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By T.S.Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, January 2013


Karl Barth Hannah Arendt



This essay is built on the fundament of another paper dealing with Barth's commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, entitled The Theology of Catharsis. It is a logical continuation of this first paper and as such, it must bear the same name.

The Theology of Catharsis finished with the following words:

"Closing the last pages of Romans, we still don't know who God is. Instead, we learn that through facing eternity, even in the possibility of death, we become aware of our limits. In admitting our limits, we repent. In repentance, we learn about God's mercifulness, so that we may have faith. In our faith, we may have hope, and in our hope, we may have love."

"Love" is the last word. So, the last word there becomes the first word here. Love is the very center of these two discussions. If the first paper was on God's love, manifested in God's mercy, this essay is on human love, manifested (or not) in human action.

Love is a strong, problematic word, especially put against another word—action. Love and action are like two worlds, separated by abyss. We speak about them with passion and conviction, but do we practice them together? This was the question that Hannah Arendt and Karl Barth were concerned most writing their books on God and human condition. This is the question that the good man asks himself after witnessing his failure to either love but not act or act but not love. My task here is not to build a hypothetical bridge over the abyss between action and love, but to guess what might be the possible meaning and answer to Arendt's criticism of Christian love and inaction, and Barth's radical appeal to act against evil with love.

In the first essay, I turned to Aristotle's theory of "drama" to describe Barthian radical theology. I said that for Aristotle, the power of drama is not in the description of protagonists' characters, but in the action. The Philosopher ("Ille Phillosophus" as medievals called him) believed that action is life; and tragedy, put on scene, is an imitation of life. If we do not have action in a dramatic play—unexpected turns, revelations, conflicts, peripetia and anagnorisis—we don't have a play at all. Hannah Arendt is not far from Aristotle, comparing life with action. "Life without speech and without action, she says, is literally dead to the world."(1)

In tragedy, and life, deeds are what matters. The hidden might be the potential behind actual existence (to use Aristotle, again), but not revealed in action and matter, potential is still nothing; (2) man's thoughts and feelings might bear the mark of divine, but if not shared or applied, they are nothing, even for their possessor. Action is what makes the visible world visible. Action is what makes the world alive. Because of action, Christians (or Platonists) might see the world as perishable and unstable—composed of meaningless cycles of life, growth, decay, and death, of relentless differentiations, conflicts, and interactions—but even for them, as mere humans, deeds (or actions) matter. As it was said in the first essay, deeds are not means for salvation, they are null for the hidden God, but for the sake of this world, they are indispensible. Or as it is written: "Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith." (James 2:18)


Life is complex. And we worship order. Worshiping order, we fall prey to the form. The form we prefer is the one that fits our imaginations for right and wrong, the one that does not contradict the patterns and structures we inherited or created. Stable form instead of destructive creativity, order and simplicity instead of anarchy and complexity, "two and two making four" (for men and for gods), stability and predictability, not challenge and surprise—this is what we desire as individuals and society; and challenge and surprise is what we always receive, because we are alive. In the dialectical theology of Barth, in the catharsis of human tragedy, order exists only to be challenged. The miracle of revelation of what is true is always in the exception, in the challenge and surprise.

"Things are simple and straightforward and obvious only when they are detached from their context and then treated superficially," says Barth.(3) We cannot think about life in a straightforward way, he says, the only way is the dialectical, the one that corresponds to the nature of life. To simplify and explain the facts of life without stumbling into the paradoxical is a sign that one does not understand life. "Men think simply, when they pretend to know what they don't know [...] Genuine thinking is always strange to the world and unsympathetic."(4) It is unsympathetic in the eyes of the world, because it is incomprehensible and challenging. It is strange to every known politics, to every human achievement and order; it is more questioning than answering. Barthian theology insists that the Gospel needs no defence, it must be only proclaimed, and as proclaimed, it becomes the final question mark against all human concepts, deeds, plans, and "successes." Proclamation of Gospel is the manifestation of the genuine, multidimensional thinking, of doubt and hope, simultaneously, a never-ending penetration into the things of the world through the help of what is beyond the world.

Reason needs order and we act or at least try to act, according to our reasons. Then, we are judged by God and we are found unrighteous, wrong, and as simple as "the truths" of our reasoning. Christianity is this system of belief that points out that straightforwardness of human thought and desire is a problem; for this reason, it is unsympathetic to the world and the world is not sympathetic to it. In Barth's words, the Christian message is a "scandal." It is a scandal because it requires a jump into the void of faith and because it breaks down the patterns of "straightforward rationality" of empirical realms.

Being outside the world or rather related with what is beyond the world, Christianity is not proud. Genuine Christianity is not proud. It doubts everything, but this does not make it proud. It feels sympathy, love to the weak and destitute, and this is all. It does not prescribe or fight for a particular policy or order, doesn't mingle with the worldly. Why? Because "Christianity doesn't set its mind on high things," Barth says. "It is uneasy when it hears men speaking loudly and with confidence about 'creative evolution'; when it marks their plans for perfecting the development of pure and applied science, of art, of morals and religion, of physical and spiritual health, of welfare and well-being. Christianity is unhappy when men boast of the glories [...] of Church and State, and Society."(5)

Christianity is outside the world. Does Christianity lack love to the world? To reply to this question, we must first clarify what the world is. In Barthian terms, the world is all ideologies that simplify human life, that try to construct and preserve a pattern or a system that is considered as the best one and is forced through the human will and effort to survive eternally with the sacrifice of many. The world is the human activity that strives to build a tower of Babel through the hardship of destitute and governance of proud.

