In 1967 Hannah Arendt published an essay with the deceptively simple title “Truth and Politics” (1967). Most scholarly discussions of her essay consider her distinction between a traditional political art of limited, deliberate, strategic lying and modern, organised, global lying and self-deception and then evaluate her qualified defence of the virtues of mendacity. This article suggests, however, that her essay has a much broader ambit: viz., to defend the political value of truth-telling. The main purpose of this article is to demonstrate that she formulates her essay as an apology of the truth-teller in politics and of her own truth-telling in her controversial report of the Eichmann trial. It first surveys the personal motives of Arendt’s political defence of frank speech. It shows that in developing this defence she significantly revises her scepticism about the value of truth-telling in politics. She does so by identifying three different types of truth-teller with distinctive political roles: philosophers who exemplify the truth in their own lives, citizens who see the world from other people’s perspectives, and poets and historians whose stories reconcile citizens to the past. Finally, it argues that the tragic political perspective Arendt sought to revive requires acknowledging value of the emotions in making political judgments.
- Hannah Arendt