We have seen, then, how through action and speech individuals are ableto disclose their identities, to reveal their specific uniqueness— their who — as distinct from their personalabilities and talents — their what. However, whileengaging in speech and action individuals can never be sure what kindof self they will reveal. Only retrospectively, that is, only throughthe stories that will arise from their deeds and performances, willtheir identity become fully manifest. The function of the storytelleris thus crucial not only for the preservation of the doings andsayings of actors, but also for the full disclosure of the identity ofthe actor. The narratives of a storyteller, Arendt claims, “tellus more about their subjects, the ‘hero’ in the center ofeach story, than any product of human hands ever tells us about themaster who produced it” (HC, 184). Without a Plato to tell uswho Socrates was, what his conversations with fellow Athenian citizenswere like, without a Thucydides to set down Pericles’ FuneralSpeech and refashion it in his powerful and dramatic style, we wouldnot have known what made Socrates and Pericles such outstandingpersonalities, nor would the reason for their uniqueness have beenmade fully manifest. Indeed, it is one of Arendt's most importantclaims that the meaning of action itself is dependent upon thearticulation retrospectively given to it by historians andnarrators.
Whenever Eichmann Jerusalem: back to the twelve years that were the core of his life, he declared this year in Vienna to have been its happiest and most successful period. He must have been frantic to make good, and certainly his success was spectacular. The basic idea that made all this possible was not his but, almost certainly, was contained in Jerusalem: specific directive from Heydrich, who had sent him to Vienna in the first place. The problem was not Banality make the rich Jews leave but to get rid of the Jewish mob. There were Banality things he could do well, or better than many Evil people: he could organize and he could negotiate. Having undergone such imprisonment, the Jewish functionaries Report not need Eichmann to convince them of the desirability of emigration. Rather, their concern was to inform him of the enormous difficulties that Banality ahead.
Closely connected to the boundlessness and unpredictability of actionis its irreversibility. Every action sets off processes which cannotbe undone or retrieved in the way, say, we are able to undo a faultyproduct of our hands. If one builds an artifact and is not satisfiedwith it, it can always be destroyed and recreated again. This isimpossible where action is concerned, because action always takesplace within an already existing web of human relationships, whereevery action becomes a reaction, every deed a source of future deeds,and none of these can be stopped or subsequently undone. Theconsequences of each act are thus not only unpredictable but alsoirreversible; the processes started by action can neither becontrolled nor be reversed.
For Arendt, power is a sui generis phenomenon, since it is aproduct of action and rests entirely on persuasion. It is a product ofaction because it arises out of the concerted activities of aplurality of agents, and it rests on persuasion because it consists inthe ability to secure the consent of others through unconstraineddiscussion and debate. Its only limitation is the existence of otherpeople, but this limitation, she notes, “is not accidental,because human power corresponds to the condition of plurality to beginwith” (HC, 201). It is actualized in all those cases whereaction is undertaken for communicative (rather than strategic orinstrumental) purposes, and where speech is employed to disclose ourintentions and to articulate our motives to others.
In The Human Condition Arendt stresses repeatedly thataction is primarily symbolic in character and that the web of humanrelationships is sustained by communicative interaction (HC,178–9, 184–6, 199–200). We may formulate it asfollows. Action entails speech: by means of language we areable to articulate the meaning of our actions and to coordinate theactions of a plurality of agents. Conversely, speech entailsaction, not only in the sense that speech itself is a form ofaction, or that most acts are performed in the manner of speech, butin the sense that action is often the means whereby we check thesincerity of the speaker. Thus, just as action without speech runs therisk of being meaningless and would be impossible to coordinate withthe actions of others, so speech without action would lack one of themeans by which we may confirm the veracity of the speaker. As we shallsee, this link between action and speech is central to Arendt'scharacterization of power, that potential which springs up betweenpeople when they act “in concert,” and which is actualized“only where word and deed have not parted company, where wordsare not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veilintentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used toviolate and destroy but to establish relations and create newrealities ” (HC, 200).
