A Lost World

Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.

Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.

A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.

Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:

… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”

I came across a portion of this paragraph on to separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.

The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.

Dark Times

“I borrow the term [“dark times”] from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns. When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Nothing of this is new.

(Hannah Arendt, Preface to Men in Dark Times)

The Miracle That Saves the World

are-233x300“Hannah Arendt is preeminently the theorist of beginnings,” according to Margaret Canovan in her Introduction to Arendt’s The Human Condition. “Reflections on the human capacity to start something new pervade her thinking,” she adds.

I’ve been thinking about this theme in Arendt’s work, particularly as the old year faded and the new one approached. Arendt spoke of birth and death, natality and morality, as the “most general condition of human existence.” Whereas most Western philosophy had taken its point of departure from the fact of our mortality, Arendt made a point of emphasizing natality, the possibility of new beginnings.

“The most heartening message of The Human Condition,” Canovan writes,

is its reminder of human natality and the miracle of beginning. In sharp contrast to Heidegger’s stress on our mortality, 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.”

This is, indeed, a heartening message. One that we need to take to heart in these our own darkening days. Below are a three key paragraphs in which Arendt develops her understanding of the importance of natality in human affairs.

First, on the centrality of natality to political activity:

[T]he new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought

Natality was a theme that predated the writing of The Human Condition. Here is the closing paragraph of arguably her best known work, after Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written a few years earlier.

“But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–”that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In a well-known passage from The Human Condition, Arendt refers to the fact of natality as the “miracle that saves the world.” By the word world, Arendt does not mean the Earth, rather what we could call, borrowing a phrase from historian Thomas Hughes, the human-built world, what she glosses as “the realm of human affairs.” Here is the whole passage:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

Arendt well understood, however, that not all new beginnings would be good or just or desirable.

If without action and speech, without the articulation of natality, we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recurring cycle of becoming, then without the faculty to undo what we have done and to control at least partially the processes we have let loose, we would be the victims of an automatic necessity bearing all the marks of the inexorable laws which, according to the natural sciences before our time, were supposed to constitute the outstanding characteristic of natural processes.

In fact, Arendt attributes “the frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together” to the “human condition of natality.” However, Arendt believed there were two capacities that channeled and constrained the power of action, the unpredictable force of natality: forgiveness and promise keeping. More on that, perhaps, in a later post.

What Do We Want, Really?

This post was originally published two years ago today. It’s been read more than any other post I’ve written, which is interesting as it has very little to do with technology. In any case, revisiting what I wrote, I decided I needed to hear it now as much as then. Perhaps it will resonate with some of you as well. A Happy New Year to all of you. 


I was in Amish country last week. Several times a day I heard the clip-clop of horse hooves and the whirring of buggy wheels coming down the street and then receding into the distance–a rather soothing Doppler effect. While there, I was reminded of an anecdote about the Amish relayed by a reader in the comments to a recent post:

I once heard David Kline tell of Protestant tourists sight-seeing in an Amish area. An Amishman is brought on the bus and asked how Amish differ from other Christians. First, he explained similarities: all had DNA, wear clothes (even if in different styles), and like to eat good food.

Then the Amishman asked: “How many of you have a TV?”

Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

“How many of you believe your children would be better off without TV?”

Most, if not all, the passengers raised their hands.

“How many of you, knowing this, will get rid of your TV when you go home?”

No hands were raised.

“That’s the difference between the Amish and others,” the man concluded.

I like the Amish. As I’ve said before, the Amish are remarkably tech-savvy. They understand that technologies have consequences, and they are determined to think very hard about how different technologies will affect the life of their communities. Moreover, they are committed to sacrificing the benefits a new technology might bring if they deem the costs too great to bear. This takes courage and resolve. We may not agree with all of the choices made by Amish communities, but it seems to me that we must admire both their resolution to think about what they are doing and their willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to live according to their principles.

Image via Wikicommons
Image via Wikicommons

The Amish are a kind of sign to us, especially as we come upon the start of a new year and consider, again, how we might better live our lives. Let me clarify what I mean by calling the Amish a sign. It is not that their distinctive way of life points the way to the precise path we must all follow. Rather, it is that they remind us of the costs we must be prepared to incur and the resoluteness we must be prepared to demonstrate if we are to live a principled life.

It is perhaps a symptom of our disorder that we seem to believe that all can be made well merely by our making a few better choices along the way. Rarely do we imagine that what might be involved in the realization of our ideals is something more radical and more costly. It is easier for us to pretend that all that is necessary are a few simple tweaks and minor adjustments to how we already conduct our lives, nothing that will makes us too uncomfortable. If and when it becomes impossible to sustain that fiction, we take comfort in fatalism: nothing can ever change, really, and so it is not worth trying to change anything at all.

