On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 8

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [1]

We shall have three readings of the chapter on action.

All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.

Isak Dinesen

A theme of this reading is that our life is a story, but we are not the author.

Nam in omni actione principaliter intenditur ab agente, sive necessitate naturae sive voluntarie agat, propriam similitudinem explicare; unde fit quod omne agens, in quantum huiusmodi, delectatur, quia, cum omme quod est appetat suum esse, ac in agendo agentis esse modammodo amplietur, sequitur de neces­sitate delectatio. … Nihil igitur agit nisi tale existens quale patiens fieri debet.

(For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows. … Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.)


Arendt will reiterate what Dante says.

Two figures walk between buildings towards a hillside of graves, with skyscapers beyond
Zincirlikuyu Mezarlığı
March 26, 2022

Key words in the reading, or concepts of interest, include initiative, identity, story, perplexity/bafflement, natality.

Quotations in my notes are from

  • Homer, the Odyssey (on Achilles in the Underworld)
  • Gospel of John (on being born again)
  • 101 Zen Stories, “The Giver Should Be Thankful”
  • Jane Austen, Persuasion (on the benefits of war)
  • G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology (on how high one’s statue should be)
  • R. G. Collingwood
    • Religion and Philosophy (“The only real cause seems to be a total state of the universe”)
    • The Principles of Art (on language and symbolism)
    • An Autobiography (on the Great War as triumph for science, disgrace for the human intellect)
    • The Idea of History (on how we do not know what we are doing until we have done it)
  • Anton Gerashchenko, Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine (on compromising with criminals)

I suggested in the last entry that, in distinction from Collingwood in The Principles of Art, Arendt had overlooked how art is strictly not made (according to a plan), but created (without a plan). Now it seems that action is what has this element of creativity. Arendt calls this element initiative.

For Collingwood in An Autobiography, history is the history of thought; for Arendt now, it is the history of action. As I understand it, the point for Collingwood is that history is not about feeling as such; for Arendt, that while we inevitably see stories in what happens, there is no author beyond the individuals doing the acting (who never know how the story is going to turn out).

Arendt quotes Heraclitus twice:

LM D41 for ¶ 25.2
ὁ ἄναξ, οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει
“The lord whose oracle is the one in Delphi neither speaks nor hides, but gives signs.”
LM R56 for ¶ 27.10
ὁ Ἡράκλειτός φησι τοῖς ἐγρηγορόσιν ἕνα καὶ κοινὸν κόσμον εἶναι, τῶν δὲ κοιμωμένων ἕκαστον εἰς ἴδιον ἀποστρέφεσθαι
“Heraclitus says that those who are awake have a world that is one and in common, but that each of those who are asleep turns aside into his own particular world.”

The first fragment is to explain how actors reveal themselves; the second, how the polis provides reality.


By sections

  • 24 the disclosure of the agent in speech and action By taking the initiative to speak and act, we appear to one another, as if in a second birth. Action is accompanied by speech proper, as opposed to sign language or muteness. It reveals who does it, to all but the doer.
  • 25 the web of relationships and the enacted stories Nonetheless, or language cannot say who is revealed, but only what. This is a fundamental perplexity, partially resolved by drama. Misunderstanding it is a cause of political materialism, which goes back to Socrates’s explanation in the Republic of how cities are founded. History is not a product, but Plato and many others have imagined it is.
  • 26 the frailty of human affairs Anyone may start an action, but must cooperate with others to carry it out. It is boundless and unpredictable.
  • 27 the greek solution At least the polis tends to dispell the uncertainty of whether a poet will sing your excellent deeds.

By paragraphs

The paragraphs of the first three sections of the reading seem often best summarized by Arendt’s own words; not so of the fourth.

  • 24 the disclosure of the agent in speech and action
    • ¶ 24.1 “Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction.”
    • ¶ 24.2 “In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinct­ness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.” (That’s the last sentence of the paragraph.)
    • ¶ 24.3 “Speech and action … are the modes in which human beings appear to each other … This appear­ance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative … from which no human being can refrain and still be human.”
    • ¶ 24.4 “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth …”
    • ¶ 24.5 “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before … If action … is the actualization of the human condition of natality, then speech … is the actualization of the human condition of plurality.”
    • ¶ 24.6 “Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked of every newcomer: ‘Who are you?’ … Without the accompaniment of speech … performing robots would achieve what, humanly speaking, would remain incompre­hensible.”
    • ¶ 24.7 “No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action … speech … as a means of communication and in­formation … could be replaced by a sign language … for purposes of self-defense or of pursuit of interests … the same end could be much more easily attained in mute violence …”
    • ¶ 24.8 “In acting and speaking, men show who they are … its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose … the ‘who,’ which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimōn …”
    • ¶ 24.9 “… he must be willing to risk the disclosure, and this neither the doer of good works … nor the criminal … can take upon themselves.”
    • ¶ 24.10 “action … becomes one form of achievement among others … whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare …”
    • ¶ 24.11 “Action without … a ‘who’ attached to it, is meaningless, whereas an art work retains its relevance whether or not we know the master’s name. The monuments to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ after World War I bear testimony to the then still existing need for glorification …”
  • 25 the web of relationships and the enacted stories
    • ¶ 25.1 “The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is …”
    • ¶ 25.2 “… the impossibility, as it were, to solidify in words the living essence of the person”
      • is a “philosophical perplexity,” and
      • “excludes in principle our ever being able to handle [human] affairs as we handle things [that we can name].”

      “… the manifes­tation of the ‘who’ [is like those of] ancient oracles …”

