When I first read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, I didn’t understand why she made Greek thinking and values a focus of her inquiry. Surely, there are other routes to forgotten ways of thinking in other traditions of humanity.
There are. Ten years ago, I was wondering why we’d choose to return to the Greek tradition for inspiration instead of philosophical ideas from ancient China, India, Africa, or the Americas. But I didn’t yet understand that Arendt herself wasn’t able to do so.
They weren’t her traditions. I mean that in a personal sense – she hadn’t ever really studied them. Her own expertise was rooted in the Western tradition, and that began in Polis Greece. It’s also true in a civilizational sense – Arendt was a European, whose work and thinking grew from the minoritarian place of German Jewish culture (Jewish German culture?).
Leanne Betasamosake-Simpson, and I’m looking eventually to get hold of key Indian and African writers too.
I’m not about to argue that only people from particular traditions have the right to speak about those ideas. No, that would be a very limiting cultural relativism. Presuming that there can be no communication between
But you understand a culture better when you grew up in it. Because you can see all the subtle ways that complicated traditions of thinking impact everyday habits when you see those everyday habits in your everyday life.
Growing up in India, you can better understand how ancient ideas survive and shape cultural presumptions and ideas of modern India. An Anishnaabe will understand how their traditional ideas shape their culture today in the small details of ordinary life. Despite the genocidal destruction that culture has faced for centuries now.
So a European will have a better idea of how foundational cultures of the West continue their influence over everyday thinking of European-descended communities. One of the central influences of Polis Greek thinking at the centre of Arendt’s inquiry in The Human Condition is the yearning for glory.
What is glory? There are plenty of terrible definitions for glory in our society. But Arendt is interested in a peculiarly Greek sense of glory. No, let me rephrase that. A peculiarly Polis sense of glory.
This kind of glory is a matter of remembrance. Polis Greek culture and thought, as Arendt understands it, was focussed on a division of being between the mortal and the immortal – the linear and the cyclical. Nature was immortal in that it moved in cycles. The seasons would repeat just as they always have.*
Each human life, in contrast to nature, was finite. But in that finitude, it was remarkable. Natural bodies like trees, animals, and mountains may be awe-inspiring, but to the Polis Greeks, such bodies didn’t have the singularity of human life. To be mortal was to be unique.
But there was a tragedy to this uniqueness because the unique is mortal. The immortal, the cyclical, consisted of indistinguishable identicals – trees, mountains, animals, all the beings of nature.**
** Again, forget that we now know this to be false, that all beings are unique, that all beings are fundamentally processes – contingent and singular at once. The Polis Greek understanding of mortality and time never understood this because the singularity of existence is a conclusion from several hundred years of modern scientific work.
Yet there was one way to escape this tragedy – engagement in the Polis. The Polis, according to the era’s Greek thinking, was immortal. It was a human creation, but its existence survived the lives of any of the particular people who lived there.
So by engaging in the political life of your Polis, you could distinguish yourself through your remarkable acts. You could be remembered in the histories of your own city-state. That’s the glory at the heart of Polis Greek aspiration – unique acts in the leadership of your community could make some part of you immortal.
You’d live far beyond your death in the memory of your own people. That was the immortal fame for which Greek people strove. It was why they gave up all the wealth they’d acquired and spend it all living in cities leading the people. For the only immortality accessible to mortals.
Of course, as you can tell from my asides this post, things were much more complicated. For one thing, Polises themselves turned out to be quite mortal. The rise of the imperial Macedonian state proved that much.
Now the question of our Greek heritage becomes this – How does our yearning for immortality survive in a mortal world?
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