Hannah Arendt on the Relationship Between Politics and the Lie
No matter how large the tissue of falsehood that an experienced liar has to offer, it will never be large enough … to cover the immensity of factuality. (Arendt, 1972, p. 7).
The relationship between politics, the lie, and the truth in political science and political philosophy has been discussed by many thinkers: Why did the need to lie especially in politics arise? What role did developments in politics play in this? Is lying a legitimate tool in politics? Is politics free of lies possibly? Questions like these have been scrutinized by thinkers. In this article, we will discuss the perspective of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who is a German political theorist and accepted as one of the pioneers for current debates on these concepts and phenomena. In line with these questions, Hannah Arendt presents the process of “lying in politics” in her study of the same name which she wrote in 1972. In this valuable book, Arendt reveals the role of the lie, which has been used throughout history and is a prominent actor in domestic and foreign politics today, especially in the politics of the 21st century, in the context of the deciphered Pentagon Documents.
Lying is not counted among political virtues; however, it is accepted as a condition and common practice or discourse in politics. Political lying has always been used to make it harder for people to trust themselves or make informed factual opinions (Arendt, 2006). In that sense, people are forced to rely on the judgments of others, while weakening their ability to trust their own mental and rational abilities. At this point, the following question can be asked: Is lying at the core of politics acceptable as something natural or normal? Arendt approaches this question from a different perspective, whether justice should be served even if the world is destroyed. Arendt’s answer is positive, as she follows the classical maxim: “Fiat Justitia, pereat mundus,” she says. In other words, “Let justice be done, though the world perish” (Arendt, 2005, p. 52). According to Arendt, living in a world devoid of justice is meaningless.
In her book Between Past and Future (2006), Arendt divides the lie into traditional and modern. The modern lie is the organized one that involves collective manipulation. In the traditional type, the lie is not completely pervasive, and the liar is aware of the meanings of what is said. This gnaws at the liar, making the traditional more harmless than the modern. In the modern type, on the other hand, the lie spreads over the whole area and even the liar can no longer know what the truth is. This is because of the manipulative essence of the modern lie:
Such completeness and potential finality, which were unknown to former times, are the dangers that arise out of the modern manipulation of facts (Arendt, 2006, p. 572).
The aim of the manipulation is to destroy facts and create an image (for example, images distort the truth, or political rhetoric necessarily reshapes the common conception of truth). In the traditional lie, only the truth is hidden; but in the modern lie, there is an act of destruction and creation. Therefore, the individual who is called a liar in modern times is someone who does an act because they try not only to hide the truth but also to create a new truth. For instance, the Latin concept arcana imperii means political power as something that hides and conceals itself (Selberg, 2019).
The truths that are the object of politics are factual truths, not rational truths. As Arendt puts it, “since facts and events—the invariable outcome of men living and acting together—constitute the very texture of the political realm” (Arendt, 2006, p. 522). Records of facts and events are contextually embedded in social memories and history. Thus, individuals can establish a meaningful bond with the environment they live in, share their experiences and make sense of them. Facts and contexts drawn from events constitute what Arendt calls factual truth. Facts are more fragile than rational truths; because they need to be remembered, defined, and witnessed. Since facts are fragile and changeable, Arendt’s (2006) conclusion is this: if people lose the ability to freely construct meaning from their experiences and add that occurrence to the story of human existence, then the ability to make judgments and distinguish between truth and fiction is compromised.
Totalitarian regimes take advantage of this fragility of facts by using organized lies. Truth has a despotic character, it is unquestioned and certain. This is why totalitarian regimes fear and hate the power they cannot suppress. As the historian Ihor Kamenetsky claims in his work Totalitarianism and Utopia (1964), the ideal person for the totalitarian regime is not a devoted Nazi or a communist dedicated to the cause. Individuals who no longer care about the difference between reality and fantasy, and between right and wrong, are fatally important to the survival of a totalitarian regime. Organized lying also contains violence; therefore, it gets along well with totalitarian regimes. The reason why it contains violence is that it not only destroys facts but also destroys those who talk about facts. Arendt writes (2006, p. 533) “even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia it was more dangerous to talk about concentration and extermination camps, whose existence was no secret than to hold and to utter “heretical” views on anti-Semitism, racism, and Communism”.