    • ¶ 25.3 “This is only the first of many frustrations,” but “is perhaps the most fundamental,” because it “frustrates action in terms of its own purposes.”
    • ¶ 25.4 “Action and speech … retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective’ … the physical, worldy [sic] in-between … is overlaid … with an altogether dif­ferent in-between which consists of deeds and words … We call this reality the ‘web’ of human relationships …”
    • ¶ 25.5 “The basic error of all materialism in politics … is to overlook the inevitability with which men disclose them­selves as subjects … Materialism in political theory is at least as old as the Platonic-Aristotelian assumption that political communities … owe their existence to material neces­sity … Marx … was consistent enough to base his theory of material interest on a demonstrably material human activity, on laboring …”
    • ¶ 25.6 “… because of this already existing web of human relationships … action”
      • “al­most never achieves its purpose;”
      • “‘produces’ stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things.”
    • ¶ 25.7 “That every individual life between birth and death can even­tually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history … The perplexity is that … we can at best isolate the agent who set the whole process into motion …”
    • ¶ 25.8 “It is for this reason that Plato thought that human affairs … should not be treated with great seriousness;” however, he was “the first to invent the metaphor of an actor behind the scenes … to solve the perplexing problem that … history … is still obviously not ‘made’ by [men] … all philoso­phies of history … can be recognized as political philosophies in disguise.”
    • ¶ 25.9 Through the invention of the actor behind the scenes, “the story resulting from action is misconstrued as a fictional story, where indeed an author pulls the strings …”
    • ¶ 25.10 “The hero the story discloses needs no heroic qualities … The connotation of cour­age … is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all …”
    • ¶ 25.11 “… the specific revelatory quality of action and speech … can be represented and ‘reified’ only through a kind of repetition, the imitation or mimēsis … the story’s direct as well as its universal meaning is revealed by the chorus, which does not imitate and whose comments are pure poetry …”
  • 26 the frailty of human affairs
    • ¶ 26.1 “History is full of examples of the impotence of the strong and superior man who does not know how to enlist the help, the co-acting of his fellow men … This mechanistic approach is typical of the modern age; antiquity … was inclined to think of men in terms of savage animals … The only possible achievement in either case is to kill man …”
    • ¶ 26.2
      • ἄρχειν and agere, which came to mean ruling and leading, originally meant beginning an action;
      • πράττειν and gerere, for carrying it out, came to mean acting in general.
    • ¶ 26.3 “In the case of the successful ruler, he may claim for himself what actually is the achievement of many—something that Agamemnon, who was a king but no ruler, would never have been permitted.”
    • ¶ 26.4 “… the story that an act starts is composed of its consequent deeds and sufferings. These consequences are boundless …”
    • ¶ 26.5 “Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries.” Hence moderation and hubris are the political virtue and vice par excellence.
    • ¶ 26.6 Besides being boundless though, action is also unpredictable.
  • 27 the greek solution
    • ¶ 27.1 That unpredictability is why nobody can be called eudaimōn before death, eudaimonia being the well-being of one’s accompanying daimōn.
    • ¶ 27.2 Thus if you want immortal fame, you must choose an early death like Achilles.
    • ¶ 27.3 This is why the Greeks did not think legislating rose to the level of a political activity.
    • ¶ 27.4 The Socratic school elevated it, because they wished to remedy the uncertainty of acting with the predictability of making.
    • ¶ 27.5 The remedy destroys relationships though, as in Aristotle’s interpretation of beneficence as work.
    • ¶ 27.6 The original remedy was the polis itself, which could offer both fame and chances to win it.
    • ¶ 27.7 One would no longer need a poet to make one famous.
    • ¶ 27.8 The polis would provide the space of the Trojan War, so to speak.
    • ¶ 27.9 The polis exists wherever there are people to compose it.
    • ¶ 27.10 They may not do it though, and nobody can do it all the time; however, it is what provides the reality of appearance.

24 the disclosure of the agent in speech and action

¶ 24.1

Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction.

  • If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them.
  • If men were not dis­tinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to [175] make themselves understood. Signs and sounds to communicate immediate, identical needs and wants would be enough.

Does Arendt distinguish distinctness from difference? We speak of a “distinction without a difference.” In this reading at least, she will not really talk about how we are different from one another; but in the next paragraph she will talk about otherness.

Ancient mathematics relies on the possibility of distinct but equal things, such as two sides of an isosceles triangle. This may still be true, although equality is called equivalence when it is not the same as sameness. As I investigated in “On Commensurability and Symmetry,” Cantor tried to talk about the cardinality of a set by stripping away any differences between the elements; but I didn’t think there was then any way to maintain their distinctness. Read on!

¶ 24.2

Human distinctness is not the same as otherness—the curious quality of alteritas possessed by everything that is and therefore, in medieval philosophy, one of the four basic, universal charac­teristics of Being, transcending every particular quality. Other­ness, it is true, is an important aspect of plurality, the reason why all our definitions are distinctions, why we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else. Other­ness in its most abstract form is found only in the sheer multipli­cation of inorganic objects, whereas all organic life already shows variations and distinctions, even between specimens of the same species. But only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something—thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear. In man,

  • otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and
  • distinct­ness, which he shares with everything alive, become
  • uniqueness,

and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.

If it is a paradox that distinct unique beings can be equal to one another, it would seem to be a paradox that mathematics is possible.

¶ 24.3

Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely dis­tinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appear­ance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human. This is true of no other activity in the vita activa. Men can very well live without laboring, they can force others to labor for them, and they can very well decide merely to use and enjoy the world of things without themselves adding a single useful object to it; the life of an exploiter or slave­holder and the life of a parasite may be unjust, but they certainly are human. A life without speech and without action, on the other hand—and this is the only way of life that in earnest has re­nounced all appearance and all vanity in the biblical sense of the word—is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.

Initiative is a key notion. In my early school years, I was thought to be deficient in initiative. I can only imagine it had to do with shyness. In fifth grade I initiated a Star Trek club, which almost every classmate ended up joining.

¶ 24.4

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical ap- [176] pearance. This insertion

  • is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it
  • is not prompted by utility, like work. It
  • may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it
  • is never conditioned by them;

its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.1 To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin,” “to lead,” and eventually “to rule,” indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere). Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action. [Initium] ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nullus fuit (“that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody”), said Augustine in his political philosophy.2 This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world;3 it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before.

  1. This description is supported by recent findings in psychology and biology which also stress the inner affinity between speech and action, their spontaneity and practical purposelessness, See especially Arnold Gehlen, Der Mensch: Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt (1955), which gives an excellent summary of the results and interpretations of current scientific research and contains a wealth of valuable insights. That Gehlen, like the scientists upon whose results he bases his own theories, believes that these specifically human capabilities are also a “biological necessity,” that is, necessary for a biologically weak and ill-fitted organism such as man, is another matter and need not concern us here.

  2. De civitate Dei xii. 20.

  3. According to Augustine, the two were so different that he

    • used a different word to indicate the beginning which is man (initium),
    • designating the beginning of the world by principium, which is the standard translation for the first Bible verse.

    As can be seen from De civitate Dei xi. 32, the word principium carried for Augustine a much less radical meaning; the beginning of the world “does not mean that nothing was made before (for the angels were),” whereas he adds explicitly in the phrase quoted above with reference to man that nobody was before him. [177]

Arendt will return to the etymology in ¶ 26.2. Meanwhile, does Arendt intend to allude to the notion of being born again in Christianity? Apparently it comes from John 3, wherein also is the famous John 3:16:

1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

What Jesus says in verse 3 is,

ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ

Meaning originally “from above,” ἄνωθεν is apparently (Smyth, Greek Grammar, page 99, ¶ 342) an old ablative case of ἀνά or ἄνω.

For Arendt, the second birth in speaking and acting can be stimulated, but never conditioned. I conclude then that to condition is to necessitate. A sufficient condition necessitates a corresponding necessary condition. Nothing necessitates speaking and acting. We may however feel as if it does, as when we say, “I have to say something,” or “I couldn’t sit and do nothing.”

¶ 24.5

It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started [177] which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins. Thus, the origin of life from inorganic matter is an infinite improbability of inorganic proc­esses, as is the coming into being of the earth viewed from the standpoint of processes in the universe, or the evolution of human out of animal life. The new always happens against the over­whelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world. With respect to this somebody who is unique it can be truly said that nobody was there before.

  • If action as beginning corresponds to the fact of birth, if it is the actualization of the human condition of natality,
  • then speech corresponds to the fact of distinctness and is the actualization of the human condition of plurality, that is, of living as a distinct and unique being among equals.

