“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving…conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.”
-- John Dewey
(Featured Image: John Dewey; Source: JohnDewey.net)
Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.
This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.
This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism
combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.
Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.
In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”
Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.
Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.
I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.
This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.
“The shift from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the coming into being, of nature or life or the universe....Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process, and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their function in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Bookending Arendt’s consideration of the human condition “from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” is her invocation of several “events, ” which she took to be emblematic of the modern world launched by the atomic explosions of the 1940s and the threshold of the modern age that preceded it by several centuries. The event she invokes in the opening pages is the launch of Sputnik in 1957; its companion events are named in the last chapter of the book--the discovery of America, the Reformation, and the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science.
Not once mentioned in The Human Condition, but, as Mary Dietz argued so persuasively in her Turning Operations, palpably present as a “felt absence,” is the event of the Shoah, the “hellish experiment” of the SS concentration camps, which is memorialized today, Yom HaShoah. Reading Arendt’s commentaries on the discovery of the Archimedean point and its application in modern science with the palpably present but textually absent event of the Holocaust in mind sheds new light on the significance of her cautionary tale about the worrying implications of the new techno-science of algorithms and quantum physics and its understanding of nature produced through the experiment.
What happens, she seems to be asking, when the meaning of all “particular things” derives solely from “their function in the over-all process”? If nature in all of its aspects is understood as the inter- (or intra-) related aspects of the overall life process of the universe, does then human existence, as part of nature, become merely one part of that larger process, differing perhaps in degree, but not kind, from any other part?
Recently, “new materialist” philosophers have lauded this so-called “posthumanist” conceptualization of existence, arguing that the anthropocentrism anchoring earlier modern philosophies—Arendt implicitly placed among them?—arbitrarily separates humans from the rest of nature and positions them as masters in charge of the world (universe). By contrast, a diverse range of thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, Diana Coole, and Cary Wolfe have drawn on a variety of philosophical and scientific traditions to re-appropriate and “post-modernize” some form of vitalism. The result is a reformulation of an ontology of process—what Connolly calls “a world of becoming”—as the most accurate way to understand matter’s dynamic and eternal self-unfolding. And, consequentially, it also entails transforming agency from a human capacity of “the will” with its related intentions to a theory of agency of “multiple degrees and sites...flowing from simple natural processes, to human beings and collective social assemblages” with each level and site containing “traces and remnants from the levels from which it evolved,” which “affect [agency’s] operation.” (Connolly, A World Becoming, p. 22, emphasis added). The advantage of a “philosophy/faith of radical immanence or immanent realism,” Connolly argues, is its ability to engage the “human predicament”: “how to negotiate life, without hubris or existential resentment, in a world that is neither providential nor susceptible to consummate mastery. We must explore how to invest existential affirmation in such a world, even as we strive to fend off its worst dangers.”
An implicit ethic of aiming to take better care of the world, “to fold a spirit of presumptive generosity for the diversity of life into your conduct” by not becoming too enamored with human agency resides in this philosophy/faith. In the entanglements she explores between human and non-human materiality—a “heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies” —one can discern similar ethical concerns in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things.” Conceptualizing nature as “an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” Bennett affirms a “vital materiality [that] congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to persevere or prolong their run,” (p. 118, emphasis in the original) where “bodies” connotes all forms of matter. And she contends that this vital materialism can “enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public.” Yet, without some normative criteria for discerning the ways this new materialism can work toward “sustainability,” it is by no means obvious how either a declaration of faith in the “radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the non-human” or having greater “attentiveness to the indispensable foreignness that we are” would lead to a change in political direction toward more gratitude and away from more destructive patterns of production and consumption. The recognition of our vulnerability could just as easily lead to renewed efforts to truncate or even eradicate the “foreignness” within.
Nonetheless, although these and other accounts call for a reconceptualization of concepts of agency and of causality, none pushes as far toward a productivist/performative account of matter and meaning as does Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism.” Drawing out the implications of Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Barad develops a theory of how “subjects” and “objects” are produced as apparently separable entities by “specific material configurings of the world” which enact “boundaries, properties, and meanings.” And, in her conceptualization, “meaning is not a human-based notion; rather meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility...Intelligibility is not an inherent characteristic of humans but a feature of the world in its differential becoming. The world articulates itself differently...[H]uman concepts or experimental practices are not foundational to the nature of phenomena. ” The world is immanently real and matter immanently materializes.
At first glance, this posthumanist understanding of reality seems consistent with Arendt’s own critique of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics and her understanding of the implicitly conditioned nature of human existence. “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.” Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between them. For Barad, “world” is not Arendt’s humanly built habitat, the domain of homo faber (which does not necessarily entail mastery of nature, but always involves a certain amount of violence done to nature, even to the point of “degrading nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity.” (H.C., p. 156, emphasis added.) “World” is matter, the physical, ever-changing reality of an inherently active, “larger material configuration of the world and it ongoing open-ended articulation.” Or is it?
Since this world is made demonstrably real or determinate only through the design of the right experiment to measure the effects of, or marks on, bodies, or “measuring agencies” (such as a photographic plate) made or produced by “measured objects” (such as electrons), the physical nature of this reality becomes an effect of the experiment itself. Despite the fact that Barad insists that “phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence” and that technoscientific practices merely manifest “an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena” (p. 361), the importance of the well-crafted scientific experiment to establishing the fact of matter looms large.
Why worry about the experiment as the basis for determining the nature of nature, including so-called “human nature? For Arendt, the answer was clear: “The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared imagine...unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself has created...[A] universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation...With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought.”
The transcendence of representationalism does not trouble Barad, who sees “representation” as a process of reflection or mirroring hopelessly entangled with an outmoded “geometrical optics of externality.” But for Arendt, appearance matters, and not in the sense that a subject discloses some inner core of being through her speaking and doing, but in the sense that what is given to the senses of perception—and not just to the sense of vision—is the basis for constructing a world in common. The loss of this “sensually given world” found its monstrous enactment in the world of the extermination camps, which Arendt saw as “special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
If there is a residual humanism in Arendt’s theorizing it is not the simplistic anthropocentrism, which takes “man as the measure of all things,” a position she implicitly rejects, especially in her critique of instrumentalism. Rather, she insists that “the modes of human cognition [science among them] applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?” (H.C., p. 11, emphasis in the original) And then there is the question of responsibility.
We may be unable to control the effects of the actions we set in motion, or, in Barad’s words, “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails.”
But no undifferentiated assignation of agency to matter, or material sedimentations of the past “ingrained in the body’s becoming” can release us humans from the differential burden of consciousness and memory that is attached to something we call the practice of judgment. And no appeal to an “ethical call...written into the very matter of all being and becoming” will settle the question of judgment, of what is to be done. There may be no place to detach ourselves from responsibility, but how to act in the face of it is by no means given by the fact of entanglement itself. What if “everything is possible.”?
-Kathleen B. Jones
In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:
Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.
Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.
Scientists may be surprised that animals can remember things or use tools to accomplish tasks, but any one raised on children’s tales of Lassie or Black Beauty knows this well, as does anyone whose pet dog opened a door knob, brought them a newspaper, or barked at intruders. The problem these studies address is less our societal view of animals than the overly reductive view of animals that de Waal attributes to his fellow scientists. It’s hard to take these studies seriously as evidence that animals think in the way that humans do.
Seemingly more interesting are experiments with self-recognition and also facial recognition. De Waal describes one Asian Elephant who stood in front of a mirror and “repeatedly rubbed a white cross on her forehead.” Apparently the elephant recognized the image in the mirror as herself. In another experiment, chimpanzees were able to recognize which pictures of chimpanzees were from their own species. Like my childhood Labrador who used to stare knowingly into the mirror, these studies confirm that animals are able to recognize themselves. This means that animals do, likely, understand that they are selves.
For de Waal, these studies have started to upend a view of humankind's unique place in the universe that dates back at least to ancient Greece. “Science,” he writes, “keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.”
The flattening of the distinction between animals and humans is to be celebrated, De Waal argues, and not feared. He writes:
Aristotle's ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.
DeWaal has long championed the intelligence of animals, and now his vision is gaining momentum. This week, in a long essay called “One of Us” in the new Lapham’s Quarterly on animals, the glorious essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan begins with this description of similar studies to the ones DeWaal writes about:
These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”
With nuance and subtlety, Sullivan understands that our tradition has not drawn the boundary between human and animal nearly as securely as de Waal portrays it. Throughout human existence, humans and animals have been conjoined in the human imagination. Sullivan writes that the most consistent “motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago,” is the focus on “animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear.” In these paintings and sculptures, our ancestors gave form to a basic intuition: “Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom.”
