Speech, Action, and the Human Condition: Hannah Arendt on How We Invent Ourselves and Reinvent the World


Speech, Action, and the Human Condition: Hannah Arendt on How We Invent Ourselves and Reinvent the World

“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her piercing 1975 meditation on how relationships refine our truths. But although our words may be the vehicle of our truths, their seedbed is action — we enact the truth of who and what we are as we move through the world. That’s what Anna Deavere Smith spoke to in her advice to young artists: “Start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things.”

That indelible relationship between speech and action in an honorable existence is what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examines throughout The Human Condition (public library) — the immensely influential 1958 book that gave us Arendt on the crucial difference between how art and science illuminate life.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt examines the dual root of speech and action:

Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.

It is useful here to remember that Arendt is living, and therefore writing, nearly half a century before Ursula K. Le Guin unsexed “he” as the universal pronoun — Arendt’s “man,” of course, speaks to and for humanity it is entirety. In fact, she examines the vital complementarity of the universal and the unique. With an eye to the difference between human distinctness and otherness, she writes:

Otherness, it is true, is an important aspect of plurality, the reason why all our definitions are distinctions, why we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else. Otherness in its most abstract form is found only in the sheer multiplication of inorganic objects, whereas all organic life already shows variations and distinctions, even between specimens of the same species. But only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something—thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear. In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.

Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human.

Art by E.B. Lewis from Preaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim — the illustrated story of how civil rights leader John Lewis’s humble childhood shaped his heroic life at the intersection of speech and action

Not only is the interplay of speech and action our supreme mechanism of self-invention and self-reinvention, but, Arendt suggests, in inventing a self we are effectively inventing the world in which we want to live:

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity,…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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