On Violence, Paperback Book
3 out of 5 (3 ratings)


An analysis of the nature, causes, and significance of violence in the second half of the twentieth century.

Arendt also reexamines the relationship between war, politics, violence, and power.

Incisive, deeply probing, written with clarity and grace, it provides an ideal framework for understanding the turbulence of our times (Nation).



  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 120 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt Publishers,U.S.
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Violence in society
  • ISBN: 9780156695008

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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

Arendt's book begins by commenting on the paradoxical nature of violence during the Cold War. She says, "The technical development of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict." She is, of course, referring to the advent of the atomic age. In an age, then, when the victory of one party of another means the virtual annihilation of both, what political and ideological redress does one have?The first part of "On Violence" argues that the United States is no longer a country which can feel the sharp throes of political populism; she argues that individual action has been deadened by an institutionalized bureaucracy, aided by brain trusters in the illustrious think tanks whose hypotheses eventually turn into "facts," which in turn beget other "facts," and whose magical thinking has a way of hypnotizing us. The most common countervailing force to this phenomenon was the group of student protests in the 1960s whose use of violent resistance was often Marxian or Leninist in orientation. These were often set off in the name of "participatory democracy." Yet what makes this a bit of bittersweet irony is that neither Marx nor Lenin advocated any such like a participatory democracy. Especially in Leninism, the socialist utopia would have been run by a one-party, top-down system which would have rendered both political participation and democracy superfluous.In the second part, Arendt adduces some very interesting, if semantically peculiar, distinctions that I would agree are fundamental to understanding the politics of the twentieth century. She differentiates between "power," "force," "strength," "authority," and "violence," which she says are often - mistakably - used interchangeably. Here is a short apercu of some of her definitions. Power applies uniquely to the ability to act not alone, but in concert with others; it can only be maintained by a group, and as soon as the group dissolves (physically or ideologically), so does the power. Strength is what the individual has, and applies only to a single person. Authority is most frequently abused, and "can be vested in persons - there is such a thing as personal authority, as, for instance, between teacher and pupil - or it can be vested in offices, as, for instance, in the Roman senate, or in the hierarchical offices of the Church (a priest can grant valid absolution even though he is drunk.)" Finally, violence is characterized by its instrumental character, i.e., that we use an object to commit violence other than the physical force of the individual or the group.Most interestingly, Arendt intimates that while using radical tactics and espousing antiestablishment means, the student protesters of the 1960s had bourgeois, Enlightenment, technocratic ideas of "progress" and "betterment" in mind. That the means and the ends of these protests were out of synch, for Arendt, posts one of the most interesting questions of twentieth-century American protest politics.

Review by

Why include Arendt's dissection of violence in the nonviolent stories shelf? Because she has some thought-provoking observations and insights into the nature of violence and nonviolence. I particularly appreciated this short work's discussion of the relationship and difference between violence and power.

Review by

Had this been written by Joan Bloggs, it would be out of print and almost certainly ignored. But it was written by Hannah Arendt, so it's in print. And given the lack of books on violence, that's probably a good thing. Unfortunately I suspect that it can easily be misread. The historical context here is everything: Arendt isn't writing about violence, she's writing about violence at the end of the 'sixties and start of the 'seventies, when for a brief moment fairly large numbers of people thought it was okay to blow up unjust things. Arendt makes her standard republican (not the party, which is increasingly less, you know, republican) argument that communal action can interrupt unjust structures, whereas violence can do so only very rarely, and for very short periods of time. <br/><br/>And she's also arguing against sociobiology's first golden age (if that's really the right term for it); people like Lorenz tried to find biological or psychological grounds for aggression, which has the obvious effect of naturalizing it and making it impossible to argue against. Not to mention being extremely silly, but that doesn't stop anyone in today's golden (again, wrong term) age of evo-psycho-sociobiology. <br/><br/>She argues by distinguishing between 'power,' which is what we have when we act communally; 'strength,' which is what an individual can do on her own; 'force,' which "should be reserved" for natural or structural force rather than intentional force; 'authority,' which is the possession of unquestioned leaders; and finally 'violence,' which is only ever an instrument to the ends of power or authority. This is all tendentious, but she puts it to good use.<br/><br/>Arendt argues on the basis of these definitions that revolution begins with a loss of authority, not with violent deeds; and that violence is not necessarily irrational. Fair enough. <br/><br/>But that seventies moment is far in the past. There aren't many people left who favor revolutionary violence (for better and worse); evo-psycho-sociobiologists spend their time naturalizing addictions rather than aggression; and making republican (not the party) arguments in public is met everywhere with scorn (on the right because you don't want the government's hand in your wallet; on the left because you don't want the government's hand on your privates). <br/><br/>What's left are a couple of interesting obiter dicta:<br/><br/>i) That the U.S.A. started out as an anti-sovereigntist entity, but then took over the idea of sovereignty from Old Europe. <br/>ii) More bureaucracy will lead to more violence, because when there's nobody to blame with words, people lash out with limbs and weapons. <br/><br/>