Tracy Strong, who is the author of Politics Without Vision: Thinking Without a Bannister in the Twentieth Century, has brought to our attention an important idea from the writings of Hannah Arendt:
As Strong points out, Arendt’s lost yardsticks are an echo of Nietzsche’s lost hand-rails in Zarathustra: ”Have not all hand-rails [banisters] and foot-bridges fallen into the water?” Nietzsche certainly knew very well Kant’s insistence to follow deines eigenes Weg, to follow one’s own path; to be in an engaged dialogue with one’s self as to what the path consists of at every step.
Yet to follow such a path of thought, one must also be keenly aware of one’s own essential beginning, one’s own existential origin, such that any judgments remain authentic to that experience, and not be snuck into consciousness through the back door of customary rules and morality.
Strong’s careful, subtle exposition is worth close study, but for now we shall focus on a second citation from Arendt, taken from her study of Karl Jaspers:
In other words, the conditions for closer dialogue among groups, or the ambition of their ever more complex aggregation, may actually serve to undermine and even destroy the conditions for individual judgment. Depth of thought disappears into width of “understanding”, a re-cognition that must necessarily be shallow, measured to a denominator “of which we have hardly any notion today.”
Decades have passed since Arendt followed this path of thought. Today, we can very definitely fathom the negative implications of such a base common denominator, for they are everywhere around us!
Reduction in local, regional and national linguistic and cultural diversity leads inescapably to a reduction in depth of cognition. As we become ever more “linked in” and “united”, we become ever more superficial in our self-knowledge, and thus in our ability to grasp the truth in others, whose most truthful differences become wholly unrecognizable.
The “essence of our beginnings” can no longer find a path, and thus we have nothing “of origin” to express. When harmony is achieved through reduction of complex polyphony, rather than through the navigation of dissonance, the most meaningful and consequential overtones within the relationship are lost to perception.
For Arendt (and we find no reason to quibble with her) the reduction in depth of thought and subsequent slippage into an endless shallows of discursive and cultural common denominators eventually find political correlation with tyranny and totalitarianism, however “inverted” (Wolin) or camouflaged they may be. Absent thought (where depth of subjectivity counts for everything), the precise definition of what is “common” will always be a matter of power, imposed from above, and not through dialogue among equals.
Strong closes the chapter with a quote from Augustine:
Meanwhile, it appears that the hurricane has passed, leaving a little light left unput out. Time for a long walk before darkness overtakes, and to seek our eigenes Weg, without hand-rails.