Trekking the Course of History and Human Nature through the “Indirection” of Literature: Hannah Arendt’s use of ‘Billy Budd’ to understand the French Revolution and the Role of Government

HomeArticlesTrekking the Course of History and Human Nature through the “Indirection” of Literature: Hannah Arendt’s use of ‘Billy Budd’ to understand the French Revolution and the Role of Government

There are many ways to arrive at an unknown destination. Some rely on a map and seldom diverge from the path they have planned out while others have a general idea of their route but prefer to stop along the way and ask locals for directions. Let us think of the course of history as one such trek in which the destination is vaguely known and of the literary tale as the knowledgeable local who will likely provide us with an alternate route for our journey. In a day and age where we have access to infallible maps created by distant satellites that possess the technology to create the “fastest” routes, why should we ever have the need for a stranger’s directions? If we trust algorithms more than we do the experience of others, why should we ever use something so personal like literature as a compass with which to navigate history? We might ask ourselves, in other words, can literature play a creditable role in historical analysis? To provide an answer to this question, Hannah Arendt quoted Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd in one of her essays, restating, “the poet but embodies in verse those exaltations of sentiment that, the opportunity being given, italizes into acts.”[i] Literature is the realm where human action, forever entangled in a flawed human nature, manifests itself in its truest form; it is the crystal ball that shows us where the course of history, no matter how much we try to steer it, inevitably leads.

Arendt was on to something, as was Herman Melville. Both authors adopt a Classical, circular view of history that renders literature into a powerful medium not just of expression but also for social and historical reflection. Billy Budd is a tale with social implications that extend beyond the fictional setting in which it was written. As a response to the French Revolution, Melville set out to explore the question of human nature and how it manifests itself in the different characters of men in order to point out the flaws of the Enlightenment thinkers. Melville, however, took an unconventional route that he called “indirection”—in the shape of a novel—because he understood the dangers that can come from forging a (seemingly) direct path through history in order to decipher man and mankind.[ii] At best, such a path would produce a facile understanding of the complexities of our human nature; at worst, it would give powerful men the intellectual proof for totalitarian and revolutionary agendas—the latter is what Arendt spent most of her career studying. If it was not only a sailor-tale but also Melville’s way to understand history, namely the French Revolution, in a way that was grounded on experience of what man is rather than conjecture of what man could be, Billy Budd, then, was also Melville’s way of explaining that the course of history has no calculable, “fastest” route. More than often, the paths we construct from hypothesis and theory—appearing direct and flawless—to lead us where we want to go as a society turn out to be more dangerous than natural courses that, despite being longer and more convoluted, allow us to take time to understand life and all of its vicissitudes. This essay explores the use of literature as “indirection,” as a venue for historical and political discourse, by analyzing how Hannah Arendt utilized Herman Melville and Billy Budd to criticize the French Revolution for her larger political point that she called “the social question.”

Melville demonstrates the problem of direct routes by introducing to his readers the parallelism between the dangers of absolute evil and, perhaps less obviously, the dangers of absolute goodness. That absolute goodness has the potential of causing harm is a point Melville demonstrates through his character Billy “Baby” Budd, a perfectly innocent sailor who eventually kills the inherently evil John Claggart, foil to the protagonist after whom the famous novel is titled. Melville purposely introduces Claggart’s character as one devoid of psychological profundity in order to dissuade the reader from seeking an explanation for Claggart’s evil nature.[iii] Melville also makes Billy a perfect angel in order to provoke compassion for him prior to his justified execution. And compassion for Billy we have: He is an innocent hero who did not deserve Claggart’s hate, so we tell ourselves. Billy killed an evil man, and surely that does not warrant his execution. This form of compassion for someone acting out of absolute goodness and not for someone acting out of absolute evil is what Melville calls in Billy Budd “the deadly space between;” the intermediary space between man’s normal nature and his depraved nature where man, if he does not catch himself, moves from one to the other without realizing it.[iv]

But if the deadly space between man’s normal nature and his depraved nature is compassion, then using compassion as a form of judgment or as a motive for change, as it was in the Revolution, is not without consequence. He who is compassionate towards the depraved in nature eventually becomes depraved himself once he is capable of justifying harm unto others for the sake of the depraved. Billy killed Claggart, after all, the same way that the French Revolutionaries killed their own people during the Terror, even though both claimed to have “good” intentions at first. Still, we side with Billy in the end even though the reader is supposed to realize that both absolute goodness (in the form of Billy) and absolute evil (in the form of Claggart) are equally dangerous to society. Melville believes that in order to understand human nature—without succumbing to the violent consequences of direct compassion—man must use “indirection.”[v] Interestingly enough, this suggestion to his readers is also Melville’s literary transition that begins the tale of Billy Budd. We can say, then, that Melville’s purpose for indirection in his story is twofold: to counsel the reader on an alternate path for the analysis of historical events, and to demonstrate to the reader that this indirect path can be literary.

