Arendt, Hannah

Assigned: Arendt, Hannah. From The Human Condition, from Ch. 24. “The Disclosure of the Agent in Speech and Action” and Ch. 25. “The Web of Relationships and the Enacted Stories” (1169-76); from “Truth and Politics” (1176-79). Also read the editors’ introduction (1166-69).

From The Human Condition (1958)

From Chapter 24. The Disclosure of the Agent in Speech and Action

1. On 1169-70 (“Action and speech are so closely related…”), Hannah Arendt discusses her theory of “action,” by which she means deeds that are significant for the political life of a community. How does she explain the close relationship between speech and this kind of action? Why would action, as she defines it, be impossible without speech? Furthermore, what analysis of the “revelatory quality of speech and action” (1170) does Arendt offer—in what sense do individuals reveal who they really are when they engage in genuine action (as opposed to mere “labor”)?

2. On 1170-71 (“Without the disclosure of the agent…”), according to Arendt, what happens when the agent or doer is not disclosed in the act, and why? What main example does she offer of this failure, and how does she describe the bad effects that occur therefrom? In Arendt’s view, how is the creation of so many monuments to the “Unknown Soldier” at the end of World War I symptomatic of modern warfare’s failure to constitute genuine action?

Chapter 25. The Web of Relationships and the Enacted Stories

3. On 1171-72 (“The manifestation of who the speaker…”), Arendt describes “the first of many frustrations” (1172) that beset action. In what sense is the identity, the “who,” of speakers and doers revealed in much the same way as “the notoriously unreliable manifestations of ancient oracles” (1172)? Why does this cause difficulties, according to Arendt, in political matters and in any interactions that occur directly between people without the mediation of things, of objects?

4. On 1172-73 (“Action and speech go on between men…”), how does Arendt’s discussion of the “‘web’ of human relationships” (1172 bottom) attempt to explain the broader context both created by action and within which action and speech unfold and produce effects in the “realm of human affairs” (1173) as well as the “stories” of individual human agents? Why is it the case, according to Arendt, that “nobody is the author or producer of his own life story” (1173)?

5. On 1173-75 (“That every individual life between birth…”), Arendt refers to “the great unknown in history” (1173). What does she apparently mean by that phrase, and from what difficulty in comprehending historical process does she suggest it springs? How is Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, Book VII (Leitch 75-77) illustrative of this difficulty or error? What other similarly misleading—yet revealing—metaphors have come into play to explain historical process? Finally, what does Arendt’s statement that we know the enigmatic Socrates better than we know either Plato or Aristotle suggest about the difference between the sort of “fictional story” (1174) resulting from the above mistake and genuine stories that result from real human action?

6. On 1175-76 (“The specific content as well as the…”), what does Arendt suggest about the relationship between action, speech, and works of art? In particular, how does she draw out the significance of Aristotle’s theory of drama (including the concept of mimesis or representation, imitation) in connection with her own ideas about action? Why is drama “the political art par excellence” (1175-76)?

7. General question: In our excerpt from The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes that “The realm of human affairs […] consists of the web of human relationships which exists wherever men live together” (1173), and to her, identity is revealed through action and through speech connected to such action. For Arendt, as the Norton editors point out, the political isn’t so much about material issues such as who gets to keep what is produced, etc. but is rather about a kind of existential pursuit of “freedom and meaning” (Norton introduction, 1168). What other conceptions of “the political” have you encountered either in this course or in your own readings beyond the course, and how does one or more of them compare to the view set forth by the existentialist Arendt?

From “Truth and Politics” (1967/1968)

1. On 1176 (“In conclusion, I return to the questions…”), Arendt insists that “Truth, though powerless and always defeated in a head-on clash with the powers that be, possesses a strength of its own” (1176). What is that strength, and how does it manifest itself? Furthermore, how does Arendt initially describe what she calls a “standpoint outside the political realm”? How do those who take up that standpoint serve the community as “outsider[s]” and truth-tellers?

2. On 1176-77 (“It is quite natural that we become aware…”), how does Arendt characterize the functioning and significance of the judiciary (i.e., the courts and the branch of government that establishes their legitimacy), the system of higher education, and journalism in a democratically governed nation? What service to truth do these systems and practices perform?

3. On 1177-79 (“Reality is different from, and more than…”), according to Arendt, what is the “political function of the storyteller” (1178), whether we are talking about historians or writers of fiction? How does the author describe the origin of the “long history” with which she credits the “disinterested pursuit of truth”—in what sense was a narrative decision made by Homer in The Iliad the starting point of this tradition, and indeed the prime inspiration for Herodotus, whom Arendt calls “the father of history” (1178)?

4. On 1179 (“Since I have dealt here with politics…”), Arendt returns to the concept of politics, which realm she generally treats as something that is not much interested in the truth. How does she conclude by speaking more positively about this realm? In what does “the greatness and the dignity of what goes on inside it” consist? How can the political realm best protect its greatness and dignity, and keep on serving as a place “where we are free to act and to change”?

5. General question: In our selection from “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt expresses confidence in the independence of the institutions she describes as existing “outside the political realm” (1176): the court system, journalism, and higher education. She suggests that in more or less democratic countries, the state recognizes its own need for “the existence of men and institutions over which it has no power” (1177). What do you think of that assertion—do you find it materially operative (or at least a respected and necessary ideal) in your own country? Why or why not? Explain, and try to give an example that either validates or questions Arendt’s claim.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake