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Chapter Five


Arendt on ‘Universal Science’, the Holocaust

and the Question of Technology



The most decisive event which directed mankind into the modern age was, in Arendt’s account, Galileo’s use of the telescope which established the heliocentric perspective (which maintained that against the testimony of our eyes the earth actually travels around the sun) with a new degree of certainty. For the new physical science which developed from this realization it was axiomatic that in order to discover the secrets of the natural world we must relinquish an anthropomorphic and geocentric perspective. This chapter presents Arendt’s view that modern science is a ‘universal science’ which acts as if it had discovered the ‘Archimedean point’ and the hallmark of which was ‘earth alienation’. A consequence of this scientific revolution was that both nature and history would be severed from the sense of wonder and instead be understood in terms of concepts of process. For the totalitarians in the twentieth century, this meant that human existence must be subsumed under dynamic laws of nature or history which, they believed, decreed that ‘unfit’ races or ‘dying’ classes must be exterminated. We shall see that the most radically evil instance of such ideological thinking was the Nazi attempt in the concentration camps to turn man into a beast who could, without resistance, be led to his death. Today, the concepts of nature and history as process meet in the form of a nuclear technology which ‘acts into nature’, introducing cosmic processes into the earth with potentially disastrous consequences. In the second part of this chapter I suggest that Arendt’s thought is haunted by the possibility of a second holocaust—a nuclear holocaust—and identify three crucial factors in this regard: the presence of nuclear weapons; the automation of human activities; and the ‘conquest of space’. Arendt herself hoped that science might come under the limits imposed by scientists acting as citizens engaged in public discussion with informed laymen and so avoid such a disaster. In the context of her discussion of the human implications of space travel, Arendt hints that science, once it recognized its own limitations, could itself overcome the condition of earth alienation and adopt a new anthropomorphic and geocentric perspective, harnessing technology for humanly beneficial outcomes. Arendt accepts that the likelihood of this is very slight and it appears that mankind is about to apply the Archimedean point to itself—should man succeed in this, Arendt warns, his stature as a specifically human being would be destroyed.



Earth Alienation and ‘Universal Science’


As we saw in Chapter Three, in Arendt’s account modern ‘society’ was marked by a sense of alienation from the world. Lacking a world of durable objects and spaces, modern humans were thrown back upon their own subjective sensations. Society lacked an essential artificial character and was increasingly centered on natural processes—processes which, however, had become unnatural, that is, liberated from their basically circular rhythms and re-launched on a linear and limitless course of dynamic movement which threatened to consume all the durability left in the world. It was not just that modern man was alienated from the artifice of the world however, for in Chapter One we briefly pointed to Arendt’s Prologue to The Human Condition (1958) which revealed a sense of alienation from the very earth itself which coincided with some of the public reactions to the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. This chapter will be concerned with explicating what Arendt understood by earth alienation as manifest in modern science and its technological applications.[1]


Arendt believes that three monumental events have shaped the character of a modernity marked by these senses of both world and earth alienation: 1) The discovery of America and the exploration of the globe which followed. 2) The Reformation which through the expropriation of Church property initiated the process of individual expropriation and the ‘social’ accumulation of wealth. 3) The invention of the telescope which initiated a new science which views the earth from the standpoint of the universe. At the time the invention of the telescope may have appeared to be the least spectacular of these events. However its impact has since accelerated such that it now overshadows the other two.


We have, in Chapter Three, already examined the second key event of modernity which is specifically related to world as opposed to earth alienation. As a consequence of the process of expropriation initiated by the Reformation “all property was destroyed in the process of its appropriation, all things devoured in the process of their production, and the stability of the world undermined in a constant process of change.”[2] Modern men may well have lost belief in another world, but that does not mean that they have recovered this one—in fact, they have been thrown back upon themselves. World alienation, and not as Marx suggested, self-alienation, is the sign of modern society.[3]


The mapping and charting of the whole earth which followed the discovery of America took several centuries and it is only now approaching completion. This process led to the shrinkage of the globe such that “each man is as much an inhabitant of the earth as he is an inhabitant of his country.”[4] Speed has conquered distance; the earth has been shrunk into a globe. The price for this surveying of the whole earth was that “of alienating man from his immediate earthly surroundings.”[5] Arendt does not dwell at any length on this dimension of earth alienation; her main concern was the implications of Galileo’s use of the telescope which is of central concern to the present chapter.


The invention of the telescope, which had little initial impact on anyone but a handful of scholars and learned men, would ultimately initiate a completely new world. Galileo’s originality lay in his use of the telescope such that “he put within the grasp of an earth-bound creature and its body-based senses what had seemed forever beyond his reach, at best open to the uncertainties of speculation and imagination.”[6] What had previously been offered as inspired speculations—e.g. that the earth moves around the sun and not vice versa—was now taken as demonstrable fact. Following Galileo’s discovery and the increase in mastery over nature brought by the new science which followed it seemed as if man had actually found Archimedes’ point. (In the third century BC, Archimedes—discoverer of the principle of levers—had declared ‘Give me where to stand and I shall move the earth’. What this means is that our power of control over certain things increases in relation to our distance from them).[7] Both fear and triumph were present in the very same discovery—the fear that the physical senses by which we navigate reality might betray us together with the old wish to find the Archimedean point external to the earth and by which we might dislodge the world. It was as if this Archimedean point could only be obtained at the price of reality itself and the fears which followed the questioning of the reliability of the senses could only be soothed by the promise of unearthly powers:


For whatever we do today in physics—whether we release energy processes that ordinarily go on only in the sun, or attempt to initiate in a test-tube the processes of cosmic evolution . . . —we always handle nature from a point in the universe outside the earth. Without actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand . . . , still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from the outside, from the Archimedean point. And even at the risk of endangering the natural life process we expose the earth to universal, cosmic forces alien to nature’s household.[8]  


If world alienation is the mark of modern ‘society’, then earth alienation is the mark of modern science which, says Arendt, is radically different from anything which had preceded it and we have only come to realize the full implications of discovering the Archimedean point in recent years. As Arendt noted in The Human Condition, it is only in the last few decades that we “have come to live in a world thoroughly determined by a science and technology whose objective truth and practical know-how are derived from cosmic and universal, as distinguished from terrestrial and ‘natural’ laws, and in which a knowledge acquired by selecting a point of reference outside the earth is applied to earthly nature and the human artifice.”[9] Such a science possesses the potential for the destruction of all earthly organic life, even the destruction of the earth itself.  It also possesses ‘unearthly’ powers of creation, as is revealed by the production of new elements, man-made satellites, or the attempt to re-create life in the test-tube—what all previous ages would have considered to be the privilege of a deity.


