On The Human Condition of Hannah Arendt 10

Index to this series

CHAPTER V Action [3]

We come to the end of Arendt’s chapter on action. Action has two components:

  1. Getting it started (ἄρχειν).
  2. Keeping it going (πράττειν).

Anybody can do the first, but then the second is out of his (or her) exclusive control. This is a problem. You can try to avoid the problem, either by making other people your slaves, or by being a Stoic. You can also just recognize that the problem can be mitigated by the actions of promising and forgiving.

Picnic table among trees
Yıldız Parkı, April 16, 2022
Where I did some of the next reading

Before passing to a longer summary, then to Arendt’s text itself with my annotations, I am going to say more about how I see the problem, or at least an aspect of the problem.

Many people are afraid of mathematics, or disconcerted by it: the mathematician hears or infers this from time to time. People can also be afraid of another thing done in school, namely expressing themselves artistically—or just expressing themselves, if indeed

By creating for ourselves an imaginary experience or activity, we express our emotions; and this is what we call art.

That is what Collingwood says in the middle of The Principles of Art, and I analyzed it in the first part of a composition called “Discrete Logarithms: Mathematics and Art.” Now I just recall some personal observations of fear of expression, or doubt of it.

  • A school friend told me that while with effort, you might multiply your talent, this required you to have some talent to begin with; and for art, he had none.
  • My one experience of working outside academia was at a farm, and at the end of the season, a colleague asked me if I had been “good in English class”; he wanted me to check the letter he was drafting to send to another potential employer.
  • A former roommate hired somebody to put her travel photos in an album, because she herself had no artistic talent for this activity. She did had the talent that would let an accounting firm hire her and give her a secretary.
  • In my childhood, my parents hired a decorator to tell them what colors to paint our house. The recommendation for the exterior trim of the brick house was out of harmony with the azalea bushes that were already growing in the yard (though perhaps not flowering when the decorator visited). My mother noted the color clash, and so I wondered why could she not have picked out a better paint for herself.

At elite American colleges today, students may think they are good at expressing themselves, while wishing they didn’t have to do any more than that. This is how I read William Deresiewicz, who was born a year ahead of me. In “American education’s new dark age” (Unherd, March 21, 2022), he writes about teaching a writing course at the Clarement colleges, “the consortium of elite liberal arts institutions in Southern California.” The students think good writing just comes out of you; and if it doesn’t, there is nothing you can do about that:

One week, we did an exercise designed to help them make their prose more vivid and energetic. I had them read a short piece of writing pedagogy, then handed out a sheet on which I’d reproduced a single sentence from each of their most recent pieces that needed that kind of attention.

We set to work on the first, dissecting, pruning, and rewriting. After about ten minutes, we had it in decent shape; it wasn’t graceful yet, but at least it was concise. And then I said, “Okay, it’s taken thirteen of the finest minds in Claremont ten minutes to rewrite that sentence. This is what you need to do with every sentence you write.” They looked at me with horror and amazement. It wasn’t just the scale of the task that was rising before them. It was also the fact that no one had bothered to tell them that before.

It was then I finally understood something that my students had told me the first day of class. I had asked them to introduce themselves and talk about their strengths and weaknesses as writers. Many had said some version of “I’m good at writing naturally” or “I’m good at writing conversationally,” “but I’m not good at revising” or “I’m not good at editing”. What they had been telling me, I realised that day in the middle of the semester, was that they thought of writing as something that just happens, that they had never been asked to pay attention to their sentences as conscious constructions.

Dereciewicz’s general concern is expressed in a subtitle or tagline (perhaps not written by himself), “Colleges have abandoned real learning for wokeism.” Another recent essay takes issue with the generalization here, from elite colleges to colleges tout court:

There are roughly 16 million undergraduates around the country at any given time. Those other 5,275 schools with millions and millions of students are where the vast majority of college learning in America happens. Whatever side you take on various arguments about speech at elite universities, you’re participating in a conversation that willfully ignores this truth.

Thus Lucas Mann in “I’m a Longtime Professor. The Real Campus ‘Free Speech Crisis’ Is Not What You Think” (Slate, April 16, 2022). I cannot tell what “longtime” means here, since the only date on Mann’s university webpage is 2013, when his book came out. In Slate he writes of students who don’t expect what comes out of them to be good.

What I find most foreign in accounts of “free speech” on campuses is the depiction of militancy among students, a monolith of kids who, in these representations, apparently show up at age 18 secure in their views and voice and the power of that voice in an academic setting. Instead, what I observe to be the biggest hurdle for my students is the challenge of allowing themselves to speak, which means feeling at home, engaged, and empowered enough to validate their own perspective as worthy of the discussion.

Socrates had no problem sharing his perspective. He did have a problem with editing his speech to conform to the demands of Athenian society. He expressly would not do it, at the trial where he was condemned to death. There he objected that other people didn’t edit their speech: when they were experts at one thing, they felt free to hold forth about other things that they knew nothing about. According to the Republic, justice means sticking to your own business. This teaching avoids the problem of how something gets to be your business in the first place. I like to think that Plato expected at least some of his readers to see this problem. Arendt seems to disagree; but in any case, she is trying to deal with the problem.

Summary by sections

  • 31 the traditional substitution of making for acting There are recognized skills, such as making shoes, or playing the flute, or ruling a household. Life would be so much simpler if running a city-state were a skill like that. One problem is that applying a skill, particularly for fabrication, usually involves destroying something: “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” (Wiktionary traces the saying to 1796 in English, citing the OED and its 1933 supplement; but I do not find this information in the Supplement, and in the original OED, the earliest English quotation is from 1859. In any case, the saying did not originate with Stalin.)
  • 32 the process character of action We are free to get things started. We still want the freedom to control how those things proceed; but such freedom belongs only to a unique God.
  • 33 irreversibility and the power to forgive Still, as Jesus of Nazareth discovered, the power of forgiveness can free us from suffering vengeance when what we do goes wrong.
  • 34 unpredictability and the power of promise The power of promising—thus entering into contracts and treaties—gives us some measure of certainty in life, provided we do not demand it in all things.

