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Arendt on Freedom

by Keith Quincy

iberalism works with a negative conception of liberty. Freedom is understood as freedom from restraint. It is doing what one wants without interference from others. Consistent with this idea, liberals have urged fewer restraints and, thus, more liberty.

Early liberalism focused on government as the primary source of unwarranted restraints. And as the picture of man as an economic animal was fresh in the imagination, laissez faire was thought the most efficient way to maximize both freedom and want satisfaction. Freedom is maximized because free markets are a noncoercive mechanism of economic coordination. And want satisfaction is maximized because free markets allocate resources to meet existing demand and therefore satisfy wants. Society was the next target. Liberals like J.S. Mill who found inspiration in the ideal of moral liberation (the notion that the highest aspiration of which we are capable as human beings is the desire to discover and develop our individuality) naturally worried about the threat to individuality posed by an emerging mass society in which pressures for conformity to prevailing tastes, opinions, and notions of moral rectitude seemed always on the increase. Free markets offer little protection against such pressures; increased tolerance for diversity in opinions and lifestyles does. Liberals have pursued this goal in various ways. Efforts to enlighten public opinion is one, legislation another. In the former area liberals have sought through writing, speech, and lifestyle to educate public opinion. In the latter area liberals have attacked laws regulating what they conceive as private morality (deviant sexual practices between consenting adults, obscenity, pornography, etc.) and urged legislation restricting the ability of voluntary associations to suppress the free expression of their members by threats of expulsion, denial of benefits, or exclusion from offices. For those who cherish liberty there is much about all of this that is inspiring. It is proper, however, to note that there are those, also lovers of liberty, who view matters from a different perspective. Hannah Arendt, for one, suggested that whatever liberals have fought for it is not liberty, or at least not a liberty that is genuine. Liberals, for example, have concluded that increased tolerance for diversity in lifestyles promotes freedom because individuality does not thrive in a hostile environment-if individuals are to pursue their individuality they must be left alone. This conclusion is entirely consistent with a negative conception of liberty where the absence of restraint is the essence of freedom, and explains the symmetry between laissez faire and moral liberation: freedom from government, freedom from society. The conclusion is suspect, however, if the negative conception of liberty is somehow defective. Arendt argued that it is. Freedom, she believed, does not flourish in the absence of restrains. It requires more than the passive support liberalism provides. For Arendt, freedom is a tough-minded notion tailored to the disquiet of public life. Politics, not the repose of the cloister, is its natural habitat. While Arendt shared the liberal's enthusiasm for individuality (though disputing his conception of it, which she suspected was nothing more than social climbing romanticized) as well as the liberals concern for the threat which mass society poses to its existence, she nevertheless considered negative liberty a counterfeit notion. Freedom, she insisted, does not emerge when one is left alone. It occurs only in the company of others whose criticism and judgment, however harsh, is necessary if individuality is to flourish. This is so because freedom is a political notion and occurs only within politics: an idea that runs counter to our

predisposition to "measure the extent of freedom in any given community by the free scope it grants to apparently nonpolitical activities..."1 II

here is a role for "freedom from" in Arendt's conception of freedom, but it is not freedom from interference. Rather, it is freedom from biological necessity; or, as Arendt paraphrases Aristotle, freedom requires "full independence" from "the necessities of life and the relationships they originate.2 Arendt employed labor as a generic term meant to capture the essence of what it is to be chained to biological necessity. Life as labor is a continuous repetition of the cycle of toil, consumption, and rest. It is the common lot of most animals.3 Lions, for example, grow hungry and set off for the hunt, perhaps traveling many miles or stalking prey for hours before they make a kill. Then they feast; and, when they are sated, they rest to recuperate for another day of hunting, eating, and resting. The life of the lion is an endless cycle of hunting, feasting, and recuperation. For humans, it is perhaps the life of the peasant farmer who best epitomizes what Arendt meant by a life of laborlong hours of exhausting toil to obtain the barest means of subsistence which, once obtained, are consumed to maintain life. Rest repairs the ravages of toil, preparing the body for a new round of toil, consumption and rest. For Arendt, Laboring is what man has in common with animals, and when laboring defines man's existence he lacks humanity. Arendt admits that for most of human history prior to the technological revolution, freedom from biological necessity was always reserved for a privileged minority. The many had to labor, often as slaves, to produce a surplus so the few could have leisure. Exploitation of the many was the price of freedom for the few. The Greek polis which Arendt so much admired was sustained by slavery. The majority labored so the few could have the leisure to engage in distinctively human activities. While Arendt hardly condoned exploitation, she insisted that, in comparison with laboring, it is a human mode of existence. "The life of an exploiter or slave holder and the life of a parasite may be unjust, but they certainly are human."4 What is more human (not humane) than the desire to cease being a mere animal and to become a human being? Of course, with advances in technology slaves are no longer a necessary evil. The productivity of labor is so high no one need work long hours to survive. If things are properly arranged, all can enjoy leisure. Which is why Arendt considered it bizarre that not only of individuals but entire societies still embrace laboring as a way of life. In modern industrial democracies everything gives way to the economy. Millions labor to keep the engines of mass consumption humming and dutifully consume to keep the economy healthy. On analogy with the life process, men labor to consume and consume so that they can labor. It is a mindless Keynesian nightmare. A casual reader might interpret Arendt's remarks as a philosophical version of a humanist critique of the consumer society: advances in technology make toil superfluous; mass consumption is mindless; we should labor less, eschew consumerism and set our sights on higher things like the cultivation of our social and aesthetic sensibilities. But this strikes far off the mark. Arendt did not subscribe to an updated version of the young Marx's humanist vision of the communist utopia where exploitative politics is but a dim memory and the aesthetic goal of "the forming of the five senses," which Marx characterized as the "labor of the entire history of the

