This passage from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition has come up again and again as I think about asking, action and non-coercive power — or what I’m calling the power of asking — so I thought I’d share it. It’s a little dense, but it repays careful reading.
With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, “to begin,” “to lead,” and eventually “to rule,” indicates), to set something into motion (which is the original meaning of the Latin agere). Because they are initium, newcomers and beginners by virtue of birth, men take initiative, are prompted into action. [Initium] ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nullus fuit (“that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody”), said Augustine in his political philosophy. This beginning is not the same as the beginning of the world; it is not the beginning of something but of somebody, who is a beginner himself. With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before. (pp. 176-177)
Pay close attention to Arendt’s distinction of action from labor and work in the first few sentences. That’s crucial. For Arendt, action is “never conditioned” by “others.” Unlike labor or work, action isn’t something we undertake because it is “forced” upon us by necessity or “prompted” by utility. It is not prescribed, commanded or ordered, nor are its terms to be set down for us by others in the form of rules or requirements. Its “impulse,” for Arendt, springs from within, or rather from that within us which responds to the fact that we are, each of us, a beginning.
You might get the impression from this passage — which places emphasis on initiative and invokes “the principle of freedom” — that acting is something one does, something one can only do, entirely on one’s own. That would be a misreading. There is a difference between autonomy and isolation, and a difference between being free from constraint or necessity and acting freely with others. We are all self-starters but we are also capable of starting things together.
It takes coordinating, and that’s where asking comes in.
One of the things that interests me about asking is that it can prompt action while recognizing and respecting freedom and autonomy. It can be a way of coordinating our actions with those of others, or of entering into league or “company” (the word is Arendt’s) with others — acting together. The power of asking is that it doesn’t set down rules or requirements, or set up a chain of command. It is a different kind of prompt: more like a cue for improvisation than a script to follow.
Asking doesn’t mean we have to do away entirely with all those rules, protocols and titles that structure human society and human institutions, but we also don’t have to take them so seriously and assume they are the primary condition of our lives. They are, at best, secondary agreements.
Leaders — the first to ask, or the first to act — may be primus inter pares, but in this view a leader is always inter pares, among equals. When we ask and when we act we are all on equal footing, and all of us, by the very fact of our birth, by nature, have the capacity to act, to begin, to set things into motion. We are all beginners.
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