Barth, living in the beginning of the 20th century and a witness of falling world empires, of refutation of century-old "scientific" dogmas, of blood spills gushing from every corner of Europe, turns to the forgotten truth that God is the "question-mark," the only possible measuring standard to a world poised to exist in disorder. In the exception of the 20th century crisis, in the night of great desperation, people and world had to face the deepest truths of their existence, of their condition—that order is impossible, that their certainty, beliefs, and reliance on reason and human will, are idolatry. Thus, as something beyond the world, Christianity, the true Christianity, does not "busy itself to support those many 'ideals' by which men are deeply moved—individualism, collectivism, nationalism, internationalism, humanitarism, ecclesiasticism." "Christianity," Barth says, "observes with certain coldness the cult of both 'Nature' and 'Civilization' of both Romanticism and Realism [...] It detects [...] the menace of idolatry. Christianity's suspicion may appear unsympathetic, but can we seriously pronounce it unjustified?" We cannot, answers Barth, because the adequacy of Christian scepticism is constantly proved by reality, and because Christianity loves not the world, but "the poor and the oppressed, the sorrowful, the hungry, and the thirsty."(6)


So, we understand from Barth (in fact, from Scripture and Spirit) that Christianity's "purpose remains always the same. It acts always in accordance with the same rule. Opposing what is high, it befriends what is lowly."(7)

We are prompted to ask the question: Opposing in what way? Does the Christian start a war against the earthly powers? It has been said, the opposition is expressed first in the unsympathetic position toward all human ideologies and promises. Christian coldness to the worldly passions is not pessimism, but rather realism. It is against human pride. For the Christian "the winners in this world are the one who are in 'disaster.'"(8) Under the measure of God's standard, nothing can stand, the Christian knows. The tragedy of the winner is his belief in the subjective success and the sense of achieved permanency. Note here the phrase "subjective success"—it is the separation of a man, or a policy, or a society, or a nation from all others on the basis of pride and individual achievement. It is the pitiful delusion that Barth reveals with his commentary on Romans, the delusion that in history and human action there are peaks, mountains, and lowlands. In fact, there are, but they are not because of the human achievements. Under the sight of God, human history is flat. Christianity does not share the illusion that something tangible can survive, be just, right, or perfect. And this is a pure realism. "Christianity is human behaviour purified of all biological, emotional, erotic factors," it is "the final protest against every high place that men occupy" and as such it is the "absolute ethic" that proclaims the "Coming World."(9)

But beyond this coldness, this non-participation in the world vanities, does Christianity engage in war? War against what? It cannot engage in war, is Barth's reply. And the reason for this is paradoxical. For a Christian there are no enemies to fight. There are fellow men. Their ego is what the enemy is, but as fellow men, our enemies are the same like us. In them, we discover ourselves. Their ego clashes with our ego. Their unrighteousness clashes with our "righteousness." Our "righteousness," in their eyes, is unrighteousness; our objectivity, for them, is subjectivity. If we engage in a war of complete, absolute eradication of our "evil" fellow man, we engage in a war of eradication of ourselves. We take the high position of judging gods, and so we contradict our supposed cause: to be against "every high place" in which the evil resides.

The supposed "enemy," the fellow man, is the one "who opens my eyes" to the existence of evil. Moreover, his evil "lets loose in me [...] yearning cry for a higher non-existent-compensating, avenging righteousness, and for a higher-non-existent-judge between me and him."(10) And the Christian asks, "Should I become myself the invisible God? What shall I do? I shall, at any rate, have acted..." With what kind of action? Coldness, non-participation is not enough. Evil destroys the world in front of my eyes. Passivity is not an obstacle to the "fiercely running of evil." And here is the logical conclusion, "What else could I do but arise in my anger and punish him, execute judgement upon him?"(11)

Our failure is in the execution of "judgement upon him," says Barth. Seizing the scepter of God, we face another man with a scepter, asking the same question like us "What shall I do?" This is the paradox and the riddle of human condition. That's why Barthian dialectics insists that there is only One who really acts, who is able to perform a miracle in the predictable cycles of human history—God. God is the anti-thesis of human thesis. Without God's otherness and action, this world would be one-dimensional, dead, stagnated in its patterns of repetitive, never-ending retributions against committed crimes and injustices. Without God or rather because of God all actions of the world are the same—every action would be dissolved in respondent re-action, every judgement would be blocked by contra-judgement, my sovereignty, or the sovereignty of my nation would stay forever against your sovereignty, my objectivity against your objectivity.

Thus, what is true action, if not something unexpected, a turn from the pattern, beginning of something new and different? It is what Aristotle said—action is the turning point in the drama, it is a synonym of life, something that provokes "wonder" and catharsis. Paradoxically, in human practice to fight evil with evil, there is no real action, no wonder possible, and no real life. The wonder bursts when love appears on the stage of the conflict between opposed evils. The surprising act-ion of love is the genuine turning point that makes illusory human action a true action, and that makes life possible.


The patterns of the mirroring subjectivities can be broken only with a revolt against rational order, against all forms(12) of dealing with evil inherited from our sinful past. "I must surely do the irrational, impossible and altogether impractical thing: "if thy enemy hunger, feed him! If he thirsts, give him to drink!" says Barth following the Gospel.(13) Doing this, he continues, is "giving glory to God." In feeding and helping the enemy, the coming of the Kingdom of God and God Himself is recognized.

The last hundred pages of Barth's commentary on Romans are devoted to politics and love and Barth himself admits that this is the "most controversial part" of the book.(14) He says that people concerned with politics and government and who did not read the entire commentary but only these last pages would probably have difficulties to understand his argumentation. He writes that they "will be puzzled as to why we say what we do say, why we do not say more, and why we do not say less."(15) The truth is that everyone would be puzzled, because Barth not only does not abandon his idea of God's independence from the world, but expands it into the human action. As we have seen in the first essay, if God is the only righteous that shows His righteousness in the act of love and mercy to the unrighteous humanity (and we were able to accept the logic of this proposition), here the request is directed to us as creatures able to practice love. This is a "scandal" (a Barthian term), because we know very well that we might experience love, might act under the impulses of love, but our love is never absolute, objective, constant; our love is not perfect. Once we realize that we are not gods and our love is imperfect, we might take a breath and accept God's mercy to our weakness and inability to respond without violence to the challenges of evil. But this "taking of breath" does not release us from the pressing responsibility (duty) that we have in almost every moment of our life to act as loving, not as proud and selfish men. We must practice love in order to survive as individuals and society.