Summary by paragraphs

  • 31 the traditional substitution of making for acting
    • ¶ 31.1 Action is a pain, for its unpredictability, irreversibility, and anonymity; one would like to replace it with making things.
    • ¶ 31.2 The problem is plurality, and a seeming solution is monarchy, as by Plato’s philosopher-king. Plato did not use that term (to my knowledge), but whatever you call the monarch, he is a tyrant.
    • ¶ 31.3 Most political philosophy since Plato has attempted to replace politics with ruling.
    • ¶ 31.4 This meant keeping the initiator of an action in charge of it throughout.
    • ¶ 31.5 This is what happens in the household, between master and slave; and the Republic turned the state into one big household.
    • ¶ 31.6 The notion of rule for Plato is all-encompassing. He who is to rule others must first rule himself.
    • ¶ 31.7 For Plato, the ruler knows, and the subject does. The distinction here “is an every­day experience in fabrication.”
    • ¶ 31.8 Replacing acting with making means replacing the philosopher’s ideal of beauty with the philosopher-king’s ideal of the good.
    • ¶ 31.9 “Technically, the greatest advantage of this transformation and application of the doctrine of ideas to the political realm lay in the elimination of the personal element in the Platonic notion of ideal rulership.”
    • ¶ 31.10 Plato has inspired all utopias since: they don’t work, but “they were among the most efficient ve­hicles to conserve and develop a tradition of political thinking.”
    • ¶ 31.11 Bringing making into politics means bringing along its inherent violence; but this was always merely instrumental, until “the modern age’s conviction that man can know only what he makes.”
    • ¶ 31.12 “We are perhaps the first gen­eration which has become fully aware of the murderous conse­quences” of slogans like “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
    • ¶ 31.13 “The substitution of making for acting and the concomitant deg­radation of politics … is as old as the tradition of political philosophy … the modern age did not reverse the tradition but rather liberated it from the ‘preju­dices’ which had prevented it from declaring openly that the work of the craftsman should rank higher than the ‘idle’ opinions and doings which constitute the realm of human affairs.”
  • 32 the process character of action
    • ¶ 32.1 Trying to eliminate labor has turned work into labor. Trying to eliminate action has driven us “to act into nature,” instead of just using and exploring it.
    • ¶ 32.2 This began with the experiment and has led to nuclear reactions on earth.
    • ¶ 32.3 “… the actual underlying human capacity which alone could bring about this development is no ‘theoretical’ capacity … but the human ability to act.”
    • ¶ 32.4 The modern way of thinking, in terms of process, began in the science of history, with Vico, and then entered natural science.
    • ¶ 32.5 We can neither undo nor predict the course of any action; still, one may not be concerned with our frailty here.
      • The Greeks sought immortality.
      • Unconcerned with that, you may find human affairs resilient in comparison with the world of things.
    • ¶ 32.6 Indeed, “the strength of the action process is never exhausted in a single deed.”
    • ¶ 32.7 We could be proud of that, but for its burden. “Nowhere … does man appear to be less free than in those capacities whose very essence is freedom.”
    • ¶ 32.8 If like a Stoic you think freedom is sovereignty, you cannot have it; and despite what “the tradition since Plato holds,” this is not because you are weak, but because you are one in a plurality.
    • ¶ 32.9 “… only under the assumption of one god … can sovereignty and freedom be the same. Under all other circumstances, sovereignty is possible only in imagination, paid for by the price of reality.”
    • ¶ 32.10 You may therefore think human existence absurd, or tragic as did Kant, who asserted that motives mattered, not consequences; but we are going to see in the remaining two sections of the chapter “whether the capacity for action does not harbor within itself certain potentiali­ties which enable it to survive the disabilities of non-sovereignty.”
  • 33 irreversibility and the power to forgive
    • ¶ 33.1 Labor, work, and thought can be saved from pain, meaninglessness, and predicament, respectively, only from outside, by work, action, and something beyond the current scope.
    • ¶ 33.2 The irreversibility and unpredictability of action are redeemed by forgiving and promising.
    • ¶ 33.3 Without forgiveness, we could start only one thing; without promising, we could never have an identity; but we cannot forgive ourselves or promise ourselves.
    • ¶ 33.4 Thus “The moral code … inferred from the faculties of forgiving and of making promises, rests on experiences which no­body could ever have with himself.” By contrast, “Platonic rulership … draws its guiding principles … from a relationship established between me and my­self.”
    • ¶ 33.5 The remedies of forgiving and promising are not available when our action is
      • on nature, through technology, or
    • “in the mode of making,” where doing is by violence, and undoing is by destruction.
    • ¶ 33.6 Jesus discovered “the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs,” although the Romans could spare the vanquished and commute death sentences.
    • ¶ 33.7 We have the power to forgive, and it does not come from God. It is not for “crime and willed evil,” but for everyday trespassing.
    • ¶ 33.8 Jesus teaches freedom from vengeance, which is something natural; forgiving, being an action, is unpredictable. .
    • ¶ 33.9 Forgiveness and punishment both aim to end something and are used for the same acts—not “radical evil.”
    • ¶ 33.10 Forgiveness is of what is done, but for the sake of who did it. Therefore it is thought to need love.
    • ¶ 33.11 However, respect is enough. Also, you cannot forgive yourself, because you don’t know who you are.
  • 34 unpredictability and the power of promise
    • ¶ 34.1 Promising goes back to Roman law, if not to Abraham.
    • ¶ 34.2 It takes care of
      • unreliability, the cost of freedom;
    • unpredictability, the cost of “plurality and reality, the joy of inhabiting together with others a world whose reality is guaranteed for each by the presence of all.”
    • ¶ 34.3 “Contracts and treaties” supply “isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty,” but cannot do more.
    • ¶ 34.4 They make sovereignty real. Nietzsche saw how they distinguish us from animals.
    • ¶ 34.5 Forgiving and promising “are like control mecha­nisms built into the very faculty to start new and unending proc­esses,” without which “we would be the victims of an automatic necessity.”
    • ¶ 34.6 “… men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin … Action is, in fact, the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus [246] of Nazareth … must have known very well.”
    • ¶ 34.7 “Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope,” ignored by the Greeks, but announced by the Gospels.

31 the traditional substitution of making for acting

¶ 31.1

The modern age, in its early concern with tangible products and demonstrable profits or its later obsession with smooth functioning and sociability, was not the first to denounce the idle uselessness of action and speech in particular and of politics in general.56 Exasper­ation with the threefold frustration of action—

  1. the unpredictability of its outcome,
  2. the irreversibility of the process, and
  3. the anonymity of its authors

—is almost as old as recorded history. It has always been a great temptation, for men of action no less than for men of thought, to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsi­bility inherent in a plurality of agents. The remarkable monotony of the proposed solutions throughout our recorded history testifies to the elemental simplicity of the matter. Generally speaking, they always amount to seeking shelter from action’s calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end. This attempt to replace acting with making is manifest in the whole body of argument against “democracy,” which, the more consistently and better reasoned it is, will turn into an argument against the essentials of politics.

  1. The classic author on this matter is still Adam Smith, to whom the only legitimate function of government is “the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all” (op. cit., II, 198 ff.; for the quotation see II, 203). [220]

It seems to me that so-called Artificial Intelligence is an attempt to replace acting with making. I may have written about this most recently in “Nature,” where I quoted David Silver on where “reinforcement learning” would have the “biggest impact”:

I think of a system that can help you as a user achieve your goals as effectively as possible. A really powerful system that sees all the things that you see, that has all the same senses that you have, which is able to help you achieve your goals in your life.

Many of us may wish we could get through life this way, which seems to involve dealing with other people as little as possible. I fancy that my family helped me understand that this was not possible. I recently chanced upon “Adoptee Twitter,” where some adopted people are bitter about being that; I cannot say that they shouldn’t be, although I might ask whether they embrace the verse of Theognis,

Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all.

I just shudder to think that, with parents who reinforced certain tendencies, perhaps because we shared certain genes, I might have ended up like David Silver.

¶ 31.2

The calamities of action all arise from the human condition of plurality, which is the condition sine qua non for that space of ap­pearance which is the public realm. Hence the attempt to do away with this plurality is always tantamount to the abolition of the pub­lic realm itself. The most obvious salvation from the dangers of [220] plurality is mon-archy, or one-man-rule, in its many varieties, from outright tyranny of one against all to benevolent despotism and to those forms of democracy in which the many form a collective body so that the people “is many in one” and constitute themselves as a “monarch.”57 Plato’s solution of the philosopher-king, whose “wisdom” solves the perplexities of action as though they were solvable problems of cognition, is only one—and by no means the least tyrannical—variety of one-man rule. The trouble with these forms of government is not that they are cruel, which often they are not, but rather that they work too well. Tyrants, if they know their business, may well be “kindly and mild in everything,” like Peisistratus, whose rule even in antiquity was compared to “the Golden Age of Cronos”;58 their measures may sound very “un­tyrannical” and beneficial to modern ears, especially when we hear that the only—albeit unsuccessful—attempt to abolish slavery in antiquity was made by Periandros, tyrant of Corinth.59 But they all have in common the banishment of the citizens from the public realm and the insistence that they mind their private business while only “the ruler should attend to public affairs.”60 This, to be sure, [221] was tantamount to furthering private industry and industriousness, but the citizens could see in this policy nothing but the attempt to deprive them of the time necessary for participation in common matters. It is the obvious short-range advantages of tyranny, the advantages of stability, security, and productivity, that one should beware, if only because they pave the way to an inevitable loss of power, even though the actual disaster may occur in a relatively distant future.

  1. This is the Aristotelian interpretation of tyranny in the form of a democ­racy (Politics 1292a16 ff.). Kingship, however, does not belong among the tyran­nical forms of government, nor can it be defined as one-man rule or monarchy. While the terms “tyranny” and “monarchy” could be used interchangeably, the words “tyrant” and basileus (“king”) are used as opposites (see, for instance, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1160b3, Plato Republic 576D). Generally speaking, one-man rule is praised in antiquity only for household matters or for warfare, and it is usually in some military or “economic” context that the famous line from the Iliad, ouk agathon polykoiraniē; heis koiranos estō, heis basileus—“the rule by many is not good; one should be master, one be king” (ii. 204)—is quoted. (Aristotle, who applies Homer’s saying in his Metaphysics [1076a3 ff.] to political community life [politeuesthai] in a metaphorical sense, is an exception. In Politics 1292a13, where he quotes the Homeric line again, he takes a stand against the many having the power “not as individuals, but collectively,” and states that this is only a disguised form of one-man rule, or tyranny.) Conversely, the rule of the many, later called polyarkhia, is used disparagingly to mean confusion of com­mand in warfare (see, for instance, Thucydides vi. 72; cf. Xenophon Anabasis vi. 1. 18).

  2. Aristotle Athenian Constitution xvi. 2, 7.

  3. See Fritz Heichelheim, Wirtschaftsgeschichte des Altertums (1938), I, 258.

  4. Aristotle (Athenian Constitution xv. 5) reports this of Peisistratus. [221]

Unfortunately Arendt’s remarks about the attractions of monarchy are of continued relevance.

I am sorry that Arendt takes the fictional Socrates’s proposals in the Republic for Plato’s doctrine, when the dialogue form gives lets us see that, by agreeing with Socrates’s pronouncements, Glaucon and Adeimantus are as foolish as the sorcerer’s apprentice (or somebody like David Silver), in the sense that I discussed in the aforementioned post “Nature.”

Arendt will refer to the sorcerer’s apprentice in ¶ 33.3 (page 237) as somebody who cannot undo his action.

