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Chapter One


Wonder and Gratitude in the Thought of Arendt



Hannah Arendt’s view of the world was marked by a sense of wonder at, and gratitude for, sheer existence—‘of that which is as it is.’ A related theme, which recurs throughout Arendt’s work, concerns the dangers when individuals lose their sense of reality. Thrown back upon their own subjective sensations, such individuals can easily become the prey of ideological distortions which defy the limits of common sense. This chapter begins by examining Arendt’s concepts of the ‘pariah’ and social-climbing ‘parvenu’ in Rahel Varnhagen (1957) in terms of their relation to fostering the sense of reality and gratitude. We shall then see that totalitarian movements, according to Arendt, seemed to be possessed of a resentment of reality itself, of existence as it has be given, and instead aimed to fabricate their own ‘fictitious’ ideological world. In the shadow of the nightmare events of the twentieth century, political ‘realism’, in Arendt’s thought, takes the form of a facing up to and resistance of reality, and this she considers to be an alternative to the more conventional, and fatalistic, choices of optimism or pessimism. The ability to experience horror at the actions of totalitarian regimes is akin to the sense of wonder at reality itself. I will explore Arendt’s remarks on the thaumadzein of the ancients—‘the wonder at that which is as it is’—together with her assertion that political philosophy should direct this wondering gaze into the realm of human affairs itself, a realm which, according to Arendt, the philosophical tradition had previously held to be unworthy of wonder. After noting that in the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) Arendt had asserted that the dilemma of modernity lay in the choice between resentment and gratitude, in the second part of this chapter I will explore the theme of wonder and gratitude in terms of the analysis of the vita activa­—life of activity—put forward in The Human Condition (1958). Through an interpretive reading of this work I suggest that a fully human life, lived in the mode of gratitude rather than resentment for what has been given, implies the striking of a balance between the three distinct elements of the vita activa—labor, work, and action. This would allow us to enact our gratitude within the realm of human affairs for, in turn: life itself, the humanly established world, and the plurality of human lives.



Pariah and Parvenu


Neither by disposition nor education was Hannah Arendt prepared to think in specifically political terms. Arendt began her serious academic pursuits at Marburg, developing a passion for philosophical thought as a student of Martin Heidegger.[1] “With him,” writes Jerome Kohn, “she experienced the awestruck wonder of pure existence that begins the activity of thinking.”[2] The relationship between Arendt and Heidegger’s thought is a complex one which is beyond the bounds of the present discussion.[3] What is important to note for a comparative study of Arendt and Chesterton, however, is that the theme of wonder at, and gratitude for, sheer existence would reverberate throughout Arendt’s mature political thought.[4] Wonder corresponds to Arendt’s assertion that man does not make himself—the source of his own existence and of the rest of natural creation lies outside himself. Existence thereby appears as an unexpected and shocking surprise which is met by the amazed and appreciative awe of wonder. This is the experience Arendt has in mind—the awe at the fact that there is something and not nothing—when she refers to the fact that for both Plato and Aristotle “thaumadzein, the shocked wonder at the miracle of Being, is the beginning of all philosophy.”[5] For Arendt, the experience that the world is given to and not created by humanity is the basis for the response of gratitude. As Arendt once wrote to Gershom Scholom at the time of the controversy surrounding her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963): “There is such a thing as a basic gratitude for everything that is at is; for things that are physei and not nomo.”[6] As she continued, it is an attitude which “makes certain types of behavior impossible.”[7] Or, in other words, it inculcates a sense of limits—an important theme for Arendt which is often overlooked and on which we shall say more later.


The theme of a grateful assent to an existence which man did not himself create is a core insight of the Judeo-Christian tradition—it was crucial to Chesterton’s thinking as we shall see in the following chapter—and it was already present in Arendt’s first book, her doctoral dissertation written at Heidelberg under the supervision of Karl Jaspers: Love and Saint Augustine (1929). There, gratitude emerged within the context of the creature’s return through remembrance towards his source in the Creator:


[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude: ‘Give thanks for wanting to be as you are that you may be delivered from an existence that you do not want. For you are willing to be and unwilling to be miserable.’ This will to be under all circumstances is the hallmark of man’s attachment to the transmundane source of his existence.[8]


In this early period of her life, Arendt was not interested in political concerns. That, however, was soon to change for she would be pulled out of this non-political intellectual life of study by her subsequent move to Berlin which brought her face to face with the growing Nazi movement. The gap between philosophical thought and political reality was driven home for Arendt by the ease with which certain intellectuals collaborated with the Nazi project when other sectors of society had proved far more reluctant. Nauseated by such political cowardice, Arendt was repelled by academic life and she began to move in Zionist circles, forming friendships with Kurt Blumenfeld as well as assimilating the thought of the radical Jewish thinker Bernard Lazare.[9] 


The ease with which the intelligentsia had accommodated itself with Nazism was deeply disturbing for Arendt and her relationship with academia would henceforth be highly problematic. In particular, the fact that in 1934 her philosophical mentor Heidegger could temporarily endorse the Nazi regime would henceforth place the relationship between philosophy and politics as highly problematic in Arendt’s mind. It seems that the tension between philosophy and politics was never ultimately resolved for Arendt.[10] Arendt did not, however, relinquish the grounding of philosophy in thaumadzein—‘the wonder at that which is as it is’—and indeed, as we shall see later, she believed that such a wonder would also constitute the basis for a new political philosophy, though, in order to avoid the perils of the solitary thinking of the philosopher, thaumadzein would, in that context, have to be a wonder at human plurality.


As well as working for various Zionist organizations, in the face of an aggressively anti-Semitic Nazism, reflection on her own identity as a Jew found expression in what was to have been her second book. This was a study of the nineteenth century German Romantic and salon hostess Rahel Varnhagan (née Levin)—as it turned out, Rahel Varnhagan: The Life of a Jewess would not be published until 1957. The need to develop a sense of gratitude for one’s given inheritance is a central concern of Rahel Varnhagen. Arendt’s study recounts Rahel’s attempt to escape her Jewishness by means of integration into Gentile society through to the final acceptance of her inheritance and adoption of the position of the ‘pariah’ who rejected assimilation and accepted a marginal position within society. Integrated into this critique of un-political assimilation, and reflecting Arendt’s sense of wonder at the actuality of existence, is woven a critique of a romantic and introspective focus on subjective moods and experiences which severed Rahel from any contact with a reality she sought to deny.


In this chapter I am not concerned with the various themes which are dealt with in Rahel Varnhagen, but merely to provide a summary sketch of how it reflects Arendt’s concern to express gratitude for a given reality.[11] In this biography, Arendt declared that “Man ought to confront the divine powers with gratitude for happiness and with willing submission to unhappiness.”[12] In Rahel Varnhagen, Arendt’s understanding of gratitude emerges as a counter to the pride of the social climbing parvenu who, through the relentless striving for social success can also succumb to the delusion of the ‘superman’ i.e. the belief that ‘everything is possible’ and that a human being owes his whole existence entirely to himself, denying the recognition of what has been given by others. Before adopting the position of a ‘pariah’, Varnhagen had attempted to become a parvenu, that is to assimilate to existing society by denying her whole given Jewish inheritance, “even including her given name.”[13]


Like all parvenus, she never dreamed of a radical alteration of bad conditions, but rather a shift of personnel that would work out in her favor, so that the situation would improve as if by the stroke of a magic wand. The parvenu’s overestimation of himself, which often seems quite mad, arises out of the tremendous effort, and the straining of all his forces and talents, which are incumbent upon him if he is to climb only a few steps up the social ladder. The smallest success, so hard-won, necessarily dazzles him with an illusory: everything is possible; the smallest failure instantly sends him hurtling back into the depths of his social nullity misleads him into the shabbiest kind of worship of success.[14]


Social climbing and ‘the worship of success’ are therefore inherently conformist and foster the hubristic belief that ‘everything is possible’. Arendt’s critique of ‘getting on’ in society rather than changing it reflects the populism of her early thought, yet it can still be detected in her later work. Indeed Arendt did not find much reason to celebrate the drive to establish a ‘meritocracy’ for not only would this system of social climbing work to undermine the sense of gratitude but it was quite likely to strengthen and not weaken the claims of the powerful.[15] In On Revolution (1965), Arendt observed the fashion for social scientific interest in ‘equality of opportunity’ but pointed out that it had had no appeal for the American revolutionaries who had founded the republic.[16] In Arendt’s understanding, the goal of achieving a highly mobile society run on the principle of status seeking was nothing less than to extend the vices of the upper classes—greed, envy, resentment—across the rest of the citizenry.[17] Indeed, Arendt’s depiction of the conformist ‘parvenu’ would find later reflection in her concept of the social realm of ‘behavior’ whilst the ‘conscious pariah’ (see below) becomes the political actor willing to establish a public realm of freedom—concepts which we shall examine in Chapter Three. 


