Last week, I posted Part One of my Philosopher Friday installment on Hannah Arendt. Part One focused on laying the groundwork for Arendt’s theory of The Human Condition. For Part Two this week, I will be looking at Arendt’s conclusions about life, death, and contemplation and explaining why I keep returning to Arendt again and again.
A brief recap: Arendt’s understanding of the human condition breaks down into three activities: Labor, which consists of repetitive tasks done by everyone in order to survive, Work, wherein humans create semi-permanent objects in order to break out of the cyclicality of labor, and Action, wherein individual humans can transcend mortality by being remembered.
But this remembrance isn’t necessarily satisfying. It depends upon work, and it depends upon labor. When it comes down to it, immortality of this kind is bound to earthly constraints, to bodies, to those things which come to be and pass away. For some, this isn’t enough – it’s too limiting, too dependent, and ultimately, just too materially confining. And so, those seeking freedom from this cyclic futility sought something higher, and found it in Contemplation.
Contemplation happens in the mind; it means turning inward, away from the noise and change and material limitations of the world outside. It’s a place for ideas, simplicity, timelessness, metaphysics, and most of all – the eternal. Immortality, for Arendt, means that we come to be and last in the world of the living. The Eternal is the realm of God, of Plato’s Forms, and of things which always are, never changing, never starting, never ending: being itself. Those who live the Vita Contempliva leave behind their sensations, their appetites, their biases, and even their individuality. Contemplation is transcendence.
And for Arendt, Contemplation is death. It is solitary. It means leaving the world of humanity. To enter into Contemplation is to “cease to be among men”. This happens in three ways:
- It is, quite literally, a temporary death, into which one enters willingly, purposefully, delightedly.
- To focus on contemplation as a highest priority is to devalue not just the body in favor of the mind, but life itself, in favor of death.
- And this causes us to actually make decisions in life that reflect this devaluation, in extreme cases actually causing political oppression and death.
This is the part I can’t stop thinking about. The devaluation of labor and the body is, I think, the source of intersectional oppression, discrimination, colonialism, bias. It’s the reason we pay white collar workers more than blue, why we say that everyone must go to college, devalue the merits of nurturing, dismiss personal experience, and look down on people who focus on sensuous pleasures. Enlightenment means transcending the body, conquering nature, and turning your focus to “higher” things. It’s no accident that a major component of Enlightenment Colonialism, best known for its attempts to build trade infrastructure and create Imperial power, was Missionary. The focus was on death, on saving the immaterial soul, on bending the material world to our will, on stepping outside of the lived experience and taking up a God’s-Eye view. It’s why the act of bringing “civilization” so often involves violence and genocide – one need only look to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for a more thorough explanation.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way – you can disappear into the contemplative realm, and return with the intent to implement your actions. But for many, such a return counts as pandering. You’re not a serious thinker if you look for applicability. You’re not truly civilized if you step down from the realm of contemplation to do work or labor. Here’s where the issue arises for Arendt – when you value the immaterial promise of death for its own sake, you lose respect for life.
I could go on in this direction, but this isn’t a political blog. What matters for me here is the impact this has on writing, creativity, and philosophy. Arendt offers us a powerful critique of metaphysics that devalues lived experience, images, and essentially, that which is common.
It inspires me to focus on life and natality in my philosophical work and my fiction writing as well, looking for wisdom not just in pure logic (though I certainly don’t reject it) but in common, sensory experience as well. To be trite, it helps me appreciate the little things – not just greatness. When I read, I try not to elevate authors and philosophers to the level of deities, but see them in their context, and see their works in conversation. Arendt helps me see both materiality and the metaphysical differently.
While I would hesitate to attribute this to Arendt (though I wouldn’t rule it out), I think there are some significant similarities between the activity of labor and that of contemplation. Mainly, both are depersonalized in some way, humbling the individual to something greater. In labor, we are subsumed by a life-cycle that exceeds us. We’re all bound to its rhythms, no matter how we might try to distance ourselves from them. It is ubiquitous, repetitive, and cyclical, never moving forward, but always starting again.
In contemplation, we are subsumed by eternity, losing our individual selves as we leave behind the materiality by which we become individuated. Ideas, in their purest forms, are simple, meaning not that they are easy, but that they are not bound into complex parts or defined in any particular way. In the timelessness of the contemplative realm there is no forward motion, only discovery of that which has always been and always will be. Contemplation and Labor are two sides of the same coin, and the one that matters most is the one that keeps us alive.