By Ian Storey
“The trouble begins whenever one comes to the conclusion that no other ‘lesser’ evil is worth fighting…all historical and political evidence clearly points to the more-than-intimate connection between the lesser and the greater evil…with the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy today to formulate what Stalin actually did: he changed…the proverb ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’ into a veritable dogma: ‘You can’t break eggs without making an omelette.’”
– Hannah Arendt, “The Eggs Speak Up”
Recently, there was a moment that struck me; it literally made me dizzy with how perfectly it encapsulated a political problem that was, at that particular moment at least, also personal.
Shirley Jackson published her story The Lottery in the New Yorker this week 66 years ago, on June 26, 1948. It is a powerful and disturbing story about a small and happy New England town where once every year the residents select lots to choose one person who will be stoned, presumably to death. Jackson unfolds the story gradually, and the atmosphere of celebration on lottery day helps hide the dark turn The Lottery ultimately takes in its final paragraphs. The shift amongst the townspeople from the lighthearted conviviality to cold-blooded stoning is shocking and deeply unsettling.
"There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance – poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death – ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive."
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
A great deal has been written about Hannah Arendt’s philosophical and political thinking, but as the academic year draws to a close, it is important to remember that she urges her readers to think about and appreciate all aspects of human existence, including the life of the body. The passage quoted above comes from the Labor chapter of The Human Condition, in which Arendt traces the worrisome trend in the modern world where human activity is more and more dominated by a concern for the cyclical process of production and consumption. It is safe to say that ours is the kind of “waste economy” she speaks of, in which all objects become consumed and used up rather than used and re-used over time. Even highly technologically advanced devices such as our mobile phones are manufactured and treated as more or less disposable, made to last for a few years before they become obsolete and need to be replaced. The threat that a laboring and consuming society poses to a stable and durable human world has potentially disastrous consequences not only for political life, but also more generally for our ability to feel at home in our condition as earthly beings. In light of Arendt’s critique of labor as a human activity, it is remarkable that she pauses to acknowledge that this essentially worldless cycle of production and consumption with the aim of merely preserving our biological existence is the only activity that holds the key to “lasting” and “elemental” happiness in our lives.
The need to labor is “prescribed” by our condition as living beings most obviously in the case of needing to eat. In one way or another, all of us must continually expend energy in order to have food on the table. Happiness is found in this cycle of exhaustion and regeneration when each side balances the other, when pain and pleasure each contribute to feeling fully alive.
For most Americans this cycle is somewhat indirect since the number of people working on farms or growing food remains a minority. As the expenditure of energy through labor is abstracted (usually through the medium of money) from the regenerative act of consumption, it becomes more difficult to find happiness in the endless cycle of necessity. Furthermore, Arendt points out that the balance of exhaustion and regeneration can only be found in a middle-class life that is harder to come by today given the ever widening gap in income distribution. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, life itself becomes a burden for both extremes – a source of misery on one hand and a sign of impotence on the other – rather than a source of sustaining fulfillment.
How might we seek to reclaim this balance?
While many students and teachers (myself included) may be feeling the need for a pleasurable regeneration in the form of a vacation after a long season of schoolwork, Arendt is clear that “intellectual labor” shares few characteristics of manual labor related to maintaining our biological existence. However, there is also a pervasive notion that summer vacation from school was not designed to give students a break from thinking, but rather out of the necessity for young people to work on their families’ farms. Summer vacation is often thought of as a remnant of America’s agrarian past. Despite the fact that this interpretation of summer vacation is in fact historically erroneous, its persistence in the American mind suggests a collective nostalgia for a time when there was a balance of work, labor, and leisure in our lives.
Many educators and politicians today are questioning the wisdom of taking two or more consecutive months off from school, citing the educational demands that the 21st century economy places on individuals trying to earn a living. Summer vacation has been shown to negatively impact those students who are most in need of academic support since they are the least likely to have the privilege of enriching summer experiences at home or in summer programs. Many charter schools have turned to extended school days and extended school years to improve test scores of historically failing (usually urban) populations. It would be wrong to oppose eliminating summer vacation on the grounds that it takes away regenerative time for students, because summer is only regenerative for a privileged segment of the population. But perhaps a case can be made for the present relevance of the historical misconception that summer vacation is a time for young people to learn by laboring for food.