Religious history too is replete with evidence of the human recognition of the dignity of animals. God says in Isaiah that the beasts will honor him and St. Francis, the namesake of the new Pope, is famous for preaching to birds. What is more, we are told that God cares about the deaths of animals.
“In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29.
What changed and interrupted the ancient and deeply human appreciation of our kinship with besouled animals? Sullivan’s answer is René Descartes. The modern depreciation of animals, Sullivan writes,
proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants.
Too easy, however, is the move to say that the modern comprehension of the difference between animal and human proceeds from a mechanistic view of animals. We live at a time of the animal rights movement. Around the world, societies exist and thrive whose mission is to prevent cruelty toward and to protect animals. Yes, factory farms treat chickens and pigs as organic mechanisms for the production of meat, but these farms co-exist with active and quite successful movements calling for humane standards in food production. Whatever the power of Cartesian mechanics, its success is at odds with the persistence of the religious, ancient solidarity, and also deeply modern sympathy between human and animal.
A more meaningful account of the modern attitude towards animals might be found in Spinoza. Spinoza, as Sullivan quotes him, recognizes that animals feel in ways that Descartes did not. As do animal rights activists, Spinoza admits what is obvious: that animals feel pain, show emotion, and have desires. And yet, Spinoza maintains a distinction between human and animal—one grounded not in emotion or feeling, but in human nature. In his Ethics, he writes:
Hence it follows that the emotions of the animals which are called irrational…only differ from man’s emotions to the extent that brute nature differs from human nature. Horse and man are alike carried away by the desire of procreation, but the desire of the former is equine, the desire of the latter is human…Thus, although each individual lives content and rejoices in that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being, yet the life, wherein each is content and rejoices, is nothing else but the idea, or soul, of the said individual…It follows from the foregoing proposition that there is no small difference between the joy which actuates, say, a drunkard, and the joy possessed by a philosopher.
Spinoza argues against the law prohibiting slaughter of animals—it is “founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason”—because humans are more powerful than animals. Here is how he defends the slaughter of animals:
The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours.
Spinoza’s point is quite simple: Of course animals feel and of course they are intelligent. Who could doubt such a thing? But they are not human. That is clear too. While we humans may care for and even love our pets, we recognize the difference between a dog and a human. And we will, in the end, associate more with our fellow humans than with dogs and porpoises. Finally, we humans will use animals when they serve our purposes. And this is ok, because have the power to do so.
Is Spinoza arguing that might makes right? Surely not in the realm of law amongst fellow humans. But he is insisting that we recognize that for us humans, there is something about being human that is different and, even, higher and more important. Spinoza couches his argument in the language of natural right, but what he is saying is that we must recognize that there are important differences between animals and humans.
At a time that values equality over what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “pathos of difference,” the valuation of human beings over animals is ever more in doubt. This comes home clearly in a story told recently by General Stanley McChrystal, about a soldier who expressed sympathy for some dogs killed in a raid in Iraq. McChrystal responded, severely: “"Seven enemy were killed on that target last night. Seven humans. Are you telling me you're more concerned about the dog than the people that died? The car fell silent again. "Hey listen," I said. "Don't lose your humanity in this thing."” Many, no doubt, are more concerned, or at least are equally concerned, about the deaths of animals as they are about the deaths of humans. There is ever-increasing discomfort about McChrystal’s common sense affirmation of Spinoza’s claim that human beings simply are of more worth than animals.
The distinctions upon which the moral sense of human distinction is based are foundering. For DeWaal and Sullivan, the danger today is that we continue to insist on differences between animals and humans—differences that we don’t fully understand. The consequences of their openness to the humanization of animals, however, is undoubtedly the animalization of humans. The danger that we humans lose sight of what distinguishes us from animals is much more significant than the possibility that we underestimate animal intelligence.
I fully agree with DeWaal and Sullivan that there is a symphony of intelligence in the world, much of it not human. And yes, we should have proper respect for our ignorance. But all the experiments in the world do little to alter the basic facts, that no matter how intelligent and feeling and even conscious animals may be, humans and animals are different.
What is the quality of that difference? It is difficult to say and may never be fully articulated in propositional form. On one level it is this: Simply to live, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a human life. In other words, human life is not simply about living. Nor is it about doing tasks or even being conscious of ourselves as humans. It is about living meaningfully. There may, of course, be some animals that can create worlds of meaning—worlds that we have not yet discovered. But their worlds are not the worlds to which we humans aspire.
Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. Man, Sophocles tells us, can travel over water and tame animals, using them to plough fields. He can invent speech, and institute governments that bring humans together to form lasting institutions. As an inventor and maker of his world, this wonder that is man terrifyingly carries the seeds of his destruction. As he invents and comes to control his world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the chorus sings: “Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.” If man so tames the earth as to free himself from uncertainty, what then is left of human being?
Sophocles knew that man could be a terror; but he also glorified the wonder that man is. He knew that what separates us humans from animals is our capacity to alter the earth and our natural environment. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, “separates human existence from all mere animal environment…” Not only by building houses and erecting dams—animals can do those things and more—but also by telling stories and building political communities that give to man a humanly created world in which he lives. If all we did as humans was live or build things on earth, we would not be human.
To be human means that we can destroy all living matter on the Earth. We can even today destroy the earth itself. Whether we do so or not, it now means that to live on Earth today is a “Choice” that we make, not a matter of fate or chance. Our Earth, although we did not create it, is now something we humans can decide to sustain or destroy. In this sense, it is a human creation. No other animal has such a potential or such a responsibility.
There is a deep desire today to flee from that awesome and increasingly unbearable human responsibility. We flee, therefore, our humanity and take solace in the view that we are just one amongst the many animals in the world. We see this reductionism above all in human rights discourse. One core demand of human rights—that men and women have a right to live and not be killed—brought about a shift in the idea of humanity from logos to life. The rise of a politics of life—the political demand that governments limit freedoms and regulate populations in order to protect and facilitate their citizens’ ability to live in comfort—has pushed the animality, the “life,” of human beings to the center of political and ethical activity. In embracing a politics of life over a politics of the meaningful life, human rights rejects the distinctive dignity of human rationality and works to reduce humanity to its animality.
Hannah Arendt saw human rights as dangerous precisely because they risked confusing the meaning of human worldliness with the existence of mere animal life. For Arendt, human beings are the beings who build and live in a political world, by which she means the stories, institutions, and achievements that mark the glory and agony of humanity. To be human, she insists, is more than simply living, laboring, working, acting, and thinking. It is to do all of these activities in such a way as to create, together, a common life amongst a plurality of persons.
I fear that the interest in animal consciousness today is less a result of scientific proof that animals are human than it is an increasing discomfort with the world we humans have built. A first step in responding to such discomfort, however, is a reaffirmation of our humanity and our human responsibility. There is no better way to begin that process than in engaging with a very human response to the question of our animality. Towards that end, I commend to you “One of Us,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
"Heidegger is wrong: man is not “thrown” “in the world;” if we are thrown, then – no differently from animals – onto the earth. Man is precisely guided, not thrown, precisely for that reason his continuity arises and the way he belongs appears. Poor us, if we are thrown into the world!"
"Heidegger hat unrecht: “in die Welt” ist der Mensch nicht “geworfen;” wenn wir geworfen sind, so – nicht anders als die Tiere – auf die Erde. In die Welt gerade wird der Mensch geleitet, nicht geworfen, da gerade stellt sich seine Kontinuität her und offenbart seine Zugehörigkeit. Wehe uns, wenn wir in die Welt geworfen werden!"
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Notebook 21, Section 68, August, 1955
Hannah Arendt follows her teacher Martin Heidegger in casting the classical philosophical question of the relation of the one and the many as the relationship between the individual and the world. Like the early Heidegger, she emphasizes the future, but she more frequently combines conceptual and narrative explication. For Arendt, freedom is at stake, the freedom of plural humanity that can call on, but cannot be reduced to, guiding ideas of tradition or authority. Yet while she consistently defends freedom through action that cannot be tied to the logic of the past or an assumed goal in the future, her thinking has both a moment of freedom and concern with connection to the past.
In Being and Time, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) offers a conceptual hinge between a limitation and expansion of freedom. On the one hand, the thrown “Dasein” cannot choose to come into the world, much less into a particular world. On the other hand, once situated in a field of relations, possibilities open that allow Dasein to fashion a sense of the future and self-knowledge.
