It has become something of an ongoing joke in class that I have a tendency to emphasize how bleak everything is. I suppose it’s true. One can hardly spend large amounts of time studying the world of human affairs without becoming aware of the extraordinary levels stupidity, mendacity, and violence at work in how humans conduct themselves. Arendt was perhaps more aware of this than most of us; having lived through the rise of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, she knew quite well just how awful people–even supposedly civilized and moral ones–could be. Still, one of the things that is most interesting about her is that she insists not just on looking at the awfulness of human affairs squarely, but also insists on thinking about how to remain politically and morally responsible even in dark times.
Consider the following passage, which comes from her book, The Human Condition:
Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one achievement among others. It is then, indeed, no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object. This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy. In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward an end whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda (180).
As in all things with Arendt, there are a great many things going on in the passage (e.g., the reference to the “disclosure of the agent in the act” would take quite a while to explain; her claim, in short, is that it is through genuine action that we create/disclose who we are, as opposed to what we are); however, I want to highlight one core aspect, which is the interplay between the “miraculous” and the “ordinary” in this passage. Let us note first that, in the first sentence, Arendt is alluding to the idea that action is not just one achievement among others; to be sure, it can become this when “human togetherness is lost” (her example of this loss of togetherness–modern warfare–is interesting; on the one hand, the loss of togetherness is obvious in the sense that we are no longer together with the enemy, but even among “us”–the friends–this togetherness is lost. In becoming unified against “them,” plurality is lost. The space “in between” disappears as we become a unity).
Nevertheless, her language is quite clear: the “specific character” of action is to be something different from other achievements–different from, say, making a chair or cleaning the house. How is it different? Well, like violence, making a chair is instrumental; one does X, Y, and Z to achieve some specific end (the chair). Action, by contrast, has no pre-defined end; indeed, it is “open-ended,” in the sense that the meaning of my action depends upon how others receive and interpret my action (We can clearly see this in, for instance, in Jesus’s action to be crucified; the meaning of this action has clearly been interpreted and reinterpreted over the millennia. The action that inspired, say, the civil rights protesters was interpreted by Torquemada to support the persecution and torture of heretics. Whatever Jesus might have meant by his action, it is clear that he isn’t actually in control of how others respond to it). Action is connected to a form of speech that is not aimed at deception or dazzling with propaganda, but toward disclosing the actor, forming (or re-forming) a group, on creating something new in the social world.
Now, let us recall Arendt’s conception of power, which describes as an action in concert. Let us also note what makes this action in concert possible: in “On Violence,” Arendt notes that power (action in concert) derives its legitimacy from the “initial getting together rather than from any action that might follow.” In other places, for instance in her book On Revolution, Arendt makes it clear that this initial getting together is legitimate insofar as it is based on free and sincere promises. So we can say that legitimate power is a form of action in concert that arises on the basis of free and sincere promising. What is interesting here, however, is that promise-making is a rather ordinary activity. Action in concert–which as we see in the quoted paragraph above is extraordinary–is deeply connected to something rather everyday and mundane.
This, I want to suggest, is not an error or a contradiction; rather, part of what Arendt is trying to do is to orient us toward a recognition of the extraordinary in ordinary life. When we look at the world from this point of view, we can see that ordinary practices–promise keeping, speaking, and so on–can take on heroic or extraordinary dimensions. Action and speech sustains the social fabric, or maintains political reality, often in the face of extraordinary pressures to undo or destroy it.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean: In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the remarkable case of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt. Schmidt ended up providing significant material support to the Jewish underground resistance movement in Poland. His actions were eventually discovered, and he was executed by the Germans in the spring of 1942. Arendt’s discussion of Schmidt is, I think, quite telling. One of the arguments frequently made by Germans in the aftermath of the war is that they didn’t resist the Nazis because such resistance would have been useless. Not only, the argument goes, would it have failed to achieve any real changes, but the resistance most likely would simply have been fully forgotten: it is in the nature of totalitarian regimes not just to purge all resistance but consign it to oblivion–to make sure that all traces of resistance are forgotten. Arendt counters this argument in the following way:
It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres…were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents “disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run. It would be of great practical usefulness for Germany today, not merely for her prestige abroad but for her sadly confused inner condition, if there were more such stories to be told. For the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation (pp. 232-233, emphasis in original).
Anton Schmidt’s actions were at once ordinary and extraordinary: nothing could be more ordinary and normal than helping another in need, in acting morally and with integrity; yet under conditions of terror, these ordinary acts become miraculous. Schmidt seemed to understand this. In his letters to his wife, he explained his actions by describing how he felt when he saw his fellow soldiers murdering children: “You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.” And he added, “I only acted as a human being and desired doing harm to no one.” With these words we can see why Arendt thought that only goodness has any “depth,” that only goodness was interesting. In the face of overwhelming social pressure and violence, Schmidt remained true to the core moral principle, “thou shalt not kill,” and this adherence is truly remarkable and worth thinking about.
And this is why his actions were not (and are not) in vain. In acting in ways that disclosed his integrity, in acting to maintain the social fabric, in reproducing human togetherness, he in fact achieved something extraordinary. Indeed, he achieved perhaps even the greatest thing humans can achieve in this world: he made the world fit for human habitation; he reminded us, in other words, that humans are still free, that we can still act, and that we can always maintain our integrity and our responsibility.
This, it seems to me, cuts to the heart of Arendt’s preoccupations. She wants to understand how action, power, and politics–how human activity, in short–can make this world still a place worth living in. All times humans have lived have been “dark times,” we might say. The question, then, is how we can act in ways that provide some light in that darkness.