The Glory and the Story
Updated: Apr 4
The “glory,” of course, is a baby’s birth. In her book The Human Condition, (1958) the philosopher Hannah Arendt defines human birth or natality as “the new beginning.” For her, the baby being born is the basis of human action because it creates new possibilities that have not yet been realized.
Hannah Arendt studied philosophy in Germany, and then fled from the Nazis first to France and then to the United States. She settled in New York. She authored numerous books, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Banality of Evil, a book based on her reporting of the Eichmann trial in Israel. Today she is recognized as one of the major philosophers of the 20th century.
Many families have their stories of babies being born, stories from multiple generations. No one can tell their own story, of course, but rather we all listen to our beginnings from others.
True, some stories seem comic and others tragic. Part of my story is that Dad left for the hospital when it was time for my birth and forgot to take Mom with him. He said he was just going to tell them they were coming (the hospital was only a few blocks away), which may be true, but not as good a story. Your story, of course, depends not only on the storyteller, but also on what happened. Some may never hear a story about their birth but may find the “glory” in the story of others.
During this pandemic, the story of the birth of Jesus seems especially potent. This Christmas isn’t just for believers, but for those of us grieving for the dying and their families.
Arendt has identified another aspect of natality. She sees it as the basis for human action. She writes that natality is “the central category of political thought.” How could that be? What about military force, or people in high office, or cult leaders? If I understand Arendt here, she is saying that politics is about the possible---it’s human action realized by the telling. That a baby is born is not just a “natural” event, even though it is that. It is also an opportunity to say something not said before, and to do what needs doing.
Right now, the dying and death of so many from Covid causes palpable despair. At the same time, babies are being born; many born in a world they would not desire. Could the “glory” of their birth, whatever their story, lift the despair and even give us directions to create a future for them. This is how Hanna Arendt puts it:
The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from the normal “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men [sic] and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence. . . . It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announce their “good tidings.” “A child has ben born unto us”