Barth does not help us in practice, or at least does not prescribe modes of particular behavior. He just points the ideal, the principles of Christian love and its importance for the survival of the world as a living organism. This confinement within the limits of ideal, as we will see after awhile, would be the source of Hannah Arendt's critique to Christianity, but it would be also the final crossing point between Barth's realistic idealism and Arendt's pragmatism. For now, before we turn to Arendt's theory of human action and condition, let's concentrate on Barth's vision on politics and love.

The mirroring subjectivities that humanity practices are not absolute. They are not absolute exactly because we break down the cycle of violence with our disposition to like each other and cooperate. Cooperation and cessation of rights and sovereignties is a form of practicing love. Yet, this practice is not absolute, too. It is expressed in the "great positions of Church and State, of Law and Society."(16) They are legitimate as far as the majority of people accept the social contract. As legitimate, they are also objective for those who accept them. But as it was said, they are not absolute. They are always a unity contrasted with another, similar unity—one state among many, one religion among many, one church among many, one community among many... This is the logic of the world and life. It is partially objective, and it is partially subjective, it is complex.

Individual subjectivity is melted in the partial objectivity of the "common good" that is present in the functioning of society. Church and State, Law and Society "demand recognition and obedience, and we have to decide whether we shall or shall not yield to their demand."(17) The decision is not easy. It is a moral decision with unpredictable consequences. For example, little more than ten years after the publication of Romans II Barth would be asked to take an oath of allegiance to the Nation and Fuhrer. He refused, he took stand against the objectivity of what was considered as "common good" and suffered the consequences, being forced to leave Germany. From our historical point of view, we might say that he took the right decision, but at the time when the oath was required, refusal of allegiance was not an easy choice. Whether we shall or not yield to the demand of organized society has always been risky business. People like Carl Schmitt, for example, who probably took the oath, suffered the consequences of their decision to the rest of their life.

It is twice as difficult for a Christian to decide, to discern the real "common good" and act. It is especially visible with the ideologies of socialism and communism. A Christian might revolt against "legalism," against the established system, and find himself on the side of Bolshevism or radicalism. Moreover, siding with the "destructive forces," i.e. the revolutionary forces, he might find himself keeping the sceptre of God imposing his objectivity over the others. The same is valid with conservatism. To support the status quo is not a guarantee that you support "objective righteousness." Even in an imaginable theocracy, says Barth, subjectivity would be a problem. "This theocratic dream comes abruptly to an end, [...] when we discover that it is the Devil who approaches Jesus and offers Him all the kingdoms of this world. It ends also with Dostoyevsky's picture of the Grand Inquisitor. Men have no right to possess objective right against other men. And so the more they surround themselves with objectivity, the greater is the wrong they inflict upon others."(18)

So Barth advises that what is required is "not be angry, not engage in an assault, not demolish," but to "overcome evil with good." Every existing order is temporal and imperfect, and before all, God "wishes to be recognized as He that overcomes the unrighteousness of the existing order." Not man, but God is the One who finally overcomes the unrighteousness. Leaving history, human tragedy in the hands of God, the True Playwright, is practicing of obedience to death. It is admittance that God is the performer of the true revolution. For us, the revolution could mean only "non-doing," the first step in our conversion from evil to love. The good man is not a rebel; he is one who does not do injury. He follows neither rulers, nor revolutionaries. He is outside the world. His "good work" is to "dissolute" the "man of the world" and to establish "the individual of God."(19) The good man is invisible, "no longer an angry god warring against other gods."(20) And here, the paradox! Rulers "rejoice over a citizen so remarkably well-behaved," but are blind to see that "good man's" silence means that he has "so much to say against them that he no longer complains of them."(21) Silence is the sign of the final expectation of God's wrath and human obedience to death.

But silence is not enough. Behind it, there must be sympathy. Obedience should not be a passive, simple, and malicious expectation of God's apocalypse, but an active hope (optimism), an active love, expressed in the political choices we make, and constant readiness to forgive. "To every man we should owe love."(22) To every man: to the man in the slum, and to the lord with the whip. "Love to one another ought to be undertaken as the course of this world." Man is ethical only when is not "conformed to this world." In love is the "revolutionary aspect of all ethical behaviour," it is the mean that breaks the existing order.(23) It is a protest and duty, it is protected against the corruption of human "caprice," "disappointment," and "misuse." "Love your enemy, is a significant action, which announces the Coming World," says Barth.(24)

But can the "scandal" of love and obedience to death be truly comprehended and practiced?


Hannah Arendt's opinion is "Yes." Unexpectedly, she reaches this very same conclusion in a book that is often dubbed as critical to the influence and application of Christian love in public affairs. As coming from an atheist, Arendt's "yes" is not direct, not openly pronounced, even not conscious. A thinker with immense creativity and erudition and genuine attraction to the truth, Arendt's logic and intuition in "The Human Condition" lead to the same conclusion that we find in Barth's interpretation of Romans—that love is the origin of life and survival, the only genuine action.

We began this essay with the notion of the complexity of the world and life. Barth believed that human existence cannot be explained straightforwardly, some kind of dialectic and paradox would always be necessary when we discuss life. Barthian dialectic, it has been said, is based on the qualitative division between creation and God. It was noted that for Barth the dynamics within creation is induced by God—the creation, although in a constant change, is both passive and responsive to God's will, God is the Playwright. Now, we turn to Hannah Arendt, who agrees that the world is complex and dialectical, although not necessarily paradoxical. In her theoretical system God is missing as an actor or playwright, which makes her theory more comprehensible, but not simple. Her dialectic rests exclusively on worldly phenomena. For this reason, she succeeds where the Barthian analysis seems insufficient—in the description of social and political matters; but fails where Barth succeeds—in the explicit admission that love is the ultimate source of life and human permanence (or salvation).

