The philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt has certainly to be considered among the America’s most influential twentieth-century intellectuals. Born in Hanover in 1906, she left Germany in 1933 in order to escape persecutions due to her Jewish origins. She was naturalized as an American citizen in 1951, when she gained notoriety thanks to her studies on Hitler and Stalin, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). She later achieved much wider renown in 1962 with Eichmann in Jerusalem, a study on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann that included her concept of “the banality of evil”.
Among the best expressions of a broader perspective of her philosophy lies The Human Condition (1958), published in Italy with the title Vita activa. La condizione umana in 1964. Although the essay is largely enjoyable as a work of political philosophy, H. Arendt develops an insightful analysis of the human condition and she provides a really sharp theory of human potential, from which the central reflection of this time develops:
In a nutshell:
Being human is to do the unexpected, and every birth carries with it the possibility of a changed world.
The perennial relevance of the issues philosophy raises is a well-known fact. It’s a constant sword of Damocles that strikes in those rare moments of solitude and contemplation, moments that yet distinguish us as human beings. Then, untying some points of thought of this brilliant political scientist might be of upcoming usefulness. First of all
WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT CONDITION INSTEAD OF HUMAN NATURE?
H. Arendt perspective differs from the ones of several classical philosophers, because she questions the condition, before than the human nature. Human beings are, actually, conditioned by both biological (vitality, birth rate, mortality) and historical factors (worldliness, plurality).
Nature is essentially an inexorable cycle of life and death, but men were given a privileged position in this. They were given a way out of this process. How, we will see soon.
What matters is that human beings have, therefore, the peculiarity of never being totally reducible to these conditions.
«Today we may almost say that we have demonstrated even scientifically that, though we live now, and probably always will, under the earth’s conditions, we are not mere earth-bound creatures. »
(Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 33)
THE MIRACLE OF BIRTH AND ACTION
It has been said that nature is nothing but a never-ending process of living and dying. It swallows animals, the plant world, inanimate things. Human nature is, instead, to do the unexpected. Men are exempt from being involved in this cycle, because they can act, and free action interferes with this inexorable dying process, since it allows something new to begin.
“Men,” Arendt writes “though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”
Every time there is a beginning, we have something new which we couldn’t have expected from what there was before. Given the mechanistic and deterministic connotation of the world, new events that happen in nature always appear in contrast to the overwhelming laws of statistics and probability. In other words, they are quite a miracle.
While animals can only live according to their planned and natural survival instincts, human beings can act beyond their personal biological needs in order to bring something new, which can be recognized in a social and public way. Like Socrates drinking hemlock by his choice, or a martyr who accepts the sacrifice of himself to the bitter end. Precisely because of this ability of making totally free choices, our actions are never completely predictable.
«The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world»
IN TODAY’S SOCIETY
Let’s make an ellipsis and reach the end of The Human Condition. Despite the philosopher’s persuasive theories on free action and decision, in the last thirty years countless conclusions of biologists and sociologists seem to dampen this kind of human might. People are influenced by their brain’s wiring, their genes, and their environment much more than have been thought. Moreover, H. Arendt herself recognizes the increasingly rampant attitude to become a passive reflection of one’s own environment.
In the last pages of her essay, she points out how the society of workers we have become leads people to lose sight of their individual freedom and make them behave more like a function, rather than encouraging them in facing the challenge of evolving, thinking and acting on their own.
How to get out of this? H. Arendt would say that we are not animals with unmanageable needs for survival, nor mere consumers with tastes or preferences.
Our second birth happens when we act, when we bring something new and valuable for society, on our own choice.
In a similar vein:
Henri Bergson Creative Evolution
Martin Heidegger Being and Time
By Noemi Manghi