If Galileo was the father of modern science, Arendt considers Descartes to be the father of modern philosophy. The immediate philosophical reaction to Galileo’s discoveries took the form of radical doubt; modern philosophy has placed doubt in the central position previously occupied by thaumazein—the wonder at that which is as it is. As Arendt says: “Before the rise of the modern age it was a matter of course that quiet, actionless, and selfless contemplation of the miracle of being, or of the wonder of God’s creation, should also be the proper attitude for the scientist, whose curiosity about the particular had not yet parted company with the wonder before the general from which, according to the ancients, sprang philosophy.”[10] The new sense of radical doubt which superseded the sense of wonder was first conceptualized by Descartes and has since become the “inaudible motor” which drives all thought: “Just as from Plato to Aristotle to the modern age conceptual philosophy, in its greatest and most authentic representations, had been the articulation of wonder, so modern philosophy since Descartes had consisted in the articulations and ramifications of doubting.”[11] For it was not reason but a man-made instrument—the telescope—which had challenged the view of the physical world. Truth and reality were found not to reveal themselves to the senses, only active interference with appearance was now considered to bring the possibility of knowledge: man as homo faber had stepped in to replace man as the contemplator of Being. Henceforth everything was to be doubted—even the notion that there is such a thing as truth itself.


Two nightmares haunt the philosophy of Descartes. Firstly, there is the doubt concerning the reality of the world and of human life—what is considered to be reality may in fact be merely a dream. Secondly, the doubt of the senses raises the possibility that it is not God who rules the world but an evil spirit which is willfully deceiving man. Descartes’ solution was that if everything becomes doubtful, at least doubting remains certain. Thus introspection becomes the source of certainty. Modern philosophy becomes man’s concern with himself. Specifically, reality is equated with the processes in the human mind: “Nothing perhaps could prepare our minds better for the eventual dissolution of matter into energy, of objects into a whirl of atomic occurrences, than this dissolution of objective reality into subjective states of mind or, rather, into subjective mental processes.”[12]


Retreating from the reality of anything given, anything external to man himself, the general attitude of the modern age becomes the assertion that man can only understand that which he makes himself: “it is this conviction, rather than the doubt underlying it, that propelled one generation after another for more than three hundred years into an ever-quickening pace of discovery and development.”[13] The highest ideal becomes mathematical knowledge, undisturbed by any objects independent of the self. Common sense becomes unworldly, relating merely to the common structures of the mind and not that which unites the senses and enables man to negotiate a world common to all. Reason becomes a process “of deducing and concluding,” the mere “playing of the mind with itself.” The Cartesian solution, says Arendt, effectively placed the Archimedean point in the mind of man himself and the result was that man was freed from encountering any given reality: “Wherever we search for that which we are not, we encounter the patterns of our own minds.”[14]


The traditional elevation of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa has been reversed. Truth and knowledge could now only be gained by action and not contemplation. Following the separation of truth and appearance, in order to know, one must do.  Contemplation has become meaningless and thinking the mere instrument of doing: “the philosopher no longer turns from the world of deceptive perishability to another world of eternal truth, but turns away from both and with draws into himself.” There he finds not contemplation of permanence but “the constant movement of sensual perceptions and the no less constantly moving activity of the mind.”[15]


With the emphasis on gaining knowledge through making, it was the activities of homo faber which first replaced contemplation in the hierarchy of human values. After all, the telescope was the product of man as toolmaker and indeed productivity, creativity, and utility would become the highest ideals in the early modern age. Ultimately however, with the introduction of the concept of process into art of making the activities of homo faber give way to those of the animal laborans. One consequence was that the principle of utility associated with homo faber no longer referred to useful objects but was transformed into Bentham’s ‘greatest happiness’ principle—utilitarianism now focussed man’s attentions on a calculus of his own pleasures and pains, or in other words, his mere biological sensations. The modern age would elevate laboring above all other activities and thereby focus its concern upon ‘mere biological life’.



Nature and History as Process


Arendt maintains that concepts of history and nature are closely connected, and contrasts the modern conceptualizations based on process to those of Ancient Greece. To the Greeks, nature consisted of “all things that come into being by themselves without assistance from man or gods . . . .”[16] Nature is understood as immortal, as an endless cyclical movement of growth and decay. In contrast to the immortality of nature, mortality is the hallmark of human beings who, not merely being members of an animal species, possess an individual life-story which stretches from birth to death and which “is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movements of biological life.”[17] The words and deeds which constitute this rectilinear course of life are perishable and thus do not possess the inherent immortality of nature. However, if humans could achieve a degree of immortality for themselves by endowing their acts with a certain permanence they as mortals could find a “place in the cosmos, where everything is immortal except man.”[18] Thus for the Greeks, the writing of history stems from the need to preserve great acts through remembrance, focussing on singular instances and gestures which do not depend upon some all-encompassing process for their meaning.


History and nature in early Greek thought therefore are not considered to be in opposition. The narrative of history attempts to achieve the immortality that came with ease for nature and by which humans prove themselves worthy of a world that will outlast them. Modern concepts of history and nature, according to Arendt, are no less intimately related, but they are very different from the conceptualizations of the ancient Greeks. The modern conception of history is closely connected with a perception of nature which had emerged in the seventeenth century and which coincided with the new ‘universal science’. Such a science had dislocated itself from the sense of wonder, turned away from sensory experience, and sought to discover nature’s hidden secrets. Based on a radical doubt of the senses, modern science has “turned toward the experiment, which, by directly interfering with nature, assured the development whose progress has ever since appeared to be limitless.”[19] Scientific knowledge thus became a mode of ‘doing’. Modern science is not concerned with the nature of things but with the processes by which they came into being. As Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves points out, “in the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process: nature itself became a process governed by immutable laws, and it was not long before history too was viewed in the sane light.”[20] This understanding of nature and history as process was also a key element of totalitarian regimes and we shall consider this later in the chapter.


One of the distinguishing aspects of modern science for Arendt was this change of emphasis from things-in-themselves to overall processes. According to the modern scientific mind, everything—in both history and nature—is to be thought of in terms of processes: “we are not to be concerned with single entities or individual occurrences and their special separate causes.”[21] The substitution of the concept of process in place of the concept of Being has therefore led to the debasement of things in themselves: “To our modern way of thinking nothing is meaningful in and by itself, not even history or nature taken each as a whole, and certainly not particular occurrences in the physical order or specific events.”[22]  Every individual entity and thing is degraded “into functions of an over-all process.”[23]


Arendt believes that neither nature or history in themselves possess the objective quality of process, it is a notion derived from the interventionist method of modern science and the ultimate consequence of such a science is solipsism: “The modern age, with its growing world-alienation, has led to a situation where man, wherever he goes, encounters only himself. All the processes of the earth and the universe have revealed themselves either as man-made or as potentially man-made.”[24] Modern experimental science grounded in the concept of process—devoid of ‘wonder at that which is as it is’—is thus cut off from the appreciation of the ‘otherness’ or objective qualities of nature. We only come to know the qualities of nature in “the way they affect our measuring instruments, and—in the words of Eddington—‘the former have as much resemblance to the latter as a telephone number has to be a subscriber.’ Instead of objective qualities, in other words, we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.”[25] Indeed Heisenberg’s assertion is very important to Arendt and we shall return to this point later when we consider the possibility for a science which is subject to public accountability. 


