Lecture on Arendt’s The Human Condition, prologue, part I, part II (first half)

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

29 February 2016

Prologue, Part I, Part II (sections 4-6)

[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up parts of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianisms, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie,” “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” and“Decline of the Nation-State, End of the Rights of Man” in Part II, “Imperialism.”]

Coming back from a break without any continuity with a previous text, while also landing on the 29th of all days, a day that seems like it should never happen, you’ll excuse me for seeming to be speaking in an entirely different voice. We will, for so much in the days ahead, be speaking of the voice, its tone, and its inflections–and then how it is a mark of human action and thus always a possibility for those enduring the human condition. Arendt argues in the Prologue in words we should repeat and come back to for as long as we read Arendt, or indeed, think the human condition both as text and “thing” external to it: “What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” (HC, 5). In short, this won’t be an atemporal or ahistorical discussion of the human condition as a pre-given before history gets underway, but as something that is mutable:

[T]he human condition is not the same as human nature, and the sum total of human activities and capabilities which correspond to the human condition does not constitute anything like human nature….[These are not] essential characteristics of human existence in the sense that without them this existence would no longer be human. (HC, 10)

[Pause on this: why not conceive of a human nature? Why does she say to determine such “would be like jumping over our own shadows”? (HC, 10) And more importantly, how are we to understand what the “human” means in the title The Human Condition?]

More than that, as we have seen, Arendt’s work focuses on the “newest experiences” and “our most recent fears” that is the end of the political, i.e., totalitarianism, and that it either be repeated or set the ground for other “holes of oblivions”–perhaps the annihilation of the whole of the earth during the cold war. She continues:

This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing. “What we are doing” is indeed the central theme of this book. It deals only with the most elementary articulations of the human condition, with those activities that traditionally, as well as according to current opinion, are within the range of every human being. For this and other reasons, the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable, the activity of thinking, is left out of these present considerations. Systematically, therefore, the book is limited to a discussion of labor, work, and action, which forms its three central chapters. (HC, 5)

Arendt would spend her career after these texts articulating just what she meant by “thoughtlessness”–in Eichmann, in crucial places among other texts we will read, and in her last writings, The Life of the Mind. In some sense, we should look to how this book sets the stage for thinking through a certain thoughtlessness, one she thought was the central characteristic of her (and our?) era: the repetition of cliches such that one could no longer think from the point of view of the other. How else to describe all the nomenclature around contemporary warfare—“collateral damage” and the like—all meant to have us think not for a moment of those suffering because of it. Arendt argues that the philosophical tradition has always privileged the bios theoretikos (the life of theorizing) over the vita activa, the life of action, the life of praxis in politics, a point central to this text, since she wants to deny the long philosophical idea that the correct theory should always lead to the correct praxis. We also get the key three analytical terms from Arendt:

  1. Labor, that is, the life of animal laborans (the human as laboring animal) that answers to our necessities: food, defecation, cleaning, and the like, and whose proper place is the home. She writes, “Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor” (HC, 7). This is life “itself,” or rather, a bare life that responds only to its minimal “animal” condition.
  2. Work, which is the activity of homo faber (“man the maker”) and produces the artificial world in which we roam. This artificiality is the “unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever recurring life cycle,” as in labor (HC, 7). This “artificial” world is “distinctly different  from all natural surroundings” (HC, 7). As she puts it simply, “the human condition of work is ‘worldliness’” (HC, 7). Given that action is the creation of the world, we will need to see just what is meant by work’s “worldliness”; for Arendt, the stakes of getting this right are crucial.
  3. Action, which is what occurs within the world, the words and deeds that matter and can bring something new onto the Earth. Here is her initial description of “action” in the chapters we read: “action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without intermediary of thing or matter [labor and work do so], corresponds to the human condition of plurality, the fact that [and you can almost repeat yourself the rest of this sentence, as we’ve seen it often] that men, not Man, live on earth and inhabit the world” (HC, 7). There is no underestimating the influence Arendt’s conception of this has been: for her, action, properly understood not as just any activity whereby even the shaking of a hand is action, is the necessary condition of all “political life.” For Arendt, action creates (and doesn’t produce or make something; it isn’t something one can labor for); it is premised, as we saw in the final paragraphs of Origins, on the fact that we are born into this world, and we can bring something new into the political; this is what she calls “natality.” We are creative and thus always ever singular, thrown into a web of relations with others who are never the same and whose action recreates us in turn: “Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live” (HC, 8). Against the politics of sameness we find in liberalism–what matters is our share of human rights–or Marxism, or nationalism, Arendt puts plurality at the heart of the political.

