by Lene Auestad, Published in Nordic Journal of Human Rights no 3 2005

 Abstract       In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt described the way in which stateless people, having lost all distinctive political qualities, were left in a situation where their human rights were rendered, in practice, worthless. She made this state of affairs a starting point for a critique of the conception of human rights formulated in the abstract language of the eighteenth century. The aim of this article is to inquire into the fruitfulness and limitations of Arendt’s thesis that human dignity must be defined in accordance with plurality. It will be argued that Arendt’s concept of plurality can significantly contribute to our understanding of the idea of human dignity.

Key words   Plurality, dignity, human rights, radical evil, world, love.

 “That man can change everything”, wrote Arendt, “including “human nature” was the lesson that could be learned from the camps.”1 Arendt’s critique of the conception of human rights conceived of as pertaining to a human being in the singular is based on her descriptions of the “radical evil” of totalitarianism as elimination of human plurality. Hence the claim that there exists an essential connection between plurality and dignity grows out of her experiences of the attempted destruction of the former as a necessary precondition for the misrecognition, or annihilation, of the latter. I shall argue that while the conditions for the attainment of human rights, as described by Arendt, become unduly fragile, she succeeds in pointing out an essential link between plurality and what we understand by the dignity of the human person.


The concept of plurality has the twofold meaning that there exist a multitude of people and that each existing person differs from all the others. Theories referring to Man in the singular omit the fundamental fact that people live on the earth and inhabit the world together with other people. Furthermore, theories in which people are thought of as endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model miss the essential point that people are human in such a way that each person differs from every other person who ever lived, lives or will live on this planet in the future.2 Plurality is disclosed, as well as realized, in speech and action.3 It is based on the abstract quality of otherness and on displayed distinctions, yet transcends both of these characteristics. While otherness can be ascribed to all being, in so far as it is not equivalent to what man is capable of perceiving, but may transcend the range of one’s possible knowledge, and all organic life appears as varied and distinct, only human beings have the ability to wilfully express this distinction.4 Their capacity for conscious manifestation of their distinctness sets them apart from other living creatures.

While being a self-evident premise for all human relations, so that its lack gives rise to a horror which stems from being faced with something humanly unrecognizable5, human uniqueness has, with the rise of totalitarian movements, proven not to be indestructible. That plurality, to Arendt, is a condition of human existence, rather than a feature pertaining to human nature, is due to the fact that man is a “flexible being” who is “equally capable of knowing his own nature when it is shown to him and of losing it to the point where he has no realization of being robbed of it.”6 Because people’s self-interpretations are dependent on the resources made available by the society to which they belong, in the sense of possible ways of living and acting as well as ways of conceiving of themselves, there is no unchanging human nature. The more abstract philosophical reason for this lack of a human nature is that the sum of human activities and capabilities corresponding to the human condition never condition us absolutely, and they do not constitute essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that this existence would no longer be human without them.7 And historically, the concern of the modern age with tangible products and demonstrable profits, its emphasis on the process of fabrication, of the creation of products from a given material according to a preconceived idea of a product,8 has led to its glorification of man as a maker and to a preoccupation with transforming one’s surroundings. To Arendt, the final point of this process is reached when people themselves are being used as the material to be transformed.

Radical evil and superfluousness

Radical evil acts, as defined by Arendt, do something more than offending human dignity. Through making human beings superfluous, and thus eliminating human plurality, they destroy human nature as we know it. Arendt introduced her concept of radical evil in order to describe the phenomenon of the concentration camps. These camps, according to her, represented the essence of the totalitarian project – they provided the evidence of what became of these doctrine’s ideas when they were carried through to their logical conclusion. Conceptualizing evil in terms of a lack, an absence of goodness, the tradition of Western philosophy leaves us without concepts that enable us to adequately capture the phenomenon we are confronted with in our experience. Even Kant, states Arendt, although he employed the concept of ‘radical evil’, since he explained it in terms of a perverted ill will, failed to grasp its character.9 By subsuming it under his concept of a perverted ill will, he rationalized it so that it could be explained by comprehensible motives. To Arendt, by contrast, radical evil is defined both by the fact of its being unforgivable and by its aim of making human beings superfluous. Both characteristics are connected with radical evil’s destruction, not only of human beings, but also of the connections between them.