Like the modern concept of nature, the concept of history would also come to be considered in terms of the notion of process. In the modern age, history is no longer comprehended as the chronicle of those words, deeds, and sufferings of men which deserved a place in our memory and a guarantee against futility. Just as the modern concept of nature as process could not appreciate anything ‘as it is’ but only as a function of some all-embracing process, so too individual human lives would come to derive their meaning in relation to some overall historical process.


The modern concept of history coincided with, and was powerfully influenced by, the modern age’s mistrust of the actuality of an objectively existing reality. Because of man’s distrust of his senses to gain access to the given natural world, he concludes that he can only know what he has made for himself. This was the reason, according to Arendt, why Vico turned from science to history and became one of the originators of the modern historical consciousness. Arendt claims that Vico did not turn away from science out of any humanist concerns but because he thought the idea of ‘making nature’ untenable. Just as God had created nature and true knowledge of its physical reality was his preserve, so could men gain access to historical truth for men ‘made’ history. As was the fate of nature, history thus came to be understood as a man-made process. However, it never occurred to Vico that the notion of man making history could be deployed as a principle for action. For Vico as for Hegel, the concept of history was principally theoretical and not a spur for action. They were concerned with the backward glance of the historian, who contemplated the process of history as a whole, and who sees the ‘higher aims’ which are being realized and which are unseen by the actors themselves. Marx believed that these ‘higher aims’ could actually become principles for the actors themselves.


Arendt’s understanding of history as process is very complex and I have not even begun to give anything like a full account here. What we can note is that the ultimate consequence of thinking of both nature and history in terms of man-made processes is that both are rendered meaningless. Mankind today is doubly alienated from both the earth and the realm of history: “In the situation of radical world alienation, neither history nor nature is at all conceivable. This twofold loss of the world—the loss of nature and the loss of human artifice in the widest sense, which would include all history—has left behind it a society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them, either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass.”[26]


It was not just a case that thinking in terms of processes rendered reality unintelligible—it can bring about potentially disastrous situations as on the basis of arbitrary and even mad theories action is possible which can transform reality to fit the theory. Arendt thought that this could happen in both the scientific and political spheres. Our next concern is that these modern scientific interpretations of nature and history as process were crucial to the development of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century. This is most clearly expressed in Arendt’s essay ‘Ideology and Terror: A novel Form of Government’ (1953) which was included in later editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Prior to the arrival of totalitarian movements Arendt notes that the concept of law had been deployed as a stabilizing factor in the realm of human affairs and served as a limit to the disruption which arose from the unpredictability which was a consequence of freely initiated actions. The essence of tyranny was lawlessness and arbitrary rule. By contrast, totalitarianism actually seeks to prostrate humanity to the supra-human forces from which positive law has traditionally sought its justification. Totalitarian rule has nothing but contempt for positive law, but it is not arbitrary rule for it seeks to act in accordance to “what it assumes to be the law of History or the law of Nature.”[27] Totalitarian lawfulness claims to establish the rule of justice on earth by making “mankind itself the embodiment of the law.”[28] The law of nature or of history is no longer deployed as a stabilizing factor for the realm of human affairs but transforms all laws into laws of movement:


Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolsheviks’ belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx’s notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.[29]


With Darwin, nature is no longer considered to move in circular but a linear fashion—nature is carried into history. On the other hand, at the root of Marx’s historical materialism is man’s ‘metabolism with nature’ through ‘labor power’—the natural driving force by which mankind ministers to the biological needs of species and individual survival. Thus the gulf between Marx’s historical materialism and Darwin’s natural materialism is not so wide as may initially be assumed.  Both make a decisive use of the concept of development:


The tremendous intellectual change which took place in the middle of the last century consisted in the refusal to view anything ‘as it is’ and in the consistent interpretation of everything as being only a stage of some further development. Whether the driving force of this development was called nature or history is relatively secondary. In these ideologies, the term ‘law’ itself changed its meaning: from expressing the framework of stability within which human actions and motions can take place, it became the expression of motion itself.[30]


In totalitarian regimes these laws of movement are made manifest through terror, which, for the totalitarian government takes the place of positive laws which had previously functioned as stabilizing boundaries. If lawlessness was the essence of tyranny then terror is the essence of totalitarianism, it is the means by which the forces of nature or history can “move freely through mankind unhindered by any spontaneous actions.”[31] Total terror “substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions.”[32] Human plurality must be eliminated in order that the full dynamic power of nature and history understood as movements might be liberated: “In the iron band of terror, which destroys the plurality of men and makes out of man the One who unfailingly will act as though he himself were part of the course of history or nature, a device has been found not only to liberate the historical and natural forces, but to accelerate them to a speed they never would reach if left to themselves.”[33]


In Arendt’s analysis, the most radically evil dimension of totalitarianism was represented by the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. These, according to Arendt, were laboratories for the verification of the core totalitarian belief that “everything is possible.”[34] The process of total domination which takes place within the camps aims to displace the plurality and vast differentiation of human beings so that humanity comes to be as if a single human being. Distinct persons become reduced to mere interchangeable entities, “bundles of reactions,” which “can be exchanged at random for any other.”[35] The camps were thus meant not just to degrade and exterminate people but to provide a scientifically controlled setting in which human spontaneity itself could be eliminated.


The horrors of the camp took place in an atmosphere of  “madness and unreality,”[36] and were apparently without any utilitarian purpose whatsoever. Indeed it was the obvious contradiction between the atrocities perpetrated in the camps and the military requirements of a full-scale war which had lent “the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.”[37] Because the task of totally destroying human spontaneity is not something which can normally be achieved, the camps—‘the world of the dying’—are sealed off from the everyday ‘world of the living’ and this has made for great difficulties in the understanding of the nature of totalitarianism, giving a sense of ‘unreality’ to the experiences of camp survivors. Because of this phantastical dimension to existence in the camps, in which human beings were treated as if they no longer existed—as living corpses—Arendt finds that only images from Western conceptions of the afterlife can convey the senseless cruelty of what had happened: “the reality of the concentration camps resembles nothing so much as medieval pictures of Hell.”[38] The creation of Hell on earth—“by the most modern methods of destruction and therapy”[39]—was perfected by the Nazis in the extermination camps, “in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest torment.”[40]


If the camps, whose aim was the “mass manufacture of corpses,” were utterly senseless, they were an insane product of a process which was ruthlessly logical in its transformation of human beings into the living dead who could, without resistance, be marched off to the gas chambers. First, the individual is destroyed in his capacity as a ‘juridical person’, is thereby stripped of his rights, excluded from the protection of law, and placed in a concentration camp which exists outside of the normal penal system. Unlike criminals, most of the people in the camps were detained for no specific reason at all and so could face no determinate sentence. As a general rule, criminals—who constituted “the aristocracy of the camps”[41] because they still retained some connection between their activities and their status as inmates—would not normally be sent to a concentration camp until they had completed their full prison sentences, emphasizing the Nazi aim to annihilate the ‘juridical person’ in the individual. 