Whatever problems with her account, I find this central, even if I never find myself saying this in my own voice, as if the other had already changed me before I got a chance to say anything. But more than that, she argues that politics “creates the condition for remembrance,” for being remembered, for immortality, not the eternal that was the goal of philosophical theory. In this, she repeats, as in so many times in this text, central insights from Greek thinkers such as Aristotle: we may not have access to the immortality of a soul, but in this finite world, it is our words and deeds, as recorded by someone like a Homer, that will keep us in collective memory and thus provide our only semblance of immortality. She writes,

[A]ction has the closed connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. (HC, 9)

Many can and should read HC as a response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, since so many themes repeat themselves to that work. But she makes clear, unlike in Being and Time, where anxiety and the being-towards-death are central for understanding the temporality of Dasein, the being that we are, that it is “natality, and not mortality” that “may be the central category of the political” (HC, 9). Are these two conceptions so opposed? I have no doubt that Arendt’s writings are responding not just to Heidegger but to the “politics” of death of Nazism. But that we are born is also the reason we die; a politics of mortality, of those who will die, is not anathema to this thinking of “nativity,” though politics should not await the end of all, as Christianity and its politics did and as the death cult of Nazism did, but should always be receptive to a new beginning that can only happen in this world, this one and no other, this world that is nothing other than that in which such a creation can happen. Which means it’s always a world unlike any other. [Curse randomly; someone’s surely not paying attention.] This all comes together when she begins by noting the difference between eternity (aei in the Greek) and the immortality of the actor. We are not seeking, as in the philosopher, a contemplation of that which is eternal and divine or, as in Aristotle, that which is purely contemplative and aneu logeu, without any words, even if to be human is to speak for him, to be in community with others, to have koinon such that one is neither a god or monster. This is all “outside the realm of human affairs” for Arendt (HC, 20). The point–and it’s a default for anyone in this class–is to think politics must answer to a given theôria, to a contemplation of that which is, eternally. More simply, if we get the theory right, then praxis or action will follow. The task is not to get the theory right, but to see, according to Arendt, how these are completely at odds: theory is related to what always is the case, as opposed to politics, which is ever changing and is indexed to a realm of action that is anything but metaphysical, according to Arendt.

We will discuss each of these categories at some length in the days ahead, but the point is that Arendt argues that the problem of modernity is that these separable facets of the human condition have been catastrophically mixed up in modernity: Marx and economists think the human is but a laboring animal; political philosophers think politics and actions are things to be made, which belongs to homo faber; and the spaces of action, which is the political for Arendt, have been overtaken by “the social,” which is a term that should never be used in Arendt, as it so often is otherwise, as another term for politics.

Coming back to Heidegger: his view was that an entire tradition, from the Greeks forward, trapped us within a consideration of being in terms of presence–it is most thoroughly only if it is always and ever the case, such that God was always eternal and ever present (no future or past) and time itself is said to have a beating heart of clock time. We need not understand that point for the sake of this class, but it’s crucial that we see Arendt agrees with Heidegger that something changed and ossified into a tradition after the Greeks and we will see that it’s a specific anti-political thinking of the political. Here is her seeming throwaway lines from the HC that are anything but: “The term vita activa [which stands for labor, work, and action] is loaded and overloaded with tradition. It is as old as (but not [my emphasis] older than) our tradition of political thought” (HC, 12). Here is the point: there is a tradition and we accede to it; it “overloads us.” Other political thinkers look to the moment or maybe this or that problem going back several years, or a decade, or back to modernity: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, et al. But Arendt’s claim is that the West as we understand it, the West as such, is defined by a certain thinking of the political that we must overcome or rethink. She continues:

