Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Arendt,  The Human Condition, 1-3, Eternity Versus Immortality

That the various modes of active engagement in the things of this world, on one side, and pure thought culminating in contemplation, on the other, might correspond to two altogether different central human concerns has in one way or another been manifest ever since "the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths,"16 that is, since the rise of political thought in the Socratic school. However, when the philosophers discovered—and it is probable, though improvable, that this discovery was made by Socrates himself—that the political realm did not as a matter of course provide for all of man's higher activities, they assumed at once, not that they had found something different in addition to what was already known, but that they had found a higher principle to replace the principle that ruled the polis. The shortest, albeit somewhat superficial, way to indicate these two different and to an extent even conflicting principles is to recall the distinction between immortality and eternity.

Immortality means endurance in time, deathless life on this earth and in this world as it was given, according to Greek understanding, to nature and the Olympian gods. Against this background of nature's ever-recurring life and the gods' deathless and ageless lives stood mortal men, the only mortals in an immortal but not eternal universe, confronted with the immortal lives of their gods but not under the rule of an eternal God. If we trust Herodotus, the difference between the two seems to have been striking to Greek self-understanding prior to the conceptual articulation of the philosophers, and therefore prior to the specifically Greek experiences of the eternal which underlie this articulation. Herodotus, discussing Asiatic forms of worship and beliefs in an invisible God, mentions explicitly that compared with this transcendent God (as we would say today) who is beyond time and life and the universe, the Greek gods are anthropōphyeis, have the same nature, not simply the same shape, as man.17 The Greeks' con- cern with immortality grew out of their experience of an immortal nature and immortal gods which together surrounded the individual lives of mortal men. Imbedded in a cosmos where everything was immortal, mortality became the hallmark of human existence. Men are "the mortals," the only mortal things in existence, because unlike animals they do not exist only as members of a species whose immortal life is guaranteed through procreation.18 The mortality of men lies in the fact that individual life, with a recognizable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movement of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.

The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things—works and deeds and words19— which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves. By their capacity for the immortal deed, by their ability to leave non-perishable traces behind, men, their individual mortality notwithstanding, attain an immortality of their own and prove themselves to be of a "divine" nature. The distinction between man and animal runs right through the human species itself: only the best (aristoi), who constantly prove themselves to be the best (aristeuein, a verb for which there is no equivalent in any other language) and who "prefer immortal fame to mortal things," are really hu- man; the others, content with whatever pleasures nature will yield them, live and die like animals. This was still the opinion of Heraclitus,20 an opinion whose equivalent one will find in hardly any philosopher after Socrates.

In our context it is of no great importance whether Socrates himself or Plato discovered the eternal as the true center of strictly metaphysical thought. It weighs heavily in favor of Socrates that he alone among the great thinkers—unique in this as in many other respects—never cared to write down his thoughts; for it is obvious that, no matter how concerned a thinker may be with eternity, the moment he sits down to write his thoughts he ceases to be concerned primarily with eternity and shifts his attention to leaving some trace of them. He has entered the vita activa and chosen its way of permanence and potential immortality. One thing is certain: it is only in Plato that concern with the eternal and the life of the philosopher are seen as inherently contradictory and in conflict with the striving for immortality, the way of life of the citizen, the bios politikos.

The philosopher's experience of the eternal, which to Plato was arrhēton ("unspeakable"), and to Aristotle aneu logon ("without word"), and which later was conceptualized in the paradoxical nunc stans ("the standing now"), can occur only outside the realm of human affairs and outside the plurality of men, as we know from the Cave parable in Plato's Republic, where the philosopher, having liberated himself from the fetters that bound him to his fellow men, leaves the cave in perfect "singularity," as it were, neither accompanied nor followed by others. Politically speaking, if to die is the same as "to cease to be among men," experience of the eternal is a kind of death, and the only thing that separates it from real death is that it is not final because no living creature can endure it for any length of time. And this is precisely what separates the vita contemplativa from the vita activa in medieval thought.21 Yet it is decisive that the experience of the eternal, in contradistinction to that of the immortal, has no correspondence with and cannot be transformed into any activity whatsoever, since even the activity of thought, which goes on within one's self by means of words, is obviously not only inadequate to render it but would interrupt and ruin the experience itself.