I have no reason to pick on David Silver in particular, but his interview in Wired left an impression on me. (I tweeted about it, but this was after my blog post; I don’t know which tweet alerted me to the interview in the first place.) Such smart people exemplify what Socrates found when he tried to disprove the Pythia’s assertion that none was wiser than himself. According to the Apology, poets and craftsmen believed their wisdom in poetry and craft made them wise generally (22c–d).

¶ 31.3

Escape from the frailty of human affairs into the solidity of quiet and order has in fact so much to recommend it that the greater part of political philosophy since Plato could easily be interpreted as various attempts to find theoretical foundations and practical ways for an escape from politics altogether. The hallmark of all such escapes is the concept of rule, that is, the notion that men can law­fully and politically live together only when some are entitled to command and the others forced to obey. The commonplace notion already to be found in Plato and Aristotle that every political com­munity consists of those who rule and those who are ruled (on which assumption in turn are based the current definitions of forms of government—rule by one or monarchy, rule by few or oli­garchy, rule by many or democracy) rests on a suspicion of action rather than on a contempt for men, and arose from the earnest desire to find a substitute for action rather than from any irrespon­sible or tyrannical will to power.

At St Albans School in 1977–8, my teacher Stephen Wrage gave a slide presentation based on his visit to Greek monasteries in what must have been Meteora. He talked of being pulled up in a basket, and of a monk’s spooning into his yogurt what Wrage thought was brown sugar, till he realized it was sand, and the monk was trying to kill his pleasure. As I recall it, Wrage’s thesis was that, unlike the boys in Lord of the Flies (1954), the monks could live together under difficult conditions, because they had a rule.

People who want to post the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and schoolrooms: I imagine they know their own actions tend to be licentious.

¶ 31.4

Theoretically, the most brief and most fundamental version of the escape from action into rule occurs in the Statesman, where Plato opens a gulf between the two modes of action, archein and prattein (“beginning” and “achieving”), which according to Greek understanding were interconnected. The problem, as Plato saw it, was to make sure that the beginner would remain the complete master of what he had begun, not needing the help of others to carry it through. In the realm of action, this isolated mastership can be achieved only

  • if the others are no longer needed to join the enterprise of their own accord, with their own motives and aims, but are used to execute orders, and
  • if, on the other hand, the be­ginner who took the initiative does not permit himself to get in­volved in the action itself.

To begin (archein) and to act (prattein) thus can become two altogether different activities, and the begin- [222] ner has become a ruler (an archōn in the twofold sense of the word) who “does not have to act at all (prattein), but rules (archein) over those who are capable of execution.” Under these circumstances, the essence of politics is “to know how to begin and to rule in the gravest matters with regard to timeliness and untimeliness”; action as such is entirely eliminated and has become the mere “execution of orders.”61 Plato was the first to introduce the division between those who know and do not act and those who act and do not know, instead of the old articulation of action into beginning and achiev­ing, so that knowing what to do and doing it became two alto­gether different performances.

  1. Statesman 305.

¶ 31.5

Since Plato himself immediately identified the dividing line be­tween thought and action with the gulf which separates the rulers from those over whom they rule, it is obvious that the experiences on which the Platonic division rests are those of the household, where nothing would ever be done if the master did not know what to do and did not give orders to the slaves who executed them with­out knowing. Here indeed, he who knows does not have to do and he who does needs no thought or knowledge. Plato was still quite aware that he proposed a revolutionary transformation of the polis when he applied to its administration the currently recognized maxims for a well-ordered household.62 (It is a common error to interpret Plato as though he wanted to abolish the family and the household; he wanted, on the contrary, to extend this type of life until one family embraced every citizen. In other words, he wanted to eliminate from the household community its private character, and it is for this purpose that he recommended the abolition of pri­vate property and individual marital status.)63 According to Greek understanding, the relationship between ruling and being ruled, [223] between command and obedience, was by definition identical with the relationship between master and slaves and therefore precluded all possibility of action. Plato’s contention, therefore, that the rules of behavior in public matters should be derived from the master-slave relationship in a well-ordered household actually meant that action should not play any part in human affairs.

  1. It is the decisive contention of the Statesman that no difference existed between the constitution of a large household and that of the polis (see 259), so that the same science would cover political and “economic” or household matters.

  2. This is particularly manifest in those passages of the fifth book of the Republic in which Plato describes how the fear lest one attack his own son, brother, or father would further general peace in his utopian republic. Because of the community of women, nobody would know who his blood relatives were (see esp. 463C and 465B). [223]

I would say that Book V of the Republic reveals, not what Plato wanted, but that a certain civic arrangement—here the “community of women and children”—can be conceived as desirable, however foolishly.

¶ 31.6

It is obvious that Plato’s scheme offers much greater chances for a permanent order in human affairs than the tyrant’s efforts to eliminate everybody but himself from the public realm. Although each citizen would retain some part in the handling of public af­fairs, they would indeed “act” like one man without even the pos­sibility of internal dissension, let alone factional strife: through tule, “the many become one in every respect” except bodily ap­pearance.64 Historically, the concept of rule, though originating in the household and family realm, has played its most decisive part in the organization of public matters and is for us invariably con­nected with politics. This should not make us overlook the fact that for Plato it was a much more general category. He saw in it the chief device for ordering and judging human affairs in every respect. This is not only evident from his insistence that the city-state must be considered to be “man writ large” and from his con­struction of a psychological order which actually follows the pub­lic order of his utopian city, but is even more manifest in the grandiose consistency with which he introduced the principle of domination into the intercourse of man with himself. The supreme criterion of fitness for ruling others is, in Plato and in the aristocrat­ic tradition of the West, the capacity to rule one’s self. Just as the philosopher-king commands the city, the soul commands the body and reason commands the passions. In Plato himself, the legitimacy of this tyranny in everything pertaining to man, his conduct toward himself no less than his conduct toward others, is still firmly rooted in the equivocal significance of the word archein, which means both beginning and ruling; it is decisive for Plato, as he says expressly at the end of the Laws, that only the beginning (archē) is entitled to rule (archein). In the tradition of Platonic thought, this original, linguistically predetermined identity of ruling and begin­ning had the consequence that all beginning was understood as the [224] legitimation for rulership, until, finally, the element of beginning disappeared altogether from the concept of rulership. With it the most elementary and authentic understanding of human freedom disappeared from political philosophy.

  1. Republic 443E. [224]

It sounds as if Arendt is accusing Plato of the etymological fallacy: ruling used to mean beginning, and therefore whoever begins, rules. Aristocracy is based on this principle, if it means rule by the “oldest” families.

The notion of ruling over oneself can have a crude interpretation or a refined one. I would illustrate this with a passage of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Has Poisoned Everything that has stayed with me:

I once watched the late Professor A. J. Ayer, the distinguished author of Language, Truth and Logic and a celebrated humanist, debate with a certain Bishop Butler. The chairman was the philosopher Bryan Magee. The exchange proceeded politely enough until the bishop, hearing Ayer assert that he saw no evidence at all for the existence of any god, broke in to say, “Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality.”

The bishop has a simple understanding of self-rule, but the life of Ayer would seem to show that a richer understanding is possible, at least by Hitchens’s account, which continues:

At this point “Freddie,” as his friends knew him, abandoned his normal suave urbanity and exclaimed, “I must say that I think that is a perfectly monstrous insinuation.” Now, Freddie had certainly broken most commandments respecting the sexual code as adumbrated from Sinai. He was, in a way, justly famous for this. But he was an excellent teacher, a loving parent, and a man who spent much of his spare time pressing for human rights and free speech. To say that his life was an immoral one would be a travesty of the truth.

I say that a richer understanding is possible, but I don’t know if Ayer or Hitchens actually has it. Instead of taking offense, Ayer might have responded Socratically by asking whether indeed atheists can live morally. Evidently they can, and this would seem to suggest that self-rule may not, or not always, be based on an analysis of the soul into slave and master. Socrates hints at this possibility in the Phaedrus when he says, in a passage I quoted in “On Knowing Ourselves” and elsewhere,

I investigate … myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.

I have been quoting Hitchens from his Chapter 13, called “Does Religion Make People Behave Better?” On the contrary, religion makes people worse, as Hitchens suggests after a paragraph about Evelyn Waugh (ellipsis in the original):

Thus I rescrutinize Bishop Butler’s question. Was he in fact not telling Ayer, in his own naive way, that if freed from the restraints of doctrine he himself would choose to lead “a life of unbridled immorality”? One naturally hopes not. But much empirical evidence exists to reinforce the suggestion. When priests go bad, they go very bad indeed, and commit crimes that would make the average sinner pale. One might prefer to attribute this to sexual repression than to the actual doctrines preached, but then one of the actual doctrines preached is sexual repression … Thus the connection is unavoidable, and a litany of folkloric jokes have been told by all lay members of the church ever since religion began.

The recommendation of the Symposium would seem to be not repression, but sublimation.

