I was going to write about something completely different this week. Then I saw the news headline that a van had plowed through a mile of sidewalk in Toronto, killing nearly a dozen people and injuring dozens of others. It suddenly felt wrong to continue with the work I had been doing, and it felt right to meditate on the meaning and the causes of what had just happened.

That profound sense of wrongness was itself worth thinking about. Here I am in London, England, staring out my window at another wet spring morning. When, last year, a van plowed into pedestrians on London Bridge, or when a car plowed through pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament, or when a truck drove through a Berlin Christmas market, or through a crowd of tourists in Nice, I read the headlines, I expressed appropriate sympathy, and then I went on about my business.

Johnathan Sacks said that, “The universality of moral concern is not something we learn by being universal but by being particular.” It’s when violence shatters the lives of my fellow Canadians that I am deeply touched by the inhumanity of the act. I understand these words better, now.

To reach some deeper insights into what happened in Toronto, and into similar events in the past and yet to come, I picked up The Human Condition (1958), by Hannah Arendt. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the biggest political thinkers of the 20th century. From her first major book in the 1950s onward, she tried to make sense of a lot of the same things that we are all trying to wrap our heads around today: the rise of authoritarian regimes, the consequences of automation, the degradation of our politics, and the tensions between what consumer society seems to offer us and what we actually need to be fulfilled by life.

I came away from her book with some helpful insights about three or four big topics in the public conversation right now.

I’ve only got space here to reflect on last week’s van attack. But the biggest takeaway for me from this book was that, whatever horror hits the day’s headlines, if we can, through these events, grow our understanding of the human condition, then we will go to sleep stronger than when we woke up in the morning.

And that, at least, is something positive.

Hannah’s Big Idea in 500 words

To grasp Hannah’s insights into our present-day headlines, we need to give her the courtesy of 500 words to tell us her big idea.

In a nutshell, her big idea is that all human doing falls into one of three buckets: labor, work and action. Now for most of us, these three words kinda mean the same thing; their definitions blur and overlap. But Hannah says, No, no, no, the differences between these words mean everything. The better we grasp their distinctions, the more clearly we will grasp the human condition—and, by extension, why everything is happening.

Work is like craftsmanship or art. We are at work when, like the sculptor, we start with an idea and turn it into reality. Work has a definite beginning and end. When the work is over, we have added something new to the world.

To Hannah’s mind, the Industrial Revolution largely destroyed work, destroyed craftsmanship, so that today it’s really only artists who experience the intrinsic value of having made something.

In the modern world, most of us don’t work anymore. Instead we labor. Labor has neither a beginning nor an end. It is an unending process of producing stuff that is consumed so that more stuff can be produced and consumed. Most labor works on only a piece of the whole, with only a faint grasp of that whole, and only a faint or no intrinsic satisfaction for having contributed to that whole. As laborers, we do not make things; we make a living. And as the cliché goes: when we’re old and grey and look back on our lives, we won’t remember the time we spent at the office. Why? Because that time was largely empty of intrinsic value; it was empty of stuff worth remembering. (Hannah could be a bit dark at times.)

Action is for Hannah, the highest mode of human doing. To act is to take an initiative. To begin. To set something in motion. Unlike work, which is the beginning of something, action is the beginning of someone. It is how we distinguish ourselves and make apparent the plurality of human beings. If our labor reveals what we are (lawyer, banker, programmer, baker), then our actions reveal who we are. Through our words and deeds, we reveal our unique identity and tell our unique story. Action has a beginning, but it has no end—not one that we can see, anyway, because its consequences continue to unfold endlessly. (In her glorification of speech and action, Hannah let’s slip her love affair with ancient Greece. More on that later.)

In short, for Hannah the whole human condition can be understood in the distinctions and conflicts that exist between labor, work and action. Through that lens, I think she would say the following about the Toronto van attack.

This Toronto man was reaching for immortality

Hannah, a Jew, quit Nazi Germany in 1933. She knew a lot about the horrors of violence, she studied violence, and she strove to understand it.

Hannah, I think, would have zeroed in on the driver’s desire to commit “suicide by cop,” and the consequence of his failure to do so. She wrote:

The essence of who somebody is can come into being only when life departs, leaving behind nothing but a story. Whoever consciously aims at being “essential,” at leaving behind a story and an identity which will win “immortal fame,” must not only risk his life but expressly choose (as, in Greek myth, Achilles did) a short life and premature death.

Only a man who
does not survive his one supreme act remains the indisputable master of his identity and possible greatness, because he withdraws into death from the possible consequences and continuation of what he began.

But, because of the restraint shown by the arresting officer, the man was denied the privilege of writing his own ending. He remains alive to face the unfolding consequences of “his one supreme act.” Instead of summing up his whole life in that one single deed, his story will continue to unfold, piecemeal. With each fresh, unintended page, he will be less the author, and more the witness, to his own place in history. He sought to win immortal fame. Instead he will live, be locked away, and be forgotten.

