The banality of evil that Arendt theorizes is exactly the failure to become a person in the first place—it is, in short, the evil of being a nobody.
For Arendt, this evil becomes extreme when a mass of such nobodies becomes organized by totalitarianism.
thinking—being a person—is central to Arendt’s work, thereby prioritizing and making sense of her claim in The Human Condition that one is never “more active” than when thinking.
Speech, Action, and the Human Condition: Hannah Arendt on How We Invent Ourselves and Reinvent the World
In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.
men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human.
Arendt suggests, in inventing a self we are effectively inventing the world in which we want to live:
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.
Action is therefore the most optimistic and miraculous of our faculties, for it alone gives rise to what hadn’t existed before — it is the supreme force of creation.
It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.
This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins…
The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.
The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected
from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable
…contrary to the popular indictment that speech is the cowardly absence of action, action cannot take place without speech. Above all, Arendt argues, it is through the integration of the two that we reveal ourselves to one another, as well as to ourselves:
No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action.
In all other performances speech plays a subordinate role, as a means of communication or a mere accompaniment to something that could also be achieved in silence.
In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world…
This disclosure of “who” in contradistinction to “what” somebody is — his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide — is implicit in everything somebody says and does.
It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity, but its disclosure can almost never be achieved as a willful purpose, as though one possessed and could dispose of this “who” in the same manner he has and can dispose of his qualities.
the “who,” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself,
like the daimōn in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.
Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s assertion that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,”
This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them
Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure.
Without the disclosure of the agent in the act, action loses its specific character and becomes one form of achievement among others.
It is then indeed no less a means to an end than making is a means to produce an object.
This happens whenever human togetherness is lost, that is, when people are only for or against other people, as for instance in modern warfare, where men go into action and use means of violence in order to achieve certain objectives for their own side and against the enemy.
In these instances, which of course have always existed, speech becomes indeed “mere talk,” simply one more means toward the end, whether it serves to deceive the enemy or to dazzle everybody with propaganda;
here words reveal nothing, disclosure comes only from the deed itself, and this achievement, like all other achievements, cannot disclose the “who,” the unique and distinct identity of the agent.
Amelie Rorty’s taxonomy of the seven levels of personhood, Arendt suggests that action is what propels us from static selves to dynamic agents of change, and considers the immense potential of that agency:
The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.
Arendt looks back on the history of humanity’s great intellectual and political revolutions, and adds:
It certainly is not without irony that those whom public opinion has persistently held to be the least practical and the least political members of society should have turned out to be the only ones left who still know how to act and how to act in concert.