To return to the context of Rahel Varnhagen, ultimately the social climbing parvenu lives an existence deprived of the sense of reality and gratitude, and so is unable to recognize anything outside of his own self for which he could be thankful:


He dare not be grateful because he owes everything to his own powers; he must not be considerate to others because he must esteem himself a kind of superman of efficiency, an especially good and strong and intelligent specimen of humanity, a model for his poor pariah brethren to follow. The parvenu pays for the loss of his pariah qualities by becoming ultimately incapable of grasping generalities, recognizing relationships, or taking an interest in anything but his own person.[18]


It is precisely the feelings of gratitude and the recognition of others which the pariah possesses in abundance:


[G]ratitude, excessive attachment, is the typical vice of the pariah, who feels obligated even by a casual word, an almost unintentional gesture of friendliness, because he expected nothing of the sort from the world. This longing to be grateful would be only a fault if it were not accompanied by another trait equally characteristic of the pariah: ‘too much consideration for a human face.’ This sensitivity is an emotionally exaggerated understanding of the dignity of every human being, a passionate comprehension unknown to the privileged. In a society based upon privilege, pride of birth and arrogance of title, the pariah instinctively discovers human dignity in general long before Reason has made it the foundation of morality.[19]


Anticipating the themes of the ‘fictitious world’ of totalitarianism and of the eerie ‘worldlessness’ of modern ‘society’ (both to be discussed later), Arendt notes that it is the pariah and not the parvenu who obtains a sense of personal and external reality: “It turned out that the pariah was capable not only of preserving more feeling for the ‘true realities,’ but that in some circumstances he also possessed more reality than the parvenu. For the latter, being condemned to lead a sham existence, could seize possession of all the objects of the a world not arranged for him only with the pseudo-reality of a masquerade.”[20] Essential to gratitude is the recognition of an objective reality; resentment by contrast seeks to dissolve that objectivity and replace it with subjective ‘mood’. For Rahel, in her attempt to become a parvenu, thinking became introspective and took the form of a denial of objective facts through lying. Resentment of that which had been given—in this case Rahel’s Jewish heritage—culminates in the eclipse of truth, or reality itself. 


While Rahel finally came to accept her pariah status, this was in the spirit of fatalism. Rahel may have recovered the “true realities” of nature and the simple pleasures in life—“green things, children, love, weather . . . a bridge, a tree, a ride, a smell, a smile”[21]—but her criticism of society did not become political. In the context of Nazi persecution, Arendt later came to realize that unlike refugees who attempted to follow the path of the parvenu—and who oscillated between a sense of optimism and despair over their fate—the Jew as pariah needed to become the “conscious pariah” who in “contrast to his unemancipated brethren who accept their pariah status automatically and unconsciously, . . . must awake to an awareness of his position and, conscious of it, become a rebel against it.”[22]



Between Optimism and Pessimism


After her escape to the United Sates following a spell in an internment camp in France, Arendt began work on the book which would eventually become The Origins of Totalitarianism and simultaneously worked as a journalist—notably for Aufbau between 1941-5—in which capacity she highlighted the need for Jews to accept responsibility for the world, to face reality and reject fatalism, calling for, amongst other things, the formation of a Jewish army to fight alongside the allies against the forces of Nazism.[23] By the time Arendt comes to write her full-length analysis of totalitarianism she locates her own facing up to reality as existing between the tensions of optimism and pessimism. In the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt makes it known to the reader that her “book has been written against a background of reckless optimism and reckless despair.”[24] It is a background which undermines the capacity to face up to a reality which appears beyond comprehension and leads to the yielding to mere historical process in which “everything outside it has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless, and unreal.”[25] Against this general retreat from reality Arendt calls for the understanding of a reality which appears incomprehensible:


Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated facing up to, and resistance of reality—whatever it may be.[26]


The Origins of Totalitarianism is an extremely complex book. Much of it is concerned with tracing the various ‘elements’ which, although they had developed in an earlier period, would ‘crystallize’ into a new entity after World War I. In an outline sent to her publisher in 1946 Arendt lists these as: “antisemitism, decay of the nation state, racism, expansion for expansion’s sake, alliance between capital and mob.[27] Margaret Canovan summarizes the role played by each element:


[T]he imperialists’ ‘expansion for expansion’s sake’ had set a pattern of global conquest; the ‘decay of the nation-state’ under the impact of imperialism had undermined the institutional structure that might have provided protection. In racism the imperialists had created a justification for conquest and a biological basis for community that made citizenship redundant, while the imperialist ‘alliance between capital and mob’ showed how easily the outcasts of society could be recruited to perpetrate atrocities.[28] 


Antisemitism, Canovan points out, played the role of the ‘amalgamator’ for Arendt, combining the various elements into the Nazi totalitarian whole. Most importantly, the ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ a forged document which purported to reveal a Jewish world conspiracy was actually used by the forces of anti-Semitism as a blueprint for how a new chosen race might emulate the Jews in order to secure world dominion. As Arendt wrote in the outline to her publisher: “the Jews who have kept their identity without territory and without state, appeared as the only people that seemingly was already organized as a racial body politic. Modern antisemitism wanted not only to exterminate world Jewry but to imitate what it thought to be their organizational strength.”[29]


It is beyond the bounds of the present study to examine Arendt’s understanding of the roots of totalitarianism.[30] However, what is crucial for the present study is the fact that Arendt understood totalitarian movements to be possessed of a “conspicuous disdain for the whole fabric of reality.”[31] Arendt had seen that totalitarianism was marked by a flight from the recognition of reality and the fabrication of an ideological ‘fictitious world’ which was marked by an absence of common sense—a context ideal for the growth of insane doctrines. The condition of the masses in both Germany and Russia who had been dislocated by war, revolution and inflation produced solitary and ‘lonely’ individuals who lacked a world in common with others and so became easy prey to the illusions of a fictitious yet ideologically consistent world offered by the propagandists of totalitarianism: “Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.”[32] Totalitarian propaganda takes hold amongst these atomized masses who have lost any secure home in the world, the framework for the common sense which tolerates the ambiguities and fortuitous aspects of reality: “[T]otalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.”[33] The masses could easily be conditioned “to think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”[34] That is, to lose their sense of both reality and the sense of limits which coincides with ‘the given’. Nazis and Stalinists were committed to a ruthless logicality, pursuing their theories to their ultimate conclusions in complete defiance of conventional assumptions as to what was considered either acceptable or possible. As we shall see in Chapter Five, the most terrifying manifestation of ideological consistency was in the Nazi extermination camps.


The total disdain for reality, understood as a resentment of ‘the given’—of that which man did not himself make—was a theme of the ‘Concluding Remarks’ to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism and is linked to the dangers of hubris: “[M]odern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment, he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world. In his resentment of all laws merely given to him, he proclaims openly that everything is permitted and believes secretly that everything is possible.”[35] Arendt asserts that the fundamental dilemma today “is the choice between resentment and gratitude as basic possible modern attitudes.”[36] 


Following Canovan’s summary of Arendt’s depiction of the dilemma for humanity in modern times, one possible choice is the course of resentment for what has been given, of which totalitarianism was the most radical example. In pursuing this path, human beings would take full advantage of their power and make light of their responsibility by acting as if they were not free and plural beings. In resentment for the human condition of plurality they can side with inhuman forces, transform themselves and others into representatives of an animal species, and surrender their capacity for independent thought for the relentless logicality of single-track thinking. Alternatively, by choosing the path of gratitude, they can face reality and consent to the implications of their humanity. In this manner, human beings would have to acknowledge their plurality, their freedom to think and act, and their shared responsibility to institute a world between them to which they are related, to place limits on the reach of natural forces and to confer rights of citizenship upon one another.[37] This is of course correct, but plurality represents only one of the conditions on which existence has been given to man. The rest of this chapter is concerned with how gratitude might also meet the other principal conditions of human existence—that is, of life itself and of ‘worldliness’.


