On Lying And Politics

Hannah Arendt


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The Library of America
8 September 2022
ISBN: 9781598537314
120 pages

From the publisher

“No one,” Hannah Arendt observed, “has ever counted truthfulness as a political virtue.” But why do politicians lie? What is the relationship between political lies and self-delusion? And how much organized deceit can a democracy endure before it ceases to function? Fifty years ago, the century’s greatest political theorist turned her focus to these essential questions in two seminal essays, brought together here for the first time. Her conclusions, delivered in searching prose that crackles with insight and intelligence, are as urgently needed today as when they were written, perhaps more so.

In “Truth and Politics,” Arendt explores the affinity between lying and politics, and reminds us that the survival of factual truth depends on the testimony of credible witnesses and on an informed citizenry. She shows how our shared sense of reality—the texture of facts in which we wrap our daily lives—can be torn apart by organized lying, replaced with a fantasy world of airbrushed evidence and doctored documents. Facts are degraded into opinions, and, in an ironic twist, liars may come to believe their own fabrications.

In “Lying in Politics,” written in response to the release of the Pentagon Papers, Arendt applies these insights to an analysis of American policy in Southeast Asia. She argues that the Vietnam War—and the official lies used to justify it by successive
administrations—was at root an exercise in image-making, more concerned with displaying American power than with achieving strategic objectives.

In his introduction, David Bromwich engages with Arendt’s essays in the context of her other writings and underscores their clarion call to take seriously the ever-present threat to democracy posed by lying.