¶ 31.7

The Platonic separation of knowing and doing has remained at the root of all theories of domination which are not mere justifica­tions of an irreducible and irresponsible will to power. By sheer force of conceptualization and philosophical clarification, the Pla­tonic identification

  • of knowledge with command and rulership and
  • of action with obedience and execution

overruled all earlier experi­ences and articulations in the political realm and became authorita­tive for the whole tradition of political thought, even after the roots of experience from which Plato derived his concepts had long been forgotten. Apart from the unique Platonic mixture of depth and beauty, whose weight was bound to carry his thoughts through the centuries, the reason for the longevity of this particular part of his work is that he strengthened his substitution of rulership for action through an even more plausible interpretation in terms of making and fabrication. It is indeed true—and Plato, who had taken the key word of his philosophy, the term “idea,” from ex­periences in the realm of fabrication, must have been the first to notice it—that the division between knowing and doing, so alien to the realm of action, whose validity and meaningfulness are de­stroyed the moment thought and action part company, is an every­day experience in fabrication, whose processes obviously fall into two parts:

  1. first, perceiving the image or shape (eidos) of the prod­uct-to-be, and
  2. then organizing the means and starting the execu­tion.

¶ 31.8

The Platonic wish to substitute making for acting in order to bestow upon the realm of human affairs the solidity inherent in work and fabrication becomes most apparent where it touches the very center of his philosophy, the doctrine of ideas.

  • When Plato was not concerned with political philosophy (as in the Symposium and elsewhere), he describes the ideas as what “shines forth most” (ekphanestaton) and therefore as variations of the beautiful.
  • Only in the Republic were the ideas transformed into standards, measure­ments, and rules of behavior, all of which are variations or deriva­tions of the idea of the “good” in the Greek sense of the word, that [225] is, of the “good for” or of fitness.65

This transformation was neces­sary to apply the doctrine of ideas to politics, and it is essentially for a political purpose, the purpose of eliminating the character of frailty from human affairs, that Plato found it necessary to declare the good, and not the beautiful, to be the highest idea. But

  • this idea of the good is not the highest idea of the philosopher, who wishes to contemplate the true essence of Being and therefore leaves the dark cave of human affairs for the bright sky of ideas; even in the Republic, the philosopher is still defined as a lover of beauty, not of goodness.
  • The good is the highest idea of the philosopher-king, who wishes to be the ruler of human affairs because he must spend his life among men and cannot dwell forever under the sky of ideas.

It is only when he returns to the dark cave of human affairs to live once more with his fellow men that he needs the ideas for guidance as standards and rules by which to measure and under which to subsume the varied multitude of human deeds and words with the same absolute, “objective” certainty with which the craftsman can be guided in making and the layman in judging individual beds by using the unwavering ever-present model, the “idea” of bed in general.66

  1. The word ekphanestaton occurs in the Phaedrus (250) as the chief quality of the beautiful. In the Republic (518) a similar quality is claimed for the idea of the good, which is called phanotaton. Both words derive from phainesthai (“to appear” and “shine forth”), and in both cases the superlative is used. Obviously, the quality of shining brightness applies to the beautiful much more than to the good.

  2. Werner Jaeger’s statement (Paideia [1945], II, 416n.), “The idea that there is a supreme art of measurement and that the philosopher’s knowledge of value (phronēsis) is the ability to measure, runs through all Plato’s work right down to the end,” is true only for Plato’s political philosophy, where the idea of the good replaces the idea of the beautiful. The parable of the Cave, as told in the Republic, is the very center of Plato’s political philosophy, but the doctrine of ideas as presented there must be understood as its application to politics, not as the original, purely philosophical development, which we cannot discuss here. Jaeger’s characterization of the “philosopher’s knowledge of values” as phronēsis indicates, in fact, the political and non-philosophical nature of this knowledge; for the very word phronēsis characterizes in Plato and Aristotle the insight of the statesman rather than the vision of the philosopher. [226]

¶ 31.9

Technically, the greatest advantage of this transformation and application of the doctrine of ideas to the political realm lay in the elimination of the personal element in the Platonic notion of ideal [226] rulership. Plato knew quite well that his favorite analogies taken from household life, such as the master-slave or the shepherd-flock relationship, would demand a quasi-divine quality in the ruler of men to distinguish him as sharply from his subjects as the slaves are distinguished from the master or the sheep from the shepherd.67 The construction of the public space in the image of a fabricated object, on the contrary, carried with it only the implication of or­dinary mastership, experience in the art of politics as in all other arts, where the compelling factor lies not in the person of the artist or craftsman but in the impersonal object of his art or craft. In the Republic, the philosopher-king applies the ideas as the craftsman applies his rules and standards; he “makes” his City as the sculptor makes a statue;68 and in the final Platonic work these same ideas have even become laws which need only be executed.69

  1. In the Statesman, where Plato chiefly pursues this line of thought, he con­cludes ironically: Looking for someone who would be as fit to rule over man as the shepherd is to rule over his flock, we found “a god instead of a mortal man” (275).

  2. Republic 420.

  3. It may be interesting to note the following development in Plato’s political theory:

    • In the Republic, his division between rulers and ruled is guided by the relationship between expert and layman;
    • in the Statesman, he takes his bearings from the relation between knowing and doing; and
    • in the Laws, the execution of unchangeable laws is all that is left to the statesman or necessary for the function­ing of the public realm.

    What is most striking in this development is the progres­sive shrinkage of faculties needed for the mastering of politics. [227]

¶ 31.10

Within this frame of reference, the emergence of a utopian political system which could be construed in accordance with a model by somebody who has mastered the techniques of human affairs becomes almost a matter of course; Plato, who was the first to design a blueprint for the making of political bodies, has re­mained the inspiration of all later utopias. And although none of these utopias ever came to play any noticeable role in history—for in the few instances where utopian schemes were realized, they broke down quickly under the weight of reality, not so much the reality of exterior circumstances as of the real human relationships they could not control—they were among the most efficient ve­hicles to conserve and develop a tradition of political thinking in [227] which, consciously or unconsciously, the concept of action was interpreted in terms of making and fabrication.

¶ 31.11

One thing, however, is noteworthy in the development of this tradition. It is true that violence, without which no fabrication could ever come to pass, has always played an important role in political schemes and thinking based upon an interpretation of ac­tion in terms of making; but up to the modern age, this element of violence remained strictly instrumental, a means that needed an end to justify and limit it, so that glorifications of violence as such are entirely absent from the tradition of political thought prior to the modern age. Generally speaking, they were impossible as long as contemplation and reason were supposed to be the highest capaci­ties of man, because under this assumption all articulations of the vita activa, fabrication no less than action and let alone labor, re­mained themselves secondary and instrumental. Within the nar­rower sphere of political theory, the consequence was that the notion of rule and the concomitant questions of legitimacy and rightful authority played a much more decisive role than the under­standing and interpretations of action itself. Only the modern age’s conviction that man can know only what he makes, that his al­legedly higher capacities depend upon making and that he therefore is primarily homo faber and not an animal rationale, brought forth the much older implications of violence inherent in all interpreta­tions of the realm of human affairs as a sphere of making. This has been particularly striking in the series of revolutions, characteristic of the modern age, all of which—with the exception of the Ameri­can Revolution—show the same combination of the old Roman enthusiasm for the foundation of a new body politic with the glorification of violence as the only means for “making” it. Marx’s dictum that “violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one,” that is, of all change in history and politics,70 only sums up the conviction of the whole modern age and draws the consequences of its innermost belief that history is “made” by men as nature is “made” by God. [228]

  1. The quote is from Capital (Modern Library ed.), p. 824. Other passages in Marx show that he does not restrict his remark to the manifestation of social or economic forces. For example: “In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly violence, play the great part” (ibid., 785). [228]

¶ 31.12

How persistent and successful the transformation of action into a mode of making has been is easily attested by the whole ter­minology of political theory and political thought, which indeed makes it almost impossible to discuss these matters without using the category of means and ends and thinking in terms of instrumen­tality. Perhaps even more convincing is the unanimity with which popular proverbs in all modern languages advise us

  • that “he who wants an end must also want the means” and
  • that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

We are perhaps the first gen­eration which has become fully aware of the murderous conse­quences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided that they are efficient, are permissible and jus­tified to pursue something defined as an end. However, in order to escape these beaten paths of thought it is not enough to add some qualifications, such as that not all means are permissible or that under certain circumstances means may be more important than ends; these qualifications either take for granted a moral system which, as the very exhortations demonstrate, can hardly be taken for granted, or they are overpowered by the very language and analogies they use. For to make a statement about ends that do not justify all means is to speak in paradoxes, the definition of an end being precisely the justification of the means; and paradoxes al­ways indicate perplexities, they do not solve them and hence are never convincing. As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent any­body’s using all means to pursue recognized ends.