Although the local food movement has largely been the preoccupation of the upper-middle class, it has the potential to change how people in communities across the country participate in cycles of production and consumption. Community based agricultural opportunities are popping up in urban and rural areas, many of which seek to involve as many young people as possible through schools and other community organizations. These farming programs have the potential to teach young people that happiness comes through painful laboring while reaping the direct benefits for oneself and one’s own community. These kinds of work opportunities could begin to shift the imbalance of human activity in our society and reclaim a more direct and fulfilling form of laborer than the mere “jobholder.”
Insofar as education aspires to be more than training in how to make a living in the modern economy – a task made nearly impossible given the rapid technological and societal changes that make it very difficult for teachers to predict what the world may be like when their students are adults – it can open opportunities for young people to reflect on and make meaning of the various aspects of human living on earth. Schools must stand apart from the economic life process long enough to foster a free appreciation for, rather than enslavement to, the cycles of being alive. Participating in the growing of one’s own food during the summer months – whether at home, in a community garden, or on an urban farm – is a good way to learn gratitude for the bodily pain and pleasure that define the life that we have been given.
Science fiction, Hannah Arendt tells us, has too long been undervalued by those who would seek to comprehend the human condition. It is in the human fantasies of our future that mankind reveals our desires, both possible and not yet possible. For Arendt, some of those deepest and longest-held desires included the desire to flee the earth, to play God and to make human beings, and to make labor unnecessary. Her book, The Human Condition, is in part an effort to think through the fact that many of these human desires were, for the first time in millennia, threatening to become possible.
We make a mistake to ignore science fiction, especially in an era where the unprecedented advance of technological ability makes it possible that today’s dreams will soon be realized. With that in mind, it is worth looking at Alex Mar’s profile of life, death, and cryogenic preservation of FM-2030, otherwise known as Fereidoun M. Esfandiary.
Writing in The Believer, Mar introduces FM-2030, one of the founders of the transhumanism movement. FM-2030 has a single defining dream for the future of man, that we overcome our given and earthly and biological limits. If man, as Arendt writes, is both someone who lives in a given and fated world and someone who can change and re-make that world, the transhumanists like FM-2030 imagine a time in the near future in which all biological, temporal, and physical limits will be overcome. Including death.
The ultimate goal for transhumanists has never been merely to improve mankind, but to defeat our greatest opponent: death. Of course, not all champions of Progress make the titanic leap to Immortality—the jump is so vast, so wildly immodest and presumptuous as to cross over into the realm of the kind of uncomfortably eccentric. But as FM would put it, “No one today can be too optimistic.” Transhumanists, in their crusade against time, have begun to buy themselves some of it, at the cost of a pricey life-insurance policy. With some cryoprotectants and a lot of liquid nitrogen, humanity—or at least the one-thousand-ish people affiliated with Alcor, currently the largest cryonics group in the country—has been gifted with the semi-scientific semi-possibility of radically extended life. Die a clinical “death,” go to sleep, wake up eons later, when existence is a whole new ball game. So when will immortality come?
If you want to understand the human condition, that means knowing well too our most human dreams. Today, technological optimism is at the center of those dreams. Fereidoun M. Esfandiary was for many the first great transhumanist of the late 20th century, the precursor to Ray Kurzweil, who also dreams of his own immortality. This story of his untimely death, and efforts to preserve him, reveal much about the movement he helped to found.
Read the article here.
Read related essays on the human dream of a non-human future here.
You can also purchase the inaugural issue of HA, the Hannah Arendt Center Journal, which features a selection of articles by Nicholson Baker, Babette Babich, Rob Riemen, Marianne Constable, and Roger Berkowitz from our 2010 conference, “Human Being in an Inhuman Age.”