Hannah Arendt understood both of these points: that exploring the fine line between man’s normal nature and depraved nature was best done through indirection, and that such an indirection could be taken by using literature. As Arendt explores the problem of absolute evil and absolute goodness in her essay, The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky) she tells her readers, “If we want to know what absolute goodness would signify for the course of human affairs (as distinguished from the course of divine matters), we had better turn to the poets.”[vi] Arendt views the course of human affairs as one connected with the role of poets in society because everything of this world (the human world) operates under a common law that cannot elude even the most fantastical of fiction writers since it is all we know and all that we can know. From a first glimpse, her choice of title would appear peculiar: an essay titled “the social question,” which beckons ideas of sociology, history, and social sciences is simultaneously one that develops into a literary review of Melville’s short story, Billy Budd, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor. What appears most preposterous of all is that Arendt is actually drawing parallels between the French Revolution and these two fictional stories, combining Billy Budd and the Grand Inquisitor into one, cohesive tale that clarified the limitations of human reason when confronted with the reality of human nature to the men that needed to be reminded of it most, Enlightenment thinkers.

Arendt expresses her full awareness of this counterintuitive concept that is using literature to understand the course of human affairs, but she appeases her reader when she says that such an act can be done “safely enough” since literature is a more accurate depiction of the human disposition towards good and evil.[vii] By quoting Melville in her own essay, Arendt demonstrates a level of agreement with the notion that literature is not far from social science if read carefully and seriously. The difference between literature and social sciences is that literature often takes a longer route in the form of a story that factors-in the other complex elements of human interaction. Reading and re-reading works of literature uncovers new answers and poses new problems every time because they open themselves up to being interpreted differently by portraying multiple, contrasting, themes—something of which social science is devoid. Literature for Arendt, as it was for Melville, is a form of indirection that, in the case of the French Revolution, allowed them to explore the alleged answers that Enlightenment thinkers had for society, and of positing problems to those answers.

Just as Melville felt the need to address the real problems of the French Revolution through a fictional story—through indirection—so too did Hannah Arendt see a practical use for literature, namely Billy Budd, as a detour and as a means to decipher the flaws of Enlightenment thinkers and the way they viewed human suffering with compassion. The social setting is what curbs the passions of man, according to Arendt, which implements a type of order that everyone in society must follow. Arendt explores the havoc that compassion can wreak on society by acting as catalyst that can destabilize that order. Arendt mentions compassion in the first sentence of her essay, before she introduces literature to her analysis, so as to explain how the goodhearted mission of the French Revolution succumbed to the “deadly space between” noted by Melville because they transgressed the social order when they opted for the hasty solution of violence, emboldened by compassion, when deciding what to do about their government.[viii]  Her essay explores the problem of absolute goodness and absolute evil without taking the quick, but deadly, route of compassion:

“As a rule, it is not compassion which sets out to change worldly conditions in order to ease human suffering, but if it does, it will shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion, negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself, which must claim for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of violence.” [ix]

What makes the space between a normal nature and depraved nature “deadly” is precisely the fact that it is a space that man is meant to cross (we all want to solve and understand the problems of inequality and suffering in our societies) but that he is tempted to cross rashly so as to avoid the tedious process of “indirection,” which in turn causes him to become depraved as soon as he turns to violence to remedy depravity. Distance is a concept that becomes another theme for Arendt’s analysis. Arendt saw compassion as the primordial error of the Revolution because it abolished distance between human interactions.[x] As Arendt discusses the importance of distance, it transforms into a synonym for indirection since distance between human interactions is what keeps people from feeling compassion. Compassion as a “swift” and “direct” way to understand people facilitates the direct crossing of that deadly space, and it therefore causes man to abandon his social institutions.

