Sidharth Vardhan

On Violence – A review of Arendt’s essay

on violence hannah arendt sidharth vardhan review
Categories: ,
Published: 1970
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.

(A review of 'On Violence',
an essay by Hannah Arendt
first written on February 18, 2019)

"Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

Arendt refuses to define power as mere ability to do violence as some of the old authors she quotes has defined it to be. The book is written in times of cold war and during fears of mutually assured destruction. Arendt refuses to see violence as something that goes along with political power. She seems to think that the very fact of the presence of nuclear weapons makes the world a more violent place. There is no weapon humanity ever created that it didn't use and all that. The best part is where she tries to define like sounding words - power, strength, authority etc.


Naturally, words themselves are mere symbols and you can use them to mean whatever you like but it enhances the ability to communicate better if each word described a unique abstract concept and every abstract concept has an exclusive word to signify it.

In the words of d'Entreves, "might, power, authority: these are all words to whose exact implications no great weight is attached in current speech; even the greatest thinkers sometimes use them at random. Yet it is fair to presume that they refer to different properties, and their meaning should, therefore, be carefully assessed and examined . . . . The correct use of these words is a question not only of logical grammar but of historical perspective. "

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)


"Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is "in power" we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

Of course, power and violent means can be held by opposite parties:

"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments. To claim, as is often done, that a tiny unarmed minority has successfully, by means of violence-shouting, kicking up a row, et cetera-disrupted large lecture classes whose overwhelming majority had voted for normal instruction procedures is therefore very misleading. (In a recent case at some German university there was even one lonely "dissenter" among several hundred students who could claim such a strange victory.) What actually happens in such cases is something much more serious: the majority clearly refuses to use its power and overpower the disrupters; the academic processes break down because no one is willing to raise more than a voting finger for the status quo. What the universities are up against is the "immense negative unity."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

"Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them. The strength of even the strongest individual can al ways be overpowered by the
many, who often will combine for no other purpose than to ruin strength precisely because of its peculiar independence. The almost instinctive hostility of the many toward the one has always, from Plato to Nietzsche, been ascribed to resentment, to the envy of t:1e weak for the strong, but this psychological interpretation misses the
point. It is in the nature of a group and its power to turn against independence, the property of individual strength."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)


One of the best quotes from the book:

"Authority, relating to the most elusive of these phenomena and therefore, as a term, most frequently abused, can be vested in persons-there is such a thing as personal
authority, as, for instance, in the relation between parent and child, between teacher and pupil-or it can be vested in offices, as, for instance, in the Roman senate (auctoritas in Senate) or in the hierarchical offices of the Church (a priest can grant valid absolution even though he is drunk). I ts hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed. (A father can lose his authority either by beating his child or by starting to argue with him, that is, either by behaving to him like a tyrant or by treating him as an equal.) To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is Contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

You could see why those who claim to speak in name of crown or God are so easily enraged by cartoonists of satirists. All those institutions work on grounds of authority. Kundera's novel 'Joke' is based on fear the authority has of being laughed at.


"Violence, finally, as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)


This is one of the best distinctions between violence and power.

"Power needs no justification, being inherent in the very existence of political communities; what it does need is legitimacy. The common treatment of these two words as synonyms is no less misleading and confusing than the current equation of obedience and support. Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow. Legitimacy, when challenged, bases itself on an appeal to the past, while justification relates to an end that lies in the future."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

Governments of republic arise out of the constitution and so have a legitimate hold over power but the presence of constitution doesn't justify the actions of these powerholders. A prime minister or president cannot justify his action on grounds that he was elected to the post. Thus right way to question those in political power is not by asking "by what right they have done it?" but rather to ask "how they justify it?".

When someone vested with power abuses it to cause violence, he/she loses power by committing an illegitimate action.

"Violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

And you will always find some kind of justification - right or wrong for even the worst of violence. Even genocides are being justified on the most screwed grounds. So the correct way to challenge violence is by questioning their legitimacy. Because victims, mostly minorities or underdogs, never agreed to accept the violence.

"Its justification loses in plausibility the farther its intended end recedes into the future. No one questions the use of violence in self-defense, because the danger is not only clear but also present, and the end justifying the means is immediate."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

Thus it is seen as justified if you murder someone in self-defense when other tries to rob you but it would be considered wrong if you kill someone just because he had started a factory that would destroy all life on Earth in 60 years.

Another Quote

Another good quote:

"in the words of Herzen, "Human development is a form of chronological unfairness since late-comers are able to profit by the labors of their predecessors without paying the same price," or, in the words of Kant, "It will always remain bewildering . . . that the earlier generations seem to carry on their burdensome business only for the sake of the later . . . and that only the last should have the good fortune to dwell in the [completed] building."

Hannah Arendt (On Violence)

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