Amor Mundi


Arendt’s mature work centered on the theme of gratitude and emerged from a directing of wonder into the realm of human affairs itself. That a theorist who rose to public recognition as an analyst of totalitarianism—a phenomenon she could hardly admire—this emphasis on wonder as the spring of political thought may come as a surprise. How can wonder—the appreciation of Being—be linked to the analysis of totalitarianism? The answer lies in the recognition of reality. Turning the wondering glance into the realm of human affairs can solicit the response of horror at the evil of which men are capable. Horror and wonder, Arendt suggests, are two dimensions of the recognition of reality:


[In their] refusal to own up to the experience of horror and take it seriously the philosophers have inherited the traditional refusal to grant to the realm of human affairs that thaumadzein, the wonder at that which is as it is, which according to Plato and Aristotle, is at the beginning of all philosophy, yet which even they had refused to accept as a preliminary condition for political philosophy. For the speechless horror at what men may do and what the world may become is in many ways related to the speechless wonder of gratitude from which the questions of philosophy spring.[38]


Horror like wonder is based on the recognition of the reality of the outside world: the exclusion of both from the modern philosophical worldview reflects, we can suppose, the modern preference for fiction over reality. Arendt has no more to say about horror, but is more forthcoming on the nature of wonder, as we shall now see.


In Plato’s Thaetetus Arendt finds an answer to the question ‘what sets us thinking?’ which, she says, has lost none of its plausibility. It is thaumadzein, the wonder at sheer existence:


Thaumadzein, the wonder at that which is as it is. . . . Plato must have first encountered it in those frequently reported traumatic states in which Socrates would suddenly, as though seized by a rapture, fall into complete motionlessness. That this speechless wonder is the beginning of philosophy became axiomatic for both Plato and Aristotle. . . . This wonder at everything that is as it is never relates to any particular thing, and Kierkegaard therefore interpreted it as the experience of no-thing, of nothingness.[39]


As soon as thaumadzein attempts to express itself in words the arising statements will be formulated in terms of  “the ultimate questions—What is being?  Who is man?  What meaning has life?  What is death etc.”[40] Scientific answers cannot be given to such questions: all that we know is that we cannot know. Yet from the standpoint of the “pathos of wonder” this awareness of our lack of knowledge is not entirely negative: “It is from the actual experience of not-knowing, in which one of the basic aspects of the human condition on earth reveals itself, that the ultimate questions arise—not from the rationalized, demonstrable fact that there are things man does not know, which believers in progress hope to see fully amended one day, or which positivists may discard as irrelevant.”[41]


As well as instilling this sense of limits to human knowledge, wonder fosters an admiration for that which is.


[W]hat sets men wondering is something familiar and yet normally invisible, and something men are forced to admire. The wonder that is the starting-point of thinking is neither puzzlement nor surprise nor perplexity; it is an admiring wonder. What we marvel at is confirmed and affirmed by admiration which breaks out into speech, the gift of Iris, the rainbow, the messenger from above. Speech then takes the form of praise, a glorification not of a particularly amazing appearance or of the sum total of things in the world, but of the harmonious order behind them which itself is not visible and of which nevertheless the world of appearances gives us a glimpse.[42]


Plato, Arendt points out, does not give us the object of his admiring wonder and only hints at how this wonder becomes thinking. Arendt suggests that one of the best solutions to the perplexities of Being and nothingness may be Heidegger’s notion that “to think and to thank are the same; the very words derive from the same etymological root.”[43] The problem for this position, according to Arendt, “lies not in the etymological derivation and the lack of an argumentative demonstration” but that it “leaves no place for the factual existence of disharmony, of ugliness, and finally of evil.”[44] As we have already seen, the experience of horror is the other side of the coin to a philosophy of wonder—and this, as we shall see in the following chapter, is a point on which Chesterton would agree.


However, Arendt believes that the tradition of philosophy—ever since the trial and death of Socrates—has largely been in conflict with the realm of human affairs. Henceforth, the philosophical concern with the realm of human affairs has been in terms of securing the political conditions which would ensure the quiet and peace which would allow the philosophical life to continue undisturbed and in safety. In other words, Arendt believes that the political realm has been reduced to a mere means for the life of contemplation. The inability of Socrates to persuade his captors of his innocence in corrupting the young led Plato to distrust the art of persuasion—the specifically political mode of speech. Not the exchange of opinions amongst a plurality of citizens but the compulsion of the solitary truth of the philosopher would therefore mark the rule of philosopher kings.[45] 


Arendt points to Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic as “a kind of concentrated biography of the philosopher.”[46] The development of the philosopher turns through three stages. The first stage of this turning-around within the cave occurs when the developing philosopher frees himself from the chains which restrict the bodies of the cave-dwellers such that they can only gaze to their front, “their eyes glued to a screen on which shadows and images of things appear.”[47] Freed from his fetters, the philosopher is able to turn around and so “sees in the rear of the cave an artificial fire that illuminates the things in the cave as they really are.”[48]


The next stage in the turning-around occurs when the philosopher is no longer “satisfied with the fire in the cave and with the things now appearing as they really are, but wants to find out where this fire comes from and what the causes of things are.”[49] Turning around once more he sees an opening from the cave on to “a stairway which leads him to the clear sky, a landscape without things or men. Here appear the ideas, the eternal essences of perishable things and of mortal men illuminated by the sun, the idea of ideas, which enables the beholder to see and the ideas to shine forth.”[50]


The completion of this threefold turning is the pinnacle of the philosopher’s life. However, being a mortal he cannot remain in this realm for long and must return to the earthly dwelling of humans, where, tragically, he is unable to feel at home; he feels forever alienated amongst the affairs of men: “The returning philosopher is in danger because he has lost the common sense needed to orient himself in a world common to all, and, moreover, because what he harbors in his thought contradicts the common sense of the world.”[51] The reaction of the Thracian peasant girl who laughed when she saw the ‘wise man’ Thales fall into the well as he gazed upwards at the stars illustrates how the philosopher appears from the standpoint of the realm of human affairs.   For the philosopher, the ‘cave’ of human affairs was something to be coerced by “a utopian rule of reason in the person of the philosopher-king.”[52] The search for a “coercion through reason,” Arendt maintains, has predisposed the philosophers to sympathize with tyrants—the case of Heidegger, no doubt, being at the forefront of Arendt’s concerns.[53]


The ancients had based philosophical thought on the experience of wonder—and this Arendt endorses—but they had had limited their wonder to that which was physis, which owed its existence to itself and not to the efforts of men. In her attempt to surmount the conflict between philosophy and politics we find Arendt’s distinctive contribution to social and political thought which was to direct the wondering gaze into the realm of human affairs themselves which the tradition of philosophy had downgraded to a mere means for the life of contemplation and not in itself worthy of wonder. A true political philosophy, writes Arendt, would not be able to disown its starting point in thaumadzein but would take the entire sphere of human activity as the object of its admiring wonder:


Philosophy, political philosophy like all its other branches, will never be able to deny its origins in thaumadzein, in the wonder at that which is as it is. If philosophers despite their necessary estrangement from the everyday life of human affairs, were ever to arrive at a true political philosophy they would have to make the plurality of man, out of which arises the whole realm of human affairs—in its grandeur and misery—the object of their thaumadzein. Biblically speaking, they would have to accept—as they accept in speechless wonder the miracle of the universe, of man and of being—the miracle that God did not create Man, but ‘male and female created He them.’ They would have to accept in something more than the resignation of human weakness the fact that ‘it is not good to be alone.’[54]


Thaumadzein, recall, was in essence an admiring wonder.  If it is the case that in The Human Condition Arendt directs the wondering gaze to the activities of humans themselves it would not be surprising that she had wished to initially title the book Amor Mundi—for the love of the world. Indeed, as has already been suggested, with the sense of wonder at the world corresponds the sense of limits which gratitude for a given existence entails—though Arendt herself no more than hints at this. An awareness of limits does indeed run throughout Arendt’s The Human Condition which, for from representing a celebration of limitless action, is laced with a critique of the modern disinterest in human freedom per se (which by definition takes place within a humanly established realm) with the concomitant obsessive drive to escape the limits of the human condition. [55] In Chapter Three we shall examine this in terms of Arendt’s critique of the limitless process of economic growth which followed the expropriation of property which coincided with the Reformation and through which the ‘world’-sustaining stable property gave way to the ‘social’ practice of accumulating ‘fluid’ wealth. In Chapter Five, we shall encounter Arendt’s discussions of the limitless processes unleashed through a modern science which seeks to ‘act into nature’—a very dangerous undertaking because, unlike in the realm of human affairs, we cannot impose the limits provided by forgiveness and the power of promise which maintain a check on the unanticipated consequences of action. As we shall see below, so pronounced has this refusal to tolerate any sense of limits become that, as Arendt suggests in her Prologue to The Human Condition, it reveals itself in terms of a resentment of the limits imposed by the very earth and the human body itself.


