The Ontology of Action: Arendt and the Role of Narrative

Theory & Event, Vol. 12, No. 4.

Leslie Paul Thiele

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.

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