There are many events which stand at the
threshold of what can be termed the Modern Age, but several in particular stood
out in significance for Hannah Arendt. One of these was the conclusion of the
process of exploration. We no longer live in a world which is in the process of
being mapped – that task is now concluded. She also notes: “precisely when the
immensity of available space on earth was discovered, the famous shrinkage of
the globe began.” Arendt did not live to see the onset of the internet, which
has driven the “small world” idea even further than she might have imagined.
Along with this process has occurred a crisis of world alienation – it
is as if the more we understand of the world as a whole, the more focussed we
have become on ourselves.
One consequence of this is the extension of prosperity and depression into world-wide phenomena. From the perspective of the West, we like to fool ourselves into believing that we have eliminated the “labouring poor”, the lower classes who used to drive the economy. On closer examination, we find that even where this claim can be validated we have simply moved the impoverished lower strata out of our own nations and onto the world stage. The prosperity of the great Western nations is in part supported on the back of the poverty of third world nations, who effectively provide slave labour to support Western prosperity.
Along with world alienation, another event
(or sequence of events) is noted by Arendt of particular relevance – the
discovery of the Archimedian point. Archimedes had said “Give me a lever long
enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Little
did he suspect that such a point could be reached though the development of
scientific knowledge! Beginning (Arendt argues) with Galileo’s telescope which
delivered to human cognition “the secrets of the universe”, humanity entered
into a new era where what had previously served as the model for reality fell
away to be replaced by Cartesian doubt, the “school of suspicion”, as Nietzsche
Modern physics allows us to tap into forces which lie beyond our natural capacities – we can unleash the energy of the sun, initiate in a test tube the processes of cosmic evolution, and obtain velocities in particle accelerators which approach the speed of light. We may not be able to stand on Archimedes' point, as we are “still bound to the earth through the human condition”, but we have found a way to act on the earth “as though we dispose of it from outside… even at the risk of endangering the natural life process…” This earth alienation has become the hallmark of modern science in Arendt’s view.
Along with this has come changes to humanity's chosen priorities. Whereas once contemplation was seen as the highest human endeavour, the dawn of the modern age came with the rise of homo faber – with the onset of industrialisation, the new scientific mindset and the resultant instrumentalisation of the world. Before long, instead of focusing on what was being fabricated, humanity was instead creating processes to deliver consumables. Almost as soon as homo faber had risen to prominence, the position was abdicated to the animal laborans. This happened through many factors – the rise of the consumer society, indeed, the rise of the notion of society at all, since society demands of people that they abdicate their responsibility to the State as their natural caretaker.
One peculiar aspect of this transformation are the ideologies attached to scientific research into evolution. Rather
than confirming the uniqueness of humanity, scientific study into our origins
(and ideological inventions that emerged from that study) concluded by viewing
humans as simply animals. Viewed from this perspective, the achievements of
fabrication and contemplation were perceived as mere consequences of the life
process. Arendt provides an image by which to consider this: “
This reduction of the stature of mankind to a perspective of mere animal nature (and since, into the perverse and largely misleading perspective of humanity as the puppet to genetics) eroded and destroyed the capacity for speech and action, and the dignity of fabrication, while simultaneously elevating the stature of the life process, and hence the importance of labour. Again, Arendt sees the consumer society as a labouring society; all other considerations have somehow become lost. In this new world, ironically only the scientists seem to be able to act in concert – yet do so in isolation from the rest of the world that they live within. The action of scientists, working as it does from the standpoint of the universe and not from the standpoint of humanity, achieve action but fail to maintain the public space wherein speech and action can be allowed to work, and thus guide the action taken.
Yet this outcome is by no means inevitable,
at least as long as we can cling to the conditions of political freedom that
make thought possible. The future of mankind depends on our capacity to
exercise this thought, to use it as the foundation for speech, by which to
determine the action we should take. Rather than abdicate the process of
politics to the family-surrogate of society which is alleged to behave in our
best interests, Arendt suggests we should wield our capacity for thought to recreate the public
sphere, within which the true political process of speech and action between
people can emerge. By so doing, we can regain control of our world, and perhaps
undo the damage caused by the earth and world alienation which, in Arendt's view, have so
characterised the age within which we live.
A new serial begins in December.