Thinking What We Are Doing in the Condition of Plurality04-04-2016
By Aaron Cotkin
“Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”
-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Central to Arendt’s call for us to “think what we are doing” is for us to think about politics as occurring under the condition of plurality. But we often lack a language appropriate to think in these terms. It may be appropriate for those who study the realm of the social (economics, culture, or society writ large) to speak of human behavior, of the nature of Man, as predictable because individual people, navigating the realm of necessity may seem like repetitions of each other. But Arendt believes that applying such logic to the study of politics, to study politics as characterized by behavior rather than by action, is inappropriate.
Thinking of politics as occurring under the condition of plurality means taking into account that political actors are individuals with unique names, biographies, and talents that affect how each of us participates and means that I am not an effective substitute for you. This way of thinking about the relationship between people and politics is distinct from those who speak of politics as occurring among ‘reproducible repetitions’ such as Hobbes, who attempted to make men legible to each other by instructing them to “…read in himself, not this or that particular man, but mankind…” Leviathan is Hobbes’s performance of this act of seeing Man in general in himself.
Such theories of Man in general use a language to talk about politics that transforms political behavior into observations and data. These theories are often considered useful only to the extent that they can predict future behavior. For Arendt, this scientific language misses something fundamental about political action. “It is the function, however, of all action as distinguished from mere behavior,” Arendt writes in On Violence, “to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably.” What is special about politics, the human activity of action, is its relationship to the human capacity to collectively bring totally new and unpredictable things into the world. That is, insofar as we are thinking about politics, there is the potential for the unexpected or even the unexpectable to occur. Insofar as we are political actors and want to achieve the immortality that is the promise of politics, we must manifest in ourselves an orientation toward the contingent plurality of persons in which we act so as to allow us to successfully respond to it as it presents itself to us.
The pre-moderns had a word for this contingency and unpredictability of the world and of the plurality of men: fortuna. To understand the interplay between action and fortuna, Arendt turns to Machiavelli, about whom she says, “Freedom as inherent in action is perhaps best illustrated by Machiavelli’s concept of virtù, the excellence with which man answers the opportunities the world opens before him in the guise offortuna” (“What is Freedom”). Politically, men act in a world that opens before them in ways conditioned by the unpredictable caprice of fortuna because it is created by the actions of others.
Virtù is our response to and orientation towards political life conditioned by fortuna. Although the potential for exhibiting virtù exists in all humans, it must be cultivated in order for it to be available to respond to fortuna, just as we might say that the potential to be a virtuoso violinist exists within all of us but must be cultivated before we can respond, violin in hand, to the opportunity of sight-reading a concerto before a large audience. Recognition that the leap from the sheltered practice spaces of our homes and schools into the “merciless exposure” of the public, in both musical performance and in political action, takes courage, which Arendt credits Machiavelli with recognizing. This courage, when built on a solid foundation rather than a desire to make a fool of ourselves, comes from virtù, “which according to Machiavelli is the specifically political human quality” (“What is Authority”).
The wide array of politicians Machiavelli describes as having virtù in his writings (e.g. Romulus, Cesare Borgia, and Francesco Sforza) allows us to say another thing about the conditions for action: that while virtù is the same in everyone, it is so in such a way that preserves the human condition of plurality. Whatever else it may mean for us to ‘think what we are doing’ politically, for Arendt it meant developing a language with which to examine our capacity to respond to the unpredictable results of others’ actions with our own political qualities.