Customer Reviews: On Violence (Harvest Book)
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on November 25, 1998
Though this book does not have the same power over me as On Revolution had, On Violence is still a very well written, witty and insightful look at the power structures most prevalent in the early 1970's. Arendt makes the intelligent claim that those with power that are losing that power will hit a point where they only see violence as a means to maintain the current power distribution, but that violence will actually cause a loss of power. The book can be read in a day (and should), but this book needs to be read 3 or 4 times to catch all of the subtle points Arendt throws in unannounced. The main criticism I have of this book is its failure at points to demonstrate the relavence of her arguments, which I find she does incredibly well in her other books. Not a must buy, but if you have the option, take it.
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on May 28, 2008
Professor Arendt has again turned the commonplace on its head with her wit and piercing logic, and has used her unfiltered and unadulterated thinking to milk additional meanings and understandings from the accepted conventional wisdom. Her clean thinking and careful analysis has become a force to be reckoned with, and as a result, has acquired a life of its own.

After reaching the end of this sharply focused essay, I discovered it is best read in reverse, beginning with section III and working backwards.

It is a tutorial on the origins, use and misuse of violence, and its associated concepts of power, strength, authority, and terror, and to a much lesser extent also, influence, control, obedience, and command.

It is section III that deals with the origins of violence in both human and animal. And as is true with the other sections, existing common sense and settled sociological theology are reopened and challenged. Both Konrad Lorentz and B.F. Skinner's theories, for instance are placed anew under the microscope, in light of human, rather than just anthropomorphized animal experience, with surprisingly new understandings emerging.

Section II deals with the definitional slipperiness of these concepts as they have been used and misused -- again with surprisingly new interpretations. And again, the standard understandings are reopened for further analysis and the old authorities are challenged to redefine their often ossified and misleading meanings and interpretations.

Section I begins with the existing experience at the time the book was first written (1957) and includes analyses of violence at both the international and the national level, but not at the interpersonal level. Although these examples are anything but fresh, this in no way affects the freshness of the analysis. I was especially impressed with the way the author ripped the so-called revolutionary movements of the 60s, including the black power movement and Third World revolutionary movements in general. As she puts it so trenchantly: "The Third World is not a reality but an ideology." The section on terror however, left me cold: in light of the likes of Osama bin Laden, the role and effects of terror, could certainly use some updating.

My only other complaint is that the analysis is almost too abstract and almost too removed from the meat of contemporary experience, in the sense that the moral dimension is never brought directly into the picture. This omission makes the analyses seem almost synthetic, sterile and wholly academic, although I am sure with the author's background this could not have been her intent.

Still, even if one has to imagine how to factor her analyses back into contemporary situations, the wisdom contained in this short volume and the intellectual skill with which it is done, are priceless. Five stars
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on October 7, 2010
Arendt's book begins by commenting on the paradoxical nature of violence during the Cold War. She says, "The technical development 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." She is, of course, referring to the advent of the atomic age. In an age, then, when the victory of one party of another means the virtual annihilation of both, what political and ideological redress does one have?

The first part of "On Violence" argues that the United States is no longer a country which can feel the sharp throes of political populism; she argues that individual action has been deadened by an institutionalized bureaucracy, aided by brain trusters in the illustrious think tanks whose hypotheses eventually turn into "facts," which in turn beget other "facts," and whose magical thinking has a way of hypnotizing us. The most common countervailing force to this phenomenon was the group of student protests in the 1960s whose use of violent resistance was often Marxian or Leninist in orientation. These were often set off in the name of "participatory democracy." Yet what makes this a bit of bittersweet irony is that neither Marx nor Lenin advocated any such like a participatory democracy. Especially in Leninism, the socialist utopia would have been run by a one-party, top-down system which would have rendered both political participation and democracy superfluous.