¶ 31.13

The substitution of making for acting and the concomitant deg­radation of politics into a means to obtain an allegedly “higher” end

  • in antiquity the protection of the good men from the rule of the bad in general, and the safety of the philosopher in particular,71
  • in the Middle Ages the salvation of souls,
  • in the modern age the productivity and progress of society

is as old as the tradition of political philosophy. It is true that only the modern age defined man primarily as homo faber, a toolmaker and producer of things, [229] and therefore could overcome the deep-seated contempt and sus­picion in which the tradition had held the whole sphere of fabrica­tion. Yet, this same tradition, in so far as it also had turned against action—less openly, to be sure, but no less effectively—had been forced to interpret acting in terms of making, and thereby, its suspicion and contempt notwithstanding, had introduced into po­litical philosophy certain trends and patterns of thought upon which the modern age could fall back. In this respect, the modern age did not reverse the tradition but rather liberated it from the “preju­dices” which had prevented it from declaring openly that the work of the craftsman should rank higher than the “idle” opinions and doings which constitute the realm of human affairs. The point is that Plato and, to a lesser degree, Aristotle, who thought craftsmen not even worthy of full-fledged citizenship, were the first to pro­pose handling political matters and ruling political bodies in the mode of fabrication. This seeming contradiction clearly indicates the depth of the authentic perplexities inherent in the human capac­ity for action and the strength of the temptation to eliminate its risks and dangers by introducing into the web of human relation­ships the much more reliable and solid categories inherent in activi­ties with which we confront nature and build the world of the human artifice.

  1. Compare Plato’s statement that the wish of the philosopher to become a ruler of men can spring only from the fear of being ruled by those who are worse (Republic 347) with Augustine’s statement that the function of government is to enable “the good” to live more quietly among “the bad” (Epistolae 153. 6). [229]

32 the process character of action

¶ 32.1

The instrumentalization of action and the degradation of politics into a means for something else has of course never really suc­ceeded in eliminating action, in preventing its being one of the decisive human experiences, or in destroying the realm of human affairs altogether. We saw before that in our world the seeming elimination of labor, as the painful effort to which all human life is bound, had first of all the consequence that work is now performed in the mode of laboring, and the products of work, objects for use, are consumed as though they were mere consumer goods. Simi­larly, the attempt to eliminate action because of its uncertainty and to save human affairs from their frailty by dealing with them as though they were or could become the planned products of human making has first of all resulted in channeling the human capacity [230] for action, for beginning new and spontaneous processes which without men never would come into existence, into an attitude toward nature which up to the latest stage of the modern age had been one of exploring natural laws and fabricating objects out of natural material. To what an extent we have begun to act into nature, in the literal sense of the word, is perhaps best il­lustrated by a recent, casual remark of a scientist who quite seri­ously suggested that “basic research is when I am doing what I don’t know what I am doing.”72

  1. Quoted from an interview with Wernher von Braun, as reported in the New York Times, December 16, 1957. [231]

Arendt will say little more about natural laws. Does she think the Greeks explored them? I think they did, only in the heavens, if natural laws are understood to be mathematical. Or perhaps one wants to take the postulates of Euclid and Archimedes, or the resulting propositions, as natural laws.

¶ 32.2

This started harmlessly enough with the experiment in which men were no longer content to observe, to register, and contem­plate whatever nature was willing to yield in her own appearance, but began to prescribe conditions and to provoke natural processes. What then developed into an ever-increasing skill in unchaining elemental processes, which, without the interference of men, would have lain dormant and perhaps never have come to pass, has finally ended in a veritable art of “making” nature, that is, of creating “natural” processes which without men would never exist and which earthly nature by herself seems incapable of ac­complishing, although similar or identical processes may be com­monplace phenomena in the universe surrounding the earth. Through the introduction of the experiment, in which we pre­scribed man-thought conditions to natural processes and forced them to fall into man-made patterns, we eventually learned how to “repeat the process that goes on in the sun,” that is, how to win from natural processes on the earth those energies which without us develop only in the universe.

¶ 32.3

The very fact that natural sciences have become exclusively sci­ences of process and, in their last stage, sciences of potentially ir­reversible, irremediable “processes of no return” is a clear indica­tion that, whatever the brain power necessary to start them, the actual underlying human capacity which alone could bring about this development is no “theoretical” capacity, neither contempla­tion nor reason, but the human ability to act—to start new unprece­dented processes whose outcome remains uncertain and unpre- [231] dictable whether they are let loose in the human or the natural realm.

So “we” started experimenting on nature when the public sphere stopped being a decent site for experimentation?

¶ 32.4

In this aspect of action—all-important to the modern age, to its enormous enlargement of human capabilities as well as to its unprecedented concept and consciousness of history—processes are started whose outcome is unpredictable, so that uncertainty rather than frailty becomes the decisive character of human affairs. This property of action had escaped the attention of antiquity, by and large, and had, to say the least, hardly found adequate articula­tion in ancient philosophy, to which the very concept of history as we know it is altogether alien. The central concept of the two entirely new sciences of the modern age, natural science no less than historical, is the concept of process, and the actual human ex­perience underlying it is action. Only because we are capable of acting, of starting processes of our own, can we conceive of both nature and history as systems of processes. It is true that this char­acter of modern thinking first came to the fore in the science of history, which, since Vico, has been consciously presented as a “new science,” while the natural sciences needed several centuries before they were forced by the very results of their triumphal achievements to exchange an obsolete conceptual framework for a vocabulary that is strikingly similar to the one used in the historical sciences.

Vico then is a common influence on Collingwood and Arendt.

What is process anyway?

If we have always been capable of action, why does it underlie only the modern sciences (if this is part of Arendt’s meaning)? Read on.

¶ 32.5

However that may be, only under certain historical circum­stances does frailty appear to be the chief characteristic of human affairs.

  • The Greeks measured them against the ever-presence or eternal recurrence of all natural things, and the chief Greek con­cern was to measure up to and become worthy of an immortality which surrounds men but which mortals do not possess.

  • To people who are not possessed by this concern with immortality, the realm of human affairs is bound to show an altogether different, even somehow contradictory aspect, namely, an extraordinary resili­ency whose force of persistence and continuity in time is far su­perior to the stable durability of the solid world of things.

Whereas men have always been capable of destroying whatever was the product of human hands and have become capable today even of the potential destruction of what man did not make—the earth and earthly nature—

  • men never have been and never will be able to undo [232] or even to control reliably any of the processes they start through action. Not even oblivion and confusion, which can cover up so efficiently the origin and the responsibility for every single deed, are able to undo a deed or prevent its consequences.
  • And this in­capacity to undo what has been done is matched by an almost equally complete incapacity to foretell the consequences of any deed or even to have reliable knowledge of its motives.73
  1. “Man weiss die Herkunft nicht, man weiss die Folgen nicht … [der Wert der Handlung ist] unbekannt,” as Nietzsche once put it (Wille zur Macht, No. 291), hardly aware that he only echoed the age-old suspicion of the philoso­pher against action. [233]

¶ 32.6

While the strength of the production process is entirely absorbed in and exhausted by the end product, the strength of the action process is never exhausted in a single deed but, on the contrary, can grow while its consequences multiply; what endures in the realm of human affairs are these processes, and their endurance is as unlimited, as independent of the perishability of material and the mortality of men as the endurance of humanity itself. The reason why we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcome and end of any action is simply that action has no end. The process of a single deed can quite literally endure throughout time until man­kind itself has come to an end.

¶ 32.7

That deeds possess such an enormous capacity for endurance, superior to every other man-made product, could be a matter of pride if men were able to bear its burden, the burden of irreversi­bility and unpredictability, from which the action process draws its very strength. That this is impossible, men have always known. They have known

  • that he who acts never quite knows what he is doing,
  • that he always becomes “guilty” of consequences he never intended or even foresaw,
  • that no matter how disastrous and unex­pected the consequences of his deed he can never undo it,
  • that the process he starts is never consummated unequivocally in one single deed or event, and
  • that its very meaning never discloses itself to the actor but only to the backward glance of the historian who himself does not act.

All this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom, which, by producing the web of human relationships, seems to entangle its producer to such an ex- [233] tent that he appears much more the victim and the sufferer than the author and doer of what he has done. Nowhere, in other words, neither in labor, subject to the necessity of life, nor in fabrication, dependent upon given material, does man appear to be less free than in those capacities whose very essence is freedom and in that realm which owes its existence to nobody and nothing but man.

We want license and end up with responsibility; or we want sovereignty and end up with necessity, in terms of the next paragraph.

¶ 32.8

It is in accordance with the great tradition of Western thought to think along these lines:

  • to accuse freedom of luring man into neces­sity,
  • to condemn action, the spontaneous beginning of something new, because its results fall into a predetermined net of relation­ships, invariably dragging the agent with them, who seems to for­feit his freedom the very moment he makes use of it.