Totalitarian regimes use this vulnerability to destroy facts and build a new image with organized lies and manipulation. For example, academic Anna-Karin Selberg examines the US creation and usage of the lie from Arendt’s perspective on constructing the lie and considering that the Vietnam war was all about image creation which is the "logical" outcome of the cold war in the Vietnam case. The “Pentagon papers” documenting the US presence in Indochina from the end of WWII to 1968 were leaked in 1971. While they did not reveal any secrets, this event sparked an explosive controversy that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. The documents were shocking not because of the content of the lies exposed but because they were not accidental or secondary tools in a political strategy. It turned out that lying was at the very core of the strategy, which made its infrastructure and art (Selberg, 2019). Many lives and financial losses were experienced for such a political goal; it was not realized that even the superpower would be a limited power. “What the Pentagon papers revealed was how facts about the war were systematically erased and replaced with constructed images, and how scenarios were created that made these images true –in turn making them easier to sell as facts” (Selberg, 2019). The modern, political lie can be understood as a laboratory, a device, through which politics becomes true – by systematically erasing facts and truths. Fear of defeat or desire for victory is not about the welfare of the country, it is about the superpower image of the president and the country. The fact that the interests of the power (such as the economical order, political stance, or ideology) are in question in political matters is one of the main things that produces the phenomenon of modern and manipulative lies, which is against the existence of factual truths.
Often a lie does not contradict logic; because facts may be different than they seem. The liar knows what the masses want to hear and acts accordingly, and can make the lie more attractive than the truth by adapting the facts to interests. Thus, its persuasiveness is greater than the truth, because the truth can sometimes be annoying. But despite all this, according to Arendt, truths have their disturbing side, such as comparing people to unexpected things, while oppressive and manipulative tools such as persuasion and violence cannot replace the truth, even if they can destroy the truth. In that sense, the truth is powerful and irreplaceable. Accordingly, how can politics be purged from lies? It is possible to protect politics from lies with truth-telling. Arendt argues that one can never expect the truth from politicians. In other words, those people who defend the truth exist outside the realm of politics. The people that Arendt calls truth-tellers are philosophers, artists, historians, witnesses, and scientists. These identities are also what Edward Said (1993) calls intellectuals who feel responsible. The political sphere can only preserve its splendor if it limits it to the truth.
As a result, truth is not political. It is anti-political because historically it has often been positioned against politics. As Arendt puts it, the lie persists in politics; but this destroys the splendor of the political realm. The splendor can only be preserved with truth, which constitutes the limit of the political sphere. Truth is fragile in the face of lies, but lies are tempting, and the truth does not always make people happy. Therefore, the truth needs to be witnessed and remembered in the face of lies.
Arendt, H. (1972). Crises of the Republic: Lying in politics ; Civil disobedience ; On violence ; Thoughts on politics and revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Retrieved from: http://library.lol/main/62259C60272796CEC839D8C4D1B9B218
Arendt, H. (2005). Responsibility and Judgment. Schocken. Retrieved from: http://library.lol/main/D2D1DB239F2C0705D31BE2EC10E93E1F
Arendt, H. (2006). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics. Retrieved from: http://library.lol/main/B60BE2A7CAC33F3F96C002EEBC5521B4
Kamenetsky, I. (1964). Totalitarianism and Utopia. Chicago Review. 16(4), 114-159. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25293809?seq=1
Said, E.W. (1993). Representations of the Intellectual. London: Vintage. Retrieved from: http://library.lol/main/40A4023240AB564C9E1B4ADF10865398
Selberg, A.K. (2019). The Contemporary Art of Lying. Eurozine. Retrieved from: https://www.eurozine.com/contemporary-art-lying/
Cover: Stein, F. (1944). Hannah Arendt in the US in 1944. She had managed to flee Nazi Europe three years earlier [Photograph]. The Guardian. Retrieved from:
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/01/totalitarianism-in-age-donald-trump-lessons-from-hannah-arendt-protests Figure 1: Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives. (n.d.). Hannah Arendt was one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers. (Photo courtesy of Middletown, Conneticut, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives) [Photograph]. Exberliner. Retrieved from:
Figure 2: AP Photo. (1973). President Richard Nixon speaks near Orlando, Fla. to the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting [Photograph]. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/23/donald-trump-richard-nixon-pen-pals-420567
Figure 3: German Literature Archive. (1955). A page from Hannah Arendt’s thinking journals held at the German Literature Archive, Marbach. Journal XXI, May 1955 [Photograph]. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities. Retrieved from:
Figure 4: Keystone. (1938) 12th September 1938: German Chancellor and leader of the Nazi Party Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) addressing troops at the Zeppelin Field on the last day of the Nuremberg Congress. [Photograph]. Newsweek. Retrieved from:
https://www.newsweek.com/it-wasnt-hitlers-speeches-won-elections-nazis-study-finds-1060802 Figure 5: The Washington Post. (2021). Front pages from The Washington Post and the New York Times when they published stories about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971 [Image]. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: