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On V on On Violence (The Book) Pt. 1

(This week we're celebrating our first full year of blogging. On Monday and Wednesday, we will review Hannah Arendt's "On Violence." On Thursday we look back at our best posts from the last year. Finally, on Friday, Eric will blow your mind with ten of the most abused quotes in the blogosphere and the military.)

When I first came up for the title of On Violence, the tone I was going for was something crazy philosophical, like Clausewitz’s On War, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Liebnitz’s Discourse On Metaphysics. The day after we launched, of course, I finally got around to googling "on violence" and I found out that I wasn't the first to use the phrase “On Violence.” That honor goes to political philosopher Hannah Arendt.


Fortunately, our predecessor in things “On Violence” was no intellectual slouch. Arendt--philosopher and prolific writer--coined the oft repeated phrase, “the banality of evil” and penned the works Eichmann in Jerusalem and On Revolution. (She was also a student of existentialist-cum-Nazi Martin Heidegger, but that's a different story.) Since Arendt’s work is one of the few to discuss violence philosophically (the other core text is William T. Vollman's seven volume tome Rising Up, Rising Down, philosophically and physically the opposite of Arendt's 90 page tract), I decided, a year after beginning our blogging adventure and stealing her title, that we should review her ideas.

On Violence (Arendt) makes two bold claims. First, that violence is understudied in the social sciences. Second, that because of the lack of study, we do not understand violence. When I read On Violence (Arendt), I felt a kindred spirit at work. I believe that she is the starting point--in tone, language and analysis--for a conversation On Violence (the blog) is continuing forty years later.

Violence Has Not Been Studied

To start her work, Arendt explains why violence gets the shaft by academic circles, “violence and its arbitrariness were taken for granted and therefore neglected.” This holds today. We study the process of war, or the historical context of war, but never the philosophical issues (or importance) behind such a complicated study.

This was true for Arendt; it is true now. The few social scientists who do explore violence do so as the exceptions to the rule; for example Lieutenant Colonel Rex Grossman in On Killing, or John Keegan in A History of Warfare. The former is read throughout the military for its brilliant insights into the psychology of violence; the latter is an underrated tour de force by one of the premier war historians of our age. Each dives deeper then their field usually goes when discussing violence.

But while Grossman and Keegan analyze violence through social science, they avoid the metaphysics. They discuss the empirical evidence psychologically, historically and sociologically, but never philosophically. Thank God for Arendt, or we would have no basis to study at all.

(Arendt also discounts the work of scientists who try and explain violence through the study of the natural sciences. There are too many leaps to apply animal behavior to human behavior when the whole concept of reason makes man incomparably different to animals.)

Overturning the Definition of Violence

When Arendt moves to her philosophy, she overturns the basic notions about violence that most of us take for granted. Arendt refutes the idea that, “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power.” In other words, the idea that violence is synonymous with “the power of man over man.”

Because violence is so understudied, most thinkers (think Clausewitz or Engels) who reference violence are doing so en route to another political point; Arendt is dissecting violence philosophically for its own sake. This leads her to a critical idea: in the present state of political science, “our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence.’” I couldn’t agree more. It is one part why we created this blog.

She then redefines “power” by stating that it actually describes the “human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Power is not the ability to dominate, but the ability to influence; a powerful person has many followers, not just a few.

Because of that unique definition of “power,” Arendt can then redefine violence. She states that not only is power different from violence, it is the opposite. On Violence (Arendt) concludes that “violence can always destroy power” but can never give power, only destruction. In the last paragraph of her second part she sums up clearly that “power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” This probably shocks most readers, but it makes sense.

Bringing the Philosophy to the Present

When I thought about the difference between violence and power, I couldn't stop thinking about Afghanistan. As a platoon leader, I felt powerful, primarily because I had the means of violence--machine guns, trucks, 18 men and the ability to call for heavier fire power--but how powerful was I? I couldn’t stop IEDs from being placed. Clearly much of the population supported the insurgency. The government struggled with violence throughout my time in Afghanistan. Violence throughout the region was a sign that no one had power in Konar Province, exactly as Arendt says.

On Violence (Arendt) specifically uses examples of insurgencies to prove her point. The revolutionaries or insurgents, using power, square off against governments or counter-insurgents, using violence. And here is the point: Arendt provides the philosophical basis for population-centric counter-insurgency. Our military relies on violence not power. The difference between maneuver warfare and counter-insurgency is the difference between violence and power.

eight comments

I just love this post, and I need to check out this book.

If anyone has any other philosophy texts that details primarily wit violence, please pass them along.

The author is correct, the subject of violence has usually been subsumed into larger discussions of politics and political philosophy. In general, I think most philosophers considered violence to be a tool or a mechanism to achieve other goals, and less of a topic for consideration in and of itself.

I do recall reading some more modern authorship on the subject, though it’s been a couple years. And I’m more read in ethics and political philosophy, as those were/are my subjects of study. But I’ll see if I can dig out a couple papers on the subject of violence, and send them your way.

We’d really appreciate it, we think the subject is a bit understudied.

I sent you an email at the info@ address. It’s possible I went a little overboard! It proved too interesting to leave it at just one or two.

@ karaka – Thanks!

Thrilled that you are writing about Arendt. Her interrogation of the divide between violence and power reminds me of the links between violence and lying, violence and physical and psychological pain, Elaine Scarry makes in The Body in Pain.
The violence that creates pain is real; the power, instead, is a fiction. Scarry extends and complicates Arendt’s ideas in part by using pain as the nexus for violence and power.
Looking forward to the next article.

Consider the following texts on violence, revolution and war:

  • Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” New York, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996.
  • Johnson, Chalmers. “Revolutionary Change, 2nd ed.” Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.
  • Waltz, Kenneth N. “Man the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • Clausewitz – “On War.”

Darin, I have read Waltz, Huntington, and some of Clausewitz. To be honest, so many people quote Clausewitz so often, me included, that I really just almost hate it. He is quoted too often at the neglect of studying real world issues, I think.

However, I am definitely going to check out the Chalmers Johnson book. Thanks for the recommendation.

And I saw your comment exchange with Eric C over at our second post on On Violence (Arendt). If you would like to drop us a guest post we would love to read it.