With this emphasis on wonder and limits, it should not be too surprising that Arendt also stresses the importance of making distinctions between things—after all, a limit marks off where one thing ends and another begins.  The Human Condition,” writes Canovan, “is crammed with them: distinctions between labour, work and action; between power violence and strength; between the earth and the world; between property and wealth, and many more, often established through etymological explorations.”[56] Mary McCarthy once suggested to Arendt that this desire to maintain distinctions was “a medieval habit of thought,” to which Arendt replied: “It is Aristotelian! . . . I always start anything by saying, ‘A and B are not the same.’ And this, of course comes right out of Aristotle. And for you, it comes out of Aquinas, who also did the same.”[57]


As we have already seen, Arendt states that in the specifically political realm gratitude takes the form of thankfulness for human plurality—yet The Human Condition is about a lot more than action and the public realm per se.[58] In the second half of this chapter I shall attempt to suggest how gratitude can be expressed throughout the whole of human activity—including those activities through which we interact with nature. I shall try to show how Arendt seeks to foster a reconciliation with existence as it has been given through an examination of the three dimensions of her analysis of the vita activa: labor, work, and action—this reading is offered as an interpretation of Arendt’s text as it is not something which she herself explicitly states. Furthermore, it is an interpretation which needs to be understood in the context of an academic disagreement over Arendt’s understanding of nature. Concern with ecological politics and the impact of the new bio-technologies of genetic engineering has led to new readings of Arendt which have aimed to bring into question the perceived anti-naturalism in her thought.[59] Kerry Whiteside, for example, objects to the equation of nature with ‘barbarism’ in Margaret Canovan’s Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought.[60] Related to this is the fact that both Whiteside and Kimberly Curtis reject those interpretations of Arendt which would portray her understanding of the most actively human life as that which maximizes action and minimizes—or even eradicates—labor and work in the daily course of life. Whiteside and Curtis, by contrast, emphasize that a fully human life would partake of both the natural and artificial conditions of human existence. As Curtis suggests: “While the life of necessity is clearly in conflict with the specifically human life of thought and action, the relationship is not a simple one of domination and subordination. To be fully human we must be, to some extent, subject to necessity’s compulsion; we must feel its impact. Not to be so subject is to risk losing both the very capacity for action that makes us human and the hope for and renewal of the world it promises.”[61] The present chapter is thus written in agreement with Whiteside and Curtis in maintaining that a fully active life—in this case one that most fully expresses a sense of gratitude for given existence—entails partaking in the distinct experiences which each dimension of the active life provides.


Wonder and gratitude for plurality, as we saw in the context of our discussion of totalitarianism, constitute the specifically political dimension of human activity. But the realm of human affairs includes both ‘grandeur and misery’, action is only one dimension of the vita activa. The toil of satisfying the demands of necessity —as we shall see later— is also an inherent part of the human condition to which it is possible to respond with gratitude through accepting the burdens of labor. Thus W. H. Auden, according to Arendt, was a great poet because of his capacity to express his assent to given existence without denying the numerous tragedies and pains of the human condition. His response to “the curse” was a “praise that pitches itself against all that is most unsatisfactory in man’s condition on this earth and sucks its strength out of the wound . . . .”[62]


Canovan’s interpretation of Arendt which equates nature with barbarism situates The Human Condition within the context of her reflections on totalitarianism, but this is at the expense of Arendt’s own Prologue to that book. Crucially, as we noted above, Arendt remarked that the sense of horror—the concomitant of wonder—was not just a case of horror at what man has done but at what man may do. The assertion that The Human Condition was written in the shadow of totalitarianism needs to be balanced by the fact that Arendt is also repelled by a possible future which is marked by a radical resentment of our natural being. In these terms, equating Arendt’s understanding of nature with ‘the barbaric’ becomes untenable. 


Arendt begins the Prologue to The Human Condition by reflecting on the public reactions to the launch of sputnik—the first man-made satellite—in 1957. What Arendt found striking about these reactions was the atmosphere of expressed relief in the hope that mankind would not long remain imprisoned on this earth. Arendt believed that such a conception of the earth as a prison was unprecedented in human history. It was not only the earth which mankind was now hoping to leave behind but the very limitations of the human body. Arendt links this remarkable desire to abandon the limits of both the earth through space travel and the given human body through genetic engineering to a common motivation. Echoing the themes of resentment and gratitude in the ‘Concluding Remarks’ to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt maintains that this flight from the human body and the earth represent “a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), and which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”[63] That Arendt describes our natural existence as a gift implies that we should respond with gratitude. If anything here is ‘barbaric’ surely it is the resentment of our natural being and not nature itself?


The fact that man did not make either himself or the rest of natural creation is a point Arendt returns to again and again because she feels that the mistake of self-creation is a trap into which modern thought—devoid of wonder—continually falls. Natural existence, for Arendt, is something objectively given and not, as many theorists would today maintain, a ‘social construction’: “[A]ll notions of man creating himself have in common a rebellion against the very factuality of the human condition—nothing is more obvious than that man, whether as member of the species or as an individual, does not owe his existence to himself.”[64] This idea that existence has been given has religious connotations which even those who wish to depict Arendt as a thoroughly un-theological writer have been forced to recognize.[65] The danger is in man believing that he creates what is given: “The moment man defines himself no longer as creatura Dei,” Arendt writes, “he will find it very difficult not to think of himself, consciously or unconsciously, as homo faber.[66] As we shall see, fabrication, the activity of man as homo faber, is only one dimension of the vita activa, and in order to prevent disaster it must not be allowed to dominate our relationship with nature or be allowed to become the principle governing the world which that activity brought into being from what was given. 


Certainly, in terms of the Prologue to The Human Condition, it can be inferred, the alternative to the resentment of the naturally given earth and the human body is their acceptance in gratitude. As we shall see in Chapter Five, Arendt herself does not doubt that the naturally given may some day be exchanged for something man-made but she does not believe that it need be inevitable. As Curtis suggests: “In the face of this pervasive new desire thoroughly to escape not the body but its imperious demands, Arendt plays the role of the muse Memory. She perpetually reminds us that we are not nature’s creators; that, despite incredible technological capabilities, wonder at that which appears ought to be fundamental to us as creatures of this earth.”[67]


Although the scientific overcoming of the earth and the limits of the body may still be some way off in the future, Arendt believes that there is a danger much closer to hand and one that I think is more intimately connected with the danger of the loss of the earth and the naturally given body than is generally recognized: the potential liberation from the toil of labor. Laboring, for Arendt, is intimately connected to our immersion in the cycles of earthly nature and the needs of the body. While Arendt’s The Human Condition has often been taken as a celebration of ‘action’ it is easily overlooked that her book begins with reflections on the possible technological abolition of human labor (i.e. our ties to the earth and the body). While many have overlooked the category of labor, Arendt herself does not relish its disappearance: “What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.”[68]  Such a possibility is likely to be one stimulus for Arendt’s sense of horror at the ultimate act of resentment which lies behind the writing of The Human Condition. That is, a possible future situation in which biologically engineered humans leave behind the awe-inspiring gift of the earth which has been reduced to a nuclear wasteland as a result of the technological hubris of ‘acting into nature.’ In Arendt’s thought, as we shall see, one aspect of labor is that it corresponds to an affirmation of life itself. Rather than dispensing with labor through automation, the disaster of the abandonment of the earth and the body can only be avoided, one could surmise, by a renewed affirmation of the goodness of earthly life not only in spite of its pains but because of them. Arendt’s affirmation of the toils of existence has clear parallels with the Judeo-Christian tradition which Arendt believed had better understood this aspect of labor than had the Greeks. Indeed, in an interesting footnote Arendt points out that in the Old Testament labor itself was not a consequence of the Fall for man had been created to care for the earth and till the soil: tilling, laboring and serving were all intimately connected. This footnote makes it clear that for Arendt labor itself was not the “curse”: “the curse . . . only made labor harsh and birth full of sorrow.”[69] As we shall see, for Arendt, the toil and trouble of labor is in fact a “blessing” in disguise. Indeed, for Arendt a life without toil or pain would not be a life at all: “The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are rather modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the ‘easy life of the gods’ would be a lifeless life.”[70]


