The Existential Political Theory of Hannah Arendt
You must live with your knowledge.
Way back beyond, outside of you are others,
In moonless absences you never heard of,
Who have certainly heard of you,
Beings of unknown number and gender;
And they do not like you.
-- W. H. Auden, There Will Be No Peace
T he evolutionary naturalists of the late-nineteenth century had recognized that humanity could not escape its awful responsibility for the future of life on earth. They argued that human destiny was not pre-ordained, but the result of countless individual choices resulting in the evolution of increasingly comprehensive and reliable knowledge and of a variety of religious-ethical systems. It had become somewhat difficult for knowledgeable people to believe that a moral order was embedded in the nature of things. It seemed clear to the turn-of-the-century generation of youth that morality must be a product of the accumulated wisdom of the human group. This meant that better rules than those followed in the past could be derived -- and better principles to guide human choices.
But there was a dark side to this recognition of humanity's role in forging the future of the planet. There would no longer be a place to hide. The new generation of intellectuals had seen the enemy, and the face was all too familiar. Even Huxley, who had great faith in the human species, sometimes despaired at the irresponsibility and violence that was beginning to mark the twentieth century.
Inevitably, the reaction came. What if human beings are incapable of behaving wisely and humanely, in the absence of an unalterable good beyond the universe of nature? What if our vaunted freedom to define morality is not something long present and only now discerned, but, instead, represents an
References for this chapter are on p. 345.