When Friedrich Nietzsche announced that “God is dead,” he touched the root of our cultural and political predicament. Along with God, we have also killed justice and truth. We say we value justice – but we choose comfort and efficiency. We claim to respect truth – but we demand a fictional coherence, impossible in an unpredictable world. Equality is our faith – but uniqueness is our religion. What the death of God means is that there are no highest values. Because all values are relative, there is no truth that we as a collectivity hold so dear that we will fight, even die, for it. The chaos of values means, as Samuel Moyn argues in The Last Utopia, that we have lost our faith in political grand narratives. Communism is discredited as totalitarian; capitalism is watered down into a welfare state; democracy is corrupt and unpopular; conservatism is cruel while progressivism is unmoored. The one ideal left is human rights, that human life is sacred so that men and women are to be kept alive, housed, and fed like animals. Such a politics of bare life is hardly a vibrant political aspiration for human flourishing. It is, instead, the lowest common denominator of an emergency politics that has survived the nihilist project.
What is terrifying about nihilism is its silence. Amidst the death of God, the loss of tradition, and the end of political ideals, we are left, Hannah Arendt argues in Between Past and Future, with “the ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not, ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’” We all know what we oppose and fight against: totalitarianism, fascism, racism, sexism, loneliness, and meaninglessness. But we are silent in the face of the challenge: What are we fighting for? The basic experience of being abandoned by religion, authority, and tradition, and left alone with ourselves is one Arendt calls modern loneliness. For the lonely masses today there is a pervasive feeling of meaninglessness. “The despair of loneliness,” Arendt writes in “On the Nature of Totalitarianism,” “is its very dumbness, admitting no dialogue.” To be lonely is to feel abandoned, uprooted, and homeless. It is to experience the world as crushing and others as unreachable. One can be surrounded by people, and yet feel oneself utterly abandoned and disconnected. Arendt considers the challenge of rebuilding a common and meaningful world without an appeal to nostalgic traditions to be part and parcel of revolutionary founding, the spontaneous and free establishment of new, meaningful, and free institutions. In an interview with Adelbert Reif in 1970, she argues that a revolutionary founding demands precisely what is lacking today, “a group of real revolutionaries” who can offer a compelling answer to the question, “what are we fighting for?”
Revolutions happen when the breakdown of a current system becomes so palpable that political and social institutions lose their legitimacy. This creates a revolutionary situation in which power is lying in the streets, ready to be picked up and wielded by those who can articulate values and ideals worth fighting for. And yet, such a revolutionary situation will only become a revolution when revolutionaries can articulate a new common sense, a vision of a shared world that would emerge on the ruins of the old. Absent such a meaningful vision of what holds a people together, no revolution is possible. In The Human Condition, Arendt writes that we must “discover in the secular realm an independent, immanent meaning which even God could not alter.” For Arendt, there is no politics, no common world or public realm without some kind of transcendence. To transcend, which means literally to step over, is, for Arendt, a stepping over from our mortal life- span and into an “earthly immortality.” And it is this transcendence into an immortal world that is at the very heart of what it means to live politically, that is, to live in a public and common world. If the task of politics is to find that which gathers us together as one while also respecting our plurality, Arendt teaches that politics is not possible absent a concern for immortality, which is the condition for transcendence. What politics does is guarantee a common reality by creating the conditions for an impartial space that allows all citizens to be “always concerned with the same object.” What politics requires is a collective space in which speaking and acting citizens relate and engage with one another and, in doing so, they step over their independent selves and into a common world. Politics, thus, depends on transcendence, the emergence of a common sense “that fits into reality as a whole our five strictly individual senses.” Common sense is what discloses the real world and thus allows for a world to exist impartially amongst a plurality of individuals. The standing out in the world that is transcendence means that the common world must endure beyond our personal perspectives and also beyond our mortal life span. To be seen as common to all, it must transcend the interests and life-spans of individuals. The question before us today is how, in the modern age – the age of the death of God and the break of the tradition – we can strive for an immortal world that would be worthy of preservation. This striving for immortality, Arendt argues, is the task of politics.
A revolutionary politics must answer the question “what we are fighting for?” with an account of meaningfulness that strives for immortality. Immortality is meaningful because as mortal beings whose death is a final end, the problem for mankind is: What is the meaning of human life? After we die, why does our having lived matter? Why should we suffer through the outrageous fortunes of a painful existence if it is all for naught? How are we to guarantee meaning to the limited life of mortal beings?
These are the sorts of questions for which religions have traditionally provided answers. What is needed in the post-religious and post-metaphysical age, Arendt argues, is “to discover in the secular realm an independent, immanent meaning which even God could not alter.” If religion is one way of making human life meaningful as a creation of God and as part of an ethical whole, then politics, for Arendt, is another way of binding man to a meaningfully transcendent whole. What distinguishes humans in their humanity is the capacity to act meaningfully and thus to achieve a certain immortality.
Amidst the death of God, there is a need to replace the transcendent meaning given by religion with an immanent meaning that emerges through the activity of politics, the speaking and acting together around a common world. The way to build a meaningful, transcendent, and immortal world is through the human capacity to speak and act. Arendt holds a fundamental belief in the power of talking. She writes: “We become more just and more pious by thinking and talking about justice and piety.” But why is this so?
First, in talking about the world, we make the world visible in its complexity. The world contains a plurality of opinions, an infinity of facts, and an unpredictability of actions. Arendt likes to cite the 19th century French politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to make her point that the human drive to master the world falters: “The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the statesman’s prudence.” We confront a world that defies rational deduction. Second, in talking about the world, we also make judgments and decisions about the world. Those decisions, Arendt admits, “may one day prove wholly inadequate.” But even absent agreements on the nature of a crisis and how to solve it, the act of speaking with one another about the crises of our times
will, she argues, “eventually lay the groundwork for new agreements between ourselves as well as between the nations of the earth, which then might become customs, rules, [and] standards that again will be frozen into what is called morality.” In talking with one another we create the kinds of shared experiences and common points of connections that might, over time, become the building blocks of a new shared world that can give birth to new traditions and thus a new moral order.
This potential rebirth of a new common ethical world is not only possible, but likely. It depends, however, on the courage to speak honestly and openly with one another absent ideological rigidity. If and when we do, we will come to understand what we share and where we disagree. If and when we do open such a common world, we will begin the process of bringing that world into existence. That is the source of Arendt’s optimism: “I personally do not doubt that from the turmoil of being confronted with reality without the help of precedent, that is, of tradition and authority, there will finally arise some new code of conduct.” The only way to engage the crisis of values constructively is to confront the reality and talk honestly about it with others. Roger Berkowitz (Bard College) is Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, as well as Professor of Politics, Human Rights, and Philosophy. He is the author or editor of several books, including Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics (2009), The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis (2012), and Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s ‘Denktagebuch’ (2017). At the center of his diverse interests is the question of what it means to be just in our world. Learn more at vernunft.org and reach him on Twitter @Roger_Berkowitz.
From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 2 ('Questioning Power').