notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution

For use in today’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies. The morning’s readings are

  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, pp. 18-25, 37-48, 240-7
  • Hannah Arendt” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

I first asked participants to name various kinds of freedom, and categorized the answers as positive and negative, inner (such as freedom from anxiety) and outer (such as freedom from coercion), and individual and group.

Arendt’s reading of the American Revolution: the founders were after freedom, which they didn’t initially define all that sharply but which probably meant mostly negative individual freedom: “the more or less free range of non-political activities which a given body politic will permit and guarantee to those who constitute it” (p 20). But in creating new institutions that would protect that kind of freedom, they discovered public freedom—the freedom to create together. And this was a source of happiness for them. P. 24: “they were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty.”

In the French Revolution, however, the leaders felt themselves compelled by great forces beyond their control and they also lost interest in creating new institutions or even following the rules they had constructed as they declared the “social problem” the only thing that mattered. As a result, they lost all forms of freedom (pp. 40-1).

Relation between freedom and equality

Many might see freedom and equality in tension. But for Arendt, public freedom requires equality. People are not naturally equal but they are made equal in “artificial” political spaces, “where men [meet] one another as citizens and not as private persons” (p. 21.) The tyrant, the master and the slave are not free because they are not engaged in equal politics.

Politics as performance and self-discovery

Arendt is not a deliberative democrat, envisioning public life as a discussion about what should be done, in which people try to discipline their own interests and personalities in the interests of the common good. She appreciates competition and the pursuit of excellence in public life. And people discover their full humanity by displaying their personalities in public. “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21)

Civic republicanism/liberalism

Arendt sees political participation as a source of happiness (at least for some) and self-discovery. It is thus an intrinsic good, not just a means to justice, or security, or happiness, or other goods. And you need government not so much to guarantee good outcomes for communities as to be a space for politics.

That reflects what is now being called the “civic republican” tradition, in contrast to what is sometimes called “liberalism,” which holds that politics and governments are costs we must pay to get benefits. The liberal tradition encompasses a great variety of answers to the question: how much government and politics do we need? (Some liberals say: a lot.) But all see government and politics as a cost, whereas Arendt sees politics as a benefit and government as the space that allows politics.

Must/should everyone participate?

The civic republic tradition poses the question: who should participate? Granting that politics has intrinsic value, does it have value for all (or only some) and is it the highest value or only one valuable pursuit?

On p. 271, Arendt suggests that there are just some “who have a taste for public freedom and cannot be ‘happy’ without it.” And it’s OK not to participate, because “one of the most important negative liberties we have enjoyed since the end of the ancient world [is] freedom from politics.” (p. 272)

But on p. 247: “no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public business.”

How to keep public freedom alive?

Most of us are not in the position of the American founders, able to discover happiness and freedom by creating institutions and feeling that “man is master of his destiny, at least with respect to political government” (p. 41).

So what are some options?

  • Frequent revolutions?
  • Co-creation in other domains? (What about a startup enterprise?)
  • Radical decentralization—Jefferson’s proposal for “ward” government?

Private and public

In the civic republican vein, Arendt is a great defender of public life. But she is also an explicit and strong defender of the private life and, indeed, of privacy. Sometimes she takes the latter to a fault, as in her “Reflections on Little Rock,” where she argues that sending paratroopers to Arkansas was a violation of the private sphere. But it makes sense that we need a strong private domain to create an impressive public space. The “four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive” (Between Past and Future, p. 186). After all, her public space is not about agreement but contention, and one needs a private space to develop enough individuality to contend.

See also: Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agentHannah Arendt and philosophy as a way of lifehomage to Hannah Arendt at The New Schoolwhen society becomes fully transparent to the state; and on the moral dangers of cliché.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Harry Boyte

    This is a splendid account of Arendt on freedom and politics, Peter.

    I would add that Sara Evans and my concept of free spaces, developed over the
    years and put to work in initiatives such as Public Achievement and the Jane
    Addams School for Democracy (as well as institutional change efforts) addresses
    precisely the question of where and how “public freedom” (and a democratic, agentic
    politics) can be sustained and spread. There is a section on academia.edu site
    on these arguments. See especially the Hannah Arendt, Free Spaces, and Higher
    Education https://augsburg.academia.edu/HarryBoyte/Free-Spaces