In Arendt's dialectic, we have four fundamental pairs: public and private, action and contemplation. These four pairs are situated in the realm of human condition that we might call "man-made" world or "common space." The man-made world is resting on three general "pillars" that are not in dialectical opposition, but contribute equally to the human existence and survival: labour, work, and action. In the next few pages, we will discuss briefly the four dialectical pairs of the man-made world. It is necessary to do so, because this would give us a better understanding of how Christianity is situated in Arendt's political theory and how the Christian "ideals" of love, goodness, promise, forgiveness, and life, not only do not undermine the foundations of man-made world, but save it from destruction and stillness of death.

Hanna Arendt's structure of human condition revolves around four gravitational centers: action and contemplation, public and private. Action corresponds to the public, contemplation to the private. These pairs form two worlds that are qualitatively different from one another. They have been present throughout the human history, at least in the Western history, and have their beginning in the Greek polis. Arendt discerns that life in ancient Greece was organized around two vortexes: the family, which was the private space, where group of relatives lived together along with their slaves, and the polls, which was the public space, where the greater community of the city-state was summoning voluntarily to discuss and channel its energies.

These two centers of human interaction—the private and the public—were qualitatively different because, as Arendt explains, the private realm was based on necessity, its main care was survival and governance of the family economy; while the public realm, rested on the free interaction and enjoyment of being in society. The necessity required ancient family to be composed hierarchically; the head of the family had an absolute power over his children, wife, and slaves. In contrast, the polls were free forums composed by equals, who interacted voluntarily. People who participated in public space were all people free of necessity. They were not there because they needed something. On the public stage, they were free to speak without fear or pride—there, they were neither rulers, nor sons, much less slaves; they were released from the shadows and burdens of the private life and participated in a society, where equality and freedom to express yourself was respected and real, in short, they were citizens. In the public space of the polls they lived the "good life." "The 'good life,' as Aristotle called the life of the citizen [...] was not only better, more carefree or nobler than ordinary life, but of an altogether different quality," says Arendt. "It was 'good' to the extent that by having mastered the necessities of sheer life, by being free from labor and work, and by overcoming the innate urge of all living creatures for their own survival, it was no longer bound to the biological process."(25) In the Greek polis, the public space where equals meet equals was the only possible space where man can be free. Thus politics, which was the action of speech in classical Greece, was something inherently related to freedom. For the citizens of the polis, "the politics was never for the sake of life." (26) We must repeat here—the politics should never be for the sake of life or necessity.

We immediately notice that this classical view of politics is a complete reversal of the modern notion that regards politics as inherently related to necessity. Politics, the modern man would say, resolves problems, it is not a discussion between equals, but rather a war between groups fighting for a living space and survival. For Arendt, this is an example of how we have lost the classical ideal, how in the course of history the features of private life have overcame the character of public life, how "housekeeping and all matters pertaining formerly to the private sphere of the family have become a 'collective' concern." Moreover, it is an example of how the private today became what was public in ancient Greece—the only space where one can shelter from the necessities of survival, where one can be truly free and good became behind the walls of home. Goodness and freedom disappeared from the sight of the world, they became hidden in the private space, and as hidden, they became practically non-existent. Today, says Arendt, "freedom is located in the realm of the social, and force or violence becomes the monopoly of government."(27) Location changed, but freedom is the same as always—"to be free meant both not to be subject to the necessity of life or to the command of another and not to be in command oneself...It meant neither to rule, not be ruled."

This disappearance of freedom from the public space is what concerns Arendt. We must not forget that she was a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. For a person who experienced the terror of totalitarian society, the disappearance of speech, of freedom, of interaction between equals from the public space, is a sign for destruction of life. When a society—state, or party, or whatever group of humans—begin to impose silence in the name of order and necessity, when it begins to persecute "dissidents" (Sakharov, Havel, Solzhenitsyn, etc), it means that this society has lost or is on the way of losing its freedom. When the members of this society stop being citizens and shelter in the realms of private life, this means that totalitarianism, the rule of the one, is in action. The concern of Arendt is that the destruction of pluralism, is a destruction of action; pluralism, which is the free expression and exchange of ideas and beliefs, is the very center of human society. We are humans because we interact with each other. Man is a man only among men. Destruction of "common space," which consists of actions and interactions, and their material results (the man-made utilities), is destruction of human life. So every attack against free expression, or pluralism, is an attack against life, against humanity. Every withdrawal from the public space behind the walls of private is a withdrawal from freedom and humanity to slavery and alienation. And every example of courage, of expression of genuine personal opinion or of a work of man's individual creativity, is a step for creating life, for recovering the vitality of the public space. In ancient Greece, slaves did not practice politics, because slaves lacked the courage to risk their life for freedom. A truly free man would give his life for freedom, would have self-respect and sense of dignity. That's why in Greece, and today, says Arendt, courage is "the political virtue, par excellence, and only those men, who possessed it could be admitted to a fellowship that was political in content and purpose and thereby transcended the mere togetherness imposed on all—slaves, barbarians, and Greeks alike—through the urgencies of life."(28)

Now, it is getting clear how and in what way the second pair, contemplation and action, is related to private and public. Like the private, contemplation is hidden; like the pubic, action is visible. Contemplation and action have similar long history of presence in the Greek and Western world, but the attitude to them was reverse: although related and corresponding to the private, contemplation was respected among Greeks, while action (or rather activities), despite being related to the public, did not enjoy the favourite opinion of citizens. It was so not because the citizens did not practice it, but because they considered action not only as an opportunity to speak your mind and participate in the polls, but also to perform labour and work—two activities related to necessity.

