Chapter 1: The Meaning of Action

Hannah Arendt: Prophet for our Time
by James M. Campbell

Chapter 1: The Meaning of Action

Action is a favorite American word. "No more talk — we want action!" is a sentiment as acceptable as apple pie. Political leaders, clergy, community militants — all exhort us to get where the action is. "The South End" — controversial student publication at Wayne State University — denounces as hypocrites those would-be revolutionaries who spend their time taking dope instead of preparing for action. But what exactly does action mean?

Arendt deals with this question in The Human Condition. In it she analyzes what to her are the three primary activities of man: labor, work, and action. Her understanding of action comes through most clearly in contrast to the other two. Labor. to Arendt, is that activity carried out in rhythm with nature, as in farming or feeding a household. Its goal is to maintain life — to exist, it is cyclical; what is produced is immediately consumed and the process begins all over again. Labor is akin to the biological process itself

Work looks beyond immediate consumption It is man’s effort at permanence and durability in a sense, an attempt at immortality — something beyond the limits of the biological process and the rhythms of nature. Work is the activity of man the craftsman the maker of things, creating a stable and durable world for himself and his posterity: a table, a city, a painting, a car. It is the human activity we have glorified most in our western civilization.

Both labor and work have to do with things, with the materials of nature or nature herself. Both can be carried on by solitary individuals — the farmer in the field, the carpenter in his shop, the scientist in his laboratory.

In Arendt’s view action is different. It is the activity not of man but of men. it requires other people. It is the only human activity that goes on directly between men without the go-betweens of things or matter. Its material is the web of human relationships of which we’re all a part. Action is carried out by the words or deeds of men among men. The condition for action is plurality. The chief characteristic of action is that it is the beginning of something new, the starting of a process or a chain of events rather than the making of a product. Birth is human action in a most fundamental sense — it is the beginning of someone new, a totally unique person, although in giving birth the mother labors in an equally fundamental sense.

All three activities are present. for instance in the life of an automobile plant. I was an assembly-line employee for several years, and there, despite the presence of hundreds, even thousands of other people, I could be as solitary as a peasant in a field or a herdsman tending sheep, laboring in rhythm — not with nature, to be sure — but with the conveyor belt that brought the auto body or its parts to me. I was a laborer, not a worker in Arendt’s sense. There were those in the plant who worked, that is, created a product from an image in their minds. And there was action, when someone would begin something new in the human relationships of the plant community, would speak a word to stir trust or distrust, or issue a memo that raised or lowered the morale of others. I discovered the presence of action particularly when I became a union steward and began to take part in the public affairs of the plant, experiencing the risk of public words and deeds and feeling the consequent praise or blame of my peers.

Action is exposing yourself, showing your hand. It means leaving the privacy ot your solitary labors, moving beyond those expected work relationships in which the product is always the go-between, and saying or doing something about the human affairs — the public realm — of that organization or community of which you are a part. It’s rocking the boat of human relationships for good or ill. There is risk, uncertainty, and a note of pathos in action, thus in part the I don’t-want-to-get-involved syndrome in most of us.

Arendt pin-points this uncertainty in two further characteristics she assigns to action: unpredictability and irreversibility. We don’t know ultimately what the results of our words and deeds will be and we can’t take them back once spoken or done. How often we say, "I wish I hadn’t done.. ." or, "If only I could take back what I said." Action is the sorcerer’s apprentice calling into being a magic broom to carry water and ending with a flood in his master’s mansion.

When we became involved as "advisors" in Viet Nam in the early 1950’s who could predict the present situation? And who could take it back and start over? Involvement has escalated relentlessly until, thousands of violent deaths later, we are essentially debating how to stop the stupid spiral of events we started.’

The American Revolution, in the view of many, was one of the noblest collective actions in human history. But one crucial part of that action, unforeseen at the time, plagues us to this day. In order to assure the participation of the southern colonies, slavery was not abolished in the constitution. The terrible contradiction between the revolutionary affirmation "all men are created equal" and the subjugation of black people has been with us ever since. Belief in black inferiority — the rationalization concocted to explain the contradiction — will be with us even longer. The actions of the nation’s founders were unpredictable and irreversible. (My examples.)

It is no wonder that men fear action, that despair and cynicism so easily make inroads in our minds and we flee to hobbies or bury ourselves in the routine necessities of existence. We have the freedom and the capacity for action, but we don’t know what will result from our public words and deeds and we can’t stop them once they’re out.

Is the final meaning of action then uncertainty? Perhaps even futility? The remedy to futility, in Arendt’s view, is in the nature of action itself. Any chain of actions can be broken or altered by new action — a new beginning. Men rebel against necessity or fatal denouements. France leaves Viet Nam, gives up Algeria. The Czechs begin a ripple in the Russian "Empire" that may yet become a tide. The cry of "Black Power" arises while white America dabbles with integration. But such new directions are uncertain too. How do we bear the uncertainty? To Arendt we would not be able to except for two capacities — themselves forms of action — written deep in the nature of man: the capacity to promise and the capacity to forgive.

Promise redeems unpredictability. By covenants, contracts, agreements. treaties, we create islands of stability in an uncertain sea. Consider marriage. In launching that venture, to apply a line from Whittier, "we know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise." But the man and woman say, "And I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband (wife); in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live." And a new beginning is made, full of risk and unpredictability.

Forgiveness redeems irreversibility. It is itself an action, creating a new situation. It is the release of another from the consequences of his action; it releases the one wronged from the necessity of revenge. Revenge is cyclical and predictable; forgjveness is not — it is a miracle. It is the best human antidote to the irreversibility of action. We might find many examples of forgiveness operating in Arendt’s sense in individual relationships. But examples seem less likely in inter-group relations or international relations, either of forgiveness or of its antecedent repentance. But perhaps that is because neither goes under its own name or gets labeled as such. No nation or street gang says, "We repent" or "We forgive," But regrets are sent and accepted. Apologies are made, hidden in the face-saving rhetoric of diplomacy, and then the reply comes, possibly as a gloat, but carrying within it the willingness to let the other begin a new tack. Or forgiveness and promise combine in a treaty or a contract in which the parties acknowledge past misunderstandings and wrongs and mutually pledge to move beyond them. When this happens the irreversibility of past actions is checked, the slate is momentarily wiped clean, and men are able to act — to begin a new thing.

As laborers, then, we are bound to the cycle of biological life, laboring and consuming in rhythm with nature. As workers we pursue the semblance of immortality, building a durable world that will outlast our individual lives. In action we seek by our public words and deeds to influence and shape the web of human relationships that connects us all. No activity of man is so potentially dangerous or rewarding, nor so uniquely human.

Action can bring us glory or mockery. Therein is its pathos and our ambivalence. We shout "action" as a shibboleth, applaud it in others, and shun it for ourselves. We want a say in our destinies, we want to influence the machine, the system, but we avoid beginning any new thing, fearful of the uncertainty and danger it entails and the public or organizational commitment it demands, preferring instead the more charted activities of labor and work.

Arendt feels and expresses this pathos which always characterizes action. But what bothers her more is the seeming convergence of events and forces today that threaten to remove even the possibility of actions for instance, the increasing powerlessness felt by people whose lives are caught up in large bureaucracy, the pent-up rage of oppressed peoples, the breakdown of political structures, or the development of scientific knowledge and techniques far beyond not only the comprehension of the public but beyond the participation and control of government. At many points she is pessimistic about man’s future. But despair is not the last word for her. She concludes a key chapter in The Human Condition with this affirmation:

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 Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith 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. (The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958, p.247)