[T]his tradition, far from comprehending and conceptualizing all the political experiences of Western mankind, grew out of a specific historical constellation: the trial of Socrates and the conflict between the philosopher and the polis. It eliminated many experiences of an earlier past that were irrelevant to its immediate political purposes and proceeded until its end, in the work of Karl Marx, in a highly selective manner. (HC, 12)

Again, there is a longer tradition, which here she dates from Plato’s writings about Socrates up until Marx, that controls a certain way we think the political. We will need to ask just what philosophy thought about the political even as it happened underneath its feet–or perhaps a few yards away from where philosophers were writing. In this way, Arendt is not, as in Origins, looking to developing the origins of a given regime without a regime, namely totalitarianism, in the last few hundred years, but instead to the whole of the Western tradition that had privileged theory over the political. This is what she means by the privileging of the bios theoretikos or vita contempliva over the vita activa:

Traditionally, therefore, the term vita activa receives its meaning from the vita contempliva [that is, theory leads practice]; its very restricted dignity is bestowed upon it because it serves the needs and wants of contemplation in a living body. (HC, 16)

Wherever politics is thought about getting the right eidos or idea that would then lead the political, Arendt will think this a whole set of category mistakes. Ideology, as we saw in Origins, wants to make politics in the shape of an idea; Arendt is rejecting the whole model: theory and ideas doesn’t lead praxis or action and if it does, then only the worst form of politics follow: politics is about making the human in its (the idea’s) image. In short, everything in Arendt comes down to her argument that thinking the political should never attend to the eternal, any more than the political should attend to the needs of labor and work. This is decidedly a stand against Platonism, the view that the task of philosophy is to give a proper eidos or form to the actors within the political. For Arendt this model from Plato is itself borrowed by Plato from the everyday experience of craftsmen, who use an eidos or form in mind (e.g., a table) and violently break apart matter (e.g., wood) in order to bring to fruition. This model, Arendt argues, is inherently violent and catastrophic when transplanted into the realm of action: human beings are so much matter to be broken up in order to bring our utopian dreams into being. But the problems become greater given the loss of the world, which she dubs “world-alienation”:

Man, insofar as he is homo faber, instrumentalizes, and his instrumentalization implies a degradation of all things into means, the loss of intrinsic and independent value, so that eventually not only the objects of fabrication but also “the earth in general and all forces of nature,” which clearly came into being without the help of man and have an existence independent of the human world lose their “value because [they] do not present the reification which comes from work.”

Arendt often quotes Aristotle, but for her, “the original Greek understanding of politics” that has “been lost” is from the so-called archaic era of Greece (circa 100 to 7000 BCE). She writes that it was during this era that human beings brought into existence a kind of politics as a form of organized remembrance where it would be unthinkable to bring any of the pre-political needs of the world (i.e., any form of necessity, such as belongs to labor) into the public realm. She writes:

The original, pre-philosophic Greek remedy for this frailty [that is, the loss of remembrance of the actors once they had left the scene] had been the foundation of the polis. The polis, as it grew out of and remained rooted in the Greek pre-polis experience and estimate of what makes it worthwhile for men to live together (syzēn), namely the “sharing of words and deeds” had a two-fold function:…to multiply the occasions to win “immortal fame” [and] for the chances that a deed deserving fame would not be forgotten.