Instead of compassion, Arendt advocates for “persuasion, negotiation, and compromise” as manifested in “law and politics.” Compassion, as noted earlier, is detrimental to indirection and distance in that it acts as a drawbridge to violence by demanding “swift” and “direct” action. Using Billy Budd, Arendt avoids seeing the mission of the French Revolution through compassionate eyes, and instead of crossing that deadly space into which compassion lures its empathizers, she heeds Melville’s warning and seeks to understand this event through the indirection that is Melville’s own story, thereby keeping her distance. Arendt concludes that compassion, as Rousseau introduced it into political theory, cut the necessary distance and hastened the reasonable pace that the development of history and of stories requires.[xi] Once Arendt introduces these elements of “the deadly space” and compassion in politics, she begins her literary analysis of Melville’s sailor tale to embody them.

Arendt emphasizes the predominance of the social setting over the natures of individual men by demonstrating how the characters in Billy Budd are bound to society and the laws of men. She begins with Claggart’s wickedness and state of absolute evil, which she called “depraved and perverted nature,” which strays from the “natural goodness” and “natural integrity” of Billy Budd.[xii] Billy Budd, of course, is not about Claggart, but Arendt notes that he and Billy share a similar origin in that they have none.[xiii] That both Billy Budd and John Claggart are characters that represent the two states of absolutes (goodness and evil) but lack origins to account for their extraordinary traits means that these characters are bound to the story that exhibits them because it is only in the story that they have context. It is not, then, in the characters themselves where the solutions to the problems of human nature are found, but rather in the context of the social setting of the story—in other words, men cannot attempt to change human nature, only to maintain a society and code of conduct that checks it. Billy Budd, let’s not forget, takes place on a boat—away from any social institution—which permits the existence of a protagonist and antagonist that operate under ideals that fall outside of a social setting. Still Billy Budd and John Claggart are physically a part of the world of men, and so Arendt is able to use their story (and their fates) as an example of what happens when the role of the social setting is left out in the affairs of men.

Arendt’s The Social Question is an analysis of the problems and consequences of the French Revolution as much as it is a literary analysis of Billy Budd. Melville, Arendt notes, was in a “better position” to know what the Revolution had been about since he could “draw from a much richer range of political experience.” Melville, then, turns into the local that Arendt came across in her indirection, and his experience becomes her reason to trust his judgment. Melville’s Billy Budd is the way through which he expresses his experience, but his understanding of human nature as it is portrayed in his fictional story is more accurate than that of Enlightenment thinkers, who, Arendt states, did not understand “the meaning of the story” that resulted from their actions. Curiously enough, Arendt chose a story that is set in a time contemporaneous with the Revolution.[xiv] Melville’s sailor-tale would have interested Arendt not just for its literary value but also for its political relevance: Melville’s implicit discussion and criticism of the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution is evident in the opening paragraphs of the story. Billy Budd’s tragedy takes place after he leaves a ship named “The Rights of Man,” after a book that encapsulated Enlightenment ideals:

“That was the merchant-ship’s name; tho’ by her master and crew abbreviated in sailor fashion into The Rights. The hard-headed Dundee owner was a staunch admirer of Thomas Paine whose book in rejoinder to Burke’s arraignment of the French Revolution had then been published for some time and had gone everywhere. In christening his vessel after the title of Paine’s volume, the man of Dundee was something like his contemporary shipowner, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, whose sympathies, alike with his native land and its liberal philosophers, he evinced by naming his ships after Voltaire, Diderot, and so forth.”[xv]

Melville mentions Edmund Burke’s “arraignment,” his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and names two famous Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire and Diderot, only in passing, but with enough of a notable mention so as to mark Billy Budd as a tale that, though fictional, is taking place within a context of actual historical background. Billy Budd’s story unravels outside of the Rights-of-Man, outside the fictional world of the Enlightenment, and it is only once Billy leaves that ship that both he and the readers are able to begin the story that explains life inside the true social setting that is the world of men. Even if the sailors are at sea, they must always return to society, where Billy is tried and executed.

It is worth noting that in her literary analysis of Billy Budd, Arendt dedicates some time analyzing Herman Melville as a “great writer and thinker,” and does not focus solely on the his writing.[xvi] That is to say that Arendt does not only have a high esteem for Melville’s story but also for Melville himself, and in analyzing Billy Budd she takes the time to analyze Melville. What makes Melville’s story a compelling case against absolutes in human nature is the fact that he manages to brilliantly weave his own insight and intelligence through the form of insider narrative and commentary while not disrupting the natural course of the story and its development. Melville’s choice of narrative style demonstrates his deliberate intention to play more of a role in his story than a writer typically assumes. Since Billy Budd is written as an inside narrative, Melville takes this opportunity to comment on his story and on his story’s characters in a way that is more intimate and more intrusive, even, than would be acceptable if he had just written the story with the voice of an omniscient narrator. After explaining that Claggart’s character is best understood by indirection, Melville continues in his inside narrator’s voice to tell a story about himself in order to permit his readers to get to know his mind, but more importantly to explain what he considers to be that “deadly space between”:

“Long ago an honest scholar my senior, said to me in reference to one who like himself is now no more, a man so unimpeachably respectable that against him nothing was ever openly said though among the few something was whispered, ‘Yes, X— is a nut not be cracked by the tap of a lady’s fan. You are aware that I am the adherent of no organized religion much less of any philosophy built into a system. Well, for all that, I think that to try and get into X—, enter his labyrinth and get out again, without a clue derived from some source other than what is known as “knowledge of the world”—that were hardly possible, at least for me.”[xvii]

“A nut not to be cracked by a lady’s fan” is the honest scholar’s way of telling Melville, the narrator-character in the story, that knowledge of human nature is not possible, that only “knowledge of the world” permits us to enter the labyrinths of other people’s minds and any “other source” of information is something that is hardly possible. This exchange between Melville and the honest scholar is an aside within the story that allows the reader to glean Melville’s rich understanding of the arguments of Enlightenment thinkers and its opponents. In his response to the honest scholar, Melville tries to argue the traditionally held Enlightenment view regarding the connection between knowledge of human nature and knowledge of the world:

“Why,” said I, “X—, however singular a study to some, is yet human, and knowledge of the world assuredly implies the knowledge of human nature, and in most of its varieties.”[xviii]

This polite refute, given Melville’s known criticism of the French Revolution, is a rhetorical tactic where his role as the narrator answers back to the honest scholar in what would have been the typical Enlightenment thinker’s response to the notion that there is no such thing as knowledge of human nature. Arendt, in The Social Question remarks that Melville “knew better how to talk back to the theoretical proposition of the men of French Revolution—that man is good by nature.”[xix] The Enlightenment thinker, like Melville the narrator-character, insinuated that the study of the world necessarily “implies the knowledge of human nature,” but Melville’s honest scholar, nonetheless, responds to Melville the Narrator more cynically:

“Yes, but a superficial knowledge of it, serving ordinary purposes. But for anything deeper, I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other. Nay, in an average man of the world, his constant rubbing with it blunts that fine spiritual insight indispensable to the understanding of the essential in certain exceptional characters, whether evil ones or good. In a matter of some importance I have seen a girl wind an old lawyer about her little finger. Nor was it the dotage of senile love. Nothing of the sort. But he knew law better than he knew the girl’s heart.”[xx]

The honest scholar is called honest because of his astute understanding of human nature. Melville makes the point to describe him as older in order to emphasize his experience with the world, which outweighs Melville the narrator-character’s progressive, but immature, intellect. Arendt understood that Melville was not just creating a story in Billy Budd; he was deconstructing the bridge that Enlightenment thinkers were building between “knowledge of the world” and “knowledge of human nature.”[xxi] The honest scholar admits that there is no way to know if the two distinct branches of knowledge are linked, and he further insists that their coexistence “in the same heart” does not make them one in the same (Blaise Pascal once noted in his Pensées, “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point;” the heart has its reasons that reason does not know). The honest scholar also notices a problem with their alleged coexistence: they can be detrimental to man since his meddling with all this knowledge “blunts that fine spiritual insight” that can help man understand the “essential” in characters of good and evil.

The problem that the honest scholar poses for Enlightenment thinkers is that understanding exceptional characters requires spiritual insight that is hindered by extensive knowledge. Extensive knowledge and “enlightenment,” alas, come at the expense of an intuitive sense of morality and reason (what Pascal called “intuitive knowledge,” also in his Pensées) and too much intellect estranges man from common sense. The lawyer in the honest scholar’s story found himself controlled by a young girl because he could not distinguish between his knowledge of the world—in his case law—and his knowledge of human nature—the nature of the girl. The honest scholar concludes his story by telling Melville that the lawyer, despite his sophisticated knowledge of law, was unable to understand the heart of a young girl and unknowingly became controlled by her.

Melville’s inclusion of excerpts from the narrator-character’s personal anecdotes adds a veneer of insider commentary from which Arendt can dually analyze the story: from Melville’s literature as it stands on its own and from his aside comments that are meant to work in parallel with the story. Because of the connection between the literary tale and the commentary of a narrator speaking from the perspective of a man living in a time contemporary with the French Revolution, Arendt is able to use Billy Budd as a story that represents the thoughts, virtues and flaws of characters of that time.[xxii] This historical setting, along with Melville’s own credibility as a political thinker, allowed Arendt to explain in The Social Question how the protagonists of the French Revolution, because of their hasty attempt to ameliorate the human condition, failed to understand the relationship, if any, between knowledge of human nature and knowledge of the world and consequently fell prey to their own mission.