In The Human Condition the term ‘radical evil’ appears in the context where Arendt speaks of forgiveness as a remedy for the dangers inherent in action. Forgiving provides a freedom from vengeance, which encloses both doer and sufferer in cycles of automatic acts of retribution. Forgiving someone means to liberate both parties, the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven, from the consequences of a past action. What characterizes ‘radical evil’ offences is that they can neither be punished, nor forgiven, and that they therefore transcend the realm of human affairs and the potential for human power. 10 Arendt defines offences of the kind she terms ‘radical evil’ in relation to Aristotle’s description of rectificatory justice in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics. The judge rectifies an injustice which has been committed by reinstating the balance between the doer and the sufferer.11 Punishment, like forgiveness, is an attempt to put and end to a cycle of revenge that otherwise, without interference, could go on endlessly. Forgiveness and punishment, furthermore, are related in such a way that one cannot forgive what one cannot punish, and reversibly, is unable to punish what it unforgivable. Since forgiveness is an abstention from revenge, acts to which there is no adequate reply in terms of punishment lack the precondition for being forgiven.

In a letter to Karl Jaspers, Arendt defines radical evil as the project of aiming at rendering human beings superfluous qua human beings. This, she writes, implies something more than doing what Kant declared to be prohibited when spelling out the categorical imperative; using human beings as means only, thereby disregarding their status as ends in themselves. The performers of radical evil do not rest content with offending the dignity of their victims; they intend to do away with the humanity of those they persecute and to do so by eradicating their capacity for spontaneous action;

What radical evil really is I don’t know, but it seems to me somehow it has to do with the following phenomenon: making human beings as human beings superfluous (not using them as a means to an end, which leaves their essence as humans untouched and impinges only on their human dignity; rather, making them superfluous as human beings. This happens as soon as all unpredictability – which, in human beings is the equivalent of spontaneity – is eliminated.12

One may ask in what way the attempt to destroy human beings as such differs from treating them as a means to an end. If one acts towards someone as if he or she were a mere instrument, would that not, to Kant, equal wanting to make a person into something he or she is not, namely a thing? Is not the act of treating someone as a mere means, subjectively regarded, something very similar to that of aiming at destroying the person’s essence? A partial answer would be that firstly, Arendt’s concept of radical evil differs from that of Kant in that it is neither defined by, nor understandable in terms of “evil” motives, or malevolence, at least not by these alone. We have already seen that ‘radical evil’ is defined in terms of irreparable damage. Thus, it is linked with an actual harm that has occurred, rather than, as in Kant’s case, being exclusively connected to an intent to inflict destruction. Secondly, there is a gap between the perpetrators’ motives and their actions, so that understanding their motives does not suffice to explain their doings.13 (The feature of these acts that Arendt would later elaborate in her writings provoked by the Eichmann-trial, intending with the term ‘the banality of evil’ to point to the discrepancy between what the accused had actually done and his declared motives, was already mentioned, although in passing, here in her first major work on totalitarianism.)

A central feature of Arendt’s definition of radical evil emerges if we compare it to a commonplace definition of evil as the willed infliction of suffering on others. Suffering is nowhere mentioned in her definition; her focus is instead on the destruction of capacities which characterize humans as we know them. At one point Arendt explicitly denies that human suffering is the kernel of the phenomenon she wants to delineate;

Suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims. Human nature as such is at stake <…>14

This is not to say that suffering is of no relevance to the execution of radical evil. The infliction of intolerable physical pain on the inmates in the concentration camps was crucial for gaining control over the unpredictability that was part of the prisoner’s “nature” or being. However, the suffering in itself is not the heart of the matter, but rather the qualities which, since they are so deeply rooted in human beings, only great amounts of suffering can destroy. The fact that people are spontaneously creative means that they have the ability to bring forward something so new that nobody would ever have been able to foresee it.15 By virtue of having been born as a new individual, each person has the capacity to begin something new. The spontaneity inherent in each and every person is not totally lost even when someone is reduced to the state of a natural being. Totalitarian ideologies, however, which aim at the explanation of all historical events of the past and at the prediction of the course of all events of the future, cannot bear the unpredictability which is linked with people’s abilities to begin something entirely new. Hence, in order to arrive at complete consistency, totalitarianism must destroy every trace of this spontaneity.16

