Tag Archives: beginnings

Everybody’s A Beginner

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.

Ask Is A Verb

If you have spent any time in conference rooms or on conference calls, you have no doubt arrived at the moment when someone, usually the person who commands the most authority in the room, articulates “the ask” of the meeting. Or someone will ask, “what is the ask?” and this poor excuse for a question will snap everyone to attention, demonstrating that they regarded most of what went before as inconsequential blather. They were merely awaiting their orders.

Against this slide into jargon – and it’s fair to talk about it as a slide, an intellectually lazy lapse into the jargon of bureaucratic command– it is important to assert: ask is a verb. Why? Because verbs describe and denote action, and asking is a special action – an action that initiates and coordinates new action (on a very basic level, the discussion of the request, the coordination of the actors who will attempt to satisfy the request.) Asking is a way to begin, and beginnings are the prerogative not just of nominal leaders, but of all human beings.

When a designated leader, or anyone, for that matter, talks about “the ask,” they are turning a verb into a noun, an action into a thing – into a command, more precisely, and depriving asking of its native connection to action. They are not interested in beginnings, but in ends, the outcome they already have in mind. At the level of the sentence, “the ask” or “my ask” obscures the basic relationship that the verb “to ask” usually creates between a petitioner (the person doing the asking) and a respondent (the one of whom a thing is asked), and converts that very fragile and mutable relationship, that conversation about the world and what we should do together, into a superior’s control over a subordinate.

When you ask someone to do something you will elicit a response. The response can be a simple yes or no; and the number one rule of asking  — of being a petitioner — is “always take no for an answer.” In other words, be prepared to listen, engage and adapt. Asking someone to do something – as opposed to ordering them to do it – is to initiate an event whose outcome is unpredictable. The request is fraught with possibility, uncertainty, promise. That is because when you ask, you implicitly acknowledge the independence and autonomy of the other – recognizing them as an agent capable of their own beginnings. When you command, you forgo that recognition, and the respect that goes along with it, to remind the other of his subordination, and treat him as an instrument of your will, a means to your own ends.

This little piece of jargon creates a big moral muddle, but sometimes a muddle is exactly what bureaucrats want to create because they are unwilling to assume the responsibility of command, they are averse to risk (beginnings are always risky), or they are just cowardly.  “The ask” preserves hierarchy without acknowledging power relations. It involves phony respect for the other: I am not petitioner asking you, the respondent, to do something; there is an object called “the ask” that we must address. It comes from nowhere, really; its origin is unclear, but our duty is clear.  That request from nowhere or at least nobody also keeps power relations, the status quo, intact. The course is set. Things have already begun; the task now is to complete them. So “the ask” works as a hedge against change, against doing something really new; it short-circuits the conversation, shuts down dialogue, and enlists others not as collaborators but as a pair of hands to get a job done.

I suppose that’s not so surprising in a context where the point is execution of an already-decided objective or plan, not debate; but without debate or deliberation a plan or objective will lack meaning for those asked to carry it out. They won’t have had a chance to figure out for themselves the best way to carry it out, whether they are the right people to carry it out, or whether it ought to be carried out at all.