¶ 24.6

Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked of every newcomer: “Who are you?” This disclosure of who somebody is, is implicit in both his words and his deeds; yet obviously the affinity between speech and revelation is much closer than that between action and reve­lation,4 just as the affinity between action and beginning is closer than that between speech and beginning, although many, and even most acts, are performed in the manner of speech. Without the accompaniment of speech, at any rate, action would not only lose its revelatory character, but, and by the same token, it would lose its subject, as it were; not acting men but performing robots would achieve what, humanly speaking, would remain incompre­hensible. Speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of [178] deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time the speaker of words. The action he begins is humanly disclosed by the word, and though his deed can be perceived in its brute physical appear­ance without verbal accompaniment, it becomes relevant only through the spoken word in which he identifies himself as the actor, announcing what he does, has done, and intends to do.

  1. This is the reason why Plato says that lexis (“speech”) adheres more closely to truth than praxis. [178]

Should the mute animals be understood as performing robots? We understand what they do by explaining it in words: “They are fighting, mating, hunting for food.” But those things are not actions; read on.

¶ 24.7

No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action. In all other performances speech plays a subordi­nate role, as a means of communication or a mere accompaniment to something that could also be achieved in silence. It is true that speech is extremely useful as a means of communication and in­formation, but as such it could be replaced by a sign language, which then might prove to be even more useful and expedient to convey certain meanings, as in mathematics and other scientific disciplines or in certain forms of teamwork. Thus, it is also true that man’s capacity to act, and especially to act in concert, is extremely useful for purposes of self-defense or of pursuit of interests; but if nothing more were at stake here than to use action as a means to an end, it is obvious that the same end could be much more easily attained in mute violence, so that

  • action seems a not very efficient substitute for violence, just as
  • speech, from the viewpoint of sheer utility, seems an awkward substitute for sign language.

Arendt understands what I learned from The Principles of Art of Collingwood, that not all language is sign language, since signs presume a convention, which must have been established with language. Wikipedia continues to say,

A language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary.

Years ago I tried to make the Language article open more sensibly, according to my understanding of Collingwood, who observes that language

is an imaginative activity whose function is to express emotion. Intellectual language is this same thing intellectualized, or modified so as to express thought …

… A symbol (as the Greek word indicates) is something arrived at by agreement and accepted by the parties to the agreement as valid for a certain purpose. This is a fair account of how the words in an intellectualized language come by their meanings … but it cannot be a true account of language as such, for the supposed agreement by which the meaning of a given word is settled implies a previous discussion out of which the agreement is arrived at; and unless language already exists and is already capable of stating the point at issue the discussion cannot arise.

Symbolism or intellectualized language thus presupposes imaginative language or language proper. There must therefore, be a corresponding relation between the theories of the two. But in the traditional theory of language these relations are reversed, with disastrous results.

¶ 24.8

In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make rheir appearance in the human world, while their physical identities appear without any activity of their own in the unique shape of the body and sound of the voice. This disclosure of “who” in contradistinction to “what” somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and short­comings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does.

  • It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity, but
  • its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a wilful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this “who” in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities.

On the contrary, it is more than likely that the “who,” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimōn in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always [179] looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.

What would Arendt have made of identity politics?

¶ 24.9

This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure, and this

  • neither the doer of good works, who must be without self and preserve complete anonymity,
  • nor the criminal, who must hide himself from others,

can take upon themselves. Both are lonely figures, the one being for, the other against, all men; they, therefore, remain outside the pale of human intercourse and are, politically, marginal figures who usually enter the historical scene in times of corruption, dis­integration, and political bankruptcy. Because of its inherent tendency to disclose the agent together with the act, action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is possible only in the public realm.

¶ 24.10

Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one form of achievement among others. It is then indeed no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object. This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward the end, whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda; here words reveal nothing, disclosure comes only from the deed itself, and this achievement, like all other achievements, cannot disclose the “who,” the unique and distinct identity of the agent.

In ancient warfare, apparently, like Achilles one fought for one’s own glory. Supposedly the Ottoman Empire declined and fell because it resisted modernizing its warfare.

¶ 24.11

In these instances action has lost the quality through which it transcends mere productive activity, which, from the humble making of use objects to the inspired creation of art works, has no more meaning than is revealed in the finished product and does not intend to show more than is plainly visible at the end of the production process. Action without a name, a “who” attached to [180] it, is meaningless, whereas an art work retains its relevance whether or not we know the master’s name. The monuments to the “Unknown Soldier” after World War I bear testimony to the then still existing need for glorification, for finding a “who,” an identifiable somebody whom four years of mass slaughter should have revealed. The frustration of this wish and the unwillingness to resign oneself to the brutal fact that the agent of the war was actually nobody inspired the erection of the monuments to the “unknown,” to all those whom the war had failed to make known and had robbed thereby, not of their achievement, but of their human dignity.5

  1. William Faulkner’s A Fable (1954) surpasses almost all of World War I literature in perceptiveness and clarity because its hero is the Unknown Soldier. [181]

A tomb of the unknown soldier will be erected by people who think war should be an opportunity to win renown. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, war is an opportunity for some officers, at least, to get rich:

“I must take leave to observe, Sir Walter,” said Mr Shepherd one morning at Kellynch Hall, as he laid down the newspaper, “that the present juncture is much in our favour. This peace will be turning all our rich naval officers ashore. They will be all wanting a home. Could not be a better time, Sir Walter, for having a choice of tenants, very responsible tenants. Many a noble fortune has been made during the war. If a rich admiral were to come in our way, Sir Walter—”

“He would be a very lucky man, Shepherd,” replied Sir Walter; “that’s all I have to remark. A prize indeed would Kellynch Hall be to him; rather the greatest prize of all, let him have taken ever so many before; hey, Shepherd?”

“Ah! my dear,” said the Admiral, “when he had got a wife, he will sing a different tune. When he is married, if we have the good luck to live to another war, we shall see him do as you and I, and a great many others, have done. We shall have him very thankful to anybody that will bring him his wife.”

In the Note at the end of A Mathematician’s Apology, Hardy writes,

Dr Snow had also made an interesting point about §8. Even if we grant that ‘Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten’, is not mathematical fame a little too ‘anonymous’ to be wholly satisfying? We could form a fairly coherent picture of the personality of Aeschylus (still more, of course, of Shakespeare or Tolstoi) from their works alone, while Archimedes and Eudoxus would remain mere names.

J. M. Lomas put this point more picturesquely when we were passing the Nelson column in Trafalgar square. If I had a statue on a column in London, would I prefer the columns to be so high that the statue was invisible, or low enough for the features to be recognizable? I would choose the first alternative, Dr Snow, presumably, the second.

From the art, we may form a picture of the personality of the artist, but there is no guarantee that it is accurate—that we would form the same picture by being directly with the artist.

I also form a pictures of Archimedes and Hardy by reading their mathematical writing. Again there is no guarantee of accuracy, unless we want to argue that we do get to know people through their work.

