Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) writes the following: 'It seems as if certain people are so exposed in their own lives (and only their lives, not as persons!), that they become, as it were, junction points and concrete objectifications of life.'
These lines anticipate her own fate, when she was only twenty-four years old. She had already met and loved Heidegger, a fascinating presence throughout her whole life, and had defended her doctoral thesis, The Concept of Love in Saint Augustine,2 under the direction of Karl Jaspers, to whom she is confiding here. From the outset, she knew herself to be 'exposed/ to the point of being fixed as 'a junction and objectification of life.' Having thought about becoming a theologian, then devoting herself to studying and 'dismantling' metaphysics, life came instead to be the essential domain of the young philosopher's thought. In the first instance, simply life itself: since Hannah Arendt, in order to survive, had to leave Germany in 1933, thus escaping the Shoah by choosing exile. She fled across a ravaged Europe, stayed in Paris at first, and finally left for New York in 1941, where she obtained American citizenship ten years later. She became a political commentator and produced a major study on the history of anti-Semitism and the origins of totalitarianism, before triumphantly coming back to her fundamental meditation on the life of the mind.
Caught up from the outset by this passion in which life and thought are one and the same, her varied yet profoundly coherent intellectual odyssey never ceased to place life - in and of itself, and as a concept to be elucidated - at the centre. For, far from being a 'professional thinker,' Hannah Arendt puts her thought into action in her Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative her life: in this specifically Arendtian trait, we might be tempted also to see something unique to women, since 'repression' (in the Freudian sense) is said to be 'problematic' for women and thus they are prevented from isolating themselves in the obsessive fortresses of pure thought, where men compete so successfully, and are anchored instead in the reality of their bodies and in relationships with others.
But even more, throughout her writings, the theme of life guides her thought as she discusses political history and metaphysics, to the point that in the course of its multiple occurrences, this theme becomes ever more refined and sharpened. It subtends Arendt's thought when she establishes, with great intellectual courage (and meeting such resistance!), that Nazism and Stalinism are two faces of one and the same horror, totalitarianism, because they converge in the same denial of human life. Her grave tone, in which anger is tinged with irony, betrays a concern that sometimes reaches apocalyptic accents, as when Arendt's diagnosis declares that a 'radical evil' resides in the 'perverse will,' in the Kantian sense, to render 'men superfluous': in other words, the totalitarian man, both past and latent, destroys human life after having abolished the meaning of all lives, including his own. Even worse, this 'superfluity' of human life, whose presence Arendt notes with emphasis in the rise of imperialism, does not disappear - on the contrary - in modern democracies that are dominated by automation: ... we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.
The manipulators of this system believe in their own superfluousness as much as in that of all the others, and the totalitarian murderers are all the more dangerous because they do not care if they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born. The danger of the corpse factories and holes of oblivion is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms. Political, social, and economic events everywhere are in a silent conspiracy with totalitarian instruments devised for making men superfluous. In the face of this threat, Arendt constructs a vehement defence of life in The Human Condition.
At the opposite extreme to life that is just routinely reproduced in the spirit of the vitalist determination of consumerism and modern technology's commitment to the Vital process/ Arendt raises a hymn to the uniqueness of each and any birth that might inaugurate what she does not hesitate to call 'the miracle of life': The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, 'natural' ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Creek antiquity ignored altogether ... It is this faith Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.' Today, it is rather difficult for us to accept that life, a value sacred to Christian and post-Christian democracies, is the recent product of an historical evolution, and to envisage the possibility of its being threatened.
It is, precisely, the inquiry into this fundamental value, into the way it has been constructed within Christian eschatology, and into the dangers it faces in the modern world that can be traced throughout Arendt's work - from her 'dissertation' on Saint Augustine to the unfinished manuscript on the capacity to judge - and perhaps, indeed, this very inquiry structures, in its own secret way, her entire oeuvre. A fervent admirer of the 'narrated life/ of bios-graphie, Hannah Arendt nonetheless wrote neither an autobiography nor any novels. Just one text from her youth, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess,* comes close to that kind of narration to which this philosopher and student of politics granted, along with Aristotle, the privileged status of giving the finishing touches to life, according to the dignity of 'action/ The work was finished in 1933, after the thesis on Saint Augustine and before Arendt left Berlin, that same year, all except, that is, the last two chapters, which were added later, in 1938. It was not published until 1958. Relying on intellectual life, all the while criticizing the metaphysical tradition that grants privileged status to the contemplative life to the detriment of active life, Arendt sets out to assign greater value, to 'valorize,' the active life, arguing that activity means life.
