zaterdag 13 december 2008

Hannah Arendt's Heroes

Action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory, and which is possible only in the public realm.

These are the words of someone who is being fascinated by the desire for light, splendour and immortal fame, for which Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander the Great had the reputation.

It was Hannah Arendt who wrote this passage in her book The human condition. In the book she discusses three varieties of the active life which as Vita Activa stands in opposition to the Vita Contemplativa, the life of the mind. Those three varieties are: labor, work and action and most of Arendt’s attention goes to the last one.

Arendt describes action as making a new beginning. It is starting processes for which no precedent exists and the outcome of which is uncertain and unpredictable. Acting, according to Arendt, is necessary for the maintenance of a public sphere.

What strikes me in Arendt’s description of acting – and that’s what I want to talk about – is the slightly oldfashioned adoration for ancient classical times which one can perceive. For instance in the above given quote, but also in her stressing “the revelatory character of action as well as its ability to produce stories and become historical, which together form the very source from which meaningfulness springs into and illuminates human existence”. And somewhere else she approvingly cites Pericles when, in his Funeral Oration, he talks about the polis as “a guarantee that those who forced every sea and land to become the scene of their daring will not remain without wittness and will need neither Homer nor anyone else who knows how to turn words to praise them”.

Some people may find this respectable and interesting, but my first reaction to this kind of adoration for Ancient Greece is somewhat allergic. I associate that attitude with 19th-century German academic culture which primarily was looking for elevation and stylizing.

But, on second thoughts, the heroism which Arendt applauds, has something beneficial. Those ancient heroes are not always as splendid as the quotes suggest, that’s to say, not in Arendt’s view. For example, she somewhere says that heroic acts do not necessarily have to be sublime. Also one’s bad deeds will survive in remembrance and will contribute to the actor’s immortality. This addition by Arendt makes for a change in the tone of the discourse.

Besides, Arendt uses the word ‘hero’ in a very elastic way. She doesn’t limit its meaning, as is usually the case, to denoting the solitary individual who, thanks to extraordinary power, insight or courage achieves something great. In her writings something seems to exist like wheeling-and-dealing-heroes: peope who, within a network with other people, invest efforts to get things done, without any garanteed outcome: “It is because of this already existing web of human relatonships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that acting almost never reaches its purpose”. Important is that the efforts are being recorded and preserved for posterity. In this view the status of being a hero could come within reach of, say, a local alderman or a dyed-in-the-wool trade union official.

Because of the colouring and nuances which Arendt adds to the concepts of action and hero, an interesting theme enters the scene, which transcends the limitations of the usual hero-concept and the adoration of classical antiquity. Nevertheless Arendt’s rich descriptions do not succeed in completely removing my initial reluctance. Looking at the whole of her text I think a certain contradiction remains.

Most of all the repeated use by Arendt of words like ‘fame’ and ‘splendour’ wrong-foots me sometimes. Isn’t she, at those moments, completely immersed in the exalted German-romantic tradition? At least those words sound, in relation to Arendt’s emphasis on the uncertainty and futility of much of human action, somewhat inadequate. For wheeling-and-dealing-heroes we need other qualifications.

Also see The Heroic Cosmopolitical Individual and Greek and Jew