Trigger warnings: death, persecution, suicide

The image portrays a grounded, realistic scene within that visually interprets the concept of natality, inspired by Hannah Arendt. It depicts a community gathering in a park or natural setting, actively participating in planting trees and caring for a garden. This setting symbolizes the principle of natality through the act of nurturing new life and the collaborative effort to foster growth and renewal. The scene embodies the essence of natality as the capacity for continuous human existence, highlighting practical actions that contribute to the creation of a hopeful future.

Over on my personal blog I wrote that, given the depth of the climate emergency,‘hope’ is the wrong thing to be focusing upon. Will Richardson left a comment which pointed me towards this article by Samantha Rose Hill, a biographer of Hannah Arendt, for Aeon.

Arendt was a German-American historian and philosopher who escaped the Nazis. This article is about Arendt’s rejection in her work of the concept of ‘hope’ as being a lot less useful than action. Before getting to Arendt’s thoughts, I just want to share this quotation that is included in the article from Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish poet who wrote about the ways in which hope was used to destroy Jewish humanity. Borowski wrote the following lines while reflecting on his imprisonment in Auschwitz. He killed himself soon afterwards:

Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.

Arendt suggests that hope is part of a desire for a happy ending, not based on the facts around us, but rather wishful thinking:

Many discussions of hope veer toward the saccharine, and speak to a desire for catharsis. Even the most jaded observers of world affairs can find it difficult not to catch their breath at the moment of suspense, hoping for good to triumph over evil and deliver a happy ending. For some, discussions of hope are attached to notions of a radical political vision for the future, while for others hope is a political slogan used to motivate the masses. Some people uphold hope as a form of liberal faith in progress, while for others still hope expresses faith in God and life after death.

Arendt breaks with these narratives. Throughout much of her work, she argues that hope is a dangerous barrier to acting courageously in dark times. She rejects notions of progress, she is despairing of representative democracy, and she is not confident that freedom can be saved in the modern world. She does not even believe in the soul, as she writes in one love letter to her husband. The political theorist George Kateb once remarked that her work is ‘offensive to a democratic soul’. When she was awarded an honorary degree at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1966, the president said: ‘Your writings challenge the mind, disturb the conscience, and depress the spirit of your readers; yet out of your wisdom and firm belief in mankind’s inner strength comes a sure hope.’

I’ve been listening to Ep.28 (‘Superhumanly Inhuman’) of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Addendum which is about the Holocaust. It’s absolutely awful listening, but important stuff to know about. The article continues by talking about this dark period for Jewish and world history:

It was holding on to hope, Arendt argued, that rendered so many helpless. It was hope that destroyed humanity by turning people away from the world in front of them. It was hope that prevented people from acting courageously in dark times.

Caught between fear and ‘feverish hope’, the inmates in the ghetto were paralysed. The truth of ‘resettlement’ and the world’s silence led to a kind of fatalism. Only when they gave up hope and let go of fear, Arendt argues, did they realise that ‘armed resistance was the only moral and political way out’.

Instead, Arendt coined a new term: natality which celebrates the miracle of birth and continued human existence:

An uncommon word, and certainly more feminine and clunkier-sounding than hope, natality possesses the ability to save humanity. Whereas hope is a passive desire for some future outcome, the faculty of action is ontologically rooted in the fact of natality. Breaking with the tradition of Western political thought, which centred death and mortality from Plato’s Republic through to Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Arendt turns towards new beginnings, not to make any metaphysical argument about the nature of being, but in order to save the principle of humanity itself. Natality is the condition for continued human existence, it is the miracle of birth, it is the new beginning inherent in each birth that makes action possible, it is spontaneous and it is unpredictable. Natality means we always have the ability to break with the current situation and begin something new. But what that is cannot be said.

Hill, the author of the Aeon article, argues that:

Conceptually, natality can be understood as the flipside of hope:

  • Hope is dehumanising because it turns people away from this world.
  • Hope is a desire for some predetermined future outcome.
  • Hope takes us out of the present moment.
  • Hope is passive.
  • Hope exists alongside evil.
  • Natality is the principle of humanity.
  • Natality is the promise of new beginnings.
  • Natality is present in the Now.
  • Natality is the root of action.
  • Natality is the miracle of birth.

What I love about this approach is that, as the article says, it’s kind of a “secular article of faith,” placing the responsibility for action firmly in our hands. Hope is, to some degree, the wish to be told soothing stories by a authoritative figure. It’s time for us to grow up.

Source: Aeon

Image: DALL-E 3