Nonetheless, The Human Condition also leads her to an unprecedented rejection of the notion of 'life' as the nihilistic value par excellence. Vitalist activism - which brings homo faber to an apotheosis, but which also imprisons him within the robotization of a kind of knowledge that 'calculates' without 'thinking' - is strongly denounced. Thus, echoing Augustine's thoughts on the 'negligible' life, a life not engaged in beate vivere and summum esse, Arendt vituperates against a consumerism that swallows up human life, when that life has lost sight of what is lasting. She denounces the cult of 'individual life/ and even more the 'life of the species' which tries to impose itself as the supreme modern good, but without having recourse to any aspiration to immortality. The vital 'process' replaces the search for immortality: this notion is raised up as a fundamental nihilistic value. In the course of this long drawn-out paradigmatic change (from immortality to vital process) grounded in technology and science, Arendt takes a stab in particular at Marx, who 'naturalizes' man by stipulating that 'the process of thought is itself a natural process.' This is done without sparing the determination of scientists who ensure the triumph of animal laborans behind the mask of a sacralizing of life in and of itself, devoid of any sacred dynamic. In opposition to those currents of thought, Arendt offers a life that is 'specifically human': the expression designates the 'moment between birth and death/ as long as it can be represented by a narrative, and shared Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative with other men. This is a superb recasting of her earlier reading of Augustine and is supported by her later political experience as a woman-philosopher. It is enunciated as follows: The chief characteristic of this specifically human life, whose appearance and disappearance constitute worldly events, is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography; it is of this life, bios as distinguished from mere zoe, that Aristotle said that it 'somehow is a kind of praxis.' Thus, the possibility of representing birth and death, to conceive of them in time and to explain them to others - that is, the possibility of narrating - grounds human life in what is specific to it, in what is non-animal about it, nonphysiological.
While implicitly evoking Nietzsche, who sees 'the will to power' as a normal desire in life, and also invoking implicitly Heidegger, who steers Nietzsche's biologism toward the 'serenity' of poetic expression, Arendt rehabilitates the praxis of the narrative. Challenging the remoteness of the poetic work, only action as narration, and narration as action, can fulfil life in terms of what is 'specifically human' about it. This concept, whose Aristotelian provenance is obvious, links the destinies of life, narrative, and politics: narrative conditions the duration and the immortality of the work of art; but it also accompanies, as historical narrative, the life of the polls, making it a political life, in the best sense of the word (one that, ever since the Greeks, has been under threat).
Finally, Hannah Arendt's thought moves on to a third stage: without being abandoned, her meditation on the vita activa recedes into the implicit, to become anchored at the heart of her thinking of 'the life of the mind/a thinking that Arendt clarifies by dismantling its three components: thought, will, and judgment. But this work had already begun in The Human Condition. Although it is true that one cannot with impunity overturn the hierarchy of human activities (work, oeuvre, action; vita activa/ vita contemplativa), and also true that such an overturning simultaneously threatens thought and life by destroying both, it is of the utmost urgency to save life by coming back to the ongoing exploration of the various forms it takes, its manner of becoming other, and the complex figures that result from all of this. Having inherited the interlacing of life and thought that is part of Christian eschatology, and of philosophy too, Arendt makes History resonate with the deconstruction of the Mind, in order to show that life is not a 'value' in and of itself, as is believed by humanist ideologies. Life does not fulfil itself unless it never ceases to inquire into both meaning and action: 'the revelatory character of action as well as the ability to produce stories and become historical, which together form the very source from which meaningfulness springs into and illuminates human existence.'