Although they may appear irrational from a functional point of view, Arendt’s claim is that the concentration camps make perfect sense within the framework of totalitarian ideology.17 They are the place of application for the ideology in practice – a testing ground in which the infinite plurality of human beings are being turned into one, where men are being turned into Man. Only after having achieved the transformation of the human personality into “a mere thing”, a kind of perverted animal totally lacking in spontaneity, has each “thing”, each bundle of reactions, been made to be totally exchangeable with any other. In this context, Arendt quotes Hitler’s repeated saying that he “<strives> for a condition in which each individual knows that he lives and dies for the preservation of his species”18. Because spontaneity is connected not only with human freedom, but with life itself19, total domination is never possible under normal conditions. An experiment of such an extreme kind as that of transforming human nature can only be realized in the concentration camps, and it depends on sealing them off against the outside world, even the outside world of a country under totalitarian rule.

The destruction of plurality proceeded in several steps. Firstly, the juridical person was to be killed, secondly, the person as a moral actor was to be done away with, and lastly, the person’s unique identity was to be destroyed. Through the instrument of denationalization selected categories of people were put outside the protection the law would have provided. This was at the same time intended to force the non-totalitarian world’s recognition of this lawlessness.20 The inmates of the concentration camps are selected without regard for normal juridical procedure according to which a definite crime would entail a predictable penalty.21 Hence they were masses of totally innocent people whose destiny had nothing whatsoever to do with their actions. Secondly, by organizing conditions under which conscience fails to provide any adequate guidance and situations in which doing good becomes an impossibility, totalitarian terror succeeded in killing man’s moral person.22 Forcing people to decide between murdering friends or one’s family, or making them choose which of their children should be allowed to survive, had the aim of making the inmates accomplices. Coercing the inmates into behaving like murderers, the perpetrators managed to blur the distinction between themselves and their victims. Lastly, what still remains when someone’s rights as well as their moral person has been taken away from them is the person’s unique identity. This part of the human person is the one which is most difficult to destroy, since it depends partly on nature and on forces that cannot be controlled by the individual’s will. The way in which it is attacked is by manipulating the human body. By inflicting suffering on the body in an infinite number of ways, the human person is destroyed as surely as it would have been by a mental disease of an organic origin.23 Total domination, it is claimed, which is the inherent aim of totalitarianism, can only be achieved by thus liquidating all spontaneity, which can only be fully realized in concentration camps. The lesson to be learnt is that “the power of man is so great that he really can be what he wishes to be”24, even if this transformation of people seems possible only through their destruction.25

The fragility of human rights

The final destruction of the human person that had taken place in the concentration camps had been preceded by a political situation in which human rights had, for any practical purposes, lost all validity.26 Before being finally exterminated, a great number of individuals had been deprived of their citizenship through denationalization. The loss of government protection implied a loss of legal status in their own, as well as in all other, countries. (Having been accused of no crime, the majority would not qualify for the right to political asylum.) Although human rights were supposed to be independent of all governments, it turned out that once individuals were left without a government of their own, no one, no authority and no institution was there to protect them. The ‘inherent dignity of the human person’ became entirely worthless to anyone who was not a citizen of a political community.27 Having lost all distinctive political qualities, stateless people were left with their mere humanity, which counted for nothing. This situation, to which the stateless people were exposed, writes Arendt, was not one of being deprived of one or of several specific rights, such as the rights to live or to own property, as this would have been possible only within a given community. Rather, since they did not belong to any community whatsoever, they were deprived of all rights as such; it was their “right to have rights” which was taken away from them.28 The way in which the loss of human rights manifests itself is in the fact that those concerned are deprived of a place in the world. It is this place in the world which would have made their opinions significant and their actions effective.29 Being treated according to accident, without regard for their doings, they are deprived of the right to action as well as to opinion, since whatever they do or think remains unacknowledged and without consequences. What Arendt concludes from these experiences is that there should be a right to have rights, defined as the right to “live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions”30 and the right to belong to an organized community. People who are deprived of a community in which they are respected as citizens have retained their freedom in the sense that they can move around physically, but they can no longer act. They may still think whatever they please, but the possibility of having opinions has been taken away from them. This is because acting and having opinions depend on having a place in the world. Having lost a place in the world, rightless people are unable to be fully human. Being members of humanity no longer,31 they become simply specimens of an “animal species called man”32. In this situation an appeal to one’s abstract humanity would constitute an empty gesture. One would have thought that, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, a person who loses his or her political status would be in a situation precisely of the kind that these general rights provided for. But it turned out that the opposite was the case. Pointing to one’s status as a member of humanity turned out to be de facto useless; “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”33 Furthermore, the cause of this fact appeared to be that an “abstract” human being, one who is not embedded in specific relationships in a community is not really a human being at all. The fate of people who suffered a loss of citizenship, their loss not only of specific rights, but of the ‘right to have rights’ cannot be expressed in the categories of the eighteenth century, because in terms of these categories, human rights are conceived of as being independent of human plurality, which experience has shown not to be the case;