Nevertheless, in the classical world there was a time when action was still surpassing contemplation by virtue. This was most visible in the Greek notions on eternity and immortality. The ancient Greeks believed that their Olympic gods differ from humans only by the eternal life they had. Thus, for the mortal man was possible to achieve immortal status through performing great acts of courage and excellence. Courage and excellence were the means for winning a permanent place in history and collective memory. Greeks wanted to be gods, and believed that they can be. The human-like nature of Greek gods should be noted, Arendt writes, as being in sharp contrast to the Eastern notions of the divine. In Asia, gods were beyond the world and man. She quotes Herodotus' observation that Persians had "no images of gods, no temples, nor altars," but considered "these doings being foolish." People in East did not believe as Greeks did "that the gods are antropophyesis of human nature,"(29) they did not have the specific Greek culture, breeding the ideals of strong character, virtue, and excellence, making man equal to divine.

This anthropocentric culture was eventually undermined by the realities of life—the destructions of war, political instability and decline of the polis, the natural disasters, and all diverse challenges that human life and civilization face, led to an ever-growing pessimism and to the emergence of new cultural forms such as the wordless idealism that found expression in the Platonic philosophy, stoicism, and Christianity. The Greco-Roman world, especially after the fall of Rome, reached the point where the immortality through deeds, although still respected and desired, became of less value for the individual and society, than the achievements of contemplation. Zeno, speaking to the citizens under the city colonnades, Socrates making his home a public space, inviting guests for discussions, and Jesus, preaching among the people and dying on the heights of the cross, were all men of action and speech succeeded by Neo-Platonists, stoic sages, and Christian literati—all men of letters and contemplation. Seclusion and contemplation became ideals that replaced public manifestation, action, and speech. "Vita Activa" became inferior to "Vita Contemplativa." It was a change forced by the realities of life, perhaps a change caused by the maturity and decline of classical civilization, but Arendt sees for its major source the powerful influence of Christianity. Christianity was the religion that melted and transformed the cultures of the classical world. It brought the hidden God of the East to Greco-Roman civilization and so changed it irrevocably. The fall of the Roman Empire, combined with the influence of Christian ethics, "demonstrated that no work of mortal hands can be immortal," that immortality trough glory and deeds is "futile and unnecessary."

Here, Arendt and Barth seem to agree—Christianity is unsympathetic to the world being against "every high place on earth." The difference is that Barth views Christian influence as positive, while Arendt thinks about it in rather negative terms. Then, in what way Barth and Arendt's stand firmly together and point out that love makes life possible?


First of all, we have to say that Arendt is not against love. She was initially planning to entitle The Human Condition as "Amor Mindi" (Love to the World). Love seems the very center of her political philosophy, and her goal is not so much to criticize the notions of love that Christianity introduced to the Western world, but to free them out of the hiddenness of private life and contemplation and merge them with the classical ideal of "Vita Activa." But can such a thing be possible? How can the citizen's pride and desire for greatness and immortality be reconciled with the words of John:

"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." (1 John 2:15-17)

Arendt admits that historically only one principle was devised to keep people together without the need of "common world" and it was the Christian idea of love. Under "common world" she understands the "man-made world"—the labour that is like the "blood system" of society, always in a move and action to support the many departments of life; the work that creates the long lasting utilities of material goods and technologies, the "bones" supporting society; and action, the brain center that connects and directs the entire system of human condition. In this visible world—labouring people, utilities and technologies, and human relations, love is somewhat invisible. The labouring people are the masses of human beings without faces, moved by the necessity to support the existence of humanity, the utilities and technologies are the by-products and surpluses from the labour, and human relations are the political games that regulate the distribution of labour and work. It seems there is no place for love in this organism moved by necessity, reason, and war for survival. Historically, charity seems like an almost invisible part of human condition, it was not public; it was not a crucial part of politics or the usual impulse for political action.

Yet, charity or love is real, it exists, and its most ambitious project is Christianity. "To find a bond between people, strong enough to replace the world was the main political task of early Christian philosophy," says Arendt "and it was Augustine who proposed to found not only the Christian 'brotherhood,' but all human relationships on charity."(30) What prevented the project of Christian love from becoming a political force of this world was its very essence. According to Arendt, Christianity is a religion, and as a religion, it is not of the world and never can be. It can soften to some extent some of the edges of common existence, but it cannot re-create the world, because it is not of the same matter. It is like burning down a house of wood and trying to re-build it again with the smoke of its ashes. Matter versus Spirit. Arendt believed that a principle of worldliness, however good it could be, cannot produce a true political action, a true public space, and this is especially valid for Christianity that is a religion expecting apocalypse, not appreciating what is now, but what will be. Christians are together as long as this world lasts, they do not want so much to reform the world, as they want it to end, to see it replaced with a new world; replaced not by them, but by God Himself. Thus, Christianity's character is essentially non-political, the character of Christian communities is non-public. Christians might feel each other equal, like the citizens of the polis, but more like the members of a family, they tend to respect community and conformism over individualism and debate, humility over pride, hidden deeds of goodness over public demonstration of excellence.