“The wonder that man endures or which befalls him cannot be related in words because it is too general for words….That this speechless wonder is the beginning of philosophy became axiomatic for both Plato and Aristotle.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Philosophy and Politics"
Aristotle had told us that philosophy begins in thaumázein-- θαυμάζειν –“to wonder, marvel, be astonished.” In the New Testament, the word appears only twice. In the parallel occurrences (Matthew 27:14 and Mark 15:5), Pilate marvels at the fact that Jesus says nothing. What is significant is that thaumázein is associated there with an experience for which there were no words. The word means a kind of an initial wordless astonishment at what is, at that that is is. For Aristotle, thaumázein is the beginning of philosophy as wonder. It is not for the Greeks, therefore, the beginning of political philosophy.
Key here is the fact of speechlessness. This wonder “cannot be related in words because it is too general for words.” Arendt suggests that Plato encountered it in those moments in which Socrates, “as though seized by a rapture, [fell] into complete motionlessness, just staring without seeing or hearing anything.” It follows that “ultimate truth is beyond words.” Nevertheless, humans want to talk about that which cannot be spoken. “As soon as the speechless state of wonder translates itself into words, it … will formulate in unending variations what we call the ultimate questions.” These questions – what is being? Who is the human being? What is the meaning of life” what is death? And so forth “have in common that they cannot be answered scientifically.” Thus Socrates “I know that I do not know” is actually an expression that opens the door to the political, public realm, in the recognition that nothing that can be said there can ever have the quality of being final.
According to Arendt, Socrates has three distinct aspects. First he arouses citizens from their slumber – this is the gadfly who gets others to think, to think about those topics for which there is no final answer. Secondly as “midwife” he decides – he makes evident – whether an opinion is fit to live or is merely an unimpregnated “wind-egg” (cf Theateatus 152a; 157d; 161a): Greek midwives not only assisted in the delivery but determined if the new-born was healthy enough to live. Socrates concludes his discussion in the Theateatus (210b) by saying all they have done is to produce a mere wind-egg and that he must leave as he has to get to the courthouse for his trial. Lastly, as stinging ray, Socrates paralyzes in two ways. He makes you stop and think; he destroys the certainty one has of received opinions. Arendt is clear that this can be dangerous. She goes on to say that “thinking is … dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed,” but she is equally clear that “non-thinking … has its dangers [which are] the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.” To think is dangerous: but to think is to desire wisdom, what is not there. It is thus a longing; it is eros and, as with all things erotic, “to bring this relationship into the open, make it appear, men speak about it in the same way that the lover wants to speak of his beloved.” Where does this leave one? For the most part, in normal times, thinking is not of political use. It is, however, of use, in times when the “center does not hold,” in times of crisis.
At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters. When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by whatever everyone else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conscious and thereby becomes a kind of action. The purging element … is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgment, … the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until the grow into habits.
Suppose we read Arendt as saying that political philosophy must now turn and thaumázein – and wonder – not at that what is, is, but at the human reality, at the world of human activity. This would involve a change in philosophy – for which she says philosophers are not particularly well equipped. She thinks such a turn would rest on and derive from several elements – she mentions in particular Jaspers’ reformulation of truth as transcending the realm that can be instrumentally controlled, thus related to freedom; Heidegger’s analysis of ordinary everyday life; and existentialism’s insistence on action. It will be an inquiry into the “political significance of thought; that is into the meaningfulness and the conditions of thinking for a being that never exists in the singular and whose essential plurality is far from explored when an I-Thou relationship is added to the traditional understanding of human nature.”
What is problematic with purely philosophical thaumázein? The Thracian maid who appears in the title to Jacques Taminiaux’s book and stands for Arendt in his analysis derives from an account in the Theateatus. Upon encountering Thales who, all-focused in his wondering, had fallen into a well, the maid notes that the philosopher had “failed to see what was in front of him.” Mary-Jane Robinson notes four elements to Arendt’s suspicion of excessive wonder, a suspicion one assumes was directed at Heidegger. First, such wonder allows avoidance of the messiness of the everyday world; secondly, such “uncritical openness” leads philosophers to be “swept away by dictators.” Thirdly, such wonder alienates the philosopher (as with Heidegger post-1945) from the world around him, and lastly, such openness to the mystery of the world, “disables decision making.”