Hannah Arendt, "What is Freedom?" in Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (orig. ed., l954; New York: Meridian Books, l963), p. 149. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l958), p. 12. 3 Of course, many higher mammals break out of this cycle quite regularly, spending long hours in play, or exploring their environment. But play is not the distinctive human virtue for Arendt. Rather, it is achieving an identity through public action. 4 The Human Condition, p. 176.
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world down to the present,"5 occupies center stage. This is a vision emptied of politics; it singles out the private or the social realm as the locus of authentic human existence. Arendt rejected the idea that man could achieve humanity outside of politics; for neither aesthetic nor communitarian ideals capture the essence of man, which is achieved only in politicsthe arena of freedom. Though Arendt considered freedom from biological necessity a necessary condition for freedom, she denied it is a sufficient condition. It merely opens the way. When leisure is given over to bovine quiescence or hedonistic excess it indirectly pays homage to biological necessity by making rest from toil and consumption for survival paradigms of meaningful existence. Though spared the misery of endless toil, in conception and aspiration one remains a slave to necessity. Once relieved of toil man is free to act; and it is only through action that man experiences true freedom. Like her concept of labor, Arendt's idea of action is meant to capture the essence of what it is to relate to the world in a fundamental and distinctive way. For Arendt, the authentic object of action is disclosure and discovery. It is through action that we experience freedom and, which comes to the same thing, establish our individuality and disclose in what way we are unique. Human plurality, the capacity for uniqueness inherent in us all, is central to Arendt's conception of freedom. It means that man can rise above necessity. Not only are we capable of becoming more than laboring animals we are also able to rise above the historical forces which condition and shape our behavior. These forces are nothing more than the momentum of the institutions and practices man has created. When in the grip of these forces we behave rather than act; we conform to, rather than deviate from, established paths. We are neither free nor human. There is a similarity between this assertion and the liberal's claim that pressures for conformity threaten individuality. But it is only a surface similarity. In a very crucial sense Arendt considered restraints essential to the experience of freedom. Something must be overcome before freedom can exist. Arendt is not only at odds with liberals, she is at war with social science, or at least the branch with scientific pretensionsthe behavioralists who deny the possibility that anyone can transcend the historical and social forces that condition all behavior. Arendt maintains it is the relatively modern phenomenon mass conformity which lends plausibility to the idea that all action is conditioned and recommends behaviorism as a cogent account of human action. But the "trouble with modern theories of behaviorism," Arendt observes, "is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society."6 Arendt tells us action is different from the behavior of behaviorism in this way. Action is able to begin something new that we should not expect if behaviorism is true. "The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable."7 This is why laboring is not action. As a way of life it precludes the unexpected. The cycle of toil, consumption and rest is continually repeated, interrupted only by death. III


he distinction between action and behavior is hardly novel. Nor is Arendt the first to question the adequacy of the behaviorist's account of human action. The behaviorist confines accounts of actions to descriptions of body movements for the reason that if actions are nothing more than body movements they can be explained as the result of physical causes such as the interaction between nerves and
Karl Marx, "Private Property and Communism," in Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of l844, ed. by Dirk J. Struik, trans. by Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, l964), p. 141. 6 The Human Condition, p. 322 7 Ibid., p. 178.

