Ashley Jowell

Few studies have produced as terrifying results as the controversial 1963 Milgram Experiment intended to measure people’s response to obedience. In this study, Yale scientists commanded a “teacher” to pose a series of questions to a “learner.” Whenever the “learner” answered a question incorrectly, the “teacher” punished the “learner” through implementation of an increasingly strong electrical shock. The “teacher” was told that the purpose of the experiment was to measure the effect of punishment on learning; however, little to the “teacher’s” knowledge, the “learner” was an actor who did not receive any actual shocks – in fact, the real goal of the experiment was to see “how far the participant will comply with the experimenters’ instructions before refusing to carry out the actions required of him” (Milgram, 3). The Milgram Experiment yielded appalling results: much to experimenters’ surprise, 65% of the teachers continued to adhere to authority and progressed to the “death” of the pleading learner, and even higher percentages applied unusually extreme shocks to their “students” (Milgram, 2). The majority of test subjects explained that they did not want to defy authority and therefore continued with the test; for instance, one “teacher,” Mr. Gino, described in a post test analysis how “Yale knows what’s going on … I’ll go through with anything they tell me to do” (Milgram, 3). The test subjects’ lack of control raises the larger question of under what circumstances do humans act with proairesis, a term Aristotle coined to describe “…the highest degree of consciousness and commitment… [that] sets up a choice that leads directly to action” (Vernant, 56). Do we ever have the ability to act based upon this “process of reasoned calculation” (57) that Vernant, in Intimations of the Will in Greek Tragedy, describes, or rather, are we conditioned by subconscious political, social, and cultural factors that influence our decisions?

To answer this question, let us further study Vernant’s analysis of proairesis.  According to Vernant, proairesis describes the process by which we make an informed and willful decision that leads to an action.   Proairesis therefore implies that the subject is both highly conscious of his surroundings, which include the voices and opinions of others, and committed to this process of careful deliberation. He elaborates by suggesting that, “proairesis also rests upon a desire, but a rational desire, a wish informed by intelligence and directed, not toward pleasure, but toward a practical objective that thought has already presented to the soul as good” (57). We can associate this “rational wish” that Vernant describes with what the philosopher Hannah Arendt would call inspiring principles, such as justice, honor, and glory, that are the source of action (Between Past and Future?, 150). Based on this definition, the vast majority of test subjects in the Milgram Experiment abdicated their faculty of judgment and ignored their responsibility to understand, for they allowed the Yale scientists to command them.  They seemed to have forgotten entirely the principles that most citizens of the world hold dear, for their behavior demonstrated no interest in equality or solidarity.  Moreover they seem wholly incapable of compassion. Such experiments implore us to consider whether conditions in our world ever make it possible for humans to exercise the judgment necessary for moral action, and if so, how might we overcome societal restraints and prioritize “objectives presented to the soul as good” (Vernant, 57).

One of the inspirations behind the Milgram Experiment was the German citizens’ obedience throughout the reign of the Third Reich, in spite of the horrors perpetrated against their Jewish neighbors.  Arendt, who fled Germany in 1933, criticizes the unthinking man in her essay What is Freedom? when she states, “It is in the nature of the automatic processes to which man is subject, but within and against which he can assert himself through action, that can spell ruin to human lives” (Between Past and Future, 167).  Her words illustrate how human beings are often “inactive” and allow themselves to be ruled by the automatic processes of nature–which result in death and ruin.  Our choice to accept authority without challenge and to conform to the inaction of our peers leads to behaviors destructive to ourselves and others, as exemplified by the test subjects in the Milgram Experiment and the German citizens during the Holocaust.

Luckily, in order to transcend this inaction and destruction, Arendt posses a solution: her resolution is that we must rather act, which is a faculty that we posses inherent in our being and is the “manifestation of principles” (Between Past and Future, 151). Only through action can we be free, for as Arendt describes, “men are free…as long as they act… for to be free and to act are the same” (Between Past and Future, 151). Arendt illustrates how this capacity for proairesis is two-fold: it is both dependent upon the plurality of our world and our co-habitation with others as well as the freedom inherent in our birth or natality. Concerning plurality she writes, “Action alone is the exclusive prerogative of man; neither a beast nor a god is capable of it, and only action is entirely dependent upon the constant presence of others” (The Human Condition, 22-23). Thus, in order to execute the proairesis that leads to a moral decision based on principles, we must acknowledge each other’s presence and the basic plurality of our condition. Only with this acknowledgement can we surpass the destructive automatism of our world.

In conjunction with plurality, Arendt notes a second aspect of human faculty necessary for action found in the very notion of man’s birth. She explains, “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting” (Human Condition, 9). As a result of man’s birth and natality, he therefore has the ability to act and possess “…the sheer capacity to begin which animates and inspires all human activities and is the hidden source of production of all great and beautiful things” (Between Past and Future, 167). Therefore, Arendt is describing how our innate faculty to begin allows this highest process of judgment, inspired by principles and leading to action, to bring beauty into the world. Although nature is dictated by automatic processes, Arendt demonstrates here how humans can take control of their actions both by acknowledging their plurality as well embracing the fact that they are a beginning ready to bring something new into a world they create.