The next stage in the process of creating the living dead was to kill the ‘moral person’ in the individual. Death in the camps is made anonymous, undermining any solidarity in the camps and removing the possibility for martyrdom. Death was robbed of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life and merely confirmed that the individual victim had already deceased to exist. Furthermore, totalitarian terror destroyed the possibility for resistance in the conscience of the individual by implicating the inmates in the crimes: “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and murdering his friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his family—how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder.”[42]


Finally comes the destruction of the unique identity of the individual person through such methods as the monstrous means of transport to the camps; the shaving of heads on arrival together with the issuing of the hideous camp clothing; and, ultimately, the unimaginable tortures which are inflicted on the inmate’s body. The whole point of the process being “to manipulate the human body—with its infinite possibilities of suffering—in such a way as to make it destroy the human person as inexorably as do certain mental diseases of organic origin.”[43] This destruction of individuality represents the termination of human spontaneity itself: “Nothing then remains but ghastly marionettes with human faces, which all behave like the dog in Pavlov’s experiments, which all react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death, and which do nothing but react.”[44]


Apparently without utilitarian purpose, the camps nevertheless served a vital function for totalitarianism. They provide a training in totalitarian domination which equips its forces with fanaticism and simultaneously inspires fear in the population. The camps exist to remove human individuality—the fundamental obstacle to total domination—and thus ensure the superfluity of men.  As senseless as this may be, totalitarianism makes the process utterly logical by replacing common sense with the “ridiculous supersense of its ideological superstition.” Ideologies, says Arendt, are harmless enough so long as they are not taken seriously. However:


Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and compulsorily once the first premise is accepted.  The insanity of such systems lies not only in their first premise but in the very logicality with which they are constructed. The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.[45]


It is for the sake of this ‘supersense’ and its demand for total consistency that the world must be remade to prove the ideology correct. Totalitarianism thus finds it necessary to destroy every last vestige of human dignity: “No ideology which aims at the explanation of all historical events of the past and at mapping out the course of all events of the future can bear the unpredictability which springs from the fact that men are creative, that they can bring forth something so new that nobody ever foresaw it.”[46]


Totalitarian ideologies aim to transform human nature itself and the camps were the laboratories in which these changes in human nature were put to the test. The crimes which occurred in them, Arendt maintains, were of such a radically evil nature that they were beyond either forgiveness or adequate punishment. One thing appears discernible and that is that the camps emerged within the context of a system which had rendered all human beings—the perpetrators of the crimes as well as their victims—equally superfluous. This danger, Arendt warns, has outlasted its particular Nazi form: “The danger of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms. Political, social, and economic events everywhere are in silent conspiracy with totalitarian instruments devised for making men superfluous.”[47] The presence of rootless masses, over-population and those who have been made economically superfluous means that totalitarian remedies may outlast the actual totalitarian regimes and serve as a temptation rather than as a warning when it appears impossible to deal with social, economic, or political miseries in a humanly dignified manner.



Science and the Stature of Man


Unfortunately, Arendt believes that the enormous advances in science since the dawn of the modern age have consistently reduced human dignity—the very same advances were made possible by the fact that scientists as scientists deliberately ignored the consequences for man’s stature in what they were doing. A very great fear for Arendt concerns the fact that while human beings are today being rendered superfluous by, for example, over-population we now possess the enormously destructive power of atomic weapons. In other words, there is the real possibility that the Nazi holocaust might be followed by a nuclear holocaust of such destructive power that the existence of the entire human race and the planet itself was at stake. The three crucial factors which are the focus of Arendt’s concern here are nuclear technology which ‘acts into nature’; the automation of the fabrication process; and the ‘conquest of space’. 


According to Arendt, the modern scientific approach shares something in common with totalitarianism; the belief that “everything is possible.”[48] Totalitarian action can be based on any hypothesis; the hypothesis will become true in the course of consistently guided action.”[49] As we have seen in the case of the concentration camps, reality can be transformed so that it is consistent with fictitious beliefs.  In science too, unproved theories find their ‘soundness’ in their sheer practicability. What began with the experiment and the unchaining of dormant elemental processes, “has finally ended in a veritable art of ‘making’ nature, that is, of creating ‘natural’ processes which without men would never exist and which earthly nature by herself seems incapable of accomplishing, though similar or identical processes may be commonplace phenomena in the universe surrounding the earth.”[50]


Despite Jonathan Schell’s view in The Fate of the Earth that Arendt “never addressed  the issue of nuclear arms,”[51] Arendt clearly had nuclear weapons in mind when she speaks of cosmic processes being channeled into the earth and the realm of human affairs, sometimes euphemistically referred to as the transformation of “mass into energy.”[52] And in this context Arendt drew attention to “the various types of atom bombs, which, if released in sufficient and very great quantities, could destroy all organic life on earth.”[53] When Arendt speaks of the unleashing of new natural processes, she is primarily thinking of the development of nuclear technology and it is clear that the specter of a potential nuclear holocaust haunts her work. It is nonetheless true that Arendt does not spell out the implications of a possible nuclear holocaust as Schell did himself in his Arendt-inspired and admirable study. As we shall see later in this chapter, unlike Schell’s demand that in the face of a potential nuclear holocaust we ought to consign our powers to a global government, Arendt herself hoped that science might come under the deliberative proposals of an involved citizenry of scientists and laymen.[54]


We have already seen that Arendt considered the concentration camps to be laboratories where the totalitarian regimes sought to prove the belief that everything was possible. It will be recalled that the camps were distinct places, cut off from everyday life to enable a process of total domination to occur. A possible nuclear holocaust arising out of a technology which acted upon the earth from a standpoint in the universe could however take the human race and the earth in its entirety as its field of action. Although Arendt is not explicit about this, it obviously seems to be on Arendt’s mind in the following footnote in The Human Condition: “Günther Anders . . . argues convincingly that the term ‘experiment’ is no longer applicable to nuclear experiments involving explosions of the new bombs. For it is characteristic of experiments that the space where they took place was strictly limited and isolated against the surrounding world. The effects of the bombs are so enormous that ‘their laboratory becomes co-extensive with the globe.”[55] As Margaret Canovan has pointed out: “Totalitarianism and the bomb were linked in Arendt’s mind as the two fundamental experiences of her time, and both of them showed the combination of a hubristic sense that ‘everything was possible’ with the experience of being in the grip of unstoppable processes.”[56] Indeed, as we shall see below, just as the evil acts within the camps were of such a radical nature that they were beyond the bounds of punishment and forgiveness and that existence was in fact Hell on earth, so too the destructive consequences of releasing into nature forces which are literally out-of-this-world are also beyond the reach of promise and forgiveness. 


