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Book Review Of On Violence By Hannah Ardent

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1443 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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In this essay I will try to the best of my understanding to evaluate and critically analyse subject of violence through the eyes of Hannah Arendt. The title of the book is called ‘On Violence’ and has been written by Hannah Ardent and published in 1969. In this book Hannah Ardent tries explaining the subject of violence in a historical context and questions the nature of its use. She also re-examines the relationships between politics, war, violence and power and uses other theorists to differentiate her point. My purpose in writing this, is to critically analyse chapter 2 from this book in order to understand how successful the authors argument is and how effective are the example she use to prove her argument. I will then finally identify any examples that disprove of the authors argument and provide my own understanding of political concepts.

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The historical background of the essay was depressing and chaotic in all domains: in the international arena it was the clash between West and East, North and South, in internal politics, and even on the level of personal life, this is when she has lost her husband. What makes her essay so outstanding and even classical, in the sense of both timeless and timely, is her vigorous defence of politics against its simplistic and increasingly prevalent equation with violence. Without supporting a radical form of pacifism, Arendt’s text sought to justify the integrity of politics, construed as concerted action or shared exercise of public “power”, in the face of a growing fascination with violence and the progressive colonization of public life by violent strategies and ideologies.

Hannah Arendt in chapter two tries to define what she sees as the key concepts that must be understood for the construction of any ‘theory of violence’. Concepts such as power, authority, force, legitimacy and explains and defines power, violence, authority, force, strength and clarifies their relationships with one another. The author evaluates these concepts and provides examples to enhance understanding of the subject to illustrate her point. Her approach will be understood by most social scientists, that you cannot describe reality correctly if your linguists are faulty. She says that it is ‘A rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key concepts.’

Arendt identifies and acknowledges ‘the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs’. According to Arendt’s argument there is a great shortage of real critical analysis on the role and function of violence in human society ‘no one engaged in thought about history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has played in human affairs, and it is at first glance rather surprising that violence has been singled our so seldom for special consideration’

She attempts to identify the connections if any between these theories of violence and what she calls ‘the suicidal development of modern weapons’ that have become central to the ‘arsenals of violence’ produced by governments in the post war world.

As Arendt sets her analysis of violence within the tradition of the enlightenment the ‘means-ends’ and ’cause-effect’ debate pose one of the central paradoxes for her.

All the authorities that she quotes have strong opinions on the question of violence and its role and function in society. Arendt argues that there is a general consensus that ‘Violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power’. She quotes Max Weber’s definition of the state as the ‘Rule of men over men based on legitimate that is allegedly legitimate violence.’

Arendt does not agree with such a consensus because she says that to accept such a consensus you would have to ‘Equate political power with the organization of violence and this only makes sense if you follow Marx’s estimate of the state as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling classes.’

She believes that ‘no government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed or ever existed for more than a very short period. The crucial reason for this according to Arendt is that in the ‘Power – Violence’ relationship there is a fundamental ascendancy of power over violence. Governments in order to exist need power but they do not necessarily need violence. She believes that power needs no justification but its needs legitimacy. While violence can destroy power it can not create power. Arendt believes that ‘Power’ and ‘Violence’ are opposites and where one rules absolutely the other is absent. Rule by violence comes into play only when power is being lost. A short definition that Arendt refers too is that power equals institutionalized force and that violence is a manifestation of power.

‘phenomenologically… is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it’

This analyzes the implications for modern governments & modern peoples on the significance of civil obedience and consent

‘we have to decide whether and in what sense power can be distinguished from force to ascertain how the fact of using force according to law changes the quality of law itself and presents us with an entirely different picture of human relations’

How effective are the examples they use to prove their argument?

Hannah Arendt argue that it is insufficient to say power and violence are not the same and believes that they are opposites

‘Power and violence are opposites and not the same as where the one rules the upmost and the other is absent’.

The author uses Alexander Passerin d’Entreves opinion in order to prove her point. Passerin visualises violence as the most fragrant manifestation of power. This is what the author of the book ‘The Notion of the state’ illustrates,

‘we have to decide whether and in what sense power can be distinguished from force to ascertain how the fact of using force according to law changes the quality of law itself and presents us with an entirely different picture of human relations’

What counter-examples can you identify that disprove the authors argument? (you must properly reference your sources. Atleast two alternative sources must be identified.

Foucault truth and power

From completing this task what have you learnt about the particular political concept?

It is clearly seen that Ardent believes that to exercise power people need to gather together and act in a group. As she says:

“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”

Ardent believes that power does not belong to single man but it springs up whenever people act in concert. Her concept of a power as a property of a group sounds interesting but is not practical.


“Violence,” she writes, “can always destroy power. Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it [violence] is power.” [For example, violence and threat of violence by the emperors Caligula and Nero did not enhance their power. It diminished their power.]

Arendt writes that “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt” — as in a military against collective non-violent resistance (power). But, she adds, “Nowhere is the self-defeating factor in the victory of violence over power more evident than in the use of terror to maintain domination, about whose weird successes and eventual failures we know perhaps more than any generation before us.”

Violence, she sums up, “can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” Writing at the end of the 1960s, Arendt was critical of the advocacy of violence by blacks critical of Martin Luther King’s non-violent movement, and she took issue with the advocacy of


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