Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, “Action”

Political Philosophy

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition


[I have been posting my recent lectures on Arendt’s political philosophy. A previous lecture on Part I and II of The Human Condition can be found here.]

“This space does not always exist,” Arendt writes about the spaces of action, “and although all men are capable of deed and word, most of them-like the slave, the foreigner, and the barbarian in antiquity, like the laborer or craftsman prior to the modern age, the jobholder or businessman in our world–do not live in it. No man, moreover, can live in it all the time” (HC, 199). But though it is perhaps uncommon or indeed rare and rarefied, this space is all important for Arendt: “To be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all” (ibid.) Today we take up the all-important chapter on Action in The Human Condition, which offers her positive account of the political over and against her writings understanding the death of politics in totalitarianism. We have come to this section after reviewing two other modes of the vita activa, the life of labor (zôê on Arendt’s rendering), which is cyclical and indicative of our common animality, and the life of homo faber, the solitary figure who produces art and homes, shoes and crosswalks, in short, the artificial world in which we live. While often discussed as celebratory of action–there is little doubt that her account at times has a literally religious fervor–she is clear about the courage action takes and the fact that with action comes with sorrows, as the epigram from Isak Dinesan that opens the chapter shows, that “can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them” (HC, 175). The passage also points to the importance of narrative in Arendt’s account and she seems to be pulling together different, interpretively related claims: (1) human beings and not a human being inhabit the earth and this plurality is a specific mark of what is peculiarly human; (2) Human beings do not have a shared essence and though public spaces are not always available for action, when they are available, politics is an end in itself and should never be a means to a further end beyond it; (3) Action always produces a a “who” found in the narration of events; (4) the action of each person is akin or a replication with the public space of the event of natality, which produces something new in the world irreducible to the chain of causes and effect; (5) the political tradition has had a myopic wish to replace action (praxis), because of its unpredictability, with making (poiêsis), which has led to all manner of utopian thinking that wishes to do away with political plurality in order to re-make the world. Despite or because of the holes of oblivion she had written about in Origins and other earlier texts, Arendt still believes in miracles, though they are always miracles of this world in her precise meaning:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.” (HC, 247)

I could circle around this passage endlessly, given her resurrection, as you have read, of Jesus of Nazareth as an important political and not as a religious figure and not as someone whose followers would end up trying to make all politics subservient to something beyond (e.g., Augustine’s City of God). Natality is the central term in this chapter, marking a principle or archê of beginning that ontologically roots all action. We do not have faith and hope in another world, but in what we do in this world, through the creation of deeds and the speaking of words that performs the freedom and equality that is fully spatialized in the web of relations described by Arendt. As she notes throughout this chapter, where there are sovereignty and self-mastery, there is no freedom, and freedom and natality are premised on being among others in unpredictable sets of circumstances. In this way, Arendt does not think freedom as a personal capacity, nor as something the merely follows from what laws do not disallow, that is, the freedoms we supposedly enjoy in our homes.

Nowhere, in other words, neither in labor, subject to the necessity of life, nor in fabrication, dependent upon given material, does man appear to be less free than in those capacities whose very essence is freedom and in that realm which owes its existence to nobody and nothing but man. It is in accordance with the great tradition of Western thought to think along these lines: to accuse freedom of luring man into necessity, to condemn action, the spontaneous beginning of something new, because its results fall into a predetermined net of relationships, invariably dragging the agent with them, who seems to forfeit his freedom the very moment he makes use of it. The only salvation from this kind of freedom seems to lie in non-acting, in abstention from the whole realm of human affairs as the only means to safeguard one’s sovereignty and integrity as a person. (HC, 234)

The reason for this is that in a web of relations, one sets of chains of events for which one is responsible and is always responding in ways completely unpredictable, as if one had no control over a given situation. If Arendt is first and foremost a thinker of responsibility it is because ontologically one is always born in such a way as to be responding to others, and thus to be taking on deeds that one did not begin and sending them along through more actions whose results are limitless. The political tradition, Arendt avers, privatized freedom, brought it out of the web of relations of human beings in the plural, and premised it on one’s self-mastery, which she argues, is always a fiction in any case. She continues from the above:

If we leave aside the disastrous consequences of these recommendations. (which materialized into a consistent system of human behavior only in Stoicism), their basic error seems to lie in that identification of sovereignty with freedom which has always been taken for granted by political as well as philosophic thought. If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth-and not, as the tradition since Plato holds, because of man’s limited strength, which makes him depend upon the help of others. All the recommendations the tradition has to offer to overcome the condition of non-sovereignty and win an untouchable integrity of the human person amount to a compensation for the intrinsic “weakness” of plurality. Yet, if these recommendations were followed and this attempt to overcome the consequences of plurality were successful, the result would be not so much sovereign domination of one’s self as arbitrary domination of all others, or, as in Stoicism, the exchange of the real world for an imaginary one where these others would simply not exist. (HC, 234)

Arendt argues that action is always opposed to violence, which ends it, and tyrants always look to dissolve the public realm. But it is political philosophy since Plato that has always been anti-political, substituting making for acting, which has always been the claims of efficiency and order that “the more consistently and better reasoned it is, will turn into an argument against the essentials of politics” (HC, 220). That is, we replace action, an end in itself, for making, for producing a given eidos or idea just as an artisan produces the form in his mind by breaking up the world. This means we separate means and ends, which Arendt argues always ends up meaning that any means can be sanctioned for the greatest end, a point that all manner of utopian politics and their violence seem to lend credence. Indeed, she argues, we must never give into the belief that politics is about making:

We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end…As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent anybody’s using all means to pursue recognized ends. (HC, 229)