Perhaps one of the more metaphysical themes in Arendt’s essay regards the difference between the fiction in literature and fiction in reality. At the end of her essay, the French Revolution is rendered more story-like than Melville’s novella. The characters in Billy Budd demonstrate a greater understanding of the role of social institutions and posses a sounder sense of reason that permits the story to express a message that the Revolution lost; the message being that human nature (and human error) is incorrigible through purely intellectual means and heightened states of enlightenment. In their passionate quest for ultimate goodness, the Revolutionaries failed to read to the end of their story and subsequently incurred horrid violence on their own people who shared the same ideals of the Revolution. Leading revolutionary and gifted Enlightenment orator Georges Danton’s death under Robespierre’s Reign of Terror testifies to this self-defeating enterprise that compassion bred.

The reasoning behind the French Revolution posited that man was by nature good. Arendt noticed that there was little difference between such conjecture and actual fiction, since neither is proven by fact. In other words, the line that marks actual knowledge from presumptive knowledge becomes all the more blurred when people realize, as Arendt did, that major political revolutions such as the French Revolution took place during a period of alleged Enlightenment that, according to Arendt, still inferred ideas about the nature of man without certainty:

“The goodness of man in a state of nature had become axiomatic for Rousseau because he found compassion to be the most natural human reaction to the sufferings of others, and therefore the very foundation of all authentic “natural” human intercourse. Not that Rousseau, or Robespierre for that matter, had ever experienced the innate goodness of natural man outside of society; they deduced this existence from the corruption of society, much as one who has intimate knowledge of rotten apples may account for their rottenness by assuming the original existence of healthy ones.”[xxiii]

If compassion and absolutes are an assumption, then the necessity for government and social institutions are another theme of Arendt’s essay that serves to control visionaries and men of absolutes from getting carried away. Once it is proven that absolute goodness in the form of Billy Budd is stronger than the absolute wickedness that is Claggart, Arendt notes that Billy’s act of violence in striking Claggart dead demonstrates that goodness and wickedness share an “elemental evil” in the elementary violence that is “inherent in all strength and detrimental to all forms of political organization.”[xxiv] What Arendt earlier noticed regarding compassion’s tendency towards violence Melville expresses as a common factor between the absolutes of Billy Budd and Claggart, and so it is not only compassion that Arendt concludes is a threat to government but also all forms of absolutes because they also collide with government and law.

Arendt recognizes the problem that absolutes play in both Billy Budd and the Revolution, but she raises the point that in the latter those fictional ideals of a society free from misery were sought without the threat of a form of legal punishment for the inevitable violence that came with such a compassionate mission. Billy Budd did face a punishment for his evil act despite his absolute goodness. Arendt notices that the tragedy in the literary tale of Billy Budd is incurred by the necessity of a law that did not distinguish the angel from the devil, but that the tragedy of the French Revolution came from the lack of legal consequence for those who incurred so much violence unto the people:

“The tragedy is that law is made for men, and neither for angels nor for devils. Laws and all lasting institutions break down not only under the onslaught of elemental evil but under the impact of absolute innocence as well. The law, moving between crime and virtue, cannot recognize what is beyond it, and while it has no punishment to mete out to elemental evil, it cannot but punish elemental goodness even if the virtuous man, Captain Vere, recognizes that only the violence of this goodness is adequate to the depraved power of evil.”[xxv]

The legal punishment that came down on Billy Budd is what rendered the story a tragedy for the “angel of God,” but it is the “virtuous” element that was absent during the revolution.

If the law is a virtuous element, then the man who upholds the law is also virtuous. Arendt calls Captain Vere the virtuous man because of the fact that he ignored the stark difference between Billy Budd’s goodness and Claggart’s evil and condemned Billy on account of his actions only. Virtue, Arendt posits, appears “in the person of Captain Vere” after nature has “run its course” and both the wicked man is dead and the good man, upon encountering evil and striking it dead, has become a wrong-doer too.[xxvi] Arendt expresses her perception of Captain Vere as the epitome of virtue because of the fact that he avoids compassion and adheres to the law. Here, another important theme of Arendt’s essay is revealed: Virtue, as defined by adherence to the law, is the answer to the social question. But that virtue is obtained once man sets aside his compassion, keeps his distance, and chooses to engage social matters from a less direct route—through indirection.

