A Tainted Election? “Hamlet” & Politics

For roughly the first half of Hamlet, the audience is left in suspense as to whether or not Claudius, the present king, had in fact secretly murdered his predecessor, Prince Hamlet’s father. Then the prince devises and executes a plan to find out, and deems his suspicions confirmed; we in the audience get to be privy to still more conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt. Mystery solved. Except that this isn’t the play’s only mystery, nor the most vexing one. For – despite what we’re tempted to think – the confirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions doesn’t resolve the unanswered question looming over the play from the start: how is it that Claudius, the murdered king’s brother, got to be king after him?

Never mind how the former king died. Why did the crown not pass to Hamlet, that king’s son and namesake? Shakespeare supplies us with just enough information to allow the inference that the Denmark of the play (like the Denmark of Shakespeare’s own time) is an elective monarchy, not a hereditary one. This doesn’t answer the question; it defines it. In the elective monarchies that Shakespeare’s audience knew, a king with a direct male heir would almost invariably be succeeded by him on the throne, barring exceptional circumstances. In Hamlet, the recently-deceased king is survived by an adult son, bearing his father’s name. Yet somehow the crown has passed not to the son but instead to the former king’s brother. We are told nothing about the procedure whereby he was elected, or who was involved. It seems to be connected somehow (whether as cause or consequence) with his having won the heart and the hand of Gertrude, the queen. Shakespeare withholds any definite information. He simply presents us with Claudius on the throne, his election a fait accompli.

This turn of affairs, however it happened, has left Hamlet in a state of incredulous, shocked disgust. He finds Claudius loathsome, a disgrace to the kingdom. He can barely contain his rage at his mother for having let herself be swayed to the side of a man so deplorable and disgusting. When he learns (from his father’s ghost) that his uncle had brought about his father’s death, he absorbs this disclosure as if it were something he might have known all along. As the son of the murdered king, he finds himself tasked with avenging the crime.

But make no mistake: what Hamlet seeks is not public justice, and his cause serves no useful political purpose.   The revenge he is tasked with is  merely a private affair, familial score-setting. For Claudius (we must assume) is Denmark’s legitimate king. He may be a treacherous, unscrupulous thug.  He might never have gotten his chance if he hadn’t committed a devious crime. But it wasn’t the crime that got Claudius his crown. He got elected.

Just how Claudius got elected, Shakespeare leaves unexplained. We’re given no information about the procedure, nor of the identities of the electors.   We’re not told whose support Claudius had relied upon for the election to go in his favor.  Maybe whoever it was  (Gertrude? Polonius? Osric? Others unmentioned?) would have chosen differently had they known of the candidate’s crimes in the run-up to his election.  Maybe; or maybe not. Maybe they were in a position to guess what he’d done; maybe they didn’t care. They might still have preferred him to the other available candidates, for reasons unknown to us.   In any event, it’s a moot hypothetical. A royal election can’t be revoked or retracted.

Hamlet generally seems to understand this.   He never speaks of his uncle as   a usurper, nor disputes the legitimacy of his title to rule. He accepts that Claudius is indeed Denmark’s king.  And yet his lucidity on the matter does seem to have limits. He cannot help himself from cruelly berating, and baiting, his mother, merely for having married the man. He rails at her pointlessly, wildly imagining he might shame her into abandoning him. It never occurs to him that she might have had her reasons for marrying, now that his father is dead. This is painful to watch.

There’s a reason why Hamlet so brutally and irrationally castigates his mother, as if she alone were responsible for Claudius’ ascendancy. It spares him the need to confront the hard truth – nowhere stated by anyone, but inscribed in the situation – that it isn’t his mother who bears the blame for enabling Claudius’ rise, but his father, the previous king. We tend not to notice this. But it’s true.

For consider: somehow the long-reigning King Hamlet had failed to ensure that the crown would pass to his son. Was his father a weaker, more pusillanimous king than Hamlet allows himself to remember? Was he merely negligent, and short-sighted? Might he not have cared for his son to succeed him, or cared to expend the political capital that would have been needed to assure his son’s success? Might it be that the father and son had been somehow estranged? Shakespeare withholds from us any basis for knowing, one way or another. The father is dead (though still haunting the place, now and then); the son is disappointed; the uncle is king. Later the uncle is dead, along with the son and the mother, and somebody else takes over. The rest is silence.

What might Arendt have to say about Trump?

