Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Hannah Arendt on Education and Excellence


Neither education nor ingenuity nor talent can replace the constituent elements of the public realm, which make it the proper place for human excellence.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

I am proud to attend a college that envisions education as a life devoted to intellectual excellence. I am also proud of the fact that the school promotes a genuine love for knowledge and ideas and not simply what is practical and useful. It is easy to believe that education represents the peak of human excellence. And I have experienced few joys in my education as deeply as that of reading Hannah Arendt.

What a surprise, therefore, to see that Hannah Arendt writes that education and ingenuity are not and have never been the proper place for the display of human excellence. Arendt writes that excellence is found only in the public realm, that space to which “excellence has always been assigned.” Educational achievements—for example learnedness and scholarship—are important for students, but have nothing to do with excellence. But what does Arendt mean by human excellence? And why does it require a public realm? More to the point of modern debates, why is education not the proper locus of excellence?


Education is one of the elementary and necessary human activities. The word education comes from the Latin verbs educare (to mold) and educere (to lead out). To teach and educate is to take a human being in the process of becoming and lead him or her out of the confines of the home into the world, into his or her community. Formal education, Arendt argues in The Crisis in Education, is the time when schools and teachers assume the responsibility for “what we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents.” This is the stage in the educational development of the student in which he or she is not only introduced to the world, but when he or she becomes freely and spontaneously acquainted with those qualities that make one unique and further refined as a person.

It is also in school that we learn what human excellence is and the conditions in which human excellence is properly displayed. Human excellence, Arendt argues, is what the ancient Greeks called arête and the Roman virtus. The concepts of arete and virtus were always used by the ancients to denote the good and distinctive qualities embodied by those who performed in public. Drawing upon these concepts, Arendt argues that human excellence is a public act that manifests what she calls “inspiring principles,” e.g, prudence, justice, and courage, qualities of conduct that allow one to excel and distinguish oneself from all others.

Unlike the realm of the school, where one is expected only to learn and develop the characteristics used to make these principles manifest, the public realm demands that one act and embody excellence. It is our capacities for speech and action that allows for this display of excellence to be distinctively human. Arendt argues that only “in acting and speaking, [do] men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identity and thus make their appearance in the human world.” In contrast to education, which is concerned with the development of talents and virtues of the developing human being, in the political realm, these talents and virtues are fully developed and displayed.

Schools for Arendt are neither public nor private but “the institutions that we interpose between the private domain of home and the world in order to make the transition from the family to the world.” Schools are hidden from the world, as are the activities through which the student first displays his or her qualities and talents. Schools offer the student “the security of concealment in order to mature undisturbed.” But in order to achieve excellence, action needs an audience, a stage, a public realm where these characteristics can be properly manifested and properly received. Activities completed in school hide these characteristics and nurture the creative process, in contrast to those performed public, which always display the virtuosity, the excellence inherent in action.

The public realm is also the space of equality, which is alien to schools. In schools, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the one who knows the world, and in order to teach it, deference to authority is required. Arendt argues that this responsibility of authority is given to the educator because the educator not only knows the world but also belongs and acts in it. In the school, the educator acts as a representative of that world by “pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world.” Once the student knows the world and assumes responsibility for it, he or she can go into the world and act virtuously, display human excellence and start something new, which could potentially change it. This is why Arendt argues that school is not the “proper place” to display excellence, to act, and create something new. The ability to be excellent—to act, and to start something new—demands responsibility for the world. In education, this responsibility takes the form of authority, which is why it is given to the educator, and not to the student.

This does not mean, however, that Arendt is against changing the world; she is against changing it by disturbing the activity of education. Change, the new, is a phenomenon of the political realm, an activity performed among equal and fully-grown human beings. For Arendt, the “conservative function” that preserves traditions and the status quo in education comes to an end in the political realm. This conservative attitude in politics, she says, can only lead to destruction. As she explains: “because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they. To preserve the world from the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.” Arendt maintains that to act and to change the world is expected of those who get educated and enter the community of adults and the political world.

As an immigrant student, I was surprised by the extraordinary commitment of my peers to be excellent. The dream of greatness and the desire for changing the world is also common among armchair “politicians” in academia. This ever-present enthusiasm for changing the world in academia is natural, especially if one believes to be living the true life of excellence. This desire, at times overconfident or even arrogant, is particular to Americans, not only in academia but also in every other sphere of life, and arises from what Arendt calls the “indefinite perfectibility” spirit that characterizes Americans.


At a place like Bard College, most students I come in contact with trade insights and debate about what has to be changed on a daily basis. This constant craving for the new and their commitment to excellence uplifts my spirit and has stirred in me the desire to do great things as well; this is very inspiring. Yet, we are still students and Bard or any other educational institution is not the public world, and, as Arendt argues, “it must not pretend to be.” Bard represents the sphere where we are welcomed to and learn about the world from educators, so that one day we can change it, hopefully through human acts that embody excellence.