Arendt sees Captain Vere as the virtuous man, and she associates his virtue with his strong sense of reason and justice. Melville justifies these two qualities of Captain Vere when describing his affinity for books. Vere possessed a “marked leaning toward everything intellectual,” and his literary taste consisted of  “those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines; books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era — history, biography and unconventional writers, who, free from cant and convention, like Montaigne, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities.”[xxvii] To philosophize upon realities, Melville and Arendt both agreed, is what the French revolutionaries chose not to do, and the Enlightenment views of human nature that had been inferred conclusions were a novel form of thinking against which Melville explicitly set Captain Vere because they worked against the interest human welfare:

“[Captain Vere’s] settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own. While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.”[xxviii]

In contrast to Vere’s virtue, Arendt sees Billy Budd’s goodness as being opposed to “worldliness and to the political.” and she identifies Captain Vere as the true hero in the story because of his “worldly acknowledgement of human limitation” that allows him to prioritize the importance of “lasting institutions” above all else. Because Melville explains Captain Vere’s virtue as a derivative of his love for books where he “found confirmation of his own more reasoned thoughts” and because of his adherence to the laws to which he had sworn obedience, Arendt is able to link Captain Vere’s character as the embodiment of the proper citizen.[xxix]

What makes Billy Budd’s goodness devoid of virtue is his lack of reasonable thought due to his speech impediment. The final theme that Arendt explicitly discusses in her essay regards speech and the symbolism of speech in Billy Budd. Arendt emphasizes Billy Budd’s problem as his inability to use reason, which is what forces him to use violence against Claggart instead. Because Billy Budd’s natural goodness “stammers,” Arendt argues, it “cannot make itself heard and understood.”[xxx] Arendt identifies eloquent speech, then, as the manifestation of reason, which is what constitutes virtue and allows man to adhere to the law instead of act against it. Billy’s goodness is no virtue; it is actually a weakness that Arendt sees as problematic for the inculcation of virtue in society. If the solution to the problem of absolutes in society is found in virtue, then it is also necessary for people to master a certain level of speech:

“Closely connected with this inability to generalize is the curious muteness or, at least, awkwardness with words that, in contrast to the eloquence of virtue, is the sign of goodness, as it is the sign of compassion in contrast to the loquacity of pity. Passion and compassion are not speechless, but their language consists in gestures and expressions of countenance rather than in words.”[xxxi]

What Arendt calls the “eloquence of virtue” is distinct from what she calls the “muteness” of goodness and compassion. Arendt also distinguishes this from the “loquacity” of pity. In the end of her essay, Arendt concludes that Billy Budd’s “incapacity (or unwillingness) for all kinds of predicative or argumentative speech, in which someone talks to somebody about something because it is of interest to both because it inter-est, it is between them,” is that flaw which makes his absolute goodness just as dangerous as absolute evil.[xxxii]  Arendt sees in Captain Vere’s character the embodiment of virtue because he is a man who remains loyal to the rule of law and does not attempt to pardon Billy Budd’s violent act despite his being good:

“Virtue…must prevail at the expense of the good man as well; absolute, natural innocence, because it can only act violently, is “at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind,” so that virtue finally interferes not to prevent the crime of evil but to punish the violence of absolute innocence.”[xxxiii]

Quoting Melville once again, Arendt highlights virtue as the trait that permits indirection because it allows Captain Vere to distance himself from both Claggart and Billy Budd and adhere to the law. If virtue deems it better “to suffer wrong than to do wrong,” Arendt claims that compassion “will transcend this by stating in complete and even naïve sincerity that it is easier to suffer than to see others suffer.”[xxxiv] That Arendt modifies “sincerity” with “naïve” demonstrates her reluctance towards compassion because of the fact that she considers that it “transcends” the necessary courses man must take when seeking true understanding. On a practical level, virtue is that character trait which interferes “to punish violence,” whether it be done by absolute good or absolute evil. And so, Arendt expresses her conviction of the problem with the absolute: “the absolute spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.”[xxxv]  It is at the moment that Melville’s story requires judicial action that the realms of the literary and the political come together in Billy Budd’s tale, and Arendt ably perceives the lesson therein since she reads Billy’s story as a case for virtue and politics in preserving order and stability.