What then might we consider as a conception of the active human life which would foster gratitude for existence? The answer, I suggest, is in a balance of the three modes of activity which together make up Arendt’s understanding of the vita activa. Thus I endorse Whiteside’s suggestion that Arendt’s conception of the active life cannot be reduced to one ultimate and ideal activity (‘action’) but consists in a balance of three distinct activities: 


An active life combines labor, work, and action in a unique configuration. Labor both produces and respects a worked-upon world of more permanent creations; this world, in turn, derives its significance from public deliberation and memorialization. Deliberation needs labor’s energies in order to maintain its sense of life; it needs work’s accomplishments in order to appear. Maintaining the proper ordering of human existence is a matter of correctly integrating the three activities. Life becomes distorted if it is given over exclusively to laboring and consumption or to work and instrumentalization, or to deliberation and public display.[71]


Indeed, this notion of balance between the various activities which constitute an actively lived human life recalls Arendt’s earlier and more overtly populist assertion of the need for a new balance between the activities of city and country. Although criticizing the political naiveté of the founders of the kibbutz movement (and believing that property ownership should be private and not collective), Arendt had praised the values embodied in their vision: “their genuine contempt for material wealth, exploitation, and bourgeois life; their unique combination of culture and labor; their rigorous realisation of social justice within their small circle; and their loving pride in the fertile soil, the work of the hands, together with an utter and surprising lack of any wish for personal possession.”[72] It is not so much the specific form (the kibbutz) that is important here so much as Arendt’s willingness to entertain the idea of “a new form of ownership, a new type of farmer, a new way of family life and child education, and new approaches to the conflicts between city and country, between rural and industrial labor.”[73] This hope for a new relationship between city and country, together with Arendt’s aversion to the culture of the parvenu reflects the ‘radical populist’ element in her thought—the theme is not absent in The Human Condition but it is cast in a different form, in terms of a discussion of the activities of labor, work and action, as well as the indictment of ‘society’ which we shall examine in Chapter Three. In the final section of the chapter I will highlight those elements of labor, work, and action which correspond to a grateful acceptance of the conditions of the principal conditions of life, worldliness, and plurality.


Labor, work, and action


In Arendt’s understanding, the term vita activa refers to the three basic human activities—labor, work and action—each of which reflects a basic human condition. Labor is the activity concerned with fulfilling the necessities required by the biological needs of the body. It corresponds to the human condition of life itself. Work is concerned with the creation of a durable human artifice which serves to separate individuals from the cyclical movement of nature. Its corresponding human condition is worldliness. Action takes place between people without any intermediary objects. The human condition of action is plurality: “the fact that men not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”[74] Although both labor and work have political dimensions, action is the specifically political condition. It refers to the fact that “we are all the same, that is human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”[75] These three activities are connected to the most general dimensions of the human condition: “birth and death, natality and mortality.”[76] Labor serves both individual and species survival. Work creates a durable human artifice and therefore confers a degree of permanence on individual mortality. Action, through the creation and preservation of political institutions, allows for remembrance or history. 


Descending from the abstractions of both political thought and labor theory, Arendt returns to the ground of everyday spoken language and finds two etymologically distinct words denoting two different activities. Arendt finds this distinction inadvertently summarized by John Locke’s reference to ‘the labour of our bodies and the work of our hands.’ Labor is the rhythmic collaboration with nature by which we maintain our own existence and cultivate nature such that it becomes a fit place for the building of the human artifice of the world. In the mode of labor man conforms to the cycles of the natural environment and—limited to its proper sphere—it represents a non-instrumental subsistence intercourse with nature. Thus the economy of the human household accommodates itself to what Arendt refers to as the ‘household of nature’.


Labor produces nothing enduring; its product is almost immediately consumed.  Yet it is powered by the most essential need: that of life. While in terms of its product and viewed from the perspective of the world labor appears futile, destructive and devouring, it must not be assumed that labor is either futile or destructive as a human activity: “The ‘blessing or the joy’ of labor is the human way to experience the sheer bliss of being alive which we share with all living creatures, and it is even the only way men, too, can remain and swing contentedly in nature’s prescribed cycle, toiling and resting, laboring and consuming, with the same happy and purposeless regularity with which day and night and life and death flow one another.”[77]


While this aspect of the vita activa is often undervalued it must not be assumed that laboring corresponds to our animal existence. It is necessity and not labor as such that we share in common with other creatures: labor is the human way of interacting with nature to satisfy our basic bodily needs. Agriculture, for example, though bound up with necessity is a distinctly human activity. Necessity can be satisfied in other ways, such as in the mode of consuming when the production and consumption of labor have parted company, but this does not partake of what it is to be actively human:


There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance—poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death—ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive.[78]


According to Arendt, the cyclical rhythms of biological life are something we cannot totally escape: we either deal with it in a distinctly human way in the activity of labor, thus allowing for a linear life-story to be enacted in the artifice of the world, or, by trying to avoid the toils of labor altogether, we unwittingly allow the human artifice itself to be overrun by an “unnatural growth of the natural”[79] thus removing the distinctly human and inexchangeable period between life and death. Without the recognition that humans, like all other creatures, must move within the cycles of nature they will not be able to also step outside of those same rhythms. Abolishing labor in the name of freedom and of satisfying necessity by way of the easy life of consumption is self-defeating: “Painless and effortless consumption would not change but would only increase the devouring character of biological life until a mankind altogether ‘liberated’ from the shackles of pain and effort would be free to ‘consume’ the whole world and reproduce daily all the things it wished to consume.”[80] In order to step outside of the timeless and cyclical rhythms of nature we must first gratefully accept the burdens of necessity; for as humans we are also creatures. The only lasting joy and happiness is the willing assent to the need for labor. 


Consenting to existence through gratitude for the burden of labor we establish a sense of the reality of life. Grasping the objective reality of given existence is a central concern for Arendt. In terms of labor and work, she distinguishes between two aspects of reality: the sense of the reality of the world which derives from its durability and the sense of the reality of life which depends on the intensity with which life is experienced. Labor, through which we grasp the reality of life itself is a pre-requisite to gaining a sense of the reality of the world and of others: “[V]itality and liveliness can only be conserved only to the extent that men are willing to take the burden, the toil and trouble of life, upon themselves.”[81]


In contrast to labor, work does not emerge from necessity but represents a more distinctly human need. Unlike labor, which moves within the cycles of organic nature, work is instrumental, i.e. means-end oriented. While labor “mixes with” nature, fabrication “works upon” natural material to produce durable use-objects. While destruction is inherent in the consumer products of labor it is only incidental to the use of fabricated objects: use objects are not consumed although they do eventually wear out. Taken together, these use objects—the product of homo faber—constitute the durable artifice of the world.


This world, built within the environment of nature, separates humans from the cyclical movement of nature and ensures human plurality. The artifice of the world, the product or work, mediates between humanity and nature and between humans themselves—it relates and separates them: “To live in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”[82] The sense of reality of the world is guaranteed by the fact that it outlasts the life-span of any single individual and that its durable ‘thing’-like objects are common to all and hence open to a variety of perspectives. The products of labor, which are made for immediate consumption, do not have any durability and thus lack an inherent reality.  However, consumer objects do gain a limited reality (‘thing-character’) by appearing within the context of a world of durable objects—the presence of a distinct ‘world’ lends even our most natural faculties a distinctly human character.


Thus we can see that for Arendt a distinctly human form of interaction between man and nature results from a combination of both labor and work. Through labor man serves and cares for nature whilst providing for his own needs through his own accommodation to the cyclical and organic rhythms of nature. Yet by his simultaneous habitation of an artificial world erected through the activity of work he is never ‘at one’ with nature. It is by fabricating a world which stands between himself and nature that humans can build a home on earth and thus reconcile themselves to this separation from nature. It is this very separation which allows man to swing in the cycles of nature in a human way: the world gives nature its objective existence. Through labor, seen from the non-subjective standpoint of the world, life itself becomes a distinctly human good. By this means nature gains its ‘objective’ stature and can be appreciated for its own ends and not purely in the instrumental way that allowed for the building of the world: 


[A]gainst the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather that the sublime indifference of an untouched nature, whose overwhelming elementary force, on the contrary, will compel them to swing relentlessly in the circle of their own biological movement, which fits so closely into the over-all cyclical movement of nature’s household. Only when we have erected the objectivity of a world of our own from what nature gives us, who have built into the environment of nature so that we are protected from her, can look upon nature as something ‘objective.’ Without a world between men and nature, there is eternal movement, but no objectivity.[83]


In other words, if we were ‘at one’ with nature, if we did not have a world occupying the space between humanity and nature, then nature would lose its ‘otherness’, its objective reality. The fabrication of an artificial world does not prevent us from swinging in the cycles of nature, rather it allows us to do so to a limited extent such that the needs of the life-process do not become the overriding end of human life. The presence of a world enables us to accommodate ourselves to the organic cycles of nature yet confront that nature as something objective, that is in its ‘otherness.’ Labor and work combined means that our bodily needs are met at the subsistence level: they neither overrun the world nor do they violate nature’s natural fertility.         