According to Arendt, modern science has begun to initiate new natural processes not before seen on this earth, as witnessed by the unleashing of nuclear chain reactions: “We have begun to act into nature as we used to act into history. If it is merely a question of processes, it has turned out that man is as capable of starting natural processes which would not have come about without human interference as he is of starting something new in the field of human affairs.”[57] That scientists now literally do not know quite what they are doing is revealed by acting into nature’s “ability to start new unprecedented processes whose outcome remains uncertain and unpredictable whether they are let lose in the human or natural realm.”[58] 


Humanity is now more concerned with initiating new natural processes and channeling them into the realm of human affairs than with the construction and preservation of a common world, a durable earthly home. The introduction of such new processes obliterates the protective boundaries which were erected between the natural and human realms and is a cause for great concern to Arendt. For Arendt, a defining aspect of action is that it has unknown consequences—action by its nature is unpredictable. In the realm of human affairs the consequences of action can be checked by the power of promise and forgiveness as we saw in Chapter One. Unfortunately, these do not operate in the natural realm and we have no remedy with which to undo the consequences of acting into nature:


Because the remedies against the enormous strength and resiliency inherent in action processes can function only under the condition of plurality, it is very dangerous to use this faculty in any but the realm of human affairs. Modern natural science and technology, which no longer observe or take material from or imitate processes of nature but seem actually to act into it, seem by the same token, to have created irreversibility and human unpredictability into the natural realm, where no remedy can be found to undo what has been done.[59]


Acting into nature is therefore a very dangerous affair; new natural processes are created and directed into the human artifice, obliterating the defensive boundaries between nature and the human world. As we shall see below, Arendt connects a possible nuclear holocaust to a radical diminishment in the stature of man which might accompany the ‘conquest in space’ and through which, looking down upon his own fully-automated activities from space, he appears as one immense biological process ripe for extermination.


The presence in the world of nuclear weaponry was undoubtedly a cause of major concern to Arendt. Nevertheless, her own Prologue to The Human Condition revealed, she considered that the launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, was an event “second in importance to no other, not even the splitting of the atom . . . .”[60] Having turned away from God, man is now turning away from the earth, the only place where he can move and breathe freely; what is more he is also trying to free himself from the biological limits of his own body:


The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed to making life also ‘artificial’, toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature. It is the same desire to escape from the imprisonment of the earth that is manifest in the attempt to create life in the test tube, in the desire to mix ‘frozen germ plasm from people of demonstrated ability under the microscope to produce superior human beings’ and ‘to alter [their] size, shape and function’; and the wish to escape the human condition, I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.[61]


Echoing a theme of the ‘Concluding Remarks’ to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism,[62] Arendt suggests that this desire to escape the earth in spacecraft is driven “by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given . . . which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”[63] Whether or not we want to go down the road in which we are heading becomes “a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.”[64] The importance of the implications of space travel for Arendt’s thought is often overlooked.  As we shall see later in this chapter, Arendt considers interstellar technology to be the culmination of the ‘universal science’ which began with Galileo and by which man sought to act upon the earth as if he occupied the Archimedean point—the consequences of which were potentially devastating. For now we shall continue with Arendt’s call for a public questioning of technology which was stimulated by the prospect of human space travel.


Such a questioning cannot be left to scientists in their professional capacities, according to Arendt, because modern ‘universal’ science has eliminated all humanistic concerns from its perspective. Thus to the scientist as scientist the question ‘Has man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?’ is unintelligible[65]: “The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the moment they knew they could do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.”[66] In such a situation, Arendt asserts, the layman and the humanist must be consulted in order to judge what the scientist is doing—the activities of scientists, in other words, ought to be the subject of public debate with Arendt clearly hoping that such a public discussion might eventually lead to a reversal of the earth alienation that has so marked modern science.[67]


Perhaps, Arendt considers, modern science has so radically transformed the world that the layman—still trusting in common sense and speaking in the language of everyday life—is cut off from the true realities which underlie sense perceptions, understanding simple appearances and so merely questioning from the perspective of ignorance? Arendt, however denies that this is the case and rejects the notion that the world can only be understood by scientists, that they represent the ‘few’ who can legitimately rule the ‘many’ who question from a pre-scientific perspective. For a good proportion of his existence, the scientist himself still has to inhabit the ordinary world of sense perceptions, everyday language and common sense which he puts behind him when he enters his laboratory and adopts the language of mathematical symbols. As a result of this purging of the ordinary mental faculties from the scientific approach, the data gathered by the scientists remains perplexing—even to science itself: “In the words of Erwin Schroedinger, the new universe that we try to ‘conquer’ is not only ‘practically inaccessible, but not even thinkable,’ for ‘however we think it, it is wrong; not perhaps quite as meaningless as a “triangular circle,” but much more so than a “winged lion.”’”[68]


Arendt identifies as an aspect of the new ‘universal’ science the tendency for its discoveries to be inexpressible in ordinary language and thought. In place of linguistic expression, they are demonstrated in terms of mathematical formula and technological innovation. What this means is that we are no longer able to meaningfully think or speak about things which nevertheless we are quite capable of doing. The great danger for Arendt is that we may become “thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”[69] Thus the main problem is that through modern science “man can do, and successfully do, what he cannot comprehend and cannot express in everyday human language.”[70] Scientists such as Einstein, were not motivated by any will to power or an unseemly ‘lust of the eyes’, and they were not concerned with the practical implications of their work. These scientists were motivated by a search for ‘true reality’ and consequently lost confidence in the ability of human sense and reason to know appearances. It is in the sphere of technology, in the activities of what to the pure scientist resemble ‘plumbers’, where the physical view of science has been returned to the everyday world of the senses. It is the technician who demonstrates the ‘soundness’ of scientific theories through successful application in new technologies. Before we can consider the human implications of space travel it is necessary to understand Arendt’s account of the course of technological development in the modern age.


The first stage in the technological development of the modern age coincided with the invention of the steam engine and delivered mankind into the industrial period. Symptomatic of this stage was the imitation of natural processes and the application of natural forces for human schemes and purposes. The principle behind the steam engine, Arendt points out, was not new; what was new was the discovery and exploitation of the coal mines which could fuel it. The second stage is distinguished by its utilization of electricity—and it is still electricity which governs today’s level of technological advancement. Arendt maintains that this second stage cannot be understood as a large-scale augmentation and continuation of the old arts and crafts for the means-ends categories of homo faber no longer apply. In this stage it is no longer a case of interrupting or imitating natural processes in order to fabricate the artifice of a human world which coexists with nature as a distinct and separate entity. In the present stage humanity has come to ‘create’ nature by beginning “to unchain natural processes of our own which would never have happened without us, and instead of carefully surrounding the human artifice with defenses against nature’s elements, keeping them as far as possible outside the man-made world, we have channeled these forces, along with their elementary power, into the world itself.”[71] 


As a consequence, there has been a revolution in the way we understand the method of manufacture itself. Prior to this stage, fabrication had been understood as a series of separate and distinct steps. Now, however, manufacture is understood as a constant process which, in practical terms, means “the process of the conveyor belt and the assembly line.”[72] This stage culminates in the introduction of an automation which reduces the amount of human effort necessary for the process. Arendt believes that the question of technology becomes lead astray by considerations as to whether machines render a service or disservice to men; the fundamental question “is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things.”[73] Arendt points out that the design of objects is no longer considered in terms of human standards of beauty and utility but in terms of the capacities of the machine and the function they fulfil was to serve the “human animal’s life process.”[74] The world of machines no longer corresponds to the means-end categories of homo faber.  In the “society of laborers, the world of machines has become a substitute for the real world, even though this pseudo world cannot fulfil the most important task of the human artifice, which is to offer mortals a dwelling place more permanent and more stable than themselves.”[75]