But the lessons Arendt applied from Billy Budd to “the social question” exist not because she views literature as an example through which to prove her point, but rather because she regards the fields of literature and history as related and, more importantly, connected:

“While it is true that neither Rousseau nor Robespierre had been able to measure up to the questions which the teachings of the one and the acts of the other had brought onto the agenda of the following generations, it may also be true that without them and without the French Revolution neither Melville nor Dostoevsky would have dared to undo the haloed transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Christ—to make him return to the world of men… and to show openly and concretely, though of course poetically and metaphorically, upon what tragic and self-defeating enterprise the men of the French Revolution had embarked almost without knowing it.”[xxxvi]

The way that Arendt describes the ideals of the French Revolution as a “self-defeating” enterprise renders it more like a story, and a “tragic” one at that. Arendt combines her reflection of the French Revolution (history) with a literary criticism of Billy Budd (literature) and never in her essay marks any distinction between the two disciplines, which are disciplinarily separated. Arendt, in fact, never marks a transition between her historical and her literary analyses; rather, she combines the two and presents them a unified concept that cannot exist without the other. The first time in The Social Question where the two fictional stories are brought up in relation to the French Revolution, Arendt does not introduce them as literary examples, or even as parallels, to the events of the Revolution; she introduces them as the consequence of this chapter in history. The literary is not introduced as a supplement, it is mentioned out of necessity because Arendt believes that the two stories she analyzes would not have been created if the Revolution had not occurred. The historical and the literary, then, are presented as linked phenomena, which makes the use of literary analysis a viable, even reliable alternative for the study of human interactions in history.

“Turning to the poets,” as Arendt emphasized at the outset of her essay, takes the form of “conversing” with the poets once it becomes evident that in reading Melville and his story, Arendt is essentially consulting a writer whose experiential insight on the Revolution was greater than her own. Arendt consults Melville and Dostoyevsky by way of literature because, since those writers were no longer alive during Arendt’s time, their stories are their living forms of discourse. Arendt, then, sees literature as a report of experience from men who also reflected on the same historical event on which she was writing her essay. It was, therefore, not only creative on her part to include the two works of literature in her essay, it was a logical and reasonable thing to do because literature is not just fiction and Melville was not just a creative writer: These stories that she used in her essay acted as hypothetical case studies that demonstrated to Arendt the necessity for political institutions in our irremovable state of worldliness.

Treading “the deadly space” that exists between men of a normal nature and men of depraved nature is something that both Melville and Arendt set out to do through indirection, and that indirection took the form of literature. To use literature as a means to understand history is to recognize a certain amount of truth in literature and to acknowledge a certain amount of wisdom in the author: The lessons in books come from the author’s own experience of human nature, which no amount of fiction or imagination can deny or deliberately occult. Human nature in life, moreover, is not something that man can easily grasp—a lesson that many French revolutionaries and Enlightenment philosophers missed but that literary minds, interestingly enough, already knew too well. Melville states this point Billy Budd:

“Life is not a game with the sailor, demanding the long head; no intricate game of chess where few moves are made in straightforwardness, and ends are attained by indirection; an oblique, tedious, barren game hardly worth that poor candle burnt out in playing it.”[xxxvii]

A life of strife and complications cannot be explained simply and straightforwardly. Melville’s sailor is the equivalent of Robespierre’s malhereux, the poor individual who leads a life of suffering due to misfortune and not by his own doing. Except that Melville took a different and longer course than the one Robespierre took to comprehend the problems of society, and for that reason he does not justify violence to eradicate malheur, to fix the unfortunate circumstances that plague our lives and the lives of others because malheur is a flaw and a part of the world of men. The way in which Melville chose to impart his message—through literature that calls for a time-consuming level of reading, analysis of characters, and contemplation over their actions—is where Arendt saw a fitting indirection to explain the problem with idealism and how it plays out in worldly events, save that Arendt did not write a story of her own but rather elucidated Melville’s story by bringing it from the literary realm into the political realm. Billy Budd was a natural route for Arendt to explore “the social question,” but in the end it turns out that her indirection through the literary realm worked not only to her rhetorical advantage, but more importantly that it enriched her analysis because she was able to include the insight of a field that has told the story of human nature long before the academic disciplines of philosophy, political science, and history emerged.