In the second part, Arendt adduces some very interesting, if semantically peculiar, distinctions that I would agree are fundamental to understanding the politics of the twentieth century. She differentiates between "power," "force," "strength," "authority," and "violence," which she says are often - mistakably - used interchangeably. Here is a short apercu of some of her definitions. Power applies uniquely to the ability to act not alone, but in concert with others; it can only be maintained by a group, and as soon as the group dissolves (physically or ideologically), so does the power. Strength is what the individual has, and applies only to a single person. Authority is most frequently abused, and "can be vested in persons - there is such a thing as personal authority, as, for instance, between teacher and pupil - or it can be vested in offices, as, for instance, in the Roman senate, or in the hierarchical offices of the Church (a priest can grant valid absolution even though he is drunk.)" Finally, violence is characterized by its instrumental character, i.e., that we use an object to commit violence other than the physical force of the individual or the group.

Most interestingly, Arendt intimates that while using radical tactics and espousing antiestablishment means, the student protesters of the 1960s had bourgeois, Enlightenment, technocratic ideas of "progress" and "betterment" in mind. That the means and the ends of these protests were out of synch, for Arendt, posts one of the most interesting questions of twentieth-century American protest politics.
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on November 15, 2013
Arendt's work on violence is a wonderful contribution to the philosophical consideration of the issue. The distinction she draws between violence, power, authority, and force is by far the most valuable part of the essay, allowing for the proper political and linguistic application of these concepts.

However, her interpretations of Sartre and Fanon range from plausible to completely absurd. I often found myself scrambling through "The Wretched of the Earth" (following Arendt's citations) in a attempt to elaborate on her incomplete quotations and scathing conclusions, only to be left asking myself how she possibly could read the thinkers in such a manner.

Sadly, her essay is also riddled with anti-Black racism, as many scholars have noted (See Kathryn Gines "Arendt and the Negro Question" for a full treatment of this theme in her work). She consistently reduces Black student radicalism to the desire of eliminating academic standards of admission and introducing "ridiculous reforms" into academia; I suppose police brutality, deplorable economic prospects, and continued discrimination were all off her radar. At times her bigotry is so extreme that it dives into conspiracy theory. She entertains the idea that Black Power movement seeks to create a world "in which the Negro would constitute an overwhelming majority of the world's population" (footnote 38)

This is a wonderful essay and I recommend it to anyone interested in the connection between philosophy and violence, but Arendt's elusive political commitment often shows itself as a confused normative position; you're never quite sure where her moral compass is pointing, which is obviously problematic when the issues of race, violence, and politics are the discussion at hand.
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on August 9, 2011
This was a really great work of political theory by Arendt. It explores violence, mostly through the lens of the 1960s when she was writing this book. It looks at the student rebellions across the world, in both democracies and communist countries. The coincidence of the uprisings is interesting, and she posits that they are both protesting for the same reason, albeit in different manifestations. Students around the world were looking for freedom. The students in communist countries were looking for freedom to express themselves through both speech and action and thereby have an effect on the processes and progress of their respective countries. The students in the Western democracies were protesting their lack of freedom in action. They protested the lack of agency they felt. Both sets of students felt impotent and unimportant, as if they entirely didn't count, and decided to protest against it.

Some of the most impacting quotes for me:

"Rage is by no means an automatic reaction to misery and suffering as such; no one reacts with rage to an incurable disease or to an earthquake or, for that matter, to social conditions that seem to be unchangeable. Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not does rage arise. Only when our sense of justice is offended do we react with rage, and this reaction by no means necessarily reflects personal injury, as is demonstrated by the whole history of injury, as is demonstrated by the whole history of revolution, where invariably members of the upper classes touched off and then led the rebellions of the oppressed and downtrodden."

"Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance... Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it."

"Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime is the best excuse for doing nothing."

"Racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition because it objects to natural organic facts - a white or black skin - which no persuasion or power could change; all one can do, when the chips are down, is to exterminate their bearers. Racism, as distinguished from race, is not a fact of life, but an ideology, and the deeds it leads to are not reflex actions, but deliberate acts based on pseudo-scientific theories. Violence in interracial struggle is always murderous, but it is not "irrational"; it is the logical and rational consequence of racism, by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system."