A few people have been asking me my thoughts on the recent surge of interest in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in relation to our present political crisis.  I’m working on writing something on the subject, but meanwhile – to air some rough ideas –  I offer the following snippet  of a conversation I had last week at Brooklyn College (where I teach), in the office of the chair of our political science department:

Roy [sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated]: …Agreed. Obviously Trump is no Hitler, and this isn’t 1933. But that’s why I’m starting to think Arendt might be relevant, after all. It’s like I always said: her focal case  for totalitarianism isn’t the Nazis, it’s the Bolsheviks – and only under Stalin, not before— 

Corey Robin [impatient, scanning his inbox]: — I know, I know…

Roy [talking against the clock]: —So the point is, her theory can accommodate  a case where there’s little or no authentic mass movement beforehand. The leader need only be in a position to commandeer  and transform existing institutions, and manipulate prior loyalties…  You could think of Trump’s hold on the Republicans now as something like Stalin’s over the Old Bolsheviks – they didn’t like him before, and don’t like him now, but they’re boxed in; to abandon him now would leave them with nothing… But, look, never mind Stalin.  Arendt is sketchy on Stalin, and I’ve stopped trying to do her homework for her a long time ago.  The point is – that’s why I’m finding her relevant now. I want to say – Trump could turn out to be a better instance of what she meant by totalitarianism than either Hitler or Stalin…

Corey [baffled]: What are you talking about? I still don’t see it.  Where’s the relentless drive for logical consistency, the compulsive force of ideology? —

Roy [puzzled, then incredulous]:  — Huh? …You mean, the stuff Arendt wrote in the last chapter?  ‘Ideology & Terror’? That’s  from 1953. You thought I meant that? Corey, please  I’m talking about Arendt’s theory from ’49 —  the one in the book’s first edition.*  It’s not about consistent ideology.  It’s about taking reality for one massive conspiracy, and operating on that basis.  Part of what she saw as distinctively totalitarian in the Bolsheviks under Stalin was their flexibility — and their contempt for those who complained of their contradictions… The other stuff — the stuff Arendt added in the later chapter — that doesn’t interest me, never did. She herself  abandoned it later. We’ve been through this, remember? Thus the Eichmann book…

Corey [bemused chuckle]:  ….

[* The changes to Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism are documented in this old paper of mine,  written on the occasion of 50th anniversary of  the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 2001. (The paper came out of a conference held in New York just a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack, which explains its ominous last paragraph.)   A few details of the interpretation are superseded by subsequent scholarship, but I’m not aware of any challenge to the basic documentary account.  Links to some other pieces I’ve written on Arendt’s work can be found here.]

Original post title: “Is Arendt Any Help? Raw Thoughts on Trump and Totalitarianism”

Arendt: “The reality in which we live”

“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who believe that everything s possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives….

“The central events of our time are not less effectively forgotten by those committed to a belief in an unavoidable doom, than by those who have given themselves up to reckless optimism…. Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed upon us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight.  Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be….

“We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are in vain.”

–Hannah Arendt,
Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)



Misremembering Plato’s Noble Lie

Back when I taught at Yale, I used to give a quiz about Plato’s Republic in the first class meeting for one of my upper-level seminars. The students were all supposed to have taken at least one prior course in which the Republic was read, and I wanted to see how well they remembered it.  (I also wanted to show them that I meant business.)  The quiz had two questions: What is the Republic’s ’noble lie’? What is its political purpose?

Nearly everyone got the first question right, at least in broad outline. The noble lie is one of the things that’s remembered by everyone who’s ever read The Republic — that, and the notion that none but philosophers are fit to be kings.

The noble lie is the public deception that Plato has his Socrates propose at the end of the Republic’s Book III.  It is a myth about human origins — in the most literal immediate sense: a myth about where babies come from. According to this myth, the city’s babies are not born from the bodies of human mothers, but from out of the earth, after having been formed in an underground mineral womb. All share a common maternity — the ground under their feet — yet their souls and their destinies differ, depending on their mineral composition.  Those with gold in their souls are destined for the ruling elite.  Those whose souls are made up of silver  are to be denied that distinction, but are fit to bear arms.  Everyone else — the general populace — are left to their private occupations, befitting the baser metals of which they are made.

From their earliest childhood, the citizens of Socrates’ city are to be taught that they share the same geological parentage. Yet for some unexplained reason, the specific type of metal in their soul forbids them to come into contact with certain substances or pratice certain activities. The commoner sorts — their souls made of iron and bronze — are not to bear arms, nor take part in government. That means they are left to money-making occupations — agriculture, crafts, and commerce.  Their gold- and silver-souled brethren, on the other hand, are not to touch money, or possess anything bought with it.  Their lodgings and sustenance are to be provided to them by the state, on a communal basis.

So much for the first question.  Everyone who’s read The Republic remembers this, more or less. How about the next one? If that’s the noble lie, what’s its political purpose?  What rationale does Plato put in Socrates’ mouth, when proposing this myth’s propagation?

I’d get the same answer from almost every student.  It didn’t matter if they’d read the Republic in a philosophy course, or a course in political theory.  It didn’t matter if they’d read it in a course taught by me.   In all likelihood, it’s the answer that comes to mind to anyone reading this. The political purpose of the noble lie is to persuade  the common citizens to accept the rule of the guardians (the philosopher kings). It’s propaganda designed to inculcate submission and subordination. It’s an ideological prop for a regime of benevolent despots, designed to make the people accept their subordination.

