Welcome to the second installment of a new series I’m starting called “Philosopher Fridays“. The purpose of this series is not to give a comprehensive overview of any particular thinker, but rather to explain what I find compelling in the work of each, particularly as it informs my view of narrative, language, images, storytelling, and reason. Last week, I covered Averroes. This week and next, I’ll be covering Hannah Arendt in two parts. In Part One I’ll lay out a general background, and then in Part Two, I will offer my commentary.
ARENDT: Hannah Arendt, a German-American political philosopher, lived from 1906-1975. After studying Augustinian thought (among other topics), Arendt fled from Germany to Paris in 1933 to work with Jewish refugee organizations, and then in 1941 emigrated to the United States. Her problematic relationship with Heidegger and her highly polarizing work Eichmann in Jerusalem aside, her philosophical thought is clear, systematic, and incredibly astute. For a thorough summary of her work, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is excellent. For a brief glimpse at what I find most compelling about her work, stick around here.
What stands out most to me is her work in The Human Condition. It presents not only a way to understand human behavior, but also provides an antidote to the Western philosophical world’s hyper focus on death and, more than that, our desire for deathlessness. Instead of contemplating our mortality, Arendt suggests we focus on natality – on the fact that we have been born as new beings in individual bodies with utterly unique personalities.
That’s why she speaks of the human condition, rather than human nature. Unlike most animals, humans are not slaves to our instincts. According to Arendt, we can change ourselves and be changed by our conditions in a way that renders it impossible for us to discern a clear starting natural essence, if one in fact does exist as anything more than a capacity. Human beings, she says, are utterly unique individuals in a way that other animals are not. Our natural essence is, essentially, that we have no essence.
And because of this, says Arendt, we are also uniquely mortal. When other animals, those who live by natural instinct, die, another one of the same species will come along and do the exact same thing, lending the species in general a sort of cyclical immortality. In contrast, every single human could potentially leave a lasting impact. Humans chart a rectilinear course with a start and an end, and as such carry a unique capacity to die. Humans, unlike other animal species, are properly mortal.
And so humans have a unique reason to leave a lasting impression. The causality here is a little difficult to parse, but it’s somewhat reciprocal – because we are able to leave a lasting impression, we have a desire to do so. We create things by changing natural objects into semi-permanent artifacts. We don’t stop at just maintaining our species, we grow. As the captain of the space ship in Wall-E says: “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!”
Beyond the creation of artifacts, we engage in politics, art, and philosophy. We introduce ideas into the world that change it, by conquering other nations, doing heroic things, making mathematical discoveries, and more. For Arendt, this breaks into three levels of activity: labor, work, and action.
Labor activities are those which keeps us alive: eating, fetching water, gathering food, cleaning, birthing, nurturing, and raising children. These are ubiquitous activities that everyone must do (or have done for them in some way), including all animals. These are the activities that keep a species going cyclically, and so need to repeated infinitely. Labor is the lowest common denominator – everyone needs food and shelter to survive. Every species needs to reproduce.
Work is what sets human apart. Arendt says it is “an unnatural” thing to do, because it takes materials from nature and actively changes them so that they create a lasting product. A lot of these products exist to facilitate easier labor, but the impact is that through work, humans are able to create things that have existence beyond their makers. It’s a way to extend influence and be, however slightly, closer to immortality.
Action is the highest level of human activity. It is predicated upon a plurality that is only possible for humans in our individuality. Action happens in the polus when we do things that set us apart from the crowd and making real change in the world. It’s the realm of fame and infamy wherein we earn earthly immortality. It is through action that the exploits of Achilles and the words of Shakespeare and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci live on in our memory, for good or ill. It is the highest level of human activity, the only activity through which our earthly lives might attain some kind of permanence.
But action is, in some ways, the most fragile of the three levels. It requires someone to do some work in order for people to remember. Someone needs to record the history or a build a monument. No one would remember the words of Socrates without the work of Plato. Beyond that, it requires that labor needs are met. What these three levels show, for Arendt, is the importance of our bodies and our lived experience. If we only chase the glory of Action, we might end up neglecting or devaluing labor. The highest politicians are dependent upon their constituents, and so the power of action is not what it seems, as it has no meaning without the lower activities.
According to Arendt, this fragility lead thinkers to look beyond Action, and beyond the activities of life. In search of freedom, philosophers and theologians looked instead to the Contemplative realm for freedom from human mortality.
In next week’s post, I’ll continue to work with Arendt, returning to the concepts of Contemplation, Natality, and Mortality, and I’ll also explain why these concepts are so important to me, both as a person, and as a writer. Until then!