"The technical development 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."
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on May 29, 2008
Arendt's long essay/short book "On Violence" notes that war has become unglamorous and ineffective as a political force, yet it remains because we have not found an adequate replacement for this. This is perhaps understood as a more politically-minded equivalent of William James's idea 60 years earlier that we need to find a "moral equivalent of war" that will harness the cooperation and personal altruism that war can elicit, but without the horrific consequences that far outweigh the benefits.

Among the many useful concepts in Arendt's book are the definitions of power, violence, strength, force, and authority as distinct entities, despite our tendency to conflate them, or use them as synonyms. Most important is the difference between power and violence, which Arendt suggests are often found together but are in fact opposite in many ways. Specifically, while violence can undo power, it cannot build it. Violence is not simply power expressed in its most brutish fashion.

Also important is the final third of the book, in which Arendt takes apart the notion that political violence is somehow "natural" or part of the human condition.

In the end, it is this idea that is at the center of the book: violence is routinely accepted as inevitable--as a given in human society. Arendt asks us to acknowledge the much more troubling truth: violence is conscious human action. It should not be natrualized or taken for granted or romanticized, but carefully examined.

The book is well-written, yet dense and often casually drops historical and philosophical references without much explanation for the uninitiated reader. Despite that, it is readable despite its often abstract nature. It doesn't leave you with a clear call to specific action, but by openly questioning longstanding myths about violence and its alleged utility in solving political problems, it does a great service.
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on June 25, 2013
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)was one of those rare people whose clear thinking could penetrate the vague nonsense and "academic bafflegap" that political liars and media gurus pass as "news." Arendt could assess a situation or trend and carefully diagnose the flaws in "establishment" discourse.

Arendt demolished the idiodic nonsense of using atomic and nuclear weapons. She was clear that the use of such super weapons would ruin both "winners" and "losers." Diplomacy and war are weaspons used to gain some ecnonomic and political advantage. The rhetorical question that Arendt raised is what would the "winners" gain except a destroyed civilization. She could have treated the effects of atomic and nuclear radiation illness which would make those who died instantly the "lucky ones." In other words, the destruction caused by atomic and nuclear weapons would negate ANY economic or political advantage. The fact is that there would be nothing left worth debate or dispute. The issue may be to limit war given the economic problems with reduced military budgets.

Pundits raised the question about policy makers think about the "unthinkable" re mass destruction. Arendt's answer was that policy makers do not think at all. They create models and adhere to them with the stupid mentality of "what could possibly go wrong." Arendt's answer was that the policy makers make a claim for a randomm chance or "glitch." As Arendt noted, the random events and "glitches" ARE the norm. Bureaucrats can hide behind the fact that when tragic blunders do occur, Mr. or Mrs. Nobody is responsible. Scapegoats are in good supply and make easy fodder for political leaders and media gurus who refuse to actually know anything and, again, refuse to think. Slogans and ad hominem responses are substituted for knowledge and clear thinking. In spite if smugness and arrogance, policy makers and ultimately citizens realize too late that there are limits to power, and power can lead to weakness and decay.

Arendt also had interesting commentary re the student protests of the 19060s and 1970s. Some of these protesters had good reason to complain. However, those who preached violence and Marxist-Lenist nonsensee and violence lived in a dream world. Those who preached such violence had a romantic, naive notion that a Third World (whatever that means) violent revolution would be a Second Coming. These naive fools thought there was some unity between Mao, Che, & co. when no such unity ever existed. The original Leninist, Marxist leaders such as Lenin and Stalin would NEVER HAVE tolerated student dissent and protest. They would have employed the phrase of "The Stalinist Method of Management." This is what happens when men and women refuse to study history and fall prey to ideological nonsense.

Another concept that Arendt dealt with was that of violence. Arendt made a good case that violence is not the same thing as power or strength. Power and strength are often based on popular agreement, good organization, and acceptence of the status quo. One the other hand, violence is used when those in power are desparate and see their power successfully challenged. Those who invoke violence do not understnad that violence can beget violence. Another side of this issue is that men and women will not rebel when their are in bad conditions. Men and women rebel when they THINK their conditions are bad even though others have worse situtaions. Rebellions and revolutions do not occur when the tyranny is real, but they occur when tyranny and tyrants appear to be weak. The French and Revolutions are good exmaples of such conditions. Often calls for violence come from those who are stupid and cannot react to reason and knowledge except to make violent threats thus exposing weakness and desparation.

Hannah Arendt's books and essays include such works such as THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, EICHMANN IN JERUSALSM, CRISES OF THE REPUBLIC, etc. Those books and the one that is reviewed show the difference between what is reality and what is false.

James E. Egolf

June 25, 2013
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Johanna "Hannah" Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-born political theorist, who wrote many books such as Antisemitism: Part One of The Origins of Totalitarianism,Imperialism: Part Two Of The Origins Of Totalitarianism,Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism,Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,The Life of the Mind,The Human Condition, etc.

She opens this 1969 book with the statement, “These reflections were provoked by the events and debates of the last few years as seen against the background of the twentieth century, which has become indeed, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development 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.” (Pg. 3)

She states, “I quoted Sartre in order to show that this new shift toward violence in the thinking of revolutionaries can remain unnoticed even by one of their most representative and articulate spokesmen, and it is all the more noteworthy for evidently not being an abstract notion in the history of ideas. (If one turns the ‘idealistic’ CONCEPT of thought upside down, one might arrive at the ‘materialistic’ CONCEPT of labor; one will never arrive at the notion of violence.) No doubt all this has a logic of its own, but it is one springing from experience, and this experience was utterly unknown to any generation before.” (Pg. 13)

She asserts, “To think, finally, that there is such a thing as a ‘Unity of the Third World,’ to which one could address the new slogan in the era of decolonization ‘Natives of all underdeveloped countries unite!’ (Sartre) is to repeat Marx’s worst illusions on a greatly enlarged scale and with considerably less justification. The Third World is not a reality but an ideology.” (Pg. 21)

She observes, “progress not only explains the past without breaking up the time continuum but it can serve as a guide for acting into the future. This is what Marx discovered when he turned Hegel upside down: he changed the direction of the historian’s glance; instead of looking toward the past, he could now look confidently into the future. Progress gives an answer to the troublesome question, And what shall we do now? The answer, on the lowest level, says: lets us develop what we have into something better, greater, et cetera.” (Pg. 27)

She notes, “This generation, trained like its predecessors in hardly anything but the various brands of the my-share-of-the-pie social and political theories, has taught us a lesson about manipulation, or, rather, its limits, which we would do well not to forget. Men can be ‘manipulated’ through physical coercion, torture, or starvation, and their opinions can be arbitrarily formed by deliberate, organized misinformation, but not by ‘hidden persuaders,’ television, advertising, or any other psychological means in a free society.” (Pg. 28)

She states, “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of nonviolent resistance had met with a different enemy---Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England---the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission.” (Pg. 53)

She concludes the second section, “To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” (Pg. 56)

She contends, “Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end that must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals. Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention.” (Pg. 79)

Some parts of this book seem a bit “dated” (e.g., the student movement; colonialism; etc.) today. But in the main, it is still a quite pertinent analysis of political and social violence, that will be of key interest to anyone studying such issues.
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on June 12, 2014
Hannah Arendt is n American philosopher whose most famous work is probably "Eichman in Jeruselem". This book discusses the difference between Violence and Power, where Violence has the ability to make other obey you. Violence is further distinguished from Power by the requirement that it include an implement in which to carry out the violence, as in the form of a gun or a knife or a bomb.

THis is short work, really just an essay but it is both simplistic and powerful in its' discussion of Violence and its role in mans affairs. Highly recommended.
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on August 20, 2000
There are few books from college that remain with me 15 years later. This is one of them. Arendt's writing transcends academia. Not only does her philosophy apply to politics but it can easily be applied to all relationships (worker/employer, parent/child, siblings, black/white, etc),as all relationships involve a power struggle. Her general thesis is that where there is lack of power or where power is slipping away, there is greater potential for violence. Lack of power begets violence. Apply that to the current world scene and you begin to wonder exactly how safe we are. In re-reading it recently, I couldn't help think that this book could just as easily be prescribed for management solutions...right alongside The Art of War.
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