Therefore, in Christian community the advantage of equality we have seen in the public space of the ancient Greek polis is nullified by the presence of conformism and humility. Individualism and courage, two key ingredients for the functioning of the free society, are subdued in the Christian community in the name of the common good and harmony. Christian society by no means belongs to the private realm. And in this is the problem, according to Arendt. She says that a public realm cannot be "developed from Christian community life, if this life is ruled by the principle of charity and nothing else."(31) Love requires everyone to be good to everyone, to behave well, thus a society based on the principle of love, in order to survive as such, must inevitably (self-) impose some form of restriction against "excellence" and "pride." This negative attitude to the outstanding achievements is a feature of private life. The intimacy of private life does not tolerate authority based on excellence; such authority is possible only in the public realm, where the ordinary is rather non-existent, invisible. The danger that comes from the private features of Christianity stems from the encouragement of conformism that helps the development of despotism. On the other hand, the expectation of the end of the world in Christian religion has the effect of encouraging political passivity and pessimism. Christian hope and optimism in the "Coming World," therefore, is becoming a source for utter pessimism and disbelief in the final correctness of every political action. Arendt says, "The Christian abstention from worldly things is by no means the only conclusion one can draw from the conviction that the human artifice, a product of mortal hands, is as mortal as its makers."(32) Nothing lasts—then, nothing must be done. The lack of the "things of the world," the lack of hope in human progress, of glory, of believe in the greatness of humanity, the lack of excellence, worldly rewards and pride, all these "lacks" make public life to die and common world to shrink under the tyranny of the one—either man, privileged group, or set of rules (bureaucracy).

In short, for Arendt the "common world" of the many is confronted by the "worldliness" of religion and privacy. The pluralism of open action, where individualism plays a central role, is undermined by the inaction of contemplation and belief, where individualism is non-existent since not expressed in the act of speech and public engagement.

What we might say against Arendt's concept now is that Christianity, because of its "worldliness," not despite of it, is in fact the most powerful source of action. Christian belief in immortality and eternity and love is much more creative, brave, and potent than the classical Greek ideal of human greatness or the modern concept of meritocracy. One Greek hero was able in his lifetime to submit the entire known world with the help of excellence and sword, then immediately after his death, his empire crumbled into pieces. I speak here about Alexander the Great. More than three hundred years later, another Man, never leaving the region of the province of Judaea, with the help of His love gave His life voluntarily, only to win for Himself and for all a Kingdom that lasts forever. I speak here about Jesus Christ. Note here, the difference between the names of these two historical actors: Great and Christ. One was Great, the other— a Saviour. Alexander acted on the stage of the world, Jesus, in His earthly life, never truly departed the realms of private, living among His twelve disciples in native Judaea. Both are examples of excellence, but today, the deeds of only one of them have true meaning, the effects of the act of only one of them are intertwined in the tissue of human civilization and history. So, the invisible deed of love every man performs, following consciously or unconsciously the example and teaching of Christ, is much more permanent and world-changing than the visible act of achievement we witness on the scene of public life and politics. In fact, Arendt is not so far from this conclusion too, as we will see in the next pages. But for now, we must remember what she sees the danger of Christianity in its worldliness, and we must admit that her arguments are valid and logical, but only to a certain point, i.e. not ultimate.


Another ideal that Christianity introduced to the Western civilization is goodness, says Arendt. Like love, goodness is closely related to the realms of private; and like love, to be true, goodness must stay hidden, not publicly demonstrated. Public demonstration of good works nurtures pride in the heart of the performer and wins for him followers and veneration; the demonstration of goodness makes him prominent, attracts human attention, approval, and applauses. The demonstrated and appreciated goodness corrupts if not society, at least its performer, makes him unable to continue to do good. The only thing that makes the good person excellent is his invisible work. Moreover, the only way that saves the good man from pride and moral corruption is humility, the lack of consciousness that he is good. The goodness of man must be revealed only posthumously.  This is what Barth suggested in Romans, and this is what Arendt understands under Christian goodness—the performer of the good act has no consciousness that he is good. In fact, these are the words of Jesus, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." (Mark 10:18)

Arendt writes, "Goodness can exist only when it is not perceived, not even by its author; whoever sees himself performing good work is no longer good, but at best useful member of society."(33) Good deeds, she continues, must not leave a trace behind, they must be consumed immediately, left unnoticed and unappreciated; appreciation is temptation, good deeds "must be forgotten the moment they are done, because even memory will destroy their quality of being 'good'! Good works, because they must be forgotten instantly, can never become part of this world [...] They truly are not of this world."(34) Being not of this world, they are destructive to it.

Christians understand well that goodness is not from this world. And many of them prefer the easier path to achieve goodness or moral excellence with leaving the world—it is not surprising that monasticism and the living in secluded, close communities are practiced by Christians. Withdrawal from the world, the physical and emotional withdrawal, creates a false sense for salvation through rightfulness. Monastic psyche practiced in a wide scale, the withdrawal of Christ's disciples behind the walls of "private," could have a devastating effect on the world. Physical and emotional distance, the purely spiritual devotion to God and the abandonment of society of men, is destructive to both the individual and society. In Eastern-Orthodox Christianity, for example, we have a strange combination of fusion between Church and State and simultaneous detachment of the Church from the worldly affairs. On one hand, the Church is under the sway of the state, and on the other, perhaps because of the ambition of the secular power and its effort to control the realms of spiritual, the Church searches to escape in orthodoxy, in the glories of its past and tradition, hidden behind the walls of the temples and monasteries. This withdrawal of spiritual from the world in East is perhaps one of the reasons for the existence and affinity to despotic political traditions in the Eastern societies. Arendt has reasons to caution that spiritual devotion detached from the world is destructive to humanity, but one should not take her argument against "private" goodness without hearing her treatment of "labour."

First, I have to note that Arendt explains labour in very positive terms. It seems, in her theory, labour differs from goodness only in one thing—necessity. If goodness is a result of a free choice, of freedom, then labour, on its side, exists because of necessity. The relation to necessity doesn't make labour less important for the "human condition." For Arendt, labour is the invisible, constant effort or action of humanity to sustain the existence of the world. Labour, like tilling the earth (and giving birth) is hard, intimate, painful, and exhausting. And because related to necessity, labour is considered by many as a curse, not as blessing.