tissue, or as subject to the laws of conditioninglaws which apply equally well to animals (such as pigeons) as to humans. Post-Wittgensteinian analytic philosophers have denied the possibility of such a reduction because in different contexts identical body movements constitute different acts. A driver in a car extends his left arm. Is he signaling a left turn or pointing out something of interest to his traveling companion? It depends on the context, the driver's intentions, and on our ability to understand conventions governing signaling and pointing. Consequently, explanations which contain nothing but descriptions of body movements are incapable of explaining human action. Defenders of behaviorism have not found this argument telling. What the argument reveals, they claim, is not that behaviorism is false but that we face two mutually exclusive conceptual schemes. But as we live in one world, both cannot be correct. There can be only one true description of reality. Behaviorists are also eager to point out that ordinary language's track record in advancing our understanding of nature, man, and society is singularly dismal; nor are they hesitant to observe that one might even measure the progress of our understanding by the number of disciplines that have replaced the concepts of ordinary language with those either drawn from or modeled after those in use in the physical sciences. Arendt acknowledged the force of the behaviorist's argument, and conceded that the concept of freedom has no place in either our scientific or pre-scientific understanding. Not only did she accept Kant's insight that causality is a fundamental category of scientific thought, she went on to observe that, even when we retreat into our inner self, freedom seems to dissolve. For when we withdraw attention from the "causal principle which rules the outer world," we confront the "causality of inner motivation ..."8 And once motives are construed as causes the hunt is on for the factors that shape our motives. This invites an account of action that has a natural affinity to behaviorism; namely, our behavior is conditioned by our surroundings. Against this view, Arendt pointed to history, to politics in the Greek polis, as evidence for the existence of freedom. It was a form of politics that established once and for all that man "is able to perform what is infinitely improbable." It demonstrated that he is able to "call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore, strictly speaking, could not be known." And the reason what was called into being could not be known is that it could not be inferred from the motives and intentions of the actors. And this led Arendt to describe action as free when it is "free from motive on one side, from its intended goal as a predictable effect on the other."9 Arendt did not deny the obvious: actions arise out of motives and involve intentions. Yet, she nevertheless insisted that it is our ability to transcend both motives and intentions that guarantees freedom. And she maintained that this occurs only in politics. For it is only in politics, rightly understood, that action transcends motive and intention and yields the unexpected. Just how this occurs is not altogether clear. At one point we encounter the claim that action is free when it "springs" from some "inspiring principle." Principles inspire from without and are "too general to prescribe particular goals ..."10 How principles inspire from without and fail to qualify as particular goals we are not told in any detail. Perhaps Arendt meant to assert no more than the common observation that principles are so general (or vague) that they can never be the direct aim of action. Thus, one does not pursue justice directly but rather some particular manifestation of justice such as a fair trial or a fair distribution. Perhaps even these are too general to qualify as specific aims of action. For instance, when a judge declares evidence inadmissible his immediate intention may be presumed to be the enforcement of rules of evidence and not to insure a fair trial, though he may reasonably be said to enforce rules of evidence for the sake of ensuring a fair trial.

"What is Freedom?" p. 144. Ibid., p. 151. 10 Ibid., p. 152.

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As for motives, the reasons for actions, they are so varied as to perhaps defy attempts to directly link them to principles. The judge in the above example may observe rules of evidence out of vanity-a desire to preserve his reputation for judicial competence. Nevertheless his action is a manifestation of justice. And I take it that it is with such examples in mind that one might be tempted to conclude with James Knauer that an act's meaning in this context cannot be explained in terms of motives and aims, but only as the manifestation of a principle.11 There is a problem with this view and it has to do with Arendt's characterization of modern society as a celebration of animal laborans. Montesquieu noted that the "spirit of trade produces in the mind of a man a certain sense of exact justice, opposite, on the one hand, to robbery, and on the other to those moral virtues which forbid our always adhering rigidly to the rules of private interest, and suffer us to neglect this for the advantage of others."12 In other words, the spirit of a "commercial civilization" prompts minds to dwell on principles of distributive justice, that is, principles regulating the accumulation and distribution of wealth. In this regard, John Rawls' A Theory of Justice epitomizes the spirit of a commercial civilization. Rawls does not ask what man should be, but takes him as he is-self-interested and eager for the good things of life-and sets about to discover distributive principles that such a man would find fair, that is principles governing basic institutions and practices which, supposing his place in that order as yet undetermined, offer him the best chance of success in the competition for the good things of life. Rawls is confident the principles chosen would be equal liberty and the acceptance of economic inequalities only when they are to the benefit of the least advantaged. He is also confident that these principles would be lexically ordered so that equal liberty must first be satisfied before the issue of inequality is addressed. The priority which Rawls accords liberty is the result of his unsubstantiated claim that liberty rises in value once urgent wants are satisfieda claim which he believes justifies the expectation that a general increase in affluence will necessarily prompt individuals to turn to higher things and to favor liberty over wealth, income, and consumption.13 It is not very difficult to see that if Rawls is mistaken on this point, the priority of liberty must go. And if we are to take seriously the assumption that the individuals in the hypothetical "original position", where thoughts turn to the design of fundamental institutions and principles that shape a society, are not creations of philosophical fancy but representative men of a commercial civilization, it is questionable whether the priority problem would either attract or occupy them for long. Nevertheless, they would warm to the occasion of addressing the issue of justice in the context Rawls has drawn. For they are to arrive at "principles of justice as those which rational persons concerned to advance their interests would consent to ..."14 Whatever principles might result from such deliberations, it is likely they would be nicely adapted to the mentality of animal laborans. And drawing upon Montesquieu's observation about the nature of principles in a commercial civilization, one might fairly conclude that such men are quite capable of proposing and then acting for the sake of principles while at the same time exhibiting the distinctive perspective of animal laboranshardly the object Arendt intended to achieve.

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f acting for the sake of a principle does not guarantee freedom, what does? Arendt hinted at the answer to this question immediately following her discussion of transcendence by means of inspiring principle. It has to do with her conception of politics.

James K. Knauer, "Motive and Goal in Hannah Arendt's Concept of Political Action," APSR, vol. 74, no. 3 (Sept, l980), p. 725. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. by Thomas Nugent (New York: Hafner Publishing Co., l962), p. 317. 13 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, l97l), pp. 542 ff. Rawls' assertion is directly contradicted by Richard Easterlin's research (see Richard Easterlin, "Does Money Buy Happiness," The Public Interest, no. 30 (Winter 1973)) as well as by common sense. 14 Ibid., p. 18.

