By N.A.J. Taylor[i]
“The horror that swept over mankind when it learned about the first atomic bomb was a horror of an energy that came from the universe and is supernatural in the truest sense of the word. The scope of the devastation to buildings and boulevards, even the number of human lives destroyed, was relevant only because, in unleashing death and destruction on so vast a scale, this newly discovered source of energy had eerily impressive symbolic power from the very moment of its birth.”
-- Hannah Arendt (2007b, 1977), The Promise of Politics
Although Arendt wrote relatively very little on the nuclear age, we know from her earlier writings what she thought about the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. From such disparate references to the nuclear age, a strikingly simple yet prescient idea emerges that arguably bears more resemblance to Eastern cosmology than any Western tradition: the human condition must be properly understood as being co-constituted and mutually implicated in the cosmos.
‘This child, this in-between to which the lovers are now related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.’
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
What can we know about Arendtian action? In The Human Condition, Arendt tells us, variously, that it belongs to the public sphere, “the space of appearance”, that it takes place between political equals, and that it is “ontologically rooted” in “the fact of natality”. “Natality”, here, is not the same as birth, though it relies on the fact of birth for its conceptual understanding. Natality is the distinctly human capacity to bring forth the new, the radical, the unprecedented: that which is unaccountable by any natural causality, but the fact that we must recourse to the patterns of the natural world in order to explain it is what interests me here.
When we try to fix a notion of Arendtian action, it becomes clear that speech has an important role to play, though the precise relationship between speech and action is a slippery one. Actions are defined in speech, becoming recognisable as actions only when they have been placed in narrative, that is: regarded with “the backward glance of the historian”. At the same time, most actions “are performed in the manner of speech”. Speech is rendered as the revelatory tool of action, but, further to this, both action and speech share a number of key characteristics so that it is impossible to fully disentangle the one from the other.
A moment of possible illumination arrives under the heading “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive”. For Arendt, action has no end. It contains within it the potential to produce an endless chain of reactions that are both unforeseeable and irreversible. With such terrifying momentum attached to everything we do, forgiveness is our release from the consequences of what we have done, without which “our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover”. In this context, forgiveness is always radical. It is the beginning of the possibility of the new: “… the act of forgiving can never be predicted, it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action”.
What’s more, forgiveness is personal, though not necessarily individual or private. It is, traditionally, connected to love, which Arendt describes as unworldly, indeed: “the most powerful of all anti-political human forces”. In the image of the lovers’ child, the child is used to represent the possibility of forgiveness, that is made representative of the world in its ability to join and divide.
Ultimately, it is not love that Arendt places in relation to forgiveness, it is a distant respect that can only occur “without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us”. Yet, in this moment in the text, Arendt leans upon an image of the unworldly in order to pull from it the particular activities of the world. It is the ability of action to emerge -- unforeseeable, unprecedented -- that Arendt performs here in language. It is the movement of the imagery that alerts us to the essential quality of action to appear, unexpected, as well as to the fragility of the political realm and its complex array of differences from and interconnections with the private. One need only examine the syntax to understand the dynamic of action that Arendt illustrates here: where a semi-colon would usually indicate two halves of a balanced equation, Arendt uses it as a springboard from which to make a tiger’s leap into the new.
There are a number of things to be gained from a close reading of the linguistic representation of the movement of action, not least in light of the fact that, in writing this book, Arendt is expressing a deep-seated fear that the faculty for action is about to slip away from us entirely. While much ink has been spilled over whether or not the categories and oppositions that arise in The Human Condition can be fully understood in any concrete way, on whether or not they hold, it may be that the apparent slippages in the text are, in fact, our most fruitful way in to understanding the particular dynamics and character of Arendtian action; an understanding that may then be put to some homeopathic use in our own work.
"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.
“Everything that is appears; everything that appears disappears; everything that is alive has an urge to appear; this urge is called vanity; since there is no urge to disappear and disappearance is the law of appearance, the urge, called vanity, is in vain.‘Vanitas vanitatum vanitas’—all is vanity, all is in vain.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, 796
Arendt writes this entry in her Denktagebuch in September 1970. She is 63 years old and long familiar with the law of disappearance. For years the record of her thoughts has been interrupted by mention of the death of friends and mentors: May 1951 “[Hermann] Broch died on 30 May and was buried on 2 June 1951”; February 1969 “Jaspers dies”; November 1968: “Tonight I dreamed of Kurt Blumenfeld… in the dream I didn’t know that he was dead.” The following month the law would bear down again and she would write an entry beginning: “On 31 October Heinrich died…”. Within a little over four years of her husband’s death she would herself be gone.
“Vanitas vanitatum vanitas.” This could be despair. It could be that dreadful thought that forces itself on us in moments of grief and anxiety, the thought that a life’s endeavor has been for naught, that all our achievements have turned out to be worthless. It could be the distress at the Nietzschean reflection that not only must we each die, but this human race and this earth will eventually disappear without trace. Perhaps it is the same as the horror Sophocles savors when he warns us: “Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when man has seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.”
It could also be frustration at the sheer urgency of the desire to rush into full view when thinking is always conducted in darkness and quiet, at a remove from the world. It might be a distaste, for instance, for glib self-promotion that stands in for political action on the part of candidates for public office, or for everything about the modern university that insists that “research” be published prematurely, rendering it hypocritical, superficial and irrelevant (Denktagebuch, 703).
Yet, though her frustration is real, and though she grieves, Arendt uses the word vanity without judgment. A few weeks ago Ian Storey introduced a “Quote of the Week” that came from the same late period of the Denktagebuch, and wrote movingly of the sense of end that suffuses these last entries. (It’s beautiful and touching and well worth your while.) He writes also of the shades of Arendt’s response to our endedness, from bitter sadness to old contentment. In the same way, she reacts to the vanity of our beginnings both with an austere refusal of even the fantasy of immortality and wonder that any of it came to be at all.
After all, no one asks to be born. No one demands to come into the world as if birth were a special favor, a privilege granted to some but not to others. We’re propelled into the light of day before we know it, by an urge that has nothing to do with ego and does not belong to us any more than it belongs to our parents or our species. We share it with everything alive. However, if we think of it as a great surging drive towards life or survival, it threatens to diminish thinking and overwhelm the senses as a great unfathomable force; if we think of it as a drive to appear it produces instead the refinement of difference and the delight of variegation.
In these same years Arendt reads about biology and studies up on the science of genetics. She reads the work of the philosophical zoologist Adolph Portmann whose most remarkable studies concern the vast variety in the size, shape and color of butterflies (The Beauty of Butterflies, 1951). Instead of submitting the phenomenon of this variety—and butterflies make up just one terrifically flamboyant example—to the demands of natural and sexual selection as in the mainstream of evolutionary theory, Portmann identifies an Aristotelian desire to appear. Arendt adds to this an existential claim for recognition and even praise. “All that appears wants to be seen and recognized and praised. The highest form of recognition is love: volu ut sis.—The wonder implies affirmation” (Denktagebuch, 701). The moment our surprise at the color of a butterfly turns into wonder that it should have somehow come to be and come to be precisely this color, we affirm its existence. We could never have called up in imagination all the colors of butterflies’ wings, and no-one could have planned the immense series of mutations and other tiny contingencies that brought them all into existence but, exposed to a small section of their uncalled-for variety, astonished by it, wondering at it, affirming it, we will that it be. This is what it means to love the world.
This love comes as a sort of gratitude, even if we’re not sure whom we should be grateful to. Believers thank the creator god. Arendt may not believe—at least not like that—but she reaches for the word blasphemy and so also for a sense of something sacred that needs protection from profanity. In October 1969 she writes: “The desire for earthly immortality is blasphemous, not because it wants to overcome death, but because it negates birth” (744). The problem is not that we want to play God by refusing to die, but that we balk at making way for a new, different world. From her reading in genetics she knows the role of genetic mutation in the generation of natural variety and the many millions of mistakes that had to happen to produce the living world we see. She has noted Portmann’s bon mot: “One of the surest methods for the regular occurrence of new [genetic] combinations is that peculiar game that biologists call sexuality.” What is sacred, then, is the fact of all those butterfly wings, all the fish scales, animal ears, nose shapes, eye colors, skin tones, smiles that could easily have happened in some other way but that appear to us now, just as they are, the needlessly glamorous and constantly renewed results of contingency.
All vanity, yes, and all in vain, certainly. But praise be.
“What in thinking only occasionally and quasi-metaphorically happens, to retreat from the world of appearances, takes place in aging and dying as an appearance… in this sense thinking is an anticipation of dying (ceasing, ‘to cease to be among men’) just as action in the sense of ‘to make a beginning’ is a repetition of birth.”
-Hannah Arendt, -Denktagebuch, p. 792
One of the wonderful aspects of reading the Denktagebuch is its peculiar intimacy. As with so much of Arendt’s way of thinking about the world, it is a kind of intimacy which is familiar, but unique and strange enough to make us rethink the place of that category in our lives, how we sense it and find it meaningful. The sense of intimacy is present from the very first entry – a long, fluid contemplation of responsiveness and evil written in the wake of her first visit to Germany (and Heidegger) after the war – to the last, when the notebooks trail off into a bare succession of dates and places.
It infuses each echo of her published work with a sense of its interconnection with a hundred fragmentary thoughts, occasions, meditations, and struggles. The Denktagebuch helps renew the liveliness of Arendt’s work as not just a set of arguments, but a profound, rich sensibility, a sensibility in the double sense of a way of sensing what is going on in the world around us, and the dense world-experience of a human, a thinker, a woman, a writer who set herself the gravid task of thinking what we are doing.
