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Remembering Hannah Arendt

One of the most seminal political philosophers of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s ideas deserve to be revisited.
By
Zeyd Anwar
Founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
May 7, 2021
T

here are few political philosophers of the 20th century who have provided a fresh and analytical framework to view politics, but Hannah Arendt is one of them. Through her writings, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt sought to explain the descent into some of the greatest twin horrors of the 1900s: Nazism and Stalinism.

Arendt had experienced first-hand the dangers of totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. In 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, Arendt was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo for illegally researching into the Führer’s antisemitism. As a German-born Jew, Arendt later fled to Paris and then the United States, in search for a new life away from the dictatorships of central Europe. In New York, Arendt subsequently blossomed as an intellectual and lecturer, becoming the first ever woman to be named a professor at Princeton University. Speaking on topics such as violence, power, human rights, government and tradition, the originality of her works illuminated the human condition and provided a fresh perspective of the nature of political life.

At a basic level, Arendt centered her methodology around the human experience. In Between Past and Future, Arendt wrote: “…thought itself arises out of incidents of living experiences and must remain bound to them as the only guideposts by which to take its bearings.” For Arendt, what mattered was the way things would appear to the human senses, and the way that our activity—our being—was captured and conditioned by the things we experienced, saw and felt in the world.

Indeed, there were no certainties in political thought that could be reduced to some abstraction, no universal principles or historical necessities. Our own experiences are central to shaping our ideas. In some respects, this was a liberating experience for Arendt: enabling humanity to abandon the incessant search for a set of universal principles in political philosophy.

It was from this standpoint that Arendt stood in stark contrast from the philosophers of the past, many of whom had sought to answer similar political questions. In particular, Arendt’s criticisms against the Kantians went to their affinity to force certain conclusions, often having identified a set of absolute moral truths beforehand. Equally, Arendt failed to believe political philosophy simply entailed historical progress towards a utopian, classless society. Rather than a Kantian focus on a “pure” idea or a Marxist focus on materialism and labour, what mattered to Arendt was the interlink between humanity and politics. Indeed, for Arendt, what made us human was our capacity for politics itself.

Hobbes, too, was not safe from the Arendtian tradition. In Leviathan, Hobbes had attempted to identify the universal characteristics of Man, eventually concluding Man was solitary, nasty and violent in the state of nature. But Arendt believed such a search was a futile endeavour. It was an activity akin to trying to jump over one’s shadow; there was no point from which human nature could be objectively observed, nor any Archimedean standpoint. For Arendt, we are human nature, and any observations are simply part of that natural reality.

The criticism of Western political philosophy did not end there. Arendt found the entire liberal tradition’s justification for government problematic. Under the liberal tradition, the Sovereign’s purpose was to guarantee individual security, to ensure individuals could pursue their individual life plans and to establish a system under which the individual could flourish. The problem for Arendt was that the liberal tradition understood freedom only existing in the private sphere—in our individual choices. This neglected, in her view, the true definition of freedom—one that existed by participating in the public realm. For Arendt, freedom could only occur in the political realm and through the process of actively engaging in politics.

***

A central theme in Arendt’s work was modernity. For Arendt, modernity had been characterised by the loss of the public sphere, which entailed action and speech, in favour of the private world of introspection and the pursuit of economic interests. It was the age of mass society, with the rise of the social above the private and public sphere. It was also, Arendt wrote, the era of deep homogeneity, one which led to conformity of individual taste and preference.

It was this move towards homogeneity—towards an ideology of the masses as it were—that Arendt believed was dangerous. The end result, she argued, was the complete loss of responsibility for individual action and the eventual slip into bureaucracy. Indeed, bureaucratic administration was characteristic of modernity, along with domination by the elites and the manipulation of public opinion. Arendt believed bureaucracy to be an alienating experience for humanity. It was a system under which nobody took responsibility, in which the bucket could always be passed to another bureaucrat. Bureaucracy entailed rule by nobody, and it was under this system, Arendt believed, that made it ripe for totalitarianism to arise.

Arendt’s negative views of modernity had largely been influenced by the events of her life, notably the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. Both had emerged on the global stage and were characterised by the institutionalisation of violence and terror. Arendt had seen totalitarianism as the process that overrode the individuality, freedom and plurality of mankind, and replaced it with homogeneity and conformity.

It was from this basis, as well as her preceding criticisms of the political philosophers of the past, that Arendt formulated her own political theory, one that advocated viva activa (an active life) over viva contemplativa (a contemplative life). For Arendt, the previous philosophers before her had placed a premium on contemplation over action, and this was a mistaken approach. They had retreated into the realm of contemplation, believing no earthly condition or existence could match the beauty and truth of the cosmos. In this way, she argued, philosophers had continually sought freedom beyond the realm of political activity—and instead, in moral truths or utopian goals.

Arendt equally spared no critique for Christianity. She argued Christianity was suspicious of the entire political sphere, emphasising eternal damnation as humanity could only achieve truth from its relationship with God. Just like the Platonic tradition, Christianity had sought an escape from politics and consequently divorced freedom from politics.