It seems to me that a nameless work of art would be appreciated only as the beauty of nature is appreciated.

25 the web of relationships and the enacted stories

¶ 25.1

The manifestation of who the speaker and doer unexchangeably is, though it is plainly visible, retains a curious intangibility that confounds all efforts toward unequivocal verbal expression. The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a de­scription of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a “character” in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us.

Our vocabulary allows us also to answer “Who is that?” with (for example) “That is Hannah Arendt.” But yes, the common response to the Delphic command, “Know thyself,” would seem to be to classify oneself.

¶ 25.2

This frustration has the closest affinity with the well-known philosophic impossibility to arrive at a definition of man, all defi­nitions being determinations or interpretations of what man is, of qualities, therefore, which he could possibly share with other living beings, whereas his specific difference would be found in a determination of what kind of a “who” he is. Yet apart from this philosophic perplexity, the impossibility, as it were, to solidify in words the living essence of the person as it shows itself in the flux of action and speech, has great bearing upon the whole realm of human affairs, where we exist primarily as acting and speaking beings. It excludes in principle our ever being able to handle these affairs as we handle things whose nature is at our [181] disposal because we can name them. The point is that the manifes­tation of the “who” comes to pass in the same manner as the no­toriously unreliable manifestations of ancient oracles, which, ac­cording to Heraclitus, “neither reveal nor hide in words, but give manifest signs.”6 This is a basic factor in the equally notorious uncertainty not only of all political matters, but of all affairs that go on between men directly, without the intermediary, stabilizing, and solidifying influence of things.7

  1. Oute legei oute kryptei alla sēmainei (Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [4th ed., 1922], frag. B93).

  2. Socrates used the same word as Heraclitus, sēmainein (“to show and give signs”), for the manifestation of his daimonion (Xenophon Memorabilia i. 1.2, 4). If we are to trust Xenophon, Socrates likened his daimonion to the oracles and insisted that both should be used only for human affairs, where nothing is certain, and not for problems of the arts and crafts, where everything is predictable (ibid. 7–9). [182]

I imagine Arendt is echoing Collingwood’s lament in An Autobiography that the Great War was “an unprecedented triumph for natural science,” but “an unprecedented disgrace to the human intellect”:

The contrast between the success of modern European minds in controlling almost any situation in which the elements are physical bodies and the forces physical forces, and their inability to control situations in which the elements are human beings and the forces mental forces, left an indelible mark on the memory of every one who was concerned in it. I knew enough history to understand the force of the contrast. I knew that for sheer ineptitude the Versailles treaty surpassed previous treaties as much as for sheer technical excellence the equipment of twentieth-century armies surpassed those of previous armies.

I see now a tweet of Anton Gerashchenko, “Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine”:

A killer has broken into your house. He wants to kill your family and burn your house down. Let’s try to find a compromise! You let him kill just few of your family members and burn down your living room. Hooray, what a fair solution!

Unfortunately there is no universal arbiter of fairness; and see now what Arendt goes on to say about that:

¶ 25.3

This is only the first of many frustrations by which action, and consequently the togetherness and intercourse of men, are ridden. It is perhaps the most fundamental of those we shall deal with, in so far as it does not rise out of comparisons with more reliable and productive activities, such as

  • fabrication or
  • contemplation or
  • cognition or even
  • labor,

but indicates something that frustrates action in terms of its own purposes. What is at stake is the revela­tory character without which action and speech would lose all human relevance.

¶ 25.4

Action and speech go on between men, as they are directed toward them, and they retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively “objective,” concerned with the matters of the world of things in which men move, which physi­cally lies between them and out of which arise their specific, ob­jective, worldly interests. These interests constitute, in the word’s most literal significance, something which inter-est, which lies be­tween people and therefore can relate and bind them together. Most action and speech is concerned with this in-between, which varies with each group of people, so that most words and deeds are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent. Since this disclosure of the subject is an integral part of all, even the most “objective” intercourse, the physical, worldy in-between along with its inter- [182] ests is overlaid and, as it were, overgrown with an altogether dif­ferent in-between which consists of deeds and words and owes its origin exclusively to men’s acting and speaking directly to one another. This second, subjective in-between is not tangible, since there are no tangible objects into which it could solidify; the process of acting and speaking can leave behind no such results and end products. But for all its intangibility, this in-between is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common. We call this reality the “web” of human relationships, indicating by the metaphor its somewhat intangible quality.

¶ 25.5

To be sure, this web is no less bound to the objective world of things than speech is to the existence of a living body, but the rela­tionship is not like that of a façade or, in Marxian terminology, of an essentially superfluous superstructure affixed to the useful structure of the building itself. The basic error of all materialism in politics—and this materialism is not Marxian and not even modern in origin, but as old as our history of political theory8is to overlook the inevitability with which men disclose them­selves as subjects, as distinct and unique persons, even when they wholly concentrate upon reaching an altogether worldly, material object. To dispense with this disclosure, if indeed it could ever be done, would mean to transform men into something they are not; to deny, on the other hand, that this disclosure is real and has consequences of its own is simply unrealistic.

  1. Materialism in political theory is at least as old as the Platonic-Aristotelian assumption that political communities (poleis)—and not only family life or the coexistence of several households (oikiai)—owe their existence to material neces­sity. (For Plato see Republic 369, where the polis’ origin is seen in our wants and lack of self-sufficiency. For Aristotle, who here as elsewhere is closer to current Greek opinion than Plato, see Politics 1252b29: “The polis comes into existence for the sake of living, but remains in existence for the sake of living well.”) The Aristotelian concept of sympheron, which we later encounter in Cicero’s utilitas, must be understood in this context. Both, in turn, are forerunners of the later interest theory which is fully developed as early as Bodin—as kings rule over peoples, Interest rules over kings. In the modern development, Marx is outstand­ing not because of his materialism, but because he is the only political thinker who was consistent enough to base his theory of material interest on a demonstrably material human activity, on laboring—that is, on the metabolism of the human body with matter. [183]

¶ 25.6

The realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists of the [183] web of human relationships which exists wherever men live to­gether. The disclosure of the “who” through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt. Together they start a new process which eventually emerges as the unique life story of the newcomer, affecting uniquely the life stories of all those with whom he comes into contact.

  • It is because of this already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that action al­most never achieves its purpose; but
  • it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it “produces” stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things.

These stories

  • may then be recorded in documents and monuments, they
  • may be visible in use objects or art works, they
  • may be told and retold and worked into all kinds of material.

They themselves, in their living reality, are of an altogether dif­ferent nature than these reifications. They tell us more about their subjects, the “hero” in the center of each story, than any product of human hands ever tells us about the master who produced it, and yet they are not products, properly speaking. Although everybody started his life by inserting himself into the human world through action and speech, nobody is the author or producer of his own life story. In other words, the stories, the results of action and speech, reveal an agent, but this agent is not an author or producer, Somebody began it and is its subject in the twofold sense of the word, namely, its actor and sufferer, but nobody is its author.

