Arendt never appeals to honor—and, no doubt, she would find the concept antique. But both her celebration of “public happiness” and her comments on the desire to excel in public, to live a life worthy of becoming the stuff of stories, point to her desire to find some account of motives that transcend the desire to satisfy material, bodily needs. On the one hand, denigration of the body has a long history in Western thought, with both Greek and Christian variants. On the other hand, that suspicion of the “material” gains a new impetus in the 1950s from the twin perspective of Arendt’s anti-Marxist repudiation of materialist philosophy and her equally ant-consumerist suspicions of “materialist” consumer culture.
Love of the world, then, is meant to describe a commitment that extends beyond the selfish desire to accumulate material goods, just as her resolutely non-material “action” and its production of an ephemeral “space of appearances” introduces something utterly distinct from the necessities connected to “life.”
What I am pursuing here is her account of what motivates “action” (understood in her strict sense of the term). The good action directly strives for is called, at various times in her work, “freedom,” or “renown.” Actors want to win the admiration of others even as they also (in Nietzschean fashion) simply enjoy the expenditure of energy that is action.
I see a double problem here, a Scylla and Charybdis, if you will. Scylla is the contempt for the body, for mere life. We have already seen this with Ruskin declaring “life is the only wealth” and then going on to tell us the terms upon which different living creatures should accept death. Arendt’s version of this line of thinking comes in her meditations on Socrates in her late work. Living out of harmony with oneself, sacrificing one’s integrity and moral ideals simply in order to survive in a despicable regime like Hitler’s, is to win life on terms where it is not worth having. So we get two things here: a standard by which some lives are ruled deficient, and a denigration of the bodily as (at best) an insufficient basis of value judgments or (at worst) a positive detriment to making value judgments. In the second case, whatever pertains to the body and its needs should be ruled out of court when considering the worth of a human life. Pushed even further, to the Hegel master/slave phenomenon, the person who would prioritize “life” over other (more worthy) standards ends up a slave—and (perhaps) rightfully so. This final bit is not Hegel because he has his dialectical reversal coming, but it is not clear that Arendt offers any such escape. She seems simply contemptuous of the modern consumer who has no sense of or taste for the joys of public life. Such people are living swinish (Mill), unfree (Arendt) lives.
The Charybdis here is trying to identify a non-pernicious standard of value that doesn’t simply reduce to supplying material needs. We certainly seem to need a non-utilitarian, non-economic, set of motives—and those motives should, in some form or another, include moral considerations addressing our desired relations to others and to the planet. Reductionism (Kenneth Burke’s “debunking”) can only lead to cynicism. If everyone is always out for the main chance; if it’s the struggle for life that overwhelms all else, then we get the macho “eat or be eaten” with its concomitant scorn for all the sentimental claptrap about decency, rights, love, altruism etc. Yesterday’s New York Review of Books offers a poignant example. James Shapiro reviews a new interpretation of Hamlet that basically argues that the play shows Shakespeare revealing humanist claptrap to be the hot air that it really is. Hamlet delays because he can’t face up to the realpolitik of courtly life, while spouting half-baked humanist truisms that he has neither mastered nor believed. Hamlet is a fatuous young fop—and the play reveals his fatuousness. And Shakespeare is a complete nihilist. A perfect reading for our current political moment. There are no barriers of any sort (religious, moral, humanist) against sheer brute power.
When Arendt comes to this point, in her meditations on morality under the supreme conditions of Nazi rule, she can only conclude that the kind of integrity, the felt need to live a life in accord with the moral principles one had understood as one’s own, is rare, but not impossible or utterly unknown. She famously says that the Nazis showed that most people will change their moral code as easily as they will change their table manners. (She probably should have said as easily as they will change the kinds of clothes they wear in response to changes in fashion. We also have Shakespeare’s marvelously cynical statement in The Tempest –spoken by the villain Antonio—that “For all the rest,/They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk;/They’ll tell the clock to any business that/We say befits the hour” (Act 2, sc 1, 289-92). Most people will say what the powerful tell them to say.) In short, Arendt has only a very thin reed to offer us; there will be some who will die rather than live the life totalitarianism puts on offer, but only “some” and they will not be effective in face of the ruthless totalitarians. A very short step from cynicism—or maybe the better term in despair.
Despair is certainly one quite understandable response to our dark times. And maybe the long bloody track of human history makes a sensible response altogether to “the human condition.” For we can consider one last twist of the knife: honor (or morality) might seem, if it exists, a bulwark against sheer power. But then honor and morality themselves are so often used to justify violence. Honor killings, as well as the fact that “honor” is so central to warrior cultures, reminds us that the “doux commerce” of the bourgeoisie was supposed to usher in a kinder and gentler era. The bourgeois critique of honor is hardly entirely off-base; the same can be said of the atheists’ critique of sectarian violence. The Nietzschean conclusion that humans can turn anything into the occasion for oppression and violence appears to hold. Despair and misanthropy seem to follow in course, accompanied by a fierce sarcasm about all the high-falutin’ words with which humans dress up their shitty behavior to one another—and to non-humans.
I want a standard of decency that will hold, some kind of barrier against the flood of exploitation. I don’t see one on the horizon at the moment.