Skip to content

Hannah Arendt on action, story, history and invisible hands

The basic error of all materialism in politics — and this materialism is not Marxian and not even modern in origin, but as old as our history of political theory — is to overlook the inevitability with which men disclose them- selves as subjects, as distinct and unique persons, even when they wholly concentrate upon reaching an altogether worldly, material object. To dispense with this disclosure, if indeed it could ever be done, would mean to transform men into something they are not; to deny, on the other hand, that this disclosure is real and has consequences of its own is simply unrealistic.

The realm of human affairs, strictly speaking, consists of the web of human relationships which exists wherever men live together. The disclosure of the “who” through speech, and the setting of a new beginning through action, always fall into an already existing web where their immediate consequences can be felt.

Together they start a new process which eventually emerges as the unique life story of the newcomer, affecting uniquely the life stories of all those with whom he comes into contact.

It is because of this already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose; but it is also because of this medium, in which action alone is real, that it “produces” stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things… They tell us more about their subjects, the “hero” in the center of each story, than any product of human hands ever tells us about the master who produced it, and yet they are not products, properly speaking.

Although everybody started his life by inserting himself into the human world through action and speech, nobody is the author or producer of his own life story.

In other words, the stories, the results of action and speech, reveal an agent, but this agent is not an author or producer. Somebody began it and is its subject in the twofold sense of the word, namely, its actor and sufferer, but nobody is its author.

That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end. But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action.

The perplexity is that in any series of events that together form a story with a unique meaning we can at best isolate the agent who set the whole process into motion; and although this agent frequently remains the subject, the “hero” of the story, we never can point unequivocally to him as the author of its eventual outcome.

It is for this reason that Plato thought that human affairs (ta ton anthropon pragmatd), the outcome of action (praxis), should not be treated with great seriousness; the actions of men appear like the gestures of puppets led by an invisible hand behind the scene, so that man seems to be a kind of plaything of a god.

It is noteworthy that Plato, who had no inkling of the modern concept of history, should have been the first to invent the metaphor of an actor behind the scenes who, behind the backs of acting men, pulls the strings and is responsible for the story

The Platonic god is but a symbol for the fact that real stories, in distinction from those we invent, have no author; as such, he is the true forerunner of Providence, the “invisible hand,” Nature, the “world spirit,” class interest, and the like, with which Christian and modern philosophers of history tried to solve the perplexing problem that although history owes its existence to men, it is still obviously not “made” by them.

(Nothing in fact indicates more clearly the political nature of history — its being a story of action and deeds rather than of trends and forces or ideas — than the introduction of an invisible actor behind the scenes whom we find in all philosophies of history, which for this reason alone can be recognized as political philosophies in disguise. By the same token, the simple fact that Adam Smith needed an “invisible hand” to guide economic dealings on the exchange market shows plainly that more than sheer economic activity is involved in exchange and that “economic man,” when he makes his appearance on the market, is an acting being and neither exclusively a producer nor a trader and barterer.)

Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...