The decisive factor is that these rights and the human dignity they bestow should remain valid and real even if only a single human being existed on earth; they are independent of human plurality and should remain valid even if a human being is expelled from the human community.34

The language used in the eighteenth century to conceptualize human rights, it is claimed, was inadequate because it failed to take human plurality into account. The situation in which the stateless people found themselves highlighted the essential link between human dignity and the human condition of plurality. What does Arendt intend by emphasising the connection between these entities? In order to understand the implications of her concern with plurality in this context we should recall the twofold meaning of the term ; the fact that one inhabits the world together with others rather than alone, and also the fact that each of these others are unique, rather than being merely several specimens of the same kind. Firstly, her claim implies that a life deprived of the company of fellow-persons is not a truly human one. The kind of criticism of an idea of dignity based on an abstract conception of a human being which is contained in this claim is one Arendt shares with communitarian theorists. Referring to Aristotle, she defines man as essentially a political animal, one that cannot be regarded as being properly human if he or she does not live in a community together with others. People are always embedded in concrete relations to other people, and an account of what it means to be a person in which this fact is left out is lacking in a fundamental respect.35 Merely social companionship is not sufficient, however, to bring out the fundamentally human characteristics of interacting people. Because the need for social company is a biological limitation, one that humans share with other animals, it fails to provide for the display of the uniquely human capacities for speech and action.36 These have the character of being excellences, and as such they can express themselves only in a setting of plenty; they cannot spring out of basic human needs. People who are forced to live outside the common world, who are cut off from a political life with others, lose their distinctive political qualities, so as to become nothing but human beings. They are left with qualities that can become articulate only in private life. In matters of public concern these qualities, that we are born with, including the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, remain irrelevant.37 While the private, to Arendt, is the sphere in which these merely given differences between people can be addressed, the public sphere is based on the law of equality, an equality which is man-made, rather than natural;

Equality, in contrast to all that is involved in mere existence, is not given to us, but is the result of human organization insofar as it is guided by the principle of justice. We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights. Our political life rests on the assumption that we can produce equality through organization, because man can act in and change and build a common world, together with his equals and only with his equals.38

Human beings, she states, are born different from one another, and the private is a sphere of universal difference and differentiation. Equality, where it exists, is an artifice, a product of human decisions and cooperation, and people only become equal as members of a group in which equality is guaranteed through the establishment of the same rights for all. People who are forced to live outside the common world are thrown back on their natural givenness. Lacking the equalizing of differences which results from being citizens of a political order, they become merely different, and at the same time they are turned into nothing but human beings in general. Being left without a profession, without a citizenship, without deeds and opinions, the person outside a commonwealth belongs to the human race like an animal belongs to a specific species.39 Yet, he or she also becomes different in general, being able to represent nothing except his or her unique individuality, which, however, loses all significance, since it is deprived of expression within a common world.40

There is an apparent circularity in Arendt’s argument as it states that people can be equal only if they share a common world, yet they can only build a common world together with their equals. The implication is that one must recognize someone as one’s equals in order build a shared world with them, but, since, outside of this world, no space exists in which they can be seen as one’s equals, this is impossible. The will to found a political order in which people are recognized as equal must be based on an assumption that this organized equality corresponds to an ontological quality of these people which is the reason why they should be recognized as equal. While it is true that the recognition of people as being equal in worth is dependent upon their membership in a political community, their equality does not stem from the political act of recognition as such. Hans Jonas has made a similar point to mine, although in a different context. In a discussion with Arendt at a conference on her work in 1972, he claimed that our conception of the good and of what man is, i.e. metaphysics, has to be called in as a directive.41 Arendt answered by pointing to the practical uselessness of an appeal to ultimate values under recent conditions. Since the seventeenth century, we no longer possess a secure set of values to guide our thought. Furthermore, experience had showed her that people are only too willing to exchange the “old values” they possess for a set of new ones when it is given to them.42 Arendt is a thinker who is more concerned with finding adequate conceptions with which to face up to contemporary experiences of a novel kind than with providing us with a theory of moral justification or with a full and consistent moral ontology. Thus there can be said to be a lack in her theoretical work which, due to her method and main interests, is not, or at least only incompletely, filled out.