It can be said that the faults and merits of historical events like the French Revolution reveal themselves in literature—implicitly through stories that resemble them but explicitly through the actions of characters who are no different from us. Arendt uses Billy Budd to portray leaders of the French Revolution as foolish because they blurred the lines between fantasy and reality in what they believed they could achieve for society, and in so doing they broke with the most important institution for society at large: government. It is as though, Arendt argued, the ideals of the French Revolution were based on a literary plot to which the ending was already known (for it had been written about many times before), but had been ignored by those who carelessly and with immediate compassion wrote the course of the revolution. These men crossed the deadly space directly because they, guided by blind passion, did not bother to consider the social implications of their actions, and so they moved from a normal nature (that of goodness) to one of depraved nature (that of wickedness) without knowing it. For Arendt, compassion was their flawed character trait that obscured the distance and the difference between good and evil. The language Arendt uses to refer to the French Revolution throughout her essay is particularly literary, as if she were prompting the reader to question which of the two stories is the tragedy: the one that was a product of Melville’s imagination and therefore had a planned ending to kill Billy Budd, or the one that was crafted by several men who inflicted various deaths that could have been prevented if they had reconsidered their naïve and idealistic expectations.[xxxviii] Literature is our way of asking locals—those who lived at the time—for directions as we travel along the course of history and human nature (what is history, after all, if not the study of human nature?). These locals wisely point us towards a detour, asking that we stop along the way to view the landscape as a whole so that it improves our knowledge of the route and the destination. In the end, doing so will mean that we too might become familiar with the directions and learn to recognize similar patterns in our journeys. Arendt demonstrated her high esteem of and reliance on literature when she chose it over other social sciences to explain what Melville called “exceptional characters, whether evil ones or good” because she encountered exceptional characters in literature just as much as she did in history and real life.[xxxix] After all, in her study on what she called the “banality of evil,” she described Adolf Eichmann in a literary allusion as “not Iago and not Macbeth.”[xl]


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. New York, NY: Penguin,  2006. Print.

Arendt, Hannah, and Susannah Young-ah, Gottlieb, ed.. “The Social Question On Melville and Dostoevsky).” Reflections on literature and culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. Print.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, sailor. The University of Adelaide Library. South Australia: [email protected], 2016. PDF e-book. Accessed January 4, 2017



[i] Hannah Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoyevsky),” Reflections on Literature and Culture, ed. Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 208.

[ii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11: “But for the adequate comprehending of Claggart by a normal nature, these hints are insufficient. To pass from a normal nature to [Claggart] one must cross ‘the deadly space between.’ And this is best done by indirection.”

[iii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11: “Now to invent something touching the more private career of Claggart, something involving Billy Budd, of which something the latter should be wholly ignorant, some romantic incident implying that Claggart’s knowledge of the young blue-jacket began at some period anterior to catching sight of him… might avail in a way more or less interesting to account for whatever of enigma may appear to lurk in the case. But in fact there was nothing of the sort.”

[iv] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11

[v] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11.

[vi] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 208.

[vii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 208.

[viii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 206: “Whatever theoretically the explanations and consequences of Rousseau’s teachings might be, the point of the matter is that the actual experiences underlying Rousseau’s selflessness and Robespierre’s “terror of virtue” cannot be understood without taking into account the crucial role compassion had come to play…”

[ix] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 212.

[x] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 212. Arendt called distance “the in-between which always exists in human intercourse.”

[xi] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 208.

[xii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” pp. 209-211.

[xiii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 209.

[xiv] Billy Budd takes place in the year 1797, near the end of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

[xv] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 1.

[xvi] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 209.

[xvii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11.

[xviii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11.

[xix] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 210.

[xx] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11. Emphasis Added.

[xxi] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11.

[xxii] Billy Budd takes place in the year 1797, near the end of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

[xxiii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 206.

[xxiv] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” pp. 212-213.

[xxv] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 210.

[xxvi] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 210.

[xxvii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 7.

[xxviii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 7.

[xxix] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 7.

[xxx] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 209

[xxxi] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 211.

[xxxii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 212.

[xxxiii] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 210.

[xxxiv] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 212.

[xxxv] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 210.

[xxxvi] Arendt, “The Social Question (On Melville and Dostoevsky),” p. 208.

[xxxvii] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 16. Emphasis added

[xxxviii] Arendt calls the Revolution a “story” on page 209 and calls the compassion of the revolutionaries “naïve” on page 212.

[xxxix] Melville, Billy Budd, Ch. 11.

[xl] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006) p. 287.


Nayeli Riano

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Nayeli L. Riano is a freelance writer and student whose work focuses on the intersection of political philosophy and literature. She is currently at the University of St. Andrews, completing her Master’s degree in Intellectual History. She is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in English, concentrating in Medieval and Renaissance literature.