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An original and startling book
on 1 November 2001
_The Human Condition_ (hereafter HC) is a strange and rare exmaple of political and social theory. Standing outside the mainstream of academic discourses, it has an unusual structure and pays scant regard to conventional modes of argument. As Margaret Canovan tells us, in her excellent, succinct introduction, Arendt ignored mainstream debates and ploughed through the quagmire of philosophy and culture in order to present her own highly original and deep conclusions.
HC is a vast and deep work that has many complex themes and lines of argument which seem to weave in and out of each other, sometimes slowly and obviously; more often than not sharply and seemingly without reason. As a result, one contention of hers, that humans have the great and miraculous capacity for the unexpected, is all the more convincing. Arendt in this book has thrown a lot at us, too much to consider after one reading. This is a book I will have to read again, and I daresay again and again.
Most obviously HC is concerned with the rise of technology and the Weberian/Frankfurt School theme of technological/rational domination, and with the more vicious and madly rampaging consumer economy, a capitalist system out of control. The book laments the loss of public glory and action, and stresses that human beings have seemingly surrendered themselves to forces and processes they cannot control, particulrly with regrd to modern science. (Reflection on the current and ongoing ecological uncertainty we face might seem to confirm this.)
Arendt is most famous for her celebration of political action and public-spiritedness, and looks to the ancient Greek polis as a from of participatory democracy. It is a heartening message in our times where 'democracy' is manipulated and politics is more market-driven than ever. But she is not utopian, and strongly criticises those who seek to find an ultimate harmony among human beings that does not exist. Human affairs are fragile: humans are plural and mortal, they can set off processes beyond their control and events have unintended consequences (she cites the Reformation and the rise of capitalist soicety - I would add Plague to that, too). History is almost a series of accidents.
My tradition is mostly within the Hegel-Marx school of philosophy, one which comes in for some great criticism by Arendt. Ultimately Hegel and Marx see in history a kind of progress toward an ultimate goal, so that everyone is a mouth-piece of the Zeitgeist. They do not recognise the contingency or frailty of human affairs, their capacity to do the unexpected.