Arendt can be seen to ask how exactly we are to recognize the original condition of being thrown in such a way that new possibilities open up. Her objection to Heidegger in the passage above takes a subtle linguistic path that shows how her method of reading inflects her philosophical ideas. Rather than holding exclusively to the conceptual development of “thrownness,” she offers a terminological challenge. She says that man is only thrown into the natural “earth,” not the humanly-made “world.” In inserting this distinction between the earth and the world, she reads “geworfen” not abstractly as “thrown,” but concretely, implying that she has in mind a second use of the German verb "werfen:" to refer to animals giving birth.
Arendt wants to leave the merely animal behind. The German verb “leiten” that I have translated here as “guided” could also mean to direct, to conduct, to lead, to govern. Thinking ahead to Arendt’s writing on education, I hear a connection to “begleiten,” which means to accompany. The guiding that one receives gives a sense of continuing and belonging to a greater world. Heidegger insists that Dasein does not choose to be thrown into a specific world, we are born without our choice or input. For Arendt, this is our earthliness and she emphasizes the difference between the human world and the given earth. With respect to the world, she highlights the connection to others from the start. Since others exist before the entrance of the newcomer, we also assume responsibility for their entry to the world. One must be educated into the world, which is not simply the earth, but the humanly constructed edifice that includes history and memory and the polis.
Dana Villa and Peg Birmingham suggest that Arendt replaces Heidegger’s “geworfen” with “geboren” (“thrown” with “born”). The passage from the Thought Diary above shows the complexity of this substitution and that it only works by changing the context to the world rather than earth. However, while the quote shows that Arendt relegates Heidegger’s thrownness to the realm of the earth and body, her own idea of “natality” brings the body back to her thinking of freedom. Being born is very important for Arendt, but not in Heidegger’s sense. If "werfen" can refer to animals giving birth, Arendt works out a specific way in which humans are born, one that emphasizes a liberating break from the earth. Humans, as Arendt will say in The Human Condition, are born with the ability to start something completely new.
I think Arendt would say that we are always guided in a certain way. This leads us to ask if today we are making a choice as a society to abdicate explicit reflection and responsibility regarding the terms of guidance, either by “outsourcing” these decisions to experts or assuming that individuals can still make rational choices in the face of corporations and institutions that carefully take advantage of cognitive limitations. In other words: In what ways are people guided into the world that we do not think about, and how could reflection help us here?
On the other hand, the note ends with an existential lament that reminds us of the Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin’s “weh mir” (“poor me”). After noting how she thinks Heidegger is wrong to see us thrown into the world, Arendt returns us to his despair; but the despair she imagines arises insofar as we are thrown into the world—which would mean that we lose the world as a humanly built home.
“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands...Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship...But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse...The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”
-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24
As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”
Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.
When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result...is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”
But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner--‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle...in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life--those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.
Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.
When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal...mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’--as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”
A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost...I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself--free like a leaf in the wind...And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere...Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten--And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’--In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”
“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
The atmosphere around the Hannah Arendt Center this week has been jovial yet intense. Ten Arendt scholars have gathered to read closely Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, loosely translated as her "Book of Thoughts." We meet every day for two sessions, each 150 minutes, with no breaks.
One participant leads a discussion about a selection of the book. The sessions have been riveting. The plan is to bring out a book that collects essays based on these presentations. It will be called Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch. We hope it will appear around the time that the English translation of Arendt's Denktagebuch is published.
The Denktagebuch is a "unique artifact," as one participant put it during our opening dinner. It is comprised of two, thick, beautifully rendered, hardcover volumes that together contain over 1,200 pages. It is not really a book, but is comprised of individual entries that Arendt wrote down in 28 notebooks over 23 years from 1950-1973. The entries are chronologically arranged (except for a thematically organized final book containing Arendt's notes on Immanuel Kant's thinking about judgment). The whole, masterfully edited by Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, contains extensive scholarly apparatus at the back.
One question we have asked is how to read the Denktagebuch. Some participants have chosen a particular chronological period and sought relationships and associations amongst Arendt's entries. Others identified recurring themes that Arendt returns to over the years, such as the relation between truth and metaphor, Kant's theory of judgment, and the connection between action and thinking. A few of our sessions have used the Denktagebuch to elucidate passages from Arendt's published work—this is especially fruitful since a full 500 pages of the Denktagebuch reflect entries from 1950-1954, the time when Arendt was at work on The Human Condition. Some excavated ideas are largely absent from the published work but vividly present in the Denktagebuch—for example love, reconciliation, and grammar. Finally, we have tried reading the Denktagebuch as a proper book, namely as a book of short aphorisms or poems, each standing on its own and yet fitting into the totality that is Arendt's thinking.