School for Arendt is where we learn and decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and renew it or watch it fall as a victim of our very own condition of mortality. In order to change the world, one has to love and understand it. For Arendt, one has to learn to love the world, whether ones wishes to propagate and preserve it or to set it entirely anew; love of the world for her is what constitutes the world because it “fits me into it,” it allows one to ‘under-stand,’ to grasp while being in the midst of things. The world has to be constantly renewed but this can only happen once we leave the concealment of the classroom and acquire the courage to enter the political realm.

-Angel Arias


Arnold Gehlen on Arendt’s The Human Condition


Arnold Gehlen,"Vom tätigen Leben (Hannah Arendt)", Merkur Vol. 159 (1961) 482-6.

The conservative anthropologist Arnold Gehlen fell out of favor in post WWII Germany largely due to his support of the Nazis: he joined the party in 1933 but continued to teach after the war following a “denazification” process. However, with the recent rediscovery of thinking influenced by philosophical anthropology in Germany, his work is again becoming important. Gehlen can be seen as one pole of a broader debate about the relationship between the abstract qualities of humans and their environment. Gehlen’s signature idea describes man as a "deficient being" (Mängelwesen) who develops culture, including technology in the broader and narrower senses, as a kind of armor for survival. Man’s physical weakness ultimately forces him to create his own environment, but this is more a sign of the constant threat he is under rather than an opportunity for great progressive changes.

Peter Sloterdijk, a major figure in the re-emergence of philosophical anthropology has pressed the issue with his recent description of culture as “human zoo” that houses mankind. For Sloterdijk, man is a beastly creature, one who has over centuries struggled to tame himself with cultural ideals and the brute force of laws. As mass society has dissolved the cultural bonds of humanism, Sloterdijk writes, man is increasingly forced into the cages of a human zoo.


Gehlen was likely drawn to Arendt’s work by the broad scope of her history of civilization. He was interested in where humanity came from and where it is going. Some of these aspects might seem speculative, and indeed Arendt’s celebration of the Greeks and criticism of modern life continue to be fiercely criticized while her more technical innovations in terms of action and judgment garner broader acclaim (even if they still lead to debates over specifics). From a certain point of view, Gehlen’s Arendt is an thinker of a grand narrative and his review makes us ask about the value of such stories even when we are skeptical of their ultimate validity.

Gehlen’s forgotten but broadly positive review of The Human Condition offers a balanced evaluation of the book and a snapshot of it long before scholars built up the Arendt we know today of “action,” “natality,” and “judgment.” In terms of method, Gehlen praises Arendt's "ideological abstinence." Her sobriety in relation to established political frames of reference tended to get her in trouble during her lifetime, especially from her Left- leaning friends for her critique of Marx (despite her explicit remarks on her appreciation of his work). While Gehlen’s phrasing may have something of the coy conservative in it, I think is it a fitting way to describe her point of view. The independence of her work can be seen as a commitment to analysis that resists getting carried away by the overblown and often underdefined notions of the day.

Positively, Gehlen refers to Arendt’s "magnificent and dire analysis of contemporary scientific-technological culture and its massive biological repercussions." If philosophical anthropology inquires into the connection between the human environment and life, Arendt offers an update by specifying the technological dimension of culture. Saying she connects it to biology per se is a provocation on Gehlen’s part though it is one worth considering. Much work remains to be done on Arendt’s use of philosophers of science and her critical contribution to this field. Her engagement goes well beyond the better known references to Heisenberg and Whitehead in the Human Condition, as her references to such thinkers as Adolf Portmann in the Denktagebuch shows.


Towards the end of his review, Gehlen criticizes Arendt for placing too much emphasis on the power of philosophy to influence history (at the expense of social forces). Here I do not think he makes a fair criticism and suspect that his reading was unduly influenced by Arendt’s association with Heidegger. It’s interesting though that Gehlen’s conservatism also puts emphasis on the social, though without the progressive hopes of the Enlightenment tradition from Hegel to Marx and Habermas.

In a footnote to Chapter 5 of The Human Condition, Arendt appeals to Gehlen's major work Man: His Nature and Place in the World as the source of the scientific work that grounds her argument. There she directly engages essentialist anthropology and rejects it, but does not give way to mere metaphor. Instead, I argue that she develops natality as a concept that works from within rather above: it cannot do without real birth but isn’t limited or determined by this empirical reference.

-Jeff Champlin

See: Jeffrey Champlin, “Born Again: Arendt's "Natality" as Figure and Concept,” The Germanic Review 88(02), May 2012.



Infinitely Intoxicating

Louis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.

All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.

The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.

David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? 

Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.

What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.

Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do?  Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.

The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.””  And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.

 Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.

Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.

I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.

As Birkirts writes:

For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.

Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.

Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.

Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.

And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.