The paths we construct from theories tend to seem direct and flawless. We believe they will lead us where we want to go as a society. Yet, they often turn out to be dangerous. 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.

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, vitalizes into acts.”[1] 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.[2] 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 hypotheses and theories appear to be direct and flawless. We believe they will lead us where we want to go as a society. Yet, they turn out to be more dangerous than natural courses. Natural courses after all, despite being longer and more convoluted, allow us to take time to understand life in its vicissitudes. Perhaps this thought might explain what it is that draws us to great literature: It does not pretend to have an answer to any problems in history or in human nature; only to record them in their raw forms.

First Leg: The Wisdom of Indirection

Arendt’s view of literature as “indirection” is an apt description for the way in which we ought to understand complex issues. To underline her wisdom, this essay will demonstrate how she led by example in using Herman Melville and Billy Budd to criticize the French Revolution for her larger political point that she called “the social question.” According to Arendt, Melville understood the problem of direct routes, which is why he chose to demonstrate the parallels 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, the foil to our inherently good protagonist. 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.[3] 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 sentiment that we feel for someone acting out of absolute goodness, despite his evil act, is what Melville calls in Billy Budd “the deadly space between” good and evil: Compassion. It is the fine line 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.[4] It is the gray area between action and intention where we might dangerously lose our ability to judge the wrongness of acts because of our blinding compassion for a person’s intentions.

Thus, 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 eventually becomes depraved himself once he is capable of justifying harm unto others for the sake of what he believes to be “good.” 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 “noble” intentions. Still, we side with Billy in the end even though the reader is supposed to realize that absolute goodness (in the form of Billy) and absolute evil (in the form of Claggart) are both equally dangerous to society. As a buffer, Melville believed that in order to understand human nature—without succumbing to the violent consequences of direct compassion—man needed to use “indirection.”[5] This suggestion to his readers was also Melville’s literary transition to begin the tale of Billy Budd. In a beautiful and brilliant use of prose, 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 by introducing his own story.

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 explored 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.”[6] She viewed the course of human affairs as one connected with the role of poets in society because everything of this 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 outlined the limitations of human reason when it is confronted with the reality of human nature. 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 by arguing that such an act can be done “safely enough” since literature is a more accurate depiction of the human disposition towards good and evil.[7] In quoting Melville in her own essay, Arendt demonstrates a level of agreement with the notion that literature is not far from social science, but only if it is read carefully and seriously.

The difference between literature and social sciences is that literature often takes a more tortuous approach towards understanding human nature, and this is achieved in the form of a story that factors in all the other complex elements of human interaction beyond the specific question at hand. 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, then, as it was for Melville, was the way to explore the alleged answers that Enlightenment thinkers had for society, and, more importantly, the way to raise problems to those answers.

Second Leg: Arendt’s Critique of Compassion

So let’s dive into Arendt’s analysis. She starts by noting that the social setting is what curbs the passions of man because it implements an order that everyone in society must follow. Compassion can wreak havoc 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, to explain how the goodhearted mission of the French Revolution fell prey to the “deadly space between” noted by Melville. The Revolutionaries transgressed the social order and instead opted for the hasty solution of violence, emboldened by compassion, when deciding what to do about their government.[8] She adds,

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.[9]

What makes the space between a normal nature and depraved nature “deadly” is precisely the fact that it is a space that man is incentivized 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 deliberation.

Distance becomes an important theme for Arendt’s analysis, and we can take it to be synonymous with indirection since she uses them interchangeably. Arendt saw compassion as the primordial error of the Revolution because it abolished distance between human interactions and motivated man to abandon his social institutions.[10] Instead of compassion, Arendt advocated for “persuasion, negotiation, and compromise” as upheld by “law and politics.” 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 requires to grow properly.[11] 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.[12] Billy Budd, of course, is not about Claggart, but Arendt notes that he and Billy share a similar origin in that they have none.[13] 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 in the form of absolutes. Thus, 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 detour of history, and his experience becomes her reason to trust his judgment. Melville’s story writing was the way through which he expressed his knowledge, and Arendt claims that his understanding of human nature as it is portrayed in his fictional story is more accurate than that of Enlightenment thinkers, who, she states, did not understand “the meaning of the story” that resulted from their actions, and she even intentionally twists the description of this factual event with the word “story.”

Arendt chose a story that is set in a time contemporaneous with the Revolution.[14] Melville’s sailor-tale attracted 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 undeniable in the opening paragraphs of the story: Billy Budd’s tragedy takes place after he leaves a ship named “The Rights of Man,”

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.[15]

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 out at sea, they must always return to society—where Billy is ultimately tried in court and executed.