The only salvation from this kind of freedom seems to lie in non-acting, in abstention from the whole realm of human affairs as the only means to safeguard one’s sovereignty and integrity as a person. If we leave aside the disastrous consequences of these recommenda­tions (which materialized into a consistent system of human be­havior only in Stoicism), their basic error seems to lie in that identification of sovereignty with freedom which has always been taken for granted by political as well as philosophic thought. If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncom­promising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth—and not, as the tradition since Plato holds, because of man’s limited strength, which makes him depend upon the help of others. All the recommendations the tradi­tion has to offer to overcome the condition of non-sovereignty and win an untouchable integrity of the human person amount to a compensation for the intrinsic “weakness” of plurality. Yet, if these recommendations were followed and this attempt to over­come the consequences of plurality were successful, the result would be not so much sovereign domination of one’s self as ar­bitrary domination of all others, or, as in Stoicism, the exchange of the real world for an imaginary one where these others would simply not exist.

¶ 32.9

In other words, the issue here is not strength or weakness in the sense of self-sufficiency. In polytheist systems, for instance, even a [234] god, no matter how powerful, cannot be sovereign; only under the assumption of one god (“One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so”) can sovereignty and freedom be the same. Under all other circumstances, sovereignty is possible only in imagination, paid for by the price of reality. Just as

  • Epicureanism rests on the illusion of happiness when one is roasted alive in the Phaleric Bull,
  • Stoicism rests on the illusion of freedom when one is enslaved.

Both illusions testify to the psychological power of imagination, but this power can exert itself only as long as the reality of the world and the living, where one is and appears to be cither happy or unhappy, either free or slave, are eliminated to such an extent that they are not even admitted as spectators to the spectacle of self-delusion.

Do we inherit sovereignty from the one God then? Or did this God lose sovereignty by becoming one among a plurality of humans?

¶ 32.10

If we look upon freedom with the eyes of the tradition, identi­fying freedom with sovereignty, the simultaneous presence of free­dom and non-sovereignty, of being able to begin something new and of not being able to control or even foretell its consequences, seems almost to force us to the conclusion that human existence is absurd.74 In view of human reality and its phenomenal evidence, it is indeed as spurious to deny human freedom to act because the actor never remains the master of his acts as it is to maintain that human sovereignty is possible because of the incontestable fact of human freedom.75 The question which then arises is whether our notion that freedom and non-sovereignty are mutually exclusive is [235] not defeated by reality, or to put it another way, whether the capacity for action does not harbor within itself certain potentiali­ties which enable it to survive the disabilities of non-sovereignty.

  1. This “existentialist” conclusion is much less due to an authentic revision of traditional concepts and standards than it appears to be; actually, it still oper­ates within the tradition and with traditional concepts, though in a certain spirit of rebellion. The most consistent result of this rebellion is therefore a return to “religious values” which, however, have no root any longer in authentic religious experiences or faith, but are like all modern spiritual “values,” exchange values, obtained in this case for the discarded “values” of despair.

  2. Where human pride is still intact, it is tragedy rather than absurdity which is taken to be the hallmark of human existence. Its greatest representative is Kant, to whom the spontaneity of acting, and the concomitant faculties of prac­tical reason, including force of judgment, remain the outstanding qualities of man, even though his action falls into the determinism of natural laws and his judgment cannot penetrate the secret of absolute reality (the Ding an sich), Kant had the courage to acquit man from the consequences of his deed, insisting solely on the purity of his motives, and this saved him from losing faith in man and his potential greatness. [235]

In the OCR transcription, the word “representative” was totally missing from note 75.

Spoiler alert (it seems rare that Arendt hints at what is to come): The question ending the main body of text will have a positive answer.

33 irreversibility and the power to forgive

¶ 33.1

  • We have seen that the animal laborans could be redeemed from its predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process, of being forever subject to the necessity of labor and consumption, only through the mobilization of another human ca­pacity, the capacity for making, fabricating, and producing of homo faber, who as a toolmaker not only eases the pain and trouble of laboring but also erects a world of durability. The redemption of life, which is sustained by labor, is worldliness, which is sustained by fabrication.
  • We saw furthermore that homo faber could be re­deemed from his predicament of meaninglessness, the “devaluation of all values,” and the impossibility of finding valid standards in a world determined by the category of means and ends, only through the interrelated faculties of action and speech, which produce meaningful stories as naturally as fabrication produces use objects.
  • If it were not outside the scope of these considerations, one could add the predicament of thought to these instances; for thought, too, is unable to “think itself” out of the predicaments which the very activity of thinking engenders.

What in each of these instances saves man—man qua animal laborans, qua homo faber, qua thinker—is something altogether different; it comes from the outside—not, to be sure, outside of man, but outside of each of the respective activities.

  • From the viewpoint of the animal laborans, it is like a miracle that it is also a being which knows of and inhabits a world;
  • from the viewpoint of homo faber, it is like a miracle, like the revelation of divinity, that meaning should have a place in this world.

¶ 33.2

The case of action and action’s predicaments is altogether dif­ferent. Here, the remedy against the irreversibility and unpre­dictability of the process started by acting does not arise out of another and possibly higher faculty, but is one of the potentialities [236] of action itself.

  • The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility—of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing—is the faculty of forgiving.
  • The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises.

The two faculties belong together in so far as

  • one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose “sins” hang like Damocles’ sword over every new genera­tion; and
  • the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships be­tween men.

“How is it possible for irreversibility and unpredictability to be remedied? By a possibility.” It sounds like Nietzsche’s parody of Kant in Beyond Good and Evil, § 11 (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Modern Library, page 208):

“How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” Kant asked himself—and what really is his answer? “By virtue of a faculty” *—but unfortunately not in five words.

* Vermöge eines Vermögens: by virtue of some virtue, or by means of a means.

But Arendt is not really asking how it is possible to promise and be forgiven; she just says that it is possible.

¶ 33.3

  • 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 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.

Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for

  • no one can forgive himself and
  • no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself,

forgiving and promising en­acted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self.

Part of growing up would seem to be learning to make promises to oneself. I suppose that it is what New Year’s resolutions are, although they may usually fail.

Also, people’s troubles are sometimes traced to an inability to forgive themselves. Other people forgive themselves too easily. Here, as learned of from a tweet, is Sam Adler-Bell, The Conservative and the Murderer (The New Republic, March 7, 2022), the conservative being William F. Buckley; the murderer, Edgar Smith:

Buckley was never inclined toward such self-reflection. He protected himself from the full weight of Smith’s betrayal by cultivating ignorance about his own motivations—a feat of soothing self-deception he would repeat throughout his life. Buckley held grudges against his enemies, but he always forgave himself.

But Arendt herself is about to explain relations with oneself.

¶ 33.4

Since these faculties correspond so closely to the human condi­tion of plurality, their role in politics establishes a diametrically different set of guiding principles from the “moral” standards in­herent in the Platonic notion of rule. For

  • Platonic rulership, whose legitimacy rested upon the domination of the self, draws its guiding principles—those which at the same time justify and limit power over others—from a relationship established between me and my­self, so that the right and wrong of relationships with others are [237] determined by attitudes toward one’s self, until the whole of the public realm is seen in the image of “man writ large,” of the right order between man’s individual capacities of mind, soul, and body.
  • The moral code, on the other hand, inferred from the faculties of forgiving and of making promises, rests on experiences which no­body could ever have with himself, which, on the contrary, are entirely based on the presence of others.


  • just as the extent and modes of self-rule justify and determine rule over others—how one rules himself, he will rule others—
  • thus the extent and modes of being forgiven and being promised determine the extent and modes in which one may be able to forgive himself or keep promises concerned only with himself.

The Platonic ruler learns to be that by first going off by himself, out of the cave, into the light of the sun. Arendt seems to be saying that we learn to be alone through first being with others.

¶ 33.5

Because the remedies against the enormous strength and resili­ency inherent in action processes can function only under the con­dition of plurality, it is very dangerous to use this faculty in any but the realm of human affairs.

  • Modern natural science and tech­nology, which no longer observe or take material from or imitate processes of nature but seem actually to act into it, seem, by the same token, to have carried irreversibility and human unpredicta­bility into the natural realm, where no remedy can be found to undo what has been done.
  • Similarly, it seems that one of the great dangers of acting in the mode of making and within its categorical framework of means and ends lies in the concomitant self-depriva­tion of the remedies inherent only in action, so that one is bound not only
    • to do with the means of violence necessary for all fabrica­tion, but also
    • to undo what he has done as he undoes an unsuccessful object, by means of destruction.

Nothing appears more manifest in these attempts than the greatness of human power, whose source lies in the capacity to act, and which without action’s inherent remedies inevitably begins to overpower and destroy not man himself but the conditions under which life was given to him.

Here ends the introduction to this and the next section, the remaining sections of the chapter.

¶ 33.6

The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense. It has been in the nature of our tradition of political thought (and for reasons we cannot explore here) to be highly selective and to ex­clude from articulate conceptualization a great variety of authentic [238] political experiences, among which we need not be surprised to find some of an even elementary nature. Certain aspects of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth which are not primarily related to the Christian religious message but sprang from experiences in the small and closely knit community of his followers, bent on chal­lenging the public authorities in Israel, certainly belong among them, even though they have been neglected because of their al­legedly exclusively religious nature. The only rudimentary sign of an awareness that forgiveness may be the necessary corrective for the inevitable damages resulting from action may be seen

  • in the Roman principle to spare the vanquished (parcere subiectis)—a wis­dom entirely unknown to the Greeks—or
  • in the right to commute the death sentence, probably also of Roman origin, which is the prerogative of nearly all Western heads of state.