Arendt understood "politics" in a non-conventional sense or, as she preferred to explain it, in a sense which was once alive but now is nearly lost. In this special sense of politics the object of participation is selfdisclosure, and Arendt employed the simile of a theatrical performance to illustrate what this entails. The political arena is like a theater where participants take turns playing the roles of performer and audience. Performance is by word and deed. As audience, each decides the meaning and merit of what has been said or done. As performer, each waits for the critics' assessment of what has been disclosed, what sort of identity has been revealed.15 The theater analogy prompted Arendt to construe Machiavellian virtu as "virtuosity". Virtuosity, she observed, is "an excellence we attribute to the performing arts ... where the accomplishment lies in the performance itself and not in an end product which outlasts the activity that brought it into existence and becomes independent of it."16 In a political context, what virtuosity reveals, or rather discloses, is the identity of the actor. It is an identity that is dependent on the assessment of the audience; it is in fact created by it. For this reason it is crucial that the participants be fully aware that disclosure is the object of the performance. The idea of "reflexive mutual recognition," borrowed from a different context (Thomas Nagel's essay, "Sexual Perversion") proves useful here. Reflexive mutual recognition involves "an intention to produce a belief or other effect in another by bringing about his recognition of one's intention to produce the effect."17 Put simply, it is the idea that certain actions fail unless they are understood by those who observe them as attempts to be observed and assessed. Further, once actor and observer achieve this mutual understanding, the efficacy of the action is heightened. In romance, brief glances and shifts in posture are suddenly transformed into flirtatious overtures. In politics, a human identity begins to emerge. Applied to Arendt's conception of politics as performance, actors do not simply engage in performances, they perform with the expectation that their audience recognize what they are about. This requires the audience to do more than merely witness the performance; they must acknowledge it as an act of disclosure, which is simply to recognize the nature of the actor's intention. As with sexual arousal, the mutual feedback heightens the drama and excitement. In the political arena, actors urged on by their audience strain to attain new levels of virtuosity which, in turn, sharpens the attentiveness of the audience and prepares the way for a critical assessment of the performance. If theater audiences can inspire great performances, politics as theater can inspire great deeds. Political actors encouraged by their audience attempt to transcend the ordinary and lay claim to originality. In Arendt's words, "action can be judged only by the criterion of greatness because it is in its nature to break through the commonly accepted and reach into the extraordinary, where whatever is true in common and everyday life no longer applies because everything that exists is unique and sui generis."18 Arendt points to the Greek polis as the original locus of this kind of politics and an example of how it can be carried to such an extreme that the "urge toward self-disclosure" occurs at "the expense of all other factors."19 The object of the polis was to "multiply the occasions to win 'immortal fame', that is, to multiply the chances for everybody to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness." Its "foremost aim was to make the extraordinary an ordinary occurrence of everyday life."20 A society-wide commitment to the pursuit of the extraordinary not only helps explain why this became the "golden age of

The Human Condition, p. 187. "What is Freedom?" p. 153. 17 Thomas Nagel, "Sexual Perversion," in Alan Soble (ed.), The Philosophy of Sex (Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1980), pp. 8l-85. 18 The Human Condition, p. 205. 19 Ibid., p. 194. 20 Ibid., p. 197.
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Greece" but, in Arendt's judgment, also accounts for the "so called agonal spirit, the passionate drive to show one's self in measuring up against others that underlies the concept of politics prevalent in the city-states."21 A politics that makes the extraordinary a common occurrence goes some way in demonstrating man's capacity to transcend necessity, to bring about what "cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before."22 Given her fascination with the polis, and her belief that its politics represented the epitome of free action, it is understandable why Arendt placed such emphasis on greatness as a distinguishing mark of the appearance of freedom. Great and extraordinary deeds are unexpected, unpredictable. They are free. They are also boundless. Once begun, such acts have repercussions which the actor is unable to control. These repercussions are not only social forces unleashed by action, but result from the reaction, "apart from being a response," of other actors "who are capable of their own actions."23 Thus, in politics, what one begins one is usually unable to control, or predict. This suggests that for Arendt unpredictability is the defining feature of transcendence, of freedom. On the other hand, she notes that this "unpredictability of outcome is closely related to the revelatory character of action and speech, in which one discloses ones self without ever either knowing himself or being able to calculate beforehand whom he reveals."24 Here, uncertainty over the nature of the act (uncertainty about what sort of act it is) replaces unpredictability of outcome as a defining quality. It is a turn from metaphysics to epistemology. The process of disclosure is a creative process; neither the actors nor the audience know beforehand what will be disclosed. In this sense, human nature, the essence of man, does not exist. Man is whatever he appears to be.25 To ascertain what Arendt meant by such a claim would require an excursion into the realm of phenomenology for which I would prove an inept, and unwilling, guide. The issue of phenomenology aside, it would seem that, given Arendt's view of the process of disclosure, the assertion that "man is whatever he appears to be" implies a commitment to existentialism, albeit of an unusual sort. It is not the actor who determines his own identity, rather it is his audience. And this supports Arendt's assertion that the meaning of an act is never fully clear to an agent until it is finished. Indeed, Arendt went so far as to suggest that its complete meaning awaits the judgment of the historian: "Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants."26 It also sheds light on her curious claim that action aiming at disclosure has no precise goal. Since the meaning of an act is not revealed until after it has occurred, it is is impossible to ascertain the meaning of an act by attending to the motives and intentions from which it springs. Act description in this context does not rely upon, and is in fact independent of, reference to motives and intentions. While this yields the seeming paradox that a man who acts in such circumstances does not know what he is doing, it nevertheless satisfies Arendt's definition of freedom: "Action, to be free, must be free from motive on one side, from its intended goal as a predictable effect on the other."27 Arendtian act description obviously differs from normal act description. While motives and intentions often play a minor role in run-of-the-mill descriptions of conduct, it is nevertheless true that, excluding special contexts in which strict liability is the rule, they are seldom irrelevant. Even with strict liability, the meaning of an act is determined beforehand by a rich categorization of act types. Not so with Arendtian act description. Act description here is post facto and creative; it is not limited by existing categories or past judgments; unlike
Ibid., p. 194. Ibid., p. 178. 23 Ibid., p. 190. 24 Ibid., p. 192. 25 Ibid., pp. 199 ff. 26 Ibid., pp. 192. 27 "What is Freedom?" p. 151.
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the law, stare decisis has no standing. Neither tradition, nor morality, nor past decisions limit judgment; it is the audience alone who fixes the meaning of an act, actually creates meaning through its assessment of the quality and nature of a performance; and it is able to accomplish this, as does a theater audience, without making inquiries about motives. It is the performance itself, and not the reasons behind it, that is determinative. Thus, action in the political realm is not a predictable effect of motive because the meaning of the act is determined by someone other than the agent and without reference to his motives. The agent does not know what he does and must wait for others to tell him.

