Birth and Natality in Hannah Arendt

  • Margarete Durst
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 79)


In the reflections of Hannah Arendt the theme of birth enjoys privileged status, above all in respect to the theories of action and politics, which make up a sector central to the thought of this authoress, who wanted to establish her professional competency precisely in that field. The centrality of this theme can be considered by now a given,1 and not only in the feminist studies that focused on it first,2 as they identified there a way of doing philosophy that was not homologated to the canons of the logocentric tradition.3 Given how birth recurs in Arendt’s works, one can, however, speak of it on the same level as a dominant theme, inasmuch as the multiple problems of politics, existence, Judaism, education, etc., that our authoress addresses all reconnect sooner or later to birth. An example is her constant reference to Augustine as the author who most emphasized the specifically innovative character of birth. The continuity of her reference to Augustinian thought, present from her PhD thesis4 to The Life of the Mind,5 is indicative of how the human capacity to be an initium, in the precisely causal and not only temporal sense, represents for this authoress the focus of a constellation of problems inherent in the human condition. And in fact, it is in Active Life: The Human Condition — written in close relationship to the thought of Heidegger, her first “professor,”6 and published in the mid-1950’s7 by when she had finalized her detachment from the forms of currently reigning socialization — that, undertaking a renewed comparison with the question of existence, Arendt fully explicates the topic of natality. While she criticizes the


Human Condition Jewish Identity Human World Private Dimension Dwelling Place 
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  1. 1.
    Cfr. S. Forti, “Bibliografia degli scritti su Hannah Arendt,” in Hannah Arendt, ed. S. Forti (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 1999), pp. 286–306; after 1996: F. Collins, L’homme est-il devenu superflu? Hannah Arendt (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1999), part: Eléments bibiographiques, pp. 325–329. Specifically on nativity cfr.: R. Beiner, “Action, Natality and Citizenship: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of Freedom,” in Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, ed. Z. Pelczynski, J. G. Gray (London: The Atlone Press, 1984), pp. 349–375; S. Belardinelli, “Natalità e azione in Hannh Arendt” (Part I), in La Nottola III:3 (1984), pp. 25–39; Id., “Natalità e azione in Hannh Arendt” (Part II), in La Nottola IV:1 (1985); P. Bowen-Moore, Hannah Arendt Philosophy of Natality (London: Macmillan, 1989); A. Cavarero, “Dire la nascita,” in Diotima. Mettere al mondo il mondo (Milan: La Tartaruga, 1990), pp. 93–121; F. Collin, “Agir et donné,” in Hannah Arendt et la modernité, ed. S. M. Roviello and M. Wagenbergh (Paris: Vrin, 1992), pp. 27–46; F. Collin, “Du privé et du public,” in Les Cahiers du Grif 33 (1985), pp. 47–69 (above all prg. “Entre privé et public: la natalité,” pp. 55–57); F. Collin, L’homme est-il devenu superflu? Hannah Arendt, cit., (above all Chap. Pluralité et natavité, pp. 187–226); N. Depraz, “Naitre à soi-meme,” in Alter 1 (ENS de Fontenay-Saint Cloud, 1993); J. Kristeva, Hannah Arendt (Paris: Fayard, 1999), (Vol I. of the trilogy Le génie féminin. La vie, la folie, les mots. Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette); A. Papa, Hannah Arendt. Per una filosofia delta vita (Lecce: Pergola Monsavinium, 1993); E. Parise (a cura di), La politico tra natalità e mortalità. Hannah Arendt (Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1993); R. Rosolini, “Nascere ed apparire. Le categorie del pensiero politico di Hannh Arendt e la filosofia della differenza sessuale,” in DWF Donnawomanfemme 2–3 (1993), pp. 64–84.Google Scholar
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    As is known, Arendt, hardly a feminist, considered herself a conservative on the question of gender relationships; but the nexus between gender differences, birth and dimension of plurality that to her mind characterizes the human condition implies a relationship of equality in the difference between man and woman, as between groups and ethnicities at the same time different and equal, which is in sintony with the approach of the thought of difference. Cfr. M. Markus, “The Anti-Feminism’ of Hannah Arendt,” in Thinking, Judging, Freedom, ed. G. T. Kaplan and C. S. Kessler (Sidney: Allen&Unwin, 1989) pp. 119–129; B. Honig, “Towards an Agonistic Feminism: Hannah Arendt and the Polics of Identity,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. J. Butler and J. W. Scott (New York-London, 1992), pp. 215–235; Id. (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995); L. Boella, Parlare di Hannah Arendt (Brescia: Edizioni Università delle Donne, 1991); M. Forcina, Ironia e saperi femminili (Milan: Angeli, 1995), for the chapter Ironia contro metafisica, a feminist take on the analysis of the Arendt/Heidegger relationship done by J. Taminiaux, La Fille de Thrace et le penseur professionnel (Paris: Pavot, 1992).Google Scholar
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    Of particular interest are the ideas of Julia Kristeva (op. cit., pp. 59–60) on the creative potential in personalities who are more or less explicitly bisexual, as, in fact, she considers Arendt (of whom she speaks of androgyny and psychic bisexuality). This psychoanalytic theory, moving from Freudian tradition and drawing above all from the thought of Melanie Klein, emphasizes the influence that the dynamic of the diverse sexual components present in every individual exerts on creativity. The point of intersection with today’s thought of difference could be offered by the reflection on the primary relationship, that is on the context of natality in which the care of the new being come in to the world begins (on this topic cfr. M. Durst, “Forme della sublimazione e creatività femminile. I1 caso Lou Salomé,” in Filosofia Donne Filosofie, ed. M. Forcina, A. Prontera, P.I. Vergine (Lecce: Milella, 1994), pp. 469–509; Id., “Il narcisismo: un capitale emotivo di riserva,” in Scuola Democratica 1, (1999), pp.; Id., “On the threshold of creativity: A hermeneutic interpretation of the myth of Narcissus,” in Analecta Husserliana LXI, ed. A.-T. Tymieniecka (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, in print).Google Scholar
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    H. Arendt, Der Leibesbegriff bei Augustin. Versuch einer philosophischen Intepretation (Berlin: Springer, 1929). J. Kristeva, insisting on the theme of natality (op. cit.) connects it constantly to Augustinian texts, which to her mind are fundamental for the entire reflection of Arendt.Google Scholar
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    Cfr. Hannah Arendt’s letter to Martin Heidegger, October 28, 1960; in H. Arendt-M. Heidegger. Briefe, 1925–1975, und andere Zeugnisse (Frankfurt a. Mein: V. Klostermann, 1998–1999), p. 149, doc. 89 (cited by E. Ettinger, H. Arendt-M. Heidegger (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    H. Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., p. 179. The quote from Augustine De civitate Dei XI. 32 also recurs often in The Life of the Mind. On the relationship between initium, action, liberty and plurality cfr. R. J. Bernstein, “Provocazione e appriapriazione: la risposta a Martin Heidegger,” in Hannah Arendt, ed. S. Forti, cit., pp. 226–248.Google Scholar
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    In discussing the “who,” Arendt refers again to Augustine who was the first to distinguish between the questions of “Who am I?” (directed by man to himself: A man) and “What am I?” (directed by man to God: What is my nature?); but, unlike Augustine, Arendt believes that neither a divinity (not even the “the god of the philosophers”) nor science can resolve the so-called anthropological question; in addition, the conditions of human existence “can never ‘explain’ what we are or answer the question of who we are for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely” (H. Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., pp. 10–11). “Who somebody is transcends in greatness and importance anything he can do and produce” (Ivi, p. 211); it is the creativity that thought and imagination infuse into action that can “disclose the ‘who,’ the unique and distinct identity of the agent” (Ivi, p. 180).Google Scholar
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    With the manifestation of the “who” — that is, the “event itself,” the unexpected, the “wholly improbable” that “happens regularly” (H. Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., p. 300) — “the man-made world of things, the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for human man, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use” (Ivi, p. 173).Google Scholar
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    In The Life of the Mind (part I, Thinking, chapter II, The Activities of the Mind in a World of Appearances, Italian trans., cit., p. 170) Arendt offers an analysis of the capacity of the imagination to re-produce for the mind the objects perceived by the senses that provides the theoretical argument about the past/future relationship that the author expresses in narrative in other texts.Google Scholar
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    Arendt’s judgments about Hegel are very drastic, except those about his work in Phenomenology of Spirit (cfr. The Life of the Mind, Italian trans., cit., pp. 173–176).Google Scholar
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    On the topics of intimacy and the interior and private root of action, cfr. E. Capoccetti, “Politicamente abita l’uomo. Appunti sul Kafka di Hannah Arendt,” in La Cultura, XXXVI, 1 (1998), pp. 149–164.Google Scholar
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    Thinking about emotivity does not mean “rationalizing it,” but communicating with it, activating the “relationship of pure dialogue [that] is, more than any other, close to the original experience that takes place in interior dialogue” (H. Arendt, “Concern with politics in recent European philosophical thought,” in Arendt Papers (Washington: Library of Congress); Italian trans. (“L’atto originario della filosofia politica è lο stupore”) A. Del Lago, in La lingua materna. La condizione umana e il pensiero plurale [The Mother Tongue] (Milan: Mimesis, 1993), pp. 57–84, p. 81 (which was used in the citations). This is the source of the diversity between friendship and love, on the one hand, and fame on the other; in fact, for the latter the opinion of one person is insufficient: “the issue is that in society each person must respond to the question: ‘What am I?’ — a different question from ‘Who am I?’ — whatever his role and function, and naturally the response can never be. ‘I am unique’ “ (H. Arendt, “Walter Benjamin,” in Merkur XXII (1968); then in Men in Dark Time, ed. H. Arendt (New York-London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich), 1968, pp. 153–206; Italian trans. (Il pescatore di perle. Walter Benjamin 1892–1940 [The Pearl Fisherman. Walter Benjamin 1892–1940]), A. Carosso (Milan: Mondadori, 1993), p. 6 (which was used in the citations).Google Scholar