Of course, the intimacy found in Arendt’s notebooks was never going to be quite what we usually think of when we use the term. In general, Arendt’s is not a thought that we associate with intimacy. On the contrary, what distinguishes Arendt’s writing, even on the most personal topics, is its resolute publicity, its unwavering concern for what is common, what is shared, and what is political in writing: its specific capacity to make things appear to others. This resolutely public (or perhaps simply political) character to her analysis was a commitment that got her into trouble repeatedly when she moved into topics which were, for her American audience and beyond, violently emotionally charged. A consistent refrain, in the hostile reception of both the Eichmann essays for The New Yorker and “Reflections on Little Rock” in Dissent, was the apparent coldness or withdrawal with which her critics saw her as treating desperately dear subjects. So perhaps it is unsurprising that the peculiar intimacy of the Denktagebuch, even in the time when it was a quasi-private record for her own uses, was what might be called by the paradoxical name of political intimacy, the intimacy specific to what she calls here a “world of appearances.” What can intimacy even mean in a sensibility staunchly committed to rejecting our historical prioritization of the internal (the soul, the mind, the self) over our external lives of appearing to and acting with others?
This passage comes from a section of the Denktagebuch that not only provides an idea of what that form of intimacy might be, but does so in a way that brings out the intimacy already present throughout her work. The 27th notebook is the last substantive one, and it is saturated with thoughts about ends. The two senses of the word in English and German weave in and out of her entries: both purposes – the purposes of thought, of philosophy, of acting, of being in the world – and finality, conclusions, ultimately death itself. At times, there is a deep, almost bitter sadness to the omnipresence of the end in this notebook. She concludes in one entry with Kant’s thoughts in Critique of Judgment about the ends of human life that “no one would go through life again of their own free will.” At other times, there is an old contentment with the prospect of the end, as when she writes that “death is the price we the living pay for having lived. To not want to pay this price, is miserable.” Birth, natality, the human capacity to bring something new into the world was always central to Arendt’s idea of a public and action. Here, death and thought appear together for the first time as the inverse, a retreat initially in mind and then in body from the world in which we write the stories of our lives with others. And the idea of thought as death’s companion, and our companion in the end, gives the first hint of what this uniquely Arendtian intimacy-in-publicity holds.
The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s un-ended work, gives us glimpses of something that comes out even more strongly in the Denktagebuch. In the life-process of Arendt’s thought there seems to be a constant attempt to return to what was put aside, to reckon with, and to a certain extent, redeem the things that at first glance in the earlier works seemed like ideas and practices that were supposed to be the problem or the threat. Her stunning elegies for Heidegger and Brecht – both neither pardon nor disavowal – reflect this process of problematization and partial redemption, turned from the analysis of concepts to telling the stories of lives lost. We should all be so lucky. And so it is here, in the Denktagebuch, in the case of endfulness and end-orientation. In a whole series of the earlier works, this end-orientation was the thing that most threatened what was supposed to be the Arendtian good, whether it was action or culture or the public itself. It was always the baunism of workers (The Human Condition) or philistines (“The Crisis in Culture”) that was the thing that threatened to remove from action and the political life what was peculiar to it. But in this section Arendt returns to the scene to do something like right by ends, to think about whether or not there is a place for endfulness and what that place might be.
In this notebook, thought is the dominion of ends, and the spontaneous, undetermined originality of action and the titanic worldly power of understanding find their end in thought’s retreat from the world’s appearances. Even in her darkest moments of facing the end this is not a tragedy to be mourned: it is simply the price of doing and being and living with others, the inescapable departure point of a world that we enter “confronted with what appears only once, with the sensuously perceptible” (780). After all, as Arendt cautions, action would disappear from the world in the moment of its enactment without being taken up and made a part of our collective story by a process of end-making. This necessary grave of the end gives the Human Condition in particular a different kind of normative bent than we might otherwise read in it – almost an odd kind of Platonism – in which it no longer appears that the natural instrumentality of work threatens everything around it, at least not simply so. Endfulness too has its place, indeed all of these familiar categories (labor, action, the social, the private) in their place are both necessary and productive. It is only those places where the messily amalgamated categories of our living in the world inevitably cross and mix that dangers, but perhaps also possibilities, are produced: every untidy palisade and nook of the shared world in which we can appear to each other.
This is, in the end, the sole place where that uniquely Arendtian sense of intimacy, a political intimacy, can exist. The intimacy of the Denktagebuch, which is no less present in Arendt’s confrontation with totalitarianism and is beautifully echoed in the struggles of those on this site with issues like the punishment of George Zimmerman and the decimations wrought by homophobic schooling systems, is not an intimacy of distilled selves but an intimacy of our selves with our world, an intimacy with what is shared and what forms, for good or for terrible ill, the fabric of what we can experience together. Arendt shows us what it means to be unblinkingly, meaningfully, at times painfully intimate with the human world. To engage in Arendtian politics is to enter into a relationship of intimacy, an intimacy with the terrible and the evil as much as with the beautiful and the good, and to find through that intimacy what we can do and who we can be with each other. And that intimacy, for Arendt, is what makes it possible for us to bear our ends.