hether or not this is a convincing account of the nature of freedom it clearly stands in stark contrast to the liberal view. The liberal considers power the enemy of freedom, whether exercised formally by government or informally by society through public opinion. The less this power is exercised the more room there is for freedom. Similarly, liberals presume individuality flourishes best in an atmosphere of extreme tolerance where criticism and censure is kept to a minimum. Against this view Arendt insisted that individuals require the assistance of others in establishing their individuality. This assistance does not merely consist in encouragement, but necessarily involves comment and criticism. And this is why the pursuit of individuality requires courage. For it is always possible that what will be disclosed is that one is a coward or a fool. On the other hand, the liberal conception of individuality circumvents such untoward results by embracing no standards and placing all experiments in living on a par with the result that each individual is encouraged to do his or her own thing, however mindless or silly. This is perhaps best epitomized by adolescent subcultures in industrialized democracies where the bizarre is often conflated with the profound and criticism of lifestyle equated with fascism. But it also exercises its influence in adult society where tolerance is often confused with indifference. If Arendt found such thinking wrong headed she nevertheless recognized there were good reasons why it proves so attractive. For, in her words, "the disappearance of the gulf that the ancients had to cross daily to transcend the narrow realm of the household and 'rise' into the realm of politics is an essentially modern phenomenon."28 A great deal is packed into this statement. There is first of all the distinction between the household and politics. In the Greek polis, the former constituted the realm of necessity or, more simply, economics. Its principle object was to secure the means of subsistence. The household was also the realm of privacy where one could seek refuge from the pressures of politics and enjoy the pleasures of intimacy. In contrast to the household which was given over to the struggle with necessity, politics was the realm of freedom where individuals discovered who they were, where they established their individuality. Arendt argued that the distinction between the public and the private, between politics and economics, which was so firmly established in the polis, has disappeared in modern times. It disappeared when the health of the economy became a preoccupation of the state. The function of politics was no longer to advance freedom in the sense of disclosure but to administer the realm of necessity which, because it was now conceived as not this or that particular household but as all households loosely joined by the market, had become coeval with society itself. This was a new form of society: the household writ large. Unlike the polis which encouraged individuality, it exercised enormous pressures for conformism. And it was because of "the leveling demands of the social"29

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. The Human Condition, p. 33. Ibid., p. 39.

that romantics like Rousseau, and "moral liberation" liberals such as J.S. Mill, portrayed society as at war with the individual. Ironically, the household came to be viewed as the only sure refuge against these growing pressures. Privacy acquired a new importance. Instead of being identified as the realm of necessity, the focus of economic activity, the household became the realm of intimacy, a shelter from society and a haven for unhampered individuality. For Arendt it was no coincidence that a romantic individualism hostile to society eventually turned to intimacy as a rich source of individuality. It was only behind closed doors that the individual could find relief from the incessant pressures of society and express his or her "real" self.30 But if a retreat into privacy was an understandable response to the rise of the social, for Arendt it was also an escape from freedom. The notable absence of courage on the liberal's list of virtues indicates how far liberalism has strayed from what Arendt took to be the authentic meaning of freedom. Nor did Arendt consider this of slight consequence. The rise of mass society not only spelled the end of politics as a realm of freedom but established the basis for a new brand of politics whose hideous features are meticulously traced by Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Advanced nations fortunate enough to have escaped this fate face another which, though not so hideous, Arendt finds equally disturbing. This fate is the reduction of human life to the level of "animal laborans." We have, she writes, "almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of 'making a living.'"31 Arendt was not only troubled by the prospect that eventually all of mankind might be subjected to either the dehumanization of totalitarianism or the mindlessness of the "Keynesian nightmare", she also feared that eventually human plurality might no longer have a place in the world. For the loss of human plurality, the capacity of men and women to establish a unique identity, which for Arendt meant very much the same thing as establishing one's humanity, would mean an end to a human way of relating to the world and to each other. VI

rendt was convinced that the only safeguard against such a catastrophe is the recovery of the lost meaning of freedom. And, at the very least, this would involve the establishment of an authentic political realm. What exactly would this entail?