This fact that our more natural existence gains its distinct ‘objective’ and human character only in relation to the world is vitally important in considering the ancient contempt and the modern glorification of labor. Because the ancient world held that what humans shared with animal life (the tie to necessity) could not really be human, labor was held in contempt and deemed only fit for slaves. The moderns, by contrast, have glorified labor.  In this case there has been a conceptual blurring of the distinctions between labor and work and is typified by “the seemingly blasphemous notion of Marx that labor (and not God) created man or that labor (and not reason) distinguished man from the animals.”[84]


This modern celebration of ‘productive’ labor goes hand in hand with a denigration of ‘unproductive labor’ (i.e. labor as Arendt defines it as the endless cycle of production and consumption in the satisfaction of necessity). Thus for the moderns as for the ancients the ideal actually involves the elimination of the laboring activity properly understood. Arendt’s own position is formulated against both the ancients and the moderns: labor should neither be glorified or held in contempt but gratefully accepted for what it is and its toil counted a blessing.[85] Both moderns and ancients have misunderstood labor by not relating it to a world, thus they have seen it from the standpoint of subjective ‘theory’ and not in the objective language available to the world: “The contempt for labor in ancient theory and its glorification in modern theory both take their bearing from the subjective attitude of the laborer, mistrusting his painful effort or praising his productivity.”[86] From the standpoint of the world, Arendt’s own position is quite the opposite to that of both the ancients and the moderns.  As we have seen, for her it was precisely the toils of labor which should be praised and labor’s productivity—which could engulf the world—which she mistrusted.


For Arendt, labor is in intrinsically a peaceful activity—violence is only introduced into the process when some try to rid themselves of the burden of labor by making others slaves to necessity. Such ‘absolute freedom’ by which some attempt to completely escape the bonds of necessity is ultimately self-defeating: “[T]he price for absolute freedom from necessity is, in a sense, life itself, or rather the substitution of vicarious life for real life.”[87] True freedom—freedom connected to the sense of reality—only comes once necessity has been satisfied. It is denied to those who either must endure the burden of others labor or who seek to off-load their own labor: 


That the life of the rich loses in vitality, in closeness to the ‘good things’ of nature, what it gains in refinement, in sensitivity to the beautiful things in the world, has often been noted. The fact is that the human capacity for life in the world always implies an ability to transcend and to be alienated from the processes of life itself, while vitality and liveliness can be conserved only to the extent that men are willing to take the burden, the toil and trouble of life, upon themselves.[88] 


Likewise, all attempts to abolish the toils of necessity are likely to be self-defeating as they increase the chance that man will become satisfied with the realm of necessity itself.  When labor is not gratefully accepted but resented and abandoned mankind is likely to fall under a far harsher rule of necessity. Thus the age-old wish for a life free from the toils and troubles of labor “turns into a fools paradise as soon as it is realized.”[89] Thus considered, labor is essential if freedom is ever to feel real. By contrast, the domination of our entire relationship with nature by the mode of work or fabrication “can result, and has often enough, in the misrepresentation of all naturally given things as mere material for the human artifice—as though trees were nothing but potential wood, material for tables.”[90] The instrumental use of nature, according to Arendt, ought to be limited from, on the one hand, engulfing all of our interactions with nature, and on the other, from becoming the mode of interaction between humans. 


The domination of the activity of fabrication over cultivation of nature through labor is not a factor peculiar to the modern world. In terms of agriculture, in an unusual reversal of her normal evaluation, Arendt approves more of the Roman than Greek practices. For the Greeks, agriculture was part of the attempt to tame and rule nature, it was “understood as a daring, violent enterprise in which year in year out, the earth, inexhaustible and indefatigable, is disturbed and violated. The Greeks did not know what culture is because they did not cultivate nature but rather tore from the womb of the earth the fruits which the gods had hidden from men.”[91] To the Romans, by contrast, the inter-relationship with nature was one of cultivation and tending.  Indeed Arendt sees links between the cultivation of the soil and culture in general:


Culture, word and concept, is Roman in origin. The word ‘culture’ derives from colere—to cultivate, to dwell, to take care of, to tend and preserve—and it relates primarily to the intercourse of man with nature until it becomes fit for human habitation. As such, it indicates an attitude of loving care and stands in sharp contrast to all efforts to subject nature to the domination of man. Hence it does not only apply to tilling the soil but can also designate the ‘cult’ of the gods, the taking care of what properly belongs to them.[92]      


Arendt appears to be pointing out that the Romans correctly identified agriculture as a form of labor while the Greeks mistook it as a form of fabrication or work. Inversely, Arendt praises the Greeks for identifying the fabricating arts as a form of work; the Romans mistook it as a form of labor. In fact in The Human Condition Arendt is at pains to demonstrate that agriculture is a mode of labor and not work: agriculture—“the tilling of the ground”—is “the most necessary and elementary labor of man . . . .”[93] Arendt notes that the land as cultivated land does seem to possess the qualities of being a lasting (work) product, but she insists that agriculture is a mode of labor and not work for “the cultivated land is not, properly speaking, a use object, which is there in its own durability and requires for its permanence no more than ordinary care in preservation; the tilled soil, if it is to remain cultivated, needs to be labored on time and again.”[94]


It is because the instrumental attitude of work is balanced in terms of its relationship with nature by labor and checked from entering the inter-human world of action that nature, things and people are not reduced to mere means to an end. Otherwise, homo faber “will judge every thing as though it belonged to the class of chremata, of use objects, so that, to follow Plato’s own example, the wind will no longer be understood in its own right as a natural force but will be considered exclusively in accordance with human needs for warmth or refreshment—which, of course means that the wind as something objectively given has been eliminated from human experience.”[95] On the basis of this twofold interaction with nature—both cyclical and instrumental—in which labor and work balance each other the ground is laid for the world in which the linear stories of individual men and women can unfold. “In the sphere of politics,” Arendt writes, “gratitude emphasizes that we are not alone in the world.”[96] To this we can add that in the sphere of labor, gratitude emphasizes that existence—life itself—is to be affirmed in joy and that in the sphere of work, gratitude emphasizes the building of a durable world which stands between man and nature and between men themselves, relating and separating.


As we have seen, Arendt believes that the subjective pleasures of the self are not the proper benchmark for the leading of a fully human and enjoyable life. Instead, our ultimate point of reference needs to be the public realm of worldly activities and not private, purely subjective sensations:


For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as our selves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized, and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public experience. The most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experiences.[97]


No matter how intense invisible subjective experiences may be, they can never provide a substitute for the performance of visible actions amongst others in a public common world. Indeed, Arendt seems to suggest that the more intense such experiences become the more we lose our grasp on the reality of the objective world.


Man’s specifically non-biological political life, conditioned by both natality and mortality, reveals itself through speech and action.[98] We insert ourselves into the human world through words and deeds, revealing our distinctive identity as unique individuals amongst a plurality of other persons. We present ourselves to the human world, not under the compulsion of necessity as in labor, nor in order to satisfy needs and desires as in work, but in response to our own beginning in birth and by which we aim to begin something new of our own. Arendt believes that with the creation of human beings a new beginning entered the world. She liked to quote St. Augustine:  “that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody.”[99] Humanity was a new beginning, the arrival of freedom on earth which represented a radical break with what had come before. Through the capacity for action, humans can initiate their own new beginnings and thus enact what can retrospectively be understood as a distinct life-story. 