The origin of the Denktagebuch is interesting in itself. Arendt traveled to Germany in the winter of 1949-50 as the director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her mission was to search for Jewish ceremonial objects and, mainly, for Jewish books. The Commission recovered 1.5 million Jewish books under Arendt's leadership, part of what Leon Wieseltier calls "a campaign for the re-capture of a people’s dignity." During her visit, Arendt wrote "The Aftermath of Nazi-Rule. Report from Germany,“ which was published in Commentary. Also while in Germany, Arendt visited her old teacher, mentor, and lover, Martin Heidegger.
We know from Arendt's correspondence with Heidegger that they spoke at length about language, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and served for about one year as Rector of Freiburg University. He abandoned many of his Jewish friends and colleagues and promoted a philosophical version of Nazism before he resigned in 1934. The Heidegger case is complicated and controversial. Heidegger was a Nazi, but what kind of Nazi he was is not a simple question; there is no better account of the complexity of Heidegger's Nazism than Tracy Strong's powerful and nuanced retelling of the affair in his recent book Politics Without Vision.
In the 1940's Arendt was deeply critical of Heidegger. Her visit in 1950 provided an opportunity to think through her proper response to his activities. Shortly after her return to New York City in March1950, Arendt received a letter from Heidegger (along with some love poems) that read, in part:
I am happy for you that you are surrounded by your books again. The line with “the burden of the logs” is in “Ripe and dipped in Fire”—around the same time you probably wrote it [presumably a lost letter—RB], I had been thinking about the burden of logs.
The reference is to a poem “Reif Sind” by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem is about memory, the past, and the question of whether to recall the past or to live in the present. One of the poem's central images is of the burden of logs that one carries on one's shoulders.
Shortly after Arendt receives Heidegger's letter, she begins her Denktagebuch, with the opening line:
The wrong that one has done is the burden on one’s shoulders, something that one bears because he has laden it upon himself.
That Arendt would initiate her book of thoughts with a meditation on the burden of past wrongs is not surprising. After all, she had recently finished the manuscript for The Origins of Totalitarianism—originally entitled The Burden of Our Times—which explored not simply the elements of totalitarianism, but more importantly the burden that such a past, a recent past, places on people in the present day: to comprehend and come to terms with what men had done as well as to acknowledge what any of us is capable of doing again. And, of course, she had just returned from a reunion with her past in Germany and Heidegger. The past is this burden that we bear on our shoulders, and Arendt begins her Denktagebuch with a reflection that is at once personal and yet also deeply abstract and universal.
The question of how to respond to the burden of wrongful deeds is woven through Arendt's writing. What is fascinating is that in the first pages of the Denktagebuch and then throughout the 1,200 pages, Arendt continues to think about the response to wrongs as a kind of reconciliation. This is surprising because reconciliation is not an idea prevalent in much of Arendt's published work.
In an article published last year, I explore the meaning and sense of reconciliation in Arendt's thinking. In it, I argue,
By focusing on Arendt's discussion of acts of reconciliation and also of non-reconciliation—her response to her reunion with Martin Heidegger in 1950, her judgment of the impossibility of reconciling oneself to Adolf Eichmann, her account of Jesus' forgiving and not-forgiving of petty and colossal crimes in the Gospel of Luke, and her reconciliation to life after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher—I show how Arendt places the judgment for or against reconciliation at the center of political action. Above all, I argue that the question—"Ought I to reconcile myself to the world?"—is, for Arendt, the pressing political question in our age.
There are not many articles published on the Denktagebuch in English. My article, focusing on the first seven pages of Arendt's notebooks, offers a glimpse into one way the Denktagebuch can help expand and enrich our reading of Arendt. You'll have to wait a bit for the book Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch, but for now you can read "Bearing Logs on Our Shoulders: Reconciliation, Non-Reconciliation, and the Building of a Common World."
You can also read this account of the Denktagebuch by Sigrid Weigel, at Telos (payment required).
You can also watch a video of Ursula Ludz discussing editing Arendt's work here, from a talk she gave in 2010 at the Hannah Arendt Center.
Cultural memory is a concept – albeit in vogue always in periods of amnesia – that is deeply intertwined with identity. The link between the two is something as simple as what Agnes Heller observed in 2001: “Without shared cultural memory there is no identity”.