What is often the case, however, is that we have not been honest with ourselves about what it is that we truly value. Perhaps an example will help. My wife and I frequently discuss what, for lack of a better way of putting it, I’ll call the ethics of eating. I will not claim to have thought very deeply, yet, about all of the related issues, but I can say that we care about what has been involved in getting food to our table. We care about the labor involved, the treatment of animals, and the use of natural resources. We care, as well, about the quality of the food and about the cultural practices of cooking and eating. I realize, of course, that it is rather fashionable to care about such things, and I can only hope that our caring is not merely a matter of fashion. I do not think it is.

But it is another thing altogether for us to consider how much we really care about these things. Acting on principle in this arena is not without its costs. Do we care enough to bear those costs? Do we care enough to invest the time necessary to understand all the relevant complex considerations? Are we prepared to spend more money? Are we willing to sacrifice convenience? And then it hits me that what we are talking about is not simply making a different consumer choice here and there. If we really care about the things we say we care about, then we are talking about changing the way we live our lives.

In cases like this, and they are many, I’m reminded of a paragraph in sociologist James Hunter’s book about varying approaches to moral education in American schools. “We say we want the renewal of character in our day,” Hunter writes,

“but we do not really know what to ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”

You may not agree with Hunter about the matter of moral education, but it is his conclusion that I want you to note: we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.

This strikes me as being a widely applicable diagnosis of our situation. Across so many different domains of our lives, private and public, this dynamic seems to hold. We say we want something, often something very noble and admirable, but in reality we are not prepared to pay the costs required to obtain the thing we say we want. We are not prepared to be inconvenienced. We are not prepared to reorder our lives. We may genuinely desire that noble, admirable thing, whatever it may be; but we want some other, less noble thing more.

At this point, I should probably acknowledge that many of the problems we face as individuals and as a society are not the sort that would be solved by our own individual thoughtfulness and resolve, no matter how heroic. But very few problems, private or public, will be solved without an honest reckoning of the price to be paid and the work to be done.

So what then? I’m presently resisting the temptation to now turn this short post toward some happy resolution, or at least toward some more positive considerations. Doing so would be disingenuous. Mostly, I simply wanted to draw our attention, mine no less than yours, toward the possibly unpleasant work of counting the costs. As we thought about the new year looming before us and contemplated how we might live it better than the last, I wanted us to entertain the possibility that what will be required of us to do so might be nothing less than a fundamental reordering of our lives. At the very least, I wanted to impress upon myself the importance of finding the space to think at length and the courage to act.

Our Digital Idiocy

Few will look fondly upon 2016 as it makes its exit. It greeted us with a spate of high-profile deaths and, with a touch of macabre symmetry, it seems intent on leaving us with the same. Much that went on in between was likewise regrettable and mournful.

When I think back on the year–especially the interminable and demoralizing election cycle, but much else beside–I’m left with one dominant impression: the forces pulling us apart appear stronger than those pulling us together. If this is the case, then there are, I’m certain, multiple and varied causes. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how technology has contributed to this state of affairs.

Let me start with a few observations from Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. Early on, Arendt distinguishes among the private, social, and public spheres. In her argument, the social sphere is chiefly a modern development. The ancient world, the world of the Greeks particularly, knew only the private and the public realm.

“According to Greek thought,” Arendt wrote,

the human capacity for political organization is not only different from but stands in direct opposition to that natural association whose center is the home (oikiri) and the family. The rise of the city-state meant that man received ‘besides his private life a sort of second life, his bios politikos. Now every citizen belongs to two orders of existence; and there is a sharp distinction in his life between what is his own (idion) and what is communal.’ It was not just an opinion or theory of Aristotle but a simple historical fact that the foundation of the polis was preceded by the destruction of all organized units resting on kinship …

Arendt draws our attention to the literal sense of the word private: the private realm was a realm of privation, of lack. It lacked the freedom necessary for political, which is to say public action. The private realm, the realm of the household, was focused on the sustenance of biological life. Important, indeed necessary as this may be, it did not touch what was truly human, what distinguished us from the rest of the animal kingdom:

Of all the activities necessary and present in human communities, only two were deemed to be political and to constitute what Aristotle called the bios politikos, namely action (praxis) and speech (lexis), out of which rises the realm of human affairs (ta ton anthropon pragmata, as Plato used to call it) from which everything merely necessary or useful is strictly excluded.

Importantly, Arendt stressed the contrast between speech and violence: “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis …”

This strikes me as a critical point because it captures the dangers of our moment. The conditions under which politics can be a realm of persuasion rather than violence are always precarious and tenuous. These conditions include, to my mind, a measure of solidarity among citizens and a broadly shared vision of the common good coupled with a commitment to public spirited deliberation and compromise. We might add, as well, a shared epistemic space that establishes the possibility of meaningful debate. There are, then, horizons of plausibility, in large measure related to the viability of public speech, within which a politics of persuasion and deliberation is viable, and we are in danger of losing sight of them altogether.