¶ 25.7

That every individual life between birth and death can even­tually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end. But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of man­kind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action. For the great unknown in history, that has baffled the philosophy of history in the modern age, arises not only when one considers history as a whole and finds that its subject, mankind, is an abstraction which never can become an active agent; the same unknown has baffled [184] political philosophy from its beginning in antiquity and contrib­uted to the general contempt in which philosophers since Plato have held the realm of human affairs. The perplexity is that in any series of events that together form a story with a unique mean­ing we can at best isolate the agent who set the whole process into motion; and although this agent frequently remains the subject, the “hero” of the story, we never can point unequivocally to him as the author of its eventual outcome.

¶ 25.8

It is for this reason that Plato thought that human affairs (ta tōn anthrōpōn pragmata), the outcome of action (praxis), should not be treated with great seriousness; the actions of men appear like the gestures of puppets led by an invisible hand behind the scene, so that man seems to be a kind of plaything of a god.9 It is note­worthy that Plato, who had no inkling of the modern concept of history, should have been the first to invent the metaphor of an actor behind the scenes who, behind the backs of acting men, pulls the strings and is responsible for the story. The Platonic god is but a symbol for the fact that real stories, in distinction from those we invent, have no author; as such, he is the true forerunner of

  • Providence,
  • the “invisible hand,”
  • Nature,
  • the “world spirit,”
  • class interest,

and the like, with which Christian and modern philosophers of history tried to solve the perplexing problem that although history owes its existence to men, it is still obviously not “made” by them. (Nothing in fact indicates more clearly the political nature of history—its being a story of action and deeds rather than of trends and forces or ideas—than the introduction of an invisible actor behind the scenes whom we find in all philoso­phies of history, which for this reason alone can be recognized as political philosophies in disguise. By the same token, the simple fact that Adam Smith needed an “invisible hand” to guide econom­ic dealings on the exchange market shows plainly that more than sheer economic activity is involved in exchange and that “eco­nomic man,” when he makes his appearance on the market, is an acting being and neither exclusively a producer nor a trader and barterer.)

  1. Laws 803 and 644. [185]

Collingwood finds that all history is the history of thought. For Arendt, all history is the history of politics, or—that is—of action. What is the difference?

¶ 25.9

The invisible actor behind the scenes is an invention arising from a mental perplexity but corresponding to no real experience. [185] Through it, the story resulting from action is misconstrued as a fictional story, where indeed an author pulls the strings and directs the play. The fictional story reveals a maker just as every work of art clearly indicates that it was made by somebody; this does not belong to the character of the story itself but only to the mode in which it came into existence. The distinction between a real and a fictional story is precisely that the latter was “made up” and the former not made at all. The real story in which we are engaged as long as we live has no visible or invisible maker be­cause it is not made. The only “somebody” it reveals is its hero, and it is the only medium in which the originally intangible mani­festation of a uniquely distinct “who” can become tangible ex post facto through action and speech.

  • Who somebody is or was we can know only by knowing the story of which he is himself the hero—his biography, in other words;
  • everything else we know of him, including the work he may have produced and left behind, tells us only what he is or was.

Thus, although we know much less of Socrates, who did not write a single line and left no work behind, than of Plato or Aristotle, we know much better and more intimately who he was, because we know his story, than we know who Aristotle was, about whose opinions we are so much better informed.

  1. In Homer, the word hērōs has certainly a connotation of distinction, but of no other than every free man was capable. Nowhere does it appear in the later meaning of “half-god,” which perhaps arose out of a deification of the ancient epic heroes.

What somebody is can be told; who he (or she) is is only shown.

¶ 25.10

The hero the story discloses needs no heroic qualities; the word “hero” originally, that is, in Homer, was no more than a name given each free man who participated in the Trojan enterprise10 and about whom a story could be told. The connotation of cour­age, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own. And this courage is not necessarily or even primarily related to a willingness to suffer the consequences; courage and even boldness are already present in leaving one’s private hiding place and show­ing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self. The extent of this original courage, without which action and speech and [186] therefore, according to the Greeks, freedom, would not be pos­sible at all, is not less great and may even be greater if the “hero” happens to be a coward.

¶ 25.11

  • The specific content as well as the general meaning of action and speech may take various forms of reification in art works which glorify a deed or an accomplishment and, by transformation and condensation, show some extraordinary event in its full sig­nificance. However,
  • the specific revelatory quality of action and speech, the implicit manifestation of the agent and speaker, is so indissolubly tied to the living flux of acting and speaking that it can be represented and “reified” only through a kind of repetition, the imitation or mimēsis, which according to Aristotle prevails in all arts but is actually appropriate only to the drama, whose very name (from the Greek verb dran, “to act”) indicates that play­acting actually is an imitation of acting.11

But the imitative ele­ment lies not only in the art of the actor, but, as Aristotle rightly claims, in the making or writing of the play, at least to the extent that the drama comes fully to life only when it is enacted in the theater. Only the actors and speakers who re-enact the story’s plot can convey the full meaning, not so much of the story itself, but of the “heroes” who reveal themselves in it.12 In terms of Greek tragedy, this would mean that the story’s direct as well as its universal meaning is revealed by the chorus, which does not imitate13 and whose comments are pure poetry, whereas the in­tangible identities of the agents in the story, since they escape all [187] generalization and therefore all reification, can be conveyed only through an imitation of their acting. This is also why the theater is the political art par excellence; only there is the political sphere of human life transposed into art. By the same token, it is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationship to others.

  1. Aristotle already mentions that the word drama was chosen because drōntes (“acting people”) are imitated (Poetics 1448a28). From the treatise itself, it is obvious that Aristotle’s model for “imitation” in art is taken from the drama, and the generalization of the concept to make it applicable to all arts seems rather awkward.

  2. Aristotle therefore usually speaks not of an imitation of action (praxis) but of the agents (prattontes) (see Poetics 1448a1 ff., 1448b25, 1449b24 ff.). He is not consistent, however, in this use (cf. 1451a29, 1447a28). The decisive point is that tragedy does not deal with the qualities of men, their poiotēs, but with whatever happened with respect to them, with their actions and life and good or ill fortune (1450a15–18). The content of tragedy, therefore, is not what we would call character but action or the plot.

  3. That the chorus “imitates less” is mentioned in the Ps. Aristotelian Problemata (918b28). [187]

Socrates then wanted “drama” to have only a chorus?

26 the frailty of human affairs

¶ 26.1

Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.

  • Action and speech need the surrounding presence of others no less than
  • fabrication needs the surrounding presence
    • of nature for its material, and
    • of a world in which to place the finished product.

  • Fabrication is surrounded by and in constant contact with the world:
  • action and speech are surrounded by and in constant con­tact with the web of the acts and words of other men.

