After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.
The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.
I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.
This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).
Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.
She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.
It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.
Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger; and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.
Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:
The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)
Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.
It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:
To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)
From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”
The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.
She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:
“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”