The enormous technological possibilities unleashed by the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century mean that laboring itself could conceivably be eliminated as a human activity. The desire to be liberated from the toils of labor is nothing new, but the very society which promises to abolish labor through automation has glorified labor to the extent that it is a society of laborers who know of no higher activities who are about to be liberated from the one activity which they still possess: “Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.”[76] The fully automated world of the future represents an intensification of worldlessness and the ‘unnatural growth of the natural’. Without the toil and pains of labor and with man living a life of effortless consumption, “all human productivity would be sucked into an enormously intensified life process and would follow automatically, without pain or effort, its ever-recurrent natural cycle. The rhythm of machines would magnify and intensify the natural rhythm of life enormously, but it would not change, only make more deadly, life’s chief character with respect to the world, which is to wear down durability.”[77] 


In any case, even now ‘labor’ is too lofty a term for the activities of the jobholder in a consumer society: “The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the overall life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized,’ functional type of behavior.”[78] Thus we are in the process of becoming a society of jobholding consumers typified by that stultifying conformity of sheer ‘behavior’ which Arendt had previously seen as a condition of life in the concentration camps and which had allowed the inmates to be marched passively to their deaths. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt had already deployed the notion that “the last disciples of Darwinism in Germany” were concentrating their efforts in order “to change man into what the Darwinists thought an ape is.”[79] Similarly, in The Human Condition, the possibility of a society of jobholding consumers heralds the coming of “the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known” and is a danger signal that “man may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he imagines he has come.”[80] This is a very ominous sign indeed.


We have now reached the point where we can see the great danger of man’s ‘conquest of space’. Even more alarming for Arendt than the utterly sterile and passive ‘behavior’ is that man’s recent acquisition of the technology of space travel may give him the ability to observe himself from space and so apply the Archimedean point to himself. The situation we face today resembles the remark once made by Franz Kafka which Arendt was fond of quoting: “Man, he said, ‘found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself; it seems that he was permitted to find it only under this condition.’”[81] At the same time as science increased  man’s power over nature it has also reduced his own self-respect. He gained the power by abstracting his imagination from everyday sense experience and looking instead upon the earth and its natural processes from a point of view in the universe. Thereby he acquired the power to handle nature as if he were no longer an earth-bound being—he began to unleash energies hitherto unknown in an earthly context. But when he looks down upon himself from this universal standpoint he sees his own activities as a mere jobholding consumer as constituting no more than a planet of apes, or ants, or rats: 


If we look down from this point upon what is going on the earth and upon the various activities of men, that is if we apply the Archimedean point to ourselves, then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats. Seen from a sufficient distance, the cars in which we travel and which we know we built ourselves will look as though they were. As Heisenberg once put it, ‘as inescapable a part of ourselves as the snail’s shell is to its occupant.’[82]


All of man’s stature would vanish, warns Arendt once we began to deal with such a mutated human race. Mankind, on the point of reducing itself in a fully-automated ‘society’ to the condition of a perverted animal in a behaviorist’s laboratory, [83] near to acquiring the ability to actually observe his own activities from outer space, and already possessed of the atomic bomb, stands on the brink of a nuclear abyss: “the coincidence of the population explosion with the invention of nuclear weapons could appear from this distant viewpoint as a phenomenon in the household of nature, as a ‘large-scale biological process’ to prevent life on earth from being thrown out of balance.”[84] Modern science is thus paradoxical: the increase in power and knowledge which allowed for a veritable technological revolution in everyday life has brought a decrease in man’s self-respect—the ultimate price, Arendt fears, is the total destruction of the human world and the natural earth, a nuclear holocaust.


Arendt does not doubt the magnitude of the enterprise of space travel. Objections raised on the grounds of its expense, that the money would be better spent elsewhere such as on education, healthcare, or in relieving poverty, strike Arendt as “slightly absurd, out of tune with the things that are at stake and whose consequences today appear still quite unpredictable.”[85] It is not just that such a monumental enterprise is beyond such utilitarian considerations but that they are inappropriate because the very possibility of space exploration is based upon the enormous increase in the capabilities of science which has been brought about by leaving in abeyance such utilitarian considerations and ignoring the implications of scientific discoveries for the stature of man. When scientists have protested about the implications of science it is when they have spoke as citizens and not as scientists:


All associations for ‘Atoms for Peace,’ all warnings not to use the new power unwisely, and even the pangs of conscience many scientists felt when the first bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot obscure this simple fact. For in all these efforts the scientists acted not as scientists but as citizens, and if their voices have more authority than the voices of laymen, they do so only because the scientists are in possession of more precise information. Valid and plausible arguments against the ‘conquest of space’ could be raised only if they were to show that the whole enterprise might be self-defeating in its own terms.[86]


Arendt finds one possible basis for arguing that the ‘conquest of space’ would ultimately prove to be, in its own terms, a self-defeating enterprise is Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’. In Arendt’s account, Heisenberg demonstrated in a convincing manner that there is a final and definite limit to the precision of all readings obtainable by the man-made instruments which are now employed to gain access to that ‘real world’ beyond the reach of sense experience and common language which is the concern of modern science. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle maintains that there exist some combinations of quantities—such as a particle’s velocity and position—which are coupled in such a manner that identifying one of them with heightened accuracy inescapably entails identifying the other with decreased accuracy. From this fact Heisenberg concludes that “we decide, by our selection of the type of observation employed, which aspects of nature are to be determined and which are to be blurred.”[87] It is the case, Heisenberg maintains, that “the most important new result of nuclear physics was the recognition of the possibility of applying quite different types of natural laws, without contradiction, to one and the same physical event. This is due to the fact that within a system of laws which are based on certain fundamental ideas only certain definite ways of asking questions makes sense, and thus, that such a system is separated from others which allow different questions to be put.”[88] This leads Heisenberg to conclude that the quest for a “true reality” behind the veil of appearances which has led us into the modern Atomic age has brought the sciences into such a condition that man has lost any sense of the objectivity of the naturally existing world. Wherever man goes in this quest—whether it be in reality or in the imagination—he only ever “confronts himself alone.”[89]


Arendt considers that Heisenberg’s conclusion has a particular poignancy when it is considered in the context of an everyday world into which science, applied through technology, has introduced a veritable avalanche of ingenious gadgets, instruments, and fabulous machines. Such wonderful innovations actually seem to create a narrower and more narcissistic habitat for man:


All of this makes it more unlikely every day that man will encounter anything in the world around him that is not man-made and hence is not, in the last analysis, he himself in a different disguise. The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridded capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man—the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.[90]