The popular belief in a “strong man” who, isolated against others, owes his strength to his being alone is either

  • sheer superstition, based on the delusion that we can “make” something in the realm of human affairs—“make” institutions or laws, for instance, as we make tables and chairs, or make men “better” or “worse”14or it is
  • conscious despair of all action, political and non-political, coupled with the utopian hope that it may be possible to treat men as one treats other “material.”15

The strength the individual needs for every process of production becomes altogether worthless when action is at stake, regardless of whether this strength is intellec­tual or a matter of purely material force. History is full of ex- [188] amples of the impotence of the strong and superior man who does not know how to enlist the help, the co-acting of his fellow men. His failure is frequently blamed upon the fatal inferiority of the many and the resentment every outstanding person inspires in those who are mediocre. Yet true as such observations are bound to be, they do not touch the heart of the matter.

  1. Plato already reproached Pericles because he did not “make the citizen better” and because the Athenians were even worse at the end of his career than before (Gorgias 515).

  2. Recent political history is full of examples indicating that the term “human material” is no harmless metaphor, and the same is true for a whole host of mod­ern scientific experiments in social engineering, biochemistry, brain surgery, etc., all of which tend to treat and change human material like other matter. This mechanistic approach is typical of the modern age; antiquity, when it pursued similar aims, was inclined to think of men in terms of savage animals who need be tamed and domesticated. The only possible achievement in either case is to kill man, not indeed necessarily as a living organism, but qua man. [188]

¶ 26.2

In order to illustrate what is at stake here we may remember that Greek and Latin, unlike the modern languages, contain two altogether different and yet interrelated words with which to des­ignate the verb “to act.” To the two Greek verbs

  • archein (“to begin,” “to lead,” finally “to rule”) and
  • prattein (“to pass through,” “to achieve,” “to finish”)

correspond the two Latin verbs

  • agere (“to set into motion,” “to lead”) and
  • gerere (whose original meaning is “to bear”).16

Here it seems as though each action were divided into two parts,

  1. the beginning made by a single person and
  2. the achievement in which many join by “bear­ing” and “finishing” the enterprise, by seeing it through.

Not only are the words interrelated in a similar manner, the history of their usage is very similar too. In both cases

  • the word that originally designated only the second part of action, its achieve­ment—prattein and gerere—became the accepted word for action in general, whereas
  • the words designating the beginning of action became specialized in meaning, at least in political language.

  • Archein came to mean chiefly “to rule” and “to lead” when it was specifically used, and
  • agere came to mean “to lead” rather than “to set into motion.”
  1. For archein and prattein sce especially their use in Homer (cf. C. Capelle, Wörterbuch des Homeros und der Homeriden [1889]). [189]

¶ 26.3

Thus the role of the beginner and leader, who was a primus inter pares (in the case of Homer, a king among kings), changed into that of a ruler; the original interdependence of action, the dependence of the beginner and leader upon others for help and the dependence of his followers upon him for an occasion to act themselves, split into two altogether different functions:

  1. the func­tion of giving commands, which became the prerogative of the ruler, and
  2. the function of executing them, which became the duty of his subjects.

This ruler is alone, isolated against others by his force, just as the beginner was isolated through his initiative at [189] the start, before he had found others to join him. Yet the strength of the beginner and leader shows itself only in his initiative and the risk he takes, not in the actual achievement. In the case of the successful ruler, he may claim for himself what actually is the achievement of many—something that Agamemnon, who was a king but no ruler, would never have been permitted. Through this claim, the ruler monopolizes, so to speak, the strength of those without whose help he would never be able to achieve anything. Thus, the delusion of extraordinary strength arises and with it the fallacy of the strong man who is powerful because he is alone.

¶ 26.4

Because the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings, he is never merely a “doer” but always and at the same time a sufferer. To do and to suffer are like opposite sides of the same coin, and the story that an act starts is composed of its consequent deeds and sufferings. These consequences are boundless, because action, though it may proceed from nowhere, so to speak, acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new proc­esses. Since action acts upon beings who are capable of their own actions, reaction, apart from being a response, is always a new action that strikes out on its own and affects others. Thus action and reaction among men never move in a closed circle and can never be reliably confined to two partners. This boundlessness is characteristic not of political action alone, in the narrower sense of the word, as though the boundlessness of human interrelated­ness were only the result of the boundless multitude of people involved, which could be escaped by resigning oneself to action within a limited, graspable framework of circumstances; the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.

Compare Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy:

If we really wish to know the whole truth when we ask for the cause of an event, then, it seems that we shall have to enumerate all the conditions present in the world at the time; for we cannot assume any of them to be irrelevant. The only real cause seems to be a total state of the universe.

Further, if the whole present state of the universe causes the fall of the tree, it also for the same reason causes everything else that happens at the same time. That is to say, the cause of the fall of my tree is also the cause of an earthquake in Japan and a fine day in British Columbia.

¶ 26.5

Action, moreover, no matter what its specific content, always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries.17 Limita- [190] tions and boundaries exist within the realm of human affairs, but they never offer a framework that can reliably withstand the on­slaught with which each new generation must insert itself. The frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together, arises from the human condi­tion of natality and is quite independent of the frailty of human nature.

  • The fences inclosing private property and insuring the limitations of each household,
  • the territorial boundaries which pro­tect and make possible the physical identity of a people, and
  • the laws which protect and make possible its political existence,

are of such great importance to the stability of human affairs precisely because no such limiting and protecting principles rise out of the activities going on in the realm of human affairs itself.

  • The limita­tions of the law are never entirely reliable safeguards against ac­tion from within the body politic, just as
  • the boundaries of the territory are never entirely reliable safeguards against action from without.

The boundlessness of action is only the other side of its tremendous capacity for establishing relationships, that is, its specific productivity; this is why

  • the old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence, just as
  • the political temptation par excellence is indeed hubris (as the Greeks, fully experienced in the potentialities of action, knew so well) and not the will to power, as we are inclined to believe.
  1. It is interesting to note that Montesquieu, whose concern was not with laws but with the actions their spirit would inspire, defines laws as rapports sub- [190] sisting between different beings (Esprit des lois, Book I, ch. 1; cf. Book XXVI, ch, 1). This definition is surprising because laws had always been defined in terms of boundaries and limitations. The reason for it is that Montesquieu was less interested in what he called the “nature of government”—whether it was a re­public or a monarchy, for instance—than in its “principle … by which it is made to act, … the human passions which set it in motion” (Book III, ch. 1). [191]

¶ 26.6

Yet while the various limitations and boundaries we find in every body politic may offer some protection against the inherent boundlessness of action, they are altogether helpless to offset its second outstanding character: its inherent unpredictability. This is not simply a question of inability to foretell all the logical con­sequences of a particular act, in which case an electronic com­puter would be able to foretell the future, but arises directly out of the story which, as the result of action, begins and establishes [191] itself as soon as the fleeting moment of the deed is past. The trouble is that whatever the character and content of the subse­quent story may be, whether it is played in private or public life, whether it involves many or few actors, its full meaning can reveal itself only when it has ended.

  • In contradistinction to fabrication, where the light by which to judge the finished product is provided by the image or model perceived beforehand by the craftsman’s eye,
  • the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end, frequently when all the participants are dead.

Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the par­ticipants. All accounts told by the actors themselves, though they may in rare cases give an entirely trustworthy statement of in­tentions, aims, and motives, become mere useful source material in the historian’s hands and can never match his story in signifi­cance and truthfulness. What the storyteller narrates must neces­sarily be hidden from the actor himself, at least as long as he is in the act or caught in its consequences, because to him the mean­ingfulness of his act is not in the story that follows. Even though stories are the inevitable results of action, it is not the actor but the storyteller who perceives and “makes” the story.

See my post “Psychology” from 2013, based in part on a passage from Collingwood’s Idea of History whose core is this:

Now the idea that every agent is wholly and directly responsible for everything that he does is a naïve idea which takes no account of certain important regions in moral experience.

  • On the one hand, there is no getting away from the fact that men’s characters are formed by their actions and experiences; the man himself undergoes change as his activities develop.
  • On the other hand, there is the fact that to a very great extent people do not know what they are doing until they have done it, if then.

27 the greek solution

¶ 27.1

This unpredictability of outcome is closely related to the revela­tory character of action and speech, in which one discloses one’s self without ever either knowing himself or being able to calcu­late beforehand whom he reveals. The ancient saying that nobody can be called eudaimōn before he is dead may point to the issue at stake, if we could hear its original meaning after two and a half thousand years of hackneyed repetition; not even its Latin trans­lation, proverbial and trite already in Rome—nemo ante mortem beatus esse dici potest—conveys this meaning, although it may have inspired the practice of the Catholic Church to beatify her saints only after they have long been safely dead. For eudaimonia means neither happiness nor beatitude; it cannot be translated and per- [192] haps cannot even be explained. It has the connotation of blessed­ness, but without any religious overtones, and it means literally something like the well-being of the daimōn who accompanies each man throughout life, who is his distinct identity, but appears and is visible only to others.18 Unlike happiness, therefore, which is a passing mood, and unlike good fortune, which one may have at certain periods of life and lack in others, eudaimonia, like life itself, is a lasting state of being which is neither subject to change nor capable of effecting change. To be eudaimōn and to have been eudaimōn, according to Aristotle, are the same, just as to “live well” (eu dzēn) and to have “lived well” are the same as long as life lasts; they are not states or activities which change a person’s quality, such as learning and having learned, which indicate two altogether different attributes of the same person at different moments.19

  1. For this interpretation of daimōn and eudaimonia, see Sophocles Oedipus Rex 1186 ff., especially the verses: Tis gar, tis anēr pleon / tas eudaimonias pherei / ē tosouton hoson dokein / kai doxant’ apoklinai (“For which, which man [can] bear more eudaimonia than he grasps from appearance and deflects in its appearance?”). It is against this inevitable distortion that the chorus asserts its own knowledge: these others see, they “have” Oedipus’ daimōn before their eyes as an example; the misery of the mortals is their blindness toward their own daimōn.

19, Aristotle Metaphysics 1048b23 ff. [193]

¶ 27.2

This unchangeable identity of the person, though disclosing itself intangibly in act and speech, becomes tangible only in the story of the actor’s and speaker’s life; but as such it can be known, that is, grasped as a palpable entity only after it has come to its end. In other words, human essence—not human nature in gen­eral (which does not exist) nor the sum total of qualities and shortcomings in the individual, but the essence of who somebody is—can come into being only when life departs, leaving behind nothing but a story. Therefore whoever consciously aims at being “essential,” at leaving behind a story and an identity which will win “immortal fame,” must not only risk his life but expressly choose, as Achilles did, a short life and premature death. Only a man who does not survive his one supreme act remains the indis­putable master of his identity and possible greatness, because he withdraws into death from the possible consequences and con- [193] tinuation of what he began. What gives the story of Achilles its paradigmatic significance is that it shows in a nutshell that eudai­monia can be bought only at the price of life and that one can make sure of it only by foregoing the continuity of living in which we disclose ourselves piecemeal, by summing up all of one’s life in a single deed, so that the story of the act comes to its end together with life itself. Even Achilles, it is true, remains dependent upon the storyteller, poet, or historian, without whom everything he did remains futile; but he is the only “hero,” and therefore the hero par excellence, who delivers into the narrator’s hands the full significance of his deed, so that it is as though he had not merely enacted the story of his life but at the same time also “made” it.

The shade of Achilles does say in Book XI of the Odyssey (in Emily Wilson’s translation),

Odysseus, you must not comfort me
for death. I would prefer to be a workman,
hired by a poor man on a peasant farm,
than rule as king of all the dead. But come,
tell me about my son. Do you have news?
Did he march off to war to be a leader?
And what about my father Peleus?
Does he still have good standing among all
the Myrmidons? Or do they treat him badly
in Phthia and Greece, since he is old
and frail? Now I have left the light of day,
and am not there to help, as on the plains
of Troy when I was killing the best Trojans,
to help the Greeks. If I could go for even
a little while, with all that strength I had,
up to my father’s house, I would make those
who hurt and disrespect him wish my hands
were not invincible.

¶ 27.3

No doubt this concept of action is highly individualistic, as we would say today.20 It stresses the urge toward self-disclosure at the expense of all other factors and therefore remains relatively untouched by the predicament of unpredictability. As such it be­came the prototype of action for Greek antiquity and influenced, in the form of the so-called agonal spirit, the passionate drive to show one’s self in measuring up against others that underlies the concept of politics prevalent in the city-states. An outstanding symptom of this prevailing influence is that the Greeks, in dis­tinction from all later developments, did not count legislating among the political activities. In their opinion, the lawmaker was like the builder of the city wall, someone who had to do and finish his work before political activity could begin. He therefore was treated like any other craftsman or architect and could be called from abroad and commissioned without having to be a citizen, whereas the right to politeuesthai, to engage in the numerous ac­tivities which eventually went on in the polis, was entirely re­stricted to citizens. To them, the laws, like the wall around the city, were not results of action but products of making. Before men began to act, a definite space had to be secured and a struc­ture built where all subsequent actions could take place, the space [194] being the public realm of the polis and its structure the law; legis­lator and architect belonged in the same category.21 But these tangible entities themselves were not the content of politics (not Athens, but the Athenians, were the polis22), and they did not command the same loyalty we know from the Roman type of patriotism.

  1. The fact that the Greek word for “every one” (hekastos) is derived from hekas (“far off”) seems to indicate how deep-rooted this “individualism” must have been. [194]

  2. See, for instance, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1141b25. There is no more elemental difference between Greece and Rome than their respective attitudes toward territory and law. In Rome, the foundation of the city and the establish­ment of its laws remained the great and decisive act to which all later deeds and accomplishments had to be related in order to acquire political validity and legitimation.

  3. See M. F. Schachermeyr, “La formation de la cité Grecque,” Diogenes, No, 4 (1953), who compares the Greek usage with that of Babylon, where the notion of “the Babylonians” could be expressed only by saying: the people of the territory of the city of Babylon.

