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  • The Ontology of ActionArendt and the Role of Narrative
  • Leslie Paul Thiele (bio)

Hannah Arendt is best known for her trenchant analysis and original evaluation of political life. The sine qua non of politics is human action, which she celebrates above all other human capacities. Arendt equates action with freedom. Action in concert is identified as power. As the key element of power and the meaning of freedom, action brings about and preserves the public realm.

Arendt considers politics a facet of the human condition distinct from - and in many respects superior to - the biological and the social realms, with their characteristic activities of labor, work, and life management. Political action, occupying the highest echelon of the vita activa, is also distinguished from the vita contemplativa, that is to say, from the intellectual realm, characterized by reflective thought. Notwithstanding her chosen vocation as a theorist, deep esteem for her own intellectual mentors (including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers), and enduring reluctance to involve herself in political affairs, Arendt refused to abide the Platonic subordination of politics to philosophy.

Arendt's depreciation of the philosophical, social, and biological facets of life is frequently censured. Critics chafe against her apparent nostalgia for the vita activa of antiquity and question whether action (specifically, and politics more generally) deserves Arendt's accolade as the defining feature of a truly human existence, the sole bearer of freedom, the most endangered faculty in the modern world and, consequently, the feature of contemporary life most in need of our solicitude. In particular, critics reject Arendt's comprehensive divorce between the public and the private spheres, a divorce Arendt employs to champion political action over social concerns.

To be sure, Arendt's bald distinction between the social and the political - wherein efforts devoted to satisfying basic human needs lie on the other side of an unbridgeable chasm from great words and deeds - obscures more than it reveals. I do not defend her stark bifurcation. But neither do I wish to reiterate standard critiques. Rather, I explore how Arendt illustrated the prerogatives of political action by underlining its narrative dimensions. To best understand Arendt, we need to shift our focus from what political speech and action are about to how political speech and action are engaged. Building on Arendt's suggestive remarks on the significance of stories facilitates this shift. Had Arendt more thoroughly developed this line of thought, she might have successfully deflected the charge of excluding social concerns from the purview of political life.

Entering the Labyrinth of Arendt's Thought

Arendt devotes a full chapter of The Human Condition to the concept of action. It is prefaced by two epigraphs, the first being a pungent dictum of Isak Dinesen (the nom de plume of Karen Blixen), one of Arendt's favorite authors. The second epigraph is a freely translated excerpt from Dante's De Monarchia, which reads:

For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of free will, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows…. Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.

The political realm, for Arendt, is a place of appearances, or better said, a place of performances. The agency involved in these performances is not seated in a pre-existing, unified, deliberate, self-knowing subject. Rather, Arendt's actors are fragmented beings that achieve coherence by way of a self-revelatory, theatrical performance. In this vein, Arendt understood the Greek polis as "a kind of theater where freedom could appear" (Arendt 1968a, 154).

Patchen Markell offers an insightful exegesis of Arendt's translation of Dante's passage in an effort to come to terms with her understanding of self-revelatory action and its relationship to democratic life. Dante's latent self, Markell argues, is not an identity but rather "action's point of departure" (Markell 2006, 10). Effectively, the self that the doer discloses is formed upon...

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