Hannah Arendt argues that Totalitarianism was unleashed by Imperialism which in its turn unleashed the power of a subterranean stream of globalising forces that surfaced and began to flow with a power that the nation state was unable to harness or control: forces such as the will to colonise, the omnipotent will which felt that there was nothing which could limit its power, and the mass feeling of powerlessness in the face of powerful institutions. Running deeply in a part of this stream is a paradoxical current: a belief amidst an educated middle class in the actualising potential of the moral personality and the universal importance of an ethical imperative.
In relation to the above thought consider an interesting Philosophical and Historical perspective which relates to Ernst Cassirer’s work “The Myth of State”. Cassirer claims that all political theories of the 17th century have a common metaphysical/mathematical background. Metaphysical thought in the following century, amidst philosophers, took precedence over theological thought which in its turn was already being undermined by the subterranean stream of Stoical belief in a moral personality that surfaced first in the form of the thought of Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence which began with these famous words:
“We hold these truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The above experiential reflection on the rights and dignity of man preceded their philosophical/ethical justification through the works of Kant, a few years later, which put the final nail in the coffin of speculative metaphysics of all kinds ,and also provided a philosophical foundation for both human rights and the inevitable philosophical consequences: the idea of a United Nations and cosmopolitanism. Further the Kantian “Copernican revolution” provided a rational, non experiential foundation for religion and politics and superseded the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke which originated from the empirical/scientific method: the method of resolving a known whole into less known elements and synthesising these elements back into a constructed whole again. In this methodical process an individual’s moral personality mysteriously disappeared especially in the case of Hobbes who claimed that there was a legal bond between subjects and their sovereign which amounted to a pact of submission on all issues related to the sovereigns power and authority.
Cassirer argues that what we were witnessing during these years of the Enlightenment was a revival of Stoic ideas which
“seemed alone equal to the task of providing principles admitted by every nation, every creed, every sect.”
One critical element of this revival was the idea that if a man was forced to give up his personality he would cease to be a moral being, he would become a slave of the Prince or the sovereign. Kant found a middle position between an experiential view and a foundation in Cartesian thought. He favoured a position with a foundation in action that maintains a trust in non mathematical and non- speculative theorising.
“Kantian” Actions were evaluated in terms of theoretical standards and it was these standards that provided the 18th century with its strength, inner unity and Spirit. This absolute Spirit unfortunately resulted in Romanticism and its attempt to poeticize the world in all its aspects in defiance of the political and philosophical ideals of previous Kantian generations. The poetic spirit reduced history to a romantic account of the portraits of great heroes and reduced ethics to reliving the spirit of the Homeric pre-Socratic era. This Romantic focus probably diverted the Kantian emphasis on free ethical action and the dignity of man into subterranean experiential caverns . The Romantic spirit dominated and Carlyle´s historical theory of hero-worship was transformed into race worship in which it was maintained that only the white man possessed the will power to build a cultural and political life(Gobineau). The black and yellow races, it was claimed, did not have the energy or the spirit for such work. Thus was born:
“the totalitarianism of race that prepared the way for the late concept of the totalitarian states”(Cassirer,The Myth of the State”).
Michael R D James