Aspects of digital culture appear to abet the erosion of this cultural ground that is essential to democratic practice. To see how this is the case, let us return to Arendt. There are many facets of Arendt’s argument that I’m setting aside which might make it difficult to follow her train of thought–particularly her understanding of the realm of the social–but consider the following:

The emergence of society—the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and organizational devices—from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere, has not only blurred the old borderline between private and political, it has also changed almost beyond recognition the meaning of the two terms and their significance for the life of the individual and the citizen. Not only would we not agree with the Greeks that a life spent in the privacy of “one’s own” (idion), outside the world of the common, is “idiotic” by definition, or with the Romans to whom privacy offered but a temporary refuge from the business of the res publica; we call private today a sphere of intimacy whose beginnings we may be able to trace back to late Roman, though hardly to any period of Greek antiquity, but whose peculiar manifoldness and variety were certainly unknown to any period prior to the modern age.

I would paraphrase Arendt’s point this way: the rise of mass society and the remarkable enrichment of private life has overwhelmed the ancient prestige attached to public life. The private sphere is no longer a sphere of privation, rather it is that of which we most fear being deprived. It is the idea of idiocy as a retreat into the private sphere that I want to emphasize. Our digital idiocy as I’m calling it, then, has little to do with the intellect; it has rather to do with how the nexus of habits encouraged by digital culture undermine the public spiritedness essential to a democratic society.

Of course, as is evident even in Arendt’s analysis, the roots of this development long predate the rise of what we might, for convenience sake, call digital culture. I would only suggest that digital culture sinks us deeper into the private realm and further erodes our ability to care about public affairs in a manner that is conducive to democratic practice.

This is the case, in part, because while digital culture appears to cultivate communities that extend beyond the household and the self, they do so by establishing what we might think of as communities of affinity, and they establish these communities through the use of media that seem inadequate to sustain the kind of persuasive speech upon which democratic deliberation depends.

Further, these two tendencies combine to reinforce one another. I naturally band with those who are like me and when I do interact with those who are not like me, I do so in a context that discourages meaningful debate and humanizing encounters. Thus I become more deeply convinced of the purity of my tribe and the reprehensibility of those who are not of my tribe, and my confidence in the promise of debate and deliberation wanes. If such is the case, then politics devolves into the mere seizure of power to secure my private interests with no regard for the interests of others.

We may also note that digital culture is anchored to no particular place, and, insofar as it knows any time at all, it knows only the present. It knows no past, except as a novelty or a commodity, and it knows no future, except as a screen onto which we may project our private fantasies. It renders care for the future grounded in an understanding of the past and care for my place and the people who share it implausible.

The form of solidarity encouraged by digital culture is, as we suggested above, grounded in affinity. But politics is mostly about the possibility of living at peace with those who are not like me. If I can find no common denominator that might bind us together despite our differences, then I will be less inclined to work toward the resolution of public conflicts through speech and deliberation. Mass media at least offered the semblance of solidarity, but it was not grounded in family, creed, culture, or place, the sorts of solidarity that entail obligation and sacrifice. Rather, mass media gave us event solidarity. We shared, and even had the illusion of participating in, events (pseudo-events or hyperreal events, if you like): the moon landing, the JFK assassination, the Challenger disaster, the First Iraq War, 9/11, etc. But event solidarity makes no particular demands upon me and generates no necessary action (9/11 is a questionable case); the chief effect of such events is to constitute my identity. Thus an ostensibly public reality is, in fact, a private affair. Digital culture encourages what I’d call hashtag solidarity, which likewise entails no necessary public obligations or personal sacrifice and further privatizes the participants by augmenting the identity performance aspects of the action.

To the preceding, admittedly rambling discussion we could also add the following, which I’ll only note in passing: the further isolation encouraged by services that promise to eliminate my need, particularly in the suburbs, to go anywhere at all or interact with others who are not my paid proxies. I’m thinking here of Amazon, of course, but also the host of delivery services that will fetch all manner of goods for me. Consider also the devices toward which we may turn our gaze in order to avoid encounters with others when we are forced to exit our private spheres. Or GPS that relieves me even of the occasional need to ask a stranger for directions. Or the myriad entertainment technologies that sink me in simulated worlds. Taken alone, none of these developments amount to much; taken together they perpetuate the sort of idiocy that undermines the possibility of democracy.

I’ll leave you with no solutions, but with this from Adorno and Horkheimer: “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.”