There are some things in certain books that we almost  always misread, or misremember. Fortunately for us, in this case, it’s a book that’s always worth a re-reading.

Plato isn’t interested in any of that.  For better or worse, he takes it for granted that in a well-ordered state — or in a disorderly one, for that matter — some few must rule, and the others obey.  He takes it for granted, too, that most people are satisfied with that arrangement, most of the time, so long as they aren’t threatened, or despoiled of their possessions — or would be, anyway, if not over-excited by self-serving demagogues. Be that as it may — the noble lie isn’t intended for them.  Plato has Socrates introduce the noble lie at a specific juncture of his argument, to address a different problem entirely.

The problem has nothing to do with the people resenting or chafing against the guardians’ rule. The noble lie isn’t directed at the common people at all, except incidentally. It’s directed at the elite.  In particular, it’s directed at the elite’s silver class, the warrior caste. The stated purpose of the noble lie is ensure that this class be kept from taking advantage of their armed strength to despoil the city, by teaching them to shun all contact with money, and the things that money can buy.  The myth appeals to this caste’s love of honor — prestige — while also slyly insinuating the belief that the essence of prestige is to dine in a mess hall, and live in a barracks.

The bit about the noble lie comes at the end of a long discussion (taking up much of book II, and all of book III) concerning the selection and training of those who are to guard the good city.  (At this point in The Republic, nothing has been said about ruling — “guarding” is treated as a matter of defending against enemies.) When Socrates first raises this issue, he compares guardians to well-bred sheepdogs.  Like shepherds’ dogs, the city’s guardians must  possess sufficient “spiritedness” (thumos) as to be ready and able to fight off the enemies of the city, and yet they must show perfect gentleness to its friends (that is, the law-abiding citizens).

Socrates goes on in great deal about the proper training for these guardians, which — true to his sheepdog analogy — is essentially a matter of properly disciplined habituation.  (Only later in the Republic does it become fully clear that this is all just the first phase of the much longer training of those who are to serve as the city’s true, ruling guardians — the philosopher-kings.)  Unexpectedly, at the end of that long discussion, it emerges that Socrates himself has little confidence in this educational program’s results.  Out of every cohort selected to receive this rigorous training, only a fraction will prove worthy and reliable guardians. The would-be guardians are to be subjected to various (unspecified) trials and tests, so as to identify those “who believe throughout their lives that they must eagerly pursue what is advantageous to the city [i.e., the city’s good] and be wholly unwilling to do the opposite.”  Those who are to guard the city must be counted upon, above all else, to “guard” their belief that what is best for the city is best for themselves; they must prove themselves able to withstand the seductions of desires or fears as might becloud or confuse this belief.

Socrates and his companions seem to take it for granted that only a few of the would-be guardians will satisfy this criterion; when put to the test, the rest will prove not to be so reliable after all. And yet Socrates also assumes that these unreliable ones, too — or some of them, anyway — must be kept in the service of the city.  For reasons not yet explained, the true guardians must count on retaining the help and support of the others.

(A part of the equation that emerges only later in the Republic: those who bear arms for the city are younger than the true guardians — too young to have been fully tested.  Socrates cannot explain this properly at this point in the dialogue, for it is only later, in Book VII, that we are given the reason why the true guardians will have to be much older men and women – it takes that long to be educated as a philosopher, to show oneself worthy of that education.)

The device is needed, Socrates implies, precisely because the armed cohort otherwise cannot be counted upon to identify their own best interest with that of the city; the myth of the metals is to fortify that identification by appealing to their sense of honor — that same ‘spiritedness’ which is the outstanding trait of this caste.

Although Socrates recommends having the noble lie propagated everywhere in the city, this is chiefly in order to increase the likelihood that it will take hold among the warrior caste. It’s a drastic solution, and it isn’t so clear that Socrates himself thinks it’s likely to work. What’s interesting is that he’s so acutely aware of the peril in the problem.

“The most terrible and most shameful thing of all is for a shepherd to rear dogs to help him with his flocks in such a way that… they do evil to the sheep and become like wolves instead of dogs.”

δεινότατον γάρ που πάντων καὶ αἴσχιστον ποιμέσι τοιούτους γε καὶ οὕτω τρέφειν κύνας ἐπικούρους ποιμνίων, ὥστε ὑπὸ ἀκολασίας ἢ λιμοῦ ἤ τινος ἄλλου κακοῦ ἔθους αὐτοὺς τοὺς κύνας ἐπιχειρῆσαι τοῖς προβάτοις κακουργεῖν καὶ ἀντὶ κυνῶν λύκοις ὁμοιωθῆναι.

Republic 416a