The meaning of action is disclosed through narrative—the stories that other people tell of the who revealed through the performance of speech and deeds: “every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end.”[100] While all of the human activities are conditioned by human plurality, such plurality represents the specific condition of action. Full human life takes place amongst others who are our equals; the realm of human affairs is situated amidst an already existing “web of relationships and . . . enacted stories.”[101] Although we initiate our own story, nobody is its author or creator.  Stories are enacted amongst a plurality of other stories, which they in turn affect. Such stories are thus inherently unpredictable and so the consequences of our actions are boundless: “every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction, every process is the cause of an unpredictable new process.”[102] 


In addition to being unpredictable, actions are also irreversible. However, the unpredictability of action can be redeemed through the human faculty for making and keeping promises; the irreversibility of actions, on the other hand, can be redeemed through the capacity for forgiveness. Forgiveness undoes the deeds of the past while the power of promise lends a degree of stability and continuity to the realm of human relationships in the face of an otherwise uncertain future:


Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfilment of promises, we would be never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities—a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfils, can dispel.[103]


Unfortunately, in contrast to the visible enactment of a life-stories amongst the plurality of others, solitary and introspective definitions of the good life have come to dominate worldless ‘social’ life, according to Arendt and we shall return to this theme in Chapter Three. The destruction of a plurality of perspectives which relate to some common objects and their replacement by purely private feelings signifies the end of a common world; a world which exists between human beings and establishes a unity in diversity, relating and separating individuals at the same time:


This can happen under conditions of radical isolation, where nobody can any longer agree with anybody else, as is usually the case with tyrannies. But it may also happen under conditions of mass society or mass hysteria, where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family, each multiplying and prolonging the perspectives of his neighbor. In both instances, men have become entirely private, that is, they have been deprived of seeing and hearing others, of being seen and being heard by them. They are all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.[104]


Thus plurality is eroded by subjectivity not only —as is commonly assumed —by the collapse of diversity into unity but also by the fracturing of unity into diversity.  Plurality for Arendt consists in a diversity of perspectives on an objective reality which is the same for all. The loss of the common world occurs when this unity in diversity is split into its component elements: we might call these abstracted unity and abstracted diversity respectively. Modern day ‘pluralism’ is not what Arendt means by ‘plurality.’ To the extent that modern forms of pluralism subscribe to a relativistic belief in the incommensurabilty of discourses, this would be a form of abstracted diversity which does not recognize that things have an objective existence independent of discourse. For Arendt, gratitude in terms of the world is enacted in terms of the acceptance of the objective differences between people, which we can only recognize by inhabiting a world that is common to all.


Generally speaking, such gratitude expects nothing except—in the words of Faulkner—one’s “own anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle . . . in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.” In the sphere of politics, gratitude emphasizes that we are not alone in the world. We can reconcile ourselves to the variety of mankind, to the differences between human beings—which are frightening precisely because of the essential equality of rights of all men and our consequent responsibility for all deeds and misdeeds committed by people different from ourselves—only through insight into the tremendous bliss that man was created with the power of procreation, that not a single man but Men inhabit the earth.[105]


An important aspect of Arendt’s notion of world is that it is not simply held in common by contemporaries but stretches across “man’s enduring chronicle” into both past and future: “If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the lifespan of mortal men. . . . It is what we have in common not only with those who live with us, but also with those who were here before and with those who will come after us.”[106] For Arendt, meaning was given to life by the presence of a durable world that transcended our individual existence. Human works and deeds are perishable, but if they can be endowed with a certain permanence, mortal humans could find a “place in the cosmos, where everything is immortal except men.”[107] Human actions gain their permanence through remembrance. That our lives are given meaning thus requires an obligation on the part of future generations to preserve the memory of the actions of their predecessors. Thus for Arendt, the polis is “organized remembrance”.[108] To be deprived of this public realm of appearance is to be deprived of the confirmation of reality itself: “To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; ‘for what appears to all, this we call Being’, and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.”[109] As we shall in Chapter Three, what Arendt terms the rise of ‘society’ has indeed undermined the public realm of appearance; in the modern condition or ‘worldlessness’ human beings become deprived of reality and thrown back upon their own subjective impressions and sensations.


This chapter has been concerned with the dimension of ‘realism’ in Arendt’s thought. It has been suggested that a distinct aspect of Arendt’s contribution to social and political thought was the directing of the sense of wonder into the realm of human affairs. This sense of wonder is linked to the disposition of gratitude which Arendt contrasts to the resentment of given existence typical of modernity and which finds expression in Rahel Varnhagen, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. I have interpreted this latter work in such a way that it is possible to understand labor, work, and action as representing the modes of activity by which (when pursued within their proper limits) we can live within the conditions of an existence that has been give to—and not created by—man. Accepting the given conditions of existence involves a three-fold reconciliation with reality: in the toils of labor we reconcile ourselves to the reality of life itself—an existence given from outside ourselves and which we did not ourselves make; through work we recognize the reality of the world and reconcile ourselves to our estrangement from nature by building a home on earth; in action we reconcile ourselves to the reality of human plurality and recognize the differences which exist between people themselves. In each case gratitude accepts the limits of the human condition in contradistinction to a resentment which proceeds on the belief that “everything is possible.” In not rebelling against the human condition but by gratefully responding through the activities of labor, work, and action, a human being can, within the course of his worldly life on earth, obtain a certain degree of immortality for his existence by partaking of in turn: the timeless rhythms of nature; the lasting durability of the world; and the enduring stories of the actions of men. By taking on himself the burdens of his existence an individual human being can lead a fully active human life with the result that as a consequence he is at once happy, distinct and remembered.



[1] For an extensive biography of Arendt see Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven and Yale: Yale University Press, 1982).

[2] Jerome Kohn, ‘The World of Hannah Arendt,’ as published on the Arendt Collection at the Library of Congress website, (accessed 19/6/01).

[3] See Lewis P. Hinchman and Sandra K. Hinchman, ‘In Heidegger’s Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Phenomenological Humanism,’ Review of Politics 46 (April, 1984), pp. 183-211; Jacques Taminiaux, The Thracian Maid and the Professional Thinker: Arendt and Heidegger (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); Dana R. Villa, Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[4] For a brief overview of these themes in Arendt’s thought see George Kateb, Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1984), pp. 163-169.

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 [1958]), p. 302.

[6] As quoted in Kateb, Hannah Arendt, p. 166.

[7] As quoted in ibid., p. 167.

[8] Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, edited and with an interpretive essay by Joanna Vechiarelli and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 51-2. This is a revised version of Arendt’s doctoral thesis which was originally published in Germany in 1929.

[9] Hannah Arendt, ‘“What Remains?  The Language Remains”: A Conversation with Günter Gaus [1965],’ The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited with an introduction by Peter Baehr (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000), pp. 5-14; Margaret Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 [1992]), pp. 8-11.

[10] See the discussion in Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, pp. 253-74.

[11] Another important consideration would be haw the book relates to the development of Arendt’s concept of ‘society’. For a discussion along these lines see Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press), pp. 19-34.

[12] Hannah Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess, edited by Lilianne Weissberg, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 [1957]), p. 132).

[13] Ibid., p. 245.

[14] Ibid., p. 239. Compare G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Fallacy of Success,’ All Things Considered (London: Methuen and Co., 1908), pp. 21-9.

[15] See Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Education [1958],’ Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993 [1968]), p. 180. Neither would Chesterton have approved of a ‘meritocracy’.  Chesterton disliked the notion of ‘equality of opportunity’ but not because he was a conservative and wished to preserve existing hierarchies. As a radical populist he believed that ‘equality of opportunity’ would actually lead to a less democratic society marked by an even wider gulf between the populace and the elite than would be found in an hereditary aristocracy. See G. K. Chesterton, ‘Slum Novelists and the Slums,’ Heretics (London: The Bodley Head, 1928 [1905]), pp. 269-86. This theme would be later taken up in one of the classic works of ‘ethical socialism’ in which the term ‘meritocracy’ was first coined. See Michael Young The Rise of the Meritocracy 1970-2033 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961 [1958]). For a recent populist statement of this position see Christopher Lasch, ‘The Revolt of the Elites,’; ‘Opportunity in the Promised Land: Social Mobility or the Democratization of Competence?,’ The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995), pp.25-49; 50-79.

[16] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1990 [1963]), p. 72.

[17] See Arendt’s barbed comment in ibid., p. 290 n. 16.

[18] Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen, p. 248.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 257.

[21] As quoted in Pitkin, The Attack of the Blob, p. 31.

[22] As quoted in ibid., p. 64.

[23] Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, pp. 10-1.

[24] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1979 [1951]), p. vii.

[25] Ibid., p. viii

[26] Ibid.

[27] As quoted in Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, p. 28.

[28] Ibid., p. 29.

[29] As quoted in ibid., p. 43.

[30] For a discussion of these various ‘elements’, together with the rest of Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism see Bernard J. Bergen, The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt and “The Final Solution” (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998); Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, pp. 17-98; Stephen J. Whitfield, Into The Dark: Hannah Arendt and Totalitarianism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).

[31] Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, p. viii.

[32] Ibid., p. 352.

[33] Ibid., p. 353.

[34] Ibid., p. 382.

[35] Hannah Arendt, The Burden of Our Time (London: Secker and Warburg, 1951), p. 438. This is the title given to the first English edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism.

[36] Ibid., p. 438.

[37] Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, p. 62.

[38] Hannah Arendt, ‘Concern with Politics in Recent European Philosophical Thought,’ Essays in Understanding 1930-1954, edited and introduced by Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1994), p. 445. In an essay for G. K.’s Weekly in which Chesterton had discussed his aims as a writer he remarked: “The true aim of art is to awaken wonder, whether the wonder takes the form of admiration or anger.” As quoted in Ian Boyd, The Novels of G. K. Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda (London: Paul Elek, 1975), p. 7. See the discussion in Chapter Two of the present thesis.

[39] Hannah Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics [1954],’ Social Research Vol. 57 No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 97-8. This paper originates in a lecture series delivered by Arendt in 1954. Arendt’s lecture notes, together with a host of other unpublished work housed in the Arendt Collection at the Library of Congress, can now be viewed on-line at; Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: One/Thinking (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978), p. 141.

[40] Ibid., p. 98.

[41] Ibid., p. 98-9.

[42] Arendt, The Life of The Mind: One, p. 143. In insisting that wonder at Being is by definition an admiring wonder Arendt distances herself from the French existentialism of Sartre which meets the sheer thereness of Being with nausea. In revulsion from Being, this strand of existentialism then seeks to impose its own reality on existence and succumbs to what Arendt regards as a key misunderstanding of the human condition: that man makes himself. See Life of the Mind: One, pp. 147-8; ‘Concern with Politics in Recent Philosophical Thought,’ pp. 436-40

[43] Ibid., p. 150.

[44] Ibid. This point seems to be linked to Arendt’s connection between thoughtlessness and evil which is a main concern of her study Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised and enlarged edition (London: Penguin, 1992 [1963]).

[45] Arendt, Philosophy and Politics,’ pp. 72-5. There is an excellent discussion of Arendt’s explorations of the tensions between philosophy and politics in chapter seven of Canovan’s Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, pp. 253-74

[46] Ibid., p. 94.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., p. 95.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Hannah Arendt, ‘What is Authority? [1956/8],’ Between Past and Future, p. 107.

[53] See Hannah Arendt, ‘Martin Heidegger at Eighty [1971],’ in Michael Murray (ed.), Heidegger and Modern Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p.303.

[54] Arendt, ‘Philosophy and Politics,’ p. 103. Arendt also calls for a sense of wonder at the realm of human affairs in the essay ‘Concern with Politics in Recent European Thought,’ p. 445: “An authentic political philosophy cannot ultimately arise out of trends, partial compromises, and reinterpretations; nor can it arise out of rebellion against philosophy itself. Like all other branches of philosophy, it can spring only from an original act of thaumadzein whose wondering and hence questioning impulse must now (i.e., contrary to the teaching of the ancients) directly grasp the realm of human affairs and human deeds.”

[55] For a discussion of Arendt’s thought which emphasizes her sense of limits see Margaret Canovan, ‘Hannah Arendt as a Conservative Thinker,’ in Larry May and Jerome Kohn (eds.), Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later (London: MIT Press, 1996), pp. 11-32.

[56] Margaret Canovan, ‘Introduction’ to Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, second edition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958]), p. vii.

[57] Hannah Arendt et al., ‘Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt [1972],’ in Melvyn A. Hill (ed.), Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), pp. 337-8. For details of this conference discussion see Chapter Three n. 95. As we shall see in the next chapter, we also find this interest in distinction making in Chesterton—who believed Aristotle to have been the greatest of pagan philosophers and Aquinas the greatest in Christendom.

[58] Of course, Arendt sees action as the most specifically human dimension of the active life and we shall return to this concept in Chapters Three and Five.

[59] See Kerry H. Whiteside, ‘Hannah Arendt and Ecological Politics,’ Environmental Ethics 16 (1994), pp. 339-58; ‘Worldliness and Respect for Nature: an Ecological Application of Arendt’s Conception of Culture,’ Environmental Values 7 (1998), pp. 25-40; Kimberly F. Curtis, ‘Hannah Arendt, Feminist Theorizing and the Debate over New Reproductive Technologies,’ Polity Vol. XXVIII No. 2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 159-187.

[60] Whiteside, ‘Worldliness and Respect for Nature,’ p. 39 n. 18. See Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, pp. 107-8.  Dean Hammer suggests that Arendt’s discussion of Roman attitudes towards culture and nature can provide a revision of this equation of nature with the ‘barbaric’. See Dean Hammer, ‘Hannah Arendt and Roman Political Thought: The Practice of Theory,’ Political Theory (forthcoming). I discuss Arendt’s contrast of Greek and Roman attitudes towards nature below.

[61] Curtis, ‘Hannah Arendt and Feminist Theorizing,’ p. 181.

[62] Hannah Arendt, ‘Remembering Wystan H. Auden,’ in Stephen Spender (ed.), W. H. Auden: A Tribute (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974/5), p. 186.

[63] Arendt, Human Condition, pp. 2-3.

[64] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (London: Penguin, 1970), p. 13.

[65] Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, p. 104.

[66] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Eggs Speak Up [1951],’ Essays in Understanding, p. 283.

[67] Curtis, ‘Hannah Arendt and Feminist Theorizing,’ p. 173.

[68] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 5.

[69] Ibid., p. 107 n. 53.

[70] Ibid., p. 120.

[71] Whiteside, ‘Hannah Arendt and Ecological Politics,’ p. 354. For another reading of Arendt in which a fully human life is not to be found in maximizing action at the expense of labor and work but requires a balance between the various elements of the vita activa see also Curtis, ‘Hannah Arendt,’ passim.

[72] Hannah Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, edited and with an introduction by Ron H. Feldman (New York: Grove Press, 1978), p. 138

[73] Ibid., p. 185. As we shall see in Chapter Three, Arendt herself preferred privately owned property and is unlikely to have had any great enthusiasm for schemes which promoted collectivization.

[74] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 7

[75] Ibid., p. 8.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., p. 106.

[78] Ibid., p. 108

[79] See the discussion in Chapter Three below.

[80] Ibid., p. 132.

[81] Ibid., p. 121.

[82] Ibid., p. 52.

[83] Ibid., p. 137

[84] Ibid., p. 86.

[85] Note that Arendt asserts against the Greeks that a life of labor is a dignified life.

[86] Ibid., p. 93.

[87] Ibid., pp. 119-120.

[88] Ibid., pp. 120-121.

[89] Ibid., p. 133.

[90] Arendt, ‘The Eggs Speak Up,’ p. 283. 

[91] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Culture: [1960],’ Between Past and Future, p. 213.

[92] Ibid., p. 212.

[93] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 138.

[94] Ibid., pp. 138-9.

[95] Ibid., p. 158.

[96] Arendt, Burden of Our Time, p. 438.

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

[98] For a discussion of the dangers when politics is not considered in the mode of action but in terms of either labor or work see Canovan, Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation, pp. 72-5.

[99] As quoted in Arendt, Human Condition, p. 177.

[100] Ibid., p. 84.

[101] Ibid., p. 181.

[102] Hannah Arendt, ‘Labor, Work, Action,’ in James W. Bernauer S. J. (ed.), Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Thought of Hannah Arendt (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987), p. 41. This essay, which was originally delivered by Arendt as a lecture in 1964, provides a very clear and useful summary of the three aspects of the vita activa.

[103] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 237.  Chesterton—who, as we shall see in Chapter Four, was appalled by the modern retreat from the marriage vow—also values the power of promise highly, see for example his ‘A Defence of Rash Vows,’ The Defendant (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1940 [1901]), pp. 31-9. For an eloquent statement of the wedding ceremony as representing the transfiguration of sexual love into the ‘worldly’ institution of marriage (in an Arendtian sense) see Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 157.

[104] Ibid., p. 58.

[105] Arendt, Burden of Our Time, pp. 438-9.

[106] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 55.

[107] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern [1957/8],’ Between Past and Future, p. 43.

[108] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 198.

[109] Ibid., p. 199.




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