Before attempting to answer this question it is necessary to point out that whatever it entails it could very well make the world a much more dangerous place: so much so that even those who sympathize with Arendt's critique of the 'laboring society' might conclude that her cure could easily prove worse than the disease. Consider Arendt's repeated claim that what distinguishes an authentic act of disclosure from ordinary behavior is its greatness. "Action can be judged only by the criterion of greatness because it is in its nature to break through the commonly accepted and reach the extraordinary, where whatever is true in common and everyday life no longer applies because everything that exists is unique and sui generis."32 For the moment we shall ignore the implied elitism of this viewgreatness, by definition, can only be enjoyed by a fewand simply ask what would life be like in a society dedicated to such a proposition? Would even the ancient polis which Arendt offered as a model of authentic politics prove too tame to measure up? Indeed, given Arendts emphasis on greatness and achieving the extraordinary, would not the Homeric rather than the Attic Greeks offer the best example of a people for whom the achievement of greatness and "immortal fame" was the primary object of life. As the legend of Achilles attests, the life of the warrior
Ibid., p. 38. Ibid., pp. 126-127. 32 Ibid., p. 205.
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naturally offers greater opportunities for valor, greater tests for courage and leadership, than the tame enterprise of deliberative politics. What, after all, is the revelatory power of Pericles' funeral oration in comparison with the drama of Achilles victory over Hector. Perhaps in his speeches Pericles expresses high ideals, but through heroic action Achilles appears in all his complexity: powerful, courageous, rash, contemptuous, and hardhearted. Of course, Pericles was a civilized man and Achilles a marauding bandit, which is perhaps why Arendt uses Achilles for illustrative purposes only. She meant to defend freedom, but only in the context of civilization. Even so, Arendt did not minimize the dangers inherent in the politics she praised. For it is a politics that teaches men how to bring forth "what is great and radiant ..."33 It is power, the ability of men to act in concert, which enables political actors to achieve great things. Nor did Arendt hesitate to acknowledge that power "has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across boundaries."34 Knowing full well what dangers this can pose she adds that moderation is "one of the political virtues par excellence."35 But what guarantee do we have that the thirst for disclosure will be tempered with moderation? Apparently none. The very boundlessness of the freedom Arendt defended might appear so frightening to some as to render the safe banality of the consumer society attractive by contrast. According to A.O. Hirschman, it is precisely the banality of avarice that made it so attractive to many eighteenth century thinkers who, unlike Adam Smith, offered a political rather than an economic defense of capitalism. For it was the capacity of the "love of gain" to tame wild political passions, to make even the prince desire wealth in preference to power, that attracted their attention. For this reason they viewed the prospect of the triumph of capitalism with considerable optimism. It held out the promise of social and political peace.36 And the contemporary critique of capitalist societies as intolerably dull and too tame to be inspiring merely attests to the accuracy of the prediction of these earlier thinkers. Nor is it obvious that banality is too high a price to pay for social tranquility: a point easily lost on those who have never experienced the terror of political chaos.


