Hannah Arendt on Human Nature vs. Culture, What Equality Really Means, and How Our Language Confers Reality Upon Our Experience
“An experience makes its appearance only when it is being said. And unless it is said it is, so to speak, non-existent.”
By Maria Popova
“The truth is if you really care about the quality of somebody’s life as much as you care about the quality of your own, you have it made,” Edie Windsor observed as she won the equality of modern love. But how wired by nature and primed by culture are we really to uphold true equality for our fellow human beings?
That’s what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) explores in a letter found in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy (public library) — the remarkable volume that gave us Arendt’s cautionary advice on love and McCarthy on human nature, moral choice, and how we decide whether evil is forgivable.
In their correspondence, Arendt and McCarthy often used each other’s published works and works in progress as a springboard for soaring meditations on various philosophical questions and existential puzzlements. It is in this spirit that Arendt reflects on some of the themes in McCarthy’s just-published fifth novel, the influential and controversial Birds of America. She writes in a letter from May 28, 1971:
The apparent paradox: misanthropy plus love of solitude versus equality. The passion for equality says: I want to be like everybody else out of pride. To be superhuman would be monstrous. Nothing can be greater than to be truly human. The lover of equality actually says: I want everybody, literally everybody, to be like me, and whether this works out or not, I am going to live according to this assumption. Another kind of life would not be worthwhile. This is no paradox; it only comes into conflict with society.
Darning a further hole of inquiry into the assumed fabric of society and its false polarities, Arendt adds:
I want to quarrel with your opposition of culture and nature. Culture is always cultivated nature — nature being tended and being taken care of by one of nature’s products called man. If nature is dead culture will die too, together with all the artifacts of our civilization.
This might seem like an obvious truth, but it is also a great truth. (I am reminded here of Aldous Huxley’s assertion that “all great truths are obvious truths, but not all obvious truths are great truths.”) More important, not only was this truth far from obvious at the time, but it had only just begun to shed the guise of the radical — Arendt is providing the theoretical formulation of the empirical case biologist Rachel Carson had so movingly made a decade earlier with the revolutionary release of Silent Spring.
But in the same letter, Arendt shines a sidewise gleam on a truth even more radical — the idea that language isn’t a synthetic layer over reality manufactured by humans but the natural mechanism by which we confer reality upon our own existence. In another reflection on McCarthy’s novel, Arendt writes:
I love the passage about language, giving you messages, being a repository of everything on the verbal level that has been experienced by human beings… An experience makes its appearance only when it is being said. And unless it is said it is, so to speak, non-existent.
One can’t say how life is, how chance or fate deals with people, except by telling the tale.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly stimulating Between Friends with Toni Morrison on the power of language and Ursula K. Le Guin on how words dignify our existence, then revisit Arendt on lying in politics, how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, the crucial difference between truth and meaning, and our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil.
Published April 4, 2017