Arendt asserts that the implications of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle should compel us to accept that there are certain limits to the elimination of all human concerns from the scientific perspective. Science, having purged itself of all anthropocentric considerations, set out to both know and do whatever it could, undisturbed by the concerns of humans. But such an ‘objective’ science culminates in severing us from any sense of an objectively existing natural world. The results of such a science says “seem to lead unequivocally to a point where man is reminded of his limitations and, as it were, put back into his place.”[91] Whatever the technological advances by which the scientist can overcome his sense experiences he “remains a man and subject to the common ‘prejudices’ of man.”[92] It is only the scientist who can apply the brake to the technological forces which now seem to be running out of control and “they can do it because they, too, are laymen and citizens, that is because in the final analysis we are all in the same boat.”[93]


Such a realization would entail a questioning of “the very ethos of the sciences—the conviction that whatever we can discover we shall discover, whatever we can make we must make.”[94] Thus we would have to ask such questions as to whether it was right or wrong to have built the atom bomb.  It was after all, Arendt points out, not merely political circumstances which drove the project to manufacture the bomb but that scientists and technicians were tempted by a project which was, in the words of Oppenheimer, “technically sweet.”[95] As well as the ethos of science, what is also at stake is the current faith in limitless progress. Arendt says that it is not just a question of what we should make for “there certainly will appear at some time the limits of what we can discover and can make.”[96] Arendt thus pleads for “a new realization of the factually existing limitations of human beings.”[97] Arendt admits that in practice these limits can today, up to a point, be transcended as in the past they have always been transcended in the imagination—but, she says, it is only by transcending limits that we realize that there are limits. The possibility for destroying the entire earth with the ‘doomsday machine’ or of initiating new cosmic processes into the earth that we would be unable to stop should however force us to concede that there absolute limits to human powers. The space program too has inherent limits for because of man’s limited life-span all we would ever be able to explore, even if we could travel at the speed of light, would be our own immediate surroundings which represent an infinitely small space within the immense expanse of the universe.[98]


According to Arendt, it is no accident that we are today considering the ‘conquest of space’ for modern science from the very start was a ‘universal science’, which acted as if it had found the Archimedean point—what we call modern physics was in fact from its conception astrophysics. The prospect of travelling into space represents an attempted voyage to the Archimedean point itself which has already been foreseen in the imagination. If man were to actually succeed in this endeavor, Arendt fears, it would be at the cost of man’s advantage: “All he can find is the Archimedean point with respect to the earth, but once arrived there and having acquired this absolute power over his earthly habitat, he would need a new Archimedean point, and so ad infinitum. In other words, man can only get lost in the immensity of the universe, for the only true Archimedean point would be the absolute void behind the universe.”[99]


Arendt concedes that space travel—informed by a renewed sense of limits—could increase the stature of man, but only if the technology was applied within an earth-bound perspective. Arendt no more than hints at the possibility for such a new science: “the new world view that may conceivably grow out of it is likely to be once again more geocentric and anthropomorphic, although not in the old sense of the earth being the center of the universe and of man being the highest being there is. It would be geocentric in the sense that the earth, and not the universe, is the center and the home of mortal men, and it would be anthropomorphic in the sense that man would count his own factual mortality among the elementary conditions under which his scientific efforts are possible at all.”[100] Unfortunately Arendt can tell us no more than this about the prospects for a new science which was not marked by earth alienation. In concluding her essay ‘The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,’ Arendt laments that “the prospects for such an entirely beneficial development and solution of the present predicaments of modern science do not look particularly good.”[101] The power to ‘conquer space’ derived from a science through which mankind sought to act upon the earth as if he occupied a point in space. Seen from space, man’s automated activities would appear as if they were a biological process more amenable to mathematical signs than everyday language. ‘Universal science’ and the conquest of space are dangerously close to reaching this point, Arendt says: “If they ever should reach it in earnest, the stature of man would not simply be lowered by all standards we know of, but would have been destroyed.”[102]


The source of the modern scientific crisis, originating in Galileo’s use of the telescope, is a turning away from wonder towards a doubt of the senses and a concomitant tendency to see nature as a human construction. Concepts of nature and history are intimately related for Arendt and both in the modern age have come to be subsumed under the notion of process—a concept which radically separates us from all preceding ages. Haunting Arendt’s later work is the prospect of a nuclear holocaust which promised to do for they entire globe what the Nazis had managed to achieve in their extermination camps, their laboratories for the proof that ‘everything was possible’. We have seen that crucial to both forms of holocaust—Nuclear and Nazi—was this understanding of nature as process or movement. 


Thinking in terms of processes has severed us from the very objectivity of the earth and the realm of human affairs. Through all of its scientific advance mankind appears to have conceptually cut itself from grasping the objectivity of nature—the realization of this, Arendt hopes, will bring us back to an awareness of our limits. In the light of the fact that Arendt allows for the possibility for a science grounded in a new geocentric and anthropomorphic perspective, it seems legitimate to conclude that nature has not lost its ‘otherness’—rather it is only that scientists have lost the ability to perceive it. Nature’s ‘sublime indifference’ remains untouched—nature does not objectively speaking embody human interests, and the grim proof of this is that for the astronaut, imprisoned in his space capsule, any attempt to actually encounter the physical world directly would spell death. Arendt gives very little away about this new science—after all, she does not see it as her task to offer solutions. Technologically speaking one could speculate that such a new science would not embark on the path of finally leaving behind the earth—‘the very quintessence of the human condition’ as Arendt called it—or of biologically re-engineering the human body to endure and withstand the light-speed journeys into deep space. In addition, Arendt presumably believed that such threats to both human life and the earth, as represented by the initiating of nuclear chain-reactions for example, would not be within the remit of the new geocentric and anthropomorphic world view. In fact, such a new science—though again Arendt does not explicitly say so—would presumably emerge from the experience of wonder as it had prior to the advent of the modern age and the condition of earth alienation. Considering, that Arendt understood that concepts of history and nature were intimately connected, the new geocentric and anthropomorphic science at which she hints, might reasonably represent the counterpart in the natural realm to that political philosophy which, as we saw in Chapter One, would be grounded in a sense of wonder at the realm of human affairs.


As we begin the twenty first century, a new form of ‘acting into nature’ has moved to the forefront of our concerns for the human condition. Arendt recognized what we now generally call ‘genetic engineering’ as a form of ‘action into nature’ but neither elaborated upon, or investigated into, the implications of this form of technology—after all, unlike nuclear weaponry, in the Cold War context, such a technology was not a tangible presence. However, what appeared until so recently to so many people up as an impossibility has been achieved. The cloning of complex biological organisms—potentially including man himself—is now on the agenda. In the conclusion to this thesis I will speculate on some possible Arendtian concerns over the new bio-technologies. Now, it is fitting that we should turn to consider Chesterton’s attack on the first stirrings of the eugenic movement together with his hope for a new sense of wonder at the natural world.



