During her lifetime, Hannah Arendt saw the rise and fall of many totalitarian governments.1
Born in Germany, at the turn of the 20th century, she grew up with first-hand exposure to Nazi ideology. In fact, in 1933, she even fled the country, fearing a potential prosecution. Similarly, with the continuing rise of Communism, she also witnessed another form of control.
It’s likely no surprise, then, that she spent the majority of her life thinking and writing about political theory, and the relevance and the value of the social sphere in an individual’s life.
She reached back in time to better understand the world of her day, she distinguished the different modes of our existence, and she built it all into a rounded way of seeing reality.
The most fascinating thing about her work, however, is how she connected the very ordinary aspects of our lives to the broader, more urgent matters that she was trying to illuminate.
Ultimately, in various ways, she was trying to answer the question of how to be in the world.
It was a matter of capturing the path that led us here and figuring out what we can do about it to drive the human condition in the right direction. She, especially, concerned herself with matters of knowledge; how we know, what we know, and what we should know.
In a subtle way, much of her work was built on this foundation. And, of course, for a good reason, too. It’s this knowledge that drives everything else, and it’s this knowledge that learns to ask the right questions. From there, Arendt showed us how to capture some of it by:
• Rediscovering the wisdom of the past
• Liberating awareness through vita activa
• Learning from our collective memory
Knowledge is gathered in many ways; some effective, some not. Distinguishing is the key.
Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Past
One of the defining characteristics of the modern world is its grounding in scientific truth.
Since the Age of Enlightenment, we have found more tools to help us understand the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. As a result, we have progressed faster and faster. We have moved from a simple dichotomy of a public and a private life to a more connected social life.
With this progress, however, we have also seen a degree of detachment. If science and reason and modernity can push us this far, what need is there for tradition and authority?
In the past, the flow of tradition gave us a continuous stream of meaning. We built our concepts of identity and value based on how our elders and our past communities did.
As Arendt pointed out, due to the rise of the newly connected social sphere, giving way to complex organizations and bureaucratic forms of government, we have left behind these sources of meaning, and we now find ourselves lost in a world that makes less sense.2
Is the solution, then, to go back to tradition? According to Arendt, not quite. We have moved too far away, and tradition by itself no longer contains any hard and fast answers for us.
That said, we are now free to rediscover past wisdom detached from ideology and authority. We can revisit history with new eyes to pick up what applies and leave behind what doesn’t.
If an idea has survived the test of time, then it generally has some utility or survival value. While the pace of change we have seen in modernity has negated a lot of tradition and authority, we do have to respect that we can’t understand now without knowing yesterday.
History is far more experienced than our shallow concept of the present. Real knowledge begins by treasuring the wisdom of the past to create meaning and understanding today.
Liberating Awareness Through Vita Activa
One of Arendt’s most enduring concepts is the one that distinguishes between the different ways of living: vita contemplativa (the contemplative life) and vita activa (the active life).
Many ancient philosophies have espoused the virtues of the contemplative life, relegating the active life to merely taking care of our biological needs and necessities as they arise.
Arendt, on the other hand, saw vita activa as the core source of our freedom and growth.
She first categorized and recognized that there are actions that we do simply to survive and endure (which she referred to as labor), and she also pointed to actions that have a start and an end, with a specific purpose assigned to the process (which she referred to as work).
In the third form of vita activa, however – which she simply referred to as action – she suggested that we interact with the world and the social sphere around us to uncover and create a self.
It’s not the process of locking ourselves in a room and simply thinking about an idea that defines our individuality, but it’s the fact that we can do novel and uncertain things, beyond the regularities of habit and routine, which unfold a narrative around us as we do them.
We don’t build knowledge and awareness by thought alone, but rather, we do so mostly when we show who we are – to both others and ourselves – as we take a course of action.
Humans have a concept of individuality that they assign to each person in a way that they don’t to other objects in existence. The only way that this individuality expresses itself, and in turn allows us to create knowledgeable connections, is when we step into the unknown.
Action is what creates our narrative of self. Action is also what liberates our awareness.
Learning From Our Collective Memory
After we take action and form our individuality in the world, what we do next is we tell stories to exact the value from our actions as lessons that endure in our surrounding culture.
We have a collective memory that builds out these stories as sources of hope and inspiration and direction that other members of our species can use to guide themselves. Things such as our ideas of morality and good conduct and togetherness often come from these stories.
In 1963, Arendt published a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem. It’s based on reporting she did for the New Yorker, in which she attempted to understand why Adolf Eichmann, one of the key facilitators of the Holocaust, did what he did.
Famously, and to the surprise and disbelief of many, she concluded that it wasn’t necessarily that he was monstrous and inhumane in a way that we would think. It was simpler than that.
Eichmann was following orders. He didn’t have an overarching ideological commitment, nor did he care to look beyond the context of his job. Like many, he just did what he was told.
Arendt called this “the banality of evil” to denote the complete and uninspired stupidity of his actions. To him, it was another day at work, and what he did was so normalized in that context that he didn’t even think to question it because he didn’t learn any better.
There was no reference point for his actions beyond the shallow depths of his own experience. He didn’t know or value our cultural memory and how it may interpret his deeds in retrospect.
There is a reason we have to look beyond our own zoomed-in context to build knowledge. Simply put, none of us live long enough to capture everything from our own memories alone.
Most of what we know exists outside of minds. It exists in the cultural current around us.
All You Need to Know
Our knowledge-base is the foundation for virtually everything else that we subsequently choose to define our life by. It’s not something that’s worth treating with passive engagement.
Hannah Arendt may have concerned herself primarily with political theory, but her way of thinking about how to be in this world can be applied beyond that, especially to knowledge.
Here are three key things we can learn from her on the topic:
I. Rediscover the wisdom of the past. Modernity has driven us away from tradition and authority. We now live in more complex social realities and many of the old ways of creating meaning and value no longer apply as they did. That said, we still need to respect some of the ideas that have survived the test of time. Their endurance tells us something, and without understanding the past, we can’t understand the present.
II. Liberate awareness through vita activa. The contemplative life, while useful, has its limitations. It’s the actions we take by living an active life that really express our self and what we call our individuality. By doing novel things and embracing uncertainty, we add the possibility of learning through a narrative as it unfolds all around us.
III. Learn from our collective memory. Nobody can understand the world they are living in by only referencing their own limited experience. We have to incorporate knowledge of the stories and narratives formed in the cultural currents around us if we are to live in a way that is conducive to a civilized way of life. The alternative is a dangerous kind of ignorance.
Increasing your knowledge opens up doors of perception that lie beyond current awareness. It’s the difference between seeing the surface of a thing and really understanding how it works.
The way you accumulate such knowledge determines possibility. Everything else lies ahead.
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