Fraternity parties have no place at the University of Chicago. They are horrific, nauseating, and claustrophobic, rife with social anxieties and sweaty bodies weirdly undulating to suggestive music. They are a poor excuse for genuine camaraderie. Instead, through cheap liquor and obnoxiously loud music, they render their guests invincibly stupid and permanently deaf. I avoid them all at costs, particularly because of the music—which I can safely assume would be a sample of the latest noisome albums. But why am I right? For that, we must turn to a philosopher named Hannah Arendt.
Few political theorists of the 20th century were as ingenious, intuitive, and still sorely underappreciated as Hannah Arendt. Her almost three-decade-long enterprise in American academia (including teaching at the University of Chicago) produced a body of literature that masterfully schematized authoritarian regimes, critiqued the liberal nation-state, and offered a new model of politics that emulated the Athenian polis and its veneration of deliberative democracy and a robust public sphere.
The Human Condition—arguably Arendt’s most influential work—offers a universal account of life as centered on three broad, yet distinct, processes: labor, work, and action. According to Arendt, labor is the lowest possibility of human existence and something we share in common with all animals. It is the satisfaction of our biological imperatives—broadly, the need for food, reproduction, and security. Arendt called this the “life process”: Its demands are never-ending and recyclable in nature. We eat so we can labor. We labor so we can eat. For Arendt, this mode of human activity belongs to the private sphere since its ultimate focus is on the body. It is highly individual, and it hinges on our selfishness and instinctive hedonism. Yet ultimately, it detracts from the kind of interpersonal relationships that true communities so heavily depend upon.
Work, for Arendt, is a phenomenon focused on productivity; it is the creation of products that we can use to help fulfill the labor process. Tools, machinery, and technology let us labor more efficiently. Computers, cars, and even laundry machines—all these are crafts that make us more efficient laborers.
The third and most unique possibility of human existence is action, the interpersonal exchange of “great words” and “great deeds.” Action belongs to the public sphere and enables humans to engage in true politics (which is to say, to embrace our capacity as reasoning beings). Imagine a world where citizens join together and demonstrate their excellence through orations, dramaturgy, dance, verse, and music, for instance. Arendt sought inspiration from ancient Athens as the exemplar of political action in practice. Indeed, most dramatically throughout the fifth century BCE, where elsewhere human civilization was governed by dim barbarism and depressing darkness, this tiny city-state of the Mediterranean gave birth to the finest works of human culture, from the opening of the Parthenon to the oratorical glory of Demosthenes to the birth of tragedy and comedy. For Arendt, a vibrant political society such as Athens required its citizens to leave their selfishness at home (and this is putting it bluntly). The private pressures of labor were ignored for the sake of true political engagement.
Arendt boldly declares that action, the highest human experience, has been mutilated and rendered unimportant by modern political arrangements. Inspecting the nature of our political priorities today suggests that she is right. Tax reform, health care, entitlement reform, trade liberalization—these contemporary political issues all obsess over how to make citizens more selfish, comfortable, and productive. But they are radically incapable of making our lives more meaningful.
Our political constitution has evaporated the content of a true public sphere and refurbished it with unbounded private interest. Things like culture, the arts, and creativity are often seen as unimportant obstacles to contemporary political discourse, which has been held hostage by a regime of expert economists, technocrats, and bureaucratic elites.
In ancient Athens, the burden was on individuals themselves to come together and make common use of their language and reason. Today, the only things binding us (if at all) are abstract notions of common citizenship and heritage that are being hollowed out by the hegemony of self-interested indifference, too often flirting with the discourse of unintelligent and violent nationalism.
Instead, our experience at the University ought to resurrect these forgotten principles of building genuine interpersonal relationships through intellectual friendships and vibrant discourse. Our university generally does this well. With an abundance of artistic collaborations, theatrical productions, and political organizations (like the Chicago Debate Society or Model United Nations), we come together and embrace each other as talented, creative, and intelligent people. Still, by debasing our academic life and turning it into a résumé-padding, internship-fetishizing, narcissistic misery, the pressures of the finance and consulting industries endanger this principle.
For these reasons, the prevalence of fraternity parties at UChicago is not only shocking, but also runs counter to the school’s virtues that I think we all should share in, such as high discourse, curiosity both sober and serious, and meaningful interpersonal contact.
Rather, we undergraduates ought to take our social cues from graduate students and the way they run their shindigs: intimate gatherings colored by cheese platters, ambient whispers of Schubert and Mozart, and true to the Dead Poets Society, collective recitations of Yeats and Tennyson.
The stakes are high. If Arendt is right, we are living our shared lives in radically deficient ways. Therefore, let us throw away our applications to Goldman, download some Beethoven, host small apartment gatherings, and engage in timeless deliberation and discourse. For let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.
Editor's Note: A paragraph in this article was removed after publication by agreement between the author and the Viewpoints editors. The editors were concerned the paragraph could be misinterpreted as endorsing racist beliefs. This note should’ve been applied when the edit was made. This note has been edited from its initial wording.
Editor's Note: After the publication of this column, the author requested anonymity. The Viewpoints section grants anonymity to authors in limited cases when there is fear of emotional or physical harm.