Primary Natality: The Supreme Capacity

  • Patricia Bowen-Moore


The preliminary experience of natality prior to its enactment as a political reality, is fundamentally a potentiality for beginning. Its factual manifestation is, of course, the birth of the child, but this fact of birth is accompanied by an innate power to begin. The event of human birth is that fact through which the capacity for beginning is introduced into the world. As such, human birth and human beginnings are commensurate experiences which qualify a specifically human life. Together factual birth and the concomitant capacity to make beginnings is designated by the term primary natality; its experience characterises the pre-political status of human birth and human beginnings. Primary natality, then, before it assumes political content, is, for Hannah Arendt, the human being’s highest capacity because it is that experience by which action can be exercised at all. ‘Beginning … is the supreme capacity of man …’1


Conceptual Category Human Affair Essential Structure Human Birth Common World 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1973), p. 479.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Hannah Arendt, ‘History of the Will’, a lecture at the New School, (Fall, 1971) Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 178.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978), p. 217.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 246.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 177.Google Scholar
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    Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1963, 1965), p. 211.Google Scholar
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    Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1970), p. 82.Google Scholar
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    Hannah Arendt, ‘Labor, Work and Action’, Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, ed. J. W. Bernauer, S.J. (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1987), p. 41.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 97.Google Scholar
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    Hannah Arendt, ‘Understanding and Politics’, Partisan Review, 20 (1953), 390.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, ‘Understanding and Politics’, 391.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, ‘Understanding and Polities’, 390. (Author’s italics.)Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Life of the Mind/Thinking, p. 110.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 177.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 177f. ‘According to Augustine, the two were so different that he used a different word to indicate the beginning which is man (initium), designating the beginning of the world by principium, which is the standard translation for the first Bible verse. As can be seen from De Civitate Dei, xi.32, the word principium carried for Augustine a much less radical meaning; the beginning of the world “does not mean that nothing was made before (for the angels were),” whereas he adds explicitly in the phrase quoted above with reference to man that nobody was before him.’Google Scholar
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    Arendt, On Revolution, p. 213.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 212.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 177.Google Scholar
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    Hannah Arendt, ‘What is Freedom?’, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Press, 1954), p. 152.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 152. It should be noted that Arendt makes a distinction between principles and motives. The criterion for this distinction is appearance: motives do not appear in the realm of human affairs but rather ‘operate from within the self’. Principles, on the contrary, require the world of human affairs for their manifestation. Furthermore, motives are always particular and do not derive their validity from a universal principle; inspiring principles do not have a particular goal in view and, indeed, are much too general to have particular goals. If ever they were to have particular goals in view, inspiring principles would never view the attainment of these goals as guaranteed.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 152.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 152.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 152–3.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, On Revolution, p. 211.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 247. (Author’s italics.)Google Scholar
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    Arendt, On Revolution, p. 211.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 247.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 465.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 178.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Ibid., p. 178. In ‘What is Freedom?’ Arendt states: ‘Our whole existence rests, after all, on a chain of miracles, as it were — the coming into being of the earth, the development of organic life on it, the evolution of mankind out of the animal species. From the point of view of the processes in the universe and in nature, and their statistically overwhelming probabilities, the coming into being of the earth out of cosmic processes, the formation of organic life out of inorganic processes, the evolution of man, finally, out of the processes of organic life are all “infinite improbabilities”. They are “miracles” in everyday language. It is because of this element of the “miraculous” present in all reality that events, no matter how well anticipated in fear and hope, strike us with a shock of surprise once they have come to pass. The very impact of an event is never wholly explicable; its factuality transcends in principle all anticipation.’ Between Past and Future, pp. 169–70.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 63.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, On Violence, p. 82.Google Scholar
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    Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Education’, Between Past and Future, p. 184. ‘... Childhood is a temporary stage, a preparation for adulthood.’Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 174, 196.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 192.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 192.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 186.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 189.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 193.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 188.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 188–9.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 189.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 183.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 177.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 192.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 191.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 192. (In The Human Condition, Arendt speaks of the condition of plurality as ‘the conditio per quern of all political life’, p. 7.)Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Ibid., p. 189. To avoid misunderstanding: Arendt’s claim is not that education teaches the child how to love the world but only that the world should be loved. Because educators mediate between the child and the world, and because they cherish and protect what is ‘new’ (that is, the child), they guide the child to an understanding that the world, too, needs to be cherished and protected in the spirit of amor mundi.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 184, 185.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 185.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 192.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: The Viking Press, 1962, 1965), p. 279.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 176.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Patricia Bowen-Moore 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patricia Bowen-Moore
    • 1
  1. 1.Nazareth College of RochesterRochesterUSA

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