Between the World and Us: Hannah Arendt on Outsiderdom, the Power and Privilege of Being a Pariah, and How We Humanize Each Other
By Maria Popova
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” Carl Jung wrote as he contemplated life and death. And the most astonishing part of it all is just how resourceful we can be in kindling that flame even amid the most oxygen-deprived and suffocating of circumstances — a kind of spiritual survival instinct the vitalizing beauty of which only the oppressed, the marginalized, and the otherwise banished from mainstream society have the painful privilege of knowing.
This painful privilege is what the great German writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) explores in Men in Dark Times (public library) — a 1968 collection of essays that have grown all the more timely and radiant in the half-century since. (The book’s title, it bears pointing with a mixture of lamentation and delight, comes from an era when a great woman was a “he” — a paradox of which Arendt herself, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures, was the epitome.)
A generation after Viktor Frankl penned his timeless treatise on how the darkest of circumstances illuminate the human search for meaning, Arendt writes:
Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth… Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.
From our vantage point as Arendt’s posterity, one thing is certain — her own ideas about freedom and justice and human nature are more blazing than ever. Half a century before Rebecca Solnit’s lucid and luminous case for hope in the dark, Arendt writes:
The world lies between people, and this in-between … is today the object of the greatest concern and the most obvious upheaval in almost all the countries of the globe.
Arendt argues that in dark times — times of injustice, when certain groups are oppressed by certain other groups and personal liberty is imperiled — something magical happens to this in-between space, “a special kind of humanity develops,” a fierce fellowship between and among the oppressed. More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority, she writes:
Humanity manifests itself in such brotherhood most frequently in “dark times.” This kind of humanity actually becomes inevitable when the times become so extremely dark for certain groups of people that it is no longer up to them, their insight or choice, to withdraw from the world. Humanity in the form of fraternity invariably appears historically among persecuted peoples and enslaved groups… This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples; it is the advantage that the pariahs of this world always and in all circumstances can have over others.
Arendt herself, in addition to being a female intellectual in a almost entirely male realm, belongs to one such pariah population — the group of Jews expelled from Germany by Hitler at an early age — and it is from this meeting point of the personal and the political that she adds:
The privilege is dearly bought; it is often accompanied by so radical a loss of the world, so fearful an atrophy of all the organs with which we respond to it — starting with the common sense with which we orient ourselves in a world common to ourselves and others and going on to the sense of beauty, or taste, with which we love the world — that in extreme cases, in which pariahdom has persisted for centuries, we can speak of real worldlessness.
But out of this worldless in-betweenness, Arendt observes, something else is born — a new sort of kindred humanism, which can’t be replicated or manufactured under any other circumstances:
It is as if under the pressure of persecution the persecuted have moved so closely together that the interspace which we have called world (and which of course existed between them before the persecution, keeping them at a distance from one another) has simply disappeared. This produces a warmth of human relationships which may strike those who have had some experience with such groups as an almost physical phenomenon… In its full development it can breed a kindliness and sheer goodness of which human beings are otherwise scarcely capable. Frequently it is also the source of a vitality, a joy in the simple fact of being alive, rather suggesting that life comes fully into its own only among those who are, in worldly terms, the insulted and injured.
But … this kind of humanitarianism, whose purest form is a privilege of the pariah, is not transmissible and cannot be easily acquired by those who do not belong among the pariahs. Neither compassion nor actual sharing of suffering is enough.
There is something larger and more expansive at the heart of the matter, Arendt argues — “the question of selflessness, or rather the question of openness to others, which in fact is the precondition for ‘humanity’ in every sense of that word” — and this openness, in its highest form, is an openness to each other’s joy rather than only each other’s suffering:
It seems evident that sharing joy is absolutely superior in this respect to sharing suffering. Gladness, not sadness, is talkative, and truly human dialogue differs from mere talk or even discussion in that it is entirely permeated by pleasure in the other person and what he says. It is tuned to the key of gladness, we might say. What stands in the way of this gladness is envy, which in the sphere of humanity is the worst vice…
This sharing of gladness, Arendt notes with an eye to Aristotle’s ideas about friendship, is the glue for the most powerful of human bonds:
The ancients thought friends indispensable to human life, indeed that a life without friends was not really worth living. In holding this view they gave little consideration to the idea that we need the help of friends in misfortune; on the contrary, they rather thought that there can be no happiness or good fortune for anyone unless a friend shares in the joy of it. Of course there is something to the maxim that only in misfortune do we find out who our true friends are; but those whom we regard as our true friends without such proof are usually those to whom we unhesitatingly reveal happiness and whom we count on to share our rejoicing.
Humanity is exemplified not in fraternity but in friendship.
Therein lies Arendt’s most salient, most beautiful point — it is in this act of connecting that we create the world:
The world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse. However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows… We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.
Complement the thoroughly invigorating Men in Dark Times with Rebecca Solnit on finding hope amid despair and Albert Camus on how to ennoble our minds in difficult times, then revisit Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, the crucial difference between truth and meaning, our impulse for self-display, and what free will really means.
Published April 12, 2016