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The Trouble with Philosophical Tradition

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The Trouble with the Philosophical Tradition

According to Hannah Arendt, the "tradition of political philosophy" has been plagued first by its hierarchical structure. She argues that the premier preeminence of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa is as old as political philosophy itself. Arendt goes to great length to identify this phenomenon as a structural mechanism when she points out that the primacy of the vita contemplativa "is as old as (but not older than) our tradition of political thought" (Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, p.12). The ranking of each is independent of the essence of either, and has sufficed as tool for political philosophers to construct a position of superiority in relation to the public; "this tradition, Ð'...grew out of a specific historical constellation:Ð'...the conflict between the philosopher and the polis" (Ibid; p.12). The tradition of political philosophy is subsequently problematic because of the intrinsic inconsistencies of hierarchy, which have left the vita activa unexplored.

Once the device of hierarchy had been implemented by the ancient regime of philosophy, its efficacy has remained unchallenged. Modern philosophers such as Karl Marx succeed in wrenching the title of dominance from the vita contemplativa, but the hierarchal mechanism remained in tact. Arendt asserts her "contention is simply that the enormous weight of contemplation in the traditional hierarchy has blurred the distinctions and articulations within the vita activa itself and that, appearances not withstanding, this condition has not been changed essentially by the modern break with the tradition and the eventual reversal of its hierarchical order in Marx and NietzscheÐ'...the conceptual framework is left more or less intact" (Ibid; p.17). By nature of its inferior position in the philosophical tradition, the vita activa has been consistently overlooked, deemed unworthy of inquiry. The apathy of the philosophical tradition allowed the vita activa to reside in obscurity, Ð''its distinctions blurred'.

Hierarchy, intrinsically presumes, relevancy and security for some and obscurity and vulnerability for the rest. The tragedy would be no less great if the vita contemplativa were to be banished to obscurity, its quintessence mired. For, this reason her accolades of Marx are steeped in disappointment, considering "the modern reversal shares with the traditional hierarchy the assumption that the same central human preoccupation must prevail in all activities of men, since without one comprehensive principle no order could be established"(Ibid; p.17).

One Comprehensive Principle

Arendt clearly identifies a historical trajectory in which at each critical juncture one comprehensive principle is identified as the paramount activity of human existence. It is within this theoretical pecking order, that the vita activa is initially buried. The prime proclamation of her effort is to; at long last, disentangle the components of the vita activa, not with aspirations to supplant the supremacy of the vita contemplativa, but for no other purpose than to expose the intricacies of its counterpart, the vita activa. Arendt proposes the term vita activaÐ'... "to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work and action"(Ibid p.7). She then enumerates, very succinctly the stipulation of each, as follows; "The human condition of labor is life itselfÐ'...The human condition of work is worldlinessÐ'...Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality"(Ibid; p.7). Arendt's carefully crafted elucidation of the vita activa inevitably brings us to the unique character of action. Inherently intangible, action has endured a tormented relationship with the reigning comprehensive principle of each epoch.

The three historical periods under review are the classical, medieval and modern. The philosophers of the first, of these three eras, antiquity; Ardent suggests were profoundly affected by the "discoveryÐ'...that the political realm did not as a matter of course provide for all of man's higher activities, they assumed at once, not that they had found something different in addition to what was already known, but that they had found a higher principle to replace the principle that ruled the polis" (Ibid; p.18). The ruling principle of the polis according to Arendt was immortality; the discovery of the philosopher was eternity. The primary point of contention between the two theories rests on the condition of plurality and its exceptional relationship with action and the public realm.

Residing in the freedom of the polis the "potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things Ð'- works and deeds and words Ð'- which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves"(Ibid; p.19). Works and deeds and words obviously necessitate an audience to appreciate the effort. In contrast, the "philosopher's experience of the eternalÐ'...can only occur outside the plurality of menÐ'... Politically speaking if to die is the same as "to cease to be among men," experience of the eternal is a kind of death" (Ibid; p.20). "That the various modes of active engagement in the things of this world, on one side, and pure thought culminating in contemplation, on the other might correspond to two altogether different central human concerns has in one way or another been manifest ever since "the men of thought and the men of action began to take different paths, that is, since the rise of political thought in the Socratic school" (Ibid; p.18). Here we discover the initial favoring of the vita contemplativa over the vita activa.

The second period under review is the medieval age, in which the vita activa, and its unique apparatus, action, was dealt a decisive blow. With the rise of Christianity and the emergence of the post mortal concept of salvation and eternal life, the striving for immortality and its accompanying activities; works and deeds and words, became ephemerally lackluster. The medieval "hallmark was the absorption of all activities into the household sphere, where they had only private significance, and consequently the very absence of a public realm" (Ibid; p.34). Plurality having already been cited as a condition of action, when suspended, necessarily impedes action. The intricate



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