To Arendt, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme that derive human rights from nature are mistaken, since the essence of man cannot be conceived of in terms of nature. In the Twentieth century, people have become emancipated from nature, and nature has become alien to us. Nature represents a background of mere givenness, something different and alien which is a remainder of the limits of human activity. These limits, to Arendt, are also the limits of human equality.43 Natural differences are symbolic of differences and of individuality as such, and as they represent the frightening strangeness of that which people are unable to change at will, people have a tendency to destroy them. Arendt’s suspicion towards “natural” human beings and her insistence that dignity cannot be ascribed to people qua natural beings is expressed in a passage where she describes the Boers’ meeting with representatives of African tribes who lived in close contact with nature;

What made them different from other human beings was not at all the color of their skin but the fact that they behaved like a part of nature, that they treated nature as their undisputed master, that they had not created a human world, a human reality, and that therefore nature had remained, in all its majesty, the only overwhelming reality – compared to which they appeared to be phantoms, unreal and ghostlike. They were, as it were, “natural” human beings who lacked the specifically human character, the specifically human reality, so that when European men massacred them they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.44

People who lived within nature, writes Arendt, were for this reason unrecognizable as human beings. Since they had not created a world, they lacked a specifically human character. Hence they did not appear to be human to those who met upon them. This passage in The Origins of Totalitarianism is likely to arouse embarrassment in those who would be liable to accept that being a world-builder should be seen as being a necessary precondition for being granted human dignity. Arendt comes very close to excusing man-slaughter on the ground that “worldless” people can not be seen to be properly human. In so far as plurality is connected with worldliness in Arendt’s full sense of the term, it cannot be accepted as a basis for human dignity. Yet, I think Arendt does point to an interesting link between dignity and plurality, as I shall argue later on, but firstly it is necessary to examine the concept of ‘world’ more closely.

The concept of ‘world’ to Heidegger and to Arendt

To Heidegger, the fact that Dasein is essentially a worldly being means that it necessarily and at all times engaged in a disclosing and understanding of being. The world is always already a world which one shares with others. Being part of a common world together with other innerwordly beings is prior to having a “private” world, one which is “my world”, so to speak. As opposed to Descartes and his followers, who derive the existence of the “outer” world from my “inner”, personal experience, Heidegger’s claim is that one finds oneself always already engaged in and concerned with the world through one’s use of equipment and one’s sharing of the existing practices. The fact that we are engaged in the world is something we rarely reflect upon, but tend to take for granted since we are usually emerged in our everyday concerns. The pre-ontological understanding of the world that we make use of and convey in our daily activities is thus something we tend to overlook.

Dasein discloses the world in terms of significance. The whole of what things and activities signify to Dasein makes up this ‘significance’ which is the background upon which what is encountered appears as meaningful and purposeful. This significance is essentially connected with Dasein’s involvement in the practices it partakes in, and these are again effective because of Dasein’s engagement in them in the way of its being. Thus, the existence of the world and the existence of Dasein are interdependent; “Dasein exhibits itself as a being which is in its world but at the same time is by virtue of the world in which it is.” 45 The world is not something Dasein stands over against or out of, but something Dasein dwells in. This dwelling in the world is what makes us familiar with the contexts in which things become what they are. Dasein’s totality of involvements provides it with a pre-theoretical background understanding upon which all activities and practices are grounded. This is what makes the world a condition for the possibility of meaning.

Since Dasein is an entity of a kind whose being is always worldly, Dasein is not something present at hand ; it is not a “what”, but a “who”. The fact that Dasein, as being-in-the-world is an issue for itself means that Dasein relates itself understandingly toward itself, and furthermore, that it can do so only in terms which are based on its worldly manner of being. Therefore, if Dasein’s essence lies in its existence, a “what” called “human nature” cannot be isolated without regard to the historical- existential conditions of human beings. Instead, to Heidegger as well as to Arendt, one needs to describe the worldly conditions under which human beings exist. Because these worldly conditions may be radically changed, capacities one once thought of as being intrinsic parts of human nature may disappear altogether.