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    In Judaism and Modernity Arendt said that she has always considered her Jewishness “as one of those unquestionable given facts of my life, that I have never wanted to change or repudiate, not even during childhood” (Italian trans. (Ebraismo e modernità) G. Bettini (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1993), 2nd ed. p. 222). Precisely on this point Arendt was interviewed by Gunter Gaus (“Was Belibt? Es bleibt die Mutter sprache” [The Mother Tongue. The human condition and plural thought], Italian trans. (La lingua materna. La condizione umana e il pensiero plurale), A. Del Lago (Milan: Mmesis, 1993), pp. 22–56, p. 32. On the relationship between Arendt and Judaism cfr. M. Lebovici, Hannah Arendt, un juive. Expérience politique et histoire (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Cfr. H. Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Italian trans., cit., p. 414; in which she comments on Augustine’s definition of love as the weight of the soul, its law of gravity (Confessiones, XIII, 9); cfr. R. Bodei, Ordo Amoris, Conflitti terreni e felicità terrestre (Bologna: II Mulino, 1991).Google Scholar
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    This refers to the title of a work by Simone Weil, an author who Arendt is close to in many aspects: Judaism, critique of professional intellectuals, interest in work and its organization, analysis of action as the expression of the person in his entirety (cfr. R. Wimmer, Vier judische Philosophinnen: Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt (Tubingen: Attempto, 1990); A. Nye, Philosophia. The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt (London-New York: Routledge, 1994); R. Esposito, L’origine della politica. Hannah Arendt o Simone Weil? (Rome: Donzelli, 1996); G. Gaeta, C. Bettinelli, A. Dal Lago, Vite attive. Simone Weil, Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt (Genova: Edizioni Lavoro, 1996).Google Scholar
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    In this regard one can observe that, even though Arendt was aware from her childhood that she was Jewish, as a “datum of fact,” she declared that she never was made conscious of it in her family; the word “Jew” was never said in her family when she was a child, also because her mother, the central figure in her childhood life, was entirely irreligious (cfr. H. Arendt, The Mother Tongue, Italian trans. cit., p. 33), so that when she was “illuminated” hearing anti-Semitic observations of children in the street” (ibid.) the primary nucleus of her identity was already sufficiently consolidated.Google Scholar
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    About the meaning of “Social” cfr. The Human Condition, cit., Chap. II, prg.6, p. 38–50.Google Scholar
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    Cfr. M. Forcina, Ironia e saperi femminili, cit., pp. 56–58.Google Scholar
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    Cfr. H. Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition (or.1944), reprint in Id., The Jew as Pariah: Jewish Identity and Politics in the Modern Age, ed. R. H. Feldman (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1978), pp. 67–90.Google Scholar
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    Also bringing back H. Jonas, who she cites in The Phenomenon of Life (New York, 1966), especially the chapter on the nobility of sight (pp. 136–147), Arendt remarks on the passivity of hearing compared to sight and the inadequacy of language itself, even though it is “the only medium in which the invisible can become manifest in a world of appearances” (The Life of the Mind, Italian trans., cit., pp. 199–200).Google Scholar
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    This is a reference to the “ancilla vitae” philosophy that Kant imagines “preceding the beautiful lady with a torch rather than illuminating her clothes from the back”: a philosophy that is not arrogant towards the common world of men, that becomes “the mediator among multiple truths, not because it contains a truth that is valid for all men” (H. Arendt, “Concern with Politics in recent European Philosophical Thought,” cit., pp. 80–81).Google Scholar
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    It is significant that Arendt shows no doubts (though she regretted it) about the fact that lying to that man was a duty for her, since otherwise she would have put at risk the entire Zionist organization (H. Arendt, The Mother Tongue, Italian trans., cit., pp. 31–32).Google Scholar
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    According to F. Collins (L’homme est-il devenu superflu?, cit., p. 135), life as zoe only has meaning in life as bios, also because the historical naturalism that is at the origin of totalitarianism is connected with the former; this notwithstanding, the fact of birth should constitute the “gift” of the initium. It would be more correct then to speak of a relationship of reciprocal implication between birth (zoe) and natality (bios), consonant with the idea of “a tension of love” expressed by Kristeva (op.cit., p. 86).Google Scholar
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    H. Arendt, The Pearl Fisherman. Walter Benjamin 1892–1940, Italian trans, cit., p. 37.Google Scholar
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    Cfr. R. Esposito, “Irrapresentabile polis”, in Id., Categorie dell’impolitico (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1988), pp. 72–124.Google Scholar
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    The most important aspect is: “the revelatory character of action as well as the ability to produce stories and become historical, which together form the very source from which mean-ingfulness springs into and illuminates human existence” (H. Arendt, The Human Condition, cit., p. 324).Google Scholar
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    Arendt’s judgment on Augustine: “there is no doubt that Augustine is one of the circle of great and original thinkers. However, he was not a’ systematic thinker’ “ (The Life of the Mind, Italian trans., cit., p. 403).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Margarete Durst
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Philosophical ResearchesUniversity of Rome “Tor Vergata “Italy

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