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The New and Constant Gardener

I spent the afternoon gardening. Last Monday it snowed, so this might have been foolish. But it’s almost the end of April, and I just decided I would act like it was Spring, whether the weather thought so or not. It was a nice day for it. Cloudy at first and then the sun came out. Last fall, I raked leaves into the flower beds, so this spring I raked some up and tried to turn some of the beds over to keep the nutrients from the leaves. I bought flowers and planted some in the ground and put others in pots and put them along the porch steps. I put some new plants in the garden bed in the back and spent some good time with my hands in the dirt.

I feel satisfied. But I’m wary. Last year I also planted things. Some plants returned. Others did not. I brought a bunch of plants into the house through the winter and was happy that most of them made it, but my hanging plants especially made it outside in the sun in the nick of time. Planting, I was thinking, requires hope.

I’ve been teaching a seminar on Hannah Arendt this semester. Much of the class has been working through her Life of the Mind treatment of the faculties of the mind, first of thinking, then of willing, and now, judging. The judging part didn’t make it into Life of the Mind, but she indicated she had plans for such a section and a seminar she gave on Kant’s political philosophy that focuses on how judgment is a political project, edited by Ronald Beiner, was published in 1982, soon after her death. In the first volume on “Thinking,” Arendt describes the project of thinking as a dialogue with oneself, a dialogue that she describes as one between an actor and spectator. In the second volume on “Willing,” she suggests that the will is what we call the faculty that begins something new. She spends considerable time addressing the critiques of the will in the history of philosophy and the ways that the will is saved by some thinkers only to have very little latitude or effect on human life, as when Epictetus counsels to will only that which you can control, which is to say, well, very little. And Nietzsche makes of the will the capacity to reaffirm what one might have regretted of the past in a way that serves to overcome the regret, if not the past. Arendt concludes by describing the will as that which allows for a new order, but she does not dismiss the great difficulty if the impossibility of a world in which chains of causes determine what is to follow. The will is what we call the specifically human capacity to break the chain. For something that was not expected, not determined by a previous series of events to occur, that is to say, for human beings to act.

In The Human Condition, Arendt speaks of action as both the distinct human capacity to make new beginnings and as the disruptive threat to what exists. The polis is instituted so that human beings together might have ways of both remembering and containing the newness of the action. In the Kant lectures, Arendt returns to this point when she discusses the work of judgment. As she maintains in The Human Condition, action requires a plurality because we need others to testify to the meaning of the action. Each of us might be able to think about what we should do, following Kant’s categorical imperative in which we ask ourselves whether the action we undertake could be willed universally. This kind of thinking accounts for those situations in which there are no rules prescribing what we ought to do, only that we not make an exception of ourselves. Once we act, however, we cannot determine ourselves what the meaning of the action is. We need others to tell us what it means. As Arendt says in the Kant lectures, the actor is a part of the action and as a part is partial to the action and so cannot judge the full meaning and import of the action. That is the job of the spectators.

The robin’s nest is in the eave in the center of the photograph.

Interestingly, this work of the spectator shows that the kind of thinking associated with the action, which looks a lot like judgment that occurs before we act in an effort to determine whether we should act and how, is different from the judgment of the spectator. Arendt notes that Kant recognizes that according to the categorical imperative, one could never rightly judge that she should rebel. And yet, the French Revolution must be judged by the disinterested spectator to have been a world-historical event. That is to say, the task of the spectator is to judge whether the action has indeed brought about something new, not to judge the morality of the action. The French Revolution broke from the previous chain of causes that assumed the right of kings, however justified, was unassailable. The French Revolution made even monarchs realize that this was no longer the case. The French Revolution showed that something new was possible. As Arendt explains, it made hope possible.

If everything is only ever following the chain of events that went before, then nothing new can occur. The spectator testifies to the new. Something has changed. We are in a new order. That action that was done did indeed disrupt what went before. I think of that line from The Twin Towers, the second volume of The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf shows up with the Riders of Rohan while the men and elves are losing the battle at Helms Deep, and they remember he said, Look to the east on the morning of the third day.

The action, the event, the new. Arendt following Kant suggests that the spectator as much as the actor makes the world new by affirming, indeed, things are otherwise than before this moment, this action, this event. And by acting in response to the spectators’ testimony that we all see that things are indeed different, we further testify to the truth of this position. I think Badiou is suggesting something similar when he describes the political subject as fidelity to the event that affirms the universality of political life. By treating this as the new time, it becomes so.

Gardening seems to capture this in miniature. I so quickly come to expect that the eternal causal chain is winter. Things are dead and they stay dead. I also expect that the eternal causal chain is that I kill plants. The new garden is the disruption to these chains. Flowers bloom. The baby robins hatched in the nest on the back porch. Mushrooms grew out of the mulch. Something has happened. Now I just need you to all come over and judge that this is in fact the case.

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