Informed by her conception of plurality, the concept of ‘world’, to Arendt, is identified with the public sphere. The world is a space which appears between people, one in which everything individuals carry with them innately can become visible and audible. This space contains what she calls an in-between, something people have in common which relates them and keeps them apart simultaneously. This worldly object binds people together, yet it enables them to maintain a distance which, to Arendt, is essential to the public sphere. Both permanence and perspectival plurality are essential characteristics of a world. A public space must transcend the life-span of mortals, so as to make an immortality of an earthly kind possible, and it must allow for the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives from which the common world can be seen. The existence of this plurality of perspectives is essential to the each individual’s capacity to understand itself and its surroundings, as well as being that which makes the world a human place of living and interpretation. Thus worldliness and being human are fundamentally interrelated; the world is humanized when we speak about it, and we learn to become human in doing so.46

But although not being able or willing to appear in the world means to be deprived of reality,47 Arendt does not claim that there exists something like a right to do so. Describing worldly participation as a matter of self-recruitment, and emphasising the virtue of courage as its precondition,48 she seems to place the responsibility for worldly appearance with the (potential) actor. Mutual recognition is not a theme in her phenomenological account of action, and it appears as if recognition, to Arendt, is something the actor must deserve rather than something he or she can be said to have an initial claim to. I find that Arendt’s description of the Boers’ meeting with African tribes also exemplifies how her admirable practice of a way of thinking which stays close to phenomena sometimes has the weakness that she identifies too closely with the perspective or phenomenon she describes, with the result that her conceptions, although descriptively adequate, can be found to be insufficient for the purpose of a moral critique. However, there is a connection between dignity and plurality that remains to be explored;

Love, plurality and individuality

If people are to be made superfluous as human beings, their individuality, writes Arendt, must first be destroyed, as it represents a highly important threat against this project;

Precisely because man’s resources are so great, he can be fully dominated only when he becomes a specimen of the animal-species man. Therefore character is a threat and even the most unjust legal rules are an obstacle; but individuality, anything indeed that distinguishes one man from another, is intolerable.49

 If human beings are to be seen as superfluous and hence as entirely interchangeable, their uniqueness must be done away with. An example of this phenomenon can be found in Gregor Ziemer’s contemporary report on education in Nazi Germany. Ziemer spent a day with an inspector of the NSV, the National Socialist Welfare Organization, who visited former occupants of State- financed mother-and-child homes in order to check on the children’s ideological education. After they had returned home, the Party kept complete record of the children until they began school at the age of six. One of these visits of inspection took place thus:

We met with less enthusiasm at our next stop, a home in Westend, blocks out on Heerstrasse. Apparently things were out of rhythm here. The mother, a thin young thing, was pale. She greeted us with apathy. Sister Knoblauch demanded to see her little girl. The mother stared at us. I held my breath, for there was drama in the air. ‘My girl? She is dead. She died last week,’ she said. Sister Knoblauch looked astounded. Then she became angry. With a growl in her voice she demanded why the NSV had not been informed about this death, according to the rules. <…>’But gnaedige Frau,’ she scolded, ‘why so downcast, why so sad?’ The woman did not look up. ‘I loved my little girl.’ Sister Knoblauch launched into a punitive lecture in which she advised the woman to forget a mere girl and have another baby, many babies, right away. It would make her forget her troubles. Women of the Third Reich had no time for weak sentimentality.50

Why does Sister Knoblauch’s answer to the mother that she can simply go ahead and have another child strike us as completely absurd? The grotesqueness of her reply, which is perfectly consistent with the premise that human beings are superfluous and, therefore, that every individual is exchangeable becomes particularly apparent in this context. The sister is concerned with the production of children as if they were material to be used as a means to an end. She cares nothing for their individuality; her aim is simply that there be as many as possible to die in a battlefield or to produce even more children for the State and the Party. It is obvious to the reader, however, that this particular child cannot ever be replaced. The child is irreplaceable because it was unique, and her mother, who loved the girl, felt this more acutely than anyone else. The unsurpassable affirmation of the “I want you to be”, which is what love says to the loved one, is one of the few ways in which recognition of someone who has lost his or her political status can take place, writes Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.51 Love, she states in The Human Condition, possesses an unequalled clarity of vision for the disclosure of someone’s who 52, by which she means the living essence of that particular person as opposed to his or her what ; the qualities necessarily shared with others like herself or himself. But this power of revelation inherent in love is closely connected with its antipolitical nature. It is because it is unconcerned to the point of unworldliness with the loved person’s qualities, achievements, failings and shortcomings, namely with his or her what, that love has such an ability to disclose the who of the other person. Furthermore, by reason of its passion, love destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others. Therefore, love is unworldly, and not only apolitical, but antipolitical.53

There is a contradiction inherent in stating simultaneously that love has an unequalled power to reveal an other person’s who and that love abolishes the distance between the lover and the beloved. It is not possible to claim, one the one hand, that love is a state of merging with another, so that the individualities of both are somehow dissolved, and on the other hand that it has a supreme capacity to reveal the other qua individual. I agree with Long that it is an idealization of the notion of love to argue that love destroys all distance between lovers, and therefore all traces of worldliness.54 Genuine love involves meeting another as an other, without attempting to reduce or assimilate the other’s perspective to one’s own. Hence, love cannot be said to be entirely unworldly. This being said, I think Arendt is right in having reservations with regard to love as a political force. When being accused by Gershom Scholem with a lack of love for the Jewish people after her book on the Eichmann trial, Arendt wrote back; “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective. I indeed love only my friends and the only kind of love I believe in the love of persons.”55 The proposal of early Christian philosophy to found all human relationships on love in the shape of charity is, states Arendt, admirably fit to carry a group of essentially worldless people through the world. However, what this proposal takes for granted is that the world itself is doomed, and that every activity in it is only temporary. The demand that the Christian community should form a corpus, that its members were to be related to each other like the limbs of a body, testify to its unpolitical character.56 When it is used for political purposes such as the change or salvation of the world, she concludes, love can only become false and perverted.57 While it is true that love, when transferred to the field of politics, tends to become perverted, this is closely connected with the fact that it disregards the plurality and individuality of those towards whom it is directed. But the notion of a human individual as irreplaceable which inheres in the idea of human dignity is derived from revelations of uniqueness of the kind experienced in love and in close friendships. While the concept of ‘the right’ can be said to presuppose a conception of ‘the good’, it contains in addition an idea of irreplaceability which gains its experiential content from close relations with others. This content can then be transferred from experiences with others that are dear to one to more distant, unknown others. Without this transferring of personal meaning derived from emotional experiences of close encounters with others, the idea of a person’s dignity would remain empty.

 Arendt, in speaking of the fact that even higher Nazi officials viewed some Jews as being “special cases” for which preferential treatment could be asked, remarks that even in today’s Germany the notion of “prominent” Jews has not been forgotten:

There are more than a few people, especially among the cultural élite, who still publicly regret the fact that Germany sent Einstein packing, without realizing that it was a much greater crime to kill little Hans Cohn from around the corner, even though he was no genius.58

The point Arendt wishes to make in this passage in Eichmann in Jerusalem is that pleaders of “special cases” in Nazi Germany, who were both Jewish and Gentile, were unaware of the fact that their pleads amounted to an implicit recognition of the general rule, which spelled death for all non- special cases. But Arendt fails to give an account of why the crime of killing Hans Cohn was greater than forcing Einstein to leave. As a Jewish child he would be twice excluded by the criterion Arendt sets up for being a rights-holder; that of building up, and acting in a common world. As Arendt’s definition of what is required in order to have rights excludes all those who do not participate in a political space, it is far to narrow to encompass the ones one would normally accept as being right-holders. In The Human Condition Arendt does point to a seemingly ontological basis for the status of human beings;

 <T>he impossibility, as it were, to solidify in words the living essence of the person as it shows itself in the flux of action and speech, has great bearing upon the whole realm of human affairs, where we exist primarily as acting and speaking beings. It excludes in principle our ever being able to handle these affairs as we handle things whose nature is at our disposal because we can name them.59

A human person, she writes, is not only a what, but a who. What kind of a who a person is, unlike his or her what, cannot be defined or determined; it can only be revealed in action and in speech. Thus, the actor and speaker cannot be handled as if he or she were a what, a thing to be used and disposed of according to one’s wishes. As against Stalin’s dictum “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”60, Arendt can raise the criticism that people, in this metaphor, are thought of as material to be used, rather than as co-actors and co-speakers. But the possibility to make manifest one’s who is apparently not granted to everyone. To Arendt, people’s power to reveal themselves as plural, as distinct and unique beings to others of their kind, is only fully realized in a political space. I have argued that while it is true and important that rights can only be made effective through a political decision, we do not recognize people as right-holders only on the basis of their power to participate in such decisions. Because Arendt believes that plurality can be realized only in politics, she describes the conditions for the attainment of rights as being unduly fragile. However, the virtue of her rather original approach to the topic of human dignity consists in pointing to a connection between this idea and her own concept of plurality, understood as the diversity of human beings and the uniqueness of each of them. A crime against humanity, she writes, is performed when human diversity as such is attacked:

It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity – in the sense of a crime “against the human status,” or against the very nature of mankind – appeared. Expulsion and Genocide, though both are international offences, must remain distinct; the former is an offence against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the “human status” without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning.61

People’s distinctness from one another is no less constitutive of their humanity than are their common characteristics. An attempt to destroy human diversity, therefore, amounts to an attempt to destroy human nature itself. Arendt can be said to have shown that because being distinct from every other of his or her kind is part of what we mean by being human, an attempt to annihilate people’s uniqueness equals an attempt to destroy their humanity.


  1.  OT, p. 256.
  2. Arendt, The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1998 , p. 8, (first published 1958), henceforth cited as HC.
  3.  HC, pp. 175-176.
  4. HC, p. 176.
  5. The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Third edition with added prefaces), Harcourt Brace & Company, San Diego, New York, London, 1973, p. 454. (first published 1951), henceforth cited as OT.
  6. Hannah Arendt, ”A Reply to Eric Voegelin” in Jerome Kohn ed., Essays in Understanding 1930-1954,Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, p. 408. Arendt is here quoting from Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois.
  7. HC, pp. 9-11.
  8. HC, pp. 220-225.
  9. OT, p. 459.
  10. HC, p. 241.
  11. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, V.4 1132b9, translated by W. D. Ross, revised by J. O. Urmson, in Jonathan Barnes ed. The Complete Works of Aristotle, The Revised Oxford Translation, Princeton University Press, 1984.
  12. Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner eds., Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926-1969, p. 166, Harcourt Brace Company, London, 1992.
  13. OT, p. 459.
  14. OT, pp. 458-459.
  15. OT, p. 458.
  16. OT, p. 457.
  17. OT, p. 457.
  18. OT, p. 438.
  19. OT, p. 438.
  20. OT, pp. 447- 457.
  21. OT, p. 448.
  22. OT, p. 452.
  23. OT, p. 453.
  24. OT, p. 456.
  25. OT, p. 459.
  26. OT, pp. 267-290.
  27. OT, p. 292.
  28. OT, pp. 295- 296.
  29. OT, p. 296.
  30. OT, pp 296-297.
  31. OT, p. 297.
  32. OT, p. 302.
  33. OT, p. 299.
  34. OT, pp. 297-298.
  35. HC, p. 24.
  36. HC, p. 24.
  37. OT, p. 301.
  38. OT, p. 301.
  39. OT, p. 302.
  40. OT, p. 302.
  41. The exchange between Arendt and Jonas is quoted in Ronald Beiner’s interpretive essay in Hannah Arendt, Ronald Beiner ed., Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 114-116.
  42. Idem., p. 115.
  43. OT, p. 301.
  44. OT, p. 192.
  45. Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time, p. 202, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959. (Emphasis in the original.)
  46. Arendt, “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing” in Men in Dark Times, Harcourt, Brace & Company, San Diego, New York, London, 1968, p. 25.
  47. HC, p. 199.
  48. HC, p. 186.
  49. OT, p. 457.
  50. Gregor Ziemer, Education for Death. Constable, London, 1942, pp.42-43.
  51. OT, p. 301.
  52. HC, p. 242.
  53. HC, p. 242.
  54. Christopher Philip Long, “A fissure in the distinction. Hannah Arendt, the family and the public/private dichotomy” in Philosophy & Social Criticism vol. 24 no 5 1998, p. 93.
  55. Arendt, Nach Auschwitz, quoted by Arne Johan Vetlesen in Empathy, Perception and Judgment, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, p. 117.
  56. HC, p. 53.
  57. HC, p. 52.
  58. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 134, Penguin Books, New York, 1994; henceforth cited as EJ.
  59. HC, pp. 181-182.
  60. Arendt, “The Eggs Speak Up” in Jerome Kohn ed., Essays in Understanding, London, 1994, p. 283.
  61. EJ, pp. 268-269.

Citation: Auestad, L. (2005) Plurality and Human Dignity
in Nordic Journal of Human Rights no. 3