Arendt on Human Life on the Occasion of My Birthday
I’m teaching an Arendt seminar this semester and well, this is all happening, so I’ve been thinking a lot (see here) about what it means to be natural living beings and what it means to treat those beings as human. I have no interest in weighing in on the Agamben public statements, but I do think that he is thinking about the Arendtian question of the dangers of reducing human life to mere questions of survival and living. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, “There are more important things than living,” and the thing is, he isn’t wrong. Aristotle suggests that some acts we should be unwilling to do even in the face of death (EN 1110a25-26). What Patrick is wrong about is what those things are. He thinks that workers should be willing to die for the economy, ie., the production of wealth for others.
But maybe what is worse than death is reducing the other to biological life who is here only for the production of increased life of others, or who as biological life is expendable. My husband and I have been having a long-running debate about cannibalism. My initial response to it is that I don’t really have a problem with the idea that in dire straits, one might have to eat another human. He keeps insisting that there are some things worse than death, and that we should be willing to die for the idea of the dignity of the human. This flusters me and makes me worry that I’m more invested in living than dignity. But I have watched his concern about the loss of the chance to mourn the dead that seems to be really happening in New York and around the world. And I’m reminded how fragile is the line between treating other life as for us and treating it as for itself. The line depends on the treating.
Arendt is concerned that the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin succeeded by reducing citizens to mere human beings with no further dignities or rights to protect them. In her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy she raises concerns about thinking of the human as part of the human species and not as an individual actor. If Kant’s moral philosophy insists on the human agent as an end in herself, his political philosophy, as Arendt reconstructs it, sees progress as a measure of the development of the human as a species. Progress does not see the individual, but measures events in terms of what they mean for humanity as a whole. To this, Arendt writes, “It is against human dignity to believe in progress.” On the one hand, Arendt’s account of the human as the natural laboring being shows how the human as merely reproducing human life is in the service of the species. On the other hand, the human as acting in a way breaks with cyclical time of natural life and allows for historical events and meaningful events in time also acts for the species. Between these ends is the human among other human beings acting in a way that distinguishes her. To insist on the human being for history — which Arendt thinks is the great error of the 20th-century totalitarians is just as bad as to reduce the human to nature. To demand that the human help the economy develop would seem to be positioned on both sides of this error.
I keep thinking that we are all now focusing on natural life, and I’m worried about how even that focus points to the politics of how we decide that some lives matter and other lives do not, as the coronavirus’ outsized impact on Black communities highlights. Of course, there is always a politics to natural life. I think this is why Arendt thinks the story matters so much and why knowing the stories of folks who are not like you singularizes them to show them to be a life with dignity in ways that statistics still reduces to the natural species. The politics of natural life would be well-served by recognizing how those who take their humanity for granted do so because others treat them as singular beings and not just natural life.
All of this to say, today is my birthday. It occurred to me this morning that in the time of coronavirus, celebrating birthdays is a way of acknowledging the dignity of the human being. Like, it didn’t just occur to me, it struck me like a punch in the gut. I am making decisions now in order to keep living as many other people are. My life in these times sometimes feels like there is no moving forward just staying alive. I know that it is a certain privilege that has made that concern with staying alive a rare one for me. It seems clear that we can easily become just natural living things. The thin line between just living and having dignity sometimes comes in celebrating birthdays just as it does in mourning at funerals. It struck me that we depend for our dignity on people saying, your birth was not just as another member of the species. So thanks for the birthday wishes.