¶ 27.4

Though it is true that Plato and Aristotle elevated lawmaking and city-building to the highest rank in political life, this does not indicate that they enlarged the fundamental Greek experiences of action and politics to comprehend what later turned out to be the political genius of Rome: legislation and foundation. The Socratic school, on the contrary, turned to these activities, which to the Greeks were prepolitical, because they wished to turn against politics and against action. To them, legislating and the execution of decisions by vote are the most legitimate political activities because in them men “act like craftsmen”: the result of their ac­tion is a tangible product, and its process has a clearly recogniz­able end.23 This is no longer or, rather, not yet action (praxis), properly speaking, but making (poiēsis), which they prefer be­cause of its greater reliability. It is as though they had said that if men only renounce their capacity for action, with its futility, boundlessness, and uncertainty of outcome, there could be a remedy for the frailty of human affairs.

  1. “For [the legislators] alone act like craftsmen [cheirotechnoi]” because their act has a tangible end, an eschaton, which is the decree passed in the assembly (psēphisma) (Nicomachean Ethics 1141b29). [195]

¶ 27.5

How this remedy can destroy the very substance of human re­lationships is perhaps best illustrated in one of the rare instances [195] where Aristotle draws an example of acting from the sphere of private life, in the relationship between the benefactor and his recipient. With that candid absence of moralizing that is the mark of Greek, though not of Roman, antiquity, he states first as a matter of fact that the benefactor always loves those he has helped more than he is loved by them. He then goes on to explain that this is only natural, since the benefactor has done a work, an ergon, while the recipient has only endured his beneficence. The benefactor, according to Aristotle, loves his “work,” the life of the recipient which he has “made,” as the poet loves his poems, and he reminds his readers that the poet’s love for his work is hardly less passionate than a mother’s love for her children.24 This explanation shows clearly that he thinks of acting in terms of making, and of its result, the relationship between men, in terms of an accomplished “work” (his emphatic attempts to distinguish between action and fabrication, praxis and poiēsis, notwithstand­ing).25 In this instance, it is perfectly obvious how this interpre­tation, though it may serve to explain psychologically the phe­nomenon of ingratitude on the assumption that both benefactor and recipient agree about an interpretation of action in terms of making, actually spoils the action itself and its true result, the relationship it should have established. The example of the legis­lator is less plausible for us only because the Greek notion of the task and role of the legislator in the public realm is so utterly alien to our own. In any event, work, such as the activity of the legisla­tor in Greek understanding, can become the content of action only on condition that further action is not desirable or possible; and action can result in an end product only on condition that its own authentic, non-tangible, and always utterly fragile meaning is destroyed.

  1. Ibid. 1168a13 ff.
  2. Ibid. 1140. [196]

Compare “The Giver Should Be Thankful”:

While Seisetsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umezu Seibei, a merchant of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.

Seisetsu said: “All right. I will take it.”

Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.

“In that sack are five hundred ryo,” hinted Umezu.

“You told me that before,” replied Seisetsu.

“Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money,” said Umezu.

“Do you want me to thank you for it?” asked Seisetsu.

“You ought to,” replied Uzemu.

“Why should I?” inquired Seisetsu. “The giver should be thankful.”

¶ 27.6

The original, prephilosophic Greek remedy for this frailty had been the foundation of the polis. The polis, as it grew out of and remained rooted in the Greek pre-polis experience and estimate of what makes it worthwhile for men to live together (syzēn), [196] namely, the “sharing of words and deeds,”26 had a twofold func­tion.

  1. First, it was intended to enable men to do permanently, albeit under certain restrictions, what otherwise had been possible only as an extraordinary and infrequent enterprise for which they had to leave their households. The polis was supposed to multiply the occasions to win “immortal fame,” that is, to multiply the chances for everybody to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness. One, if not the chief, reason for the incredible development of gift and genius in Athens, as well as for the hardly less surprising swift decline of the city-state, was precisely that from beginning to end its fore­most aim was to make the extraordinary an ordinary occurrence of everyday life.
  2. The second function of the polis, again closely connected with the hazards of action as experienced before its coming into being, was to offer a remedy for the futility of action and speech; for the chances that a deed deserving fame would not be forgotten, that it actually would become “immortal,” were not very good. Homer was not only a shining example of the poet’s political function, and therefore the “educator of all Hellas”; the very fact that so great an enterprise as the Trojan War could have been forgotten without a poet to immortalize it several hundred years later offered only too good an example of what could happen to human greatness if it had nothing but poets to rely on for its permanence.
  1. Logōn kai pragmatōn koinōnein, as Aristotle once put it (ibid. 1126b12).

¶ 27.7

We are not concerned here with the historical causes for the tise of the Greek city-state; what the Greeks themselves thought of it and its raison d’être, they have made unmistakably clear. The polis—if we trust the famous words of Pericles in the Funeral Oration—gives a guaranty that those who forced every sea and land to become the scene of their daring will not remain without witness and will need neither Homer nor anyone else who knows how to turn words to praise them; without assistance from others, those who acted will be able to establish together the everlasting remembrance of their good and bad deeds, to inspire admiration in the present and in future ages.27 In other words, men’s life to­gether in the form of the polis seemed to assure that

  • the most [197] futile of human activities, action and speech, and
  • the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made “products,” the deeds and stories which are their outcome,

would become imperishable. The organization of the polis, physically secured by the wall around the city and physiognomically guaranteed by its laws—lest the succeeding generations change its identity beyond recognition—is a kind of organized remembrance. It assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, gener­ally, appearing before an audience of fellow men, who outside the polis could attend only the short duration of the performance and therefore needed Homer and “others of his craft” in order to be presented to those who were not there.

  1. Thucydides ii. 41.

¶ 27.8

According to this self-interpretation, the political realm rises directly out of acting together, the “sharing of words and deeds.” Thus action not only has the most intimate relationship to the public part of the world common to us all, but is the one activity which constitutes it. It is as though the wall of the polis and the bound­aries of the law were drawn around an already existing public space which, however, without such stabilizing protection could not endure, could not survive the moment of action and speech itself. Not historically, of course, but speaking metaphorically and theoretically, it is as though the men who returned from the Trojan War had wished to make permanent the space of action which had arisen from their deeds and sufferings, to prevent its perishing with their dispersal and return to their isolated home­steads.

¶ 27.9

The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be. “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”: these famous words became not merely the watchword of Greek colonization, they expressed the conviction that action and speech create a space between the participants which can find its proper location almost any time and anywhere. It is the space of appear­ance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men exist not [198] merely like other living or inanimate things but make their appear­ance explicitly.

¶ 27.10

This space does not always exist, and although all men are capable of deed and word, most of them—like the slave, the for­eigner, and the barbarian in antiquity, like the laborer or crafts­man prior to the modern age, the jobholder or businessman in our world—do not live in it. No man, moreover, can live in it all the time. To be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. 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,”28 and whatever lacks this appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.29

  1. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1172b36 ff.

  2. Heraclitus’ statement that the world is one and common to those who are awake, but that everybody who is asleep turns away to his own (Diels, op. cit., B89), says essentially the same as Aristotle’s remark just quoted. [199]

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] §§ 24–27 […]

  2. By Creativity « Polytropy on June 6, 2022 at 6:27 am

    […] warriors, and the πόλις (polis, city) was there to make sure he did that job. This is from the eighth reading, pages […]

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