Vita Activa, Action And Arendt Essay, Research Paper
Vita Activa, Action and Arendt
What follows is the basic structure of Hannah Arendt’s account of vita activa, as I understand it. Arendt classifies the modes of human activities as “action”, “work”, “labor”, and additionally “speech” which is to be accompanied by action. Each corresponds to the human conditions of “natality,” “worldliness,” “life itself” and “plurality” respectively. In addition are the “faculties” of freedom, self-disclosure of identity of the actor, fabrication and (re)production. Arendt’s method is designed to calibrate the transformation of “constellation” referencing the ancient constellation, an archetype Arendt reconstructs from ‘fragments’ of human possibilities found in the political life of the ancient Greek polis. In the constellation, freedom belongs to action, self-disclosure of identity of the actor to the coupling of action and speech, fabrication to work, and (re)production to labor. It is also important to note here that, for Arendt, human beings are simultaneously natural (like other creatures) and unnatural. Her categories of human activities directly correspond to this order. Labor serves to the natural, or biological, “necessity” on the one hand. Work, action and speech to unnatural requirements, especially “freedom” on the other hand. Arendt’s concept of “worldliness” as a property of the “human world” is one of the human conditions for unnatural dimension, as well as for plurality and natality. It is a defensive boundary between nature and human world whose basic properties are “artificiality” and “stability,” relative to permanence and durability. In addition, Arendt provides two properties, that of publicity, and in-betweeness. Publicity means that the existence of the human world as such is common to all people, whereas in-betweeness means that, nevertheless the perspectives of each person in the world are irreducibly different. For Arendt, “action” is a simultaneously blessed and troublesome mode of activity. “Blessed” because, as mentioned above, it is a faculty of freedom to begin a new process and to bring about something unexpected against all odds. In the ancient context, by virtue of this faculty accompanied by speech, and grounded within the condition of natality and plurality, actors could disclose irreplaceable identities. Thus weaving their unique lives on the one hand, while establishing new communal relationships among actors grounded by plurality on the other. In this sense, action is essentially political. The first aspect of the function of the faculty of freedom described here seems rather apolitical, but in the phase of “establishing new power relations and community,” it becomes quite crucial.
The troublesome aspect lies in for example fundamental uncertainty. The unpredictability and unboundedness of the range of consequences of an action, the sheer happenstance or arbitrariness of an action and the irreversibility of the initiated process are all sufferings that are inevitably associated with the fact that we are free beings. Thus Arendt mentions “the actor…is never merely a ‘doer’ but always and at the same time a sufferer” (p.190). Furthermore, these sufferings originate in a condition of plurality based upon which the blessing capacity of action is enjoyed. Namely, every action is always interference into the preexisting “web of human relationships,” the essential elements of which are the deeds and words of plural actors (p.183), and its resultant chains of action-reaction spread over the web, altering the state of affairs. In the case of the vita activa, for Arendt, the “redemption” for the troubles of action comes from the same origin. In other words, action itself is a source of redemption, and its necessary condition is again plurality. Therefore, we may call these abilities “auto-redemptive abilities” to cope with uncertainty. Concretely, the example of those abilities Arendt suggested are “promising” and “forgiving” (pp.236-47). The former is a faculty to cope with unpredictability of the consequences of action, whereas the latter to the irreversibility of what has happened, with the help of other faculties of virtue i.e. trusting, responsibility, generosity and so forth. For Arendt, these faculties are essentially political abilities, namely abilities to “live together” without any coercion, and based on plurality. Promising, for example, is “the only alternative to a mastery which relies on domination of one’s self and rule over others” and “corresponds exactly to the existence of a freedom which was given under the condition of non-sovereignty” (p.244). In addition, plurality is the condition for the possibility of the auto-redemptive abilities precisely because one can never, and should not pretend to, promise and forgive by oneself, without self-deception. So, the continuing to remain within the web of human relationships and being embedded in the condition of plurality is simultaneously and ironically the source of both inability and redemption. The disintegration of the boundary between humans and nature, caused and amplified by the increasing capacity of man’s acting into nature is characteristic of the contemporary condition for making the auto-redemptive abilities unattainable. Arendt states that, acting into nature is dangerous because plurality as a source of redemption is simply absent from the relationship between human and natural things (p.238); meaning all the moral concepts of the break down between humans and nature. Non-human material consequences of our action into nature cannot be “promised” and “forgiven” among men and natural entities. To conclude, the boundary between human and nature, the defensive boundary of human world, is a defense for the possibility for the auto-redemptive abilities to cope with uncertainty. Auto-redemption is possible only when we limit our exercise of power to act inside the human world. Likewise, the ability to intervene into nature should be conducted in a mode of work, i.e. it must be exercised for the sake of building up and stabilizing the human world. The collapse of this order of activities and the human/nature boundary is the loss of the conditions for auto-redemption. This collapse is what Arendt later calls the “worldlessness” of the modern world.