homage to Hannah Arendt at The New School

In New York City–At 6 pm today, I will speak at The New School on a panel entitled “Civic Engagement and Higher Education in the United States: What Do College Students Gain From Civic Engagement Experiences?” My co-panelist is my friend and collaborator Connie Flanagan from University of Wisconsin. Admission is open to the public and free.

The New School was where Hannah Arendt taught from 1967 (when I was born) to her death in 1975, and her concept of “natality” is fundamental to the whole issue of youth and politics.

We often give pragmatic or utilitarian arguments for engaging young people. For example: (1) Teenagers perform much better in school when they are attached to communities. (2) If we seek an equitable political system in the future, we need to intervene with our youth today, to give them all the skills and motivations to participate. (3) Today’s young generation already has praiseworthy values and talents that will help them to reform the society that we older people have messed up.

These are valid reasons, but Arendt gave deeper ones. Her teacher Martin Heidegger had seen mortality, the inevitable movement toward death, as the fundamental metaphysical fact. In politics, he had been a Nazi. Without naming him, Arendt replied to him in The Human Condition (p. 9): “Since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, not mortality, must be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical thought.”

This was the response of a little-“d” democrat, someone who believed that we should create the world freely but together. She derived this commitment from the fact that human beings are constantly being born, thus renewing the world and making its future basically unpredictable and up to us. Racism, to name just one example, is not written in nature but is produced by people, and the new people who arrive on earth every few seconds do not have to reproduce it. Later in the same book, Arendt elaborates:

    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.’

I have written elsewhere about hope and loyalty as cardinal intellectual virtues. (See also this post on loyalty in academia.) Arendt was right–I believe–that our highest calling is to love the world. To love the world is to remake it in each generation with our contemporaries, which is “politics.” We count on the newly born to replenish our efforts, and we owe them the virtues of hope and loyalty. We owe them, in short, a genuine welcome to the political world.