Hannah Arendt on Thinking as the Quintessence of Being Alive

The term “thinking” covers a vast terrain of meanings. It spans the continuous, reactive stream of consciousness transpiring behind our eyeballs somewhere; the “contemplative habit of mind” so praised by Bertrand Russell; the willful use of reason or judgment; and in Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece, The Life of the Mind, the very life-blood & essence of a truly alive human being:

“Thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process; its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results or specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence — it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers.” 

— Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)

Ironically, thinking is undeniably the single most performed act in all of humanity, and yet we think comparatively little about it. In the same vein that proclaims an eye cannot see itself, or a fire cannot burn itself, thinking about thinking initially sounds strange; how could thought think itself? But, any earnest attempt finds pretty quickly that this is possible. In many forms of meditation, becoming better acquainted with the nature of our thoughts, thinking about how we think, is the first step.

But meditation often defines “thought” as the (almost) ever-present stream of consciousness, something ephemeral and obstructive to deeper planes of awareness. Contrast this with Plato’s definition of thinking: “the talking of the soul with itself.” The two emphasize a spectrum of thinking that builds from the trivial to the transcendent. In Arendt’s wildly rich 216 pages devoted exclusively to “Thinking”, she notes the idyllic end of the spectrum, thinking in its highest form, which fittingly parallels the state of cultivated meditation beyond transient thoughts:

“…thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity; it is the point where mental activity comes to rest.” 

— Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)

Contrary to conventional notions, Arendt defines the ambition of thinking as the absence of mental activity. What makes this fascinating is that she’s rooted firmly in the Western tradition of philosophy, drawing heavily from Plato and Kant, with no reference to the Asian traditions where similar ideas roam abundantly.

She goes on to paint thought and the mental dimension as mankind’s modality for transcending the mundane. Calling attention to the host of conditionings ever-present in the secular sphere of existence — nationalities, religions, physicalities, corporeal hobbies — Arendt conceives of thinking as a highway from the mundane, out of the finite, into the eternal:

“Men, though they are totally conditioned existentially — limited by the time span between birth and death, subject to labor in order to live, motivated to work in order to make themselves at home in the world, and roused to action in order to find their place in the society of their fellow-men — can mentally transcend all these conditions, but only mentally, never in reality or in cognition and knowledge, by virtue of which they are able to explore the world’s realness and their own.” 

— Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)

Pursuing thought’s path into that transcendent space, Arendt’s “quintessence of being alive”, is precisely what led mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell from self-identifying as a utilitarian, interested in hedonic pleasure and pain, to a contemplative, interested in the “contemplation of eternal things”. At 29 years old he wrote to his friend, the British scholar Gilbert Murray:

“[Unlike the] utilitarian… I judge pleasure and pain to be of small importance compared to knowledge, the appreciation and contemplation of beauty, and a certain intrinsic excellence of mind which, apart from its practical effects, appears to me to deserve the name of virtue. [For] many years it seemed to me perfectly self-evident that pleasure is the only good and pain the only evil. Now, however, the opposite seems to me self-evident...

What first turned me away from utilitarianism was the persuasion that I myself ought to pursue philosophy, although I had (and have still) no doubt that by doing economics and the theory of politics I could add more to human happiness. It appeared to me that the dignity of which human existence is capable is not attainable by devotion to the mechanism of life, and that unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs.”

— Letter to Gilbert Murray, April 3, 1902

Arendt goes on to describe this space in which “the contemplation of eternal things” thrives:

“It [thought] is the quiet of the Now in the time-pressed, time-tossed existence of man; it is somehow, to change the metaphor, the quiet in the center of a storm which, though totally unlike the storm, still belongs to it. In this gap between past and future, we find our place in time when we think, that is, when we are sufficiently removed from past and future to be relied on to find out their meaning, to assume the position of ‘umpire’, of arbiter and judge over the manifold, never-ending affairs of human existence in the world, never arriving at a final solution to their riddles but ready with ever-new answers to the question of what it may be all about.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)

And this was Russell’s movement, away from the pursuit of pleasures and towards what he became increasingly convinced truly mattered in enhancing the sweep of human life, “a certain intrinsic excellence of mind”. Because if happiness is conceived of as pleasure, it then diverges from what contemplatives throughout history have mused that this — life — “may be all about”.

In concluding her metaphor of thought’s peak, she echoes the timeless notion that whatever this region is, call it the spirit, eternal present, contemplation, God, reality, what Jack Kerouac called The Golden Eternity, or whatever else, it cannot be imparted second-hand. It’s a treasure of life that can only be discovered anew by each individual’s own efforts:

“…this present which is timeless…we call it the region of the spirit, but it is perhaps rather the path paved by thinking, the small inconspicuous track of non-time beaten by the activity of thought within the time-space given to natal and mortal men…This small non-time space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, cannot be inherited and handed down by tradition, although every great book of thought points to it somewhat cryptically…Each new generation, every new human being, as he becomes conscious of being inserted between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave anew the path of thought.” 

— Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (1978)