ut is it fair to burden Arendt's concept of freedom with this implication? Perhaps not. For her account of action as greatness is open to more than one interpretation. For example, while Arendt claims that "action needs for its full appearance the shining brightness we once called glory ...,"37 she goes on to argue that "the greatest that man can achieve is his own appearance and actualization."38 This suggests that it is the act of disclosure itself,the willingness to take the risk, rather than the quality of the act that actually constitutes greatness. Arendt claimed that the disclosure of "Who somebody is or was," can be known "only by knowing the story of which he is himself the herohis biography, in other words; everything else we know of him, including the work he may have produced and left behind tells us only what he is or was."39 In this context, the hero of a story is merely the person about whom a story is told, not someone who has achieved great things. And it appears that Arendt believed an individual can achieve some from of greatness simply by being the hero of a story in this more restricted sens That Arendt thought it appropriate to attribute greatness to mere disclosure, regardless of what is disclosed, is perhaps explained by her belief that disclosure requires courage because one never knows for sure of the consequences, of the sort of person who will be disclosed. "The hero the story discloses needs no heroic
Ibid., p. 206. Ibid., p. 190. 35 Ibid., p. 191. 36 A.O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, l977), pp. 48-68. 37 The Human Condition, p. 180. 38 Ibid., p. 208. 39 Ibid., p. 186.
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qualities... The connotation of courage,... is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert ones self into the world and begin a story of one's own." Arendt went so far as to insist that the "extent of this original courage," that is the courage to risk disclosure, "without which action and speech and therefore, according to the Greeks, freedom, would not be possible at all, is not less great and may even be greater if the 'hero' happens to be a coward."40 Presumably it would take greater courage for the coward to risk disclosure because he is more likely than others to disclose what is shameful. This places action in a new light. As a vehicle for disclosure it need do no more than reveal the "who" of the agent, which is essentially a story or biography. Nor need this "who" be inspiring to qualify as a disclosure. Often it is not, as in the case of the coward. And when people relate to each other "in sheer human togetherness" this "disclosure of who" somebody is "is implicit in everything somebody says and does."41 And it is in this sense that she claimed that "every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end..."42 To avoid the misunderstanding that disclosure occurs only when individuals attempt something great, Arendt emphasized that it occurs more often as not when the primary aim of action is the advancement of worldly interests. In fact, Arendt readily admits that the focus of "most words and deeds" is "worldly interests."43 It is not what acts are about that is important, rather it is what they disclose. Of course, for the pursuit of worldly interests to result in disclosure there must exist an audience ready and eager to judge and criticize. No doubt, unalloyed greed would receive short shrift in such an atmosphere, and the content of disclosure would hardly be flattering. Nevertheless, individuals would truly disclose who they are. The more Arendt explains the nature of disclosure, the more the concept of greatness as ordinarily understood recedes into the background. For instance, we are told that, for most, disclosure does not occur, as with Achilles, through "one supreme act" aimed at "winning 'immortal fame'." Rather "we disclose ourselves piecemeal..."44 And it is by means of such piecemeal disclosures that acts produce "stories with or without intention as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things."45 This goes some way in cleansing the concept of disclosure of the taint of elitism. Anyone can achieve disclosure so long as they possess the requisite courage. That, of course, is a very large "if" and indicates the distance that still remains, even under a non-elitist interpretation of disclosure, between Arendt's concept of freedom and the liberal view. The liberal wants people left alone, for it is assumed that freedom is maximized by reducing restraints. Arendt, on the other hand, linked freedom to disclosure, and disclosure necessitates judgment by ones peers. Judgment is obviously constraining, especially when negative. To risk it requires courage. It requires something else as well. Disclosure is impossible in the absence of a judging audience. Where no such audience exists, where people react to, rather than collectively assess conduct, disclosure cannot occur. And this is another respect in which Arendt's concept of freedom differs from liberal view. The liberal focuses on privacy as the realm in which freedom is most secure; Arendt singles out the public realm for this function. Privacy exists wherever there is a place to hide. The public realm must be created and exists only as a form of "human relating," a form of relating which requires that participants understand its point. In the public realm both actors and audience recognize that action aims at disclosure. Judgment, the assessment of an individual's identity, occurs as a matter of course. An appeal for the establishment of a public realm therefore runs counter to the very spirit of liberalism since it calls for an increase in the type of restraints liberals have fought hard to remove: and to increase them in a
Ibid., pp. 186-187. Ibid., p. 179. 42 Ibid., p. 184. 43 Ibid., p. 182. 44 Ibid., pp. 193-194. 45 Ibid., p. 184.
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dramatic way since they would not occur haphazardly or as simple reactions to non-conformity, but as an inherent feature of relating in public.


or Arendt this is all necessary to achieve disclosure. And disclosure is necessary if we are to achieve "individuality." Liberals, of course, are also eager to promote individuality, but their conception of individuality differs from Arendt's. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt gives the impression that, romantic pretensions aside, it is the desire for status and respectability which animates modern individuality. In her chapter "The Jews and Society," Arendt examines the rules governing Jewish assimilation into respectable eighteenth and early nineteenth century European society. Jews were "not to behave like ordinary Jews." Moreover, they were expected to demonstrate that they were "new specimens of humanity."46 In short, Jews were not only required to prove they were exceptions to their race but exceptions to all races. They had to be "exceptional specimens of humanity."47 They had to be better educated, more intelligent, and more individualistic than others before they could be accepted as equals. Arendt found it intriguing how "closely the assimilation of Jews into society followed the precepts Goethe had proposed for the education of his Wilhelm Meister, a novel which was to become the great model of middle-class education."48 The hero of Goethe's novel is a young burgher who receives his education under the watchful eye of a nobleman who intends to prepare him for entrance into the aristocracy, to teach him how "to present and represent his individuality, and thereby advance from the modest status of a burgher's son into a nobleman."49 The association of individuality with class mobility is striking and suggests that nineteenth century (and perhaps twentieth century) middle class enthusiasm for individuality may not have been entirely genuine. In this connection it is worth noting Bruce Mazlish's difficulties in piecing together a biography of one of liberalism's founding fathers, James Mill. Not only is very little known about James Mill's youth, Mazlish concludes that James Mill himself conspired to prevent anything from being known, even by his son. Thus we find John Stuart Mill, after his father's death, inquiring from others whether they might know of the simple facts of his father's past: anything about his parents, schooling, etc. Mazlish sees in James Mill's attempts to turn his back on his past, to even conceal evidence of it, the "prototype of the 'self-made man,' who sought to pose as one practically sprung from his own loins."50 The motive for this, Mazlish tells us, was not simply to affirm one's independence but to challenge "ancestry as a justification for political or social power."51 It is a motive that reveals what seems to have been a tacit dimension of early liberalism. Individuality was not only embraced as a cultural ideal, but as an antidote for feelings of class inferiority. Only the self-made man, literally a man who has formed himself, deserved respectability for he alone did not owe what he was to an accident of birth. Thus could James Mill say in righteous indignation that it is the middle class, the "intelligent ... virtuous rank" who deserve respect for it is "the middle rank that gives to science, to art, and to legislation itself, their most distinguished ornaments, and is the chief source of all that has exalted and refined human nature..."52 Still one must separate motive from announced ideal. Yet, even at the level of ideal, liberal individuality seems defective simply because it is so formless. Either it consists in the flowering of innate personality traits which vary, like genetic endowment, from one individual to another, or it reduces to the observation that sensibility to pleasure and pain is idiosyncratic, different for different individuals, so that if people are left alone to
Hannah Arendt, Antisemitism, Part One of The Origins of Totalitarianism (orig. ed., l95l; New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967), p. 57. Ibid., p. 58. 48 Ibid., p. 59. 49 Ibid., pp. 59-60.50 50 Bruce Mazlish, James and John Stuart Mill (New York: Basic Books, l975), p. 47. 51 Ibid., p. 57. 52 James Mill, Essay on Government, in Jack Lively & John Rees (eds.), Utilitarian Logic and Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, l978), p. 94.
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follow the bent of their inclinations they naturally develop in different directions, become distinguishable individuals. The second interpretation makes individuality of some importance for utilitarianism: if differences in sensibility necessitate different experiments in living to maximize individual happiness, then needless conformity violates the principle of utility.53 Under either interpretation, individuality assumes the status of a preference. It has no standards, it is not open to judgment. Questions of value do not arise. Consequently it is impossible to assess whether a particular experiment in living is a success or a failure.54