Labour has always been related to slavery. We have already said, in ancient Greece, the citizens did not value it. It was locked in the realms of household and not considered as part of the "good life." Today, with the expansion of national and world economy, labour is not just a domestic issue, but global activity, it is one of the most visible signs of how domestic economy, or the realms of private in past, infiltrated into the realms of public and changed them. Labour, Arendt reminds, is the basic and perhaps most original Marxist idea. Marx built his entire socio-political theory on the pillars of labour and capital. Labour, according to him, was the thing that distinguishes man from the animal. Man in difference to the animal has the ability to work and produce more than it can consume, mostly because of his creative nature. Human creativity is what helps overproduction, or surplus (fertility). Man always produces more than his needs, and doing so, he sustains the growth and expansion of human civilization (common world). The surplus lays the basis for the exchange of goods. The accumulation of surplus inevitably becomes capital, and the owners of capital, the people who are able to amass surplus in liquid form, as money, became able to control, direct, and appropriate the fruits of human creativity and productivity.

Like good deeds, labour is performed to be consumed. Like good deeds, it sustains life. If the product of labour is taken out of the world, accumulated in capital savings or in stored goods, then it is wasted. The unused product of labour is destructive in the same way as the withdrawal of spiritual from the world is. The unused surplus (or capital) makes labour infertile. Arendt relates labour to natality—this act of giving birth, bringing something new to the world, perpetuating, and recovering what was lost as energy. Labour, similar to the good deed, is the thing that battles in every minute of human existence, unnoticed, unappreciated, the decay of the world, the exhaustion from life; its fruits are blessing for those who consume them. Labour is the action, the "metabolism" (Arendt's term) that overcomes the corruption of matter, and sets right the distortions in the historical sequence.(35)

Arendt notes that nowhere in the Old Testament death is the "wage for sin." "Nor did the curse by which man was expelled from the paradise punish him with labour and birth; it only made labour harsh, and birth full of pain. According to Genesis, man (adeem) had been created to take care and watch over the soil (adamah) as even his name, the masculine form of soil, indicates [...] The word for 'tilling' which later became the word for labouring in Hebrew, kaivod, has the connotation of 'to serve.' The curse (Genesis 3:17) does not mention this word, but the meaning is clear: the service for which man is created now became servitude."(36)

In this last quote, we see how labour becomes subjected to necessity and how good deeds are the only human performances or acts not related to servitude. Goodness differs from labour because it is not prompted by necessity, but by freedom, yet, (and this is very important!) both goodness and labour are necessities of life, without them, Arendt would say, and Barth would agree that there is no "human condition," no history, no generation, no sustainability, no common space, no birth given, no life.


And here we come to the last part of our essay. We return to Aristotle and his theory of drama. As we have seen, in Poetics Aristotle explained that tragedy is "an imitation (mimesis), not of men, but of an action and of life." In the first essay, we supported this opinion with the dramatic story of Esau and Jacob. The actions (the lives) of the two brothers revealed their characters, made them alive for us, the spectators, and most importantly brought to light the truth that God is God of mercy. We have seen that unrighteousness that makes human life a tragedy was purified by the righteous act of God, who transformed the tragedy into a comedy. In the catharsis of the dramatic life-story, we witness the miracle of forgiveness, and the reality of the promise. Forgiveness is always a miracle, because like goodness, it is "not of this world." It is hard to be performed, it is rare, it is not given to us by birth, so we must learn how to practice it. Forgiveness is a good deed, but in difference to the "common" good deed, it cannot stay hidden. When you forgive, you cannot hide yourself. It is not like giving secretly help. Forgiveness is within society, it always involves more than two people. The act of forgiveness shines. It was seen in the crucified Jesus.

Barth understood human life and history as a continuous drama. It is true, for him God was the ultimate decision maker. God for him was not so much an actor, but a playwright. For Barth, we are both performers of the play of life, and spectators. As performers we experience life, as spectators we understand it. As performers in the God's play, we don't know what comes in the next episode, but as attentive spectators of the dramatic play of others, we learn what to expect, and in the act of others we discern the features of our own character and the wonderful nature of the Playwright. Arendt is not far at all from this Barthian vision. She too perceives life as a dramatic play; she too understands the paradox of simultaneous performance and spectatorship.

Arendt says, "in acting and speaking, men show who they are [...] make their appearance in the human world."(37) Seeing human life and history in the same way as Barth, she just takes out God from the picture. The long tradition of searching some hidden power behind history and action—the Platonic Craftsman, the Aristotelian First Mover, the Providence, the Invisible Hand, the Watchmaker, the world Spirit, etc.—is an expression of the perplexity of how and who moves this world. For Arendt, there is no "demiurge" behind the play. If there were, then life would be unreal. We live in the play of the real life. Life is like a play, because it is action, and it is not a play, because it is a real action. The Platonic and Christian idealism just does not accept the fact that the reality is not "made up." We play in real, and we appreciate the art of theater, because it is the closest depiction of life. She writes, "the theater is the political art par excellence; only there is the political sphere of human life transposed into art. By the same token, it is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationship to others."(38) And she continues that in the theatrical play, "action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better, what it was all about than the participants..."

In the man-made world, we are all players and improvisators who do not know what follows next; we guess, hope, believe, but we don't know. We are caught in an endless chain of actions, which is life, we act and re-act, and our action leads to another action, and we are "never able to foretell with certainty the outcome and end of any action" because activity (or life) simply has no end."The process of a single deed [...] can endure after the man's death."(39)

This endurance and uncertainty of the results of the human action becomes a source of fear, of timidity, of passivity. We have said, in relation to Barth, that action is risky business; the Christian is always facing a difficult choice when acting—to submit under the rules of social contract, present in the institutions of Church, State, Law and Society, or to revolt against them, is an always present dilemma. Both choices—collaboration and revolt—are risky, because we often do not know what is right in perspective, in long term. Our moral compass is imperfect; our knowledge of God's will is insufficient. Arendt says, "Deeds possess an enormous capacity for endurance [...] that could be a matter of pride, if men were able to bear [...] the burden of irreversibility and impracticability." The actor "never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes 'guilty' of consequences he never intended or even foresaw."(40) Insecurity, fear of taking decision and bearing responsibility, the "non-doing" (as we called the first act from the position of love, when discussing Barth) for Arendt are an attack against freedom; because of the fear from consequences, freedom and action become objects of suspicion. She writes that there is a "great tradition in Western thought [...] to accuse freedom of luring man into necessity, to condemn action." According to this tradition, "the only salvation [...] lies in non-acting, in abstention from the whole realm of human affairs as the only means to safeguard one's sovereignty and integrity as a person."(41) These are wrong premises, says Arendt, because in reality no man can be sovereign, independent; human condition is organically related to plurality.