She says elsewhere in “Cultural Memory, Identity and Civil Society”: “Cultural memory is rather embodied in objectivations which store meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by a group of people who take them for granted.”
Heller makes the argument that civil society has no cultural memory. The explanation is plausible and clear: Civil society is a heterogeneous mosaic of sometimes conflicting cultural memories and activities or institutions that are in no need of cultural memory.
Civil society – unlike the old community – can smoothly operate through clashes of interest and cooperation limited to short term future and without utopia. The question of identity then is nowhere raised with more rigor than when the cultural memory is challenged.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) remains a textbook case of this challenge. My contention is that the preoccupation with the actual content of the Lebanese identity arose only when the shared cultural memory – once taken for the granted – was eroded through the war.
Of course many would challenge this view arguing that the ground was fertile for the war since the 1860’s under Ottoman rule and that only intensified in the years leading into the war. But in the realm of history, as moderns know well, theory is but a realm of consolations.
Every postwar society is faced with the enormous challenge of re-writing its own history and this is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars in which different cultural memories, often hostile to teach other share a legacy that came to them without a testament.
Over twenty years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War – in which neighboring countries, Western powers and Israel were at some point involved – the actual challenge of the memory in general remains a tense battleground of ideological and political conflict.
It is precisely this challenge that the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” has come to tackle: An open archive of Lebanese memory throughout the war years that aimed to confront the public with narratives about the war other than their own.
A number of key dates of the civil war were selected and front pages of the newspapers An-Nahar and As-Safir reprinted and juxtaposed in large displays. The public was encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding their own footnotes to the articles in post-it notes.
An interesting article published in NOW Lebanon has pointed out how the exhibit – organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in partnership with Danish Rakidal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) – has gone where few others have:
While plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves.
The question of post-war reconciliation brings up a number of issues that were addressed in a dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida established by Cláudia Perrone-Moisés in her “Forgiveness and Crimes Against Humanity: A Dialogue between Hannah Arendt & Jacques Derrida”, providing us with a framework to understand why initiatives like “Another Memory” are issues of the first order of relevance for Lebanon and any post-war society.
Derrida’s argument on forgiveness is that in the “globalized” market of human suffering that emerged after the horrors of the world wars, it is institutions and governments who are asking for forgiveness.
In this sense the spectacle of forgiveness is nothing but a simulacrum and he brings up the example of a South African woman whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured, who, before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, said: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Perhaps only I could do it. But I am not ready to forgive.”
Derrida and Arendt agree that forgiveness has the power to interrupt the flow of events and to create new beginnings – a paradox of cultural memory: how to begin anew with and in spite of the past?
But they differ in that what for Derrida is an essentially divine gesture, for Arendt remains a purely human experience.
Yet to forgive the unforgivable (and here we are dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity) it seems, is something that remains outside the limits of the law, and this is what the poet W.H. Auden articulates in a letter to Arendt: “The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged; only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish”.
Arendt replies to Auden saying that he’s right (and she was wrong) in that punishment is only an alternative to judicial pardon, but that accordingly, not everything is punishable. Derrida stays here at the level of forgiveness merely in the service of noble or spiritual ends.
Hannah Arendt goes further to establish a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: In her journal entries from June 1950 – at a time when she was probably still working on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – she writes that “forgiveness and revenge are a unity of opposites that correspond to each other”.
According to her, forgiving takes place only among those who are “infinitely unequal” and that the mere act of forgiveness actually destroys the human relationship:
“Forgiveness, or what is normally understood as such, is in reality only an apparent success; in it one takes a higher ground and the other demands something that men cannot grant each other… Reconciliation instead has its origin in being averted with the mission that has been given to us.”
Reconciliation – beyond forgiveness and judicial pardon – isn’t based on the understanding that I could have done this as well, a quintessentially religious mistrust of human nature, but on the acute realization that “this should have never happened”.
Forgiveness breaks the relationship in its adamant refusal to share the burden for what has happened and rather prefers to “look the other way”. Arendt better articulated this several years later:
This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty per excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
What “Another Memory” tried to do – even though it was open only from May 12th to 14th and with a rather limited attendance – was to open the vaults of memory not in order to sit in judgment but the afford the possibility of the antinomies in cultural memories; those probably are not to be overcome but rather accepted and understood. It is a facing up and resisting of reality.