n contrast to the liberal view, the virtue of Arendt's conception of liberty is that particular expressions of individuality, experiments in living, are open to judgment. What disclosure reveals may be good or bad; it is up to the audience to decide. On the other hand, it is something of a mystery how the audience arrives at a decision. It is clear Arendt meant to foreclose every attempt to draw upon morality or tradition for help in making such decisions. The only "moral precepts" that can be "applied to action from the outside, from some supposedly higher faculty or from experiences outside action's own reach" are those that arise out of politics itself, namely "mutual promise or contract." Morality as "mores" or "customs and standards of behavior solidified through tradition and valid on the ground of agreements, both of which change with time," have no particular relevance.55 What the standards are, if any, that inform "mutual promise or contract," Arendt does not say save to imply they are the very standards of assessment that apply to assessments of disclosure. And this leaves us back where we started. Perhaps if one pushes the analogy between action and a theatrical performance, it might appear that assessment hinges upon the unpredictable currents of popular aesthetics. Or, if one takes seriously the idea that action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, the image of disclosure as fiction comes to mind: optimistically, serious fiction, imaginatively conceived and related in a craftsmanlike way; less optimistically, the low melodrama of the soap opera predicated on the unlikely (though unfortunately true) proposition that nothing fascinates as much as banality itself. The idea of freedom as "virtuosity," that is the "excellence with which man answers the opportunities the world opens up before him,"56 might seem more promising. After all, as Machiavelli made clear, there are objective standards, and requisite virtues, associated with success. And while they vary with the enterprise in question, they are hardly capricious, although perhaps not always inspiring On the other hand, if we free virtuosity from its Machiavellian connotation as virtO(u,') and concentrate on how a "man answers the opportunities the world opens up before him," that is the sort of person he reveals to the world whether or not he succeeds or fails-his courage, tenacity, humility, or even panache-we encounter what might be fairly described as distinctively human qualities, qualities to be found among the high and low, the stuff out of which enduring stories are made. In The Human Condition, Arendt observes that among the Greeks speech was first conceived not as a "means of persuasion" but as "specifically human way of answering, talking back and measuring up to whatever happened or was done."57 Possibly she meant for this concept to embrace action in general. Action as disclosure would then reveal who someone is by revealing how a person measures up to the opportunities

Presumably this is how J.S. Mill understood individuality, and why he felt obliged, in order to avoid the impression that he thought of liberty in terms of abstract right, to observe in the introductory chapter of On Liberty that he regarded "utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions." J.S. Mill, On Liberty (orig. ed.; London: John Parker & Sons, l859), p. 24. 54 Which perhaps explains why it took so long for participants of the drug culture of the sixties to reassess their earlier enthusiasms in the wake of the human wreckage of their own lives or those of their children. 55 The Human Condition, p. 245. 56 "What is Freedom?" p. 153. 57 The Human Condition, p. 26.


and pitfalls of life. This would extend the reach of action into the realm of even the humble who, though they do not achieve or attempt great things, are nevertheless capable of dignity even in defeat. While I personally find this interpretation attractive, it invites an obvious objection: it seems empty of political content. And it is clear Arendt meant disclosure to be understood as a political concept: not a modern political concept (which for Arendt was something of a contradiction in terms) but a concept that illuminates and recaptures the meaning of politics as it was carried on in the Greek polis. On the other hand, this was a politics broadly conceived that crossed the boundaries of morality and prudence. Possibly it was broad enough to include disclosure as "measuring up" to the vicissitudes of life. Possibly not.