[1] For some discussion of Arendt’s views on science and technology see Barry Cooper, ‘Action into Nature: Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on Technology,’ in Richard B. Day, Ronald Beiner, and Joseph Masciulli (eds.) Democratic Theory and Technological Society (New York: M. E. Sharpe), pp. 316-35; Action into Nature: An Essay on the Meaning of Technology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press); David Macauley, ‘Out of Place and Outer Space: Hannah Arendt on Earth Alienation: An Historical and Critical Perspective,’ Capitalism, Nature, Socialism Vol. 3 No.4 (December, 1992), pp. 19-45; Pieter Tijmes, ‘The Archimedean Point and Eccentricity: Hannah Arendt’s Philosophy of Science and Technology,’ Inquiry 35 (1992), pp. 389-406.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1958]), p. 252.

[3] For a comparison of Arendt and Marx’s understanding of alienation see Judith Ring, ‘On Needing Both Marx and Arendt: Alienation and the Flight from Inwardness,’ Political Theory 19 (1989), pp. 432-48.

[4] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 250.

[5] Ibid., p. 251.

[6] Ibid., p. 260

[7] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Archimedean Point,’ (essay and lecture, College of Engineers, University of Michigan, 1968) as published on the Arendt Collection at the Library of Congress website,, stamped page 031394.

[8] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 262.

[9] Ibid., p. 268.

[10] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern [1957/8],’ Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993 [1968]), p. 50.

[11] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 274. Chesterton also understood modern philosophy to be based on a doubt of, rather than wonder at, reality: “Most modern philosophies are not philosophy but philosophic doubt; that is, doubt about whether there can be any philosophy.” G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1933), p. 222.

[12] Ibid., p. 282.

[13] Ibid., p. 283.

[14] Ibid., p. 287.

[15] Ibid., p. 293.

[16] Arendt, The Concept of History,’ p. 42.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 43

[19] Ibid., p. 55.

[20] Maurizio Passerin d’Entrèves, The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 44.

[21] Arendt, ‘The Concept of History,’ p. 61.

[22] Ibid., p. 63.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., p. 89.

[25] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 261.

[26] Arendt, ‘The Concept of History,’ pp. 89-90.

[27] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1979 [1951]), pp. 461-2.

[28] Ibid., p. 462.

[29] Ibid., p. 463.

[30] Ibid., p. 464.

[31] Ibid., p. 465.

[32] Ibid., pp. 465-6.

[33] Ibid., p. 466.

[34] Ibid., p. 437.

[35] Ibid., p. 438.

[36] Ibid., p. 445.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., p. 447.

[39] Ibid., p. 446.

[40] Ibid., p. 445.

[41] Ibid., p. 448.

[42] Ibid., p. 452.

[43] Ibid., p. 453.

[44] Ibid., p, 455.

[45] Ibid., pp. 457-8. As we saw in Chapter Two, Chesterton criticized modern ideologies along similar lines of being driven by a relentless, paranoiac logicality and consistency in the chapter on ‘The Maniac’ in Orthodoxy (London: The Bodley Head, 1927 [1908]), pp. 20-50.

[46] Ibid., p. 458.

[47] Ibid., p. 459.

[48] Arendt, ‘The Concept of History,’ p. 87.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 231.

[51] Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 118.

[52] See Arendt, Human Condition, p. 269.

[53] Ibid., pp. 149-50.

[54] As we saw in Chapter Three, Arendt was not particularly enamoured with notions of world government and in The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 298, pointed out that such an institution “might differ considerably from the version promoted by idealistic-minded organizations.”

[55] See Arendt, Human Condition, p. 150 n. 13.

[56] Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 [1992]), p. 79.

[57] Arendt, ‘The Concept of History,’ p. 58.

[58] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 231-2.

[59] Ibid., p. 238.

[60] Ibid.,  p. 1.

[61] Ibid.,  p. 2.

[62] See Chapter One above.

[63] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[64] Ibid., p. 3

[65] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man [1963],’ Between Past and Future, pp. 265-6.

[66] Ibid., p. 275-6.

[67] See the discussion of this issue in Claudia Drucker, ‘Hannah Arendt on the Need for a Public Debate on Science,’ Environmental Ethics Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall, 1998), pp. 305-16.

[68] Arendt, ‘The Conquest of Space,’ p. 269.

[69] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 3.

[70] Arendt, ‘The Conquest of Space,’ p. 270.

[71] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 148-9.

[72] Ibid., p. 149.

[73] Ibid., p. 151.

[74] Ibid., p. 152.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid., p. 5.

[77] Ibid., p. 132.

[78] Ibid., p. 322. Anyone who believes this to be exaggeration should consider the chilling fact that today large numbers of young ‘clubbers’ willingly and regularly take drugs whose original purpose was the tranquilization of animals destined for slaughter.

[79] Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 179.

[80] Arendt, Human Condition, p.  322.

[81] Arendt, ‘The Conquest of Space,’ p. 278.

[82] Ibid., p. 279.

[83] As Arendt points out, the camps sought not to transform humans into animals but “into something that even animals are not; for Pavlov’s dog, which, as we know, was trained to eat not when it was hungry but when a bell rang, was a perverted animal.” Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 438. In this sentence it is possible to detect an early expression of Arendt’s understanding of modern science as a science not marked by a wonder at things in themselves but concerned with creating experimental situations to wrench the hidden secrets out of nature. It could be argued that what happens in the behaviorists laboratories is not so much the learning about dogs or rats but the ‘making’ of perverted animals whose rules of behavior are then applied to humans. As we shall see in the next chapter, the need for a purging in the human imagination of the  perversions which have been projected into nature was a key concern to Chesterton. The notion of ‘perverted animals’ is also redolent of Arendt’s concept of an ‘unnatural growth of the natural’ in The Human Condition.

[84] Arendt, ‘The Archimedean Point,’ 031398.

[85] Arendt, ‘The Conquest of Space,’ p. 275.

[86] Ibid., p. 276.

[87] As quoted in ibid., p. 276.

[88] As quoted in ibid., p. 277.

[89] As quoted in ibid.

[90] Ibid., p. 277.  Chesterton also seems to have seen the self-defeating narcissism which was inscribed into the technological perspective. This, together with his own populist contention that an awareness of objectivity in nature is still recognized in the outlook of the ‘common man’ is neatly expressed in the following passage written at the dawn of the twentieth century: “And under all this vast illusion of the cosmopolitan planet, with its empires and its Reuter’s agency, the real life of man goes on concerned with this tree or that temple, with this harvest or that drinking-song, totally uncomprehended, totally untouched.  And it watches from its splendid parochialism, possibly with a smile of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way, out-stripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing, roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find the sun cockney and the stars suburban.” G. K. Chesterton, ‘On Mr. Rudyard Kipling,’ Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928 [1905]), p. 46.

[91] Arendt, ‘The Archimedean Point,’ 031400

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid.. 031401

[96] Ibid.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Ibid..

[99] Arendt, ‘The Conquest of Space,’ p. 278.

[100] Ibid., p. 279.

[101] Ibid. The essay and lecture ‘The Archimedean Point’ ends with the above quote on the possibility for a new geocentric and anthropomorphic science and so concludes on a more positive note that ‘The Conquest of Space’.

[102] Ibid., p.280.




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