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HANNAH Arendt never directly addressed the nuclear question in a public work, yet in reflecting on this question, I have always found her work more suggestive and invaluable than any other thinker’s. What response is appropriate to the threat of extermination by nuclear arms and other means of mass destruction that stands at the center of the dangers of our time? We seem to be called on to find some equivalent response—the moral equivalent not of war but extinction. “With word and deed,” Arendt wrote, “we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take on ourselves the naked fact of our original appearance” (Arendt, 1958: 176). So entirely fitting are these words to the nuclear predicament that one might think that they were prompted by this danger. For inasmuch as extinction—the end not of an individual but of the species—is a second death that, when concretely defined, means the end of birth, the foundation of a political order that guaranteed the continuity of life would be a true “second birth”—a rebirth—by which this second death was defeated. It would be an act of deliberate rescue counterpoised against universal destruction, a new beginning thrown onto the scales against the end, absolute and eternal, with which our kind threatens itself. However, Arendt was not writing about the nuclear predicament. She was writing about the springs of action in the individual soul. Doesn’t this coincidence suggest that there might be a profound concord between political action as she conceives it and the concrete tasks that it has fallen to our time to face? SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) A Politics of Natality BY JONATHAN SCHELL * Arendt’s work cannot of course be reduced to a single line of thought; nevertheless, one among many valid ways to read it is as a protracted, hugely, variegated, unsystemic yet coherent lifelong investigation into the nature of action. In that reading, we would find that birth—natality—is the mother of action; that action is the locus of freedom—and therefore of novelty and renewal— and also the source of power; that power, a necessary and good thing, gives life to politics; that political action generates the “common world,” and, when stabilized by the foundation of the polis, provides an immortal home for otherwise mortal beings. An essential parallel theme would be her equally protracted polemic against a contrary view of action, in which the freedom inherent in action is found to be a curse, condemning human affairs to irremediable unpredictability and therefore to meaninglessness; unpredictability can be cured only by rule from above, which expunges freedom; and rule from above is possible only by force, freedom’s very opposite, which therefore comes to be seen as the essence of politics. Central as it is in Arendt’s thinking, the connection between birth and action is not extensively elaborated. (It seems likely that further elucidation would have been forthcoming in the planned but unwritten work on the faculty of judgment that was to have been the concluding volume of her trilogy, The Life of the Mind, whose first two volumes are Thinking and Willing.) The subject is first raised at length in the opening pages of The Human Condition , where we learn that each of the three components of human activity (the vita activa)—labor, work, and action—“corresponds to” one or more of the elements of the human condition, which she enumerates as “life itself, natality, mortality, worldliness, plurality , and the earth.” Labor corresponds to life, in the sense of biological life, which it sustains by producing life’s necessities, above all food. Work, which she distinguishes from labor, corresponds to worldliness, because it is the artifacts of work—build462 SOCIAL RESEARCH ings, works of art, and so forth—that create an enduring human artifice that outlasts the ever-perishing natural world. Action corresponds to plurality and natality. It corresponds to plurality—to the fact that humans are many—because action, unlike labor and work, is impossible for a solitary being and can only occur among human beings in the plural. All of this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 461-471
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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