Location: Joukowsky Forum, Watson Institute for International Studies, 111 Thayer Street.
Partnering with the Pembroke Center and the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Cogut Center launched The Hannah Arendt Seminars in Spring 2006. This multi-year series of events celebrates the work of renowned German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt and honor the centennial of her birth. The series brings noted scholars from within and outside Brown together for lectures, workshops, film screenings, and other events that explore issues pertaining to the humanities, the study of women and gender, and international studies.
Event SummaryJean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Political and Social Ethnics at University of Chicago Divinity School, delivered a lecture on Hannah Arendt’s views on sovereignty, drawing connections between the sovereignty of God, the state, and the self. She showed how the discourses surrounding each flowed into one another in the 11th to 14th Centuries and in Arendt’s background and work.
Elshtain began by describing Arendt’s comparison of discourses of sovereignty in the French and American revolutions. The major contrast she gave is that the founders of the American Revolution did not make sovereignty a major part of their platform, whereas the French did. As the notion of sovereignty entails power and domination, it was then unsurprising to her that the French Revolution took a turn toward the terror of Robespierre.
Next, Elshtain transitioned into a discussion of debates about God’s sovereignty: Is it bound or unbound? The 11th to 12th Century theological debates about the limitations of God’s sovereignty translated into debates about the power of a king, who is seen by some as divine or supreme. Elshtain elucidated the connection between these different types of sovereignty in theological and political thought. She mentioned that Arendt had a theological element to her education and these connections informed her work on sovereignty.
Returning to Arendt’s take on what went wrong in the French Revolution, Elshtain said that the emphasis on the sovereign revolutionary will of the people was the major problem. This notion of a unified will excludes the possibility of exchange of opinions within the public by insisting on a unanimous voice of the populus. In this way, sovereignty is at odds with politics. Elshtain also said that Arendt linked this to the notion of purging the body politic of dissenting voices, which led to hunts of hypocrites and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.
Arendt writes “tantalizing and incomplete moments,” according to Elshtain, which leave the reader feeling as though something else is worrying the author. Elshtain gave some insight into what might be behind those moments. She said that Arendt had read and highly respected Albert Camus’ work on the French Revolution, which makes the case that the revolution snapped the connection between the earthly and the divine by deposing the king, who had mediated that connection. Once that connection is broken, the populus can tend toward grandiosity and excess, as in the Reign of Terror. People will mistake totality for unity and coercion for commonality. Where this leads to the “hideous mutations” such as Nazism and Stalinism, it worried Arendt deeply, said Elshtain.
Submitted by Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Hannah Schiff ’06.