By Charles Snyder
“The reality is that ‘the Nazis are men like ourselves’: the nightmare is that they have shown, have proven beyond doubt what man is capable of.”
— Hannah Arendt, “Nightmare and Flight” in Essays in Understanding 1930-1954
It was Aristotle who first developed the idea that human beings have a capacity for the greatest good and the most terrible acts of wickedness. On this view, humans represent both the best and worst of animal life (Politics). Human wickedness emerges out of the very same capacity for excellence. The spontaneity that causes human beings to create and preserve through the ages the communal space of the polis, and exercise freely therein the capacity for the political excellence of phronēsis (practical wisdom), is “open to being used for contrary ends.” In view of the atrocities of the previous century, in particular, the murderous momentum of totalitarian governments, we certainly don’t require today a logical demonstration that humans are capable of becoming an unprecedented sort of beast. We know that we beasts have the strange capacity to maintain perverse relations with the polis, relations which facilitate new forms of terror and criminality that animals other than human will surely remain forever incapable.
Part of what makes the nightmare of totalitarianism such a dreadful reality is the fact that human animals brought this terror into existence and that quite ordinary folk all too often carried out its murderous ideology. Indeed, the outrageous stupidity of former Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels in believing that leaders of his party would “go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time or as their greatest criminals,” a sentiment Goebbels uttered two years before he finally preyed on himself with his suicide, does not negate the fact that many of these beasts appeared to so many for some time as accomplished statesmen. But there is another ominous component of the nightmare that is still dangerous to deny, even though it is quite convenient to do so.
Aristotle’s insight into the human is not exactly jejune, but it remains a rigid simplification of the human condition. It fails to confront the reality of the nightmare that still encompasses who we are and what we can become. Aristotle neglected to develop the idea that human beings are capable of exercising activities in relation to the polis that exceed the binary characterization of just or unjust, good or wicked, political or un-political. There is, in short, an intermediate zone of action that arises out of the same human capacity for contraries. On either side of these activities, it is quite discerning to posit that humans are disposed to express in action the worst forms of wickedness and the greatest forms of excellence. Between these extremes, however, there persists a state of the intermediate vitiating the excesses of excellence and vice, a zone of action waiting to lend support en masse to regimes of terror or republics of enduring peace whatever direction the momentum a given polis will take at any given time.
One instance of this intermediate zone of activity startled Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem. Neither was Adolf Eichmann some god or demon nor some predatory animal of the wild (creatures entirely without a polis); he was a being who functioned in this intermediate zone, who maintained some relation to the state such that he remained a political animal. Unlike gods or beasts, human beings are beginners endowed from the moment they are born with a “supreme capacity” to begin something new, to act and take initiative. This human capacity serves as the precondition for freedom. Just like the human capacity for virtue and vice, the principle of human natality carries within it a sinister capacity for the contrary: to destroy or eradicate the precondition for freedom, or the persons who bear it, with new and unnatural means of eradication and unprecedented organizations of total politicization, domination, and mass murder. The figurative “light” of the public realm can transfigure into the appearance of its shadowy opposite: rather than provide a space of appearance for the newcomer to emerge, to be heard and seen as a unique individual among a plurality of human actors who may do the same, the light of the public realm can darken the world as the capacity of freedom becomes the capacity to make the new or unique disappear. Given the great and terrible excesses of the human condition, we have been too stubborn to confront the reality of the human capacity to maintain life in the impasse of these contraries, where the principle of natality no longer takes initiative but neither disappears from the earth entirely.
The “supreme capacity” (Arendt, Origins) of human initiative, the precondition of human freedom, exceeds the one-way capacities determining the movement of nature. The abilities and capacities of living things that “swing in changeless, deathless, repetition” (The Human Condition) have only a singular orientation for the exercise of their capacities, just as fire is the capacity to heat or warm (Aristotle’s example) and not the opposite. Moreover, the “supreme capacity” exceeds the oppositional structure of Aristotle’s idea of the human being that living things with logos or discourse can achieve. Capacities that are guided by logos (dynamis meta logou is Aristotle’s phrase) are exploratory and open in their comportment to things; these capacities are oriented toward a certain exercise of logos, disclosing in the exercise an account of what is to be done as well as, incidentally, the negation or privation of what is to be done. This is why the skillful cardiologist has the ability to perform complex surgical procedures to heal certain ailments of the heart, yet that same ability endows these experts with insights into how to perform those procedures improperly so as to wound and kill with expert proficiency. While the general precondition of human natality does consist of a two-way capacity for contraries in conformity with Aristotle’s insight so that it can make freedom appear and disappear, it also consists of a capacity for the impasse of initiative that would otherwise manifest human freedom. This is a paradoxical capacity for the banal, the busy nobody.
In conformity with Aristotle’s example in Metaphysics Θ 2 regarding the doctor’s art of medicine, human natality is “supreme” not only because it is both “awesome” and “fearsome,” inasmuch as human beings are able to set into motion the miraculous power of action and freedom as well as the calamitous motion of depriving the world of such miracles. In addition, Arendt’s report on Adolf Eichmann elucidates an intermediate zone of action in the deficiency of this man’s thinking or lack thereof. His zone of activity exemplifies, rather precisely, one general sense of privation: a state Arendt referred to as thoughtless. This privation was a lack of a feature that belongs to beings of his kind who should ordinarily have the capacity to think–not in the sense that he was entirely unable to think, in the way that we might say a stone or tree is unable, but in the sense that he was, as Arendt carefully phrased it, “almost totally” unable to think. Her use of the phrase “almost totally” makes it clear that Arendt had accounted for the co-existence of two contraries in the intermediate zone. The hackneyed discussions of scholars today that assume a rigid binary logic and then argue one way or the other, namely that Eichmann thought or did not think, neglect this intermediate zone of human action.
This is Arendt’s characterization of privative action. Beyond Aristotle’s capacity for contraries, Arendt realized the potential danger of beasts that no longer strive to reveal their unique distinctness in speech and action nor strive purposively to destroy the unique. Humans are all too capable of behaving with sheer banality within the state in accordance with this intermediate zone. These are the busy nobodies that make the reality of our nightmare on earth so precarious and apparently benign: “the scientists, scholars and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded” (Life of the Mind). Any one of us may be a busy nobody. Who should want to confront that reality?
(Featured image sourced from CSO)Posted on 8 November 2015 | 8:00 pm
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