The Greek tragedian Sophocles elucidates a similar concept of action in his play Antigone, where a tyrannical Creon murders Antigone due to her decision not to acknowledge his martial authority. Yet, based on Arendt’s definition of freedom, neither Antigone nor Creon demonstrates proairesis. It is clear that Creon does not at all believe in the beauty found in the birth of ideas or through other’s opinions; rather, he imposes his authority on all those around him. For instance he proclaims, “Believe me, the stiffest stubborn wills fall the hardest; the toughest iron, tempered strong in the white-hot fire, you’ll see it crack and shatter first of all… This girl was an old hand at insolence when she overrode the edicts we made public” (Sophocles, lines 527-533).  After denouncing Antigone as a traitor, Creon demands her arrest and execution.  Indeed, there is no room in Creon’s society for opposition and hence there is also no room for action. Rather, he declares how he “will take her down some wild, desolate path… to keep the entire city free of defilement” (Sophocles, line 870). Creon’s rejection of plurality and opposition to any unconventional notions in his kingdom is in stark juxtaposition with Arendt, who writes how, “without a politically guaranteed public realm [for free speech and human interactions], freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance” (Between Past and Future, 147).  Instead, Creon automatically stifles any form of discourse that could be found in this public sphere, alternatively subjecting all those to his rule and rejecting the beauty found in humanity’s natality.

Without question, Antigone challenges Creon’s authority through the burial of her brother; however, regardless of her disobedience to Creon, Antigone lacks the capacity to act consciously for her defiance does not stem from her own birth nor ability to listen to the opinions of her fellow citizens.  On the contrary, Antigone renounces her freedom and relies on other laws: the ancient laws of the gods. When explaining to Creon why she disobeyed him, Antigone declares, “Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods… these laws – I was not about to break them – not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, and face the retribution of the gods” (Sophocles, lines 509-511). Antigone’s actions were therefore not a result of proairesis; instead, she was simply following the ancient laws of the gods rather than relying on her own ability to create new ideas, when in conjunction with other human beings, leads to action that creates a beautiful world.

The antithesis to both Creon and Antigone’s abdication of freedom is found in Haemon, Creon’s son who has the ability to analyze the situation anew from a fresh perspective. As a result, he is able to conceive of a “miraculous” solution to the deadlock between his father and fiancé. While Creon and Antigone are both narrowly fixated upon the authorities of the state and gods respectively, Haemon refreshingly remains free and capable of proairesis that he demonstrates through listening to others, innovative ideas, and actions.  Consequently, he appeals to his father’s reason and station with a simple message, “Now don’t, please, be quite so single-minded, so self-involved, or assume the world is wrong and you are right…it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man, to learn many things and not be too rigid” (Sophocles, lines 780-795).  Haemon’s plea to his father, not only the head of state but also head of the family, to cultivate new thoughts and to begin again is emblematic of Haemon’s capacity to question the world around him and come up with innovative decisions in accordance with his principles. Just as Arendt writes, “every act …whose automatism it interrupts is a ‘miracle’ – that is, something which could not be expected” (Between Past and Future, 168), Haemon attempts to interrupt the automatic processes that threaten to destroy his father and fiancé. Additionally, Haemon is able to come up with this solution by understanding the ruled and asking his father to consider their perspective; he describes to his father how “the man in the street, you know, dreads your glance… it’s for me to catch the murmurs in the dark, the way the city mourns for this young girl. ‘No woman,” they say, “ever deserved death less…’” (Sophocles, lines 777-779).  Had his father only listened to Haemon’s ideas and allowed his thoughts to change, then Creon might have realized before it was too late that “it’s best to learn from those with good advice” (Sophocles, line 809).

Arendt’s philosophy that freedom manifests itself through our ability to act deliberately strongly impacts everyday life. Had the teachers in the Milgram Experiment remembered the basic plurality of their condition, listened to the pleading learners, and trusted in their own judgments rather than abiding by the authority of Yale Experimenters, they would most likely not have harmed as many learners and instead would have acted in a more miraculous manner in accordance with the principles of solidarity and equality.  The tragedy Antigone further confirms this notion, and thus the play teaches us that we must never conform to society, authority, nor ancient principles; rather, we must question the world around us and work towards acting through our own inherently fresh, innovative, and humane thoughts in conjunction with others’ opinions and principles. Only then can we act with proairesis and continue on the path to a more beautiful world.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. [Chicago]: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises In Political Thought. [Enl. ed.] New York: Viking Press, 1968.

d’Entreves, Maurizio Passerin, “Hannah Arendt”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority : an Experimental View. 1st Harper Perennial Modern Thought ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Tragedy and Myth In Ancient Greece. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press , 1981.