Politics and the double-edged place of belief
Pinkerman, Justin James
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Hannah Arendt and Ralph Waldo Emerson both express alarm at the way social conformity imperils individuality and debases politics. Yet, they respond to the threat by explicating contradictory notions of political association. Arendt argues for political cooperation rooted in mutual promises whereas Emerson warns against pledging oneself to a common cause. In this paper, I argue that Emerson and Arendt’s opposing accounts of reason underlie their divergent ideals of political association. Arendt regards the lone individual as unable to reason properly, and she stresses the importance of common sense in making political judgments. Conversely, Emerson considers the solitary person able to ascertain knowledge reliably and perceives formal association as corrupting. I contend that Emerson, by incorporating belief into his theory of knowledge, better equips the individual to resist political cooption than does Arendt. However, I also insist that belief only benefits politics when used to justify resistance and not coercion.