I’ve been slowly reading Hannah Arendt’s remarkable book The Human Condition, an exploration of the possibilities of human action as relevant today as it was on publication some 50 years ago.
She was born on this day in 1906.
Of the many striking themes in the book (which itself is a complex, challenging and enormously thought-provoking read) is human freedom, about which I have been writing extensively here over the past 18 months.
For Arendt, freedom is the quintessential mark of humanity. Despite our tendency to fall into habitual and predictable routines, to constrain ourselves in our attempts to look good or follow the crowd, what is always available to us is the possibility of novel action. We can always, she tells us, initiate some new action that has never been tried before. Of course, we cannot ever really know its consequence – the endless chain of further actions that we will begin. But it is our human responsibility to act – to not go to sleep to ourselves – and then to act again in order to deal with the consequences of our acting in the first place.
And each of us brings in to the world our particular uniqueness – a way of acting that’s possible simply because we are here, and because although we are like every other human being we are simultaneously unlike any human being who has lived before.
Arendt’s work is a vital reminder of our responsibility, always present as human beings, to take responsibility for the condition of our lives, our work, our organisations, our society.
“The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means, that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.” — from The Human Condition