Arendt, Totalitarianism & the Gospel

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher.  She was the author of several books and was professor at New School for Social Research and was a visiting Fellow of the committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. I have been reading her 1951 book titled, The Origins of Totalitarianism.  It should be required reading for citizens of the United States. The lessons are as profound as they are simple. For instance, Arendt points up two illusions that plague democratically ruled countries. First, she contends that people believe that those actively involved in the government are in sympathy with that form of government. And second, the masses of people who are not involved are neutral and don’t really matter. These are two lessons we would have done well to learn long ago.

Now, among the many things I have learned while reading Arendt, I want to share one from which I think the church can benefit. It is the lesson on individualism. Had you asked me how totalitarianism succeeds before I read Arendt, I might have said that totalitarian governments flourish because of their use of propaganda. I was wrong. According to Arendt, totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.[1] Earlier she wrote, “social atomization and extreme individualization preceded the mass movements.”[2] And “The truth is that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society…”[3]

Let’s think about this for a minute.  What does Arendt mean by “masses”?  The term applies, says Arendt,  when we deal with people “who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions.”[4] These people, writes Arendt, exist in every country and are characterized by their political indifference and their scarcity at the polls.[5] Though these people are in a “group” loosely defined by their indifference they are by description self-centered.  They would never lay down their life for this group. They would not suffer for this group. They are self-interested.  It is not hard to see these as the lost sheep of which Jesus often spoke (Matthew 18:10-14).

What is more, these sheep will find a shepherd. They will hear and heed someone’s voice. Someone will lead them. Some personality will emerge and they will be devoted adherents to that person. Why? It is because individuals long to be more than solitary individuals. One revolutionary of the 19th century wrote, “I do not want to be I, I want to be we.”  What is more, totalitarian leaders know this. Hitler said in a speech to the SA, “All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.” 

But how is this transition made from the isolated individual in the atomized society to becoming united to a charismatic leader? The answer is activism. Activism answers the question, “Who am I?” Arendt says that this question always redoubles in times of crisis. Activism answers that question saying, “You are what you have done.”[6] Activism provides an escape from societal norms through the heroic or the criminal, which is always unpredictable and undetermined by anyone else. It is the forced existential crisis that usually meets with a preference for terrorism. The Nazis “were convinced that evil-doing in our time has a morbid force of attraction.”[7]

Thus the mass becomes the mob and it is used by the elite. I say used because the mob, and not the elite is charmed by the radiant power of fame.[8] The elite of society love the mob because they destroy respectability.[9] What is more, the elite organize the masses into a collective unit to back up their monstrous falsehoods. Arendt points out that Hitler and Stalin were not skilled liars.  They simply had a mob to back them and so “simple forgeries from the viewpoint of scholarship appeared to receive the sanction of history itself.”[10]

I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that the shadow of totalitarianism hangs over our country today.  But how should Christians respond?  In a way that is hopefully predictable.  We should respond with the gospel. We should take our resolute stand upon it. We should pray for our leaders (I Tim. 2:1-2). We should reach out to the masses who are indifferent and we should give them a cup of cold water along with the gospel (Matthew 10:42). We should point them to Christ for in Him they will have an identity that will persevere even through eternity. Our temptation is to fight the world with the world's weapons and in the world's way. For example, there are believers who are isolating themselves from other believers. They are acting like the masses rather than the church. What a shame. Now is the time for the church to unite together in the gospel and actively share the good news with a world that desperately needs some good news.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth ( an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (NY: Harcourt, 1976), 323.

[2] Ibid., 317.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 311.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 331.

[7] Franz Borkenau quoted in Arendt, 307.

[8] Ibid. 332.

[9] Ibid., 333.

[10] Ibid. 


Jeffrey Stivason