Speech, Action, and the Human Condition: Hannah Arendt on How We Invent Ourselves and Reinvent the World
“The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of … boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.”
By Maria Popova
“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her piercing 1975 meditation on how relationships refine our truths. But although our words may be the vehicle of our truths, their seedbed is action — we enact the truth of who and what we are as we move through the world. That’s what Anna Deavere Smith spoke to in her advice to young artists: “Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.”
That indelible relationship between speech and action in an honorable existence is what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examines throughout The Human Condition (public library) — the immensely influential 1958 book that gave us Arendt on the crucial difference between how art and science illuminate life.
Arendt examines the dual root of speech and action:
Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.
It is useful here to remember that Arendt is living, and therefore writing, nearly half a century before Ursula K. Le Guin unsexed “he” as the universal pronoun — Arendt’s “man,” of course, speaks to and for humanity it is entirety. In fact, she examines the vital complementarity of the universal and the unique. With an eye to the difference between human distinctness and otherness, she writes:
Otherness, it is true, is an important aspect of plurality, the reason why all our definitions are distinctions, why we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else. Otherness in its most abstract form is found only in the sheer multiplication of inorganic objects, whereas all organic life already shows variations and distinctions, even between specimens of the same species. But only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something—thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear. In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.
Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human.
Not only is the interplay of speech and action our supreme mechanism of self-invention and self-reinvention, but, Arendt suggests, in inventing a self we are effectively inventing the world in which we want to live:
With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin,” “to lead,” and eventually “to rule,” indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere).
Action is therefore the most optimistic and miraculous of our faculties, for it alone gives rise to what hadn’t existed before — it is the supreme force of creation. Arendt writes:
It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins… The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable.
And yet, contrary to the popular indictment that speech is the cowardly absence of action, action cannot take place without speech. Above all, Arendt argues, it is through the integration of the two that we reveal ourselves to one another, as well as to ourselves:
No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action. In all other performances speech plays a subordinate role, as a means of communication or a mere accompaniment to something that could also be achieved in silence.
In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world… This disclosure of “who” in contradistinction to “what” somebody is — his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide — is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity, but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a willful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this “who” in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities. On the contrary, it is more than likely that the “who,” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimōn in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.
Echoing the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s assertion that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” Arendt adds:
This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them — that is, in sheer human togetherness. Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure.
Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one form of 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 the end, whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda; here words reveal nothing, disclosure comes only from the deed itself, and this achievement, like all other achievements, cannot disclose the “who,” the unique and distinct identity of the agent.
In a passage that calls to mind philosopher Amelie Rorty’s taxonomy of the seven levels of personhood, Arendt suggests that action is what propels us from static selves to dynamic agents of change, and considers the immense potential of that agency:
The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.
In a sentiment which Rebecca Solnit would come to echo half a century later in her immensely vitalizing Hope in the Dark, where she asserted that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” Arendt looks back on the history of humanity’s great intellectual and political revolutions, and adds:
It certainly is not without irony that those whom public opinion has persistently held to be the least practical and the least political members of society should have turned out to be the only ones left who still know how to act and how to act in concert. For their early organizations, which they founded in the seventeenth century for the conquest of nature and in which they developed their own moral standards and their own code of honor, have not only survived all vicissitudes of the modern age, but they have become one of the most potent power-generating groups in all history.
The Human Condition remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular portion with Vincent van Gogh on principles and talking vs. doing, then revisit Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the power of being an outsider, how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, and our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil.
Published May 17, 2017