If politics is the realm of how humans appear to each other when they act and speak, from whence does it come? The only possible answer is that politics is an emergence from a realm which is neither that of action nor that of speech. The political emerges from nothingness. Perhaps this is the realm to which poetry can call us – and some of Arendt’s most moving essays are on poetry and literature – but such a realm is not political. In this sense there is a limit to political science, as there is to all science. For Arendt, there are no underlying causes out of which that which is political must emerge. This is why political action is always for her a beginning and a marvel for which we have to try to find words.
Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. Yet, in their effort to prove that everything is possible, totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer "human" in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness.
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Although Hannah Arendt never dedicated an entire chapter or essay to the emotion, she was nonetheless well aware of the insidious pull of resentment. In The Origins of Totalitarianism resentment is mentioned 16 times.
Early in the Origins, Arendt writes, "The social resentment of the lower middle classes against the Jews turned into a highly explosive political element, because these bitterly hated Jews were thought to be well on their way to political power." Here resentment refers to the mobilization of mass antisemitism and the driving force behind the scapegoating of Jews.
By the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, in the lengthy passage quoted above, Arendt refers to resentment as one of many "evil motives" that had in the past made crimes understandable. With the advent of radical evil typical of the Third Reich, however, crimes against human plurality that could neither be punished nor forgiven could also not be explained away by unsavory human emotions and intentions. Here we can see a shift in meaning: in the beginning stages of Nazi occupation, resentment is an emotion that helps to make sense of antisemitic attitudes. With the advent of the death factories we find that evil human motives of self-interest, lust for power and resentment are no longer able to make sense of the world.
I find the ambiguity of the meaning of resentment in Arendt's work fascinating. Origins begins with a fairly common understanding of the emotion as a kind of envious grudge that seeks revenge. But it would be a mistake to understand resentment as the psychological essence of totalitarian rule. For although Arendt acknowledges the role resentment played in the mobilization of social attitudes of antisemitism, she also reveals the limits of human emotions within the Nazi program of destruction. Resentment is not the cause of human destruction. Rather she says,
Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world; the chief psychological support of totalitarian fiction—the active resentment of the status quo, which the masses refused to accept as the only possible world—is no longer there.
But where does resentment go, and what replaces it? Ironically, Arendt saw resentment as the last remnant of humanly recognizable relations—relations that were quashed as a requirement of totalitarian destruction.
To illustrate this point, near the end of the book, Arendt makes a distinction in the torture practices first performed by the Nazi Party's "Brown Shirts," the Sturmabteilung (SA) and later by Hitler's paramilitary, the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Whereas torture for the SA officer was provoked by a heated resentment against all those the SA guard perceived to be better than himself, torture of the magnitude required for the annihilation of a people—the kind that was effectively able to exterminate people long before they became biologically dead—was not the result of any human emotion. It was precisely the total lack of human emotion that enabled this atrocity. Arendt contrasts the irrational, sadistic type of torture driven by resentment and carried out by the SA to the rational calculations of the SS:
Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling (GH emphasis). The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.
I glean two points from this passage. First, Arendt believed that the human destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich was an exemplification of what she called the "banality of evil." This is to say that it was not pathologically sadistic and neurotically resentful and self-interested men, but rather "perfectly normal men" who, by following the rules, fulfilled the brutal logic of the Third Reich. Second, the annihilation of the Jews required cold calculation that in effect destroyed the very condition of possibility for resentment: human plurality. And this is where the irony of Arendt's thinking shines through: Resentment disappeared in the camps because understandable human sinfulness disappeared. Through this irony Arendt exposes her readers to a provocative ambiguity: Resentment appears in Origins as both the provocation of criminality and a vague remnant of human plurality.