Its enormous success in rehabilitating the public sphere isn’t necessarily something quantitative but the sheer quality of opening a space in which the past isn’t closed off – as the many postwar courts and tribunals often assume in many countries the world over.
It was a space of hope without promise since promises can only be delivered between one man and another; the living proof of what Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui remarked to me in a conversation:
For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.
(*) Hannah Arendt’s “Denktagebuch” is not translated into English. Excerpts above I translated from the original German. Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my own. For an essay on Arendt's idea of reconciliation as opposed to revenge and forgiveness, click here.
“…poetically speaking, [history’s] beginning lies…in the moment when Ulysses, at the court of the king of the Phaeacians, listened to the story of his own deeds and sufferings, to the story of his life, now a thing outside itself, an ‘object’ for all to see and to hear. What had been sheer occurrence now became ‘history.’” (“The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future, 1977, p. 45)
In the middle of text describing history as a project of historians and poets to memorialize the great deeds of actors so that these deeds can “remain in the company of the things that last forever" (p. 48), this quote about Ulysses seems out of place. It suggests that history has its origins not in the potential greatness of action, but in the almost private moment of hearing about and confronting one’s own deeds. Arendt describes this moment when Ulysses hears the story of his own life as a moment of “reconciliation with reality,” which moves Ulysses deeply (p. 45). Here, history has little to do with the greatness of his actions: Ulysses is not moved because he finds his actions glorious and worthy of eternal existence. In fact, the character of the deeds is irrelevant to Ulysses, for with respect to these deeds, he is at once “listener, actor, and sufferer” and therefore has no “curiosity” about them, nor does he have any “lust for information” (Ibid.).
Arendt’s description of the origins of history as the actor’s confrontation with his own acts is ever more puzzling because one of her main points about action and history is that the actor himself can neither realize the completion of his actions nor comprehend their significance. She writes, “…the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end, frequently when all the participants are dead” (The Human Condition, p. 192). Yet here, the founding moment of history is not the moment that others listen to the story of Ulysses’ deeds and give them meaning as a part of human history, but rather the moment that Ulysses himself hears it.
How is it that history’s origin lies in this moment when the actor confronts his own deeds? And what exactly is the reality which history forces us to reconcile ourselves to during this confrontation?
I submit that the reality Ulysses confronted in listening to the story of his deeds as an “object” outside of himself, then solidifies his presence in the everlasting timeline of history. This reconciliation is an acceptance of the fact that one is visible to all others in the world and that the world’s history—the character of its immortal existence—while not entirely a product of one’s own making, finds its origins in one’s own self and actions.
To tell a history of the world as a story of human presence, the individual as actor must give way to the individual as historian. The historian is not only an actor, but also an audience to his actions. In confronting his deeds as a part of the narrative of history, the historian appreciates that the innumerable stories that describe the world are nothing more than singular moments of the lives and actions of individuals, himself included.
Confronting this reality of one’s presence in the story of the world is not about recognizing our own greatness, be it potential or actual. In fact, when confronted with such reality, greatness becomes an external object, no longer within our control or part of our powers. It is only when viewing his greatness through a filter of detachment, that Ulysses’ deeds could move, rather than just bore him.
Reconciling ourselves to a reality in which individual human beings are its sole creative agents imposes on us a heavy responsibility.
And it should temper too great a commitment to, and love for, ourselves as actors whose potential freedom and power are boundless in their miraculous natality. History is a story not just of our greatness, but of our selves. It ensures that there is always a name and a face attached to actions. Ulysses could not help but be moved in the face of a world that, even in its vastness, appears to him as his own. He is moved—and a bit frightened—by the realization that what he does is constitutive of the reality in which he and everyone else must live.
What it is to live in a world whose history does not reflect a mirror of individual existence is dramatically illustrated in the totalitarian regime’s notion of historical progress. The Nazi and Soviet regimes conceived of history as a product of “Nature,” an inevitable progression of events in which individuals could, at most, enact a series of events whose meaning has already been determined. Totalitarian consistency requires that the past flow inexorably into the future, without any gaps created by individuals which might distract from its course. Totalitarian history thus goes beyond the dehumanization of turning men into “functionaries and mere cogs” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 289) and erases individual human presence indiscriminately and completely. History as a story of Nature might support a world of actors, but it cannot support a world of historians. And it is only as historians that we can create a space for ourselves, and not just our actions, in the world.