By Jeffrey Jurgens
“In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias—God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils—and they had turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly. What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism.”
--Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations”
Hannah Arendt regards Socrates as an apt model for the kind of thinking she admired and championed. He was, in her words, “a citizen among citizens,” a man who thought “without becoming a philosopher.” For rather than imparting a substantive notion of virtue or truth, he sought to “unfreeze” sedimented concepts like justice, courage, and happiness so that his interlocutors might examine them anew.
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature."
“A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.”
"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.
One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.
In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:
Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.
Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”
For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?
Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?
The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”
Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.
The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.
To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.
John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.