Arendt articulates her conception of modernity around a number of keyfeatures: these are world alienation, earthalienation, the rise of the social, and the victory ofanimal laborans. World alienation refers to the loss of anintersubjectively constituted world of experience and action by meansof which we establish our self-identity and an adequate sense ofreality. Earth alienation refers to the attempt to escape from theconfines of the earth; spurred by modern science and technology, wehave searched for ways to overcome our earth-bound condition bysetting out on the exploration of space, by attempting to recreatelife under laboratory conditions, and by trying to extend our givenlife-span. The rise of the social refers to the expansion of themarket economy from the early modern period and the ever increasingaccumulation of capital and social wealth. With the rise of the socialeverything has become an object of production and consumption, ofacquisition and exchange; moreover, its constant expansion hasresulted in the blurring of the distinction between the private andthe public. The victory of animal laborans refers to thetriumph of the values of labor over those of homo faber andof man as zoon politikon. All the values characteristic ofthe world of fabrication — permanence, stability, durability— as well as those characteristic of the world of action andspeech — freedom, plurality, solidarity — are sacrificedin favor of the values of life, productivity and abundance.
This critical reappropriation is facilitated, in part, by the factthat after the rupture in modern time-consciousness the past may“open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things noone has yet had ears to hear ” (BPF, 94). The breakdown oftradition may in fact provide the great chance to look upon the past“with eyes undistorted by any tradition, with a directness whichhas disappeared from Occidental reading and hearing ever since Romancivilization submitted to the authority of Greek thought” (BPF,28–9).
Arendt's interpretation of modernity can be criticized on a number ofgrounds. I will focus my attention on two categories employed byArendt, those of nature, and the social. Withrespect to the category of nature, Arendt oscillates between twocontrasting accounts. According to the first account, the modern age,by elevating labor, the most natural of human activities, to thehighest position within the vita activa, has brought us tooclose to nature. Instead of building and preserving the human artificeand creating public spaces for action and deliberation, we are reducedto engage in the activity of sheer survival and in the production ofthings that are by definition perishable. According to the secondaccount, however, the modern age is characterized by a growingartificiality, by the rejection of anything that is notman-made. Arendt cites the fact that natural processes, including thatof life itself, have been recreated artificially by means ofscientific experiment, that our natural environment has beenextensively transformed and in some instances entirely replaced bytechnology, and that we have searched for ways to overcome our naturalcondition as earth-bound creatures by setting out on the explorationof space and envisaging the possibility of inhabiting otherplanets. All this leads to a situation where nothing around us will bea naturally given event, object, or process, but will instead be theproduct of our instruments and the will to refashion the world in ourimage.
For Arendt modernity is characterized by the loss of theworld, by which she means the restriction or elimination of thepublic sphere of action and speech in favor of the private world ofintrospection and the private pursuit of economic interests. Modernityis the age of mass society, of the rise of the social out ofa previous distinction between the public and the private, and of thevictory of animal laborans over homo faber and theclassical conception of man as zoon politikon. Modernity isthe age of bureaucratic administration and anonymous labor, ratherthan politics and action, of elite domination and the manipulation ofpublic opinion. It is the age when totalitarian forms of government,such as Nazism and Stalinism, have emerged as a result of theinstitutionalization of terror and violence. It is the age wherehistory as a “natural process” has replaced history as afabric of actions and events, where homogeneity and conformity havereplaced plurality and freedom, and where isolation and lonelinesshave eroded human solidarity and all spontaneous forms of livingtogether. Modernity is the age where the past no longer carries anycertainty of evaluation, where individuals, having lost theirtraditional standards and values, must search for new grounds of humancommunity as such.
In her major philosophical work, The Human Condition, and insome of the essays collected in Between Past and Future,Arendt articulated a fairly negative conception of modernity. In thesewritings Arendt is primarily concerned with the losses incurred as aresult of the eclipse of tradition, religion, and authority, but sheoffers a number of illuminating suggestions with respect to theresources that the modern age can still provide to address questionsof meaning, identity, and value.
With respect to the second category, that of the social, Arendt wasunable to account for certain important features of the modernworld. Arendt identifies the social with all those activities formerlyrestricted to the private sphere of the household and having to dowith the necessities of life. Her claim is that, with the tremendousexpansion of the economy from the end of the eighteenth century, allsuch activities have taken over the public realm and transformed itinto a sphere for the satisfaction of our material needs. Society hasthus invaded and conquered the public realm, turning it into afunction of what previously were private needs and concerns, and hasthereby destroyed the boundary separating the public and theprivate. Arendt also claims that with the expansion of the socialrealm the tripartite division of human activities has been underminedto the point of becoming meaningless. In her view, once the socialrealm has established its monopoly, the distinction between labor,work and action is lost, since every effort is now expended onreproducing our material conditions of existence. Obsessed with life,productivity, and consumption, we have turned into a society oflaborers and jobholders who no longer appreciate the values associatedwith work, nor those associated with action.