We build our castles in the sky and given this idea’s supposed greatness, all manner of means are sustainable for this end. But there is a stronger point to make: rather than seeing the persuasion, plurality, and frailty of action as leaving all manner of “ends” up to those operating “democratically” within a given public realm, the philosopher always want to give to the public realm its proper and perfected shape, cutting off the rabble in their discussions and frail actions, which for Arendt is precisely the performance of freedom and equality that adheres to human dignity. Arendt’s claim is that Plato and a whole slew of philosophers after him took the earlier Greek notion of archê, which Aristotle used to mean ruling principle, and transformed it from something like “leading” into “ruling”–thus all the talk in Aristotle, as we saw, on the relation, even democracies, of ruling and being ruled (archein and archesthai) by turns (kata meros). The result is that politics came to be seen less as a space of action than a top-down ruling the obviated the need for persuasion and such. By looking at the pre-polis experience of the Greeks, Arendt is not laying down her own eidos for what politics should be, since that too should be up to the come what may of any given set of relations. Rather, she wants to show a counter-tradition, another thinking of the political than available in the contemporary period or in the political tradition. She is not blind to the problems of Athenian democracy–her diagnosis of slavery and precisely what was lost in it is among the best on a horrific topic–but wants to show how mutual persuasion and being-together, how a frail web of relations was betrayed by the philosophers forming schools (Plato and Aristotle) on grounds not far from these spaces of action. Arendt also argues that the tradition’s trepidation over political action was matched in her analyses of totalitarianism and the rise of the social in the modern world, where places of civic freedom and responsibility were shuttered while other parts of the human condition, notably the life processes of labor, moved to center stage. Thus in the U.S. and Canada one thinks of freedom as freedom from politics, while in the social democratic states of Western Europe, freedom is seen to result from the bureaucratic administration of the life processes. Arendt calls this a “world alienation” from spaces of appearance in the modern age (HC, 209). She writes:

This, however, is not to say that they are free to dispense with a public realm altogether, for without a space of appearance and without trusting in action and speech as a mode of being together, neither the reality of one’s self, of one’s own identity, nor the reality of the surrounding world can be established beyond doubt. The human sense of reality demands that men actualize the sheer passive givenness of their being, not in order to change it but in order to make articulate and call into full existence what otherwise they would have to suffer passively anyhow. This actualization resides and comes to pass in those activities that exist only in sheer actuality. The only character of the world by which to gauge its reality is its being common to us all, and common sense occupies such a high rank in the hierarchy of political qualities because it is the one sense that fits into reality as a whole our five strictly individual senses and the strictly particular data they perceive. It is by virtue  of common sense that the other sense perceptions are known to disclose reality and are not merely felt as irritations of our nerves or resistance sensations of our bodies. A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world. (HC, 208-9)

In short for Arendt, with the rise of the social, we have the mistaken emphasis on the life processes and the immemorable and superfluous emphasis on any but great words and deeds, or the creation of something beyond the “normalized behavior” of “mass man” producing his “idle chatter.” This era is also one of profound loneliness, Arendt claims, where sameness rules, excellence is leveled out, and spaces for being different are rare.

But this is not to say that space for action have completely disappeared, and therefore places of responsibility are not activated. For Arendt wherever human beings in the plural exist, there is action, and the myth of the strongman who rules over all is just that. In this way, I think, there is only rarely a zero degree of action, of mutual persuasion and the doing of deeds, which one finds in the camps. But if sovereignty is a myth and human beings always have the capacity for creating something new in webs of relations with others, this also means that while we are ever fragile, we are also always responsible for how we act when we acquiesce to the strong man, give comfort the strong, and turn away when holes of oblivion begin their (non)appearance. For Arendt, there are means, such as social contracts, for making promises, i.e., frameworks or institutions, that give predictability to the public realm, but we should never accept these means of lawmaking as a replacement for the action of politics:

The danger and the advantage inherent in all bodies politic that rely on contracts and treaties is that they, unlike those that rely on rule and sovereignty, leave the unpredictability of human affairs and the unreliability of men as they are, using them merely as the medium, as it were, into which certain islands of predictability are thrown and in which certain guideposts of reliability are erected. The moment promises lose their character as isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty, that is, when this faculty is misused to cover the whole ground of the future and to map out a path secured in all directions, they lose their binding power and the whole enterprise becomes self-defeating. We mentioned before the power generated when people gather together and “act in concert,” which disappears the moment they depart. (HC, 244)

For Arendt this is power, which wilts quickly in the face of violence, which brings necessity into a space of freedom. There are many contemporary thinkers looking to “unwork” our notions of politics–Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy comes quickly to mind–which for them means not reducing the spacing of difference and plurality in the name of an overarching work that the politics is to get done. And despite the bureaucratized spacing of our geographies, and despite all that the tradition has meant to shut down in terms of the loud and chatty spaces of persuasion, and despite all that violence has wrought in the last century and before, there is action wherever a few look to persuade others, to remake the world in another image, to contest the homogenized spaces produced by neoliberal economics. We see such spaces open when Black Lives Activists comes together to persuade each other and others, or when masses gather to protest a brutal regime in Tahrir Square in Cairo, or, to cite Arendt’s examples, the Danish resist the Nazis, the U.S. Civil Rights Movements changes a whole nation’s thinking about race, the activists take on their Soviet government during Hungarian Revolution of 1956, people stand against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, and on and on. At each point, Arendt notes, quoting René Char, it is as if a situation is faced without previous testament: actions must be taken where there is perhaps only hope for a miracle. And no doubt all of these movements had larger political goals, and yet it is the movement of these actions themselves, of their performance of freedom and equality, that gives me hope and faith, as in Arendt, here and now, for another world, where politics is not about what work is to be done.