Hannah Arendt, a 20th century German-Jewish political theorists, noted that people reacted with awe and inspiration in a similar way to the same event in 1961 as the space x launch in 2020.
The reason people were so moved by it was that it symbolised humanity growing up. Finally, we had surpassed our adolescence and were beginning to transcend our dependence on mother earth. Soon we would be liberated from the constraints that nature imposes upon us and we would be completely free to shape the environment we inhabit. However, Hannah Arendt was not so optimistic. She believed that the values of our modern-age restricted such an event from fulfilling its inspiring potential. The same modern values have also produced a loss of imagination and stasis.
How is it that between the period of 1903 to 1969, we went from learning to fly to putting a man on the moon, yet over the last 50 years, putting a man on Mars still feels like a distant possibility? Hannah Arendt argued that modernity has withered our esteem for ‘action’ and produced people that merely pursue the empty goal of self-preservation.
Ever since Plato, we have despaired at the uncertainty and turmoil that politics produces and have naively sought to liberate ourselves from it. Arendt does not condone this sentiment. It is natural that we seek to be free from the gloom that arises from our inability to know the future. The reason we make promises with one another and institute laws is to add predictability to the actions of others. But consequently, philosophers throughout history have constructed systems that terminate our need to contemplate politics; some independent body that operates automatically so that we no longer need to constantly return to political affairs.
For Plato, this was the philosopher-king; for Hobbes, it was the leviathan; today it’s the market; and for many climate change activists, its scientists. But what this has done is to undermine the area where people achieve their greatest source of meaning: the public realm – the space where people speak and act to effect political change.
Arendt views action – deeds and speech – as the highest human ability. Firstly, it is what enables us to express who we are. Each individual is more than the sum total of their features – their hair colour, where they were born, their age etc. – they have a unique consciousness, which can only reveal itself by acting and saying what it thinks. What makes you ‘you’ and me ‘me,’ and separate from anybody that has existed and will ever exist, is the distinct combination of words and deeds that you and I have said and done.
Secondly, action is what enables us to provide something eternal to the world, to achieve immortality. Each human life is a story, with a beginning and an end that is characterised by the things an individual has said and done. Our Actions contribute to how we, both as an individual and as an era, will be remembered by others. This provided us with some contentment, knowing that a memory of who we were would surpass our mortal lives. It is an absence of memory that ‘kurtan’ in This country finds so tragic when his father dies. Kurtan’s father had a life defined by isolation, he was only known for being a mechanic, not for anything distinctive that he had said or done.
Action is inherently political. Actions are attempts to alter the way things are. The reason we speak, and act is to modify the environment we inhabit. We express ourselves through speech in order to be understood by others so that they can accommodate their behaviour to our wishes, and we ‘do’ in order to change our position in the world. When individuals act collectively, they do so in order to be understood by wider society and change the way it operates.
The other means of achieving an immortal memory of oneself lifespan is through what Arendt calls ‘work’. Arendt defines work as constructing artefacts that have the durability to surpass one’s life. This could be a diary, some carpentry or jewellery. These can contain the memory of someone because they have constructed an object with their hands, and their hands alone, making it completely unique.
However, modern life, with the reduced capacity for action,has also undermined work. The delegation of the action to an alternative mechanism has meant that humanities agency over what gets made with their hands has diminished. Instead, our hands are controlled by the mechanisms we have delegated action too. For example, under capitalism craftsmen produce objects, not for their use or for any great love of the product, but its capacity to be exchanged for other objects, which is dependent on how much consumer demand there is for it.
Work in modern society is empty because it does not aim for any higher ends. How society is coordinated is dependent purely on economics. Economics became the hegemonic discipline in society because philosophers believed that necessity prevented us from living fulfilling lives. As a result, every action was only deemed useful if it improves our economic position. For example, the utility of Artificial intelligence is measured by the degree to which it improves productivity, the quality of education is measured by the extent to which it is useful for a future job, and one of the biggest genres, self-help, is filled with books on how to improve productivity.
However, if we judge utility solely by its ability to make life easier, we are then trapped in this constant cycle of producing and consuming in order to merely increase our chance of surviving but never making it fulfilling or leaving memories of ourselves. We are repetitively doing tasks in order to survive seeking no higher end. We labour in order to consume and consume in order to labour. Arendt explains that this is why commodities today are not durable; they are not crafted with the intention of self-expression but merely for the function to maintain our own survival.
She believes that this explains the widespread loneliness and alienation that is prevalent in modern life. Life, ultimately, feels empty. Our actions are not guided by our own consciousness but by an autonomous mechanism, rendering us completely incapable of fully expressing ourselves. We live in a world surrounded by objects that are replaceable. Our behaviour is guided solely by the need to survive, not for a higher purpose. The emptiness of modern life derives from the fact that we are living for the sake of living.
This is why space exploration has plateaued over the last half-century. Modern mankind is no longer on the endeavour to transcend its environment, merely operating for its own survival. The supremacy of economics over politics means that space exploration is only useful if it serves the continuation of the system – for example, if it would contribute to economic growth.
When we did space exploration in the 60s, it was not an end in-itself. It was only pursued because it gave America and the USSR status in the cold war. In other words, space exploration was a means to an end. Once the competition of the cold war, sending men to the moon had no utility. Even with SpaceX, space exploration is still not something that humankind is striving for. We are, what Hannah Arendt called, worker animals, trapped in the cycle of work and consumption. Space exploration today is merely the hobby of a billionaire.
The empty feeling in our modern age stems from repetition and its stasis. However, unlike in previous ages, if we got kidnapped by someone and they were driving round in circles, we could take control of the steering wheel and control the destination it was heading. In the modern age, with our desire to liberate ourselves from politics, we have removed the steering wheel and allow the car to control itself. We have been kidnapped. Locked in a car with no idea where it’s heading, and incapable of taking control of it. We are trapped in an economic machine, pursuing growth for growth’s sake, incapable of changing the goals we pursue. It is why environmentalism has had little success – it is attempting to alter the direction of society.
For Arendt, modern society needs to revive the civic republican ideals from antiquity, where politics has the highest standing and where the people can properly discuss what the pursuits of society should be.
Photo credits from top to bottom ©RyoheiNoda ©NASA