¶ 33.7

It is decisive in our context that Jesus maintains against the “scribes and pharisees”

  • first that it is not true that only God has the power to forgive,76 and
  • second that this power does not derive from God—as though God, not men, would forgive through the medium of human beings—but on the contrary must be mobilized by men toward each other before they can hope to be forgiven by God also.

Jesus’ formulation is even more radical. Man in the gospel is not supposed to forgive because God forgives and he must do “likewise,” but “if ye from your hearts forgive,” God shall do “likewise.”77 The reason for the insistence on a duty to forgive is clearly “for they know not what they do” and it does not apply to the extremity of crime and willed evil, for then it would not have been necessary to teach: “And if he trespass [239] against thee seven times a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”78 Crime and willed evil are rare, even rarer perhaps than good deeds; according to Jesus, they will be taken care of by God in the Last Judgment, which plays no role whatsoever in life on earth, and the Last Judg­ment is not characterized by forgiveness but by just retribution (apodounai).79 But trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relation­ships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly.80 Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.

  1. This is stated emphatically in Luke 5:21–24 (cf. Matt. 9:4–6 or Mark 12:7–10), where Jesus performs a miracle to prove that “the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins,” the emphasis being on “upon earth.” It is his insistence on the “power to forgive,” even more than his performance of miracles, that shocks the people, so that “they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgives sins also?” (Luke 7:49).

  2. Matt. 18:35; cf. Mark 11:25; “And when ye stand praying, forgive, … that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Or: “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). In all these instances, the power to forgive is pri­marily a human power: God forgives “us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” [239]

  3. Luke 17:3–4. It is important to keep in mind that the three key words of the text—aphienai, metanoein, and hamartanein—carry certain connotations even in New Testament Greek which the translations fail to render fully. The original meaning of aphienai is “dismiss” and “release” rather than “forgive”; metanoein means “change of mind” and—since it serves also to render the Hebrew shuv—“rerun,” “trace back one’s steps,” rather than “repentance” with its psychologi­cal emotional overtones; what is required is: change your mind and “sin no more,” which is almost the opposite of doing penance. Hamartanein, finally, is in­deed very well rendered by “trespassing” in so far as it means rather “to miss,” “fail and go astray,” than “to sin” (see Heinrich Ebeling, Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testamente [1923]). The verse which I quote in the stand­ard translation could also be rendered as follows: “And if he trespass against thee … and … turn again to thee, saying, I changed my mind; thou shalt release him.”

  4. Matt. 16:27.

  5. This interpretation seems justified by the context (Luke 17:1–5): Jesus introduces his words by pointing to the inevitability of “offenses” (skandala) which are unforgivable, at least on earth; for “woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea”; and then continues by teaching forgiveness for “trespassing” (hamartanein). [240]

Arendt’s basis for distinguishing “crime and willed evil” from everyday trespasses remains unclear. Jesus makes some kind of distinction, in Mark 3

28 Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:
29 But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation:
30 Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.

—and in Matthew 12:

30 He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.

Arendt’s reference for retribution at the Last Judgment is in the last verses of Matthew 16:

24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

In particular, here is Verse 27:

μέλλει γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἔρχεσθαι ἐν τῇ δόξῃ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ μετὰ τῶν ἀγγέλων αὐτοῦ, καὶ τότε ἀποδώσει ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν αὐτοῦ.

I continue to be partial to Collingwood’s early notion that punishment and forgiveness are the same thing, or at least are in dialogue; see “Antitheses.” Arendt will take this up in the paragraph after the next. Meanwhile, from the close of the article by Sam Adler-Bell quoted also above:

In 1985, as The Washington Post reported, the federal government officially abandoned the idea “that prisoners can be rehabilitated.” Now, the official purpose of incarceration was retribution only; the unofficial purpose was to warehouse the nation’s poor … A coarseness reasserted itself in the country. And Bill Buckley was delighted to see it.

According to the linked story, Loretta Tofani, “Sentencing Panel Lists Going to Reagan,” April 3, 1985,

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 created the commission to establish guidelines to reduce the disparity in sentences received by federal prisoners who commit the same crime and have similar criminal records.

But the commission is also supposed to formulate guidelines that “reflect the inappropriateness” of imposing a sentence “for the purpose of rehabilitating the defendant or providing the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care or other correctional treatment.”

Civil libertarians and the Reagan administration agree that rehabilitation is not a valid reason for imprisoning a person. Though they acknowledge that some inmates will reform themselves, they cite studies showing no correlation between prison experiences and the tendency to commit crimes again.

¶ 33.8

In this respect, forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered [240] course. In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic re­action to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, some­thing of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teach­ings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

¶ 33.9

The alternative to forgiveness, but by no means its opposite, is punishment, and both have in common that they attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly. It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs,

  • that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and
  • that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable.

This is the true hallmark of those offenses which, since Kant, we call “radical evil” and about whose nature so little is known, even to us who have been exposed to one of their rare outbursts on the public scene. All we know is that we can neither punish nor forgive such offenses and that they therefore transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance. Here, where the deed itself dispossesses us of all power, we can indeed only repeat with Jesus: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea.”

Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, already cited, has an example of how to manufacture monsters:

In northern Uganda in late 2005, I sat in a center for the rehabilitation of kidnapped and enslaved children in the land of the Acholi people who live on the northern side of the Nile. The listless, vacant, hardened little boys (and some girls) were all around me. Their stories were distressingly similar. They had been seized, at the age of anything from eight to thirteen, from their schools or homes by a stonefaced militia that was itself originally made up of abducted children. Marched into the bush, they were “initiated” into the force by one (or two) of two methods. They either had to take part in a murder themselves, in order to feel “dirtied up” and implicated, or they had to submit to a prolonged and savage whipping, often of up to three hundred strokes. (“Children who have felt cruelty,” said one of the elders of the Acholi people, “know very well how to inflict it.”) The misery inflicted by this army of wretches turned zombies was almost beyond computation. It had razed villages, created a vast refugee population, committed hideous crimes such as mutilation and disemboweling, and (in a special touch of evil) had continued to kidnap children so that the Acholi were wary of taking strong countermeasures lest they kill or injure one of their “own.”

¶ 33.10

Perhaps the most plausible argument that forgiving and acting are as closely connected as destroying and making comes from that aspect of forgiveness where the undoing of what was done seems to show the same revelatory character as the deed itself. Forgiving and the relationship it establishes is always an eminently personal (though not necessarily individual or private) affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it. This, too, was clearly recognized by Jesus (“Her sins which are many are for- [241] given; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little”), and it is the reason for the current conviction that only love has the power to forgive. For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives,81 indeed possesses an unequaled power of self-revelation and an unequaled clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is uncon­cerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved per­son may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings, and transgressions. Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and sepa­rates us from others. As long as its spell lasts, the only in-between which can insert itself between two lovers is the child, love’s own product. The child, this in-between to which the lovers now are related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.82 Through the child, it is as though the lovers return to the world from which their love had expelled them. But this new worldliness, the pos­sible result and the only possibly happy ending of a love affair, is, in a sense, the end of love, which must either overcome the partners anew or be transformed into another mode of belonging together. Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.

  1. The common prejudice that love is as common as “romance” may be due to the fact that we all learned about it first through poetry. But the poets fool us; they are the only ones to whom love is not only a crucial, but an indispensable experience, which entitles them to mistake it for a universal one.

  2. This world-creating faculty of love is not the same as fertility, upon which most creation myths are based. The following mythological tale, on the contrary, draws its imagery clearly from the experience of love: the sky is seen as a gigantic goddess who still bends down upon the earth god, from whom she is being separated by the air god who was born between them and is now lifting her up. Thus a world space composed of air comes into being and inserts itself between earth and sky. See H. A. Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago, 1946), p. 18, and Mircea Eliade, Traité d’Histoire des Religions (Paris, 1953), p. 212. [242]

The child is a table then.

¶ 33.11

If it were true, therefore, as Christianity assumed, that only love can forgive because only love is fully receptive to who somebody [242] is, to the point of being always willing to forgive him whatever he may have done, forgiving would have to remain altogether outside our considerations. Yet what love is in its own, narrowly circum­scribed sphere, respect is in the larger domain of human affairs. Respect, not unlike the Aristotelian philia politikē, is a kind of “friendship” without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us, and this regard is independent of qualities which we may admire or of achievements which we may highly esteem. Thus, the modern loss of respect, or rather the conviction that re­spect is due only where we admire or esteem, constitutes a clear symptom of the increasing depersonalization of public and social life. Respect, at any rate, because it concerns only the person, is quite sufficient to prompt forgiving of what a person did, for the sake of the person. But the fact that the same who, revealed in action and speech, remains also the subject of forgiving is the deep­est reason why nobody can forgive himself; here, as in action and speech generally, we are dependent upon others, to whom we ap­pear in a distinctness which we ourselves are unable to perceive. Closed within ourselves, we would never be able to forgive our­selves any failing or transgression because we would lack the ex­perience of the person for the sake of whom one can forgive.

