Lachlan Mackinnon taught at Winchester College for 30 years, and now lives in Ely. He is the author of books about modern poetry and Shakespeare, a biography (The Lives of Elsa Triolet) and four collections of poems, of which the most recent are The Jupiter Collisions and Small Hours. This year Lachlan received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors. Here he writes about Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition.
Lachlan Mackinnon on The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt
One purpose of poetry, Robert Frost said, is to make 'a momentary stay against confusion'. Perhaps one of philosophy's tasks is to aim at making a more permanent stay, to clarify the world in ways that last. I first read Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition over 30 years ago, and I have gone back to it as much as to any other philosophical work.
In 1958, when The Human Condition was published, Arendt was already well-known as the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Eichmann in Jerusalem, with its famous and deeply controversial phrase 'the banality of evil', would not appear until 1963. The Human Condition was one of her two most important works of pure thought; the other was the still undervalued, and uncompleted, The Life of the Mind, published posthumously in 1978. The Human Condition might be described as a work of political philosophy, but its implications run far deeper than that term suggests - and it touches on much more than I shall discuss here.
Arendt sets out to lay bare the nature of the life human beings share. She sees man's activities as traditionally divided into three spheres, labour, work and action. The labourer is engaged in maintaining life against the depredations of nature. Labour is agricultural, but it also contains any activity which is conducted primarily to earn the means of subsistence. Work is concerned with making things that will last. The potter, the poet and the builder are all workers (the maintenance of buildings is labour). Arendt relies heavily on classical sources for these distinctions.
As she does for her treatment of action. Action is properly political; it happens in a shared public space in which conflicting opinions debate and are tested. Here, she argues, we find our truest self-disclosure, for in the public space we are asked who, not what, we are. We display the answer in speech and deeds. Crucially, natality means that there is an endless supply of new participants. We are all the same in being one of a kind. The life of action depends, though, on not being driven by necessity. Necessity afflicts the ruler as much as the ruled.
Hostile critics might observe that Arendt relies on an idealized model of the Athenian polis. She is, though, careful to discuss the economic order, particularly slavery, which made this possible. She also argues that historical change led to a new valuation of the private sphere. Originally the realm of labour and male rule, it became a refuge from public life. An emphasis on privacy is evident at the beginning of the rise of a new realm, the social. Society subjects all human activity to the values implicit in labour. The private as well as the public are to be useful in serving the needs of consumption and the replacement of the goods consumed. Society makes nothing durable. Short-term gratification drives it, and its model of time is the cyclical routine of eating and egesting. Job-holders do what they do in order to eat. Marx was right to see this change as leading to the evanescence of everything that in the past had seemed stable. The shared world in which what man has made, our buildings, our works of art, our heirlooms and our institutions, will outlast us vanishes. The idea of inbuilt obsolescence goes a fair way to proving Arendt's point.
Arendt's greatest fear for the future was global unification, which she saw prefigured by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. The idea of a world parliament appalled her because it would destroy a primary freedom, that of choosing under what institutions one preferred to live. Freedom of passage was a necessary right.
When I consider how little nobility there is in contemporary public life, how much our politicians are concerned with mere administration (a form of labour), I am driven back to Arendt's insights. When I hear universities being told to serve economic ends, the same happens. When I read tabloid accounts of celebrities' sex-lives - for example, Jordan's description of one of her husbands as 'cockalicious' - I marvel not only at the death of shame but at the degree to which the private is now a matter for general consumption - read today, forgotten tomorrow. As, of course, are the celebrities' very lives.
But I am grateful for this book in three other ways. Not only does it give me a credible explanatory framework, it also rejects the ultimately solipsistic drive of so much thought. Privileging thought as the central human activity is the professional hazard of thinkers. In particular, it possesses the work of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's Dasein, man fallen into the world, is essentially solitary. His horizon is death. The reduction might be compared to, and revealingly distinguished from, Kant's reduction of man to rational being. In The Human Condition, to be human is to be with others, and the horizon widens with each birth. Tempted as any reflective person must be to believe that the solitude of thinking matters more than anything, I am helped by the worldliness of Arendt's implicit rejection of Heidegger, her former teacher and lover. In The Life of the Mind, even thought is a matter of being with myself, a phrase in which it is the 'with' that matters.
Second, I am grateful as a poet for being put in my place. When I make a poem I hope it will last. I must not be governed by the rules of consumption, the culture of prizes and brief fame society endorses. Neither should I confuse poetry with action. That is to become a propagandist. Arendt lets me see what I do as possessing its own dignity and worth; society tries not to.
Above all, I am grateful to this book for introducing me to Arendt's work as a whole, currently much more read in France than in this country. And I may have been helped in trying to bring up two intelligent daughters by the example of her courageous and committed life. Few women since Hypatia, daughter of the last librarian at Alexandria, have as yet been celebrated in their own times as pure thinkers. In Arendt's time, the only obvious rival was Simone de Beauvoir. The key difference is that de Beauvoir wrote determinedly as a woman, where Arendt insisted that the thinking ego was sexless. Indeed, in all her work I have found only one revelation of gender, when she wrote that to bang a nail into a wall she would, if necessary, use the heel of her shoe. I suspect that this is easier for a woman. She was talking, of course, about the to-handness of tools, a Heideggerian concern.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]