Monday, May 12, 2014

Dialectic and Denotation

Hannah Arendt [in Between Past and Future] writes:

… [T]he life in a polis was designed to distinguish the Greek from the barbarian and the free man from the slave.  The distinction was that Greeks, living together in a polis, conducted their affairs by means of speech, through persuasion and not by means of violence, through mute coercion.  Hence, when free men obeyed their government, or the laws of the polis, their obedience was called …, a word which indicates clearly that obedience was obtained by persuasion and not by force. [p. 22]
This passage makes a forceful distinction between conducting our "affairs by means of violence" and  "by means of speech."  But, as compelling as this dialectic is, Arendt is making it in an ideological fashion, solely in the realm of connotations.

If we look as to what is denoted, the contrast is not so focused.  Surely, all Greeks did not rule by persuasion rather than violence.  A lack of detailed and specific knowledge shows itself quickly when the discussion turns to what is actually being referred to, but it seems to me that the Spartans, for one, were more on the side of governing by violence.  And if "Greeks" really only refers to Athenians here, I can't quite believe that all Athenians accepted the conclusions of the court as willingly as Socrates drank his hemlock.  In fact, it would seem that no society would fall under either of these extremes, and these polarities, speech and violence, are abstract, non-existent idealizations.

Even more, though, the failure to consider what is denoted, to apply this proposed opposition to different situations, produces a facile acceptance of what is really a unbalanced set of opposites.  Speech and violence are both different actions, but speech is only one of many kinds of actions that might be opposed to the force of violence.  The opposition characterizing obedience more generally would seem to be more between forcing obedience on the one side and giving it on the other.  Speech, then, like all the various means of trying to force obedience and ostensibly show allegiance, would play out between these two abstract, but functional, poles of the human predicament.