Third Leg: A Detour, Melville’s Narrative Style

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 his writing.[16] That is to say, 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 inside commentary while not disrupting the development of the story. Melville’s 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. To take an example, Melville continues in his inside narrator’s voice to intimate a story that was once told to him by a character inside his own story known as the “honest scholar,”

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.”[17]

The honest scholar is telling Melville, the narrator-character in the story, that knowledge of human nature is not possible. It is not possible to get into someone’s mind and understand anything more than what is already “knowledge of the world.” 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 for 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.”[18]

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. In The Social Question, Arendt remarked that Melville “knew better how to talk back to the theoretical proposition of the men of French Revolution—that man is good by nature.”[19] The Enlightenment thinker, personified by Melville the narrator-character, insinuates that the study of the world necessarily “implies the knowledge of human nature.” But Melville’s honest scholar, nonetheless, responds 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.”[20]

There is a lot to unpack in this wise response that Melville is having with the honest scholar. We might know by now that the honest scholar is called honest because of his astute understanding of human nature, and that Melville is not trying to hide the correctness of the scholar’s answers. 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. The honest scholar admits that there is no way to know if the two distinct branches of knowledge (nature and the world) 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. Spiritual insight is finer than excessive philosophizing.

The problem that the honest scholar poses for Enlightenment thinkers, then, is that understanding exceptional characters requires spiritual insight that is made murky by extensive knowledge. Extensive knowledge and “enlightenment” 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 entertaining mini-story about the lawyer who found himself controlled by a young girl proves the scholar’s point: The lawyer could not distinguish between his knowledge of the world (in his case law) and his knowledge of human nature (the girl’s heart) and was thus beguiled.

Melville’s inclusion of excerpts from his narrator-character’s personal anecdotes adds a veneer of insider commentary from which Arendt can dually analyze the story. 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.”[21] 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.[22]

One of the more literary themes in Arendt’s essay is her (intentional) lack of distinction between fiction in literature and fiction in reality. By 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 possess a sounder sense of reason that permits the story to express a message the Revolution lost. That message is that human nature (and human error) is incorrigible through purely intellectual means, no matter how enlightened. In their passionate quest for perfect goodness, the Revolutionaries failed to read to the end of their story and subsequently incurred the same violence on their own people that they sought to eradicate. 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.

Fourth Leg: Perfection as Fiction

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 distinguishes 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.[23]

If compassion and perfection are assumptions, then the necessity for government and social institutions becomes clear. Once the reader sees that absolute goodness in the form of Billy Budd is stronger than the absolute wickedness of Claggart, and kills him, Billy’s act of violence demonstrates that goodness and wickedness share an “elemental evil” in the violence that is “inherent in all strength and detrimental to all forms of political organization.”[24] Billy Budd did face a punishment for his evil act, and Arendt cedes that the tragedy in Billy Budd is incurred by the necessity of a law that did not distinguish the angel from the devil, but only punished the wrongdoer. However, the greater tragedy of the French Revolution came from the lack of legal consequence for those who violently attacked their countrymen. 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:

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.[25]

Fifth Leg: If not compassion, then what?

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.[26] Captain Vere is 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.”

Arendt sees Captain Vere as the virtuous man, and she associates his virtue with his strong sense of justice. Melville described 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.”[27] To philosophize upon realities, Melville and Arendt both agreed, is what the French revolutionaries ignored, 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 of 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.[27]

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 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.[29] It is not compassion that builds a society, but virtue that upholds the integrity of institutions.

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.[30]

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. While virtue deems it better “to suffer wrong than to do wrong,” Arendt argues that compassion “will transcend this by stating in complete and even naïve sincerity that it is easier to suffer than to see others suffer.”[31] 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.”[32] 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.

Destination: Literature as a teacher of human nature

The lessons that 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 connected. 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. 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:

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.[33]

The historical and the literary, then, are presented as linked phenomena, which makes the use of literary analysis a necessary resource 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 poets, just as Arendt was conversing with Melville and Dostoyevsky.

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. 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, in reality, no different from us. Another way to phrase this: We are no better than Billy Budd.

The language Arendt used to refer to the French Revolution throughout her essay prompts 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.[34] It is as though 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. Arendt reveals her reliance on literature as a teacher of human nature when she chose it over other social sciences to explain what Melville called “exceptional characters, whether evil ones or good.” She is, to come to the end of this journey, the most knowledgeable local to consult on this issue: Arendt encountered exceptional characters in real life just as much as in literature.[35] In her famous study on what she called the “banality of evil,” she described Adolf Eichmann as “not Iago and not Macbeth.”[36]

Republished with gracious permission from Voegelin View (April 2018).

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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: eBooks@adelaide, 2016. PDF e-book. Accessed January 4, 2017.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.”

[3] 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.”

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

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

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

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

[8] 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…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Vanitas Still Life with Celestial Globe, a Book, Shells, a Snake and Butterflies” by Frans Luycx (1604-1668), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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