It is obvious that Christianity is part of the tradition encouraging contemplation and seclusion instead of speech and action. Christianity is a problem in the human condition. But its paradoxical nature is exposed once again in the fact that it is also a solution. Christianity is not teaching non-action. Arendt already said, it brought to the world the potentia of love and goodness,(42) as potentia they are both "not of this world," and now, in the end of her book, she admits that Christianity gave also the act of forgiveness and the ideal of the virtue of life. Forgiveness is the highest expression of love; life is the fulfilled, materialised love.

Humanity will never stop acting. Acting is necessity, action is natural, not a choice. We cannot escape the role of actors in the God's play. But to have the courage to act, we must have the power to forgive! The conviction that forgiveness is the good deed that makes us resemble the Creator is what sustains life. Forgiveness is greater than glory. Forgiveness is the miracle that makes freedom to act possible. "The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility [...] is the faculty of forgiving,"(43) says Arendt. "The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense."(44)

I will repeat that forgiveness is the true act, the ultimate good deed, and as such, it is the highest point of catharsis, of purification. Arendt agrees, "Forgiving [...] is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus' teaching of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance."(45)

Behind the act of forgiveness is the potentia of love. So the impulse of love is what destroys all barriers between men, what results in something new, in a new beginning—the crimes of our weaknesses are forgiven and we do not act any more as judges, but as friends, we throw the scepters of wrath, and become equal. This is exactly what Barth suggested. Barth and Arendt cross their paths here. Secular and religious become indistinguishable in their love for the world and humanity. Humility and Glory together, reconciled in the name of life. In every episode (act) the apparent tragedy transforms into a comedy, so we continue to the next scene; we hope and believe that there will not be an end of life (and world), despite our sinfulness. "It is this faith in and hope for the world (and life) that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the words with which the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.'"(46)

Only with the rise of Christianity, Arendt is convinced, "did life on earth become the highest good of man." The miracles of Christian love, goodness, and forgiveness, the miracle of Christian God, save the world. So, in the end of every year, in the end of every episode of our personal and collective human drama, even in the end of our life, we might exclaim: "A child has been born unto us!"




Aristotle, Poetics (Hackett Classics, 1987)
Aristotle, Metaphysics (The University of Michigan Press, 1966)
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1963)
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1998)


1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1998) p. 176

2. "'potential' (dunamis). For Aristotle, the natural POTENTIAL of something is realized in its ACTIVITY or actuality (energia). Thus, the potential of a tragedy exists even when it is a script sitting on a shelf, but that potential is realized in its performance, when it achieves its FUNCTION (ergon). Likewise the potential of the tragic genre as a whole is realized in the actuality of its historical development." (Aristotle, tr. Richard Janko. Poetics, Hackett Classics, 1987. p.66) Aristotle uses "potentiality" in relation with "actuality" and "power." Wherever something like power is involved, we have potentiality and actuality that are expressions of its work. For Aristotle, "actuality" or "action" might be explained as "fulfilment," while potentiality, while existing, is still non-being, not in completeness or fulfilment. In fact, potentiality cannot be potential if not fulfilled at some point of its non-being. See book IX of Metaphysics for detailed discussion on the questions of movement, power, actuality, and potentiality.

3. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1963) p. 425

4. Ibid. 425

5. Ibid.  462

6. Ibid. 463

7. Ibid. 465

8. Ibid. 466 Note here that the "Coming World" is not defined, it is rather something that will come, and as such it points out only that the world now is finite, alive, changeable, disordered, etc.

9. Ibid. 467

10. Ibid. 472

11. Ibid. 472

12. I use intentionally the word "form" here, which brings us to the beginning of the essay where we have started with the idea that the forms of our world are expressions of our understanding of life and our desire for order. It is clear that this is a reversal of the Platonic idealism—in Plato the forms are the true order and model, here the forms are just empty of towers of Babel that soon or later dissolve in the realities of life.

13. Ibid. 474

14. Ibid. 476

15. Ibid. 476

16. Ibid. 477

17. Ibid. 477


19. Ibid. 487

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid. 488

22. Ibid. 492

23. Ibid. 493

24. Ibid. 475

25. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1998) p.. 36

26. Ibid. 37

27. Ibid. 31

28. Ibid. 36

29. Ibid. 18

30. Ibid. 53

31. Idid. 54

32. Ibid. 54

33. Ibid. 74

34. Ibid. 76

35. Here, I mean that labour is the action of recovery after war; war is the distortion of the historical sequence. Labour it is the necessary act of re-building of society and common space after natural or man-made disasters. In a sense, labour is the activity that helps the return to what is common and universal. It is the act of recovery. It is also an expression of human ability to cooperate, not only of control and of necessity. 

36. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1998) p. 107

37. Ibid. 179

38. Ibid. 188

39. Ibid. 233

40. Ibid. 234

41. Ibid. 234

42. I am hinting again the Aristotelian concept of act and potentia that underlies this entire writing (the essay).

43. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago University Press, 1998) p. 237

44. Ibid. 238

45. Ibid. 241

46. Ibid. 247


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