Theōria, or "contemplation," is the word given to the experience of the eternal, as distinguished from all other attitudes, which at most may pertain to immortality. It may be that the philosophers' discovery of the eternal was helped by their very justified doubt of the chances of the polis for immortality or even permanence, and it may be that the shock of this discovery was so overwhelming that they could not but look down upon all striving for immortality as vanity and vainglory, certainly placing themselves thereby into open opposition to the ancient city-state and the religion which in- spired it. However, the eventual victory of the concern with eternity over all kinds of aspirations toward immortality is not due to philosophic thought. The fall of the Roman Empire plainly demonstrated that no work of mortal hands can be immortal, and it was accompanied by the rise of the Christian gospel of an ever- lasting individual life to its position as the exclusive religion of Western mankind. Both together made any striving for an earthly immortality futile and unnecessary. And they succeeded so well in making the vita activa and the bios politikos the handmaidens of contemplation that not even the rise of the secular in the modern age and the concomitant reversal of the traditional hierarchy be- tween action and contemplation sufficed to save from oblivion the striving for immortality which originally had been the spring and center of the vita activa.

16. See F. M. Cornford, "Plato's Commonwealth," in Unwritten Philosophy (1950), p. 54: "The death of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War mark the mo- ment when the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths, destined to diverge more and more widely till the Stoic sage ceased to be a citizen of his own country and became a citizen of the universe."

[Cornford, "Plato's Commonwealth," JSTOR

Callicles, in his spirited exhortation to Socrates to give up philosophy and play a man's part in active life, quotes, from the Antiope of Euripides, a famous debate between the Theban brothers, Zethus and Amphion, on this same contrast. Zethus urges Amphion, who had 'built the walls of Thebes with ravishing sound of his melodious lute‘, to give up the effeminate and unprofitable service of the Muse and take to agriculture, war, and politics. It is significant that this contrast between the active life and the contemplative should occur in a play of Euripides. Long ago, in the sixth century, the wise man had been the man of affairs, like Solon the lawgiver and others of the Seven Sages. The death of Pericles and the Peloponnesian War mark the moment when the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths, destined to diverge more and more widely till the Stoic sage ceased to be a citizen of his own country and became a citizen of the universe. Pericles had been the last philosophic statesman.]

17. Herodotus (i. 131), after reporting that the Persians have "no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, but consider these doings to be foolish," goes on to explain that this shows that they "do not believe, as the Greeks do, that the gods are anthropophyeis, of human nature," or, we may add, that gods and men have the same nature. See also Pindar Carmina Nemaea vi.

18. See Ps. Aristotle Economics 1343b24: Nature guarantees to the species their being forever through recurrence (periodos), but cannot guarantee such being forever to the individual. The same thought, "For living things, life is being," appears in On the Soul 415bl3.

19. The Greek language does not distinguish between "works" and "deeds," but calls both erga if they are durable enough to last and great enough to be re- membered. It is only when the philosophers, or rather the Sophists, began to draw their "endless distinctions" and to distinguish between making and acting (poiein and prattein) that the nouns poiemata and pragmata received wider currency (see Plato's Charmides 163). Homer does not yet know the word pragmata, which in Plato (ta ton anthropon pragmata) is best rendered by "human affairs" and has the connotations of trouble and futility. In Herodotus pragmata can have the same connotation (cf., for instance, i. 155).

20. Heraclitus, frag. B29 (Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [4th ed.; 1922]).

21. In vita activa fixi permanere possumus; in contemplativa autem intenta mente manere nullo modo valemus (Aquinas Summa theologica ii. 2. 181.4)

[Aquinas: Obj. 3: Further, the more lasting a thing is in itself, the more is it able to endure after this life. But the active life is seemingly more lasting in itself: for Gregory says (Hom. v in Ezech.) that we can remain fixed in the active life, whereas we are nowise able to maintain an attentive mind in the contemplative life. Therefore the active life is much more able than the contemplative to endure after this life.]

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