We cannot forgive ourselves because we cannot see ourselves. But what does it mean to get over guilt, or shame, or regret?

Arendt does not talk about the love or forgiveness of God for his people. She need not, of course; but she is about to bring up Abraham.

Respect is the essence of civilization for Collingwood in The New Leviathan, particularly Chapter XXXV:

35. 35. In relation to members of the same community, civilization means coming to obey rules of civil intercourse.

35. 41. Behaving ‘civilly’ to a man means respecting his feelings: abstaining from shocking him, annoying him, frightening him, or (briefly) arousing in him any passion or desire which might diminish his self-respect (13. 31); that is, threaten his consciousness of freedom by makmg hlm feel that his power of choice is in danger of breaking down and the passion or desire likely to take charge (13. 67)·

35. 43. To behave towards a man in such a way as to arouse in him uncontrollable passions or desires, with the resulting breakdown of his will, is to exercise force over him (20. 5 seqq.).

35. 44. The ideal of civil behaviour in one’s dealings with one’s fellow-men, therefore, is the ideal of refraining from the use of force towards them.

34 unpredictability and the power of promise

¶ 34.1

In contrast to forgiving, which—perhaps because of its religious context, perhaps because of the connection with love attending its discovery—has always been deemed unrealistic and inadmissible in the public realm, the power of stabilization inherent in the fac­ulty of making promises has been known throughout our tradition.

  • We may trace it back to the Roman legal system, the inviolability of agreements and treaties (pacta sunt servanda); or
  • we may see its discoverer in Abraham, the man from Ur, whose whole story, as the Bible tells it, shows such a passionate drive toward making covenants that it is as though he departed from his country for no other reason than to try out the power of mutual promise in the [243] wilderness of the world, until eventually God himself agreed to make a Covenant with him.

At any rate, the great variety of con­tract theories since the Romans attests to the fact that the power of making promises has occupied the center of political thought over the centuries.

Collingwood goes back only to the Roman system in The New Leviathan. The question remains for me of what relations there are between Jewish and Roman law.

¶ 34.2

The unpredictability which the act of making promises at least partially dispels is of a twofold nature: it arises simultaneously

  • out of the “darkness of the human heart,” that is, the basic unreliability of men who never can guarantee today who they will be tomorrow, and
  • out of the impossibility of foretelling the consequences of an act within a community of equals where everybody has the same capacity to act.

  • Man’s inability to rely upon himself or to have complete faith in himself (which is the same thing) is the price human beings pay for freedom; and
  • the impossibility of remaining unique masters of what they do, of knowing its consequences and relying upon the future, is the price they pay for plurality and reality, for the joy of inhabiting together with others a world whose reality is guaranteed for each by the presence of all.

¶ 34.3

The function of the faculty of promising is to master this two­fold darkness of human affairs and is, as such, the only alternative to a mastery which relies on domination of one’s self and rule over others; it corresponds exactly to the existence of a freedom which was given under the condition of non-sovereignty. The danger and the advantage inherent in all bodies politic that rely on contracts and treaties is that they, unlike those that rely on rule and sov­ereignty, leave the unpredictability of human affairs and the unre­liability of men as they are, using them merely as the medium, as it were, into which certain islands of predictability are thrown and in which certain guideposts of reliability are erected. The moment promises lose their character as isolated islands of certainty in an ocean of uncertainty, that is, when this faculty is misused to cover the whole ground of the future and to map out a path secured in all directions, they lose their binding power and the whole enterprise becomes self-defeating.

Wikimedia Commons has a “Map of the Legal systems of the world,” the main distinction being between civil law and common law (there are also customary law, Muslim law, and Jewish law). Different analyses are discussed under “Comparative Law.” Any polity will presumably have a notion of rule and a notion of contract. Perhaps not in ancient times though.

Arendt may be referring to the problem that Jesus creates with one of the antitheses in Matthew 5:

33 Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:
35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Collingwood takes up the issue in The New Leviathan in the context of the so-called Albigensian Heresy.

¶ 34.4

We mentioned before the power generated when people gather together and “act in concert,” which disappears the moment they depart. The force that keeps them together, as distinguished from the space of appearances in which they gather and the power which [244] keeps this public space in existence, is the force of mutual promise or contract. Sovereignty, which

  • is always spurious if claimed by an isolated single entity, be it the individual entity of the person or the collective entity of a nation,
  • assumes, in the case of many men mutually bound by promises, a certain limited reality.

The sov­ereignty resides in the resulting, limited independence from the incalculability of the future, and its limits are the same as those inherent in the faculty itself of making and keeping promises. The sovereignty of a body of people bound and kept together, not by an identical will which somehow magically inspires them all, but by an agreed purpose for which alone the promises are valid and bind­ing, shows itself quite clearly in its unquestioned superiority over those who are completely free, unbound by any promises and unkept by any purpose. This superiority derives from the capacity to dispose of the future as though it were the present, that is, the enormous and truly miraculous enlargement of the very dimension in which power can be effective. Nietzsche, in his extraordinary sensibility to moral phenomena, and despite his modern prejudice to see the source of all power in the will power of the isolated indi­vidual, saw in the faculty of promises (the “memory of the will,” as he called it) the very distinction which marks off human from ani­mal life.83 If sovereignty is in the realm of action and human affairs what mastership is in the realm of making and the world of things, then their chief distinction is that

  • the one can only be achieved by the many bound together, whereas
  • the other is conceivable only in isolation.
  1. Nietzsche saw with unequaled clarity the connection between human sovereignty and the faculty of making promises, which led him to a unique insight into the relatedness of human pride and human conscience. Unfortunately, both insights remained unrelated with and without effect upon his chief concept, the “will to power,” and therefore are frequently overlooked even by Nietzsche scholars. They are to be found in the first two aphorisms of the second treatise in Zur Genealogie der Moral. [245]

¶ 34.5

In so far as morality is more than the sum total of mores, of cus­toms and standards of behavior solidified through tradition and valid on the ground of agreements, both of which change with time, it has, at least politically, no more to support itself than the good will to counter the enormous risks of action by readiness

  • to forgive and to be forgiven,
  • to make promises and to keep them. [245]

These moral precepts are the only ones that are not applied to ac­tion from the outside, from some supposedly higher faculty or from experiences outside action’s own reach. They arise, on the con­trary, directly out of the will to live together with others in the mode of acting and speaking, and thus they are like control mecha­nisms built into the very faculty to start new and unending proc­esses. If

  • without action and speech,
  • without the articulation of natality,

we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recur­ring cycle of becoming, then without the faculty to undo what we have done and to control at least partially the processes we have let loose, we would be the victims of an automatic necessity bear­ing all the marks of the inexorable laws which, according to the natural sciences before our time, were supposed to constitute the outstanding characteristic of natural processes. We have seen be­fore that to mortal beings this natural fatality, though it swings in itself and may be eternal, can only spell doom.

  • If it were true that fatality is the inalienable mark of historical processes,
  • then it would indeed be equally true that everything done in history is doomed.

Arendt seems to allude now to ¶ 32.1 (pages 230–1), “the attempt to eliminate action because of its uncertainty … has first of all resulted in channeling the human capacity for action … into an attitude toward nature which up to the latest stage of the modern age had been one of exploring natural laws and fabricating objects out of natural material.”

¶ 34.6

And to a certain extent this is true. If left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most cer­tain and the only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death. It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law be­cause it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life, which in its turn, as we saw, interrupted and interfered with the cycle of the biological life process. The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and be­ginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin. Yet just as, from the stand­point of nature, the rectilinear movement of man’s life-span be­tween birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the com­mon natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle. In the language of natural science, it is the “infinite improbability which occurs regularly.” Action is, in fact, the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus [246] of Nazareth, whose insights into this faculty can be compared in their originality and unprecedentedness with Socrates’ insights into the possibilities of thought, must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of per­forming miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.84

  1. Cf. the quotations given in n. 77. Jesus himself saw the human root of this power to perform miracles in faith—which we leave out of our considerations. In our context, the only point that matters is that the power to perform miracles is not considered to be divine—faith will move mountains and faith will forgive; the one is no less a miracle than the other, and the reply of the apostles when Jesus demanded of them to forgive seven times in a day was: “Lord, increase our faith.” [247]

¶ 34.7

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether,

  • discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and
  • counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box.

It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.” [247]

What was left in the jar that Pandora opened was Ἐλπίς, according to Hesiod, Works and Days, line 96. This is Anticipation, for Glenn Most; “hope, expectation; fear” for the Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary.

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