By contrast, Arendt’s own formulation of political theory rested on a tripartite division, one between labour, work and action. The first, labour, referred to the activities necessary to sustain human life, catering to biology and the drive for reproduction. The second, work, related to those activities not living under the function of biological necessity, but those that lent themselves to creativity. Work involved the creation of something outlasting its creator, ultimately judged by its ability to actualise one’s capacity for freedom. But it was ultimately the third—action—upon which Arendt placed the most importance. Arendt defined action as the practice of political ideas and argued it differentiated us as a species.

“The raison de’tre of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.” For Arendt, freedom was why we entered into political organisation in the first place and why we could live our lives in plurality with one another.

Action, therefore, entailed two central pillars: freedom and plurality.

Freedom, for Arendt, involved courage, virtue and the taking of risk. Above all, however, it entailed the capacity to start the unexpected. Arendt rooted freedom in the concept of natality: she argued each birth represented a new beginning, novelty and the ability to begin the unpredictable. Of the three activities, action was the most closely intertwined with natality, because only by acting could individuals re-enact the miracle of beginning, something inherent in birth. In her words, “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.” Arendt emphasised the uniqueness of each individual life, and the fact that each individual born into this world had the capacity to bring something new when they acted. “The fact that man is capable of action, it means the unexpected can be expected from him. That he is able to perform what is infinitely probable.”

Arendt’s favourite examples of freedom in action came from the American Revolution, as it birthed the constitution of liberty. The French Revolution, too, was illustrative of action in history. In both cases, individual men and women gained the courage to deviate from their normal lives, stepping forward out of the private domain and into the public sphere where freedom could be created. In doing so, they rediscovered the truth known to the ancient Greeks that action is the supreme blessing of human life, one which bestows significance to the lives of individuals.

La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People) by Eugène Delacroix (1830)
The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull (1819)

It was this notion of re-birth that appealed to so many during the Labour Party’s landslide of 1997. Tony Blair had promised a third way of politics beyond the old schisms of left and right, arguing that his new way of politics would propel Britain into a new era. “New Labour, New Britain” adequately summarised the theme of natality in Labour politics—the Labour Party had been reborn again, this time from its socialist past. Tony Blair sought to do the same with Britain, a nation that was on the cusp of entering a new century with new challenges to its politics.

Brexit, too, had similar undertones of natality. For all its merits or criticisms, it had been a campaign run on a sense of re-birth, the undertaking of a project that no other country had embarked upon, and of a new Britain outside of Europe - one that could be remade without the constraints of European oversight.

Freedom, however, was only but one part of action. The other was plurality. Arendt had argued the essential features of the human condition were the differences between individuals. Unlike Thomas Hobbes’s approach, the philosopher had to begin from the fundamental premise that there was no “Man”, and instead only individual men and women. The aspiration to discover a universal law or history was a disastrous endeavour for Arendt, one that would ultimately entail the imposition of a universal philosophy on men and women, unfit and dismissive of their individual differences.

It was from this recognition of plurality that Arendt argued action takes place in full view of others. Action, for Arendt, was not an isolated act. It was one that occurred in the presence of different actors, who, from their difference perspectives, could judge the substance of the very thing being enacted.

Action, therefore, was not an activity that took place in a vacuum, nor was it a spontaneous act taking place without a boundary. Action took place in a constructed environment, in what Arendt described as the public sphere—the agora. It was in the agora that individuals were liberated from necessity, labour and reproduction. It was where they could appear as one another’s equals, and where they could express their own individuality. It was also where they could reveal who they were as individuals, and not as private consumers.

What was at stake, Arendt argued, in the public realm was not merely our individual interests, but the world at large. “This world of ours, because it existed before us, and is meant to outlast our lives in it, simply cannot afford to give primary concern to individual lives and the interests connected with them; as such the public realm stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our private domain, where in the protection of family and home, everything serves and must serve the security of the life process.”

Yet to explain what made the public sphere truly public, and what made it possible for us to engage with one another, was the notion of political equality. Arendt argued the public sphere necessitated that we treat others as equals, and that political equality could not be merely assumed. It required institutions to manifest, so that individuals who were originally unequal, may become at least politically equal. For Arendt, what mattered in the public sphere was isonomy—equality before the law of all the subjects or citizens of the state.

“The raison de’tre of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.”

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It is this idea—political equality—that remains a challenge for governments today, most prevalent in the domain of climate change. The failure to tackle humanity’s greatest collective threat goes, in part, to the growing dominance of fossil fuel corporates in the public sphere. The public domain finds itself overridden by private preferences, ultimately eroding the role of the agora in political action.

In a time characterised by political polarisation, domination by elites, increasing inequality, populism and the creeping power of private interests into the public domain, the Arendtian view on what it means to be human and how to engage in politics is well worth a revisit.

Zeyd Anwar is the founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
@zeydanwar

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