In search of an Arendt (mis)quotation

Hannah Arendt’s work, especially The Origins of Totalitarianism, has been back in the news the last few years for obvious reasons. One quotation in particular seems to be especially pertinent. It reads:

“One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive”.

The quotation is widespread on the internet – a quick google search brings up lots of places where it is quoted, sometimes referenced to The Origins of Totalitarianism. Sometimes it is even turned into a motivational image:


But does the quotation really come from Arendt? I wasn’t sure. The references are often vague, and none I could find supplied a page number. The best I could find was a piece in The New Yorker from 1999 that made this claim, but as a characterisation of her argument, rather than a direct quotation.

Eventually I found what I strongly suspect is the passage in The Origins of Totalitarism:

“The elite is not composed of ideologists; its members’ whole education is aimed at abolishing their capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. Their superiority consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose” (Penguin complete edition, Chapter 11, p. 503; Harvest edition, p. 385).

It’s clearly close, and close enough, I think, that it is indeed the basis for the quotation in circulation. (I understand Arendt wrote the book in English, so it’s not a question of translation.) But it shows that Arendt was saying something a little distinct from the general way in which she is being taken. And it also shows how a characterisation of an argument can be taken as a direct quotation, and then circulate widely, without it being checked back to the original source.

Anyone shed any further light on this?

Update: see the comment below from Dave Hill, who created the image and has updated his webpage in the light of this post.

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7 Responses to In search of an Arendt (mis)quotation

  1. Phillip says:

    Given how idiomatically close (yet distinct) “question of motive” and “declaration of purpose” are, is it possible that – although Arendt wrote the text in English – the misquote actually derives from a re-translation back into English??

    • stuartelden says:

      I suppose that’s possible. Would have been odd by the first person to do it – writing in English, not to use the English original – and more so for those that copied them. But it would be one possible explanation.

  2. gongyla says:

    Thanks for this. I have been searching for the quote and could not find it, nor find any page reference. Much appreciated.

  3. Pingback: Comfortable Media will Kill Real Journalism – Allallt in discussion

  4. I’m the guy who created the “motivational image” above (I’d call it more a cautionary image), as part of my quotation collection ( I was searching around today trying to actually find the citation for it, and not finding it anywhere in the _Origins_ book, I ended up here. I’ve updated my entry for the quote accordingly. Thanks!

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