Arendt and Action

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Arendt’s account of the human condition reminds us that human beings are creatures who act in the sense of starting things and setting off trains of events. This is something we go on doing whether we understand the implications or not, with the result that both the human world and the earth itself have been devastated by our self-inflicted catastrophes

Arendt argues that faith and hope in human affairs come from the fact that new people are continually coming into the world, each of them unique, each capable of new initiatives that may interrupt or divert the chains of events set in motion by previous actions. She speaks of action as “the one miracle-working faculty of man” (p. 246), pointing out that in human affairs it is actually quite reasonable to expect the unexpected, and that new beginnings cannot be ruled out even when society seems locked in stagnation or set on an inexorable course.

For the other side of that miraculous unpredictability of action is lack of control over its effects. Action sets things in motion, and one cannot foresee even the effects of one’s own initiatives, let alone control what happens when they are entangled with other people’s initiatives in the public arena.

Action is therefore deeply frustrating, for its results can turn out to be quite different from what the actor intended.

 

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