, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, and President Trump—are not necessarily thinking either. Arendt is careful to note that the importance of thinking cannot be the basis for scepticism and quietism—that to say that we must cease doing anything would be just another formula to stop us thinking.  

The pandemic demands that we act quickly, but it also destroys the certainties that would have made it possible for us to act quickly with confidence that we are doing the right thing. This is why it requires thinking, and why merely subscribing to any philosophy, including Arendt’s own, cannot give us the answers we need.

If the only danger we faced right now was the danger of death and disease, and the collapse of our healthcare systems, then we would have all the answers we need. There would be no danger of overreacting to the pandemic. But things are never so simple in a crisis. The dangers proliferate. Countries around the world have severely limited their citizens’ freedom of movement; the entire EU (as well as many other countries) have closed their borders to non-citizens; police in the UK have been given the power to detain people they suspect of being infected, while the US Department of Justice has sought to suspend deadlines for trying suspects; Israel and South Korea are violating the privacy of citizens by, respectively, tracking their mobile phones and publicly announcing the movement of people diagnosed with the virus; and months-long popular protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, and Chile have been stopped in their tracks.

The political dangers confronting us in the moment are no less serious than that of the virus itself. It is impossible to predict now how many lives may be lost by restricting freedom of movement, how many of the jobs that have been lost will not come back, or what impact months or years of staying out of public spaces could have on society. But knowing how to oppose these dangers is even more difficult than knowing how to confront the pandemic.

This is why the moment not only calls for swift action, but also calls for thinking, even though it is so dangerous because it has the power to halt action just when it is most needed. The need to do something about the pandemic should not get in the way of recognising the damage we do when we fail to hold governments’ authoritarian tendencies up to scrutiny, to challenge xenophobic language and restrictions on movement and migration, to carry on as though nothing had changed, or to join twitter mobs to denounce #covidiots. Let’s be ready to stop and think even when we see the need to act. Let’s keep ourselves from subscribing to the conviction that the danger of these times make any evil necessary.logo-red

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