Those who feel weak, get violent

What about this “incel” movement—this involuntary celibacy stuff—which seems to have inspired the man’s rampage? Hannah wrote:

The vehement yearning for violence is a natural reaction of those whom society has tried to cheat of their strength.

Hannah thought of strength as something that individuals possess. She distinguished strength from power, which is something that people possess—but only when they act together. In a contest between two individuals, strength (mental or physical) decides the winner. In a contest between two groups, power—not numbers—decides the winner. (That’s why history is full of examples of small but well-organized groups of people ruling over giant empires.)

But in a contest between individual strength and collective power, collective power always wins. We saw this truth in the aftermath of the Toronto attack: the public’s coming together in the wake of the driver’s rampage showed just how helpless he is, whatever weapon he might wield, to change the way things are.

We’ve also see this truth on a larger scale, Hannah argued, in “passive resistance” movements like that of Mahatma Gandhi.

Popular revolt against strong rulers can generate an almost irresistible power—even if it foregoes the use of violence in the face of vastly superior material forces….

To call this “passive resistance” is certainly ironic; it is one of the most powerful ways of action ever devised. It cannot be countered by fighting—the other side refuses to fight—but only by mass slaughter (i.e., violence). If the strong man chooses the latter, then even in victory he is defeated, cheated of his prize, since nobody can rule over dead men.

Hannah’s point is, individual strength is helpless against collective power. For some groups, that’s been the secret to liberation: liberation from the strongman, the tyrant, the dictator. For some individuals, that’s been the explanation for their imprisonment: imprisonment to social norms, to shifting values, to their own sense of impotence.

How do we build a society of healthy individuals?

“Individual strength is helpless against collective power.” If Hannah was right about that, then the big question we need to ask ourselves is: How do we build a society of healthy individuals—a society that doesn’t suffocate, but instead somehow celebrates, individual strength?

To be sure, “involuntary celibates” who rage against their own frustrations are maladjusted, and they need to bear their own guilt for that. But, Hannah would argue, explosions of violence in our midst also remind us that the power of the group to make us conform is awesome.

So how do we each assert our uniqueness within society? It’s a deadly serious question.

The Greek solution

For Hannah, who saw only three basic choices in front of each of us—labor, work or action—the only hope for modern man and woman to assert their individuality lay in the last: action. Labor is the activity that deepens our conformity, until even our basic biological choices of when to sleep and when to eat are set by the rhythm of the economic machine. And the industrial revolution destroyed whatever private satisfactions once existed in the craftsman’s “work”.

So we’re left with action. And, Hannah mused, we’ve got two choices: either we create a public arena for action to be put on display, or people will create it on their own. The Toronto van attacker did the latter.

The ancient Athenians did the former. Their public arena for action was the political arena, the polis. In our modern economic mind, we tend to think of the political arena as an unproductive space where “nothing gets done.” But to the ancient Athenians, it was the primary public space where individual achievements were asserted and remembered.

The polis was supposed to multiply the occasions to win “immortal fame,”—that is, to multiply the chances for everybody to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness. The polis was a kind of “organized remembrance,” so that “a deed deserving fame would not be forgotten.” Unlike the products of human labor and work, the products of human action and speech are intangible. But through the polis, they became imperishable.

For ancient Athenians, the political arena squared the circle. It transmuted society’s awesome power to force conformity into a shared celebration of individual strength. Or, as the philosopher Democritus put it in the 400s BC:

“As long as the polis is there to inspire citizens to dare the extraordinary, all things are safe; if it perishes, everything is lost.”  

How do WE square the circle?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the healthy assertion of individuality today, we modern people have painted ourselves into a corner. And we keep painting it smaller.

Politics isn’t a viable place for us to immortalize deeds anymore, because (in a complete reversal of how the ancient Greeks saw it) politics produces nothing for consumption—and is therefore unproductive.

But our primary productive activity—labor—is, likewise, empty of distinguishing deeds that we might want to immortalize. (That seems to be the truth we all admit on our deathbeds.)

Maybe one day soon, when automation frees us from the need to perform any labor at all, we will then use our abundant time to develop our individual excellences. Hannah had grave doubts about that. More likely, having already formed the habit of filling our spare time with consumption, we will, given more spare time, simply consume more—more food, more entertainment, more fuel for our appetites.

The danger is that such a society, dazzled by its own abundance, will no longer be able to recognize its own emptiness—the emptiness of a life which does not fix or realize anything which endures.

Even our “private lives”—where we should feel no need to assert our individuality against the group at all—are now saturated with the need to perform for others.

The conclusion, which would be really funny if it weren’t so serious, is that for all our runaway individualism, it may be that modern society suffers from a crisis of individuality.

Hold onto the dilemma

Hannah didn’t solve these problems for us. (I guess that’s why she called this book The Human Condition.) But she did frame two powerful questions that can help us respond meaningfully to senseless acts of violence:

  1. How can I take part in the power of people acting together?
  2. What is the arena in which I celebrate individual distinctiveness—mine, and others?

This dilemma isn’t going away. ’Squaring this circle’ between social conformity and individual strength is one of the big, underlying projects of our time.