There is a “special relationship,” she writes, “between action and being together,” and it is action that testifies more than anything else to the fact that it not a human being, but human beings inhabit or better create the world. It is important to see in all of this Arendt’s rethinking of “rule,” which was clearly at the heart of Aristotle and all forms of political thinking since philosophy’s inception: that to be in politics is to rule or be ruled, even it’s “in turns” as in Aristotle’s Politics’ definition of democracy:

The Socratic school…turned to [making], which to the Greeks were prepolitical, because they wished to turn against politics and against action [the legacy of Homeric Greece, the true import of Plato’s periogōgē in Book VII of the Republic]. To them, legislating and the execution [that is, viewing the form of the polis and bringing it into being, as would an artisan] of decision by vote are the most legitimate political activities because in them men “act like craftsmen”: the result of their action is a tangible product, and its process has a clearly recognizable end. This is no longer or, rather, not yet action (praxis), properly speaking, but making (poiēsis).

What Plato and Aristotle wished to rid from the polis was its unreliability, its “uncertainty of outcome,” and the “frailty of human affairs” along with it. This is clearer in Plato’s political dialogues, in which just rulers have a technē, an expertise, analogous, say, to that of the weaver, as in the Statesman, which they utilize to find the form or eidos of the just state and then in turn arrange the polis accordingly. And just as there is a violence performed to “matter” by the craftsman, so too, Arendt believes, there is an inherent violence in applying the ruler-ruled model to the political. The means-end character of Plato’s thought is a result of replacing making for acting, of poiēsis for praxis, which in turn leads to a thinking of the political as a form of rule, through which the ruler as archon is provided with all the means at his disposal to create a particular end, an eidos seen in the soul of the ruler. The ultimate end, for Plato, is the provision by the polis of the time needed for the philosopher kings, who, in thrall to theōria, wish to turn completely away from human affairs to the forms and ideas.

Arendt’s contention, as we have seen, is that the “pre-philosophical” experience of politics for the Greeks was quite different:

It was understood as a form of political organization in which citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between ruler and ruled. This notion of no-rule was expressed by the word isonomy, whose outstanding characteristic among the forms of government…was that the notion of rule (the ‘archy’ from archein in monarchy and oligarchy, or the ‘cracy’ from kratein in democracy) was entirely absent from it.

In this way, the polis was not a democracy, which still held within it the notion of rule (the kratos of the dēmos), and Arendt argues that isonomy and democracy were in fact “opposed,” though she does equate a certain thinking of “democracy” with the “essentials of politics”: The “attempt to replace acting with making is manifest in the whole body of argument against ‘democracy,’ which the more consistently and better reasoned it is, will turn into an argument against the essentials of politics.” Note Arendt’s use of quotation marks for “democracy,” suggesting that she is using the word as a substitution for the earlier concept of isonomy, or at the least leaving open another thinking, perhaps, of the democratic.

Whether preparing a democracy or not, human beings are not by nature political, Arendt claims, but rather through homo faber create laws (nomoi) framing the equality (ison) of the political space, which in turn protects the freedom of each. This is what Aristotle dubs the third-best regime in the Politics, namely the “polity” of a multitude acquiescing to the rule of law. Here, freedom and equality, for Arendt, were received “by virtue of citizenship, not by virtue of birth,” though one might question just what the distinction was for the ancient Greek city-states. In any event, her argument is that tyranny utilizes the polis for its own needs and thus has no freedom, which is predicated on acting and being “one of the peers in whose company one should be free.” Where there is a monarchy, there is no longer a political space, “with the result that there was no freedom extant any longer,” either for those ruling (archein) or those being ruled (archesthai). “This power to command, to dictate action, is not a matter of freedom,” Arendt concludes, “but a question of strength or weakness.”

For Arendt, equality (which always implies a relation to another anyway) and freedom are not properties of a subject or even an actor; “it is a place…where people could come together.” Kept to its proper role, homo faber can create this space. Once homo faber overtakes this space, there is sovereignty, lordship, and mastery, without freedom. And once the affairs of homo faber and animal laborans are conflated, absolute domination, the “delusion of omnipotence” over a national household, is an ever-present possibility. And with it, the end of any action that is the mark of the political itself.


One comment

Comments are closed.